For decades, researchers of oral history paid surprisingly little attention to the north of Ireland when it came to the Civil War. That is finally changing with the Civil War Memory Project, as Síobhra Aiken explains

When the Australian historian Calton Younger was researching the Irish Civil War in the 1950s and 1960s, he travelled across Ireland to interview veterans from both sides of the split.

But Younger's use of oral evidence in his 1968 study Ireland's Civil War was not without its critics. British journalist Robert Kee feared that "professional historians" might be disappointed by Younger’s "dependence on oral testimony often delivered more than forty years after the event". Other reviewers shared this scepticism towards such "aberrations of memory".

Almost sixty years on, the unease regarding the use of personal narratives in historical research still lingers in some quarters. More so than in studies of the earlier struggle for independence, the litmus test for writing on the Irish Civil War has often been the historian’s ability to provide a "detached" and "dispassionate" overview of this contentious conflict. This goal of objectivity is generally supported by the use of verifiable source materials, such as public records, military archives, and government debates.

The issue is that not all historical perspectives make their way into state-sanctioned archives. For this very reason, historians have been looking to oral history methods since at least the 1970s in order to access subaltern voices absent from the official record: the working classes, women, ethnic minorities, survivors of institutional 'care’, people with disabilities.

The partition of history

When considering the history of the Irish revolutionary period, the experience of activists and civilians north of the border might also be included here. Indeed, one of the key legacies of the Irish Civil War was not only the partition of the island, but the partition of history itself.

The official chronology established for retelling the events of 1916 to 1923 was focused around the twenty-six counties with standard interpretations of the ‘Irish Civil War’ invariably denoting ‘the southern Irish Civil War’. While school textbooks might declare that the ‘War of Independence’ ended with a ceasefire on 11 July 1921, the ‘Truce’ certainly did not mark the end of violence on the island.

Irish Catholic refugee child from Belfast in Dublin in 1922
A child refugee from Belfast in 1922, whose family had fled the sectarian violence in the city. Photo: Getty Images

The spring and summer of 1921 witnessed another wave of sectarian attacks across the northern counties, following on from the violence of the previous summer when Catholic and socialist-leaning Protestant workers were expelled from shipyards and other places of employment. Kieran Glennon estimates that 499 people, mostly civilians, were killed between 1920 and 1922 in Belfast alone, while over a quarter of the city’s Catholic population was evicted from their homes. Outside of the cities, once quiet rural communities were converted into partitioned ‘borderlands’, with all of the attendant connotations of banditry and illegality.

While the Irish Free State was pioneering in its attempts to record the events of the revolution, these remembrance projects did not adequately accommodate the experiences of activists and communities in what was now Northern Ireland. There were practical issues: northern activists who applied for a military service pension worried that their letters might be intercepted, leading to repercussions from a hostile state. The voices of northern revolutionaries are underrepresented in the state’s major oral history project, the Bureau of Military History, carried out from 1947 to 1957. Of some 1,700 interviewees, only around 80 were primarily active in the six northern counties.

Críostoir Mac Cartaigh with Cormac O'Malley, son of Ernie O'Malley, who recorded an interview for the Civil War Memory Project. Even O'Malley Senior's own oral history project rarely focused on the north.

Even Ernie O’Malley – who led his own oral history project which specifically addressed the civil war, unlike the state’s Bureau of Military History – never carried out fieldwork north of the border. Of some 660 interviews collected by O’Malley, only fourteen or so (all men) were active in the north.

Lost to time?

It might be easy to assume that these histories, full of memories of loss, alienation, confusion, and maybe even the occasional sense of hope, have been lost to time.

The Civil War Memory Project suggests that that is not the case. Though the generation who lived through these events is no longer with us, the memories they handed down are still vibrant and profound.

If the reviewers of history books were concerned about the discrepancies in veteran testimony, the recollections of the second, third, and even fourth generation are even more affected by the mechanics of memory. Yet rather than try to scrutinise such accounts through the narrow lens of empirical verifiability, the Civil War Memory Project provides an opportunity to celebrate the very fluidity of personal memory and gives descendants the space to revisit, process, and share the memories which have informed their own lives.

Frank Aiken Jr, a colour photo of an older white man in a blue jumper
The author's grandfather, Frank Aiken Jnr, who was interviewed for the Civil War Memory Project about his father Frank Aiken

What wasn't said

Memories can also be about what was not said. Many parents sought to protect their children from bitter civil war splits and questions regularly went unanswered. This was even more the case in the north, as deep communal divisions evoked further caution and fears around the uses and misuses of history.

But on many occasions the silences failed: aunts, uncles, or neighbours inadvertently revealed repressed stories, other memories trickled down second, third, and fourth hand, while precious documents and photographs sometimes came to light after being concealed for decades. Common, too, in northern society was the practice of speaking in codes and indirect disclosures: all you had to do was ask a person what newspaper they read to gauge their political leanings.

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The Civil War Memory Project is an ongoing project that aims to gather multiple perspectives on this tumultuous period. Descendants are encouraged to get in contact to deposit their memories and stories into the collection for the benefit of generations to come.

The Silent Civil War airs on RTE 1 on 26th April and May 3rd at 9.35pm and is available on the RTE Player after the live broadcast. This production is supported through the Decade of Centenaries Programme 2012-2023 by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.

If you'd like to contribute to the Civil War Memory Project collection, you can do so by contacting: