Irish language writers on the Civil War

While the Irish Civil War is widely believed to have left a legacy of silence in its wake, Irish-language writers were strongly represented among those who challenged the silence.

Many early accounts of the Irish Revolutionary period had little to say about the contentious events of 1922 and 1923. Charlie Dalton’s With the Dublin Brigade (1929) is not atypical in this sense: the memoirs stop abruptly at the announcement of the truce in July 1921, ending with the words: “Incredulous, blessed”.

But there were notable exceptions to this widespread desire to forget the Civil War. Colm Ó Labhraí’s 1955 account Trodairí na Treas Briogáide details the activities of Tipperary’s Third Brigade and traces the events of the revolution from 1913 to 1923. Although the author’s interpretation of the bombardment of the Four Courts of Dublin in June 1922 caused some friction, the account was well received and some 3,000 copies were sold in the first month.

However, although they are both longer and more detailed about the Civil War than other accounts from the Tipperary region – such as My Fight for Irish Freedom (1924) by Dan Breen and Sean Treacy and the Third Tipperary Brigade (1945) by Desmond Ryan – Trodairí na Treas Briogáide (reissued in 2013 by Coiscéim) has been largely forgotten.

The neglect of such an intriguing historical narrative reflects the omission of the Irish language from mainstream monolingual approaches to understanding Ireland’s history and culture. (These approaches are, of course, at odds with the historical evidence given the wealth of revolutionary autobiographies and personal memoirs published in Irish during the early decades of the Free State.) However, the neglect of this chronicle is also telling of the prevailing belief that the events of the Irish Civil War were shrouded in silence – a belief which has excluded many writings from scholarly consideration.

That’s not to say writing about the Irish Civil War was without its challenges. Indeed, Trodairí na Treas Briogáide was published under a pseudonym: Colm Ó Labhraí was in fact the Cistercian monk Séamus Ó Conbhuidhe. Not all his colleagues approved of his interest in this controversial period in recent history.

Was Ó Conbhuidhe’s decision to write in Irish partly motivated by the need for greater narrative protection? And, if so, did Irish-language writers enjoy greater freedom to address the Civil War than their English-speaking counterparts?

There is indeed a strong tradition of Irish-language writers using their marginalized position to address contentious issues outside the mainstream. Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s explosive collection of poetry Margadh na Saoire (1956) – which both celebrates female sexuality and conjures up images of infanticide – would likely have landed on the banned book list had it appeared in English. The Connemara priest Pádraig Standún also caused a stir with his best-selling novel Súil le Breith (1983) (published in self-translation as Lovers in 1991) which traces the tumultuous relationship between a priest and his governess, who is pregnant with her child. . More recent examples of this taboo breaking include Celia de Fréine’s collection of poetry Fiacha Fola (2004 / Blood Debts 2014), which is one of many Irish-language texts dealing with the succession of recent scandals in the system of Irish health.

The range of publications in Irish relating to the Irish Civil War – written from various pro, anti and neutral perspectives – certainly suggests that the language offered a heightened sense of protection from social and political censorship.

Nevertheless, writing about the delicate issue of the Civil War still required caution, and it is no coincidence that many ancient tales have appeared in fictionalized forms. Piaras Béaslaí and León Ó Broin – prominent treaty supporters who held positions in the Free State military – unveiled the Civil War split in Irish-language plays staged at the Abbey in the 1920s. However, the two veterans chose to set their games in other time periods and geographic locations.

Béaslaí’s play An Danar (1928) was set in Dublin during the Viking Age and reflects on the tensions between Vikings who embraced assimilation with the native Irish and those who were keen to retain their own cultural norms. However, audiences have surely wondered if the “Brothers War” alluded to in the play alludes to the more contemporary split. Although Béaslaí took the pro-treaty line, the protagonist, Olaf, is portrayed sympathetically for his stubborn reluctance to deny his principles – a nod, perhaps, to opponents of Béaslaí who rejected the treaty.

Ó Broin’s play An Mhallacht (1927) is set during an uprising in Warsaw in 1925. However, critics have seen past the flimsy Polish disguise. The play tells the story of two half-brothers who execute a foreign soldier but later find themselves on opposite sides of a political divide. If the trope of brothers divided wasn’t enough to hint at Ó Broin’s true interest, the location of the Civil War in Dublin was revealed in the 1931 print edition of the play.

Ó Broin’s play focuses on the plight of the volunteers’ wives as they find themselves living to a soundtrack of gunfire in the capital. The need to break the silence regarding women’s experiences during the revolutionary period was also addressed by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, later an IRA volunteer and one of the most important Irish-language writers of the 20th century. Writing in the 1960s, Ó Cadhain acknowledged that the IRA’s cutting of women’s hair was rarely mentioned in veteran accounts, but predicted – in this case with some accuracy – that it would be ‘an ghné dár gcuid cogaíocht is mó a gcuirfidh ár sliocht suim ann’ (the aspect of our war that will most interest future generations).

Even though Ó Cadhain acknowledged that there was silence on the plight of women during the revolutionary period, some revolutionary women attempted to record the suffering of ordinary people. In the collection of poetry Áille an Domhain (1927), Úna Ní Fhaircheallaigh – founder of Cumann na mBan – directly tackles the tragic legacy of internal conflicts. The poem “Éire Chum Dé” was written about the death of a young child during the civil war and alludes to the deep disillusion felt by the poet:

Íodhbairt uaim minic a thug

Mar luach ar an rud nach bhfuair;

A saoradh cheannuigheas va daor;

Meath’ mo shaoghail – ró-mhór an luach.

I made a lot of sacrifices

For the thing that has not been realized;

I paid dearly for freedom;

The decline of my world – too much the price.

Máiréad Ní Ghráda’s collection of short stories An Bheirt Dearbhráthar agus Scéalta Eile (1939) offers an even more acerbic critique of the devastating effects of war on ordinary people. Ní Ghráda is widely known for the play An Triail (1966) which is groundbreaking for its challenge to the silence surrounding the institutionalization of single mothers. This same audacity shines through in his early gothic short stories which draw on some of his own groundbreaking experiences. A member of the Gaelic League and Cumann na mBan, Ní Ghráda supported the treaty and was secretary to government minister Ernest Blythe throughout the Civil War. In addressing the lingering psychological legacies of the civil war, Ní Ghráda does not hesitate to refer to the violence suffered by women and harshly criticizes the hostility towards women within the new state.

However, not all Irish-language writers were successful in publishing about the Civil War. The state publishing house, An Gúm, rejected Seosamh Mac Grianna’s novel An Druma Mór in the 1930s. Mac Grianna had been interned as an anti-treaty republican and publishers feared that his novel – which depicts the schism between Catholic nationalists and republicans in early 20th century Donegal – only rekindles civil war tensions. MacGrianna’s novel did not appear until 1969.

Of course, the “spiritual wounds” of the Irish Civil War were not confined to the revolutionary generation, as evidenced by the many writings of later generations. Examples include Annraoi’s novel Ó Liatháin Luaithreach an Bhua (1969) which taunts the turmoil of civil war in the Waterford Gaeltacht, Eoghan’s experimental novel Ó Tuairisc An Lomnochtán (1977) (recently translated by Mícheál Ó hAodha as I am Lewy, Bullaun Press 2022) which chronicles the events of 1922 and 1923 through the eyes of a child, Seán Mac Mathúna’s play Duilleoga Tae (2007) in which civil war invades domestic life in the rural county of Kerry, or Réaltán Ní Leannáin’s novel Cití na gCártaí (2019), which deals with violence against women in 1920s Belfast.

In Irish there is a saying “Is binn béal ina thost” – a sweet mouth remains silent. Yet for all the sealed lips, there were also many trying to break the silence.

Síobhra Aiken is the author of Spiritual Wounds: Trauma, Testimony and the Irish Civil War (Irish Academic Press, 2022).