How does a country commemorate the dead of a Civil War? As Eve Morrison shows, it has been a complicated process.

Commemorating and memorialising the dead was a mainstay of Irish political culture and a key element of radical nationalist activism in the revolutionary period (1916–1923). These traditions continued in the decades after the cessation of the Civil War in May 1923. The tenor and political resonance of events and orations tended to reflect the wider context in which the commemorations took place. Fraught in the 1920s and 1930s, they were often more ecumenical during the relative calm of the 1940s to the 1960s. Then, with the outbreak of the Northern Irish 'Troubles' in 1969, they became sites of contestation and political controversy once again.

Heroes and martyrs

Commemorations honouring pro- and anti-Treatyite Civil War heroes and martyrs began within months of the ceasefire. Each warring side had bitter grievances. Each laid exclusive claim to the legacy of the 1916 Rising and War of Independence. There were rival public processions, demonstrations, funerals, monuments and annual masses.

Although most commemorations came to be associated with anti-Treaty republicanism, memorial efforts in the decade after the Civil War were more evenly matched. A cenotaph honouring Collins and Arthur Griffith erected outside Leinster House in Dublin was unveiled by the Cosgrave government in August 1923.

Unveiling of the Collins Griffith memorial.  Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland
The unveiling of the memorial to Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith in 1923. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

A cross was erected at Béal na Bláth for Michael Collins in June 1923, although it was repeatedly pulled down. A few months later the local IRA decided to pre-empt memorialisation efforts by ‘people of Free State tendencies’ by erecting their own crosses to Cork’s War of Independence dead. In August of the following year, pro-Treatyites came out in force to unveil an enormous stone Celtic Cross on a raised stone platform at Béal na Bláth.

The first anniversary of the death of pro-Treaty West Cork TD General Seán Hales, assassinated shortly after anti-Treatyite IRA Chief of Staff Liam Lynch’s December 1922 order to shoot on sight TDs who had voted for the Public Safety Bill, was marked in Bandon with a high mass and procession to his grave by family members and contingents of the National Army.

The funeral of Sean Hales
The funeral of Seán Hales. In 1923 the first anniversary of his death was marked by a high mass and a National Army procession. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Dramatic interruption

In October 1924, an anti-Treaty demonstration to honour the West Cork men who died to ‘uphold the independence of their country’ was dramatically interrupted by Madge Hales, his sister. Dressed in black, she stepped onto the platform and confronted Éamon de Valera mid oration: ‘Who assassinated my brother …?’ accusing the IRA Executive of ‘signing his death sentence’.

De Valera, caught off guard, replied, ‘I don't know’ and ‘I don't believe that.’ Seán Buckley, the Sinn Féin TD, assured the crowd that no one was attempting to deny the record of Collins or Hales. The National Army had scored another victory a few months earlier, foiling anti-Treaty plans to take control of the funeral of Pat Harte in Clonakilty.

Women take action

There were no female martyrs, but women often played a prominent role in commemorations, particularly in the early years. In Dublin in July 1923, on the first anniversary of Cathal Brugha’s death, a procession headed by members of Cumann na mBan said a decade of the Rosary at the ruins of the Hammam Hotel on O’Connell Street, where Brugha had made his final stand. They then marched to Glasnevin Cemetery to lay wreaths on his grave.

In March 1924, Kerry newspapers reported on a procession in Tralee honouring the republican prisoners who had been tied to a landmine and blown up by a unit of the National Army at Ballyseedy. Annie MacSwiney gave graphic accounts of their deaths to the assembled crowd holding a bloodstained cord that had bound the hands of one of the prisoners.

Remembering Liam Lynch

Commemorative events and demonstrations honouring Liam Lynch also began in 1924. In April, upwards of 10,000 people led by Sinn Féin TDs and IRA men, some still on the run, marched to Lynch’s grave in Kilcrumper cemetery in Fermoy.

Liam Lynch Anniversary Commemoration. Fermoy. Sun 13/4/24. : Mr. Sean T. O'Kelly delivering an oration to a vast crowd in the field at the back of the graveyard. National Library of Ireland
The Liam Lynch Anniversary Commemoration at Fermoy on Sun 13 April 1924. The photo shows Sean T. O'Kelly delivering an oration to a vast crowd in the field at the back of the graveyard. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

A pageant in his honour was held in Dublin. In March 1925, in Tipperary, a large party of National Army soldiers took up positions on the road and at the entrance to St Michael’s Cemetery when Éamon de Valera addressed a demonstration honouring the dead of the Third Tipperary Brigade.

The early 1930s were the most violent and politically volatile years since the Civil War, with running street battles between the Blueshirts, Fianna Fáil and the IRA. There were rival commemorations for 1916, the Kilmichael Ambush, the Fenians and Wolf Tone in Bodenstown. Blueshirts acted as guards at Béal na Bláth. In 1935, it is thought that as many as 15,000 people attended the unveiling of a round tower dedicated to the memory of Liam Lynch in Crohan, Co. Tipperary, at the foot of the Knockealdown Mountains near where he was shot by the National Army in April 1923.


The Civil War remained as controversial as ever, but a thaw set in during the 1940s and 1950s and became more pronounced in the 1960s. Commemorations often became venues for reconciliation. In 1965, Tom Barry unveiled a monument to Michael Collins at Sam’s Cross.

Michael Collins memorial, Sam's Cross (1967) © RTÉ Photographic Archive
The Michael Collins memorial at Sam's Cross in West Cork, unveiled in 1965 by Collins's War of Independence comrade and Civil War opponent Tom Barry. © RTÉ Photographic Archive © RTÉ Photographic Archive

A more volatile atmosphere

With the outbreak of the Northern Irish conflict in 1969, however, the legacy of the independence struggle and Civil War became associated with highly charged and polemical debates relating to the legitimacy of the armed campaign being waged by contemporary republicans.

Most commemorations associated with the 1916 to 1923 period began to reflect the more volatile political atmosphere one way or another. Modern republicans organised separate commemorative events, disrupted those organised by mainstream nationalists and associated their campaign with past struggles. A few veterans of the 1916-1923 period supported them, but Ireland’s main political parties all scornfully rejected the IRA’s assertions that they were ‘fighting the same fight’.

Closing ranks

Despite political differences, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael began to close ranks. In 1972, Jerry Cronin, the Minister for Defence, became the first ever Fianna Fáil minister to give an oration at Béal na Bláth. Old IRA veteran Liam Ó’Briain publicly objected to ‘present-day or future organisations’ using commemorations of the revolutionary era to ‘advertise themselves’.

Liam O'Briain © RTE Photographic Archive
Liam Ó'Briain, seen here in 1962, said his generation was 'too old for marching'. Photo © RTE Photographic Archive

He proposed a final, joint Collins-Liam Lynch commemoration before ending celebrations of the 'big events'. His generation were, he said, ‘too old for marching’. It would be ‘better, far better’ he argued, ‘to end it now, formally and in a dignified manner, recognise that the days of our movement are over.’

Official ambiguity towards state commemorations of the revolutionary period continued, with greater or lesser intensity, into the 1990s. With the advent of the Decade of Commemorations (2012-2023) the emphasis is once again on commemoration as a vehicle for reconciliation, promoting the idea that history should be accessible, engaging and relevant for everyone, and should reflect an awareness on the ‘two traditions’ and ‘shared history’ with Britain.

This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.