The hidden histories of the Irish War of Independence and Civil War

A compilation of oral testimonies from IRA veterans of Ireland's War of Independence and the Civil War, The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O'Malley's Interviews With The Four Northern Divisions, is being launched tonight in Dundalk. Editor Síobhra Aiken, great-grandaughter of noted Co Armagh-born Irish politician and former IRA chief of staff Frank Aiken, tells David Roy how she discovered hidden family histories while working on the book

Síobhra Aiken, one of the editors of the new The Men Will Talk To Me book, is the great grandaughter of Frank Aiken

THE latest publication in a series of books documenting IRA experiences in the War of Independence and Irish Civil War, The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O'Malley's Interviews With The Four Northern Divisions, compiles oral histories from 14 former IRA volunteers.

Contributors include former IRA chief of staff Frank Aiken from Camlough, Donegal anti-Treaty man, Spanish Civil War fighter and novelist Peadar O'Donnell and Treaty supporter Dr Patrick McCartan from Carrickmore, father-in-law of Dubliner Ronnie Drew.

The book features compelling eye-witness accounts of the mobilisation of the Dundalk Volunteers for the 1916 Rising, the original Bloody Sunday in 1920, the Belfast Pogroms and the planning of historical escapes from the Curragh and Kilkenny Gaol.

Co Mayo-born republican Ernie O'Malley met with 450 former IRA colleagues during the 1940s and 50s to discuss their experiences in the conflicts, eventually transcribing over 660 interviews in his "notoriously illegible handwriting".

Co Mayo-born republican Ernie O'Malley interviewed 450 former IRA colleagues during the 1940s and 50s

These encounters began as research for O'Malley's Civil War memoir, The Singing Flame, the posthumously published sequel to his classic account of the War of Independence, On Another Man's Wound.

Since 2012, his original interviews have been recompiled, edited and annotated for The Men Will Talk To Me series, the title inspired by a quote by O'Malley whose impeccable IRA credentials guaranteed uncommonly candid conversations with his fellow veterans.

An IRA commandant general during the War of Independence, O'Malley was later a senior IRA officer who was captured after being severely wounded during a Civil War shoot-out.

He recovered to be elected as a TD for Dublin North in 1923 while incarcerated in Mountjoy Gaol, where he subsequently survived a 41-day hunger strike protest against the continued imprisonment of IRA men.

Coordinated by O'Malley's son, Cormac, The Men Will Talk To Me series has thus far compiled the recollections of veterans in Kerry, Clare, Galway, Mayo and west Cork, with the latest volume focused on the four Northern Divisions active in counties Donegal, Derry, Down, Antrim, Armagh, Tyrone, Louth and Monaghan.

One of its most well known contributors is Fianna Fail founding member and former tanaiste, Frank Aiken.

Commandant of the IRA's Camlough Company by the age of 21, Abbey Grammar and St Colman's College Newry-educated Aiken rose up the ranks during the War of Independence to become O/C of its highly regarded 4th Northern Division, which spanned south and west Down, Armagh and north Louth.

Frank Aiken, O/C of the IRA's 4th Northern Division, and senior Fianna Fail member

Adopting a "unique stance of neutrality" in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, his men "played no significant part' in the Civil War, which he actively campaigned to prevent.

Interned in Dundalk Gaol, Aiken was later appointed IRA chief of staff after his friend Liam Lynch was killed in April 1923 and was the man who gave the order to 'dump arms', effectively ending the conflict.

One of four editors who worked on the new book, Ardee-born Síobhra Aiken is Frank Aiken's great grandaughter. An Irish Research Council Postgraduate Scholar at the Centre for Irish Studies, NUI Galway, where she is completing a PhD dissertation focussing on the literary narratives of the Irish Civil War, the former Fulbright Scholar grew up "hearing stories from people who would have remembered Frank".

Her grandfather Frank Aiken Jnr would often take the teenaged Síobhra to local history events which would supply tantalising snippets about the early life of their famous forebear, who died aged 85 in 1983 following a distinguished career in southern politics, including stints as minister for finance, defence and external affairs.

Mick O'Hanlon, grandfather of actor and comedian Ardal O'Hanlon

Having remained tight-lipped about his IRA years during his lifetime, The Men Will Talk To Me's latest volume has now shed light on Aiken's republican past.

"This was definitely a learning experience," explains Síobhra of her work on the book. "Like a lot of these men, and particularly anyone who got into politics, Frank Aiken left his past behind and didn't really talk about it. It was a very traumatic time and he was very much of the opinion that we needed to look towards the future. It was never something that was talked about at home."

Indeed, it seems even famed republican confidante Ernie O'Malley struggled to get much from his Co Armagh comrade.

"His 'interview' in the book is not the most illuminating," admits Síobhra. "Some of it is actually documents he wrote during the conflict. I think he was giving O'Malley these kind of things as if to say 'there you are, off you go now – I'm not giving you anything else'."

However, Frank Aiken does crop up repeatedly in other men's accounts of various IRA operations. For example, the Altnaveigh Massacre of June 1922 saw seven Protestants killed by men operating under his orders, further details of which have just been released by the Republic's Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection project.

"There was a lot of violence during those years and he was obviously a perpetrator of violence as well," says Síobhra. "That's something we've had to come to grips with as a family."

One surprise discovery for the family came via O'Malley's interview with Mullaghbawn man Michael 'Mick' O'Hanlon (father of Fianna Fail politician Rory O'Hanlon and grandfather of comedian Ardal O'Hanlon), the intelligence officer in Aiken's 4th Northern Division.

"During the Civil War, Mick O'Hanlon escaped from the Curragh and went on the run with a group of men in Kildare. They stayed with the Cardwells, first cousins of the Aikens who'd moved down from Armagh," Síobhra says.

"He mentions that a girl was shot accidentally while they were there – I discovered that she was actually one of the cousins, Annie Cardwell, who was Cumann na mBan.

"We'd never been told this. So in terms of uncovering family history it was really a journey, I suppose, uncovering those tragedies that were brushed aside."

This evening's book launch will take place at the Oriel Centre in Dundalk Gaol, a highly appropriate venue as Síobhra explains:

"It will be really interesting because it's were Aiken and his men were broken out of prison," she says.

"After he was imprisoned he took the anti-Treaty side, but it was actually some of his pro-Treaty men who broke him out. So it just shows you that the split and the loyalties of the Civil War were maybe more fluid than we imagine."

:: For tickets and details of tonight launch, see The Men Will Talk To Me is available now, published by Merrion.

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