THE IRISH CIVIL WAR IN PERSPECTIVE
Much will be written, over the coming year, about the Civil War in Ireland. There will be tales of atrocities, of executions and reprisals, of sexual attacks on women, the destruction of the Big Houses, the persecution of minorities, the nefarious behaviour of the Catholic Church and of the innocent victims caught up in the maelstrom. There will be arguments about the bitter legacy of the war and about the two “civil war” political parties that have dominated Irish life for the past century. Above all, there will be a further episode in that long running saga: The Failings of Past Generations.
Historians will present the basic facts. However, some commentators will prefer to generalise even if their pronouncements are based on very flimsy evidence. Where no evidence can be found to support their generalisations, this will be blamed on censorship and the suppression of facts by a collusion of Church and State at the time.
The reality is that the Irish Civil War was a very restrained event by international standards. During the 20th Century, Europe was riven by bloody, civil wars. Apart from the two World Wars, and all the national civil wars that took place during the course of these 10 momentous years, there were distinct civil wars in Finland, Russia, Spain, Greece, and Yugoslavia during that bloody century. In Russia there were over 5 million deaths, in Spain up to a million, in Greece 158,000 and in the former Yugoslavia over 100,000. Even taking into account the respective population of these countries, their death tolls were immense compared to what happened in Ireland.
In terms of population, a better comparison would be Ireland and Finland. In the early part of the 20th Century, the Irish Free State had a similar population to Finland. In the Finnish Civil War, that took place between January and May 1918, there were 36,600 deaths of which nearly 10,000 were executions. In comparison, the Irish Civil War lasted 11 months between June 1922 and May 1923 with less than 2,000 casualties.
War is evil in the sense that it destroys the protective barrier of civilisation. In that lawless and febrile atmosphere, people on all sides behave badly while others use the breakdown of law and order to carry out what would normally be major, criminal acts.
Awful things happened during the Irish Civil War but they pale in comparison with what happened in places like Spain and Yugoslavia. In those countries there was the systematic slaughter of the civilian population, forced relocation, concentration camps, widespread use of torture, the rape of women and children, wholesale destruction of property and bitter ideological divisions that last till this day.
In Ireland, the events at Ballyseedy (where 8 anti-Treaty prisoners were killed by members of the Free State Army) are remembered because they were exceptional. So, too, with the small number of executions (approximately 80) and reprisals, the burning of large houses and the ambush at Beal na Blath (where Michael Collins died). This is not to belittle the suffering of those involved because all lives are important. However, very little of major consequence happened during the Irish Civil War compared to similar wars in other countries.
After the Civil War, when the Free State side emerged victorious, there is no evidence of widescale retaliation against the losing side as there was in Spain. Equally impressive, when the losing side, now reorganised as deValera’s Fianna Fail, won the 1932 election, there was a peaceful transition of power and, once again, no retaliation of any consequence. Normal life resumed and while the new State might have had serious economic and social deficiencies, it became one of the more stable countries in Europe in the century that followed.
Similarly, the notion that the Civil War divide persisted for the past century through the presence of the two “Civil War” parties in government, is more a reflection on the poor alternatives offered by Labour and the other parties that rose and disappeared over these years. The Irish electorate preferred centrist parties, with only minor differences between them, rather than the doctrinaire agenda offered by the likes of the Workers Party and the Progressive Democrats. Communism and Fascism never took hold here, unlike in so many parts of Europe. Surely this is to the credit of past generations that they weren’t duped like so many other people throughout Europe.
We’re very fond of hyperbola in Ireland – everything has to be magnified. For once, it would be pleasant if our political commentators, including some historians, could focus on the actual facts and give credit to past generations for the way they coped with strong emotions and complex issues. Instead of concentrating on the darker aspects of the Civil War, perhaps they could examine what prevented our country from descending into the awful barbarism that characterised most of the 20th century wars elsewhere in Europe.