Review of Síobhra Aiken’s Spiritual Wounds by Lorraine Grimes

Síobhra Aiken, Spiritual Wounds: Trauma, Testimony and The Irish Civil War, Irish Academic Press, 2022

Spiritual Wounds unearths the silent sufferings of the Irish Civil War by uncovering individual and collective trauma through the use of literary texts. Literature is utilised as a lens into the realities of participating in, witnessing and coping with war. Aiken’s exploration of literary works written during, and in the aftermath of the Irish Civil War, creates new historical files which move away from accounts of ‘what happened’, towards testimony of its impact. By moving away from ‘official’ accounts, literature allows Aiken to explore the hidden narratives, the psychological realities of war and inevitably, and the under-researched concept of trauma. Story-telling and trauma-telling was important within the restraints of Irish society of the time, where emotions were often repressed.

The Introduction underpins the ‘traumatic silence’ and ‘collective trauma’ surrounding the war. Discussing social and structural oppressions, as well as the patriarchal suppression of women, this chapter questions where the notion of trauma suffering exists within society at the time. The author argues that those who survive trauma often feel the need to tell and be heard, and for many Irish people living in a socially repressive society, this need to tell was achieved through writing autobiographies, memoirs, poetry, as well as through fiction, in novels and drama. 

Chapter One, explores some of the literary works which portray the realities of war and trauma during the civil war. Some authors use personal testimony with political aims to vindicate themselves or their cause, while others used black humour as a defence mechanism to deal with trauma and intense emotions. The stigma surrounding mental health, which is still prevalent in Irish society today, was difficult for those suffering trauma, and when it came to renumeration for war service, the emphasis was on physical health rather than mental health. Some resorted to alcohol and prostitution, and even suicide. 

Of course, it was not only Irish men who experienced the trauma of the war, and Chapter 2 examines female testimonies. The author found that there was more of an emphasis on the collective experience of trauma in writings of female revolutionaries. Aiken is cautious in her analysis of women’s pain and argues that there has been much objectification and commercialisation of women’s pain in revolutionary remembrance. She argues that women’s suffering was exploited for symbolic significance as female wounded bodies “often served as a conduit for expressing men’s trauma, while women and nation were conflated in the pervasive tropes of ‘Mother Ireland’, ‘Dark Rosaleen’, or ‘Kathleen Ní Houlihan” (p. 70). The medicalisation of women’s psychological health, for those who transgressed social boundaries, is explored. Female revolutionaries were condemned and pseudo-medical language of ‘madness’ and ‘lunacy’ was used as a means to explain some women’s involvement. It shocked this reader to learn that female revolutionaries who were claiming nervous conditions under the Military Service Pensions Board were sent for gynaecological examinations as ‘weak nerves’ and ‘hysteria’ were inherently connected to the female reproductive system (p. 10). 

Chapter 3 examines sexual violence during the Irish Civil War. Aiken states that there are ‘indirect or coded renderings of rape’ within the literature, and this ‘perpetuates the experience of sexualised violence as unsayable’ (p. 149). Given the societal oppression of women at the time, writing “allowed women to take ownership of wartime trauma and illustrate both how women engaged directly with military activity and how war invaded domestic life” (p. 114). Violence towards women was a way of performing masculinity and punishing transgressions of Irish femininity. Women found informing, spying or consorting with the enemy were victim to hair sheering, sexual humiliations including stripping and naked public exposure, rape, domestic violence, tarring and feathering or by branding anti-treaty women in green paint. Until very recently, historians believed the Irish Civil War was a ‘low rape war’, however Aiken critically analyses references to rape and sexual assault in a number of literary texts throughout the chapter. 

Chapter 4 examines exiled emigrants during the war, victim diaspora and redemptive trauma. Writing from abroad gave the Irish authors the freedom to express their trauma in a way they might not if living in Ireland. Chapter 5 examines perpetrator testimonies, accounts from those who carried out violent acts during the civil war. This is a vastly under-explored area in Irish historiography and this chapter opens up a new area of research which is both interesting and nuanced. Focusing on literary texts written by those involved in the war, Aiken explores the moral contradictions challenging perpetrators. She outlines how the psychological effects on the perpetrator are teased out in the writings of both male and female revolutionary veterans. For some the ‘overwhelming urge to keep talking, keep describing, and the exaggeration of the reach and efficacy of the dead, serves in some way as a self-inflicted punishment (p. 201). However, we know from psychological studies that not all people who carry out violent acts are negatively affected. It is also argued that ‘bearing witness’ is generally not associated with perpetrators but is in fact trauma in itself. The chapter also explores violence perpetrated against men, another area of research which remains understudied internationally. 

The Afterword explores the inclusion of the author in the research. The author shares her own family connection to the research. Aiken shares the impact of research on her; she tells us how she was ‘haunted for months by a fleeting comment’ about a girl who had been accidentally shot when aiding republicans escaping the Curragh in December 1922 (pp 239-240). Aiken went through the Kildare death records and found that the girl was Annie Cardwell, a first cousin of her great-grandfather Frank Aiken. She admits that the girl’s ‘tragic death did not feature in family or national histories’ (p. 240). It is interesting to hear the family connection and gives a sense of reality and authenticity to the research. Although traditionally academia is a field which usually encourages a professional distance from the author, this distance is not always possible or even beneficial within social history. Aiken suggests it might be time to develop “a self-reflective model of history writing” which this author thoroughly agrees with (p. 241).

There has been an aversion to writing about these more difficult aspects of history to date. This book offers a new insight into the impact of the Irish Civil War exploring individual trauma, collective trauma and gendered violence. Through the underused source of primary literary texts, the book offers an insight into victims and perpetrators experiences of violence and trauma. It is a book which this reader would highly recommend to anyone with an interest in civil war histories, trauma studies, gender based violence and Irish literature. 

Dr Lorraine Grimes is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Social Science Institute at Maynooth University. Her PhD thesis examined the institutionalisation of Irish unmarried mothers in Mother and Baby Home institutions in Britain taking a comparative approach with Ireland. Lorraine has a number of publications focusing on unmarried motherhood, maternity care and abortion in Ireland and Britain.