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The Civil War in Kildare

As the troubled year of 2011 enters its final weeks it’s a good time to look back on some of the highlights of the history scene in Kildare.  One glimmer of light among the gloom of the departing year has been the almost recession-proof nature of local history activity. From Leixlip to Castledermot, Kildare has a thriving network of local history clubs each contributing to the community with busy programmes of talks and trips.
Local history publishing has remained vigorous too with a number of fine publications  which have put important aspects of the county’s history on the record.  Tony Doohan’s book on Celbridge and the Caragh History Groups ‘Great Book of Caragh’, are just two examples which come to mind.
Undoubtedly a publishing highlight of the year which provoked much discussion was the launch of James Durneys book ‘The Civil War in Kildare.’ At first glance it might seem that the scope for a book on the Civil War in Kildare (1922-23) would be limited as there is a general assumption that the county was free from such blood-thirst. But, not for the first time, James Durney’s indefatigable research has made local historians sit up and take notice of a part of the county’s history which hitherto had been quite overlooked. It’s not the first time that this author has taken on a project on a local or a national scale which has opened the door to a renewed interest in topics which were dismissed as being too recent or too limited by mainstream historians.  His output of books of a consistent quality is all the more remarkable considering that his first eight books have been self-published. Drawing on talents within his own household James Durney produced books with attractive layout, striking covers, and compelling titles which touched a chord with potential readers. An example is the title of his master work on Kildare men who fought in the First and Second World wars ‘Far from the Short Grass’.
His book published this year on the Civil War in Kildare was his first to be issued by a professional publisher, Mercier Press in Cork, who have a strong record of publishing books on 20th century Irish history.  The book traces the trajectory of Kildare’s troubled politics toward the internecine violence of the Civil War. He begins by setting the context of Kildare nationalists emerging from the war of independence having achieved a victory of sorts which saw the British forces evacuating barracks in Naas, Newbridge, the Curragh and Kildare town. However any complacency was ripped apart by the capacity of the Irish to turn on each other.  And despite the perception that the big events of modern Irish history passed Kildare by, James Durney shows that the county was as much embroiled in the nasty civil war as anywhere else in Ireland. The shooting of a British army officer of local birth, Lt. John Wogan Browne, in Kildare town in March 1922 by assailants as yet un-named and the capture and execution of seven Kildare town anti-treaty fighters by Free State Forces are an example of some of the personal stories where the Durney hallmark of weaving the intimate with the epic is to be seen at its best.  A copy of ‘The Civil War in Kildare’ will shake any assumptions that Kildare was too flat and too indifferent to be a part of this nation’s violent birth.
It is said that a picture tells a thousand words and this maxim is proven true in a spectacular manner by another book – just published – from the Mercier stable
‘ Revolution – a photographic history of revolutionary Ireland’ by Padraig Óg Ó Ruarc. This hard-back high quality volume is packed with hundreds photographs – most never seen in public before – which record the extended period of ‘the Troubles’ from 1913 to 1923.  All the iconic events and personalities in the nation-building story of Ireland are covered in this publication which features rare and well-chosen photographs accompanied by long and informative captions. Among the photographs of Kildare interest is one of the old Fenian John Devoy (born near Kill) on a visit to Ireland in 1924. Padraig Ó’Ruairc’s caption points out that Devoy, once the irascible nationalist, seemed to endorse the pro-Treaty government of W. T. Cosgrave although later modified his support by expression suspicion of what he termed the Free State’s ‘imperialist’ policies.
James Durney’s ‘The Civil War in Kildare’ and O’Ruairc’s ‘Revolution – a photograph history 1913-23’ bring home the violent realities which, for better or worse, shaped Irish society for most of the twentieth century. Both are available in any good book-shop … a thought which raises the question – is there such a thing as a bad bookshop?

Liam Kenny in his Looking Back series from the Leinster Leader of November 15 2011 takes a look at the Civil War in Kildare. Our thanks to Liam

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