War between friends
BBC History Magazine|October 2021
CORMAC O GRADA commends an ambitious attempt to objectively examine the conflict that pitted Irish people against each other in the wake of the bloody War of Independence

Since 2012, Ireland has been commemorating a decade of centenaries, starting with the Third Home Rule Bill in April 1912 and the mass signing of the Ulster Covenant in September 1912, and ending with the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922–23. The high point so far has been the centenary parade marking the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Dublin was abuzz, and a BBC reporter at the event described “an Ireland at ease with its past”. The event’s military trappings were, if anything, ironic; they featured military vehicles from another era and a fly-past by six single-engine training aircraft. This was the easy bit, however.

Most commemorating so far has been low-key, respecting what President Michael D Higgins, who has a way with words, described as a “hospitality of narratives”. Inevitably, there have been glitches. One was the aborted attempt in January 2020 to include a commemoration of policemen killed by the IRA in the War of Independence. For many familiar with the record of the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1919–21, that was one step too far.

Then, some months later, on the centenary of a major IRA ambush on crown forces at Kilmichael in County Cork, a Sinn Féin member of parliament caused a stir when he likened the carnage there to the killing of 18 British soldiers by Provisional IRA bombs near Newry in 1979. And the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act (1920), which led to the border between north and south – a thorny issue once again in these days of Brexit – was glossed over lightly, with the Irish government limiting its commemoration to sponsoring an academic conference in Belfast.

Commemorating the Irish Civil War, which pitted the forces of a government that supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 – which paved the way for the separation of Northern Ireland from the new Irish Free State – against a sizeable minority who rejected it, may prove another test of public opinion. In Ireland, recent history does not just lie down.

Diarmaid Ferriter, Ireland’s best-known and most prolific historian, has a knack for producing timely books. A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913–1923 (2015) marked the beginning of the commemorations, while The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics (2019) explored partition in 1920. Now comes a history of the Irish Civil War. All three enrich lucid and judicious accounts of events and personalities with fresh archival evidence; all also dwell at length on the aftermath of those events.

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