Bertie Ahern says Civil War affected Ireland’s success in Boundary Commission talks

Former taoiseach to give oration at leading republican Dick Barrett’s grave in West Cork in December

The fledgling Irish state’s hopes of securing more territory in the Boundary Commission negotiations were hugely hindered by the trauma of the Civil War which claimed the lives of many fine leaders such as leading republican, Dick Barrett, according to former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

Mr Ahern, who is due to give the oration at Barrett’s grave in his native Ahiohill in West Cork on December 4th, said the deaths of both opponents and proponents of the Treaty during the near eleven months long conflict had a long-lasting traumatic effect on the newly independent state.

“We lost so many good guys in the Civil War, and it caused so much division that the 1920s were all taken up with just managing things and then of course there was great uncertainty over what would happen in 1932 – would the Cumman na nGaedhael government hand over power to Fianna Fáil?

“I think that was a very good mark by Cumman na nGaedhael to hand over power to Fianna Fáil – it ensured stability and cemented democracy because how many places in the world are there where we have seen the ruling party refusing to hand over power when they are defeated?”


Mr Ahern said that the 1930s fell prey to the Economic War while Ireland suffered during the 1940s because of second World War and it was only in the 1960s that the country began to realise its potential economically but there were also other consequences from the Civil War much earlier on.

“The main issue in the Treaty was the oath, it wasn’t the geographical border, but I’ve read a lot about this, and I’m convinced both the pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty sides really thought that they were going to get a positive result out of the Boundary Commission and a redrawing of the border.

“I think people like Collins and Boland and Dev felt that the Boundary Commission would deliver Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and South Armagh into the new state and what would have been left then would not have been economically viable and that was their thinking.

“But I think the things that happened in the Civil War were so terrible and so many good guys were lost that the guys who were left didn’t really have in their hearts to fight politically for a new border and really Eoin McNeill gave up the game during the Boundary Commission negotiations.”

Mr Ahern acknowledged that those who took the anti-Treaty side, like Dick Barrett and his own late father Con who was involved with the IRA during the War of Independence in Novohal in West Cork, did not have an electoral mandate for their position but he defended their right to hold such views.

“The whole issue in the Treaty over the oath should have been solvable and the Civil War should have been avoided – Collins wanted to avoid it and I’m sure Dev wanted to avoid it but what happened during the conflict then created a lot of bitterness that lasted generations.

“But I think there needs to be a little bit of balance in the debate, those who took the republican side may not have had a democratic mandate, but those guys were genuine in their motivation – they genuinely believed that the Treaty was wrong and had to be opposed.

“I mean anti-Treaty guys like Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey, Rory O’Connor and Dick Barrett – they were excellent guys, Barrett was an eminent teacher, a very clever guy – they weren’t stupid, they took up an ideological position that the Treaty was wrong, and they were prepared to die for that.

“I think that has to be acknowledged and of course, the really sad thing about the Civil War certainly with regard to Dick Barrett was that he was executed in reprisal for the shooting of Sean Hales and they were great friends – it was Sean Hales who swore Dick Barrett into the IRB.”

Mr Ahern said one of the most shocking aspects of the execution of Barrett, O’Connor, McKelvey and Mellows was its randomness and he recalled reading an account of what happened in Mountjoy Gaol on December 8th 1922 by Sean McBride, who shared a prison cell with Rory O’Connor.

“McBride wrote a very detailed piece which I read years ago – there was a rumour doing the rounds that Sean Hales had been shot that day but there was nothing confirmed, and they went to bed early that night only to be woken up at two in the morning and they thought they were being moved.

“Then McBride learned a priest had been brought in from Gardiner Street and he realised that the four guys were going to be shot, four guys that were taken at random, they were good guys with lives and careers ahead of them and they gave up their lives for what they believed in.”

Mr Ahern’s oration in Ahiohill is one of several events to mark the Centenary of Dick Barrett’s death and follows the launch of updated biography of Dick Barrett in Ballineen on November 11th and a symposium in conjunction the School of History at UCC in Clonakilty on November 19th.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times