Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2023), Reviews, Volume 31

Reviewed by Colum Kenny

Colum Kenny is the author of A bitter winter: the Civil War and its legacy (Eastwood Books, 2022).

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In this final session of his series of Machnamh seminars, ‘Memory, History and Imagination’, President Michael D. Higgins said that he wished he could report that his anti-Treaty father and his pro-Treaty uncle had finally been reconciled. They were not, however, and his father lost his job after participating in the Civil War: ‘Very few people would employ an ex-internee’, said the president of those who, like his father, had been jailed for a period at the end of the Civil War.

President Higgins has fostered debate on the centenary of revolution and civil war in a series of six seminars recorded by RTÉ over the past two years. Organised with the support of Prof. Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, Machnamh will long stand as a credit to the office of president. All sessions are free to view or to download as an ebook on the Áras an Uachtaráin website, and all are being printed, too.

‘Machnamh’ is an ancient Irish concept encompassing reflection, contemplation, meditation and thought. President Higgins told the November 2022 gathering that he had tried to create and ‘lay out a factual framework for discussion in as inclusive a way as possible’. This meant that you ‘let everything in. You don’t invent a fiction. Fiction does not work.’ His is an attitude in stark contrast to those who find comfort in old certainties, or those who are discomforted about debating some of the present uncertainties that at least partly flow from the events of 1922–3. There has been too little robust debate this year about the Civil War.

The keynote speaker was Prof. Declan Kiberd, who claimed that the Irish have ‘a wonderful ability for amnesia as well as for commemoration’. He found a certain ‘bleakness of freedom’ experienced by those who finally had a level of political independence after 1921, that the aftermath of a successful revolution had not been thought through: ‘Ranchers replaced landlords’ and the ‘emerging grazier class was more interested in land ownership than in land use’. The concept of rights-based nationalism gave way to a simpler ethnic nationalism.

Responding to Kiberd were three speakers, of whom the first was Dr Lelia Doolan. She regretted the absence of women from the team sent to negotiate the Treaty, mentioning Mary McSwiney as a possible choice. Diplomacy, however, as the event’s moderator John Bowman later pointed out, was not McSwiney’s greatest strength.

Prof. Angela Bourke spoke of a need to admit that your heart was broken, and of the difficulty of doing so in Irish society for too long. Even in recent times, she said, Catherine Corless was sometimes described as ‘a local historian’ in the somewhat disparaging way in which that term may be used. This diminished the work of Corless on the mother and baby institution in Tuam, Co. Galway. Bourke also compared and contrasted the memories of Irish emigrants in America with those of the Irish who stayed home. She found that famine, injustice, mental illness and poverty featured more explicitly in the stories of emigrants.

Fergal Keane, the broadcaster, whose work on traumatic events in Rwanda and elsewhere is widely known, spoke of his own family’s background during the Irish civil war. This has been a motivating factor in his asking himself continually, ‘Why do we kill? What does it do to us? How do we recover from it?’ He added that his family history and the history of the island of Ireland were ‘part of what sent me to report on violence elsewhere’. Not that everyone cares. A relative asked Keane, ‘What do you want going into all that old stuff for?’ And he was taken aback when his early report on the Rwanda massacre was met with indifference, with the sentiment, ‘It is what it is’. For him a signal moment was discovering that a particular violent Black and Tan in Kerry was not part of ‘the sweepings of an English jail’—as some had led him to believe—but a Catholic boy from Donegal who had been brutalised in the First World War. Keane said: ‘I’m not convinced that the danger of war on this island is over’.

The realities of the period a century ago need to be faced. The rejection of the opinion of a majority of citizens, expressed democratically by them and on their behalf by elected representatives in 1922, cannot be seen simply as a matter of opinion, for that rejection was backed by violence, and by a wing of the IRA that was prepared to overthrow the new Irish state.

Before drawing his Machnamh series to a close, President Higgins traced aftershocks of events a century ago. There was then ‘a failure of diplomacy’, as there is today, he thinks. The urge to acquire more land, beyond sufficiency, was detrimental. Authority was unnecessarily assertive, and too many people experienced indignity and humiliation. The economically weak were seen as morally weak. And the matter of class in Irish society is too seldom confronted. He recalled reading of a particularly poignant visit to the former Labour Party leader Tom Johnson in old age. Johnson’s Labour Party played a principled and independent role between 1918 and 1923 but was only briefly thanked for this electorally. In old age, said the president, Johnson was ‘found living in straitened circumstance, no pension, broken TV set, struggling to heat his home’.





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