Child Fatalities

Child Fatalities of the Irish Civil War

Helene O’Keeffe


W.D. Hogan’s iconic photograph of three barefoot children, shyly surveying a group of armed National Army soldiers in Bruff, County Limerick in early August 1922, chosen most recently as the cover for Diarmaid Ferriter’s study of the Civil War and its legacy, Between Two Hells, effectively captures the vulnerability of children in war. Unaccompanied by an adult and unnoticed by the soldiers, the three fair-haired girls, hands clasped, clad in white dresses - almost ethereal - occupy the foreground. Their innocence and barefoot defencelessness are cast symbolically in sharp relief against the earthy, martial middle ground where uniformed men gather in armed knots.

There are many traces of the physical, emotional, and material impact of the ten-month conflict on the lives of children, defined for the purposes of this article as under the age of fifteen. Several sources describe, for example, the experience of the frightened child fugitives from the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in the summer of 1922, or those children whose lives were irrevocably changed by the imprisonment or death of a parent, by enforced separation, or economic privation. The Military Service Pensions Collection, for example, is an archive of troubled and truncated childhoods, all the more poignant because of the centrality of the symbolic child to pre-1916 revolutionary rhetoric and the nationalist project of nation building.

The unintended victims of Civil War

Occasionally, as this project demonstrates, the cost was more physical, even final. Of the 1,159 fatalities in the twenty-six counties where age is known, twenty-seven, (eleven girls and sixteen boys), were under the age of fifteen. The majority of these, (fifteen) were killed in the first three months of the conflict. The youngest was two-year-old Margaret Byrne, hit by a stray bullet in Dublin on 1 July 1922 and as the Irish Times put it, a particularly ‘sad’ addition to the list of thirty-two civilian victims of crossfire in the city between 28 June and 6 July. Among the oldest was fourteen-year-old messenger boy, Patrick Cosgrave, shot behind the Four Courts, less than half a mile from his home in Lower Dominic Street during the opening salvo of the Irish Civil War.

Indeed, crossfire and explosions in Ireland’s urban centres claimed just under 30 per cent of the child fatalities accounted for in this project. Ten-year-old Emily de Courcy and eight-year-old John Flynn, for example, were the unintended victims of crossfire after the National Army crossed the River Suir to take Waterford on 19 July. Emily had braved the chaos of street fighting in pursuit of bread on 20 July, two days after a stray bullet had found John playing too close to an upstairs window at his home in Ferrybank. Grenade attacks on National Army troops in Cork City over ten days in late October 1922 resulted in four civilian fatalities, including eight-year-old Eileen Gallagher. She had been playing on St Patrick’s Street when two bombs were thrown by the IRA at a passing Crossley Tender. Of the five others wounded, two were children.

Although ten-year-old Edmund Quirke was classified as an IRA dispatch rider and ‘intelligence officer’ for pension purposes in 1934, he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time on 18 February 1923. He received a fatal gunshot wound to the head during an engagement between Free State forces and Denis Lacey’s IRA Active Service Unit billeted at the Quirke’s farmhouse at Ashgrove, near Bansha in County Tipperary. It remains unclear, however, which side fired the fatal shot. Sometimes named in the brief press reports, often anonymous, Quirke and other child victims of violence were added unnoticed, during the Civil War, to the imprecise lists of civilian casualties.

Three pie charts showing the age profile of the 344 IRA fatalities, 482 National Army fatalities and 308 civilian fatalities in the twenty-six counties where age is known between 28 June 1922 and 24 May 1923. The fourth chart shows the age profile of all 1,159 fatalities where age is known, including Cumann na mBan, Fianna Éireann, Civic Guard, Citizens’ Defence Force, Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and Crown forces.

Fig 1. Three pie charts showing the age profile of the 344 IRA fatalities, 482 National Army fatalities and 308 civilian fatalities in the twenty-six counties where age is known between 28 June 1922 and 24 May 1923. The fourth chart shows the age profile of all 1,159 fatalities where age is known, including Cumann na mBan, Fianna Éireann, Civic Guard, Citizens’ Defence Force, Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and Crown forces.


The perilous detritus of war

If not caught up in direct military action, children occasionally suffered the consequences of living in an overtly militarised society where, after almost a decade of war and revolution, the apparatus of political violence was ubiquitous. Four children, including eleven-year-old Peter Francis Cahill, innately curious and eager, perhaps, to emulate soldering, died as a result of accidentally discharged weapons. Others, like six-year-old Andrew Baker succumbed to the perilous detritus of war. He was among a group of four children who found an unexploded bomb, lying with deadly potential by a wall in Bagenalstown, County Carlow on 17 July 1922.

Four months later, when playing in a graveyard in Glanmire, County Cork, a young boy uncovered a cache of shining cartridges. He placed them on a fire with fatal consequences for his three-year-old sister, Eileen O’Driscoll. Reflected light on what appeared to be a ‘little bell’ lying on the grass margin on the roadside outside Dundalk attracted the attention of eight-year-old Rose Anne Hammill, the blacksmith’s daughter. She pulled the pin and it exploded.

Four children, ranging in age between three and fourteen, died of injuries sustained when they were accidentally knocked down by military vehicles, and four more were shot by National Army soldiers on sentry or search duty. Not to be forgotten are the countless other children who carried the physical and psychological scars of civil war into adulthood, children like three-year-old-Nellie Baker who lost her left eye when a rifle, handled carelessly by an IRA combatant taking refuge in her County Clare home, accidentally discharged.


A barefoot boy holds a sword salvaged from Cork City barracks, 1922 NLI HOGW 24

Fig. 3 A barefoot boy holds a sword salvaged from Victoria Barracks, Cork, 1922 [Image: NLI HOGW 24]


A ‘wave’ of martial excitement

Others still, like fifteen-year-old Dublin apprentice William Saunders, shot by soldiers while waving to prisoners in Mountjoy Prison on 6 July 1922, were absorbed, largely invisible, into the statistics of adult civil war fatalities because of the narrower definition of childhood in the early decades of the twentieth century. For many children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, formal schooling ended at fourteen. Young teenagers were sent out to work, or, in the words of Dan Keating who was a fifteen-year-old grocer’s apprentice in Tralee when he joined the republican youth organisation, Na Fianna Éireann in 1917, were ‘caught up’ in ‘a wave’ of martial excitement.

Fianna Éireann boys gave service on the anti-Treaty side as messengers, scouts, and intelligence gatherers, and nine of its members are listed in the civil war necrology. The controversial and brutal killings of seventeen-year-old Bertie Murphy in Killarney in September 1922; Fianna officers Alfred Colley and Sean Cole, in Dublin in August and the teenaged Eamon Hughes, Brendan Holohan and Joe Rogers at the Red Cow in October are seared particularly deeply in the collective memory of the conflict.

Keating ‘graduated’ to the IRA at eighteen, a typical route of succession, and served with Tralee’s 1st battalion throughout the ‘troubled period in Kerry’. Other names were written with fresher ink on IRA rolls at the outbreak of the Civil War. As Gavin Foster notes, unlike the earlier phases of the revolution when youthful activism was courted and celebrated, pro-Treaty propagandists ridiculed those ‘Trucileers’ or ‘sunshine soldiers’ for their immaturity and lack of revolutionary credentials. Thirteen per cent of the 344 IRA fatalities during the Civil War where age is known were between fifteen and nineteen years old.

While the pro-Treaty publicity department condemned the IRA leadership for ‘arming children of sixteen years and sending them out to kill’, the National Army Census taken in mid-November 1922 testifies to the extreme youth of some of its own recruits. Private Con Riordan, for example, who signed up in Tralee on 14 October 1922 was one of twenty-one listed as just fifteen-years-old. Two other fifteen-year-old recruits, James Byrne, killed in action in Sligo on 3 July 1922 and John Carberry, accidentally shot at Carrick Workhouse in Tipperary on 11 September 1922 were among the ninety-six National Army fatalities under the age of nineteen. But these adolescent soldiers had enlisted, chosen the fight, as far as they understood it, and were therefore folded into the military casualties of the Civil War.

Children and the propaganda war

Neither side was above invoking the image of the suffering child in the increasingly bitter propaganda war. Friday 15 December 1922 brought the shocking news of the death of Seán McGarry’s seven-year-old son, Emmet. He had succumbed to burn injuries received five days earlier when his father’s Fairview home was the target of an IRA arson attack. In a frenzied fortnight that began with the formal establishment of the Irish Free State on 6 December, the assassination of pro-Treaty TD Seán Hales and the retaliatory, extra-judicial execution of four high-profile republican prisoners, the death of a Free State deputy’s son – named, like many of his contemporaries, after the early-nineteenth-century Irish patriot, Robert Emmet - was inevitably politicised. Dublin Corporation registered its ‘abhorrence at the terrible deed’, the Freeman’s Journal recoiled at the ‘unspeakable horror’ of a child’s death and Bishop Michael Fogarty of Killaloe was publicly ‘sickened and horrified’ at ‘the loss of an innocent life’. For critics of the ‘Irregular Insurrection’, it was further evidence, as the Irish Catholic bishops put it in their October pastoral, of ‘the evil courses’ pursued by republicans.

Emmet McGarry’s funeral at Glasnevin on 17 December, at which ‘a troop of little children in Gaelic costume march[ed] after the remains’, prompted the declaration by pro-Treatyite Young Ireland that there was surely ‘a special place in heaven for such little martyrs’. But this was a new type of martyrdom, as defined by W.T. Cosgrave in a public letter of condolence to the family: ‘If Emmet’s death brings home to those responsible … some appreciation of the horrors they are perpetrating, I am sure the little boy’s father and mother would willingly make the sacrifice.’

The Free State propaganda machine cast the anti-Treaty IRA as morally compromised ‘wreckers’, and ‘criminals’ whose campaign of guerrilla warfare and economic sabotage imperilled the nation’s children. No less adept at the invocation of suffering children, anti-Treaty propagandists focused on the innocent young victims of ‘terror’ under the pro-Treaty regime. Representative of this motif is a republican handbill issued in 1922 to highlight the apparent continuity between the reign of terror presided over by the Crown forces in 1919-21 and the ‘new terror’ under the Free State ‘military junta’. It lists malicious house raids and ‘terrorised’ women and children among the ‘fruits of the Treaty’. Under evocative headlines like ‘War on Children’ republican news-sheets decried the distress suffered by the families of known republicans like J.J. O’Kelly whose wife and ‘hysterical’ children were shut up in the dark by particularly ‘nasty raiders’.

Child Witnesses to War

In the decades after independence, neither the veteran chroniclers of the Irish revolution nor the official ‘makers of memory’ – the politicians, historians, and journalists - dwelt on the war's impact on children. Surprisingly, even revisionist historians, writing during the ‘modern Troubles’ and seeking to undermine the heroic narrative of ‘guerrilla days in Ireland’, largely neglected the childhoods scarred by war.

Outside of academia, the first real effort to grapple with the subject was Joe Duffy’s bestselling Children of the Rising, which, in 2015, documented and memorialised the forty children killed in Dublin during the week-long insurrection. ‘Such were the sensitivities around the insurrection as the venerated moment of birth of the Irish Republic’, writes Heather Jones, ‘that it was not until Duffy’s book that it could be juxtaposed with the human effects of some of its violence upon children without causing bitter controversy’.

Within academia, the history of childhood in Ireland is, belatedly, a rapidly emerging field. Marnie Hay’s 2019 study of Na Fianna Éireann, however, remains the most sustained body of research into the influences on, and experience of Irish youth between 1916 and 1923. This neglect is explicable perhaps by the contested definition of childhood itself and by the understandable dearth of contemporary records created by the child witnesses to war. While fatality figures are but one measure of the impact of the Civil War on so many young lives, the Irish Civil War Fatalities Project is an important step towards acknowledging and memorialising the young victims of the internecine violence that accompanied the birth of the Irish state.


The Irish Revolution Project

Scoil na Staire /Tíreolaíocht

University College Cork, Cork,