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Book Review: The Civil War in Dublin- the Fight for the Irish Capital 1922-1924 by John Dorney, Merrion Press

Speaking recently at the West Cork History Festival, the Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin expressed the hope that the upcoming centenary of the painful events of the Irish Civil War would be commemorated responsibly and without exploitation or bitterness.

Martin would be particularly mindful of this as his Fianna Fail (FF) party was a successor to the losing anti-Treaty side in that conflict, which was fought over whether the Irish should accept the terms of the Treaty offered by the British after the War of Independence.

It was a conflict which divided families and in which prisoners, or their relatives, were shot and tortured, with anarchy and destruction created just at the time when the fledgeling State was trying to establish itself and recover from the destruction of the conflict against the British. The Free State felt it had been stabbed in the back but so did the other side.

The war erupted almost immediately when Eamon De Valera refused to accept the terms of the Treaty signed by Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, (and passed by the Dail) a refusal that is still seen as profoundly undemocratic. For those Republicans, who opposed the Treaty, the compromise was a great betrayal of the great cause of full Irish independence which had been fought for for generations.

The war only lasted two years but its effect would poison Irish politics and society for decades. Indeed, in the 1930’s, the civil war almost kicked off again, when Eoin O’Duffy’s Blueshirts were on the march. The Blueshirts (properly known as the Army Comrades Association) had been formed by pro-Treaty activists to defend themselves and their rallies from attack by Republicans recently released from jail.

However, it also had a economic aspect as the Blueshirts represented big farmers angry at, and suffering from, De Valera’s land annuities dispute with the British Government. In this sense, the Civil War, and its legacy, also had a growing class aspect, a fact fascinatingly explored by John Dorney. as the sides consolidated.

Dorney’s book does not cover the Blueshirt period, but it is worth describing to show the enduring legacy of this fratricidal conflict. Conor Cruise O’Brien describes being a new Dail deputy in 1969 and hearing FF and Fine Gael deputies heckling each other with Civil War taunts, such as ‘who fed the birds at Ballyseedy?’, a reference to the brutal murder of Republicans in Kerry when they were tied to an exploding tree.

Instead, Dorney’s excellent account focuses on the Civil War itself, from 1922 to 1924, and specifically in Dublin, where there was no shortage of similar atrocities. He wishes to counter the idea that the conflict in the capital fizzled out after the end of the Four Courts occupation and failure to capture key buildings and bridges. On the contrary, shootouts and ambushes continued and prisoners were taken for interrogation, and worse, at the Free State’s intelligence centre in Oriel House, just on Westland Row, next to where tourists are checking out Joycean locations and Oscar Wilde’s houses !

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Dorney has written an equalling compelling earlier book on the Independence struggle, ‘Peace After the Final Battle: The Story of Irish Revolution, 1912-1924’ and here again he condenses much disparate material in a succinct and direct way that is both unflinching and fair. (Too many such books emerged unreflecting and hagiographic, during the 1916 centenary, I think). By contrast, Dorney gives us important home truths: such as that the Anti Treaty forces could not have defeated the Free State, and neither of them could have withstood the onslaught of a full British counter attack.

The author also brings home the squalid and cruel nature of the violence, which killed bystanders as quickly as it did combatants. Republican extremism becomes the dog that eats itself – and still does : indeed, there are lessons here for recent Irish history. The heroics of supposedly mythical figures like Ernie O’Malley just become tiresome.

Michael Collins is not much better and his ridiculous attempts to continue trying to bridge the divide even when the Civil War was underway is less a case of laudable conflict resolution than the ‘ah, lads’ Big Fellow trying to keep the gang altogether. In the end, he is shot, partly due to his own indiscipline, but strangely – and cruelly – his removal from the scene allowed the remaining Free Staters to vigorously prosecute and finish the conflict.

The Government began executing prisoners and did so around the country, to drive home the effect. Before this, there was the shooting of four major Republican figures in Mountjoy jail in reprisal for the anti Treaty’s escalation to a policy of assassinating TDs who had voted for previous executions. The killing of the four, who were already in custody, and so not guilty of recent atrocities, is still jaw-dropping to read about. But it had the desired shock effect and gradually brought the Civil War to an end.

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Home Affairs Minister Kevin O’Higgins (above) was one of the last of the Cabinet to agree to the executions, but as the conflict worsened, he wholeheartedly embraced the policy, an interesting and chilling descent into cruelty (or regrettable ruthlessness?) of leaders under intense pressure and attack. O’Higgins even angered the Vatican which was so upset by Free State ruthlessness that it withheld recognition until 1929.

In the end, De Valera accepted the Dail and even the Oath to the King, describing it as an Empty Formula, but which the bloody war had been fought over. So what was it all about? As Dorney reminds us, the partitioned North was sidelined. Indeed, there wasn’t even funds for the Northern refugees who were fleeing much more savage and indiscriminate violence. In the winter of 1922. they drifted back North, ‘among the clearest losers in the revolutionary period in Ireland, abandoned by all sides.’

Meanwhile, De Valera became Taoiseach and then President, but he remains as hated as he is revered, not least because of the Civil War. The wounds are still there and it will be interesting to see how they are examined. Micheal Martin has cautioned non-judgement, but the public will decide.

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