Catholic Church should apologise for treatment of Irish republicans during Civil War, event hears

Historian tells Liam Lynch commemoration that Ireland’s bishops put politics above Christianity

The Irish Catholic Church should follow the example of Pope Francis and apologise for its treatment of Irish republicans during the Civil War as the pope had done in relation to events in his own native Argentina, a historian has told the annual General Liam Lynch commemoration in north Cork.

Author Dr Tim Horgan told the annual gathering at General Liam Lynch’s grave at Kilcrumper cemetery outside Fermoy that the bishops of Ireland put politics above Christianity in 1922 by excommunicating those who were fighting for a republic in the Irish Civil War.

“Sacraments were denied, men were refused Christian burials, no confessions, no communion, no condemnation of torture or concentration camps, no priestly comfort on the way to the firing squad wall; it is a fact of history that these excommunications were never revoked even after the fighting ceased,” he said.

“In contrast, the present Pope Francis, over 20 years ago, apologised for the role of the Argentine Church in his country’s Civil War in the 1970s, declaring, ‘We want to confess before God everything that we have done badly’, and for the way the Church ‘had closed its eyes’ to murder and torture perpetrated by the state.


“Is it too much to ask our bishops to issue a similar apology for the shameful role that the hierarchy of our church willingly played in the dreadful events of a century ago. Now that the State has demonstrated in recent years that it has no further need for our Church, it should have become a little easier to utter words of contrition.”

The author of several historical works, including Dying for the Cause: Kerry’s Republican Dead, Dr Horgan said he had a great regard for the idealism of Lynch from an early age as his maternal grandmother, Madge Clifford, had served as Lynch’s secretary from November 1922 until his death in the Knockmealdown Mountains at the hands of Free State forces in April 1923.

“Few today will have spoke to somebody who knew Lynch so well, but to me as a young boy, she would say that Collins was good but, in the end, he let us down. However, Liam was true to the cause to the end,” said Dr Horgan as he revealed his grandmother was “a veteran of 1916, the Tan War and the Four Courts garrison” in the Civil War before serving as Lynch’s secretary.

Addressing more than 100 people, Dr Horgan said it was evident that there were two types of history in Ireland, one which “borders on fiction and was quickly put out by the ruling class … to justify the illegal and reprehensible actions by which they achieved and maintained power”.

“It is a tale of half-truths and accepted by an unquestioning self-proclaimed intelligentsia. It finds its way into a willing media and school classrooms. It dictates who should be remembered and who should not, who should be commemorated and who should not.

“In this narrative, only two heroes are allowed starring roles, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera. It dictates that it was Collins and de Valera who between them drove the British from Ireland, with Ireland now redefined as a State and not the nation.

“What they will not tell you is that de Valera never fired a shot against Ireland’s enemies and the only shooting that poor Collins did was against the republicans in west Cork,” said Dr Horgan, an ophthalmologist, as he lamented how heroes such as Cathal Brugha and Harry Boland had both been forgotten this year, the centenary of their deaths in the Civil War.

But, he said, there was another history found beyond the corridors of powers and the halls of academic and held dear in the hearts of ordinary people, and it was “a narrative of selfless patriotism, not self-serving politics … a history inspired by principle, not by position, not by profit, not by convenient pragmatism”.

“It is a history of injustices done and betrayals perpetrated, history of dashed hopes, but above all, it is a history of a people that refused to submit; it is that history that brought you here today, it is a narrative not taught in schools, but one spoken amongst those who are proud to proclaim what the so-called ‘right-thinking’ and ‘mature’ are now too embarrassed to recall.

“It tells us that while Collins held court in the pubs of Dublin and de Valera was comfortable in the hotels of America, Liam Lynch was fighting against all the odds in the ditches and lanes of north Cork: cold, wet and hungry, he led his men and his men followed him.”

Dr Horgan said it was now fashionable to pronounce that one side was just as bad as the other in the Civil War, but he rejected such an assessment of “that dreadful conflict” as he believed that there was a huge difference between the pro-Treaty side and those who were holding out for a republic.

“Let it be said that there was a difference between those who fought for a proud unbroken nation and those who fought for a newly established state subservient to the British Empire — there was a difference between those who had taken an oath to the Republic and those who had sworn allegiance to a foreign king.

“There was a difference between those who fought for the Republic and those who sought to destroy it. There was a difference between those prisoners who were tied to a mine at Ballyseedy and those who detonated it. There was a difference between those who faced the firing squad and those who fired the deadly volley.

“There was a difference between those teenage prisoners found dumped in Dublin’s ditches and those who put British-supplied bullets in their heads. There was a difference between those who were tortured and their tormentors. There was a difference between the laws of God and the edicts of the bishops. There was a right side and a wrong side in the Civil War.

“You gather here today because you are proud to declare which was the right side and which was the wrong side, proud to remember what others would forget, what others would have you forget, proud to remember Liam Lynch and those who fought by his side, those of your people, who sought neither reward nor renown, but only the freedom of Ireland.”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times