Your remark, “The war of independence may be glossed up in some quarters as a glorious struggle of good v evil, however it definitely awakened and nurtured the savage tendencies of some of those on the side of good too”, just about summarises the reality of revolution. War, to which revolution leads, may bring out the best in people, but it certainly brings out the worst. It does, after all, set out to sanction the breaking of the ultimate taboo—taking of human life—and afterward lionizes, or at least commemorates, those who do.
This is not necessarily to take issue with those who wage war—the two world wars had to be fought to stop German aggression, for instance, and Father Murphy was left with no choice but to take up the pike—far less with the foot soldiers who fight it, or to say that those who died, on whatever side, should not be commemorated. But the breaking of the taboo, as well as the terror all combatants have to face, has its psychological effects. There’s nothing the worst offender has done that almost anyone couldn’t do, even in normal life—Stanley Milgram’s experiments, and Philip Zimbardo’s, proved that—so factor in psychological trauma and anything’s possible.
Also, war not merely coarsens people, it polarises them—creates an us-and-them mentality. Anyone who lived in Belfast through the hunger strikes will recall how narrow was the middle ground then, so how much narrower must it have been in the “old” Troubles? To each side the other was “them”, however they had been “us” a few months before. And not only were they “them”, they were traitors—hence the savagery and bitterness that was far greater in the Civil- than in the Tan War.
This is always the problem with revolution. You start off with Kropotkin and Kerensky, or with Pearse and McDonagh, and you end up with Stalin and Stakeknife. As you say, Mountcashel, revolution devours its own children.
Yet we must be careful not to judge people of the past by the standards of our own time. Pearse, Connolly et al were anti-democratic certainly—but democracy did not then have the cachet that it does now. Democracy had been condemned by the pope, and most of our revolutionaries were devout Catholics, so they would have been able to take this as some sort of religious endorsement for their actions. Besides, though the Parliamentary Party comprised decent men for the most part, the party itself was marked by corruption, complacency and arrogance. Young idealists could understandably scorn it, as well as its offering, Home Rule. The fact that revolution proved disastrous for the country is something no one could have foreseen. Had they been able to, the men of 1916, like Dan Breen later, “wouldn’t have fired a shot” (at least, one hopes not).
The fact that the rebels allied themselves with the odious Second Reich is of course appalling, given the well-documented atrocities that had been carried out in Belgium; besides which, Casement at any rate could not have been unaware of the genocidal campaigns against the Herero and the Maji-Maji, the deliberately induced famine in German East Africa, and perhaps even the medical experiments carried out on Africans by Dr Eugen Fischer (mentor to Josef Mengele). Furthermore, the “gallant allies” had armed the rebels’ enemies, the UVF, as well, according to Baron Holstein’s dictum: the more waters Germany stirs up, the more fish she might catch.
But revolutionaries can be so engaged with their ideology that it may be unfair to expect them to do reality very well, for ideology imparts a remarkable capacity for self-deception, as Mabel Fitzgerald shows: “Prussian militarism … isn’t half so galling I am sure as that [which] we endure in the south of Ireland under the iron heel of the RIC.” It’s grotesque to compare the Butchers of Belgium to Irish policemen, but grotesquery is the least of what a country may have to suffer when enough of its people think with their ideology rather than their critical faculties.
Of course, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, and folk memories of British oppression here in previous centuries made such self-deception easy. And it must not be forgotten that it was Unionists who introduced the gun into 20th century Irish politics. Also, acceptance of German help needs to be seen in the context that revolutions, like nations, have interests, not friends, and Germany looked to be the horse to back in 1916.
Regarding film, don’t forget Guests of the Nation and The Informer. Frank O’Connor and Liam O’Flaherty, like Sean O’Casey, had seen revolution at first hand, and knew the reality that underlies such lofty cant as the holiness of blood sacrifice. Victor McLagen, as John Ford’s eponymous informer, well portrays the greed, lies, squalor and horror in the lives of many revolutionaries. Years before, Inspector Mallon of the DMP had remarked, “The patriotism of that sort of scoundrel may be purchased for a five pound note.” Denis Donaldson and Stakeknife prove that, adjusted for inflation, the same applies to revolutionaries today.
As for “the disappeared” of the revolutionary period, I suspect they disappeared for the same reasons as victims of the more recent Troubles. The murder of some, like that of Jean McConville in 1972, could not be admitted to for fear of arousing popular revulsion, so their remains had to be hidden. Some victims may have been literally destroyed, as is rumoured to have happened to Robert Nairac’s body in 1977. Remains were lost sight of, in some instances, simply because the murderers forgot exactly where they had been buried, or maybe were killed themselves.
Though it’s possible that spite did play a part—war does tend to bring out the worst in people.
There’s much more we could say about revolution, but Desmond Egan seems to sum it up in four lines: “two wee girls / were playing tig near a car… / how many counties would you say / were worth their scattered fingers?”