Monday, December 24, 2012

Letters Spur Look at 7 Executions: Q&A With Rob Doyle

Kildare-based writer and WG Contributing Editor Robert Doyle is a keen student of the Irish experience during America’s Civil War and in the 19th century American West. He has written several multi-part series for TheWild Geese over the past two years, including “The Pope’s Irish Battalion” and “Custer's Last Irishmen.” With “We Are To Be Shot in the Morning,” our current highlighted feature, Doyle focuses on a different civil war, one that his ancestors, and particularly his wife’s grandfather, experienced intimately, that is, the Irish Civil War, which ranged from June 1922 to May 1923. In that time, anywhere between 1,000 and 4,000 died, on all sides, including civilians, with precise figures still be calculated. Included in this number are the 77 ‘irregulars’ executed by the Free State during the civil war, startling when compared to the 24 official executions of IRA soldiers by the British during the 30 months of the Irish War of Independence. WG Executive Producer Gerry Regan IM’d some questions to Doyle about this new focus and the Irish experience during its own Civil War.

The Wild Geese: Rob, what have you been doing since the last time we spoke with you, about the Irish in the American Civil War?

Logo of the Irish American Civil War Trail
Robert Doyle: Well, Ger, we are still working with established organizations, including the Irish government, to seek recognition of the Irish participation in the American Civil War in the form of some commemoration. There have been a few published articles in local newspapers and a snippet on the history show broadcast on national radio but we are keeping up the pressure. A commissioned series on national radio is likely in 2013 along with some further, more prominent events to highlight the role of the 180,000 Irish in that iconic conflict. I’m also glad to say that the Civil War Trust, one of America’s most prominent preservation organizations, has recognized the historical trail that we have put together. All details can be found on

The Wild Geese: This local focus on the Irish Civil War seems a bit of a departure for you. How did you happen on this story? What's your connection to it?

Doyle: My wife's grandfather, Eamonn O’Modhráin, was a commander in the Irish Republican Army in Kildare during the War of Independence with Britain. I recently stumbled across his 'treasure trove' of documents and among the pile were a number of copies of the executed men’s final letters to friends and family. Realizing their significance and poignancy, I decided to write an article on the background to the executions and relay some of the men’s final thoughts and wishes on the eve of their deaths.

The Wild Geese: Kildare for some reason, and Leinster in general, is not thought of as a hotbed of republicanism. In fact, it was part of the so-called Pale, which the English had largely pacified beginning in the Middle Ages.

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Doyle: True, but there was nationalistic activity in all corners of the island and, while Kildare may not have a prominent position in the history books detailing that troubled time, it did have its fair share of rebel activity. Attempting to operate covertly while living in close proximity to the largest military compound outside of Dublin and Cork, at The Curragh, is also a reason why these small units of Irish nationalists in Kildare should be recognized for their dedication and organization.

The Wild Geese: So were these so-called 'Irregulars' outliers for this part of Ireland?

Doyle: Men and women who had fought side by side against British rule turned their vitriol and their weapons on each other in a bitter conflict that began with the occupation of the Four Courts in the summer of 1922 by forces opposed the signing and ratification of an Anglo-Irish Treaty. The outbreak of the Civil War forced pro- and anti-Treaty supporters to choose sides. Supporters of the treaty came to be known as pro-treaty or Free State Army, legally the National Army. The objectors called themselves Republicans, but were more commonly known by the Free State government as “Irregulars.” In the same way that every county had republican activists during the struggle with Britain, each part of Ireland had, in turn, men and women opposed to the Treaty.

The Wild Geese: I'm struck by their ages, with three of the executed men being teenagers. Did not the Free State tend to attract the youngest men in Ireland, with the IRA drawing the veterans of the preceding few years' military struggle?

Doyle: I’m not sure if anything can be read into the ages of the men. Younger men, by their nature, are drawn to excitement and are more vociferous with regard to something they believe in. The veterans that fought against the Free State obviously felt that business was unfinished from the War of Independence. As to the large numbers of young men joining the new Free State Army, the “irregulars” did not provide a salary and a possible pension. Frugal times, you have to remember.
A postcard of the Curragh Camp, where the 7 were executed.

The Wild Geese: These men were quickly honored by the neighbors, their corpses taken from the prison, and re-interred outside within several years. That suggests that these guerrillas’ family, friends and neighbors either made peace with the IRA's objectives and armed struggle, or else strong Kildare support for the 'anti-Treaty' side. Which do you feel is the case?

Doyle: I think that wounds healed to a certain extent, but probably the main reason for their reburials was that the men were initially buried within the grounds of a military compound, so their final resting places were not easily accessible to their families.

The Wild Geese: Did you get to know your wife's grandfather, the man who provided the documentation that underpins your narrative?

Doyle: No. He was many years dead before I started “courting” my future wife.

The Wild Geese: He served in the Free State army, is that correct?

Doyle: God, no! He remained opposed to the Treaty until his dying day and, interestingly, he was also opposed to Ireland joining the European Union in 1977. He felt that, as a nation, Ireland would become too reliant on funds from other nations. The analogy he used to support this opinion on Ireland losing its self-sufficiency was that a man knows how to defend himself if he is approached by an enemy carrying a gun, but will struggle to defend himself if his enemy is carrying a cheque book. Given Ireland’s current dire economic situation, how prophetic he was!

The Wild Geese: How did he come by these letters? And how did he come to regard them through the decades that followed?

Doyle: They were found in a metal box along with other documentation. I’ve no idea, but thank God he kept them safe. I will endeavor to pass them on to future generations as a reminder of Ireland’s turbulent journey from a British colony into a sovereign nation.

The Wild Geese: Final question. What projects will be you focusing on in the New Year?

Doyle: Regarding the documents I mentioned above, I hope to catalogue any more items of interest and will share my findings with the readers of in time. There are also a number of other projects that I am involved in which, hopefully, may come to fruition within the next 12 months. Chief among these is the commemoration of the Irish who fought in the American Civil War and the further development of the historical trail in Ireland.

The Wild Geese: Go raibh maith agat!

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