Women who boldly bore witness to the events of the Irish Civil War – The Irish Times
Annie MP Smithson published her twelfth novel, The Marriage of Nurse Harding, in 1935. At this point, Smithson needed no introduction: her fast-paced, strongly nationalistic romance novels attracted an audience loyal readership across Ireland.
Typical of many of her novels, The Marriage of Nurse Harding addresses socioeconomic and religious barriers to romance through its presentation of the fragile courtship between Protestant landowner Victor Hewdon and Catholic nurse Nora Harding.
However, The Marriage of Nurse Harding has a historical and testimonial dimension beyond its stereotypical plot of star-crossed lovers. Sections of the novel describe Nurse Harding’s role in the Civil War, during which she tends to wounded Republican soldiers at the Doran Hotel while it is besieged by Free State soldiers during the Battle of Dublin in June 1922.
After the defeated Republicans withdraw from the capital, Harding is sent on a cross-country Red Cross expedition for the anti-treaty side. When the group of travelers are stopped outside the Midlands town of “Margallin”, she finds herself held at gunpoint by a Free State trooper with shaking hands. Harding is then put into a van that a Free State patrol accidentally fires on in a friendly fire case. The Free State sergeant seated across from her is shot as Nurse Harding watches.
Tablot Press argued in publicity material that the novel presented “an authentic picture of the tragic events of the Irish Civil War of 1922”. Indeed, these descriptions of civil war-torn Dublin were nothing more than a very loosely fictionalized record of the author’s real-life experience. Smithson was born into a middle-class Protestant family in Dublin, but converted to Catholicism in her mid-thirties in 1907 and took a strong interest in nationalist politics. In 1916 she resigned from her nursing position in Dundrum and moved to Waterford, where she trained as a nurse at the local branch of Cumann na mBan. By early 1922 she was back in Dublin and active in the central branch of Cumann na mBan.
Even if readers were unaware of Smithson’s groundbreaking background, they didn’t have to look far to see the historical facts hidden in his romantic fiction. Doran’s Hotel was clearly identifiable as Moran’s Hotel, one of the main anti-Treaty garrisons at the start of the civil war in Dublin, while Margallin is practically an anagram of Mullingar, where Smithson was arrested and briefly interned by pro-Treaty troops. treaty.
Smithson’s IRA comrades are given similarly flimsy disguises: Dr Bobby Givor refers to Captain Bobby Holmes Ievers, then a medical student, while Tom Miley – described as “from one of the most ultra -Dublin Unionists” – is the brother of RM Smyllie, later editor of The Irish Times.
If there was any doubt about the text’s authenticity, Smithson’s later memoir, Myself – and Others (1944), refers readers to the novel for an account of the Civil War period. His application for a military service pension, initially denied in 1942, also corroborates the events depicted in the novel.
The fact that Smithson used fiction rather than autobiography to document his experience underscores the taboo surrounding the events of the Civil War and the sense of protection offered by even this thin veil of fiction.
Through her fiction, Smithson was able to not only document her experience, but also critique the fact that Republican women were forced by their male comrades to evacuate their positions as the Battle of Dublin drew to a close. This criticism is less explicit in her later autobiography, in comparison to fictional Nurse Harding’s outrage that they “should be told to leave him – to go away just because they were women.”
Smithson’s retirement from fiction to address the Civil War was far from an isolated event. Despite the persistent belief that the events of the Irish Civil War were shrouded in silence, revolutionary veterans found many ways to document, and perhaps exorcise, their experiences of the turbulent period of 1922-23.
Autobiographical novels proved particularly popular with revolutionary veterans in the 1920s and 1930s. This reflects both the popularity of various forms of fictionalized autobiography at the time and also the narrative freedom offered by fiction in a climate of defamation and censorship. The examples are many and noteworthy: Francis Carty chose to tease his anti-Treaty experience at Wexford in the novel Legion of the Rearguard (1934), while Free State soldier Patrick Mulloy warned future generations against Civil War “sadism” in his banned novel Jackets Green (1936). The form of the novel was also useful in addressing both views of the Civil War split: IRA volunteer Martin T Henry published a romance novel in 1929, Ambushed Lovers, which ends by reconciling the pro and anti-treaty sides in a double marriage. .
Yet these illuminating writings, including Smithson’s novel, have been overlooked in historical scholarship to date.
The cover-up of fiction was particularly appealing to revolutionary women. While the men documented their revolutionary experience in widely read autobiographies, women activists often struggled to find publishers. Some of the most important women’s memoirs of the time were only published posthumously, such as Countess Markievicz’s Prison Letters (1932), Kathleen Clarke’s Autobiography (1991, edited by Helen Litton) and the memoirs of Máire Comerford (serialized in Irish in the 1980s but only made available in the English original in 2021 through the editorial work of Hilary Dully).
Given the many challenges faced by revolutionary women in a commemorative culture that privileges stories by men, it is perhaps unsurprising that by the end of the 1930s women’s fictionalized accounts of the Civil War outweigh the number of standard autobiographies.
In some cases, the personal testimony buried in fiction can be difficult to decipher. For example, the 1939 collection of Gothic short stories by Máiréad Ní Ghráda An Bheirt Dearbhráthar agus Scéalta Eile [The Two Brothers and Other Stories] includes a female character of Co Clare who is an active Gaelic Leaguer and student at Dublin University. This reflects the author’s own journey. Ní Ghráda was briefly imprisoned in Mountjoy in November 1919 for selling Gaelic League flags on Grafton Street and for refusing to speak English when arrested. She then served as personal secretary to pro-Treaty government minister Ernest Blythe throughout the Civil War.
Ní Ghráda is best known for her play An Triail [The Trial] (1964) who boldly confronts the silence surrounding the institutionalization of single mothers. However, his early short stories also challenged the officially sanctioned silence by confronting the lingering legacies of the Irish Civil War (evident in the evocation of the brother against brother motif in the title of the collection).
The story An tOifigeach (The Officer) tells the story of a rural mother who diligently harbors fleeing volunteers throughout the struggle for independence. However, when she travels to Dublin to visit her son who is now an officer in the Free State Army, he is so ashamed of his mother’s poor appearance that he pretends not to see her. recognize. There is little ambiguity here: the institutions of the new state are a hostile place for these women who have sacrificed so much for “the cause”.
This criticism is all the more ironic since An Bheirt Dearbhráthar agus Scéalta Eile was published by the government office for publications, Oifig an tSoláthair. Like the poetry of Máire Mhac an tSaoi which would certainly have been banned had it been published in English in the 1950s, the Ní Ghráda collection arguably benefited from the protection offered by the Irish language.
Máirín Cregan’s play Hunger-Strike (1932) offers one of the most striking examples of Civil War testimonies covered with a layer of fiction. The play documents the emotional turmoil of a young woman who feels compelled to support her husband during the mass hunger strike of Republican internees in the fall of 1923. The play’s dedication “To Jim, With my Love” left little doubt about its autobiographical character. nature, given that Cregan’s husband, later Fianna Fáil TD Jim Ryan, participated in the hunger strike and was considered on his 30th day to be “in a precarious condition”.
Cregan published his play at his own expense for £26.5 from Dublin publishers MH Gill and Sons, after it was rejected by the Abbey Theatre. The play was never staged during the author’s lifetime and was first performed earlier this year by the Killorglin Archive Society.
The premiere of Cregan’s play as part of the Decades of Centenarians program 100 years after the events she describes emphasizes that the sidelining and oblivion of the Civil War testimonies need not be permanent. If the silence associated with the Irish Civil War is indicative of a reluctance to invest in the stories of Civil War veterans, then it is a silence that can be overcome by a willingness to listen.
Síobhra Aiken is the author of Spiritual Wounds: Trauma, Testimony and the Irish Civil War (Irish Academic Press, 2022)