A small story

by Henry Farrell on July 17, 2016

This Granta article, which I came across via The Browser, talks about the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and family memories thereof. It reminded me of a small story that I meant to write about when the Easter Rising had its 100th anniversary a few months ago, but didn’t quite get around to. My grand-uncle Seamus, who died about 20 years ago, told me once that when he had been a small boy, he had wanted to go to a big parade of the Irish Volunteers with his older brothers (his father was nominally the Commander-in-Chief of the organization) but wasn’t allowed to, because he was too little. However, shortly after they had all left, Patrick Pearse called by the house, saw my grand-uncle crying, and picked him up and carried him into the center, to watch the parade on his shoulders. Obviously, this was an entirely trivial incident in itself, but its very ordinariness brought home to me how Pearse, despite all the posthumous mythologization and/or vilification, was an ordinary human being, who saw a child in distress, and wanted to comfort him.



JW Mason 07.18.16 at 10:01 pm

Interesting article. What books would people recommend on this period of Irish history? I know next to nothing about the Irish war of independence or the civil war.


Conor 07.18.16 at 10:36 pm

Tim Pat Coogan’s books on Michael Collins and on deValera. Micháil Martins book on the civil politics of Cork in that era.


Ronan(rf) 07.18.16 at 10:42 pm

Charles townshends “the republic” is a good introduction.
Peter Hart “the Ira at war” and Bill kissane “the politics of the irish civil war” would probably need more background knowledge, but are more political science in nature (looking at causes, occupational structure /geography of revolutionaries, international context etc) and the most insightful books I’ve come across on it.
Roy foster’s “vivid faces” Is pretty good as well, but more a narrative history about segments of the revolutionaries.
There are a lot of local histories these days, the best (vaguely) in that area that I know is probably Fergus Campbell ( Land and Revolution: Nationalist Politics in the West of Ireland 1891-1921 )
Also various books by ferghal mcgharry, Joost Augusteijn, Ann Matthews, Tom Garvin, senia paseta, Michael laffan…. Kieran allen and Geoffrey bells new books might be decent from a left perspective (I haven’t read either yet )


Frank Wilhoit 07.18.16 at 11:50 pm

George Dangerfield, The Damnable Question.

On a related note, and purely categorically, with respect to the class of anecdotes to which this one belongs, why is it thought important to “humanize” historical actors in this manner? What additional insight into Pearce’s motivations or actions, in or prior to 1916, do we gain? It smacks of the “Great Man” category of historical interpretation, which one would have thought was quite sufficiently discredited.


Maria 07.19.16 at 8:41 am

Lovely story, Hen. Thanks – I hadn’t known that one.

Frank, I think stories that go against the grain are useful. You could even argue they challenge grand narratives rather than uphold them.


Annaick Farrell 07.19.16 at 9:07 am

Hen, lovely story- I vaguely remember someone telling it at home alright.

Do you recall another one about during the Irish War of Independence , Brian and Turlough (if I am right) both came home from opposing sides of the civil war for Easter weekend to the house in Dublin, to stay under the same roof and celebrate the weekend with their family? Details are hazy but it is also pretty interesting to consider how normalcy still plodded on alongside the terrors of it all.


In the sky 07.19.16 at 1:30 pm

Tim Pat Coogan’s books on Michael Collins and on deValera. Micháil Martins book on the civil politics of Cork in that era.

I would recommend JJ Lee’s excellent Ireland 1913-1987 to anyone looking for an introduction much quicker than Tim Pat’s stuff.


Maria 07.19.16 at 1:40 pm

Nicks, I remember that one. I don’t know if it was Easter weekend – I had the idea it was during that summer – but at some point Athair was called in to a cabinet meeting or some urgent matter, and Brian, who was fighting against the government, drove him into town from Rathfarnham in a commandeered car.


Henry 07.19.16 at 3:48 pm

I can’t recommend Ernie O’Malley’s “On Another Man’s Wound” highly enough – an unrecognized classic of guerrilla war literature.


Conor 07.19.16 at 5:25 pm

I’ll accept your views on Coogan, but Martin is surprisingly good.


EWI 07.19.16 at 6:07 pm

JJ Lee’s work certainly over Tim Pat Coogan’s, which has had Myers-ian levels of difficulty with verifying anecdotes. Foster, as befits someone from that background, is obsessed with the middle classes (to say nothing of Ann Matthews with the unfortunate Constance Markievicz, who has done nothing to justify the level her treatment here). I also always found Townshend to be rather sneering and condescending, rather like an English Tory might.

The best sources are the accounts left by these men and women themselves. The Bureau of Military History files have been digitised and made available online. Some icons are treated unkindly by their contemporaries, putative presidents of the Irish Volunteers included.


EWI 07.19.16 at 6:10 pm

Of course, then we come to the late Mr. Hart, whose works have not been treated kindly by more honest and rigorous academics.


Ronan(rf) 07.19.16 at 6:23 pm

Whatever about his claims in the “ira and its enemies”, “the ira at war” is a good book. Foster obviously has his biases and preferences, but his new book is decent, even if he wouldn’t be my favourite historian in a lot of ways. Townshend’s book is well worth reading imo. Is there a better up to date introduction ?


Suzanne 07.19.16 at 6:45 pm

Seconding the recommendations of The Damnable Question and On Another Man’s Wound. Tom Barry’s Guerrilla Days in Ireland (spelled “Guerilla”) is also good reading.

I like Frank O’Connor’s biography of Collins, a vivid evocation of the man and the period, and short enough to be a good introduction to the subject.

Also recommend Pakenham’s Peace by Ordeal, if you ever decide you want to delve deeper into the Treaty negotiations.

@4: I suppose the value of these small human touches lies in reminding us that the “great men” are just people. I always liked a story about Parnell that also involves a child. Parnell was deeply superstitious. (He had a phobia about the color green, a pretty serious issue for an Irish nationalist.) One evening he was at a dinner party and when everyone was seated he was perturbed upon noticing that the diners numbered thirteen. The host’s young son was forced to leave the table so Parnell could eat. Parnell felt bad about that, so he called the boy back and had him seated next to himself – but not at the table – and paid him special attention during the meal.


Tomatis 07.19.16 at 7:54 pm

I heartily endorse the recommendation above of “On Another Man’s Wound” and add my own for “The Singing Flame”, which covers the slide into civil war and eventual defeat; a tremendous self-portrait of a fanatic mind. The scene where O’Malley and his fellow jihadis in the Four Courts receive General Absolution won’t leave you in a hurry


JW Mason 07.19.16 at 7:58 pm

Thanks all. Ordered some books. The quality of responses to a query like this is one of the great things about this blog.


Jim Buck 07.19.16 at 8:19 pm

My maternal grandfather fought for “the rights of small nations” between 1914-1919. He was happy enough to help pound the German trenches with ordinance, but not stupid enough to walk towards the machine-guns. Nevertheless, he took 3 bullets rescuing a mate off the wire. Returning to County Cork, he threw away his uniform but kept hold of his Military Medal. Of course, he joined the lads as Lieutenant and Quartermaster. He happened to be reclining in a turnip field outside Killorglin when the Tans came rooting the fields for Barry’s bold men. Good job it was Tommy stumbled stumbled upon grandda. “Hello Tommy!”
“Sarge! Fancy seeing you here!”
“Just having a lie-in here, Tommy.”
“Sweet dreams, Sarge.’

When Ireland was freed, and the spoils were divvied up, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker all got their share. Jeremiah who’d donned the king’s uniform got fuck all. Good job the British Legion sent parcels–otherwise I may not have been here to tap this. And when my mother came back, after 2 years at the Magdalene , my grandda walked across the town—like he’d walked across no-man’s land—to carry my sister home.


Ronan(rf) 07.19.16 at 8:29 pm

The claims made about the treatment of British soldiers in the new state is overstated



Ronan(rf) 07.19.16 at 8:35 pm

(Although apologies for the bluntness of the comment before the link. My kindle keeps freezing which makes typing at length difficult. The more general point is true though, afaik, that some of the more ott claims made about British soldiers treatment in the free state don’t seem to be supported by the evidence. At a general/societal level)


Jim Buck 07.19.16 at 8:56 pm

Thanks for the apology, and for the link.


EWI 07.19.16 at 9:01 pm


The scene where O’Malley and his fellow jihadis in the Four Courts receive General Absolution won’t leave you in a hurry

‘Jihadis’, really? *insert eyeroll here*

Ronan(rf) is correct. The ex-British Tommies were comparatively well looked after (and certainly in comparison to neutral or anti-Treaty IRA, who got nothing under the Free State).


bruce wilder 07.19.16 at 10:06 pm

I read with interest the review Ronan(rf) linked to @ 18.

That review ends with this disconcerting note: [The author, Taylor] “also says that only thirteen rebels were executed in 1916. This review is based on the assumption that the other data used is accurate.”


Ronan(rf) 07.19.16 at 11:12 pm

My understanding* is veterans weren’t systematically discriminated against in the new state . A lot of the economic problems they faced were more general problems of being poor in ireland, and veterans were disproportionately more likely to come from poor backgrounds.
Whether they were targeted during the revolution, afaik, isn’t really knowable at the minute to support the claims that some journalists and historians make (that they were a “targeted class” etc) The historian Eunan o halpin is writing a book that catalogues all the dead during the revolutionary period (or at least up to the truce) which might give some insight into it, though afaict reading interviews he has done on it, it’s very difficult to work out motive, ie when sectarianism/politics/land/personal grudges etc were responsible for the victimisation. In some ways it’s disingenuous to use the impossibility of proving a trend to argue against what was definitely an individual reality (a disproportionate number of service men were killed,we know some were targeted because of their service) but a number of the claims about how widespread it was seem overstated.
It’s true that the state, particularly as the years went on, was reluctant to commemorate the war dead but (1) a lot of commemoration was fraught in ireland (2) again the extent to which this is true is overstated, particularly when you look at the micro level (how different counties, communities, families remembered those who fought) There’s a lot more diversity than some of the more ideologically driven irish commentators claim.
I am genuinely sorry though for my reaction to Jim, which on re reading (again) did come across as overly dismissive (which I didn’t mean it to be, as I don’t doubt the personal experience)


Ronan(rf) 07.19.16 at 11:13 pm

I should have added the (*) which is ; “my understanding” could be completely off base.


Tomatis 07.20.16 at 9:36 am

to complicate matters further, a fair number served both in the British Army in WWI and in the Volunteers/IRA afterward. Emmet Dalton and the killers of Sir Henry Wilson spring to mind in this regard.


EWI 07.20.16 at 10:51 am

So, Tomakis @#25

Were they jihadis while in the British Army? Does glorious sacrifice for king, country and empire count? Also, by this stage it’s accepted that Wilson’s killer was ultimately Michael Collins, who was trying to be on both sides of the Treaty.

Ronan(rf) @#23

O’Halpin has a real grá for NATO and the British Army (i’ve heard him speak in person, off the cuff), so I’ll withhold judgement. There was no targetting of individual ex-British servicemen that I’m aware of – suspected spies and informers excepted, of course.

A number of post-WWI schemes for housing, etc. for ex-British servicemen still went ahead after independence for 26 counties, the British Legion had resources like nothing given on the Irish side (unless you had pro-Treaty IRA service, a rarer thing than anti- or having been neutral) and that relatively massive British war memorial in Uslandbridgewas constructed by the Irish government in those years.

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