Media Library


Ideas, Memory, Imagination - Declan Kiberd, University of Notre Dame

17th Nov, 2022

Early in 2016, I got a phone-call from The Irish Times. Two of my great-uncle Edward Keegan’s 1916 medals had gone on sale in New York; and though the newspaper wished to purchase, its directors very considerately wanted to check that this was acceptable to the Keegan family. Edward had been dismissed from the paper after the Rising and The Irish Times would like to make amends.

I phoned my aunt Maura, the oldest surviving Keegan and younger sister of my dead mother; and, after some debate, we agreed that it was a nice idea - especially as the newspaper would put the medals on display. On the same day that the medals were unveiled in Tara Street, Edward’s name was added, with those of the Pearse brothers, Tom MacDonagh and Sean Connolly to a memorial plaque in the foyer of the Abbey Theatre. Edward had so impressed W B Yeats with his acting that he’d been offered a full-time post in the theatre; but his wife, who had children also to consider, thought W B a bit flakey and urged her husband to hold onto his reliable job in the ads section of The Irish Times.  Edward was shot through the lung in hand-to-hand fighting in the South Dublin Union and never again enjoyed full health. His family probably had to pawn the medals. In a gesture of kindness, the Abbey gave him a job as assistant stage manager which he had at the time of his death in 1938. In the years before that, he did much voluntary work advancing the case for pensions for forgotten veterans of the Rising.

Like his brothers Joe and Thomas (my maternal grandfather), he had been a member of the Laurence O’Toole Pipe Band and its associated hurling club, as well as of the Keating Branch of the Gaelic League and of the Irish Volunteers. And, like each brother, he took no part in the Civil War, regarding it as a disaster that former friends should kill one another on the basis of rather abstract arguments.

In this the Keegans were fairly typrical of the 1916 generation, surprisingly few of whom fought in Cogadh na gCarad. Instead, they returned to the cultural activities which had first brought them into the national movement.

The Abbey plaque was the brainchild of Stephen Rea, who said a few gentle words at its unveiling. The later event at The Irish Times was rather different---there was a brief mention of Edward Keegan, after which an academic historian spoke for over thirty-five minutes on the importance of Cumann na nGael\Fine Gael in the establishment and consolidation of the state.

I found this in some ways strange, in some ways not. In recent years, the Decade of Commemorations was dominated by speakers from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, neither of which actually existed in the period 1912-1922. It was as if these latecomers to the feast were obsessed with inserting themselves into the narrative; and when more recently the time came to commemorate the Civil War, the joint presence of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael speakers at Béal na mBláth was seen as a sign of maturity and a great break-through into open-heartedness. The bipolar theory that veterans of the war of Independence had all taken one side or the other in the Civil War was seen as axiomatic, as the two parties which emerged from that war jockeyed their representatives into self-congratulatory positions.

The role of the Labour party leader Tom Johnson in seeking peace between the belligerents scarcely received a mention. Nor did the part played by the Labour movement in many other events commemorated (the agonised non-participation in 1918 election; the Soviet established in Limerick in 1919; ongoing agitation for rights of women and children). A private security firm had been hired, with no sense of irony, to control and monitor crowds which marked the anniversary of the Dublin Lock-Out of 1913. It was all too remeniscent of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s remark, during the 1966 commemorations, that the two major parties were in danger of commemorating themselves to death. Although I live in Clontarf, I do not recall any major public event at Tom Johnson’s grave in the local cemetery; or any mention that his suggestion that the rights of children, which had featured in the radical ideas of the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil 1919, be written into the 1922 Constitution.

In a previous Machtnamh paper, President Higgins has recalled how Tom Johnson’s condemnation of non-judicial executions “brought him not any thanks but death-threats from Liam Lynch on behalf of the anti-Treatyites”.  The reluctance to reproduce many of the radical ideas of the Easter Proclamation or Democratic Programme in subsequent Constitutions was probably based on the notion that ideas were dangerous. People often blamed the Civil War on hair-splitting exponents of abstract notions. Such an allergy to radical, challenging new ideas was amplified, especially when they were supported by female intellectuals. Although Maud Gonne and Mary MacSwiney won reputations as “unmanageable revolutionaries”, most women of the period wanted peace; and confined their gestures to sending papers and tobacco to comfort men in jail, sometimes helping a person on the run to find a dug-out in which to hide.

The role of women in trying to broker a peace in 1922---“republicans without malice” as Augusta Gregory called them----proved futile. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington has written of how, when she went to plead with Collins, she found only “a man with a touch of the dictator” whose ideal Ireland was a replica of the British state, “with the usual soldier’s contempt for civilians, particularly women, though these had often risked their lives to help him”. Lady Gregory’s deputation to Kevin O’Higgins got short shrift, derided as “hysterical young women who ought to be playing five-finger exercises or helping their mothers with the brasses”.

What, then, was the Civil War all about? Hardly the North, which many felt Collins intended to invade and reclaim. Or was it the Oath of Allegiance? Hardly that either, except for those extreme idealists who lacked patience to wait for expanded versions of freedom---they could have sworn the Oath as an empty coercive formula and forgotten it. The Civil war may have drawn in such idealists, but also the sort of male who had by 1922 become convinced that alternative organisations of militancy were not available and had come to regard a state of war as normal. It is significant that wherever the British went they created a cult around the world of soldierhood; and when they withdrew from a country, they often left conditions ripe for civil strife. Of course in any but a strictly military sense, it’s often difficult to assign a specific date to a civil war---in the Irish case there were internal divisions well before 1922; and these were still played out in attempts by Fianna Fáil to dominate the 1966 memorial events or by Fine Gael to make similar efforts to link their party traditions to key moments in the Decade of Commemoration.

The British often withdrew precipitately before they had trained the colonised people in the art of government (although it’s only fair to add that the civil service witnessed a fairly seamless transition). George Russell, cooperator and poet, foresaw the forthcoming political crisis in civic politics as early as 1916:

“There is a danger in revolution if the revolutionary spirit is much more

advanced than the moral qualities which alone can secure the success of a               

revolt. These intellectual and moral qualities---the skill to organise, the               

wisdom to control large undertakings, are not natural gifts but the result               

of experience”.

It was of such qualities that W B Yeats was thinking, perhaps, when he composed the closing question of his poem Leda and the Swan---if Leda is the perennial Irish girl and the Swan a version of the invading power, the question makes a sudden political sense:    

               Did she put on his knowledge with his power

               Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

The girl has “feeling”, the Swan “knowledge”---the poem a reworking of a story of rape and brutal withdrawal. That final question could be asking: when the Irish took over “power”from the empire, did they also take on the centuries-honed skills of self-government (“knowledge”). The indifferent beak----whose violence is captured in the monosyllabic plosives of “beak” and “drop”----becomes Yeats’s judgement on the callous suddenness of an ill-prepared British withdrawal----something that would be repeated in India, Cyprus etc etc.

So is this closer to what the Civil War was about? “Out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry”, said Yeats, perhaps thinking of what Ernie O’Malley called “the lyric phase” of the revolution; “but from the quarrel with others we make prose”---that bitter, hard-edged realism which led to appalling atrocities by Free Stater and Republican, and the burning-out of many decent people such as Horace Plunkett at just that point when he intended to bequeath his house to the nation. George Russell said that from the idealism of Yeats, Ireland had followed Joyce and O’Flaherty into an exploration of the sewers: a perhaps inevitable antidote. Joyce was made inevitable by the poetry of Yeats; for the lyric phase was bound sooner or later to contain the essential criticism of the poetry to which it adhered.

As to the rhetoric which characterised all of these events, the robust integrity of the Treaty Debates might be considered the last, high-voltage expression of the nation’s quarrel with itself---on citizens’ rights, social democracy, cultural self-determination. That disputants capable of such eloquence should soon be at war with one another was a calamity indeed. Yet there hangs over that intense debate a sense of uncertainty. Its speakers had sought various dreams of which they could not fully speak; they could speak only of having sought them. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, their Ireland was becoming an answer to a question which had not yet been fully asked; the disputants, in the words of Patrick O’Farrell, were looking not so much for an answer as for a meaning to their question.

Back in 1916 the rebels had played a role: assuming a republic in order to prove its existence, many had behaved like actors----indeed, many like Edward Keegan were actors. The problem was like that defined a generation earlier by Oscar Wilde: “the first duty in life is to adopt a pose: what the second is nobody has yet found out”. Had the contributors to the Treaty Debates any real agreement as to what they were fighting for? Land, undoubtedly, for many of the poorer participants, like the Keegans, had been evicted in earlier decades from a family farm. But beyond that? When Tomás Ó Criomhthain asked fellow-islanders on the Blasket in Allagar na hInse “abair an focal republic i nGaoluinn” (say the word republic in Irish), his interlocutors found that they had none: “agus is beag a chuir a soláthar imní ach oiread oraibh”(and it’s little its attainment worried you either), was Tomás’s laconic raply.

The burning-out of Protestant houses seldom had a sectarian dimension----its exponents just wanted the return of their land. Compared with Russia, few enough big houses got burned in the War of Independence----more were torched in the Civil War, often by persons who expected to obtain more land for their farms. But many perpetrators, half-apologetic for what they were doing, helped the aristocrats to save family heirlooms. (Other more crude operatives simply looted them). Catholic landlords were shot too, because their land was also felt to have been stolen in the past from its rightful owners.

Doubtless, many Protestants who left for England felt no longer welcome in Ireland or loved-----and the closing of their houses and final abandonment of their demesnes removed good jobs from many (both Catholic and Protestant).  But again, there is complexity here too. My TCD room-mate’s grandfather was a doctor in Greystones and Dalkey, who served in Crown forces and was wounded in World War One; but who also cared for the local poor, often without charge. When his name was added to a list of men to be assassinated, members of the local IRA alerted him and kept him in a hidden place until the danger had passed. His family and descendants lived on happily in Ireland.

But these were frenetic times. The sheer effort expended in expelling the British from 26 counties (not to mention fighting for small countries in World War One and the Black-and-Tan Terror) left everyone exhausted and in no condition to reimagine the national condition. A majority wearily accepted the Treaty as the freedom to win further freedom. Great things were done in the early years of the state, such as building a power station, or broadcasting the first live sporting event, or improving the housing supply; but the old imperial capital Dublin was not replaced by a different city and attitudes to schooling hardly changed at all. If anything, things went backward. Pearse’s idea of a child-centred, arts-and-craft education made way for a dismal imitation of English schools, with their rote-learning and corporal punishment designed to bring rebellious individualists into line. It was no surprise that many lapsed back onto the received old forms----with imperial postboxes painted green and British guns, once aimed at Easter rebels, now borrowed to shoot out the rebels in the Four Courts.

In all of this there is what Erich Fromm would later call “the fear of freedom”. The bleakness of freedom could seem lonely indeed, unconsciously projected (perhaps) by the sheer blankness that made the map of Ireland seem empty on the first Free State postage stamps. Bernard Shaw captured this sense of baffled vacancy when he wrote in The Irish Statesman in 1928: “When we were given a free hand to make good, we found ourselves with a shock that has taken all the moral pluck out of us as completely as shell-shock. We can recover ourselves only by forcing ourselves to face new ideas”.  Meanwhile, the people, cowed by a rule-obsessed ecclesiocracy, behaved like apple-lickers---people who, if tempted in the Garden of Eden, would (in the words of Seán O’Faoláin) have licked rather than bitten the apple”.

So we are back to Wilde’s question: what was that second idea, after the initial pose was abandonded? Some 1916 rebels thought they had got closer to it. Tom MacDonagh said that the mystic “seeks to express the things of God that are made known to him in no language”. This might be an explanation of the British complaint that whenever they came up with an answer, the Irish changed the question. That was because they had no real idea as to exactly what the question was---some sort of mystical republic beyond description in any available language. James Joyce spoke of the “uncreated conscience” of the race and said that the Irish middle class had yet to be made. Pearse, being Pearse, went farther:

               What if the dream come true? And if millions unborn shall dwell

               In the house that I shaped in my heart, the noble house of my thought?

This assigns a key role to the Unconscious, an imaginative surplus to be revealed only in the future…. in the Ireland of the coming times. Hamlet was a play known well to many rebels, in the course of which the Player King says:

               But orderly to end where I begun

               Our wills and faces do so contrary run

               That our devices still are overthrown;

               Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

The deed subverts its intended outcome; and the Unconscious does its will, bringing the people to a place they never expected to be. Or, as another Shakespearean king says “No thought is contented”, for it will seek its object in the strange and the new. If the people had known their destination to begin with, they would never have needed to go there.

One needs a self to narrate one’s story, but how can one presume to know a self until after the story is told? How can you represent the new in a language shop-soiled with messy precedents—the unknown in terms of the known? The fuzzy font of the Easter Proclamation represents the problem, as did O’Casey in keeping his rebels mostly offstage. The same question was put by W B Yeats in his play Resurrection: “What if there is always something that lies outside knowledge, outside order? What if at that moment when knowledge or order seem complete that something appears?”

So the fight was to be about MEANING---and it would seek an answer to a question never asked (for nobody had thought through the ramifications of a republic in the days of the Irish Parliamentary Party, just as nobody thought of a book like Ulysses in the era of realist novels). But, as in classic tragedy, the unaskable question, once put, would shatter all paradigms of the known world.  In order to act, the Irish had to forget or transcend many scruples based on the past and to move by intuition. They acted upon impulse, simply to discover what might happen next. And history, as Joyce thought it might, gave them a back kick.

I’ve noted that civil wars tend not to start or end on exact dates. Before she died, Joan Didion observed that the United States version was not yet over but carried forward into modern times by Trump’s hatred of Obama. One could say the same about the competitive behaviour of civil war parties in Ireland.

The effects of our Civil War have been massive. Silence was one. Emotional breakdown another----see McGahern’s Amongst Women for samples. Exile was a common reaction. Though de Valera accused emigrants of apostasy, many went to the US where their business skills flourished at a time when Ireland badly stood in need of such gifts. How often did one see a van bearing a name like “FX Brennan Est 1927” in New York and lament the loss to an Ireland filled with timid professional men, cautious professional men and few risk-taking entrepreneurs. As for the ranchers who replaced landlords, their role had been anticipated and foretold over a hundred years earlier, when Thady Quirk took over Castle Rackrent on terms most favourable to every middle-man who followed him.

Indeed the Civil War had multiple antecedents---if we wished, we could find them as far back as that internal strife of the twelfth century which led to the invasion of Ireland.

An amazing number of intellectuals, whether participant or not, were so disgusted by the vicious civil strife that they opted for various forms of emigration. Flann Campbell went to the US in 1925 and effectively founded Irish Studies there after the collapse of his marriage---Fordham University amalgamated his school into its English Department in 1932 and he stayed until 1939. Seán Ó Faoláin left for literary study and teaching at Harvard. Prison had allowed such figures to rethink their nationalist politics, as Frank O’Connor illustrated in his story “Guests of the Nation”, about the plight of men forced to kill those who have become their friends.

The losers of the Civil War were often socially disgraced and many found it hard to get regular work in their old trades----or indeed communion at some altar rails. Most were landless labourers and some went into the small-time pub trade. Not for them a large farm of rolling acres after the Land Acts. Yet the revolutionary spirit sweeping Europe after 1918 led them to understand that they were persons of consequence in their own right.

John McGahern, however, did not regard 1922 as a significant date: it was simply, he said, a moment when responsibility for managing the decline of  a rural Ireland passed from one elite to another. The emerging grazier class was more interested in land ownership than in land use….. and in securing enough affluence to place a son in a diocesan college or make another offspring an apprentice solicitor ----- people “killed with respectability” who could be relied upon to promote the appropriate ideology.

There were few to speak for the landless labourers—who left in great numbers. His utter lack of interest in the radical ideas of the Democratic Programme of 1919 meant that de Valera got fewer votes than he might have done in the early years of Fianna Fáil. Allegations that he was a Bolshevik put paid to all that. His idolator and biographer Dorothy McArdle finally rebuked him for timidity in 1937, lamenting in a letter that Ireland was now a necropolis.

By then George Russell, editor of The Irish Statesman, had decamped to England (where he helped P L Travers craft the tale of Mary Poppins) and thence to the US where he advised the administration during the “dustbowl years” on the merits of rural cooperation. His friend, Stephen MacKenna, the great translator of Plotinus, companion of Synge and editor of An Claidheamh Soluis, had also left for England. More than one in two persons born in the island afer 1900 were gone by the 1930s. What is remarkable is that so many with vibrant minds stayed---and made things so much better in the 1960s, with expressions of cultural self-belief linked to programmes for economic development.

Independence created immense possibilities for a country denied self-government for more than a century; but this exciting thought was tempered by the sense that things had changed mainly so that they could remain the same.  The Civil War had led to a distrust of anyone who made an idea or a scheme the basis for action. Science was not greatly esteemed in most schools; nor was literature, which had helped invent Ireland but now found itself often censored by the very country it helped to create. Science and poetry were all very well in their place, the authorities implied, but it was a subordinate place and “one could have too much of that kind of thing”.

The idea of a rights-based secular society which informed the Proclamation of 1916 and the Democratic Programme of 1919 was replaced by a narrowly-defined ethnic nationalism, notably in the 1937 Constitution. The Irish language ceased to feel like a recoverable gift and to many schoolchildren appeared more in the guise of a threat. Interdictions in schools tended to be barked out in the native language; and religion was reduced to a set of rules rather than a version of imaginative possibility.  “If we had more real religion, we might have less morals”, lamented W B Yeats; but few people really understood what he meant. The study of the Catechism of Catholic Doctrine and of the intricacies of grammar in the Irish language took up many hours of the school day. Teachers were encouraged to see themselves as the non-commissioned officers of the official church.

 As Ireland hovered between sovereign status and empire affiliate, it found itself caught in a posture of waiting----for full republican sovereignty, social democracy, economic lift-off, even spiritual renewal. “Do you believe in a life to come?” asks one of Beckett’s characters in Endgame, a play staged in 1957,  only to be told “Mine was always that”.  It would be many more decades before the full fruits of independence would be tasted in the 1960s and again in the 1990s, but even then only by a lucky minority.


Siobhra Aiken, Spiritual Wounds: Trauma, Testimony and the Irish Civil War, Irish Academic Press 2022

Terence Dooley, Burning the Big House: The Story of the Irish Country House in a Time of War and Revolution, Yale University Press 2022

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin ed., Joseph Campbell’s Prison Diary 1922-1923, Cork University Press 2001

Patrick O’Farrell, Ireland’s English Question, Oxford University Press 1971