One hundred years ago next Sunday, Dublin Castle was formally handed over to Michael Collins as representative of the new Irish Free State. A symbol of British power in Ireland for nearly 700 years, the handover of the Castle was a hugely important moment in the story of Ireland.
Yet far from it being the harbinger of the bright confident future that so many had fought and died for, it would herald the Civil War and arguably the blackest chapter in our long history.
The scars left by that year long Civil War, on individuals, on families, on communities and on the nation itself, are never far below the surface. It makes the coming year the most challenging yet in this Decade of Centenaries.
It was a conflict which cost dear. By the time it was over, the Civil War had bill came to over £20,000,000, including compensation for the destruction of houses, workshops, factories and installations. It had cost over 2,000 lives, with countless numbers maimed forever. All too often, it had been used to cover the settling of old scores and where the atrocities of one side were matched by the mindless violence of the other.
The Civil War degenerated into a war without mercy. It was said that the new government employed a ruthlessness against its opponents that even exceeded that of the British during the War of Independence. There were 77 executions of Republican prisoners by the authorities, while arrest, internment and deportation were among the standard weapons in its armoury.
Here in Mayo, the Civil War began and ended with heinous outrages that, typical of the time, went unpunished.
Honoria Kelly, a young married woman, got into a row with a neighbour over the Treaty on a Sunday afternoon outside her home in Sonnagh, Charlestown. A gun was brandished, she was shot and died in the arms of her husband, James, and in the presence of her young daughter. Honoria Kelly was the first victim of the Civil War in Mayo. She would not be the last.
In his recently launched book, ‘Rebels in the Courthouse’, author James Laffey refers to what he calls ‘one of the most egregious Civil War crimes ever committed in Mayo’. It occurred in the final days of the horrific conflict.
Maggie Doherty was the only girl in a Foxford family of ten. The Dohertys were a staunch anti-Treaty family, her brother a county councillor, she herself an active member of Cumann na mBan. Three masked men of the National Army took the young woman from her parents’ home in the dead of night, before subjecting her to a series of brutal rapes.
Maggie, aged 24, never recovered from the ordeal. The local parish priest, Canon Henry, did all he could to have justice done, but the three soldiers were inexplicably acquitted at a court martial in Ballina.
Those reprehensible crimes may have bookended the Civil War in Mayo, but there was much in between that underlined just how little value was put on life or dignity. Cold blooded, cowardly killings went unpunished, forgotten today except in bereaved families where memories are still fresh.
Incidents such as these make the coming year a minefield, a painful reminder of wrongs that were never righted. As James Laffey concludes, Maggie Doherty suffered a dreadful ordeal at the hands of the very countrymen she set out to free from imperial rule.
Sadly, the wounds of the Civil War continued to cause silent pain and heartache in many households in Mayo long after the last of the guns were stilled forever.