“Rooted in a desire to understand” – Between Two Hells by Diarmaid Ferriter

IMG_2022-6-20-104239Diarmaid Ferriter’s Between Two Hells looks at the Irish Civil War, its origins and, most notably, how the conflict has survived into the present. The Civil War began in June 1922, came to an end in 1923 but, arguably, the division created by the Civil War survived until 2020.

The Irish Civil War began in June 1922 and grew out of the Treaty that ended the Irish War of Independence. One side supported accepting the terms offered by the British government while others refused to accept those terms. The war was fought over what constituted the independence that had been fought for. Michael Collins, who supported acceptance of the Treaty, pointed out that “no one has ever defined a republic” while those opposed to the Treaty viewed the freedom they had fought for in the vaguest terms, “Ireland is spirit.” By April 1923 the conflict was over, but “there was no agreed or negotiated peace to end the civil war.” So, it continued in the political parties that grew from this division, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. They would swap being the party of government between them until 2020 when they were finally forced into a coalition government in response to the electoral success of Sinn Fein. As becomes clear from Ferriter’s account, the two parties barely differed in policy or beliefs, for a century they drew support on where their voters had once stood on something that happened decades before. Even in the 1980s Irish politicians would attack each other for the role their opponent’s father (or grandfather) had played in a Civil War that had been over for generations.

Only 1,300 died in the Civil War. That such a relatively small number died, in comparison to the Spanish Civil War (for instance), is attributed by Ferriter to the lack of ethnic and religious divisions in Ireland. Though, there was an area of Ireland with significant religious division, the counties that would become Northern Ireland. Ferriter outlines how little thought was given to Northern Irish Catholics, “abandoned by all sides”, and ominously observes that “the sense of abandonment endured.” Its consequences continue today.

As always with Ferriter, he digs into the archives. No other historian makes better use of contemporary records or has the happy ability to read the lived experience of participants from statistics. Ferriter presents history as the individual experiences of millions.

Throughout this wonderfully observed history reflects the events of 2021 (or even 2016). It is difficult not to see the parallels between the Civil War and Brexit, one side’s assertions of the primacy of national sovereignty against the dull acceptance of compromise. Northern Ireland plays an almost identical, and problematic, role in both. Lloyd George worried that it may ruin the negotiations to end the Irish War of Independence, in a sentiment that Boris Johnson may have shared about Brexit, Ulster “divides British opinion at home… consolidates American opinion against us.”

Between Two Hells provides Ferriter’s trademark striking, and entertaining, detail. He reveals that there was a proposal to send prisoners from the anti-Treaty side to St Helena and vividly illustrates the continuing bitterness felt by many after the civil war with the story of Michael D. Higgins (currently Ireland’s President) and his father’s feeling of “betrayal” at being imprisoned during the Civil War. It is also a fascinating account of how this independent Ireland would develop over the twentieth century, its progress a result of its conservatism, “the revolution had not been social or economic.” The divide created by the Civil War allowed the two parties of government to follow the same policies without suffering any loss of their voters to the other side. It made for a stifling conformity until recent decades but ensured no lingering political violence.

Any Cop?: Ferriter’s history is always rooted in a desire to understand what has created the present, the awareness of the competing motives behind events and the power of those events to take on a momentum of their own. Between Two Hells is another of his remarkable explorations of what has created modern Ireland, rooting out the legacy of past events in contemporary conflicts.

James Doyle

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