It is the centenary of the judicial murder of four prisoners by the Irish Free State. The killings were the first of dozens that were to follow in the government’s pursuit of its struggle against the Irregulars, the Anti-Treaty forces, the Republicans.
A man whom I came to know well would recount stories of the bitter days of the Irish Civil War. Sitting one day at his bedside in Nenagh Hospital, he recounted, in a clear and strong voice, a recollection of the times.
“They were going to shoot him.”
“Sssssshhh,” said his daughter.
“But they were. His old, blind mother was brought out of the house. They told her that she had to witness the shooting.”
“Who was going to shoot him? What had he done?”
“The IRA were going to shoot him, of course. They said he was a traitor.”
“Someone ran for the priest. He came and told them that the man had done nothing wrong, that he was innocent. They listened to the priest and went away”
“Had someone accused him falsely?”
The incident would have been one he heard being described by neighbours sitting in the kitchen. It was an incident that impressed itself so vividly upon the mind of a four year old child that, ninety-five years later, it could be recalled in a hospital bed.
The reaction to the telling of the story, the instinct to hush the narrator, suggested that these stories still have a dangerous dimension, still have the potential to raise a row, to cause division and controversy. The official narrative of the times might have been written long ago, but at a local level, there were questions remaining.
The story told of a scene that was not untypical at the times, even the Free State forces were not averse to simply shooting someone for whom the developed a dislike. The brutality displayed, the dragging of the old mother from the cottage was part of a tactic of terror, it instilled fear in communities, inhibited those who might have been likely to have dissented from the cause, or even cooperated with the enemy.
A significant element in the story seemed to be the presence of the priest. Those who went for him must have had some confidence that he would be able to prevent the killing; those who desisted from their plans for murder must have respected the authority of the priest. If the church could exert such influence, why did it not do so more frequently? Was it that there were clerical sympathies for the Anti-Treaty forces, sympathy even for those who perpetrated acts of violence?
And the false accusation, how bitter must someone be to make an unfounded allegation in the knowledge that such words might cost someone their life? Does such bitterness still persist? Is the Civil War still being waged?