It has been described as the “unspeakable war”. There is a common view that participants in the Irish Civil War preferred not to talk about a conflict that tore families apart, divided the nation and embittered politics for generations.
íobhra Aiken has delved deeply into writings about the conflict for her new book Spiritual Wounds, and suggests this impression of a veil of silence is not entirely accurate.
It is true that senior politicians and influential establishment figures might have preferred to dwell on the Easter Rising and the independence struggle, or not to dwell on the past at all.
Dr Aiken, a lecturer in Irish studies at Queen’s University Belfast, is a great-granddaughter of Frank Aiken, the Civil War veteran and IRA commander who became a long-serving cabinet minister.
“Perhaps more than any Irish statesman of the 20th century, Frank was known for his unease with the memory of the Civil War,” she says. “He was a strong example of the politicians who wanted to consign events to oblivion, and he certainly did not want to revisit that period.”
Frank Aiken was chief of staff of the anti-treaty IRA at the end of the Civil War and gave the order for the suspension of operations in April 1923. Less than two months later, as commander of the IRA’s Fourth Northern division, he was linked with the killing of six Protestant civilians in Armagh in a notorious reprisal that became known as the Altnaveigh massacre.
At the end of his ministerial career in 1969, Aiken burned all his Civil War papers. As Síobhra Aiken tells it: “He said to his secretary, ‘I had a great bonfire this morning’ with a smile on his face.”
In her new book, Aiken mentions her great-grandfather’s reticence about the past, but her main focus is on the writers — often low-level participants — who broke the silence and revealed the deep psychological wounds of the Civil War.
Despite official reticence, she points to numerous neglected and sometimes forgotten writings by combatants that offer insights into the conflict and its legacy of trauma.
In the Civil War era, trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder had other labels. Those who lived through the violent events could be diagnosed with ‘neurasthenia’ (a now-defunct term for a form of mental or physical exhaustion), ‘nerves’, ‘neurosis’, ‘nervous breakdown’, ‘shell shock’ or ‘hysteria’.
Aiken took the title of her book from the observation of the writer and revolutionary veteran Desmond Ryan when he described the Civil War: “The deepest wounds are spiritual wounds.”
She has discovered some of the most revelatory insights into the mindset of combatants in novels written in the aftermath of the conflict. Rather than writing straight memoirs, many veterans told their stories through autobiographical fiction, often describing real-life events and characters in detail.
Layer of protection
“It was a popular genre after the First World War,” Aiken says. “Because the writing was contentious, the authors felt that they had a layer of protection, but I don’t know if that protection was solid.”
Ryan described his own state of mind in his autobiographical novel, The Invisible Army. One of the characters, David Harding, based on Ryan, is distraught after witnessing landmines exploding and the deaths of friends.
“He wanted one thing only: to forget. All feeling was numbed. The beliefs of a lifetime swayed and crashed and reeled to death. Friendship had gone as the volleys of firing parties crashed and spades clanked to open gaping graves. NOTHING ON EARTH WAS WORTH IT.”
Ryan believed that, through writing, he could exorcise the grimmest of the memories of the Civil War, enabling him to recover “good tempers”.
Writing seems to have been seen as a form of therapy. Francis Carty, a Wexford anti-treaty veteran who published the 1934 novel Legion of the Rearguard, said in an interview: “I feel that I have to record the Civil War because it made such a deep impression on me and I must work it off my system.”
Aiken outlines how two other veterans, Seosamh Mac Grianna and Charles Dalton, turned to writing as a sort of coping strategy in the face of severe psychological difficulties.
Mac Grianna had been interned as an anti-treaty prisoner in the Curragh, and his wife, Margaret Green, contended that he had “become ill since the Civil War”. He was treated in Grangegorman Mental Asylum in the mid-1930s, and spent much of his later life in St Conal’s Hospital in Letterkenny.
Dalton, who was a member of Michael Collins’ squad and later an officer in the Free State army, was also treated in Grangegorman. His fellow squad member Frank Saurin described Dalton’s condition in a letter to the Military Service Pension Board in 1941: “He became obsessed with the idea that his house was surrounded by men out to ‘get him’. He bolted and locked all his doors and went as far as to climb the stairs on his hands and knees, thereby avoiding throwing his shadow on a drawn blind so that he would not present a target to his imaginary potential executioners.”
Dalton was diagnosed by various consultants with ‘mixed psychosis’, ‘mental aberration’ and ‘100pc delusional insanity’.
Those wounded in the conflict were able to seek compensation from the Irish Military Services Pensions Board. The board was willing to compensate Dalton for an injury sustained to his hand, but steered clear of recognising his severe psychological conditions.
According to Aiken, the board was more reluctant than equivalent British compensation bodies to recognise the psychological wounds.
The London-based Irish Grants Committee included ‘shock’ in its definition of physical injuries, but in Ireland nervous conditions were seen as a ‘female malady’.
Aiken points to evidence that male and female revolutionaries were treated differently when they suffered from ‘exhausted nerves’.
The Dublin-based doctor and gynaecologist Dr Robert Farnan, a close associate of Éamon de Valera, prescribed up to six weeks’ ‘complete rest’ to female revolutionaries away from the stressful environment of war.
When he was treating male revolutionaries, he was known for practising a type of talk therapy; he could “cure by merely speaking to the men”. And the men could then return to action.
Combatants may have suffered severe psychological after-effects of the “unspeakable” Civil War, but the damage is likely to have been cumulative after a decade of traumatic events, Aiken says.
The Civil War was preceded by World War I, in which tens of thousands of Irish men died, the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the devastating Spanish flu.
“All of these factors build on each other and by the end of the Civil War, it has been a very strained period of disturbances,” she says.
Chroniclers of the revolution might have liked to portray those who fought on their side as upstanding, God-fearing paragons of virtue.
The nationalist journalist Aodh de Blácam, writing in The Irish Press, is quoted in the book: “We might remark that the fighting men of Ireland were men of honour and cleanness, perhaps more truly so than any other army.”
Todd Andrews, one of the memoirists of the period, claimed that “the absence of sexual relations between the men and women of the republican movement was one of its most peculiar features”.
According to the historian Diarmaid Ferriter, “any search for sex in the memoirs and biographies written by Irish republicans of this era will be in vain”.
Graveyard of souls
But perhaps, the most frank and revealing testimonies of Civil War are in the more unflinching stories that were thinly veiled as fiction.
The Free State army veteran Patrick Mulloy dedicated his novel Jackets Green to “the rank and file of every national movement and secret society in every country, to remind them that many a path of glory leads to a graveyard of souls”.
The novel tells the stories of three close friends — Tim, Mike and Dan — who are imprisoned in an unnamed camp in the north of the country during the War of Independence. Their paths diverge during the Civil War with devastating consequences.
According to Aiken, the war is remembered in the novel as the result of a gradual process of brutalisation, as the strain of years of conflict takes its toll. Mulloy, who came from Dún Laoghaire, did not hold back from graphic portrayals of violence.
He does not shy away either from taboos such as the mental strain of the conflict, the heavy drinking and prostitution, and there are suggestions of homosexuality in his account of prison life.
There is nothing heroic about his descriptions of the shooting of civilians, the torture carried out by fellow officers in the Free State army, and scenes of sexual violence against women.
The soldiers try to ease their mental strain by visiting brothels after a night of heavy drinking, and Tim, the character based on Mulloy, is overcome by a wild desire “to see the girl undressed”.
There is pandemonium after the women nickname the soldiers “Green and Tans”, and the soldiers trash the brothel when they are refused alcohol.
The novel, published in 1936, featured on the bestseller lists, but its success was short-lived. Within three months it was banned by the Irish Censorship Board. Mulloy always insisted that it portrayed true events.
Although Mulloy speculated that there may have been political reasons for the censorship of his novel, he acknowledged that it was regarded as obscene because of the brothel scenes.
In the depictions of the Civil War as a male-oriented ‘brother against brother’ conflict, women could struggle to be heard in official commemoration. But they also turned to fiction to tell their stories.
By the end of the 1930s, fictionalised accounts about the Civil War by female revolutionary veterans exceeded the number of straight-up autobiographical accounts.
Annie Smithson was a Cumann na mBan member, Red Cross nurse and novelist, who was at the heart of events in the revolutionary period, and she described what she witnessed both in fiction and in a memoir. Her novel The Marriage of Nurse Harding is based on her experiences in the Civil War.
During the Battle of Dublin, she was stationed at Moran’s Hotel, where she cared for injured men amid heavy gunfire. A few days later on a Red Cross mission to Mullingar, she was held up at a checkpoint and bundled into a van by Free State soldiers. As the van approached Mullingar, it was fired on and one of the soldiers was shot dead before her eyes.
A description in the novel of being held up on a bridge in the fictional midlands town of Margallin matches her real-life experience:
‘Hands up! Put them up! Line up on the bridge there, and be quick about it!’ Nora Harding, standing thus on the bridge hands stretched above her head, arms growing tired, gazed into the face of the man who stood in front of her, revolver in hand. He did not seem too sure as to how it should be held, the hand holding it being decidedly shaky. She wished he did not look so nervous.
In the novel, Smithson shows the psychological effect of this scene. The main character, Nora, experiences recurring post-traumatic nightmares: she would “visit again in her sleep the bridge outside Margallin, and the man with the shaky hand would stand in front of her brandishing his revolver”.
Nora’s arms cramp, she suffers ‘cold of nervousness’ or ‘nervous tension’ and feels ‘decidedly shivery’.
Elsewhere, Smithson describes how Nora’s tasks include caring for shocked civilians, including a young boy who accidentally finds himself at the heart of the battle and who was “losing his head entirely”.
The war could be dramatic and traumatic for the participants, but after almost a decade of conflict, it could also become mundane and even humdrum for bystanders. Aiken’s book quotes the playwright Mary Manning, who wrote of a “great solid mass of quiet people who went on living and eating and laughing and sleeping or trying to sleep during those years”.
While Annie Smithson was at the heart of the action in the Battle of Dublin, Manning was a child going for a swim on a summer’s day in Dublin Bay:
I remember as a child bathing at Seapoint, where all the nice little suburban children bathed, swimming out beyond the rocks, turning suddenly to look towards Dublin, and seeing the city more or less in flames. I felt very little surprise, only the mildest stirring of excitement… I could never feel much surprise again, having been brought up in troubled times and since my seventh year having been conscious of little else but wars and rumours of wars. And then I heard our nurse screaming at us from the shore to come in outer that (sic) or no jam for tea. Her remarks were punctuated by distant gunfire, but her concern, I learnt on reaching the shore, was not inspired by sounds of warfare but rather that we might stay in too long and get cramps!… All the other nannies and governesses and mammas did not seem to be unduly alarmed but went on knitting and gossiping.
‘Spiritual Wounds: Trauma, Testimony and the Irish Civil War’ by Síobhra Aiken is published by Irish Academic Press
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/how-writers-exorcised-traumatic-memories-of-the-irish-civil-war-41574685.html How writers exorcised traumatic memories of the Irish Civil War