The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty was 25 years past when the Bureau of Military History held its first official meeting in January 1947. Over the decade that followed, the Bureau collected 1,773 testimonies called ‘witness statements’ and documents from separatist veterans who had been active during Ireland’s revolutionary decade of 1913–1923. For many former members of the Irish Volunteers, Irish Republican Army, Cumann na mBan, Fianna Éireann and Sinn Féin, the events of the period were not quite history yet. The legacy of the Treaty still informed Irish political life.
The Bureau was a government-sponsored project administered under the auspices of the Department of Defence. The project’s official terms of reference ended with the truce on 11 July 1921, deliberately excluding discussion of the opening of formal negotiations with the British on 11 October, the signing of the Treaty on 6 December and the Civil War that commenced with the shelling of the Four Courts in late June 1922. A Fianna Fáil government had initiated the project and they hoped that limiting enquiries to events pre-dating the republican split would placate Fine Gael members and supporters who suspected they would be maligned and misrepresented by their political rivals. Whatever the political allegiances of potential contributors though, making a witness statement was promoted in much the same way, as a sign of political maturity.
A few high profile pro-Treatyites like Piaras Béaslaí and Richard Mulcahy still refused or were reluctant to cooperate but in general, separatist veterans of all persuasions gave testimonies or documents to the Bureau. Their participation confirmed that the allegiances, alliances and divides within the separatist movement occurring over the course of the independence struggle and the Civil War were being gradually overlaid with other issues and concerns. The most common reason given by potential contributors for refusing to give a statement was dissatisfaction with the outcome of their military service pension claim, not Civil War politics. The terms of reference were not strictly enforced and those individuals who wanted to talk about the truce and/or Civil War in their testimonies did. So Bureau witnesses often recalled their response to news of the Treaty and how they felt about its signing.
The statements were taken many years after the events described in them had occurred and memories were often framed in terms of present circumstances and allegiances. One former member of South Wexford Brigade, IRA (WS 1740) remembered:
‘When the split came following the Treaty, only one man of the Company joined the Free State Army…All the other members remained Republican, but we were then called ‘Irregulars’ and any who were not in jail had to go on the run until long after the ‘Cease Fire’ order. Thank God they are still all together in the one organisation, Fianna Fáil.’
Pro-Treatyites like Cahir Davitt (Judge Advocate General of the Irish Army from 1922–1926) were similarly unrepentant about their actions during the Civil War:
‘The persons who were most responsible for bringing the curse of civil war upon the country were, in my opinion, clearly the members of the Four Courts Executive. I was not in favour of executing anyone if it could be avoided; but if anyone were to suffer death it was they who deserved it most as a punishment for bringing about the tragedy of fratricidal strife.’
Other witnesses had become disillusioned with Irish political life (WS 409):
‘This is the year 1950. I have read much of the ocean of explanatory and justifying verbiage with which we have been deluged by both parties since 1922, but neither this nor anything that has happened in the intervening years has caused me to alter my views.’
Several witnesses had remained neutral and a few had memories that made healing easier, like Josephine Clarke’s recollections of her arrest during the Civil War:
‘We were brought to the Aerodrome in Tallaght which was filled withFree Statetroops and while we were waiting there who should come in but Liam Tobin all decorated with stars and stripes. He and I knew each other in Kilkenny and played together as children – he was Billy Tobin then. He got an awful drop when he saw me and said, “For God’s sake, Josie, what are you doing here”. “You see I am a prisoner” said I. He took me aside and asked me where was Liam. I told him he was with the Column around Rathfarnham. He said, “You had better get in touch with him. I’ll have you sent in the first car that leaves here, and tell him I have orders to get all those fellows, dead or alive.” I’ll remember that to Billy’s credit as long as I live.’
Whatever the individual witnesses felt, attitudes exhibited by the Bureau towards potential interviewees and by separatist veterans towards the project were more reflective of the process of reconciliation (however slow and grudging) and normalisation than ongoing disunity or the ubiquitous and much over-used explanatory device, ‘Civil War bitterness.’ The Treaty still rankled and still complicated matters but this was anIrelandwell on the way to recovery from civil conflict and revolution, not one locked in atavistic, unbending hatred. Even if their activities during the independence struggle remained the most important, defining experiences of their lives, as it seems to have been for many separatist veterans, it would be a mistake to suggest that the manner in which they viewed and understood those events, or the belief systems and motivations that underpinned their actions, afterwards remained static.
About the author
Dr Eve Morrison studied history at Trinity College Dublin. She has recently completed a PhD under the supervision of Professor David Fitzpatrick entitled ‘The Bureau of Military History: Separatist Veterans’ Narratives of the Irish Revolution, 1913–1923’.