Understanding the Trauma of the Irish Civli War
The terminology of ‘trauma’ did not exist in 1920s Ireland, but revolutionaries had their own sophisticated understandings of the psychological implications of war and communal division writes Dr Síobhra Aiken, Queen's University Belfast
The term ‘trauma’ regularly emerges in public debate and academic discussion of the Irish Civil War. This is certainly understandable given the succession of shocking events that occurred during this short conflict between June 1922 and May 1923: leading revolutionaries on both sides lost their lives, thousands of male and female anti-Treaty activists were imprisoned, and the rates of execution under the new Free State exceeded that of the British administration during the earlier struggle for independence.
Yet there were many other harrowing events during this period that could equally be described as traumatic. Over 30,000 Irish men lost their lives during the First World War and some 23,000 Irish men, women, and children succumbed to the Spanish Flu between 1918 and 1919. Similarly forgotten are the famine-like conditions that affected areas along the western seaboard, particularly Connemara, during the opening years of the Irish Free State.
However, since antiquity, civil wars have been conceptualised as being uniquely devastating. Unlike conflicts against other nations, the destruction of civil war involves not only material damage to a country’s landscape and infrastructure but also psychological damage to the bonds of community and family. Painful civil war legacies can carry on for generations despite communities’ best efforts to co-exist.
While the Romans theorised about the destruction of civil war (bellum civile) since the first century BCE, the devastation associated with such internecine conflicts intensified during the Age of Revolutions from the late eighteenth century. If revolution offered enlightenment and reinvigoration, then civil war was an embarrassing reminder of the possible regression of mankind. Indeed, this binary between honourable revolution and best-forgotten civil war is perhaps the defining feature of the commemorative narrative of the Irish revolution and its aftermath.
Yet even though historians and cultural commentators routinely draw on the language of trauma to convey the fraught legacy of the Irish Civil War, the use of trauma as a lens through which to view the events of the revolutionary period is not without its hazards. Trauma did not exist in the 1920s. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was not medically recognised until 1980, and even now PTSD remains a contested diagnosis.
That is not to say, however, that revolutionaries did not have their own sophisticated understandings of the psychological legacies of war.
Indeed, there was a proliferation of psychological literature across Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. Civil war internee Rosamond Jacob refers in her diary to her reading of Barbara Low’s Psychoanalysis: A Brief Account of the Freudian Theory (1920), while the 1920s romance novels of Cumann na mBan’s Annie M. P. Smithson reflect on treatments for shellshock and suggest that talk therapies, or practices such as hypnosis, would soon replace prescription drugs. Advertisements in Irish newspapers also illustrate the range of commercial treatments available for ‘weak nerves’, such as Dr Cassell’s Tablets, Ovaltine malt drinks, and various electricity treatments.
These ideas of human psychology and the subconscious played out in various projects of narrative therapy, as a significant number of revolutionaries consciously turned to writing – including to fiction, drama, and poetry – to document and exorcise their memories.
Understanding of psychological injury also developed over time. While Desmond Ryan referred to the ‘spiritual wounds’ of civil war in the 1936 – under the influence, perhaps, of the spiritualist philosophy (anthroposophy) of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner – revolutionaries began to use the term ‘trauma’ from the 1960s onwards in line with discussions advanced by second wave feminism and the anti-Vietnam War movement. For example, IRA man-turned-writer Seán O’Faoláin wrote in 1964 that the civil war ‘oppress[ed] me traumatically for many years’, while Waterford IRA veteran and long-time US resident George Lennon named his remarkable unpublished memoir Trauma in Time (1971).
Yet even though revolutionaries engaged with ever-developing ideas regarding the architecture of the mind, medical professionals and state bodies were perhaps less open to new trends than individuals themselves.
The discourses surrounding psychological conditions in the 1920s and 1930s rarely offer much insight into the individual experience of psychic injury. Yet popular and medical understandings of ‘nervous conditions’ provide a unique lens through which to gauge contemporary anxieties regarding politics and gender in the two newly established states on the island of Ireland.
In the Free State, the Military Service Pensions Board was far slower to recognise nervous ‘diseases’ than compensation boards in Britain, such as the London-based Irish Grants Committee, which provided compensation to Irish loyalists and included ‘shock’ in its definition of physical injuries. The reluctance in Ireland to offer compensation for psychological injuries – such as ‘neurasthenia’, ‘nerves’, ‘neurosis’, or ‘nervous breakdown’ – possibly reflects financial concerns.
However, it might also hint at efforts within the southern state to foreground a heroic and resilient sense of nationhood in opposition to colonial stereotypes of the Irish as nervous and effeminate. Dublin volunteer Patrick O’Reilly was one of many to fall foul of the Pensions Board. Though he claimed in 1934 that he was treated for ‘shell shock’ in the Mater Hospital after being in the Four Courts when it was shelled in June 1922, the Board denied compensation, concluding ‘you are not suffering from any disability’.
Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, the treatment of returning soldiers following the First World War became a site of sectarian tension. The need to quickly ‘cure’ these soldiers took on increased urgency in the context of recruitment to the new Ulster Special Constabulary police force. However, not all ex-servicemen were deemed deserving of such rehabilitation and, in 1922, Catholic ex-serviceman being treated at Craigavon Neurasthenic hospital were subject to personal threats.
There also seems to have been discomfort in Belfast regarding the rise in nervous patients by the mid-1920s. Leading medical professionals in the city attributed this increase not to the years of war and communal violence, but rather to the ‘evil of excessive tea drinking’ and the ‘inordinate love of pleasure and excitement connected with the cinema and liquor traffic’.
Furthermore, nervous conditions were inherently connected to the female body throughout this period. Perhaps the most striking example of this gender-specific medical management is the documented practises of Dublin gynaecologist, and long-time associate of Éamon de Valera, Dr. Robert Farnan. The Cork-based activist Siobhán Lankford claims that she was one of many women to seek treatment from Dr Farnan for ‘nervous exhaustion’ in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Dr Farnan prescribed her ‘six weeks’ complete rest in the Mater Hospital followed by a period ‘living in Malahide and Sutton’ – a treatment plan that resembles the ‘rest cure’ advanced by Philadelphian neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell in the late nineteenth century.
However, Dr Farnan’s treatment of revolutionaries was not limited to Cumann na mBan activists, despite his area of medical expertise. Indeed, Michael Collins was known to refer IRA men who were in any way ‘low in health’ to Dr Farnan, as he was known to ‘cure by merely speaking to the men’.
While future research will further tease out just how typical Dr Farnan’s approach was, there are many examples to support these gender-specific attitudes. Whereas men’s treatment for nerves generally aimed to quickly return the patient to combat or to the workforce, women’s treatment tended to reinforce their exclusion from public life. The word ‘hysteria’ has its etymological roots in the Greek word for uterus and there is little doubt that such conditions were deemed to be a ‘female malady’. In fact, the Military Service Pensions Board even had a policy of sending ‘nervous’ female applicants for gynaecological testing.
Oftentimes, trauma is considered to produce silence as language seems inadequate for describing the extremity of the traumatic experience. This idea of ‘traumatic mutism’ does indeed have a medical basis. For example, in 1923, Tipperary Cumann na mBan activist Bridget Fitzgerald developed what she termed ‘a weakness’ and ‘lost the power of her hands and of speech for a short time’.
However, despite such documented cases, psychologists highlight that those who have lived through traumatic events often carry a desire to tell and share their experiences. The reticence of certain participants is certainly an essential part of the traumatic legacy associated with the Irish Civil War. Yet, for decades the overemphasis on this idea of ‘traumatic’ silence has occluded the voices of the many veterans who were unwilling to forget and who were determined to find ways to testify to the ‘spiritual wounds’ of civil war.
Síobhra Aiken is a lecturer in Queen’s University Belfast. Her most recent book is Spiritual Wounds: Trauma, Testimony and the Irish Civil War (Irish Academic Press, 2022).
– This article was first published in the special Irish Examiner Supplement 'Civil War: The conflict that ripped the county apart', published 13 June 2022 –