Unless the criterion is body counts, no kind of war is more punishing and damaging than a civil war. Citizens of a country find themselves killing fellow members of their own society and whether this lasts more than half a century – as in Colombia – or less than two years, as in the case of Ireland, civil war inflicts on the national psyche a grievous injury.
The author of “The Civil War in Dublin” recounts the events that tore Ireland apart, shortly after the conclusion of a treaty with the UK that saw most of the country finally rid itself of British imperial rule.
The treaty, however, was botched in two respects: territory in the north would remain part of Britain, for the time being at least; and the sovereignty of the Irish Free State, the name for what the liberated part of Ireland now became, would still be under the British Crown.
This entailed an Oath of Allegiance to be sworn by those elected to the new Irish parliament.
These were steps too far for some of those who had fought British forces in the War of Independence and June 1922 marked the beginning of a civil war that ended in May 1923. Victory went to the pro-Treaty forces, aided by military equipment loaned to them by the British government. This book is a well-researched and lucidly written account of the twenty three months that saw fighting that was as bitter – more so, in some respects – as in the War of Independence.
It divided communities and, as distressingly depicted in Ken Loach’s “The wind that shakes the Barley”, members of the same families.
The Civil War in Dublin” makes no reference to Ken Loach’s film and while this in itself in not a criticism it is emblematic of the book’s unwillingness to probe beneath the empirical course of events and look more deeply into the class politics that swirled beneath the waves of those tumultuous two years.
What this book does very well is provide an even-handed account of a hugely divisive and controversial period in Irish history.
He shows how violence begets violence and his handling of the killing of Michael Collins – the charismatic leader of the pro-Treaty forces – is finely balanced.
It is difficult to be impartial when writing about your own country’s civil war and the way John Dorney manages to avoid making judgements is a virtue. It is also an imperfection because he avoids posing the uncomfortable questions that were asked by participants in the war.
Fighting for national independence is all well and good but it cannot be divorced from settling questions about what kind of state is going to replace the foreign power.
The sad reality of contemporary Ireland – in denial of class difference while remaining institutionally corrupt in key areas, shamelessly in hock to multinational internet companies, profoundly hypocritical in outlawing abortion in full knowledge that women won’t die in backstreet clinics because they can go to Britain – makes Ken Loach’s film about Ireland’s civil war a necessary accompaniment to “The Civil War in Dublin”.
“The Civil War in Dublin”, by John Dorney, is published by Merrion Press.