Published in Book Reviews, Featured-Book-Review, Issue 6 (November/December 2014), Reviews, Volume 22

Cambridge University Press

ISBN 9781107036895

Civil War

In this decade of commemorations, it is interesting but not surprising that the Irish Civil War has been excluded from the events chosen as suitable to remember. The Civil War remains one of the most divisive and controversial periods in Irish history: a short military confrontation followed by a bitter guerrilla war, characterised by executions, assassinations and ambushes. Gemma Clark’s timely and well-researched book is a reminder of why the Civil War is so contentious and also why it is unlikely ever to feature in official government commemoration activities.

Veering away from the conventional view of the Civil War as a straightforward military conflict between the forces of the Irish Free State and the anti-Treaty IRA, this work concentrates instead on the effect of the war on Irish civilians. Focusing on the Munster counties of Limerick, Cork and Tipperary, she examines the papers of British and Irish compensation committees, established after the war to provide financial assistance to civilians who suffered at the hands of republicans during the war. What emerges from Clark’s work is a picture of sustained republican violence against selected community groups, which existed below the surface of the military conflict but was closely linked to it.

At the heart of this book is the theme of identity. Victims of violence in this period were often targeted by republicans because of their allegiance to the British or Free State government (or both), while both the Irish and British compensation schemes were geared towards providing relief to those who could prove their loyalty to Dublin or London. Sometimes the picture was far from clear. Members of the newly established Irish senate, for example, were targeted by the IRA partly because many had been part of the British administration but also because they were participating in the Free State government. The British government, however, often refused to pay compensation to senators whose houses had been burned, as it was felt that they had renounced their loyalty to London by accepting a seat in the senate. The payment of compensation became a key factor in determining the allegiance of the claimant.

Clark discovers, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it was Irish Protestants who bore the brunt of republican attacks in the three Munster counties, particularly those who had previous connections with the British government. She stops short of assigning sectarian motives, however, and again points out that there is no single explanation. Was a house burned by the IRA because the owner was a Protestant, or because they were landowners, had connections to the British forces or RIC, or because of some unrelated personal impulse on the part of the attackers? Often it was a mixture of all these factors and, given that the perpetrators were rarely, if ever, brought to justice, it is difficult to say which carries more weight.

Clark breaks down the violence into three main categories: arson, ‘local community conflict’ and ‘harming civilians’. Complex layers of motivations were at play in each of these. Often the IRA burned houses and other property in order to prevent Free State forces from using them. At the same time, Clark suggests that there was some degree of a symbolic ‘purging the historic enemy’ from Ireland. Arson attacks on houses, combined with the maiming of livestock, the seizing of cattle, destruction of crops and intimidation, can be interpreted as a desire to redistribute land to those who ‘missed out’ under official schemes. Catholics, too, were caught up in these campaigns, and were often boycotted and intimidated if they had business or personal ties to the British or Free State forces. It is here that Clark illustrates the depth of participation in violence: rather than it being the preserve of a small band of radicalised republicans, boycott, cattle-driving and the posting of threatening letters often received community support, demonstrating the complexity of the Civil War at the local level.

The most interesting insights come when Clark focuses on violence against individuals rather than property. Ex-servicemen, former members of the RIC, alleged informers and spies were singled out, and many were killed by the IRA. The author also uncovers some examples of sexual violence, which appear to have been exceptions. Rape and sexual assault were not prevalent during the Civil War and were far less common than in parallel conflicts in Europe at the time.

While concentrating on non-military targets, Clark is always careful not to decouple violence against civilians from the larger context. The ultimate aim of the republicans was to destroy the Free State. Attacks on trains, railway workers and postmen were attempts to disrupt the functions of the state at a local level. Burning houses and raiding livestock undermined the legitimacy of the Dublin government by highlighting its inability to protect its citizens. By consistently relating the ‘everyday’ violence to the military conflict, Clark resists the temptation to ascribe simple sectarian or ethnic motivations to the perpetrators and instead reminds us that violence against civilians was part and parcel of the republican campaign against the Free State.

Clark is to be commended for restoring agency to the largely forgotten civilian victims of the Civil War. Her book is a valuable and highly readable addition to the literature on the conflict and a reminder that, while the Civil War may not be commemorated, it should certainly be remembered.


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