Guest blog: Resting Place – The Legacies of Civil War by Ellen McWilliams

Our guest blog today is by Ellen McWilliams. Ellen comes from generations of Irish Republicans. Her Grandfather was a scout for the West Cork IRA during the Irish War of Independence and Irish Civil War and his older brother was in the West Cork No. 3 Brigade. Her Great Grandfather died in 1916 and her Great Grandmother was a dedicated Cumann na mBan activist. They took the Anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. Ellen grew up in Desertserges, West Cork, in the social and geographical nerve centre of the Dunmanway Massacre, the murder of 13 Protestant men by the Anti-Treaty IRA. Her book, Resting Places: On Wounds, War and the Irish Revolution is published by Belfast’s Beyond the Pale. She teaches in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Exeter.

Resting Places: On Wounds, War and the Irish Revolution is about the power of what the philosopher James Hollis calls ‘the ghosts who run our lives’. It is a book concerned with buried family histories and how landscapes conceal traumatic histories of revolution, decolonisation, conflict, and atrocity, and in particular how the sunder of Civil War, what Seamus Heaney named ‘neighbourly murder’, haunts the present.

Writing this book involved a slow-moving, intensely painful excavation of a family and community history I have carried all of my life even if I didn’t know it until now. This history haunted my dreams as a child and only now can I see that it has shaped every part of my life.

The constellation of faces we are born into, the familiar faces who lay the foundations of our earliest years, stay with us as we grow up. I was born in 1977 in Desertserges in mid West Cork and grew up on a road on which every other house was Catholic, Protestant, Protestant, Catholic – something close to an experiment in interfaith collectivism. I grew up near the Georgian Rectory at Kilcolman which is not the Big House of the Anglo Irish imagination, but a relative of it. And it came as a shock to me to discover as I grew older that not everyone born in Ireland has the opportunity to grow up in what would at one time have been called a ‘mixed community’.

We lived six miles from what was once the plantation town of Bandon, which received its charter in the same year as the city of Belfast, and we are lucky to have a history of the same courtesy of Kieran Doyle’s Behind the Wall: The Rise and Fall of Protestant Power and Culture in Bandon

But it is only in the past three years that I have fully engaged with this history because as a child in that part of the world in the 1980s, in my case as a Catholic child, one thing you knew from the youngest age was that conversations about politics, religion, or the Troubles, current or historical, were best avoided altogether or needed to be approached with immense care. My lack of knowledge about the history of the West Cork Protestant community was not born out of any wilful ignorance, but an instinct gained early on that to ask too many questions about this history was to risk causing pain to people you cared about and who cared about you – some of our closest neighbours and friends who were always there for us as we were for them, even though we attended different schools, different churches.

And so it is only in the past three years that I have discovered the close connections between the Methodist community of mid West Cork, that included some of our closest neighbours and friends, and the Methodist tradition of England’s west country – even though I have spent most of my adult life living in the city of Bristol, the home of John Wesley’s New Room.

This book is also an excavation of my own family history, the story of my grandparents and great grandparents and what they sacrificed during the years of the Irish Revolution – my mother’s family were in the Third West Cork Brigade of the IRA and Cumann na mBan and took the Anti-Treaty side in the Irish Civil War. But it is, above all, the story of discovering the facts of what historians call the ‘outrages’ against Protestant families in mid-West Cork during the years Irish War of Independence and the story of the Dunmanway Massacre of 1922, an atrocity committed by the West Cork Anti-Treaty IRA. 

In the history of Desertserges the proximities of these brutal histories – the War of Independence, the Civil War, and the killings of April 1922 – are nothing short of terrifying.

Once I began to unearth this story, in the history books and the Irish military bureau archives there was no turning away from it. It became urgent, obsessive, all consuming. Resting Places was written during many sleepless nights, on the train to work, between seminars and lectures, between loading the washing machine and running the bath for my small son as the wheel of the everyday turned. And I was so lucky to have the rhythms of the everyday, of family love, parenting, and a job I find so rewarding – because for a while the world seemed to turn upside down as the history shocks kept landing and I was astonished at my own myopia, my own failure to see what has always been hiding in plain sight.

For all of my terrors about the ethics of writing about this history and writing with responsibility, fears about how easily remembering and commemoration can be commodified in the literary marketplace, I could not stay away from this story.

In writing about the severe shock triggered by uncovering this history and the struggle of trying to put words to it, I found particular comfort in an early response from critic Jonathan Meades who describes this book as ‘a threnody about a massacre that took place a 100 years ago in West Cork but might as well have been yesterday’.

In coming to terms with this history my academic training deserted me, even though over the years I have given lectures on the literature of the Irish Revolution, its afterlife in contemporary Irish poetry, and the poetry of the Northern Ireland conflict. I have taught seminars on the literature of witness, memory/post-memory, historian Guy Beiner’s model of ‘forgetful remembrance’, and inter-generational transmission. I lost faith in my own abilities as an academic and in the idea of commemoration itself as I struggled to find a way of writing about this history.  

The book took on a life of its own and at every turn the story is brought back home to the unavoidably personal – there can be no separation of the private and the public in this case and I knew early on that if I was going to raise the dead and write about a pain in our community that had seemed to go unacknowledged for so long I would have to offer up something of myself. 

I discovered just over a year ago that my Great Grandfather, Patrick, died after he became ill offering assistance to the Easter Rising of 1916. He was buried in May 1916.

Reading between the lines, I can only imagine that my Great Grandmother, Ellen, who came from a political family, was radicalised by grief and joined Cumann na mBan in 1917.

Ellen kept a safe house for IRA men on the run, catering for names found in the history books, and set up a hospital to treat the wounded until it was commandeered by the Free State Army after the outbreak of the Irish Civil War.

Sean Buckley Head of Intelligence for the Third West Cork Brigade of the IRA provided a letter in support of her application for a military pension and described her commitment as ‘tireless – she at all times gave loyal and generous assistance’. In spite of this, Ellen was denied a pension but on appeal was awarded a medal. 

Ellen’s eldest son, Gerry, was in active service all through the years of the Revolution to the end of the Civil War. Tom Hales provided the letter in support of his military pension application – which was awarded in full – and insisted that ‘he performed all duties in a willing, disciplinary manner, and deserves ‘to be placed amongst the 1st Class Rank & File Soldiers of Cork No. 3 Brigade’.

Gerry’s application for a military pension makes for extraordinary reading – he was an accomplished arsonist who burned down a number of buildings important to British military strategy, including the Allen Institute in Bandon, and he was also one of the men who burned down Castle Bernard and was tasked with taking Lord Bandon and Charles Sealey-King hostage. My mother remembers him only as being kind and warmhearted, but also describes him as ‘a man who was afraid of nothing’.

He was trialled by court martial and taken as a Prisoner of War in 1921. The Essex Regiment stationed in Bandon under Arthur Percival was notorious for its mistreatment of Republican prisoners and crimes against civilians – in Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish War, historian J.B.E Hittle describes these war crimes as nothing short of ‘sadism’. Gerry was imprisoned in Newbridge during the Civil War in 1922 and took part in the General Hunger Strike of 1923.

My Grandfather, Francie, who I was lucky to know as a child, was a messenger and scout for the West Cork IRA and was trained to use a rifle in his teenage years. His brother and sisters all emigrated in the years and decades after the Revolution, leaving him alone with my great grandmother, Ellen. It is hard to imagine Ellen’s grief at the loss of her husband and children, as well as having to bear the stigma and shame inflicted on Anti-Treaty Republican families.

But another story within the story is that of a Methodist farmer Thomas Bradfield who was shot by Tom Barry and the West Cork IRA on the 1st of February 1921 for being a suspected informer and of two young IRA men, Timothy and James Coffey, who lived just fields away and were taken in reprisal for the death of Thomas Bradfield and shot by the Crown Forces on the 14th of February 1921. 

I know the house of Thomas Bradfield because it is the house I grew up in.

I was born into this house because my paternal grandfather Daniel McCarthy was the man brave or, as some might insist, brazen enough to take on the house and to rebuild and make a new life there. He moved to Knockmacool from Drinagh near the town of Dunmanway in 1925. The home of Thomas Bradfield – the house I grew up in – was taken over by the West Cork IRA after his death and used as a makeshift Headquarters after his wife and family had fled.

In the many uncanny disturbances I write about in the book finding the story of the four walls in which you were raised examined by historians as central to such a painful history is acutely unnerving. My paternal grandfather, Daniel, came to buy the house in an arrangement made by the local Parish Priest and Methodist Minister because he had no political affiliations and they wanted to give the honest outsider a chance. The arrangement was approved by Thomas Bradfield’s widow, Elizabeth, but before my Grandfather moved to Knockmacool, the land had to be cleared of graziers by the Free State Army. Daniel had to find his own ways of defending the boundaries of the farm and on at least one occasion did so with the assistance of his neighbours from Drinagh, who were like family, the Connollys and the Jagoes. Jagoe has always been and remains a strong West Cork name.

The story of the house at Knockmacool matters because, as Dr Andy Bielenberg points out in the historical overview at the start of the book, the murder of Thomas Bradfield and the subsequent murder of the Coffey Brothers was a deeply traumatic turning point in this history and created a breakdown of trust, a culture of suspicion and division, that ultimately contributed to the atrocity of April 1922. I freely admit this book is a work of feeling over reason and I was very lucky to have Dr Bielenberg provide an authoritative history of the events when I do not have the expertise to and, even if I did, could not face doing so. I will always be haunted by the moment I discovered familiar and much-loved family names in the historical accounts of the ‘outrages’ against Protestants in mid West Cork – I found the source that gave full voice to the history on Easter Sunday 2021 and it landed like a blow to the head. Dr Bielenberg reminds us that families in this area, so many families hurt by the War of Independence, the Civil War, and the Dunmanway Massacre of April 1922, continued to live alongside each other when the conflict finally ended and he suggests that silence was ‘useful mechanism to overcome differences’. By the time I arrived into this community in the late 1970s that silence remained unbroken, or at least that was my experience of it. If twentieth century Ireland has taught us anything it is that where there is silence, there is also often fear, shame, and pain.

My Grandfather, Francie, kept the record of the family commitment to Irish Republicanism in a locked cupboard that his children were never to go near and yet fragments travelled down – in stories overheard and stories my mother has only recently been able to share with me. 

Although one silence remained absolute – until I approached her about this painful subject, with all necessary care, my mother had never heard of the Dunmanway Massacre or the Bandon Valley Killings of April 1922.

And one question that runs throughout my book is this – after 100 years of dignified silence who am I to break that silence? Who am I to speak?

Resting Places is full of fear of trespassing on someone else’s story and yet there was no choice but to keep writing. Looking away from the history was not an option – not saying anything does not mean it did not happen, as the opening essay insists.

Shortly after the centenary of April 1922 I read a story in the Belfast News Letter about Neale Jagoe’s lonely pilgrimage to Dunmanway to remember his ancestors whose lives had been threatened in April 1922 and who fled North to escape persecution. He spoke of his dismay and grief at the lack of official recognition in the context of the Decade of Commemoration. It took me a year to find the courage to write to Neale, but he replied immediately and understanding each other’s family histories has been the slow-moving work of radical empathy. It can be no accident that Neale is connected to the same Jagoe family tree as the Drinagh Jagoes who were such good friends to my paternal Grandfather and who supported him in his move to Knockmacool.  Neale wrote a prologue to the book, as did Charles Duff, the Grandson of David Gray, who was murdered during the Dunmanway Massacre.

Some descendants of the ‘outrages against Protestants’ in the revolutionary period in West Cork have expressed a heartfelt wish to tell their stories and they need to be heard. Others may prefer not to. Both of these positions need to be understood and respected. One thing I hold onto is the moment I opened a message from a man whose family was displaced by this history; he wrote to me after publication simply to say ‘at last someone has said something’.

I write honestly, too honestly perhaps, about the emotional cost of writing this book, what at times felt like a slow walk through purgatory. I write about nightmares, sleeplessness, pain, the symptoms of mind and body, the outrage, anguish, and guilt that accompanied terrible discoveries, as the history kept rising. There were times during the writing of this book and in its aftermath when I was not myself. I do not know how anyone could raise such a history without feeling the full weight of it in all its cruel intimacies, this story of murder at the end of the lane. The uncovering of this history came as a terrible shock precisely because the atrocity of April 1922 was committed against a community of people I have only ever considered our people, the neighbours and friends who were there for us as we were for them, and they had been left to carry the grief of it alone as silence, shame, and fear drew a veil over the terrible events. Growing up in this part of the world I was aware that the language of sectarianism existed, in its different and ugly forms, but it would never have been tolerated in the house I was raised in.

I wrote this book for our son James, who as a child with an Irish Catholic mother and English Protestant father may one day have questions of his own. I also wrote this book for my husband, John McWilliams, who when we first met was writing about Seventeenth-Century English literature and the peculiar pain of Civil War which injures and wounds more deeply than any other kind of conflict.

Reviewers have used the language of bravery and courage in their responses to the book. One of the few things I am sure of is that the book does not turn its back on the courage of my Grandfather’s family, it is a genuflection to it, a reflection of the courage of a community destroyed by war 100 years ago that somehow rebuilt and moved with care and grace around each other. Most of all, it is a genuflection to the extraordinary fortitude of our Protestant neighbours who found their way to unimaginable forgiveness. I could not look away from the facts of the history once I had discovered them and I know that if I had somehow been able to walk away from this story I would have never forgiven myself for it.

I asked the permission of many people in writing this book, not least the descendants of victims of the Dunmanway Massacre. Half the Bandon Valley read this book before it went to press. I assured my mother – the daughter of the West Cork IRA – that I would only publish the book with her support and she insisted I must, offering the clear-eyed promise: ‘It’s time to bring it all into the light’. I initially planned to put the manuscript aside for our son for when he is older, if I couldn’t find the right publisher, but Beyond the Pale has always been willing to take risks in publishing interesting and important books. Robbie McVeigh, Bill Rolston, and Mike Tomlinson asked all the right questions and understood the almighty struggle that went into finishing the book.

This is a book about shadows and light, about sight and illumination, about silence and delayed speech, about atonement and the need to face painful truths. Histories such as this one refuse to remain underground and only continue to haunt and harm the living if they are not gently, and with the greatest of care, brought into the light.

I approached a neighbour whose family were also in the IRA and suffered terrible crimes at the hands of the British Crown Forces and explained that I was, with all necessary precautions, trying to write about this history and needed his advice. He encouraged me to keep going because, when it comes to the story of the Irish Revolution, ‘nobody has a monopoly on grief and loss’.

On the centenary of the Dunmanway Massacre Bishop Paul Colton, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork, made a number of pastoral visits to the communities affected by the terrible events of April 1922. He also laid a wreath on the grave of Michael O’Neill, the IRA man whose death sparked the massacre, described by historian Barry Keane, author of Massacre in West Cork, as ‘an extraordinary gesture of reconciliation’. This book is a wreath laid in turn, an In Memoriam, and a work of mourning.

15 years ago I was lucky to teach a student called Daniel Bristow, who has written a book about philosopher Jacques Lacan and James Joyce and now practises as a Lacanian Psychoanalyst. Daniel was generous enough to put into words what I could not after the essay from which this book sprang was published in the Irish Times on Good Friday April 2022. He described it as follows, finding a language at last for the heart’s core of the book:

 ‘An essay about the Dunmanway Massacre that took place in April 1922 and on its lingering traces, inscribed into the lives and landscape of its site, trans-generationally – interweaving personal and geopolitical lived experience and haunted memorial transmission, through the said and what is unsayable the nightmare of history is softly awoken here to speak what it can of a trauma which in its always-absence is present always’.

Resting Places: On Wounds, War and the Irish Revolution attempts to approach this history which in its always-absence has been present always, a history that has coloured my life ‘in panes of shade and vivid brights’, as I say in the book. Even if I could not see it until now I have carried the mirror shards of this history for half a lifetime. I can only hope I have handled this story with the care and tenderness it deserves in piecing the mirror back together, in giving the nightmare of this history a voice in the hope of honouring the dead and bringing peace to the living.