Leabharlann na Meán


Paper by Professor Anne Dolan - Machnamh 100

3rd December, 2020

A coat can tell a lot about a man; not just whether he was clean, or he was careless, but with Thomas McGrath’s coat we can see that he was loved and that he’d be missed.[1]  Someone had sown a medal into the lining at the collar; someone had taken the trouble, someone wanted him minded, but the sainted medal didn’t bring him any luck.  A marriage certificate in his pocket said he had a wife for all of two months; while a scrap of paper pinned to his lapel said he met his maker knowing she would bear the burden of the letters that spelled out SPY. 

And we can know all this only from a coat. 

Torn pages found nearby show the attempts it took to write those three letters, S, P, and Y.  The crossed out, thrown away tries might say much of an unpractised or of a nervous, unsteady hand, but there is something more in all the times it took to get such a short word right. 

Bits of paper and a coat, like so many of all the other things that we can find, all the mixum gatherum of so very many lives in the Irish revolution, leave us with a choice.  It is a stark one perhaps for those who come to the period with the weight of a centenary, with the onus to commemorate, or to ‘cultivate memory as an instrument for the living’ as the President said.[2]  But it is a familiar one for most historians of the period: how do we choose to handle the violence at its heart?

The President’s plea for ‘ethical remembering’, is perhaps a timely prompt for historians of the period to reflect on their own priorities and practice.[3]  If we can get inside one man’s pocket, under the lining of his coat, we are clearly spoiled for the choice of pasts that we can bring into the light and we should be acutely conscious of the consequences of putting them in its glare.  We know we make mistakes; we come to the wrong conclusions, we doubt, and doubt drives us back again and again with none of the certainty of commemoration’s promise of remembrance, none of the urgency of a centenary’s one chance to get it right.  We worry away at the past whether it is the ninety-seventh, ninety-eighth or ninety-ninth anniversary; and we’ll still be there when most everyone else has forgotten the hundred and first. 

The Irish revolution is now a very different place to the one I first learned about; the students and historians I see working on it, driven by the richness of what we can now know, are undertaking thoughtful, engaging, challenging research that certainly doesn’t shy away from dealing with the hardest questions this past makes it possible for us to ask.  There are fewer who aspire to be ‘keepers of the flame’, more who think in terms of a global revolution than ‘who shot who in Cork’, and more who take their cue from the methods of a Stathis Kalyvas rather than the memoirs of a Tom Barry or a Dan Breen.[4]  Which is why the President’s paper gave me considerable pause for thought.  The challenges of commemoration he identifies seem older than I expected; they reflect or touch upon debates the historiography already knows are fundamental, debates that are already inherent and even somewhat outgrown, yet they still clearly underline current commemorative concerns.  We need only look to the vandalism at Glasnevin Cemetery’s commemorative wall for a second time in February 2020 for proof,[5] or to some of the ‘more than 200 messages’ the then Taoiseach received, one telling him he was ‘a treasonous Tory piece of ___’ well you can fill in the rest, when there was mention of a possible commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary in January this year.[6]  Which perhaps begs the question, if, as the President suggests, history is the ‘framework for what public remembering we choose to do’, could history be doing a slightly better job?[7] 

            The tension between history and commemoration is an old and hoary chestnut and I don’t intend to roll it out again here.  I know as the historian, I’m the luckier one: I’m not compelled to see if the past can fix us, and I’m blunt enough to think we only have ourselves to blame for what happens now.  But that said, even I can see how faded those wreaths laid in the Garden of Remembrance by President McAleese and Queen Elizabeth seem, how long ago those visits by Enda Kenny and David Cameron to Messines, to the Menin Gate now feel, and how all that talk of ‘shared histories’ and being ‘close as good neighbours should always be’ has been clamoured out by sharper, harsher sounds.[8]  Brexit, Brits and border polls are part of the vocabulary of a very different time.  

So, maybe history’s job is to make it harder to be so certain and so shrill.  Part of the problem is the register that commemoration seems to work in.  The President’s paper ends with reference to our ‘duty to honour and respect that past, and retrieve the heroic idealism that was at its heart.’[9]  Again, the historian has the easier task: I just have to try and see it for what it was.  The President has to forge his ‘hospitality of narratives’ but many of our narratives still seem tied to a centenary calendar packed with dates and events that a Countess Markievicz or a Michael Collins might have picked.[10]  If someone had marked the centenary of, say, the introduction of the old age pension in 2009 we might have actually found a moment of shared history, a moment that improved the lot of every person on this island and the next.  But in the centenary stakes the old age pension doesn’t set pulses racing and the anthems singing.  While that may seem a rather contrary point, it is a sort of fundamental one all the same: whose pasts are we interested in commemorating, and just how inclusive are we really prepared to be? 

If we accept that commemoration is largely concerned with the more obvious political moments, then the real challenge of ‘ethical remembering’ revolves around the violence of this past.  Who are we prepared to listen to when it comes to the violence of the period, and what are some of the consequences of that choice?  If we can make our way into the pocket of Thomas McGrath’s coat what does history and commemoration do with that?  So much of the evidence seems to suggest that the very basic things we take as certainties might be wrong.  In April 1922 John Gunn was disbanded from the RIC on a Thursday, made it back to Ennis, where he had been stationed for 27 years, to Ennis where he was to be married, and by Sunday he was shot dead.[11]  There were others killed like Gunn; others like John Haughey, given five days to quit the country who fled to London leaving a wife and eight children behind.[12]  For them and for many more, for those who fled and those who were fled from, there was none of the clarity about where one war ended and another began that we now seem so sure of.  The more we see of the records the more the distinctions begin to blur.  Irishmen killed Irish men and women throughout the period from 1916 onwards; there is a quality to the violence of the civil war that is clearly to be found in the years that had just gone before.  The truce period as we traditionally know it – those months from July 1921 to June 1922 can only be conceived as peaceful if we turn a blind eye to the continued use of violence, if we over look those who go missing, those shot and killed, those driven out, those local settlings of old scores.  Also, the sequence of events we accept from 1918 onwards – through the war of independence (and we cannot even agree on a title for that), through the truce, through the civil war – makes no sense if we follow what becomes Northern Ireland’s trajectory of violence.  Violence increases there during the truce period; it eases but continues through 1922 and 1923; but it never really gets included in what we define as the Irish civil war.  There is a messiness about the whole period, a quality to the violence that makes for many civil wars, civil wars that bleed beyond the margins we have largely drawn for a kind of chronological convenience, so we can set our wars apart, classify them all neat and tidily away.  And that is just the margins of the easy parts. 

The history of violence, the kinds of questions historians have been asking of violence for many years now, take us more and more to the experience of violence itself, to its meanings, to the sense of what violence asked of those who fought, to what it did to those who suffered in its wake.  And the Military Service Pensions Collection is showing us, as we have never really seen before, the participants’ sense of what was done and at what costs.  In August 1924 Michael White wrote to W.T. Cosgrave to remind him ‘I have lost a lot by fighting for my country’; and while it would serve to put his sentiments down to anger and frustration with the state of poverty he found himself in, there is the history of something else here at work, the history of the used up and the disappointed, the history of something, perhaps a feeling, that the best of everything is behind you, and that you deeply want it to be someone else’s fault.  In May 1935, at the age of thirty-eight, Edward Devitt put it this way: ‘During the years 1918-1923 I gave all my attention and time to the cause of the Republic.  The most important years of a man’s life, between the age of 21 & 26, I let slip without thinking of my future, depending on my country to look after me in case of need’.[13]  And thirteen pounds, one shilling and a penny per annum was all he got for what he thought he’d lost.  Maybe I’m suggesting a history of resignation, maybe even a history of regret, but regret, not so much for what had been done or with what they had been asked to do, but rather with what life after had not gone on to become.  Decades of ambivalence is a much more interesting force to reckon with than the public stories of heroics shined up like the medals for every Easter parade.  Ambivalence is much more difficult to commemorate.

Inclusiveness is not just about who we are prepared to hear but also what we are prepared to hear them say.  Charles Dalton is a fascinating example of the nature of telling, of what he felt he could and couldn’t say, of how versions evolve, of the compunction to tell over and over again.  And he certainly had plenty of chances to tell: Dalton was interviewed by Ernie O’Malley, he gave a Bureau of Military History Statement, he made his pension application, and he wrote a memoir, With the Dublin Brigade, published in 1929.[14]  While his memoir acknowledged the overwhelming impulse to flee what had been done on Bloody Sunday morning – ‘I started to run.  I could no longer control my overpowering need to run, to fly, to leave far behind me those threatening streets’, that later, as he put it, ‘before the altar, I thought over our morning’s work, and offered up a prayer for the fallen’, his public Bloody Sundays were very different to his private ones, that for all he did not want to tell, there was more others did not want to really hear.[15]  But the challenges of the sources go beyond that.  Charles Dalton comes to us from the pages of his pension application, where we find him for a time a patient in St Patrick’s and Grangegorman hospitals, as a victim of what he was made to do, barely even an actor in his own wars.  But while he strikes a sympathetic figure in his own application, so too do the parents of Eamonn Hughes when an application was made on their behalf for a dependents’ allowance.  Described as ‘both broken down completely physically and mentally’, Mark Hughes was the clerk who could no longer work, Annie Hughes the music teacher who could no longer teach, because their teenage son had been killed, possibly by Charles Dalton, on 7 October 1922.  In 1933 the Pension Board was requested not to even send letters about the application to their home because over a decade after they still could not bear the mention of their son’s death.[16]  Is commemoration agile enough to accommodate all the hurt in all of that? 

The President’s plea for the inclusion of marginalised voices, is particularly striking in terms of how he frames the inclusion of women.  (As the only woman here among five men, I feel obliged to say that there are far more women then, as well as now, to find.)  Do we want to know of Mary Herlihy who helped keep Mrs Lindsay captive in the weeks before she was killed by the IRA;[17] of Annie Watters as she recalled before a military court in June 1921 how she watched her two sons die, how she heard the shots fired into their bodies?  Do we want to hear her voice as she identified their remains, confirming their ages – nineteen, twenty-one – is it easier to let her voice fade away and stay with the politics of whose side the Watters boys were on?[18]  Do we want to know of Kate Maher because she was used up by a group of British soldiers in December 1920 and left for dead on a patch of waste ground?[19]  Will we remember all the women dragged into things they had no desire to be part of, by husbands, sons, brothers, by being in the wrong place at precisely the wrong time, like Kate Burke hit by the shatter of a bomb while on her few days’ holidays in Dublin in April 1921?  Can we include the many more men and women who lived in a world around revolution, who avoided it when they could, who worked and lived in its midst, who can be readily found in its records if we choose to look?  What of Alexander Allan, a 50-year-old widower with eight sons, who was killed in Belfast keen to get to the second house performance, rushing to the Empire Theatre after a week in the shipyards, after a week with all those boys.[20]  What of the commercial traveller who took his own life because the Belfast Boycott had left him without work?[21]  It is in their midst that we might have the best chance at finding that which is shared, that which is most ‘hospitable’ about this past.  Even if it is because of the records generated by violence that we can find them, it is the many ‘mundane amicable interactions’, the ‘everyday accommodations’ people made across the things that divided them that, when it came to it, meant that our wars were never as bad as they might have been.[22]  Sometimes in a history of violence, as E.P. Thompson says, ‘it is the restraint, rather than the disorder, which is remarkable’.[23]  It might be time to give the history and commemoration of restraint a try.


[1] Tipperary inquests 1923.

[2] Draft, p. 24.

[3] Draft, p. 5.

[4] Niall Whelehan, ‘Playing with scales: transnational history and modern Ireland’ in Niall Whelehan (ed.), Transnational perspectives on modern Irish history (Abingdon, 2015), p. 15.

[5] Irish Times, 6 Feb. 2020.

[6] Irish Times, 12 Feb. 2020.

[7] Draft., p. 4.

[8] Brian Cowen etc.; Speech by Queen Elizabeth II, Irish Times, 18 May 2011.

[9] Draft, p. 23.

[10] Draft, pp. 2-3.

[11] Co. Clare Inquests; Cork Examiner, 27 April 1922.

[12] Private Accessions, NAI, 99/46.

[13] Edward Devitt to the Army Pension Board, 28 May 1935, Edward Devitt, MSP, MSP34REF2211, WDP2055EdwardDevitt.pdf

[14] Charles Dalton, Ernie O’Malley notebooks, UCDA, p17b/122; Charles Dalton, BMH WS 434; Charles Dalton, With the Dublin brigade (London, 1929).

[15] Dalton, With the Dublin brigade, pp 106, 108.

[16] MAI, MSPC, DP4559 Eamonn Patrick Hughes.

[18] TNA, WO35/160, Patrick and John Watters, June 1921.

[19] TNA, WO35/155b, Kate Maher, Dec. 1920.

[20] TNA, WO35/148, Alexander Allan, March 1921.

[21] TNA, WO35/149b, James Gass, May 1921.

[22] Stuart Carroll, ‘The rights of violence’, Past & Present, supplement 7 (2012), p. 139.

[23] E.P. Thompson, ‘The moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century’, Past & Present, no. 50 (Feb. 1971), p. 112.