Sun, 20 Nov, 2022 – 07:06
Last Thursday marked the centenary of one of the lowest points in this country’s history. At the height of the Civil War, the Free State side began executing prisoners. The extra-judicial killings were an illegal act by a government ushering in self-determination and those to be shot often selected at random.
The first four executed were John Gaffney, James Fisher, Peter Cassidy, and Richard Twohig. They were taken out and shot in Kilmainham Jail, the same place where six and a half years earlier the leaders of the Rising were executed.
The latter killings lit the spark that led to the War of Independence, which culminated with the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Civil War.
A vicious circle was closing. The Civil War killings were, however, far more tragic than those of the Rising’s leaders. The men of ’16 had gone out to awaken a people, offering up their lives in the process. They would, in death, ascend to the pantheon of Irish patriots, personifying the brutality inflicted by the occupier on the native people, having lit a flame that led to the violent birth of a new state. Those summarily executed by the first government of that new state were to all intents and purposes murdered in the name of a nascent democracy.
Last week, in the final seminar of President Michael D Higgins Machnamh 100 series exploring the revolutionary period, BBC journalist Fergal Keane pointed out that the course of the Civil War “led us to the horrifying realisation of the savagery we were capable of inflicting on each other without any help from the British”.
The savagery was not confined to one side. The Republicans were in one sense taking up the slack left by the British. Where deemed necessary, they inflicted terror, whether that be burning people out of their homes or deigning that TDs, the new representatives of the people in a Free State, should be shot for failing to live up to the fantastical Republican ideal.
On the Free State side, any moral superiority to which they were entitled as the tribunes of the majority, shrivelled and died with the manner in which the conflict was prosecuted, most particularly the policy of executions
The first four to die before the new State’s firing squad were informed of their fate the night before. James Fisher, at 18 the youngest of them, wrote to his mother. “I am now awaiting the supreme penalty at 7oc in the morning. But I am perfectly happy, because I have seen the priest and I am going to die a good Catholic and a soldier of the Republic. Don’t worry or cry for me but pray for the repose of my soul and my three comrades.” His crime, and that of his comrades, was to have been arrested in possession of a revolver a few days previously.
And his Republic? Was that the unobtainable legacy left by the leaders of ’16, their proclamation from an idealised world, in which the might of an empire would succumb to all the demands of the Irish people, and where a million Protestants in the north would cop onto themselves and realise the game was up? The poets and dreamers had campaigned in fine verse, but it was left to others to labour over the prose of shaping dirty reality.
Historian Declan Kiberd posed the question at the Machnamh 100 gathering as to what exactly the Civil War was about.
“Hardly the north which many felt Collins intended to invade and reclaim. Or was it the oath of allegiance? Hardly that either, except for those extreme idealists who lacked patience to wait for expanded versions of freedom.”
There were those who tried to negotiate a middle ground. Tom Johnson, the leader of the Labour Party, supported the Treaty but abhorred how the provisional government was using non-judicial killings to enforce it.
Higgins, at last week’s event, remembered that Johnson’s condemnation of the executions “brought him not thanks but death threats from Liam Lynch on behalf of the anti-treatites”.
A tone was set in the heat of the conflict for the Ireland that was to emerge. The selection of most of the 81 executed was freighted with consideration of social class and connections to power centres, including the Church. As with the departed British in their various wars, it was the foot soldiers who were metaphorically sent over the top to die first in sacrifice for an alleged greater ideal.
The exceptions to this tendency were Erskine Childers and the four selected as reprisals in the aftermath of the murder of the TD Sean Hales in early December 1922, Joe McKelvey, Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, and Richard Barrett.
There was, in Childers case, huge resentment against him because of his English origins, his presence in London for the signing of the Treaty, and his role as propagandist for the anti-treatites.
The resentment, hatred even, was, under the circumstances, understandable. Using that as a motivation to murder him with the official stamp of government made the crime even more deplorable.
The four selected in the wake of Hales’ murder were a like-for-like reprisal. You kill our elite, we kill yours. Others, such as Ernie O’Malley, who was captured after a gun battle in which a Free State soldier was killed, escaped the ultimate sanction. O’Malley was well connected, fated, like his political leader Éamon de Valera, to survive and live a long life thereafter while others died either for an unobtainable republic or a new state compelled to rule by fear. Would Dev have been executed if caught in possession of a gun? We will never know.
Mercifully, the conflict lasted only a matter of months. WT Cosgrave and his provisional government justified the extra judicial killings on the basis that they brought a swift end to a mindless war. The longer view would probably differ. With relatively little support among the public, and only lukewarm enthusiasm among their own political leadership, how long could the Republicans have continued in any event.
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The bitter conflict conveyed trauma in different ways down through the following decades. “This would in time have the outcome of a state with strong authoritarian tendency and practice, one that would cede control to an authoritarian version of the church,” Higgins said in his concluding remarks at the Machnamh 100 seminar.
Perhaps, but it may well be the case that the Church’s grip on society was so firm that the trajectory of the new state was predestined irrespective of how it was born.
There is one positive way in which this interlude of savagery may have shaped the following century. The futility of it all could well have ensured that for the vast majority of people violence in the name of a political ideal would never again be acceptable on this island. Despite attempts in the current political dispensation to rewrite the history of the Northern Troubles that has surely been the case.
The Machnamh 100 Seminars are all available on the RTÉ Player