Between Two Hells: the Irish Civil War

I am always perplexed by political commentators who suggest that the possibility of Northern Ireland being reunited with Éire or Scotland becoming independent as a result of Brexit puts us in ‘uncharted waters’, and that the Union has never faced such challenges.

That is nonsense: we have been here before, and in Diarmaid Ferriter’s excellent work on the Irish Civil War, the bloody convolutions of a century ago are laid bare, while, at the same time, hinting at today’s parallels.

There must have been two serious temptations for the author. The first would have been to attempt to explain the events and tensions that eventually led to the Civil War from too far back in history. Clearly, the doings of King John, Cromwell et al. are relevant, but they would detract from the rhythm of the book.

So it is both a strength and a weakness of this book that a degree of familiarity with the storms of 1916 and the Tan War are assumed. But this does allow the author to dig deeply into the events of late 1921 onwards without distraction.

Second, Professor Ferriter does not get caught up in the crack and thump of individual battles and skirmishes. As the author says himself, he leaves that to others. The result is more a political and social history than a purely military one – and, as such, it neatly and expertly fills a serious gap in recent analysis.

Crucially, the author points out that a slew of other civil wars were plaguing Europe at about the same time. Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and other countries were engulfed in internal conflicts sown by the Great War – but rather more bloodily than in Ireland. It is as well to be reminded of the relatively modest cost of Ireland’s bloodletting, and for the very definition of it as a ‘war’ to be questioned.

The ideology and politics of the combatants are cleverly examined, with more emphasis being placed on personal affiliations and the raw leadership that saw troops following personalities rather than ideas, and with much score-settling alongside simple belief in a cause.

The period that led up to the first shells being fired at Dublin’s Four Courts in June 1922, signalling the start of open warfare, is splendidly handled. The general election in Ireland, the assassination of General Henry Wilson in London, Churchill’s manoeuvring, and the pressure that Britain brought on the pro-Treaty elements to act decisively against the anti-Treaty parties and the IRA are clearly described, underlining just how influential Westminster still was in ‘independent’ Irish affairs.

Similarly, there is an illuminating chapter on the conduct and discipline of both the National Army and the IRA as the fighting became more guerrilla in style. Drunkenness and casual murder seems to have been endemic on both sides, with the term ‘new Black and Tans’ being applied equally.

But it is the later chapters of the first part of this book that make it so valuable. Ferriter steers a clear-sighted course through the ‘fizzling out’ of the fighting and the deeply unsatisfactory resolution of the Treaty, and ongoing relations with London: it is a pleasure to read.

Part II is longer than Part I, and it deals in a fascinating way with the personal, political, and social consequences of the fighting. Emigration, pensions, the part played by women, mental breakdowns, thirst, and starvation are all examined in a most unusual but gripping epilogue.

These chapters make a beautifully written conclusion to a book that will deepen anyone’s understanding of these frantic months. The whole book, though, underscores the quote by P J Moloney – a Sinn Féin TD – that ‘we have been manoeuvred into a position where we have to choose between two hells’.

Review by Patrick Mercer

Between Two Hells: the Irish Civil War, Diarmaid Ferriter, Profile Books, hbk (£20), ISBN 978-1788161749.