A new book chronicling the history of the Irish Civil War in County Sligo has proved an instant hit in bookstores across the country. 

"Even the Heather Bled" by Irish author Joe McGowan explores the history of Sligo from the Norman invasion to Penal times and from Famine to Civil War. 

Below, IrishCentral contributor Declan Foley provides an in-depth review of the popular new book. 

A quandary for any editor or author dealing with Irish history is where to begin.  It could well be the beginning of time itself so allow me to start with an extract from Ulick O’Connor’s, All The Olympians: A Biographical Portrait of the Irish Literary Renaissance, p. 9 (Atheneum, New York 1984) — when W. B. Yeats was but five years old.

In a country house in the West of Ireland in the winter of 1870 a young Irish barrister found himself with nothing to do. An Atlantic gale was blowing outside, and unlike the warm sub-tropical Bantry Bay further south from which Standish O’Grady had come, once the rain blew from the sea in Galway there was no question of venturing out.  . . .his father was a minor landlord who was also Rector of Bearhaven in County Cork. Standish himself sometimes collected rents during his vacations as Revising Barrister for Belfast; he also contributed to English and Irish journals and newspapers through which, like many young barristers, he supplemented his meagre income at the Bar. . .

As he watched the rain beating the windows, Standish O’Grady noticed a set of books on the table nearby. They were O’Halloran’s History of Ireland in three volumes. Now at Trinity College, Dublin, O’Grady had never been made aware that Ireland had a history. Not a hint had been uttered by pastor or master. More bored than curious, he took up the books and began to read them. After the first few pages his excitement grew. What ancestral memories welled up in him we know not, but the reading of these three volumes changed his life. He learnt now for the first time that Ireland had a culture which went back five hundred years before the birth of Christ, and which was as clearly identifiable as that of the Greeks or Egyptians. For the next ten years he was to devote himself to producing in popular form this history ‘drawing its life from the soil as a natural growth’ and publishing it in 1880.

In the Royal Irish Academy he discovered the original manuscript translations of the tales and the sagas he had read about in O’Halloran’s history, which had been collected by the scholar Eugene O’Curry. Such a collection put him on solid ground as he began to create his style which would represent for his reader the vigour and originality of the history he was writing about.

It was not, of course, history in the real sense of the word. More accurately it could be described as the record of high culture which had existed from about 500 BC and which had been handed down in oral form through the Bardic Sagas. It was not until the eleventh century that they had been first transcribed.

In the midst of Irish centenaries, it is to be rightly expected there will be a number of publications on past events, locally and nationally. ‘Even The Heather Bled’ is a rare book, in that its author begins with a ‘potted history of Ireland’ including the vital role the arts played in awakening the nation to its invaluable and ancient folklore, music and song. 

County Sligo native Joe McGowan, who hails from the beautiful village of Mullaghmore, has yet again proved his serious and dedicated study of Sligo history, to be invaluable to not alone scholars, but the general public. This is a book that should be read, nay, studied by all who live in every county in Ireland, its lessons are invaluable.

From Famine to rebellion 

Chapter 1 ‘Strongbow to the Wild Geese’ through to Chapter 7 ‘Romantic Ireland’ includes the tragic days of the Famine, land disputes, Boycott, Irish Parliamentarians in Westminster, through to the ‘Poet’s’ 1916 Easter Rising, coming to a crescendo with the War of Independence, The Treaty and The Civil War, with an important emphasis on the deaths of Sligo’s ‘Noble Six’ on that ancient mountain ‘shaped like an upside-down battleship’, as Ezra Pound in Pavannes and Divagations writes 

Neath Ben Bulben’s buttoks lies 

Bill Yeats, a poet twice the soize

Of William Shakespear, as they say

Down Ballykillywuchlin way.

He ably documents the 1916 Easter Rising, including the unfortunate loss of the arms aboard the Aud which some thought would doom the Rising. Volunteers were supposed to meet it at Banna Strand. Omitted is the fact that a party of four volunteers sent from Dublin to collect the arms — strangers to the area — were drowned when their car went off a nearby pier, in effect losing the arms. Eoin Mac Neill, Chief of Staff of the Volunteers, feared that the loss of arms and ammunition from the Aud could lead to wholesale slaughter of the Volunteers by 16,000 well-armed British soldiers nationally, thus he canceled ‘volunteer movements’ for Easter Sunday. The following day, history was changed, ‘utterly changed’ by the actions of Pearse, Connolly et. al, but it was not alone their brave action that caused a massive shift in thinking; rather the cowardly stupidity of General Maxwell in executing the Irishmen who called Cuchulain to their side, thus illuminating to the entire world the historic desire for Irish independence, from a failing empire.

War of Independence and the Black and Tans

Chapters 9 and 10 and 11 ‘We fight for Freedom,’ to ‘The election of the Snows’ cover the War of Independence, the elections, and the Black and Tans. Interestingly no mention is made of Sligo Borough being the very first electorate in Ireland to use Proportional Representation. The outstanding success in Sligo led to PR being introduced nationwide.

Alas, the officials in Dublin and London were unaware that almost 50% of the electorate were illiterate. Thus, the polling papers were filled in by officials to whom the voters called out the names and the order in which they wanted them on the ballot, with no vote left unfilled, as the officials insisted each square had to be numbered!

One hilarious incident during the Black and Tan period, one early morning they arrived at the junction of Charles Street and John St, to raid the house of the Keaveny family. All of the young men were Volunteers. They could never catch them at home because they had an escape route via the attic, into the attic of a neighbor’s house, including a plaster façade that the Tans thought was a stone wall. One night, one of the boys misplaced his footing and came through the plaster ceiling landing smack on top of the old lady in her bed!

Some years after things had settled down, their sister Nell married an O’Neill man from Belfast, and for some years they resided in the heart of an Orange enclave. One day, some of the tough Orange mob came into the shop, giving her 24 hours to leave or they would burn her out. Without a bother, Nell replied, ‘Burn me out tomorrow and tomorrow night every Protestant business in Sligo will be burned down’. They apologized and left, she continued living there for a number of years in peace and with respect.

As an aside to that in the 1980s I was chatting with the late Bob English of Henderson’s Garage, he mentioned that one day he asked Old Crawford why he didn’t turn Blackwood’s shop in Grattan Street into a supermarket. Bob was astonished by his reply, ‘That would mean closing down all of my wholesale customers who run their family shops throughout the county of Sligo!’ Different times.

Then follows the War of Independence to the Treaty. Difficult times for the entire population, with threats of violence and actual violence from men often intoxicated and with a large number suffering from PTSD after the horrors of the Western Front, Gallipoli, etc.

I recall as a young man chatting with my neighbor Sean Carroll about the decision he and his colleagues made in the 1919-21 period to take on an empire with little or no armaments. He said, “I cannot honestly tell you, but there was something in the atmosphere.’ This is borne out by Desmond FitzGerald in his biography, who said, the entire land was permeated with a movement for independence.’

Treaty, Civil War, and modern Ireland

Chapters 19 to 27 document the Treaty, Dáil debates, and the unfortunate aftermath. It must be borne in mind they were mostly young men with little worldly experience; a strong faith and a belief that an oath was an oath for life, thus the Oath to a Republic locked them virtually in a straitjacket. 

The old saying ‘It takes a long spoon to sup with the Devil’ changes when it comes to dealing with perfidious Albion, as any who have watched Brexit negotiations will have seen. For when it comes to dealing with the Tory Party, even Satan doesn’t have a long enough spoon.

When Collins and Griffith and their colleagues went to London, they were virtually up against the entire Civil Service of the British Empire, with a well-documented Irish history; the ear of the world media; and the backing of the Commonwealth. For example, here in Australia within months of the Irish Free State coming into being, each and every Catholic/Irish Civil Servant including 70% of the Victoria Police Force was sacked: they were assumed to be disloyal to the Crown. There was much anger throughout the British Commonwealth, as they knew once Ireland broke away, others would follow.

When PM Harold Wilson arranged the repatriation of the remains of Roger Casement, it was done in absolute secrecy, and the event was only made public when the ship was safely in Irish waters; this was also the time the Irish government was informed. Wilson was well aware of how ‘the establishment’ would view this. Sadly, in 1968, Harold Wilson almost unwittingly walked Irish people into a slaughter on the Derry/Donegal border. Saner heads prevented this.

History tells us a Civil War is indeed a most uncivil affair, and the Irish Civil war was no different. Joe McGowan in his Postscript opens with the question: ‘Who then should we place the blame for the Civil War?’ His response, with which I wholeheartedly disagree, is ‘There is no simple answer.’

The sole person responsible for the Irish Civil War was Winston Churchill, for it was he who sent a telegram to Michael Collins ordering the removal of the Anti-Treaty forces from the Four Courts, which stated succinctly, but in threatening in capital letters: ‘YOU ARE THE GOVERNMENT OF IRELAND OR WE ARE!’

Collins had no choice, for he knew that Churchill wanted failure in Ireland, He also had a large contingent of British troops in Dublin and Cork primed to act once he gave the order. As with the Lloyd-George and his threat of ‘a terrible and immediate war,’ it was serious.

Joe mentions that in Cliffoney village at that time one had to use a certain shop to obtain a job. Within weeks of Éamon de Valera gaining power in 1932, all Army and Garda officers who had been promoted by Cosgrave were demoted, including Sligoman J. J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell.

Between the ceasefire and the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the tension throughout the Irish Free State was palpable. As Sligoman, Paddy Crummy  told me here in Melbourne, the ‘Emergency united the country as they now had a common threat to face.’ By coincidence Paddy was one of the last men to salute Ginger O’Connell, he was on sentry duty the night O’Connell returned to barrack, he died in his sleep that same night.

As a young man in Sligo, I knew many of these great men who put their lives on the line for the good of the country. Circa 1948 Harry Young was putting the hay into a haggard one Saturday morning, the banks were open from 10. 00 AM to 12. 30 PM, a youngster from Ballincar Ken East was helping, when the owner, a former volunteer, arrived to check on things. Looking at his watch he declared: ‘I must run into town before the banks close or I won’t be able to pay you.’ Harry Young— out of view retorted ‘Many a time you made a withdrawal from the bank, and open or closed it was no bother!

I also knew another Volunteer who had a successful business. He died in the 1970s, sadly he and his wife did not have children. On the day following his burial, his widow met with the bank manager, to be told the account was empty. Her husband had given all of his profit to charity, from day one.

Billy Pilkington became a Catholic priest, and member of the Free State Army who crossed his path in Sligo became a Marist Brother. 

I recall reading a piece many years ago about the visit to Ireland of JFK. At a reception in Áras an Uachtaráin, guests included W. T Cosgrave, an old friend and foe of Dev’s. A reporter looking around the room saw the two men sitting side by side having a pleasant and deep conversation, the first in many years.

On the last Friday afternoon that President and Bean De Valera were in Áras an Uachtaráin, Bean de Valera personally invited the immediate members of Michael Collins family to meet with her for a two-hour tea and chat. She told them how Michael took care of her and her children when Dev was in America.

Perhaps in May 2023, we can have a Memorial Day for all those men and women who one way or another created a nation once again.

Even The Heather Bled is available for €19.99 from Book Depository. 

Declan J Foley

Melbourne, Australia