It has become a truism of the Irish Civil War that nobody wanted to talk about it afterwards. Even the Government’s Expert Advisory Group on Commemorations observed there was “nothing ignoble in the many silences that followed the Irish Civil War”.
Dr Síobhra Aiken’s scholarly Spiritual Wounds: Trauma, Testimony and the Irish Civil War is a riposte to that narrative. Those who lived through the war spoke about it and wrote about it, but much of what was said and written has been forgotten. “The many voices that broke the silence can no longer be overlooked. Civil wars engender vibrant bodies of competing discourses,” Aiken writes. This is particularly true of women’s experience of the war – the subject of a chapter in this book.
Libel actions had a chilling effect on the publication of Civil War memoirs, while censorship in the new Free State was also a deterrent
The work draws not only on historical narrative, but also on psychoanalysis and psychology. It is not only about what was remembered, but why and how it was so.
Many Civil War memoirs, such as Ernie O’Malley’s The Singing Flame, were not published until after the author’s death. Libel actions had a chilling effect on the publication of Civil War memoirs, while censorship in the new Free State was also a deterrent.
One memoir published during the author’s life was Peadar O’Donnell’s The Gates Flew Open, but even he felt compelled to burn his Civil War papers lest he contribute to restarting the conflict.
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Many survivors of the war sublimated their memories into fiction. Francis Carty’s Legion of the Rearguard and Patrick Mulloy’s Jackets Green were bestsellers at the time, but are largely forgotten now.
Aiken is the great-granddaughter of Frank Aiken, who reluctantly took the anti-Treaty side and as chief-of-staff of the defeated anti-Treaty IRA ordered the dumping of arms, which ended the Civil War in 1923.
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The division he commanded was responsible for the Altnaveigh massacre in Co Armagh on June 17th, 1922, 11 days before the Civil War broke out, in which six Protestants died.
He never spoke about the Civil War either publicly or privately, and burned all his papers. His great-granddaughter writes: “Perhaps this book, to use Frank O’Connor’s words, is its own ‘act of reparation’.”
This is an important addition to the literature on the Civil War. It is, to quote Samuel Beckett, a “stain on the silence” or more accurately a stain on the imagined silence surrounding this needless conflict.
Ronan McGreevy is an Irish Times journalist and the author of Great Hatred: The Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP (Faber & Faber)