Edited by John Gibney

Pen & Sword. 162 pages. £14.99. ISBN 978-152675-798-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The first act of the Irish War of Independence occurred on the 21st January 1919, when two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) escorting a delivery of gelignite to a quarry were killed by gunmen from the Irish Republican Army (IRA), “the name now applied to the older paramilitary Irish Volunteers (the nationalist militia originally founded in 1913 in support of home rule)”. The act was prophetic. Policemen were to become among the main targets during the War, with around 350 being killed and many injured.

The War was inevitable following the events of Easter 1916, and the abandonment of home rule which, prior to 1914, had been widely welcomed in the South, but vigorously opposed in the north. After 1916, support for Sinn Féin grew rapidly, and when elections took place in December 1918, the party won 73 out of Ireland’s 105 Westminster Seats. Sinn Féin was the political wing of the IRA. The die was cast because more people were now in favour of independence rather than home rule. And the situation was exacerbated when, in 1920, “Ireland was partitioned into two regions, in a move that primarily catered to Ulster unionists”. I’m shortcutting the convoluted politics of Ireland during this period. In effect, they involved three interested groups: the British government, Sinn Féin/IRA, and the new Belfast parliament.

The IRA did not have the manpower or the armaments to conduct a military operation of any size, and consequently adopted a system of guerrilla warfare: “The ambushes and assassinations that were the IRA’s stock in trade (as advocated in particular by Michael Collins, another 1916 veteran who became one of the principal leaders of the independence movement) posed problems for British forces accustomed to the open warfare of the ‘Great War’. “

Sinn Féin also used a form of “guerrilla government” to undermine British rule in Ireland: ”They established  arbitration courts to defuse local disputes (especially over land) and administer such justice as they could, with the IRA sometimes acting as police. By 1920 Sinn Féin had taken over most of the local authorities in the country and proved remarkably successful at running the machinery of local government themselves”.  Together with determined activity on the part of the IRA, it caused the British authorities to bring in more and more repressive legislation. When this impacted on local people it increased support for the militants. There is an interesting essay, “Smoking gun? British government policy and RIC reprisals, summer 1920”, which discusses the level of official awareness of targeted assassinations of known-IRA members. It includes a reproduction of a letter written by “one of the most senior officers of the RIC and addressed to one of the most influential civil servants in Dublin Castle” which “reveals a disturbing policy of assassination sanctioned by the highest level of the British government in Ireland”.

It needs to be pointed out that targeted assassinations were practised by both sides during the conflict. The IRA, in an operation organised by Michael Collins, killed twelve British intelligence officers, identified as such by an informant in Dublin Castle, in a single day in November 1920. And individual policemen, known for their enthusiasm in harassing Republicans, were singled out for killing. “Oh God, what did I do to deserve this?”: The Life and death of Detective Sergeant John Barton” is one example, and covered in an essay by Padraig Yeates. Some people, and certainly his assassins at the time, would most likely have said that he got what he deserved. An efficient policeman, Barton, a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), had identified leading rebels among those who surrendered in 1916. And before that he had been especially active in arresting members of Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) during the 1913 strike and lockout.

With the police suffering quite heavy losses, many of them resigning as their families were ostracised by the wider community, and recruitment falling, it became necessary to bolster them in some way. The notorious Black and Tans were the answer. I think most people, even those with only a sketchy awareness of Irish history, will have heard the term at one time or another. In actual fact, there were two units formed from recruits who responded to advertisements for men to enrol in support of the police. The Black and Tans were recruited from ex-soldiers who had served in the British Army as non-commissioned officers and other ranks, while the Auxiliaries were recruited from ex-officers. The Black and Tans were so named because their uniforms were a mixture of khaki and the dark bottle-green of the RIC. They were para-militaries and were ostensibly under the control of the police. The Auxiliaries were identifiable because of the tam-o-shanters they wore, and had a greater degree of autonomy. The reputation of both groups was not only low in Irish eyes. In Britain many people, when reports of Black and Tans and Auxiliaries terrorising villagers started to circulate, began to ask questions about what they were doing. My father, who served in the Royal Navy from 1913 to 1925, had encountered them while ashore in Cork, and had nothing good to say on their behalf. 

Both units were noted for their harsh methods of arrest and interrogation, and numerous acts of violence were attributed to them. Among the most notorious was the burning of Cork. This was a reprisal raid in response to the ambush of an Auxiliary patrol which left sixteen of them dead. One man who was wounded seems to have escaped. An IRA unit led by a noted commander, Tom Barry (who had previously served in the British Army), was responsible for the ambush, the nature of which has been a matter for argument. There were allegations that some of the Auxiliaries attempted to surrender, but were shot. In response, it was said that the surrender was simply a ruse to draw the IRA men out of their cover and they were then fired on. The IRA volunteers returned fire and killed all the Auxiliaries. A more-complete account of the ambush can be found in Charles Townshend’s The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence 1918-1923 (Allen Lane, London, 2013).

Peace negotiations between the British government and Sinn Féin/IRA got underway, and an Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1921. It wasn’t popular among many IRA activists and Eamon De Valera was especially opposed to certain of its clauses. It allowed for an Irish Free State with Dominion status in the British Empire, and required an oath of allegiance to the Crown. It’s a subject that has lent itself to much debate over the years. Michael Collins led the Irish deputation during the negotiations, and he and his team eventually signed the Treaty. It was, they said, the best deal they could get in the circumstances. The alternative was a continuation of the war, with Britain sending even more troops to Ireland. And it was probable that the IRA, with losses of men and arms affecting its operational capabilities, might not have been able to sustain its activities to any effective degree.

It was not a surprise when militant members of the IRA refused to accept the Treaty terms. They occupied buildings in Dublin, in particular the Four Courts. A stand-off ensued until the British Government, concerned that law and order was breaking down in Ireland, threatened to move back in to bring the situation to a conclusion. The new government had to be shown to be capable of acting on its own initiative if it was not lose credibility. With only a small, poorly equipped army at its disposal it borrowed artillery from the British, and commenced shelling the Four Courts on the 28th June 1922. The Civil War was underway and was to last until April 1923.

The Civil War, like the War of Independence, was largely a matter of small actions involving limited numbers of participants on both sides. Guerrilla warfare was largely the order of the day. Neither side was in a position to field large numbers of well-equipped, trained troops. There were problems with discipline among the Pro-Treaty forces, and even a reluctance to fire on anti-Treaty volunteers. The situation had been simpler when the enemy was obvious, but a Civil War brought up the uncomfortable fact that one might have to kill one’s fellow-countrymen, and possibly even people one had fought alongside during the War of Independence.

That didn’t stop the new Government acting in a way that outstripped anything the British had done. Its security was threatened and its authority not yet certain. Draconian measures meant that anyone caught with a gun could be executed. There was the case of Erskine Childers who had a miniature pistol (given to him as a present by Michael Collins) in his possession when arrested. He was sentenced to death, a decision many people thought was due to his being a notable anti-Treaty activist, albeit not of the fighting kind. And there were incidents when captured IRA men were given short shrift and executed on the spot. Townshend says that numerous assassinations of known republicans were carried out. An especially savage reprisal took place when four pro-Treaty soldiers were killed by a booby-trap in a dugout they were searching. Nine anti-Treaty prisoners were brought from prison, tied together in a circle, and a mine exploded in their midst. Eight died, and one man escaped with only minor injuries. It all came to an end when the IRA, its men and resources exhausted, laid down its arms.

I’ve taken certain details from Charles Townshend’s book in order to provide some sort of continuity in the story of the War of Independence and the Civil War. The book under review isn’t a chronological history of events, and is instead a collection of short essays on different aspects of the two wars. And it explores what might be called several little-known areas of activity. For example, there is the Italian connection. This revolved around the Italian adventurer, Gabriel D’Annunzio, who had led a march on the disputed port of Fiume on the Adriatic coast. He offered to help the IRA during the War of Independence with supplies of arms and ammunition. It all came to nothing when Michael Collins realised that there was little chance of a vessel loaded with guns avoiding the attention of Royal Navy warships patrolling off the coast of Ireland.

There is also an intriguing piece about the 1922 postal strike which was seen by the government as a threat to its authority. Strikebreakers were brought in and both police and army were forceful in their attacks on pickets. There is an irony in the fact that the strikers were treated in a manner reminiscent of what workers experienced during the strike and lockout in 1913. Governments change, but people in power continue to behave in the same way.

Another interesting essay looks at the campaign to close cinemas that the IRA carried out during the Civil War. It was part of their aim to disrupt everyday life. And, as a piece of social history, an intriguing piece looks at “the Templemore Miracles” when a local man claimed to have experienced “Marian apparitions” and religious statues in the area were said to have shed tears of blood. This happened shortly after soldiers from the Northamptonshire Regiment had stormed into the village, looting and burning, following the killing of an RIC officer by the IRA. Thousands of people flocked to Templemore to witness the miracles.   

An essay on how the IRA dealt with people they suspected of passing information to the British highllghts the case of Mrs Maria Lyndsay who was executed for allegedly informing the British Army of a planned ambush. Five IRA Volunteers were captured and, after being court martialled, were executed. The IRA had told the British that if the men were executed they would kill her, which they did. An interesting point is raised here. A Catholic priest had also been involved but no action was taken against him: “Although the killing of women was a taboo rarely broken, killing a clergyman of any denomination would have been even more controversial, and although the IRA knew of several clergymen, both Catholic and Protestant, who had gathered intelligence for the British, none of them were executed”.

As noted, The Irish War of Independence and Civil War does not claim to offer a strict chronological account of those events. But what it does provide are some fascinating short essays on lesser-known situations and personalities arising out of the conflicts. As such, it should be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about what happened in Ireland a hundred or so years ago.  The book is illustrated and has a short bibliography.