Queen’s University Belfast lecturer Síobhra Aiken has detailed the 100-year history of how officially and collectively sanctioned silence about the Irish Civil War is regularly pierced by the silence breakers who have documented the “unspeakable war.” Aiken’s new book, Spiritual Wounds: Trauma, Testimony and the Irish Civil War (Irish Academic Press), also notes the irony that recent generations of silence breakers are often unaware they belong to such a lineage because the earlier efforts have been forgotten.
The June 1922 to May 1923 war sparked by the Irish republican split over the Anglo-Irish Treaty has notoriously been absent from Irish school texts and memoirs, Aiken said. Ireland’s “Decade of Centenaries” commemorations of the revolutionary period originally was to end this year, excluding the civil war. But public outcry resulted in an extension that is allowing the country to grapple with its legacy through next year.
“The paradox of intentionally forgetting is that it ensures attention,” Aiken said during her Oct. 25 lecture for the Irish Studies program at Boston College. This has typically been accomplished over the century through autobiographical novels and other works of fiction, many of them created by women. But these sources have been overlooked or dismissed by the “strong gatekeeping” of mainstream historians and more established male writers, she said.
Some of the works Aiken citied include: Tragedies of Kerry, 1922-1923, by Dorothy Macardle, 1924; Legion of the Rearguard, by Francis Carty, 1934; The Bitter Glass, by Eilís Dillon, 1958; and The Scorching Wind, by Walter Macken, 1966. More Irish writers have tackled the civil war since the new century began, aided by access to digital resources such as the Bureau of Military History and Military Service Pension Collection. Contemporary writer Orna Ross (Aine McCarthy), who has written about the civil war, has said that “silence is always a magnet.”
Aiken noted that more of the narratives come from the defeated, anti-treaty side, rather than those who supported the new 26-county Irish Free State. Works from the prevailing side are generally more disillusioned than pro-government or triumphalist. Aiken also acknowledged that in Irish politics, intentional forgetting played a role in helping to maintain stability and allow the state to move forward.
Spiritual Wounds is based on Aiken’s doctoral research at the University of Galway, which was awarded the American Conference for Irish Studies Adele Dalsimer Prize for Distinguished Dissertation in 2021.