Bertie Ahern says lessons to be learned from studying Civil War

Former taoiseach speaks at commemoration to honour republican leader Liam Mellows

The Civil War needs to be commemorated and examined in the same way as the Easter Rising and the War of Independence were if Ireland is to learn from the bitter divisions of the time, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has told a commemoration to honour republican leader Liam Mellows.

Mr Ahern said that taking an inclusive lens to Irish history and particularly the Civil War was the only sensible course

“I know that some of those who were less enthusiastic about the Decade of Centenaries probably genuinely felt that when it came to the Civil War, we should just let sleeping dogs lie. But I don’t agree,” he told a commemoration on Sunday to mark the execution of the anti-Treaty IRA leader who was executed by the Free State government on December 8th 1922

“The Civil War is certainly not a time to be celebrated, but I believe it nevertheless must be remembered. For too long, the Civil War was swept under the carpet of history. This was no doubt influenced by the fact that many of the veterans of the conflict on both sides declined to talk about it, sometimes I suspect, out of shame that events got so far out of hand.”


Addressing a crowd of several hundred at Mellows’ grave in Castletown in Co Wexford, Mr Ahern said it was important to learn from the past, painful as that may be.

“In commemorating the Civil War, perhaps, we won’t see the same popular enthusiasm we have seen in honouring the Rising or the big engagements of the War of Independence, but this does not mean we shouldn’t remember this time and historically explore and interrogate it, especially if we can bring forward new perspectives that help draw lessons from the bitter divisions of that time.

“I am around long enough to know that denying history, distorting, suppressing or ignoring it, is counterproductive,” said Mr Ahern as he recalled remarks he made as taoiseach in 2006 about the approach needed as Ireland prepared for the Decade of Centenaries, including the Civil War.

“I said back then that ‘To ask today ‘What side would you have been on?’ is a superficial question which ignores the fact that personal experiences and connections were central to most people’s actions. We simply cannot know how we would have reacted in similar situations.

“What matters today is their idealism and what we have built on the foundations they laid. Ireland’s more mature democracy is hopefully arriving at a situation where all parties accept that Ireland’s history belongs to every Irish person and is beyond political posturings.”

Mr Ahern said that he still held true to that view today and he hoped that Ireland’s mature democracy in 2022 would view the Civil War no longer in terms of sides, but in terms of lessons. “History is important because in trying to chart the future, we have to understand the past.”

Smart politics

Mr Ahern said one lesson he learned from the past was that as taoiseach it was important to attend important negotiations and he never countenanced not attending resulted in the Belfast Agreement which was not the approach taken by Éamon de Valera during the Treaty negotiations.

“I think a lot of people were surprised to hear me – as a former leader of Fianna Fáil – say last year that I think Dev was wrong not to lead the Irish delegation at the Treaty talks, which contributed to the Civil War split,” said Mr Ahern as reiterated a view he expressed in an Irish Times opinion piece.

Mr Ahern said that the British negotiating team were highly skilled and experienced politicians and included prime minister David Lloyd George, secretary of state for the colonies and future prime minister. Winston Churchill and chancellor Austen Chamberlain.

“It was not smart politics to leave the fledgling Dáil’s leading statesman at home. I suspect that, by remaining in Dublin, de Valera believed he could be brought into the talks at the eleventh hour to insist on further concessions, but this was a high-risk and ultimately doomed strategy.”

Lloyd George’s threat of renewed war and the ambiguity about whether the Irish delegation had the powers to agree with the Treaty conspired to ensure Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and the rest of the Irish delegation signed the Treaty without talking to de Valera and other Dáil Cabinet members.

“Had de Valera been in London, alongside Collins, a chasm may never have developed,” said Mr Ahern as he recalled how Mellows, a founder member of the Irish Volunteers, had, as the IRA director of supplies, worked closely with Collins during the War of Independence.

Describing Mellows as “a revered Irish patriot”, Mr Ahern said his “execution was an extrajudicial killing which seriously departed from the rule of law” when he was shot with Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett by the government in reprisal for the killing of TD Sean Hales.

Great generation

He recalled that Countess Constance Markiewicz, addressing the first Liam Mellows Commemoration in December 1923, said Mellows was “one of Ireland’s most loyal and honoured commandants, a great soldier, as brave as could be found, and a man worthy of the people’s gratitude.”

Mr Ahern said that Mellows first came to public prominence as the leader of the western division forces in the Easter Rising of 1916 while he was also elected to the first Dáil for Sinn Féin in 1918 for both Galway East and Meath North before being a key figure in the War of Independence.

“Liam Mellows was a leading member of a great generation of Irish men and women that we should never forget and who, a century or so ago, heroically struggled to vindicate the Irish people’s right to national self-determination,” he said.

He said that it was important to remember that while Mellows vehemently opposed the Treaty and did all in his power to prevent hostilities, it was only when every effort to preserve the unity of the national movement failed that Mellows determined to oppose the Treaty by force of arms.

“Ernie O’Malley said affectionately of Mellows that he was ‘our greatest loss’. One thought of him as a clear flame, steadfast, burning of its own strength’ while Robert Briscoe described him as ‘a bright golden flame of conscience and courage,’ said Mr Ahern.

“Perhaps, the lesson we should take from our Civil War is that the country lost so many of its ‘best and brightest’ leaders – Mellows, Collins, Cathal Brugha, Arthur Griffith, Erskine Childers, Sean Hales, Liam Lynch and many more – at a time when they were badly needed to build up our new State.”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times