Between Two Hells

Book Review by Frank O’Shea

BETWEEN TWO HELLS. The Irish Civil War. By Diarmaid Ferriter. Profile Books 2021. 328 pp. h/b €20.00

And there on the slopes of the Kerry hills, our love grew still more strong
And we watched the wrens on the yellow whins spill their thimblefuls of song.

Those lines are from Sigerson Clifford’s story of a young man and his Traveller friend from school days. The story ends some years later, when there was no longer a need for young men to have ‘a trench coat on my back and in my hands a gun.’ The final two lines of the poem hit like a brick:

The tinker’s son should be back again to the roads and the life he knew,
But I put a bullet through his brain in nineteen twenty-two.

The year gives the background to the story, the year when young men who, six months earlier would have put their lives on the line to help each other, now found themselves on opposite sides in a futile war about nothing. You won’t be long into this book by historian Diarmaid Ferriter when you realise that the important word in all of that is ‘war’.

Wherever they are waged, wars tend to bring out the worst in people; when the opponents are former comrades, that wickedness seems to be even more severe. Many of our readers come from families in which the parents or grandparents remembered the civil war: in almost all cases, it was a subject that was never spoken about. To give an idea of the reason, here is P S O’Hegarty in his 1924 book The Victory of Sinn Fein (re-issued in 1998),

… our deep-rooted belief that there was something in us finer than, more spiritual than anything in any other people, was sheer illusion, and that we were really an uncivilised people with savage instincts. And the shock of that plunge from the heights to the depths staggered the whole nation.

Although Ferriter dismisses this as ‘a sweeping overstatement’, there is plenty in the book to bear out the charge of ‘uncivilised people’ and, in a sense, it is possibly best that the many atrocities on both sides are stated as facts without editorial comment.

It is accepted that the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson – ‘an audacious killing on his London doorstep’ – forced Collins to start the bombardment of the Four Courts in June 1922, the start of the Civil War. The book is less a fight-by-fight, outrage-by-outrage account than a general overview of what happened in different parts of the country. Indeed, the reader is expected to have at least a general understanding of what the conflict was about and who the main opponents were.

While this is not a detailed account of the months between June 1922 and April 1923, the roles played by Collins, Mulcahy, O’Higgins and Cosgrave on the pro-Treaty side and Dev, Rory O’Connor, Liam Lynch and Frank Aiken on the other side are covered. Just as significant were the parts played by people like Brigadier Paddy O’Daly in Kerry and individual acts of cruelty by both sides, particularly in Kerry, but also in places like Waterford and Leitrim.

The author devotes a chapter to those he calls the Joans of Arc, the women of Cumann na mBan, all of whom sided with the anti-Treaty side, in many cases vociferously and usually with religious conviction. It also deals with the Catholic bishops, who, while remaining neutral, supported the Treaty.

The second – and longer – half of the book is devoted to the after-effects of the war, the slow return to normality and the long-lasting feuds that persisted until relatively recent times. There is a great deal of attention paid to the efforts of participants on both sides to gain pensions, based on the parts they played in the Civil War or the earlier war against the British. This brings the story right up to recent times where we meet people like Garret Fitzgerald and Charlie Haughey whose father held the rank of Commandant in the anti-Treaty army.

It would be fair to say that this book will mean most to those who come to it with a broad general knowledge of 20th century Irish history. With 66 pages of references and bibliography, it will also be a valuable starting point for further research. 

Frank is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.