Book review: Between Two Hells: The Irish Civil War

Diarmaid Ferriter’s new history of the Irish Civil War seeks to get at the human experience and day-to-day texture of the war and its aftermath. In Between Two Hells, combat itself is skimmed over quickly. Other books have dealt with the strictly military side of things, but Ferriter has other interests. He has delved into the primary sources and found out what people thought and how people felt about the war, how they experienced military life, internment, hunger strikes, etc.

The first half of the book follows the course of the Civil War from its origins in the Treaty to the ‘dump arms’ order given by the Republican leadership less than a year after hostilities began. The second half of the book deals with the war’s legacy right up until today. The book is heavy on personal stories and experiences, all in the framework of an engaging narrative.

The book doesn’t pull its punches on the Republican side – they funded their cause through hundreds of robberies even before the war broke out; the leaders were long on incoherent romanticism, short on plans; some of the rank-and-file committed terrible atrocities.

But it’s the emerging Free State government who come across as despicable. Their army was ill-disciplined and drunk. O’Daly, the commander of the force which committed the Ballyseedy massacre, was also responsible for other atrocities. After the war he lived out his life in prosperity and comfort. The Free State government kept up a barrage of sexist insults against women Republican activists and rejected any possibility of a peace treaty.

‘If we have to exterminate ten thousand Republicans,’ declared Cosgrave, ‘the three millions of our people is bigger than this ten thousand.’ The mathematics are beyond reproach, but the grammar leaves something to be desired, and the ethics are bankrupt. Needless to say, at no point were ‘the three millions’ in danger of extermination at the hands of Eamon De Valera.

The total fatalities of the war were closer to one than to ten thousand – maybe 1500 in all. Ferriter acknowledges that compared to the Finnish Civil War, we got off lightly (36,000 killed in  just 5 months in a population similar in size to that of Ireland). But the three millions, who had exhibited such revolutionary energy in the years 1913-1923, were demoralised, even crushed, and left with deep scars.

The pension archives have proved to be a gold mine for historians and that is reflected in this book. The applications have revealed a wealth of personal stories, often tragic and harrowing. 82,000 people made applications for pensions for their military service during the revolutionary period. By 1960 only 18,000 had received a pension, and many claimed that the pensions went to those who had connections, not necessarily those who had risked their lives.

While there are many fascinating stories and valuable insights in the second half of the book, it has less momentum than the first half. It appears to be part of a trend of focusing on how history has been commemorated as opposed to the events themselves. Readers might expect a single chapter, not a whole half of the book, to be devoted to the war’s legacy.

Ferriter has done a great job of tracing the subsequent histories of many participants in the war and their families – from the ‘big names’ to obscure individuals maimed, traumatised or killed. That’s where the pensions archive in particular comes into its own. In places the toll of trauma and misery becomes relentless, with an element of repetition, and pointing toward no clear conclusion. But this is no doubt a feature rather than a bug – the author wants to hammer home a phenomenon that’s been overlooked. When we talk about war, we don’t think about the soldier who spent a night searching in a river for the body of his dead friend and ended up contracting a life-long illness. We don’t know about the 80-100 veterans of the Free State army who could be found sleeping rough in the Phoenix Park on an ordinary night in 1925. It’s not heroic or edifying but it’s true.

Between two hells: the Irish Civil War by Diarmaid Ferriter, published by Profile Books, 2021.
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