Revolutionaries endured a lonely battle with ‘trauma’
JThe terminology of “trauma” did not exist in 1920s Ireland, but revolutionaries had their own sophisticated understanding of the psychological implications of war and communal division.
The term ‘trauma’ appears regularly in public debate and academic discussion of the Irish Civil War. This is certainly understandable given the shocking sequence of events that occurred during this short conflict between June 1922 and May 1923.
Leading revolutionaries on both sides lost their lives, thousands of male and female anti-treaty activists were imprisoned, and the rate of executions under the new Free State exceeded that of the British administration during the struggle for independence.
Yet there were many other heartbreaking events during this time that could also be called traumatic.
Over 30,000 Irish men lost their lives in World War I and some 23,000 Irish men, women and children succumbed to the Spanish flu between 1918 and 1919.
Likewise, the starvation conditions that plagued areas along the west coast, particularly Connemara, during the early years of the Irish Free State, are forgotten.
However, since ancient times, civil wars have been conceptualized as particularly devastating. Unlike conflicts against other nations, the destruction of civil war involves not only material damage to a country’s landscape and infrastructure, but also psychological damage to community and family bonds. The painful legacies of civil war can linger for generations despite communities’ best efforts to coexist.
While the Romans hypothesized the destruction of civil war (bellum civile) since the first century BCE, the devastation associated with such internecine strife intensified during the era of revolutions from the end of the 18th century.
If revolution offered enlightenment and revitalization, then civil war was an embarrassing reminder of humanity’s possible regression. Indeed, this binary between honorable revolution and best-forgotten civil war is perhaps the defining feature of the commemorative narrative of the Irish revolution and its aftermath.
Yet even though historians and cultural commentators regularly use the language of trauma to convey the heavy legacy of the Irish Civil War, using trauma as a lens through which to view the events of the revolutionary period is not without its risks. .
Trauma didn’t exist in the 1920s. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) wasn’t medically recognized until 1980, and even now PTSD remains a contested diagnosis.
That’s not to say, however, that revolutionaries didn’t have their own sophisticated understanding of the psychological legacy of war.
Indeed, there was a proliferation of psychological literature across Europe in the aftermath of World War I.
Civil War internee Rosamond Jacob makes reference in her diary to her reading of Barbara Low’s Psychoanalysis: A Brief Account of the Freudian Theory (1920), while Cumann’s 1920s romance novels by Annie MP Smithson na mBan reflect on treatments for shellshock and suggest that talking therapies, or practices such as hypnosis, would soon replace prescription drugs.
Advertisements in Irish newspapers also illustrate the range of commercial treatments available for ‘weak nerves’, such as Dr Cassell’s tablets, Ovaltine malt drinks and various electrical treatments.
These ideas about human psychology and the subconscious have materialized in various narrative therapy projects, as a significant number of revolutionaries have consciously turned to writing – including fiction, drama and poetry – to document and exorcise their memories.
Understanding of psychological injuries has also developed over time. As Desmond Ryan spoke of the “spiritual wounds” of the Civil War in 1936—influenced, perhaps, by the spiritualist philosophy (anthroposophy) of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner—revolutionaries began to use the term “trauma.” from the 1960s in line with discussions advanced by second-wave feminism and the anti-Vietnam War movement.
For example, IRA man-turned-writer Seán O’Faoláin wrote in 1964 that the civil war “oppresses[ed] traumatized me for many years,” while Waterford IRA veteran and longtime American resident George Lennon named his remarkable unpublished memoir, Trauma in Time (1971).
Yet even as revolutionaries engaged in ever-changing ideas about the architecture of the mind, health professionals and public agencies were perhaps less open to new trends than individuals themselves.
Discourses surrounding psychological conditions in the 1920s and 1930s rarely offer much insight into the individual experience of psychic injury.
Yet popular and medical understandings of ‘nerve conditions’ provide a unique lens through which to assess contemporary concerns about politics and gender in the two newly created states on the island of Ireland.
In the Free State, the Military Service Pensions Board was much slower to recognize nerve ‘diseases’ than compensation boards in Britain, such as the London-based Irish Grants Committee, which compensated Irish loyalists and included “shock” in its definition of physical injury.
Ireland’s reluctance to offer compensation for psychological injuries – such as ‘neurasthenia’, ‘nerves’, ‘neurosis’ or ‘nervous breakdown’ – may reflect financial concerns.
However, it could also allude to efforts within the southern state to promote a heroic and resilient sense of nationhood in opposition to colonial stereotypes of the Irish being edgy and effeminate.
Dublin volunteer Patrick O’Reilly was one of many to fall foul of the Pensions Board. Although he claimed in 1934 that he had been treated for shell shock at Mater Hospital after being in the Four Courts when he was bombed in June 1922, the board denied compensation, concluding that ” you do not suffer from any handicap”.
Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, the treatment of returning soldiers after World War I has become a site of sectarian tension.
The need to ‘cure’ these soldiers quickly has taken on added urgency in the context of recruitment into Ulster’s new special police force. However, not all ex-servicemen were deemed deserving of such rehabilitation, and in 1922 Catholic ex-servicemen being treated at Craigavon Neurasthenic Hospital were subject to personal threats.
There also seems to have been unease in Belfast over the increase in the number of nervous patients in the mid-1920s.
LEADING health professionals in the city attributed the increase not to years of war and communal violence, but rather to the “harm of excessive tea drinking” and “inordinate love of pleasure and excitement related to cinema and alcohol trafficking”.
Additionally, nerve conditions were intrinsically linked to the female body throughout this period.
Perhaps the most striking example of this gender-specific medical care is the documented practices of Dublin gynecologist and longtime associate of Éamon de Valera, Dr. Robert Farnan.
Cork-based activist Siobhán Lankford claims she was one of many women to seek treatment from Dr Farnan for “nervous exhaustion” in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Dr Farnan prescribed six weeks of complete rest at Mater Hospital, followed by a period at Malahide and Sutton – a treatment plan that resembles the “rest cure” proposed by Philadelphia neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell at the late 19th century.
However, Dr. Farnan’s treatment of revolutionaries was not limited to Cumann na mBan activists, despite his area of medical expertise.
Indeed, Michael Collins was known to refer IRA men who were in any way “unhealthy” to Dr Farnan, as he was known to “heal by just talking to men”.
While future research will shed more light on how typical Dr. Farnan’s approach was, there are many examples to support these gendered attitudes.
While the treatment of men’s nerves generally aimed to quickly return the patient to combat or work, the treatment of women tended to reinforce their exclusion from public life.
The word ‘hysteria’ has its etymological roots in the Greek word for uterus and there is no doubt that these conditions were considered a ‘feminine disease’.
In fact, the Military Service Pension Board even had a policy of sending “nervous” applicants for gynecological testing.
Often, trauma is seen as producing silence because the language seems inadequate to describe the extremity of the traumatic experience. This idea of ”traumatic mutism” has a medical basis.
For example, in 1923 Bridget Fitzgerald, an activist from Tipperary Cumann na mBan, developed what she called “a weakness” and “lost the power of her hands and speech for a short time”.
However, despite these documented cases, psychologists point out that those who have experienced traumatic events often carry the desire to recount and share their experiences.
The reluctance of some participants is certainly an essential part of the traumatic legacy associated with the Irish Civil War.
Yet for decades, the emphasis on this idea of “traumatic” silence drowned the voices of many veterans who were unwilling to forget and who were determined to find ways to bear witness to the “spiritual wounds” of the Civil War. .
Síobhra Aiken is a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast. His most recent book is “Spiritual Wounds: Trauma, Testimony and the Irish Civil War” (Irish Academic Press, 2022).
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