For nearly ninety years, the National Folklore Collection has collected oral history from all over the country. One period, however, remained relatively unrecorded - the Civil War. The Collection's new endeavour, the Civil War Memory Project, may be the last meaningful opportunity to record memories of this tumultuous period, explains director Dr Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh
The earliest concerted effort to record oral history in Ireland can be credited to the Irish Folklore Commission, founded in 1935. Its mission was to record, archive and publish a broad range of traditions, including oral traditions and information about a great many other subjects pertinent to society. But cultural history, including popular accounts of major (and localised) historical events and political movements, also formed part of its collecting remit. While oral accounts of historic events might be influenced, even to some degree shaped by the world of print, they can also preserve a narrative of events that is at variance with the 'official' record, adding important local detail and context to our interpretation of events.
However, while the revolutionary period features to some degree in folklore recorded in the early years of the Commission, the gaze of folklore collectors was directed primarily - perhaps understandably so - at earlier, more remote periods of our history. It is also the case that while accounts of the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence are reasonably plentiful, the Civil War is notable for its absence from the folklore record. One can even detect a certain reluctance to engage with the subject on the part of folklore collectors (and perhaps their interviewees too) until the 1950s and later. But by then collectors such as the admirable Michael J. Murphy, based in south Armagh, had begun to actively enquire about it.
The Urban Folklore Project of the late 1970s, directed by the Department of Irish Folklore in UCD, set out to document the cultural history of the greater Dublin area in an intensive manner. This was in response to a perceived neglect of urban Ireland by previous generations of folklore collectors. It produced more than 700 recorded interviews and some 12,000 photographs of people, places and economic activities in the Dublin area, all of which are now preserved in the National Folklore Collection, UCD Library.
Oral history was identified as a subject deserving particular attention, including the events of Easter 1916 and the turbulent period leading to independence and the Civil War, events still fresh in the memory of people then in their seventies and older. A significant number of interviews record the memories of active participants in the struggle, as well as those of ordinary citizens who witnessed incidents in the 'Troubles' and whose lives were profoundly affected by those events.
Last meaningful opportunity
When the Collection was approached in 2022 by Scratch Films and RTÉ about the possibility of mounting an intensive programme of interviews dealing with the Civil War and its aftermath, it was agreed that this moment in time, exactly 100 years after its commencement, represented perhaps the last meaningful opportunity to record memories of this tumultuous period in our history and to gauge its impact on succeeding generations.
The project team cast its net as wide as possible to include the testimonies of people whose forebears were active participants on both sides, as well as local residents and historians whose research sheds light on these traumatic events and the manner in which they are publicly commemorated.
The number of people who responded to the project was very encouraging and their contributions were generous and enthusiastic, exhibiting a shared desire to piece together and to set on the record the frequently violent nature of individual incidents, and a willingness to reflect on the resulting legacy of division and personal trauma.
In the course of nine months, a team of young historians, guided by senior historians at UCD School of History and NFC staff, accompanied by film crews from Scratch Films, conducted 73 video and 10 audio interviews with contributors throughout Ireland. The original interviews, together with transcriptions, are preserved in the NFC and will shortly be available to the public for research.
The testimony of people whose family and friends were directly impacted by the violence are remarkable for their candour and the depth of their emotions. The experience of listening to Paudie Fuller of Castleisland recount the brutal events of the Ballyseedy massacre, in which his father Stephen was severely injured yet remarkably survived, was profound.
We conducted the interview in the home of Paudie's neighbours, the Herlihy family, whose parents had lovingly cared for and hidden the injured man for several months following the atrocity. In another interview conducted in south Armagh, I had the opportunity to hear the perspective of the nationalist community in border areas of newly partitioned Northern Ireland, powerless to influence the bitter struggle taking place south of the Border.
The two-episode documentary to be aired shortly on RTÉ confronts some of the most contentious incidents and legacies of the Civil War. Underpinning this documentary is a substantial archive of memory, generously shared by so many contributors. It adds significantly to our understanding of the circumstances and tragic consequences of this most divisive chapter in our history, and will prove a valuable resource for current and future historians of the period.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org