A century ago today, Frank Aiken, chief of staff of the IRA, signalled the end of the Civil War: “Comrades! The arms with which we fought the enemies of the country are to be dumped. The foreign and domestic enemies of the Republic have for the moment prevailed”. The same day, the president of Sinn Féin, Éamon de Valera, also addressed the “Legion of the Rearguard”, maintaining “further sacrifice of life would now be in vain, and continuance of the struggle in arms unwise in the national interest and prejudicial to the future of our cause”.
These statements marked the end of the revolutionary decade 1913-23, incorporating the home rule crisis, the first world war, the 1916 Rising, partition, the War of Independence and the Civil War, events that have prompted much reflection, mediation, debate and contestation.
Centenaries of pivotal national events provide no neat closure or resolution. What they can do, as evidenced in recent years, is encourage new perspectives and a degree of empathy with the mostly young men and women involved. Multiple newly available sources have provided a widely embraced opportunity to engage with the emotional climate of a century ago and give due weight to the social, cultural, political and economic contexts that influenced those whose sincere ambitions and ideals were sometimes compromised or dashed. Collectively, and often with dignity and maturity, we have complicated traditional narratives, examined the nature and impact of violence and death, allowed submerged voices and testimonies to breathe, expressed pride in our journey towards a republic and sometimes lamented the ongoing divisions, including the partition of this island, and the scars that remained unhealed.
The Civil War’s legacy is complex and layered. Violence did not end on May 24th, 1923, re-emerging at times with an intensity that generated terror and instability as the legitimacy of the state was contested. There were those who were able to forge rewarding post-Civil War lives and those who, in such a class-conscious society, were forced to emigrate or felt marginalised and forgotten, living with the consequences of the failure of political transformation to be matched with a social contract that would deliver on the revolutionary rhetoric of equality.
Much trauma was internalised, and silences, not always ignoble, were a coping mechanism. Many were, in the words of novelist Sebastian Barry, “left to their horrible wounds and hideous asylums”. Women were marginalised in the patriarchal postrevolutionary climate. Uncomfortable realities, poor and powerless children and perceived transgressors were hidden and incarcerated in a state that projected a bogus purity and encouraged a damaging deference. The stress on what united most people in southern Ireland – allegiance to the Catholic faith – allowed church leaders excessive power that was abused, with, in parallel, the new Northern Ireland built around a Protestant identity politics.
Civil War politics was often sterile, recriminatory and narrowly focused, yet that same politics, masking shared values, alongside a deep-rooted democratic culture that predated the revolution, ensured the survival of a robust democracy, unbroken, for a century, making us a rarity.
That was no mean achievement; resisting the excesses and collapse of democracies apparent elsewhere in Europe was a reflection of our ability to recover quickly from Civil War and go our own way, accompanied in time by greater maturity, confidence and diversity that allowed us to respect and adapt the revolutionary dispensation. If that was often a tortuous path, it was at least our path, and that desire for control of our destiny had been at the core of the legitimate demands of a revolutionary generation fighting against a supremacist British imperialism.