On the state funerals

Diarmaid Ferriter

In the weeks leading up to 14 October, journalists and opposition politicians complained that the state funerals in Dublin for ten IRA men executed during the War of Independence would function as a cynical prolonging of the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis on the same weekend. As it happened, the Taoiseach had a bad day: he was visibly nervous, almost trembling during his graveside oration as he fluffed his lines in Irish and raced through an unimaginative script. He was upstaged by Cardinal Cahal Daly, who presided over the requiem mass and delivered a magnificent oration: passionate, balanced, erudite and well researched. Even in retirement, the former Archbishop of Armagh exuded a righteousness born of the knowledge that those claiming to be the armed defenders of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland were in fact its greatest enemies. Daly also emphasized something that has been all but ignored in the commentary on the state funerals: the intrinsic place in the Irish revolution of the aspiration to social justice. In quoting from the 1916 Proclamation and the First Dáil’s Democratic Programme of 1919, he was detailing promises that have yet to be kept. It was a timely reminder of the need to acknowledge the many failures of the Irish revolution, and I was nearly disposed towards forgiving his unwarranted and petulant reference to the impending abortion referendum.

Cardinal Daly was the right man for the event, for a number of reasons. Born in 1917, he was alive when the ten IRA men were executed. He has spent long periods on both sides of the Irish border. In the early 1980s he made brave and visionary speeches about the need for unionists and nationalists to accommodate each other, while reminding the British government that ‘victory’ in Northern Ireland could not be calculated in military terms. In other words, he had preached the Good Friday gospel long before his flock was prepared to embrace its teachings.

The itinerary on 14 October was designed to serve two distinct desires: that of the families of the executed men for a Catholic mass and burial and a recognition of their contribution to the state’s foundation; and that of Fianna Fáil to create a lavish state occasion. The bodies of the ten, who had been hanged and then buried in marked graves in the grounds of Mountjoy prison in Dublin on four dates in 1920 and 1921, were removed from the prison in flag-draped coffins, in the presence of about one hundred members of their families. The cortège proceeded to Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral by a circuitous route that crossed to the south side of the river Liffey and back again; clearly a decision was taken to make the route as lengthy as possible in order to achieve maximum exposure. After mass at the Pro-Cathedral the cortège proceeded to Glasnevin Cemetery, where nine of the coffins were re-interred; the tenth, that of Patrick Maher, was buried six days later in Limerick, at the request of his family.

Of the ten men honoured by the Irish state, the most famous by far is Kevin Barry. The capture of Kevin Barry on 20 September 1920, after a raid on a military bread lorry during which three British soldiers were shot dead, made little impression at the time, but the decision to execute him on All Saints’ Day, such a sensitive date in the Catholic calendar, enraged popular opinion, as did his age, and the fact that he was the first republican prisoner to be executed since 1916. Barry became the subject of popular ballads, and Irish America embraced the photograph of Barry as a rugby player at Belvedere College, which became an essential international propaganda image for Sinn Féin during the War of Independence.

Cecil Shaw, a contemporary of Barry’s at University College Dublin, recorded in his diary that ‘I never experienced anything like the surging fury which the news [of the execution] produced in everyone’. Another contemporary noted that the execution did more than any other event ‘towards influencing students in the direction of the Republican idea’. But Barry’s death was also important because he was a middle-class boy. For Erskine Childers, the hanging of Kevin Barry perpetuated the hypocritical pretence that the War of Independence was ‘the squalid conspiracy of a murder gang. That is false. It is a natural uprising.’ The acid test for republican success during the War of Independence was whether they could get substantial support from a cross-section of Irish people. They got it. Some commentators make much of the fact that Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election received ‘only’ 48 per cent of the counted vote. It’s a percentage Bertie Ahern or any other Irish political leader would die for.

The nine other honoured men were IRA volunteers of varying levels of seniority, aged between 19 and 39. Patrick Moran and Thomas Whelan were charged in connection with assassinations in Dublin on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 21 November 1920; both protested their innocence but were convicted and executed on 14 March 1921. On the same day, four other men – Thomas Bryan, Patrick Doyle, Frank Flood and Bernard Ryan – were hanged for their part in an unsuccessful ambush on 21 January 1921 during which bombs were thrown at a truck carrying Auxiliary troops in Drumcondra, north Dublin. Thomas Traynor was executed on 25 April 1921 for his part in an ambush of Auxiliaries in central Dublin in which a cadet was killed. Edmond Foley and Patrick Maher, both from Co. Limerick, were charged with the killing of police sergeant Peter Wallace and constable Enright at Knocklong railway station; juries twice failed to reach verdicts, and the case was turned over to a court-martial, which found them guilty.

There is an untold story behind the instigation, organization and timing of the state funerals of 14 October 2001, which historians will hopefully be in a position to tell in years to come. As early as 1922, Michael Collins had suggested that the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State should move the bodies out of Mountjoy, but the savage civil war soon intervened. According to Donal O’Donovan, a nephew of Kevin Barry and author of Kevin Barry and His Time, proposals were made to move the bodies from the prison in the 1930s and 1940s but the agreement of the families could not be secured. In 1948 the Barry family refused to allow Kevin Barry’s body to be moved from the prison on the grounds that the aim he died for – a thirty-two-county republic – had not been achieved. More recently, it has been reported that the National Graves Association applied for a licence to exhume the ten men in 1994 and received the approval of the Minister for Justice. However, the families were reportedly not unanimous in supporting re-interment. The possibility that a re-interment ceremony could become the basis for a paramilitary display would likely have prevented families from being allowed to make their own arrangements. A nephew of Kevin Barry told the Irish Times that the idea of re-interring Barry in the family’s native Carlow had been raised, ‘but it would have caused problems in that it would have been a private funeral and there would have been various groups that would have got involved and there would have been very little the family could have done about that’.

The state funerals, with their heavy police and military presence and with restricted access to the Pro-Cathedral and the cemetery, kept ‘various groups’ at bay. Sinn Féin supporters heckled gardaí when the gates of the cemetery were closed to all but the relatives of the ten and other official guests. They also cheered raucously when the Sinn Féin leaders arrived – the same leaders who, as some observers knew, were in the process of making an unprecedented move to decommission IRA arms. It seemed appropriate that an act of closure on the War of Independence was being witnessed by the two nervous Sinn Féin leaders who were about to test the appetite of their own core supporters for another act of closure. Whatever unpleasantness such cheering caused, it did not outweigh the spontaneous applause of those lining the streets as the funeral cortège passed by. These people seemed to welcome being brought closer to their history. To my eyes, untutored in military matters, the Irish army carried out its ceremonial functions in almost perfect solemnity. As they fired shots over the graves, their new earmuffs – the consequence of a series of costly legal awards to army personnel for hearing loss – made a comical sight; but earmuffs are better than balaclavas.

The ceremonies featured many displays of evenhandedness. Those present in Mountjoy prison for the removal of the remains prayed for the British victims of the War of Independence and for those who remained in Mountjoy in unmarked graves. The governor of the prison, John Lonergan, noted that the ten IRA men, contrary to certain reports, had not been tortured and had been given decent burials; he also reiterated his opposition to prisons retaining the bodies of the executed. Although no member of any other political party spoke, Bertie Ahern in his oration acknowledged that his party did not own Kevin Barry or his legacy. He spoke of Eamon de Valera, but also of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith and Desmond FitzGerald, whose son, the former Fine Gael Taoiseach, looked on stoically. I was reminded of a poem about Kevin Barry written in the 1940s by Padraic O’Halpin, which included the line ‘He gave not to you or I, we do not own him’. Fianna Fáil has certainly never owned Barry; the Barry family had little time for de Valera or his party. At the funeral of Kevin Barry’s mother in 1953 the family refused to speak to Dev, who had to content himself with unveiling a new set of headstones in the prison in 1961.

RTÉ covered the ceremonies for five hours on 14 October and did a very good job. Interestingly, the researchers for the broadcast found it difficult to get historians to participate; I declined because I was worried that the occasion would be hijacked by Fianna Fáil. The party’s Ard Fheis had begun on Friday of the same weekend and finished the night before the funerals with the party leader’s address. Is there any reason to believe the seemingly ludicrous claim that, after eighty years, there was no other weekend available? According to correspondence between relatives of the men and the government, a later date was preferred, possibly the following week, but President Mary McAleese was already committed to travelling to Uganda, and any later date would not have allowed enough hours of daylight for the various stages of the re-interment, mass and burial. I remain highly sceptical of such explanations.

RTÉ commentators Mary Kennedy and Pat Butler, and resident historian Brian Farrell, were in possession of generous amounts of information on the historical context, and much of the final correspondence from the condemned men. The segments that were reverentially quoted during the mass by Mary Kennedy confirmed the analysis of Tom Garvin: that these men were imbued with a strongly Catholic, anti-modern, almost mystical messianism, and a strong belief in the afterlife. The average age of the ten executed men was twenty-six. Most of the men they killed, or were accused of killing, were also very young.

The arguments made by politicians, journalists and historians in opposition to the funerals were reminiscent of the objections offered in 1991 against any celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the 1916 Rising. Most of those opposed argued that these men’s actions were at best foolish and unnecessary, and the state funerals a glorification of murder. On 2 October Fintan O’Toole argued in the Irish Times that honouring the ten men would offer ‘a great boost to those who want us to feel that the only difference between a terrorist and a patriot is the passage of time’, and was particularly inappropriate in the aftermath of the 11 September atrocities. But even allowing for the emotion generated by the attacks on America, there is no good reason to judge the executed men any differently after 11 September than before it. The ten IRA men were not engaged in a campaign of terror against innocent civilians: their actions had military aims in the context of a guerrilla war against the British Army and its intelligence agents. In terms of realpolitik, the funerals were never going to have any negative impact on the Northern peace process; if anything, they provided another opportunity for leaders of church and state to emphasize that there was only one legitimate army of the Irish Republic.

The hostility expressed towards the state funerals underlined for me the fact that a generation of Irish history students were taught by a school of talented historians who rose to prominence in the 1970s and were deeply uncomfortable with the bloody foundation of the state because of the Northern Troubles and the claims of those who insisted they were completing unfinished business. They often preferred to avoid the subject altogether. Much of the revisionist analysis is based on what these scholars believe should have happened eighty years ago, or what might have happened if constitutional nationalism had not been defeated in the general election of December 1918. Meanwhile, much of the public who attended the funerals chose to remember what actually happened.

I participated in two radio discussions on the subject, one for ‘The Sunday Show’ on RTÉ Radio One a week before the funerals, the other on the morning of the ceremonies for BBC Radio Ulster. Both debates were wide-ranging and attempted to place the events in a contemporary political context as well as the wider historical context. Eunan O’Halpin, Professor of Contemporary History at Trinity College and a grand-nephew of Kevin Barry, made the important point on RTÉ that we still have an unacceptable, at times embarrassing lack of knowledge about the events of this period, to the extent that we cannot even tell students how many people died in either the War of Independence or the Civil War. I suggested that there is little point in looking at the arrest and execution of Kevin Barry in isolation. Nineteen-twenty was a tragic year for Irish republicans for many other reasons – the enrolment of the Black and Tans, the murder of Tómás MacCurtain, Lord Mayor of Cork, murderous riots in the North, the sack of Balbriggan, the hunger strike of Terence MacSwiney in Brixton prison, the burning of Cork, the enrolment of the B Specials in the North, Bloody Sunday in Dublin, and the imposition of the Government of Ireland Act, which confirmed the partition of Ireland.

During the BBC discussion Bruce Arnold seemed terribly bored with the whole thing, and admitted as much, but he did recall participating in a dreadful one-act play at Trinity College called Kevin Barry, in which the stage instructions informed him he was to act like ‘a typical British officer’. The play, written by Gerard Westby in the middle of the century, was indicative of the way young people were taught to view the legacy of Barry; these radio discussions provided an opportunity to point out how much has changed. The present Irish government has been pluralist and generous in commemorating the Irish who died fighting for the British Army in the First World War, and historians such as David Fitzpatrick and Keith Jeffery have added much to our knowledge of this history. A younger generation of historians has not shirked the task of exposing the murkier and fascistic side of the IRA during the War of Independence and Civil War, most notably Peter Hart in The IRA and Its Enemies. During the Civil War republicans were executed by fellow Irishmen in greater numbers and with greater ferocity than the British could ever manage. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Irish historians have been so reluctant to write about the Civil War, leaving much of the work to non-Irish scholars.

Discussion of the state funerals inevitably threw up many of the contradictions and difficult legacies of these years. It is worth reiterating some of these. By creating the UVF in 1913, it was loyalists who introduced paramilitarism to Ireland on a serious scale. Fianna Fáil may want to reclaim its republican past to downplay the Sinn Féin threat; but what should be remembered is that Sinn Féin is a potential electoral threat in three or four southern constituencies not because these constituencies crave a thirty-two-county socialist republic, but because they are neglected working-class areas that were bypassed by the economic boom. These communities have lacked political leadership, and they embrace vigilantism because it makes them feel safer at night. Meanwhile, middle-class people in the south don’t want Sinn Féin in government here because they don’t consider them house-trained; yet they feel passionate about having fenians about the place in Stormont.

War always throws up ideological inconsistencies, and the Irish wars of 1916–23 were no exception. Early twentieth-century Ireland had its full share of petty resentments, snobberies and hypocrisies, and its revolutionary leaders naturally embodied many of these. What much of the vitriol directed at those commemorating this generation fails to acknowledge is that most Irish people are capable of distinguishing between past and present, and of recognizing the changing context of Irish republicanism. The leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, in one of the last letters written before he died in 1918, outlined the failure of his own political ambition, foreseeing only ‘universal anarchy when every blackguard who wants to commit an outrage will simply call himself a Sinn Féiner and thereby get the sympathy of the unthinking crowd’. Redmond had many noble traits, but he also represented a generation of Irish nationalists who were arrogant and removed from the concerns of ordinary people; they tended to rely on pliant henchmen and they rarely had to contest hard-fought elections, many MPs being returned unopposed for decades. These were the conditions that led them to be so dismissive of the electorate. John Dillon, who succeeded Redmond, acknowledged his own party’s ‘absolute lack of organisation and helplessness’ against ‘the most perfect organisation and infinite audacity’ of Sinn Féin in 1918. The vastly expanded electorate that voted in 1918 could hardly be classed as ‘unthinking’, any more than the 65 per cent of those surveyed by the Irish Independent in 1991 who said they felt pride in 1916, any more than those who lined the route of the cortège on 14 October.

I never knew my grandfather, but I do know that as a porter in Hayes Hotel in Thurles he was proud to withstand beatings from the Black and Tans for harbouring republicans during the War of Independence. I know that he was born in the 1890s and was uplifted by the intense nationalism that surrounded him and by supporting an army that was then, and only then, a representative people’s army. I also recognize that the Black and Tans who pistol-whipped him were undoubtedly going through their own traumas, as were the young soldiers killed in the Dublin ambush by Kevin Barry and his comrades. Members of my father’s generation had mixed feelings about the state funerals precisely because many of them feel nothing but shame at the manner in which the IRA abused and falsified their parents’ generation’s passion and mandate in order to wage terror in the North. I was born in 1972 and feel no shame about Kevin Barry being given a state funeral. I view him as someone who bravely gave his life for Irish independence, and as an historian I have no qualms about grappling with his complicated legacy. I hope I represent a generation of historians who will not shy away from dealing with the bloody birth of the state for reasons of contemporary politics. I am confident that we will not use it for propagandist reasons; that we will deal with what happened, not what could have happened, or what we think should have happened.


Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 5 Winter 2001–2