How the Civil War tore families apart
How the Civil War tore families apart


By Kim Bielenberg (for the Irish Independent)

One hundred years ago this week, the Civil War came to an end. Peace settled on the country, but the conflict left a bitter legacy that not only divided the country politically but also broke families apart — and the effects reverberated through generations.

What happened to close friends, sisters and brothers and their children when members of the same family had been on opposing sides?

The story of intergenerational trauma and, in some cases, reconciliation, is told in a new series on TG4, Tráma Teaghlaigh, starting on Wednesday. Events are told from the points of view of children and grandchildren of Civil War participants.

Interviewees include Aidan Larkin, grandson of John O’Connor, a little-known victim of the Ballyseedy massacre in Kerry, as well as children and grandchildren of the Ryan family from Tomcoole, Co Wexford.

Vividly describing the Co Kerry killings of March 7, 1923, Larkin still speaks with intense emotion, as if the atrocity is fresh in the memory. He tells Review that the explosion initiated the complete break-up of his mother’s family.

Ultimately, his mother Kathleen was to grow up without either of her parents, partly as a result of the strict Catholic mores of the time.

Reflecting on the massacre, where eight prisoners were deliberately killed by Free States troops in an explosion, he says: “I feel a great sense of injustice at what happened. It was a heinous crime.”

O’Connor, a merchant seaman, was in the wrong place at the wrong time when his boat landed in Fenit, Co Kerry, and he was arrested by the Free State army.

The Limerick-born son of a policeman, he had smuggled weapons for the IRA during the War of Independence, and was also suspected of importing arms for the anti-treaty IRA in the Civil War, but nothing was found when he arrived in Fenit.

Within hours of his arrival and his arrest, he was tied to a mine with eight other prisoners and a bomb was detonated. They were blown apart and lifted into the air. Eight men died but one, Stephen Fuller, miraculously survived to tell the true story of what happened.

The circumstances were covered up by the Free State and Richard Mulcahy, the minister for defence, gave a false account to the Dáil of what had happened.

He claimed that the prisoners had lost their lives when ordered to remove a barricade that had been placed in the road by “Irregulars” (the term for anti-treaty forces). The Irregulars were also blamed for planting the bombs.

Larkin this week called on the government to apologise for the atrocity, and he believes it is important to correct the Dáil record.

O’Connor’s English-born widow, Eileen, lived in Liverpool, where O’Connor himself was based, and she travelled to Tralee when she heard news of his death.

She had a young daughter Kathleen — Aidan’s mother — and she was pregnant with her second daughter, Eileen, who was born in November that year.

After the widow travelled to Ireland, she was arrested and held in Kilmainham Gaol before returning to England.

Larkin says of Kathleen: “My mother never talked about her family, because she never really had one.”

O’Connor’s death also led to a situation where his daughters were separated from their mother.

After the massacre, Eileen O’Connor received financial help from Áine Ceannt, widow of Éamonn Ceannt, a signatory of the 1916 Proclamation who had been executed during the Rising. She was among the leading organisers of the Irish White Cross, which offered assistance to children affected by the War of Independence and the Civil War.

But Ceannt, a strict Catholic, turned against Eileen O’Connor with dramatic consequences when she discovered that the widow had started a relationship with a married man after her husband’s death.

She carried out extensive investigations into Eileen and decided that she was not a fit person to be a parent as a result of this relationship.

The Irish White Cross took complete control over the two children, and Áine Ceannt had them removed from their mother.

In December 1926, a court appointed her as guardian, and seven-year-old Kathleen was handed over at the office of solicitor Arthur Cox. Her sister Eileen suffered a similar fate.

Filmed a few years before her death in 2015, Kathleen says of her mother’s sudden departure from her life: “I remember looking out the window and seeing her get into a taxi and she was gone.”

For young Kathleen, that was the end of life with either parent, and from the age of eight until 18 she was sent to a boarding school at Ballingarry, Co Tipperary, where she was brought up by nuns.

When the time came for holidays, she saw the other children packing to go home to their families and she copied them.

According to Aidan’s account, that was until a nun came and said: “What do you think you’re doing? Sure, you have no home to go.” He says that remark hurt his mother deeply.

Eventually, she spent school holidays with her grandmother in Innishannon, Co Cork, but there was no mention of her father and what had happened to him.

Larkin says his mother could never come to terms with the killings at Ballyseedy and forgive those who perpetrated the atrocity. A century on, he himself says he has made his peace with it, but he believes the government should now apologise.

Mulcahy, the minister who gave the false account to the Dáil, also features in the story of the Ryan family. A good number of the eight daughters and four sons played an active part in the War of Independence. But they were divided in the Civil War. Two Ryans who were vehemently opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 went on hunger strike in jail.

The person who had them sent to prison was their brother-in-law, Mulcahy.

He was married to one of the sisters, Min Ryan, who had been an activist for Cumann na mBan in the War of Independence. She had been close to Seán MacDiarmada, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, and visited him with her sister Phyllis on the night of his execution.​

Elizabeth Berney, a daughter of Richard and Min Mulcahy, is interviewed for the TG4 programme and ponders how people in this period struggled to live a normal family life: “From 1916 until the Civil War, there was nothing but trauma.”

She adds: “The whole thing is horrific when I think about what my parents went through and about what others went through on either side. It was a Civil War that never should have happened.”

Phyllis Gaffney, a granddaughter of another of the Ryan sisters, Chris, visited the old family home, Tomcoole during the filming of the documentary. Chris was one of the sisters who remained neutral in the Civil War.

The siblings came from a farming family, and a number were widely travelled, adventurous and highly educated. They became steeped in republican politics and the Gaelic League. The family rented a house in Ranelagh in Dublin, and this became a sort of salon for key figures in the struggle for independence and a centre of revolutionary activity.

Gaffney recalls meeting some of the Ryan sisters in their later years when she was growing up, and remembers vivacious personalities.

“I met them at family parties,” she tells Review. “They were talkative and voluble, very jolly and full of joie de vivre, and keen to gossip. The men tended to be silent and couldn’t get a word in edgeways.”

Some of the sisters became involved in the Gaelic revival and were keen linguists. The period before the Rising was a time of relative freedom for women, who were encouraged to attend Irish classes on equal terms to men.

Phyllis, Min and their brother Jim travelled to the GPO during the 1916 Rising. Phyllis, later a distinguished scientist, carried a gun under her coat.

Another sister, Nell, was active in the War of Independence, travelling around Wexford on a motorbike, and she was imprisoned in Britain after the Rising. Another sister, Kit, a lecturer in modern languages at UCD, was also arrested.

While Min married Mulcahy, who was chief of staff of the IRA in the War of Independence, Kit married Seán T Ó Ceallaigh, a senior Sinn Féin activist who later became president of Ireland. (After Kit’s death in 1934, he married another Ryan sister, Phyllis).

While the family was united through the War of Independence, it was riven by the Anglo-Irish Treaty and Civil War.

Supported by Min, Mulcahy became the senior commander of the Free State forces, and was blamed for many of the executions during the Civil War. He was supported by another sister, Agnes, and her husband, Denis McCullough, a former president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Staunchly opposed to the treaty on the other side were Kit and Seán T Ó Ceallaigh, Nell, Phyllis and Jim Ryan (great-grandfather of the Irish rugby international James).

Kit was so incensed by Mulcahy’s stance that she urged her sister Min to leave him if he refused to oppose the treaty, but Min was not for turning.

Nell was the most active of the sisters on the anti-treaty side, working as a dispatch rider and organiser. As a result, she fell out irreconcilably with her best friend in Wexford, Kathleen Browne, who was on the pro-treaty side.

Nell and Kathleen had been in prison together and comrades in Cumann na mBan. Their later enmity was so great that Kathleen threatened to burn down Nell’s house at Tomcoole if the anti-treaty IRA attacked her own home at Rathronan Castle.

Nell’s activities led to her arrest at the behest of the National Army headed by her brother-in-law, and she was imprisoned in Kilmainham. She went on hunger strike for 34 days and other family members exerted pressure on her sister Min to have her released, but Mulcahy gave no preferential treatment.

Nell Ryan, who reportedly nearly died in prison, was released in April 1923 and later became a Fianna Fáil councillor.

Her brother Jim also went on hunger strike in jail on the Curragh for an even longer time, and later became a Fianna Fáil cabinet minister. Mulcahy went on to become leader of Fine Gael and served as a minister in a number of governments.

Despite the rancour over the Civil War divisions, the two sides of the family went some way to reconcile their differences.

Phyllis Gaffney said the healing process was helped by two family funerals: the first was one of the brothers Martin, who was a priest, and the second of the father of the family, John.

“It allowed them to gain a new perspective on life,” she said. The sisters made a conscious effort to bring their children and grandchildren together and the acrimony did not seem to pass into succeeding generations.

A photo taken many years after the Civil War shows the whole family, including Min and Nell and one time bitter rivals Sean Ó Ceallaigh and Richard Mulcahy, in each other’s company.

Mulcahy’s son Risteárd, filmed in 2012 before his death, is shown in the documentary recalling how the children were banned from talking about politics and the Civil War when they met. ‘Tráma Teaghlaigh’ starts on TG4 on Wednesday at 9.30pm.

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