Divide and rule

The Irish Civil War

Tim Pat Coogan and George Morrison <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 287pp, £25</em>

The central picture (see the opposite page - magazine), taken in Dublin in 1922, compels. The man in the trenchcoat and cap, wounded by his enemies, is surrounded by men and women who are obviously civilians. To judge from the expression on one woman's face, there is a certain pleasure to be had from being spectators to history. Is this man a rebel or part of the government army suppressing a rebellion? From his coat and demeanour you would think that he is an IRA man; in fact he is part of the Free State army trying, with encouragement from London, to dislodge republican rebels from a block of hotels on the main thoroughfare of Dublin.

Here is another irony. Most of the early fighting of the civil war occurred in the centre of Dublin, from where the 1916 Easter rising also began. At the centre of this book of photographs of the civil war years, spread across two pages, is a picture of the shell-damaged Four Courts building alongside the river Liffey. The sight of the building smouldering from an assault by the army of the new state bears more than a passing resemblance to the symbolic photograph of the General Post Office under assault by British warships in 1916.

Yet, unlike 1916, images of the civil war have been largely absent from national consciousness. That is why, for an Irish audience, one of the most startling and powerful scenes in Neil Jordan's Michael Collins was the brilliantly staged reconstruction of the shelling of the Four Courts. Watching the civil war recreated on the screen was startling, because it was the event that formed the mould for politics in the Republic of Ireland for decades to come - a mould that began to crack only ten years ago.

One of the reasons for evading the truth of the civil war was the bitterness it bred among those who took part in it - a set of unresolved hatreds and shameful private memories passed on to their families. But the mantra about the bitterness of war, repeated piously in public by the servants of the emerging state, itself served to create a protective cliche around an episode that was a mortal threat to the national self-image.

What was the civil war about? Officially it was a fight over how to achieve high ideals, the conflict between a pragmatic acceptance of a self-governing Irish state within the British empire as a surrogate for independence, and the sense that such a compromise was a powerful betrayal of the struggle for separation, something to be resisted in the name of the sacred republic. But for once the weary admonition that things were more complicated than that has a special force. To explore the period leading up to the foundation of the Irish state is to shatter the myth that a united national movement was rent asunder at the last hurdle. In truth, shoals of rival organisations were battling one another all the way; there were vicious personal animosities among the new revolutionary elite, and no neat relationship between political ends and violent means.

The photograph of the Free State soldier who could pass for an IRA man is symptomatic of the blurred distinctions that characterised the conflict. Other pictures reveal how, in asserting themselves as the lawful authority in the Free State, the government troops mimicked the British against whom they had once fought, with their uniforms, Crossley tenders and Rolls-Royce armoured cars. Meanwhile, the civilian subjects in these photographs look on from the margins, slyly expressive bystanders to a British victory parade in Dublin or the derailment of trains in rural Tipperary.

Francis Stuart, in his thinly concealed autobiographical novel Black List, Section H, describes taking part in a republican ambush of a train and how he felt when he encountered awed civilians staring at him: "Was this the moment that they, like him, had been waiting for, when familiar habits and connections were swept away and nobody was safe who didn't want to be, nothing was disallowed to the daring and whatever could be imagined could be made to come true?"

Perhaps the most striking thing about this superbly illustrated collection is how strange it is to look at images of war and disorder in Ireland without some British presence - a reason, perhaps, why a book such as this was so long in coming but also why it is all the more powerful.