Ridding ourselves of the past: Trauma, testimony and the Irish Civil War

Aiken, Síobhra
This dissertation complicates the widespread scholarly and popular belief that the Irish Civil War (1922–1923) was followed by a ‘traumatic silence’. It achieves this by opening up an alternative archive of published civil war testimony. Most of the testimonies included were produced in the 1920s and 1930s. They were written by pro- and anti-treaty men and women, in both English and Irish. Nearly all have eluded sustained scholarly attention to date. The wealth of this body of testimony suggests that the supposed ‘silence’ of the Irish Civil War was less related to an inability to speak on the part of revolutionaries, but rather due to an unwillingness by the architects of official memory to receive and invest in the testimony of civil war veterans. However, testimonies of traumatic events seldom appear in conventional form. The act of smuggling private, painful experience into the public realm, especially when it challenged official memory making (or even forgetting), demanded the cautious deployment of self-protective narrative strategies. As a result, this dissertation calls for the broader incorporation of less conventional, fictionalised and hybridised forms of life writing into historical study. This rich archive of testimony facilitated a counter-memory to the dominant commitment to ‘forget’ the civil war. These testimonies also illustrate the interface between the cultural mediation of the ‘collective trauma’ of the Irish Civil War and emerging understandings of individual psychic ‘trauma’ in the early decades of the twentieth century. Indeed, a number of veterans self-consciously engaged in projects of therapeutic writing as a means to ‘heal’ the ‘spiritual wounds’ of civil war. This dissertation argues that fictionalised forms of life writing were widely employed to grapple with the psychological complexities of veterans’ wartime experience – this is particularly evident in the case of female revolutionaries. The dissertation also outlines the prevalence of literary representations of wartime sexual violence, challenging the assumptions that sexual violence during the Irish revolution was ‘rare’ or ‘hidden’. It further considers overlooked perpetrator trauma narratives that emerged in the 1970s in the context of the ‘Troubles’, and outlines the particular exculpatory narrative strategies adopted by veterans to enable their confessions of perpetrating violence.
NUI Galway
Publisher DOI
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Ireland