In this edition, guest author Dr Síobhra Aiken discusses Anthony O’Connor’s He’s Somewhere In There and explores why such a remarkable account by a Free State soldier was, until recently, all but absent from historical studies.
Anthony O’Connor, from King St. (now Pearse St.) in Athlone, was just a teenager when he joined the Free State Army at the outbreak of the Irish Civil War in June 1922. His time as a soldier and later sergeant had a profound impact on him. In 1975, he published a book entitled He’s Somewhere In There which traced the contentious events of the civil war and was described in the foreword as a ‘factual account of the Western Sector’. He’s Somewhere In There isn’t just a military account, but also a social history of the ‘overchurched, overpubbed and underhoused’ garrison town of Athlone.
Photo: He’s Somewhere In There was published in 1975 by the Foxgate Press in London.
The Westmeath Independent welcomed the publication of this new local civil war book. But O’Connor’s account has evaded scholars for years and hasn’t been utilised in historical considerations of this period.
The context of the book’s publication might go some way to explaining its omission. O’Connor was hopeful that the election of Erskine Childers as President of Ireland in 1973 would soften tensions and pave the way for unity between the traditions of the Irish and Anglo-Irish. But the ‘Troubles’ in the North continued to wage. If civil war was often deemed ‘best forgotten’ for the sake of political stability, this was certainly the case during much of the conflict in Northern Ireland. There is another reason for the neglect of O’Connor’s writings. He’s Somewhere In There is not written as a memoir but as a novel.
This might seem unusual. However, O’Connor was following a well-established tradition of concealing civil war testimonies under a veil of fiction as a means to avoid libel cases, censorship fears, and social rebuke. The Wexford-born anti-treatyite Francis Carty wrote his 1934 novel, Legion of the Rearguard, to ‘work’ the civil war ‘off my system’. Dubliner and Free State army captain Patrick Mulloy also presented a fictionalised version of his wartime experience in the novel Jackets Green (1936). Meanwhile, Annie M. P. Smithson encoded her Cumann na mBan experiences into the romance novel The Marriage of Nurse Harding (1936), advertised at the time as an ‘authentic picture of the Irish Civil War’.
The abundance of such concealed testimonies by Irish revolutionaries points to the urge often felt by war veterans to document, process, and share their experiences. The line between fact and fiction is often so blurred that it can be impossible to separate the imagined from the remembered. O’Connor’s He’s Somewhere In There is no different. The novel opens as its teen narrator, Steve Corrigan, a soldier in the Free State army, looks on as six anti-treaty prisoners are executed in January 1923. The executed men included the narrator’s childhood friend and Athlone neighbour Johnny Costello. The novel subsequently traces the lives of Steve and Johnny from their childhood to the civil war and details the circumstances that place them on opposite sides of the treaty split.
Anyone with a knowledge of the period would understand the incident evoked: on 20 January 1923, six anti-treaty combatants were sentenced to death in Athlone Barracks during the most brutal month of the civil war in terms of state-sanctioned executions. One of the sentences was commuted (that of General Tom Maguire TD), but the other five prisoners were executed. The men were predominantly from the North Galway IRA Brigade, except for Athlone native Thomas Hughes. His death caused particularly outcry given that his family, who were in the vicinity, were not notified of the execution.
Image: Westmeath Independent, 27 January 1923
In the novel, Corrigan conceals the truth about the execution from the prisoner’s mother, suggesting that the character of Johnny was based, however loosely, on the executed Thomas Hughes.
Indeed, many of the incidences in the novel reflect events that occurred in the Athlone area during the revolutionary period. While some characters and placenames are fictionalised, other names and events are directly evoked. For examples, locals do not lament the assassination of RIC man and ‘rebel hunter’ Sergeant Craddock (an earlier edition of the blog discussed Craddock’s death). This is clearly a reference to RIC sergeant Thomas Craddock who was assassinated when leaving the ‘Comrades of the Great War Club’ on King St. on 22 August 1920. The witness statement of Thomas Costello, OC of Athlone Brigade IRA, similarly attests to the locals’ dislike of the sergeant: ‘A favourite pastime of his was to put a revolver to young men’s heads who were in the movement and threaten to shoot them and so forth’ (W. S. 1296).
Image: Thomas Costello, ‘Witness Statement’, Bureau of Military History, W. S. 1296
The activities of the Free State soldiers during the early months of the civil war also resonate with other official accounts. Equally, O’Connor’s vibrant descriptions of the arrival of disbanded Connaught Rangers in Athlone’s Custume Barracks offers unique insights into the day-to-day lives of the soldiers.
There are also numerous similarities between the novelist and his teen character, Steven Corrigan. The fictional protagonist joined the Free State Army in June 1922, as did the author. Both are promoted to the rank of sergeant; the novel suggests that the promotion of these ‘young scallywags’ was not appreciated by some of the ex-Connaught Rangers. Indeed, official records date O’Connor’s birth to 13 March 1907, meaning that he was only fifteen when he enlisted in the army (and not eighteen as suggested in the army census of November 1922). Anthony O’Connor’s full name was also Stephen Francis Anthony. He therefore shared his first name with his protagonist. The names of the fictional parents, John and Tilda, are also the names of the author’s own parents.
One of defining characteristics of O’Connor’s novel is the description of how the young protagonist is gradual brutalised by his military environs and essentially converted into a killing machine by the conclusion of the civil war. The opening pages of the novel include what is surely the starkest confession of perpetrating violence from the pen of a civil war veteran:
But for this war I should be in America doing a decent job of work – maybe Johnny too – but, here I was, a sergeant in the Free State Army, having killed at least a dozen fellow Irishmen in the wild country road skirmishes … and I not yet twenty years of age.
Throughout the novel, Corrigan is anxious to emigrate and claims he would leave the army if it didn’t jeopardise his chance to get on the emigration quota. By the novel’s conclusion, Corrigan has become an unfeeling shadow of his former self and the reader can only wonder as to what kind of life is in store for him.
As for the author, O’Connor did emigrate: he made for Canada in 1925 and worked there on the Canadian National Railways. He relocated to London in 1927, where he was a hotel manager until he joined the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. He rose to the rank of squadron leader in the RAF and was purportedly mentioned four times in dispatches in the Normandy landings and North West Europe campaign. After the war, he made a career as a manager in some of west London’s most celebrated gentlemen’s social clubs; he covered this period in his tongue-and-cheek memoir, Clubland: The Wrong Side Of The Right People, published a year after his novel. He is listed on the roll of honour of the esteemed London gentlemen’s club, the Cavalry Club, where he was secretary from 1953 to 1976.
Image: Illustration from Clubland by John Farman
Why was O’Connor so determined to testify to his civil war experience (and why had he comparatively little to say about his military activities during the Second World War)? Did he personally know Thomas Hughes? Was he implicated in the deaths of fellow Irish men as a teenager?
History may not have easy answers for these questions. But regardless, O’Connor’s novel is one of the most remarkable written accounts to come from the pen of a young Free State soldier. If there are skewed facts and fabrications, He’s Somewhere In There nevertheless offers an insight into the emotional landscape of a former soldier and the enduring implications of his experience. While the Irish Civil War may have generated its own silences, O’Connor’s account highlights that this silence was always shadowed by those who sought to shatter it. Ultimately, however, many of these silence breakers still struggle to be heard even one hundred years on from the events they described.
Dr Síobhra Aiken lectures at Queen’s University Belfast and is the author of Spiritual Wounds: Trauma, Testimony and the Irish Civil War.
Bureau of Military History Witness Statements; Dr Síobhra Aiken, Spiritual Wounds: Trauma, Testimony and the Irish Civil War (Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 2022) and Anthony O’Connor, He’s Somewhere In There (The Foxgate Press, London, 1975).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 14/12/2022