Archive of the Month
Rosamond Stephen’s Civil War
by Dr Ian d’Alton
Rosamond Stephen: A Life
Rosamond Stephen was born in 1868. Grand–daughter of a British colonial under–secretary and academic, daughter of a High Court judge and a cousin to Virginia Woolf, she came from a rarefied cultural and intellectual background. Rosamond was brought up as a theist, but this proved unsatisfactory for her spiritual needs, and she eventually found an amenable home within the Church of Ireland. Holidaying in Kerry and Louth in the late–19th century seems to have awakened a love for Ireland and she eventually moved to Belfast in the early 20th century, becoming a lay missionary in working class areas. Her attempts at what we would now call ‘ecumenism’ were looked upon with suspicion in a highly polarised and sectarian society. Rosamond lived there until 1919, when she came to Dublin, living at ‘Ardfeenish’, at 21 Upper Mount Street.
When in Belfast (where she had started a small lending library from premises on the Crumlin Road) she had helped to found the Guild of Witness, whose purpose was a prayerful ‘…encouragement of ‘patriotism and [to] discover fresh ways by which the Church could fulfil her mission to the nation’. This became the Irish Guild of Witness in 1918, with an emphasis on Irishness, including the language.
The Guild’s library was an important part of its outreach but the organisation as a whole had a tough time in 1922 because of the disruption to communications. Eschewing proselytism, Rosamond publicly encouraged warm relations between Catholics and Protestants, and batted away objections and opposition from various clerics with politeness and good humour. If Rosamond was a radical the ‘Record’ supplies scant evidence. She was not recognisably feminist even in the terms of the time. She seemed content to follow the dictates of a male–dominated church.
The small but eclectic lending library which she had established in Belfast and moved with her to ‘Ardfeenish’ in Dublin during 1918 continued to operate – albeit with difficulty – during 1922. In 1931, with 5,000 volumes, it became the nucleus of the present–day RCB Library – in Archbishop Gregg’s words after Rosamond’s death in 1951, ‘a most valuable possession’ for the Irish Church.
A ‘most valuable possession’ of the RCB Library is Stephen’s own ‘Record’, which was transferred to the Library before her death in 1951 in the context of other family papers accessioned as MS 253. A detailed handlist is available here.
The ‘Record’ is principally a typewritten set of copy letters (to her sisters and her mother in England) and her own journal entries that cover the years from 1912 to 1923. Rosamond claimed in 1922 that: ‘My experience of life is all reduced to writing, and future generations will enjoy ferreting it out.’ This writer has indeed enjoyed ‘ferreting out’ some of the insights and descriptions, the big things and little things of the Irish Civil War that fill Rosamond’s ‘Record’.
Some of the language used – a description of areas of Belfast as ‘Roman streets’ is one instance – would strike us as now politically incorrect but were unexceptional in 1922. Generally, her writing style was both lyrical and spare. One area of the south city is described as ‘a very shooty district’. Here she is on the handover of Dublin Castle to the Provisional Government in January 1922. Loitering outside the Castle as a bystander her reaction was a mixture of loss, fatalism and alienation:
…I stood in Dame Street and watched with the crowd for the giving over of the Castle to the Provisional Government. It has haunted me ever since…it was horrid beyond words…then some of them said that the sun was shining, and that it was a great day, and Ireland was coming into her own after centuries of oppression. And I said it was very amusing to watch a crowd, but I had to go unfortunately. So I left them
But then things suddenly, though perhaps predictably, became much more complicated. The republic was an article of faith for many in the independence movement, seen as not amenable to democratic votes. The people had no right, in their eyes, to accept the lesser offerings symbolised by the Treaty. The narrow pro–Treaty vote in the Dáil held no legitimacy for the zealots. All this was bewildering to the erstwhile southern unionists. Most had accepted the Treaty as a settlement that would, at the least, restore the promise of stability, the absence of which had severely disrupted their lives and livelihoods.
Indeed, in December 1921 a Church of Ireland Gazette correspondent suggested that the change of regime ‘…will not be without distinct elements of gain’. The emphasis would shift from ‘internecine political warfare with various governments in England’ to grappling with the practical problems of state–building and management. The historian and Trinity professor Alison Phillips saw in the settlement the best chance the country had of restoring peace and prosperity, because a native government would have the legitimacy and clout to impose law and order. It could be interpreted as liberating for the minority, offering the prospect of a new and different engagement with Ireland.
The dreadful prospect of civil war began to loom. There may have been times when the war’s outcome was not clear–cut; but by June 1923 an outsider like American oilman J. S. Cullinan felt that the Free State government ‘seems destined to . . . be one of the stable governments of Europe, if not of the world’. Rosamond Stephen’s ‘Record’ vividly illustrates the progression over 1922 that allowed Cullinan to make that confident prediction in the following year.
Several significant themes that Rosamond’s ‘Record’ illustrates are dealt with below – big issues like the destruction of the Four Courts, comparisons between conditions in north and south and the fate and feelings of southern loyalists. Everyday concerns thrown up by the conflict also feature prominently, and descriptions of set pieces such as funerals. She muses on relations with Britain and the future of Ireland. The ‘Record’ for 1922 stands as a rounded and fascinating glimpse of the ordinary and extraordinary in a year that profoundly set Ireland’s course for decades to come.
Outbreak of the Civil War and the Four Courts Explosion
The republicans had occupied the Four Courts since 14 April. On 16 June a general election in the southern state saw the victory of the pro–Treaty Sinn Fein side. On 22 June Sir Henry Wilson was assassinated in London and Churchill promised a new and terrible war if the anti–Treaty forces were not dealt with.
On 28 June the phoney war ended and pro–Treaty forces, with help from British arms, began an assault on the building which, apart from its judicial functions, also housed the Public Record Office of Ireland [PROI].
Rosamond was contemptuous of the authorities’ reaction to the occupation: ‘To allow the Four Courts to be occupied by freebooters is to say clearly that the Dáil is no government at all.’
On 30 June she ‘resigned herself to a day indoors’ because of the dangers of the streets, despite ‘…a great longing to go out and collect gossip’. ‘…At twenty minutes to one…there came a most tremendous explosion. I was typing in my vestibule…All the people in the street [Mount Street, about 2 km from the Four Courts] seemed to be at their doors looking into Merrion Square…’ This is interesting, because other accounts of the explosion have it timed at, variously, 11.30 am, 2.15 and 5.00 pm.
The explosion had occurred in the PROI wing, destroying almost all contents, many going back to the earliest period of English rule in Ireland. It was a particular disaster for the Church of Ireland. Hundreds of collections of parish records were destroyed, and all the medieval and early modern diocesan archives. Genealogical papers of vital interest to historians of Church of Ireland families, including early census returns and wills, were also lost. Ironically, the destruction would later promote the RCB Library’s record–keeping functions and responsibilities, now an important part of its work. Many of the parish records that had not been transferred to the Record Treasury in the Four Courts are now in the Library’s safekeeping.
The explosion was heard all over Dublin. Rosamond’s visit to a friend elucidated the information that ‘Grafton Street was all filled with smoke and splinters…the spring blind in their window had been down and the shock of the explosion had made it run up to the top…she was standing in the kitchen and the floor seemed to heave…’. Various reasons for the violence of the explosion have been put forward, but the most likely appears that truckloads of gelignite were ignited by shelling. When the evening paper arrived, Rosamond found out that ‘…the ground is said to be covered with a shower of scraps of paper, valuable documents of one kind and another are strewed all over Dublin in that form. Poor Dublin. One beautiful monument after another’.
Writing in 1933 on the ‘Four Courts fighting’ Rosamond claimed that it marked the end of her fears about the Civil War, not the beginning. She rationalised this by noting the Irish Free State was ‘a constitutional body’, the head of which was King George. ‘From my point of view, there was rebellion, not civil war.’
Comparisons Between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State
The Irish Free State had a terrible twin in Northern Ireland, a place about which many southern Protestants felt ambivalent. While three–quarters of the Church of Ireland’s membership was there its administrative headquarters, the location of the General Synod and its newspaper (the Church of Ireland Gazette) were all based in Dublin – often leading to mutterings that the southern tail was wagging the northern dog. Belfast and the north feature almost as prominently as the southern proto–state in 1922 in the ‘Record’, probably reflecting her long residence there and the friends, colleagues and connections she had formed.
Belfast often seemed in as bad a place as Dublin. In January 1922 Rosamond reported an encounter with Belfast women:
One thing that these women said yesterday was this. I said “Belfast is the most disturbed place now, we are quiet for the moment” and with elfish laughter they all cried out “oh yes we are very quiet for the moment. If it does not all begin again…” and we all began to laugh as if we had said something funny
During 1922, she was constantly chronicling shifting perceptions of whether conditions were better in Belfast or Dublin. At end–March 1922, she felt ‘especially safe’ in Dublin. A visit to Belfast in May was traumatic. Murders, guns, civil commotion, her friends in a psychological mess. It seems to have contrasted very unfavourably with Dublin; in effect, Belfast was having its own ‘civil war’, a sectarian conflict rather than a political one; she was sympathetic to the plight of Catholics – ‘worse than the worst I imagined…old Belfast is gone….’ In December 1922 she spent some time in Belfast trying to ascertain the circumstances of the death of a friend in military custody in 1921, but came up against a stone wall of official silence. The coroner she spoke to remarked that ‘It is not much pleasure being an Irishman these days’. And she wearily and pessimistically concluded that ‘it is a vile story, but after all that fall of an Empire and the close of a civilisation are likely to contain vile stories’.
Fate of the Southern Protestants
Rosamond mixed with, and understood the plight of the southern Protestant community. At a stroke, many felt beached on the wrong side of a revolution, the aims and objectives of which had effectively destroyed, or seemed to have destroyed, their political and cultural raison d’etre. But Stephen, like the majority of Protestants in the Free State, stayed, since it seemed in January 1922 that the change of regime symbolised by the nationalist occupation of Dublin Castle and the constitution which followed in itself did not require the minority immediately to choose between competing allegiances. As Nora Robertson later wrote, ‘In respecting new loyalties it had not seemed incumbent upon us to throw our old ones overboard’. Public commentary on the Protestant side was all about precariousness and possible persecution, and this came to a head in April, when thirteen Protestants were murdered over two nights in the Bandon Valley, Co. Cork. While not remarking on the massacre itself, in June Rosamond was concerned about Protestants ‘being hunted out in ever so many places, Athy, Cork, Tipperary, Fermoy…they have to leave at a few hour’s [sic] notice under threat of murder…’.
In October she describes the destruction of a Protestant orphanage at Ballyconree in Connemara, where she apportions almost as much blame to the Protestant side for stirring up the sectarian tensions that underpinned its burning.
Stephen saw attacks on Protestants as largely class–driven rather than sectarian or political – ‘no Irish people would be such fools as to hunt out people who bring in the money, but the anti–capitalists want the Protestants gone just for that very reason’. She constantly belittled the anti–Treaty position and its personnel – the Irregulars were little more than part–time bandits, going back to their farms from time to time, retreating to mountain fastnesses, interested only in money and looting. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia coloured her views on what she determined was the real division – that of order versus anarchy. She was much concerned that the anarchy was communism dressed up in local political clothes, and everywhere looked for evidence. Attacks on Protestants in October are ascribed not to Irregulars but to ‘Bolshevists’ who carried red flags and shouted ‘The land for the people.’ During the Horse Show in August she reported that the Irregulars had attacked the RDS. ‘I hope that they did not hit any of the horses, but of course if they did they would be pleased, for the horses represent capital.’ She notes in November Bishop Plunket’s opinion that the war is now ‘the most extreme socialists and communists fighting against all restraint and order.’
She captures well the sense of pathos, almost of absurdity, in the embattled Protestant community. In mid–July she held a ‘little tea party’. These ‘relics of oul’ decency’ – Blanch Vernon, Mrs ffrench, Miss Eames, Miss Knowles and the Revd Harvey Stuart and his sister – would have tolerated independent Ireland precisely because it wasn’t particularly revolutionary. They were ‘all as well dressed as one could ask in the circumstances.’ Rosamond felt that they were ‘most resolute’ and ‘Seeing that they have no cause, and no friends left, I think they are real patriots, determined to do the best for Ireland to the very last…’. Rosamond saw in them the torchbearers of civilisation, much as those monks and nuns who kept the light of learning burning in the Dark Ages.
There are flashes of melancholy at the vanishing of the old order. At the Horse Show, ‘it was all right’ but ‘…the Lord Lieutenant does not go now, and there is no Union Jack to be seen, and you can dress as you please….’. She marks the acquisition by the Free State of a flag and a stamp ‘of its own, which is less interesting to my mind’. Rosamond acknowledges that by taking on the anti–Treatyites the Irish Free State forces ‘have got friends in Ireland whom they never could have obtained by other means’ – by which she clearly meant the southern loyalists. Thus, ‘I feel more tolerant of Collins than I ever thought to, and now he is dead’. In October, as the Civil War fighting and disruption begins to fade Rosamond is more optimistic about the southern loyalists. ‘Cosgrave continues to be civil to the Southern Unionists, and…at last they will come closely in touch with the life of the nation and be able to work for their country…’. ‘The Provisional Parliament [sic] grows more and more civil to the Southern Unionists, and no wonder’, she wrote in November. And she reported that if Sir Horace Plunkett was ‘quite doddering’, the other southern loyalist nominees to the Senate were more impressive, especially the Countess of Desart.
If Rosamond’s ‘dedication to the country of her adoption was complete’; there are occasional frissons of irredentism exhibited by a sort of snobbishness about the often token ‘Irishness’ that characterised the Free State – ‘…We think the pleasure of writing “Fogra” instead of “Notice” and “An Post” instead of “Post Office is enough to outweigh the solid advantages now lost’ and that the Irish ‘…now depend for their very existence on the King’s navy…’. Rosamond had slipped easily into the skin of Irish middle–class urban Protestantism, taking on its hopes and fears, and showing a sensitive empathy with its preoccupations. In June the all–but–forgotten imperial southern Irish loyalists experienced the last great death of the Great War. Then, the bureaucrats in the War Office accomplished what Kaiser, Emperor and Sultan had not, the disappearance of several Irish regiments. The obsequies were held at Windsor Castle as the regimental insignia were surrendered into the bosom of the King’s protection. Rosamond ‘could not read’ the report of the King’s participation. ‘I felt as if he were calling to all the world “come and see the King of England kill his mother and his son with his own hands’.
The ‘Record’ contains no reference to the formal establishment of the Irish Free State on 6 December 1922, one year after the Treaty. Maybe there was simply no need. The deed had already been done a year before.
Everyday Effects of the Civil War
Gemma Clark’s book Everyday violence in the Irish Civil War sets out categories of violence that characterised the conflict. These include indirect forms, such as psychological and intimidatory. But below these lay another, less obvious layer – the unsettling and contingent effects of uncertainty, of simply not knowing what had happened, what was going on, and what might occur in the future. That uncertainty is captured many times in Rosamond’s ‘Record’. In Galway ‘the streets are full of IRA all in one uniform, and that they are “official” and “unofficial” and may at any moment begin to cut one another’ throats’.
Dublin just before the opening of proper hostilities carried an eerie echo of the early days of the COVID pandemic:
There is hardly any visiting … People are afraid to leave home lest disturbance should break out in their absence, and afraid to go any distance lest they might not be able to get back, and afraid to receive their friends lest they might have to ask them to stand a siege. So most people stay at home
Much of Rosamond’s commentary is devoted to chronicling the many small privations caused by the conflict – ‘…the dustmen do not come…generally they come every day, but they are said to be all republicans and called up to fight…’ – ‘The baker brought me very stale bread…’ Her charwoman’s talk ‘…was all of bombs, and barricades, and cannon, and Sinn Feiners.’ The ‘Record’ is full of descriptions of the disturbed situation around Westland Row and George’s Street, with no postal collections, intermittent gunfire, shops closed and groceries in short supply.
Little inconveniences are almost lovingly chronicled. She seemed obsessed with not being able to communicate with her family in England, one of the few instances where, perhaps, her essential “out–siderness” in Ireland emerges. In August, she reports that the National Museum ‘where the gold is’ is shut because of the preparations for the convening of the Dáil. She will now have to produce her RDS membership card before she can borrow books.
Ordinariness always intrudes however perhaps reflecting the fact that as civil wars go the Irish one – while disruptive and destructive – was not in the class of others in post–Great War Europe. In October, she has a picturesque description of a farm convoy that, twice a week, journeyed from Killarney to Tralee, protected by ‘Danny Boy’, an armed motor–car. And she was written to by one correspondent when she was in England from early September to the beginning of October: ‘Am sorry you are away as there are such lovely mushrooms so cheap and lovely damsons 4d a pound.’
Stephen wrote that she never lived ‘in “physical fear”… I was slightly frightened once or twice in Belfast, never here’.
On 19 July:
The guns woke me twice, but I go to sleep again
In mid–August, she observed how ‘A common joke now is to say that you could not sleep because it was all so quiet.’ By November ‘There was a big shooting last night but it did not disturb me seriously. I rolled over in bed and went to sleep again’. That may have been connected with the increasing sense that the Provisional Government had finally got a grip, evidenced by setting up military courts and carrying out executions.
But there were darker moments for some.
She describes the effect of the conflict on the mental health of a friend married to a cleric – ‘she could not stand things and had to go into a nursing home…’. They left for England, but were unsettled – ‘his whole heart is in Ireland though he is a good bit of an Orangeman’.
Funerals and Executions
Rosamond’s belief in just who was in the right was never in doubt. It was captured in her musings about how to describe the combatants – ‘Irregulars’, ‘rebels’, ‘mutineers’ on one side, and ‘Nationals’, ‘the troops’, ‘the army’ on the other. She thought that the Free State forces should be called the’ National Guard’, or ‘Free State Force’. For the ‘Irregulars’, she wished that they be called ‘Four Courts men’. That sense of legitimacy as a function of civility and order emerged particularly when chronicling civil war funerals:
There was a great funeral this morning…this man was called Boland, and he is said to have been “murdered” ie he was shot while being arrested
Her friend – identified throughout only as ‘X’ – had always wanted to see a Sinn Fein funeral, and that of Harry Boland (an anti–Treatyite shot on 31 July in Skerries, Co. Dublin) did not disappoint, apparently.
Rosamond herself went to see Arthur Griffith’s funeral procession in Dublin on 16 August 1922.
This provoked some perilously near–sectarian comment – ‘At last the procession came. I saw the hats of the clergy, I hope they were all Roman….’. There was ‘…no music, no drilled people of any sort, it was just a dismal party going trailing along at enormous length. Someone said there were some bands but…they had not the wit to play by turns…it was all quite second class and inferior as a show…But that is Ireland now, no more shows, no more money to pay for any…’ If it was a show, it was a ‘holy show…quite out of the way shabby.’
At base many southern loyalists had no great truck for either side in the Civil War – this was a fratricidal conflict within a movement which many despised and felt had deprived them of their birth–right as Britons. These feelings, though, had to be carefully expressed in a mainly Catholic/nationalist environment. A conversation with Bishop Plunket on the conflict elicited that he was ‘…dreadfully afraid of saying too much and he spoke with the utmost guardedness and with the use of most measured language.’ Rosamond adopted much the same ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ when speaking to the Other Side, exemplified in her letter to her sister on the death of Michael Collins:
Poor old Collins, when I heard what had happened him I all but said “Serve him right and that is my real feeing. To Miss[ ]……I said “It is very tragic”. But obviously there is a suitability in a man being ambushed who ambushed so many of his own army, when Ireland was lucky enough to have a real army to ambush
The execution of Erskine Childers, found guilty of the possession of a banned firearm, was not approved of. Rosamond felt that, as in 1916, secret trials and unannounced executions were largely counterproductive. She had particular doubts about the hurried nature of the trials and inadequate legal representation while at same time generally approving the Provisional Government’s approach as conducive to the greater good. Again, she disapproved of the last–minute conversions of revolutionaries like Casement, suggesting that ‘It is quite right to refuse access to any but the hereditary pastor.’
Rosamond often compared what happened in Dublin in June and July 1922 with 1916.
However, as she later wrote in 1933 ‘I know that many people call the 1916 fighting “the rebellion” and the 1922 fighting “the civil war”. I count them both as rebellions though carried on largely by means of organised murder’. She particularly mentions how, in both instances, military operations were greatly hampered by crowds of onlookers. She quotes the Irish Times in 1916 – ‘The military operations are a stern necessity, not a public amusement’. War as a spectator sport? She felt that, as in 1916 the greatest danger for the civilian population was at the end – ‘When the defeated party is desparate [sic], and has lost all semblance of military control, that is the worst for the city’.
Ireland’s Future Through Rosamond’s Lens
Rosamond’s intellect was enquiring and forward–looking, and the fragility of 1922 encouraged many thoughts about where Ireland, north and south, was heading. In the dark days of early July she felt that Ireland would get ‘…more and more rustic, narrow, provincial and parochial’.
However, when peace comes, more attention will be given to social and economic problems ‘…and then another civilisation will grow up on a firmer foundation…’. She predicted that the population of the island would fall to a million and she was pessimistic about the survival of culture – ‘…perhaps in Ireland it must come quite to an end’. Exhibiting a largely utilitarian Protestant worldview, she hoped that ‘certain delusions about rebellion being romantic and amusing may be really eradicated from the Irish mind’. That did not happen.
Rosamond was not given to too much religious comment in the ‘Record’. Where the Catholic Church chimed with her predilections, Rosamond was quite happy to speak approvingly, as in her remarks on the Catholic bishops’ condemnation of the killing of Free State soldiers. She was concerned about the future of the churches and particularly her Guild of Witness as ‘a small society in a microscopic church’. But she felt ‘no anxiety’, seeing in the Church of Ireland’s catholicity a hope for ‘reunion with Rome’. She predicted that ‘a great change’ would come over Rome in Ireland’. ‘Some form of modernism must arise, and if Roman modernists can effect some alliance with the Church of Ireland I can think of nothing better. It would nearly make the revolution worthwhile.’ Perhaps in this she anticipated a later ecumenical movement; but that would have to navigate Catholic triumphalism in the new state, Protestant wariness and introspection and the archepiscopate of John Charles McQuaid.
Rosamond hoped in 1939 that the ‘Record’ ‘…may make vivid, for some who come after me, an Ireland, now rapidly passing away…’. While the individual letters and comments are contemporaneously chatty, detailed and immediate, as a collection it is a curated one, but no less valuable for all that.
In conclusion we can see that 1922 – for all its excitements and traumas – seems to have had an energising effect on Rosamond:
It is strange about me. I am undertaking such a lot of new things and I do not find it too much. I have a queer feeling as if energy had sonehow [sic] been liberated.
Her last entry for 1922, then, saw Rosamond to be in good spirits:
Nelly O’Brien comes to dinner tomorrow, and to the carols at St Patrick’s afterwards. More carols on Sunday. Miss Rush to dinner on xmas day, a dinner at the Trenches as soon after Monday as I can manage….This is a more cheerful xmas than I remember since 1914.
People are saying that the worst is over. Seems too good to be true. But I feel like that myself…
A digital scan of the section of RCB Library Ms253/4, Rosamond Stephen’s ‘The Record’, concerning the year 1922, is available to view via the links below:
Dr Ian d’Alton is Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Irish History, Trinity College Dublin, and author (amongst many other publications) of ”A Church paper for Church People”; The Church of Ireland Gazette and the 20th century‘, in M. O’Brien & F. M. Larkin (eds), Periodicals and Journalism in Twentieth Century Ireland, volume 2 (Dublin, 2021).