Telling the story of the Civil War was a daunting challenge for director Ruán Magan and his team. Here he tells the story of how the groundbreaking documentary series was made

All of us who were engaged in the making of The Irish Civil War documentary series, narrated by Brendan Gleeson, felt deeply that it was one of the most daunting challenges of our careers. The Civil War was shaded by an omerta in the years after the conflict, swept under the carpet, an embarrassing and inconvenient coda to Irish nationalism's long struggle for independence. And here we were, setting out to tell the story of the Irish Civil War in documentary form, a story that has shaped our political present and continues to divide opinion to this day.

Atlas of The Irish Revolution

RTÉ’s commissioned this project as part of their Decade of Centenaries programme. Produced in association with University College Cork and based on their widely acclaimed Atlas of the Irish Revolution, the production could draw on the knowledge, expertise and insight of an excellent line up of academics, writers, and historians, each of whom has spent years considering civil wars, their causes and their outcomes. We worked very closely with the UCC team, in particular, to shape and form the narrative of the three episodes.

John Crowley, a white man wearing a suit, seen in a study lined with bookshelves
UCC's John Crowley is one of the contributors to the series

After filming was complete in 2021, we spent a long time with editors Mary Crumlish and Juangus Dinsmore to ensure that the story would unfold in a manner that was fair to all sides.

It was important that the series would not pass judgement one side or the other. However, it was equally important not to shy away from the brutality of the conflict and the hurt inflicted on both sides. It is essential with historical documentaries of this kind that the viewer has the space to make up their own minds, to decide for themselves.

The Treaty

At the heart of the conflict, of course, were the controversial terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which brought the War of Independence to an end and triggered the withdrawal of British troops from most of the island of Ireland.

The photo shows four of the Anglo-Irish Treaty signatories surrounded by supporters, Holyhead, Wales 6 December 1921. From left to right (after the woman in the foreground on the left) you can see Arthur Griffith, Eamon J Duggan, Robert Barton and George Gavan-Duffy.
This photo shows four of the Anglo-Irish Treaty signatories surrounded by supporters, Holyhead, Wales 6 December 1921. From left to right (after the woman in the foreground on the left) you can see Arthur Griffith, Eamon J Duggan, Robert Barton and George Gavan-Duffy. Photo © RTÉ Photographic Archive

For those on the anti-Treaty side, its terms represented a betrayal of the Republic that had been proclaimed in 1916 and again by the first Dáil Éireann in 1919. The Treaty granted dominion status to a twenty-six county Irish Free State – for many, the idea of accepting anything less than a full republic and accepting the partition of the island was to abandon the core ideals of the struggle. Those on the pro-Treaty side, on the other hand, felt that though the agreement with Britain may have been imperfect, it might at least provide a stepping stone towards fuller independence at a later point. Tragically these positions would prove irreconcilable.

A particularly poignant aspect of the story that became clear during our research was that in the first months of 1922, after Dáil Éireann had narrowly accepted the Treaty and before the Civil War began, there were many people all over Ireland, people of all persuasions, who called loudly and publicly for hardliners on both sides to find a compromise. Efforts were made to bring the sides together, but events proved unstoppable.

Family Connection

My grandmother, Sighle Humphreys was an active member of Cumann na mBan on the anti-Treaty side during the Civil War. She lived to the grand age of ninety-five and was a very strong presence during our upbringing.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

She took every opportunity to teach us Irish and rejoiced in recounting for us the daring exploits of the women and men who had taken part in Irish nationalism’s long struggle for independence.

It was only much later in life that I realised that many of the stories she had told us as children belonged to the Civil War period. Recounted with irrepressible pride and fervour were stories of her hunger strikes (one of which lasted thirty-one days), her painting republican slogans on the walls of College Green with Máire Comerford and her armed support of Ernie O’Malley during a raid on her family home in Dublin’s Ailesbury Road, during which either she or O’Malley (there are differing accounts) shot and killed a young Free State soldier, Private Pete McCarthy from Co. Leitrim.

She never wavered in her position to the end. Through her, one could appreciate the passion that sustained republicans through the Civil War. And yet, as the director of the documentary, it was essential to consider the broader context of the conflict, to push away from my grandmother’s perspective and engage, on equal terms, with the ideologies and motivations of those who stood on the other side of the conflict. The irony of course is that the stepping-stone philosophy did yield, in a relatively short time, the republic that my grandmother had so desperately yearned for.

Visual Challenges

One of the challenges in making the documentaries was that the photograph and film footage of the period is mostly representative of the pro-Treaty perspective. In previous documentaries I was involved in, 1916 (CoCo Content), narrated by Liam Neeson, and The Irish Revolution (Tyrone Productions/Create One), narrated by Cillian Murphy, we benefitted from the copious collections of archive materials that illustrated both the British and the Irish nationalist perspectives.

British media interest with its vast resources ensured that film and stills cameras were on site in Ireland to capture the most significant events. British newspapers also covered the conflicts closely. Equally, Sinn Féin propagandists dedicated substantial resources and personnel to covering key moments during, the campaign for independence, which sustained the support of the Irish Diaspora in the US and around the world.

For us, as film makers, it meant that key events such as the release of republican prisoners after the Rising, the rise of the mass support for Sinn Féin in 1917/18, the burning of Balbriggan and Cork by the Black and Tans, the death of Terence MacSwiney and the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations could be vividly illustrated.

A black and white photo of Ruán Magan looking into a camera
Ruán Magan on location during the filming of The Irish Civil War

But with The Irish Civil War the situation was very different. Very few images exist of the anti-Treaty side during the conflict. Barring a few indistinct photos found in local libraries and museums, there is nothing like the visual archives available to tell the story of the War of Independence. The anti-Treaty side found themselves under such sustained pressure after the first weeks of the Civil War, that there was limited time and resources to produce visual representations of their conflict experience. Almost permanently forced to retreat and on the run, few journalists could keep up with them.

In stark contrast, there is hardly a beat of the pro-Treaty side’s civil war that is not well documented. Film footage and photography of the National Army recruiting and in action at almost every key moment has survived.

A black and white image showing young soldiers lounging in front of a barbed wire fence
A photo of National Army soldiers resting in Limerick that's used in the documentary. Images of the National Army and pro-Treaty activities were easy to find - unlike images of the anti-Treaty forces. Image: UCD

The accomplished Dublin photographer W.D. Hogan was embedded with the pro-Treaty side and captured many notable events including the Treaty negotiations in London in late 1921, the attack on the Four Courts and the taking of Cork from the anti-Treaty forces in August 1922. His photos of the key individuals on the pro-Treaty side – Collins, Griffith, O Higgins, Cosgrave, Mulcahy - are particularly evocative and often poignant.

'Bitterness and rancour'

The story is such a moving one to tell. Often glossed over as an inconvenient coda to the story of the Irish revolution, now one hundred years on it is time for us to face what happened. As UCC historian Donal Ó Drisceoil states in the documentary:

The Civil War put an end to the kind of dreams and hopes that [the Irish revolution] would end in glory. It introduced a whole level of bitterness and rancour that persisted for generations afterwards. It really took the gloss off the huge achievements of the revolution generation.

The accomplished actor Brendan Gleeson who narrates the three documentaries deserves the highest praise. Having played Michael Collins, Liam Tobin and Winston Churchill during his extraordinary career, Brendan brought an appreciation and understanding of this complex period in history to the films. He notes that 'when we were in school we weren't taught about [the Civil War] because it was still extraordinarily raw and extraordinarily inflammatory. Even now I find myself being infuriated on both sides. These documentaries have gone to great lengths to try to present all sides of the story with equal emphasis.’

Broadcast across three consecutive nights (Dec 11/12/13th), the documentary series features extensive archive film footage, photographs and materials, interviews with leading academics, archive interviews with contemporary participants and witnesses, firsthand witness accounts read by actors - including Peter Coonan, Tim Creed, Marty Rea and Olga Wehrly - detailed and dynamic graphic maps based on those featured in the Atlas of the Irish Revolution, and stunning cinematography of the very locations where events took place.

Natasa Paulberg’s magnificent original score, performed by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra with contributions from Colm Mac Con Iomaire, Ronán Ó Snodaigh and AVA, evokes the atmosphere and drama of events during those difficult years. We are grateful to them both and to all in Tyrone Productions and UCC for their patience, brilliance, and dedication. Documentaries of this nature are uniquely challenging to produce - we hope the history resonates with you.

The three part series The Civil War airs on RTE One on Sunday 11 December at 21:30, Monday 12 December at 21:30 and Tuesday 13 Dec at 21:30. You can watch it here on the RTE Player.