The IRA 1926–1936

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 2003), Reviews, Volume 11

Brian Hanley
(Four Courts Press, ™29.95)
ISBN 1851827218

This is the most important study of the IRA to be published in recent years. It is based on a treasure trove of papers retained by Maurice Twomey, Chief of Staff of the IRA between 1926 and 1936. Brian Hanley has analysed this archive in depth and placed it in the wider context, giving a comprehensive view of the post-Civil War IRA. The only comparable work I am aware of is Seán Cronin’s biography of Frank Ryan, The search for the Republic (1980), which also covered this previously neglected period. However, the availability of the Twomey archive adds greatly to our knowledge and will lead to much reassessment of the development of IRA organisation and its politics.
Maurice Twomey was a Cork IRA volunteer, active in the War of Independence and a close associate of Chief of Staff Liam Lynch during the Civil War. He led the IRA in the wake of the departure of de Valera and his associates to form Fianna Fáil. He was clearly a personally popular and skilled leader who was able to hold together the diverse strands of the IRA in turbulent times. It was the rise of Fianna Fáil that defined the politics of the late ’20s and early ’30s. The relationship between Fianna Fáil and the IRA is central to this study. It reached its high point in 1932, when the IRA played a key role in the election of Fianna Fáil to government for the first time. But it was support without any real influence and it was very artfully used by Dev for his long-term purposes. It did not appear that way at the time. There was a big cross-over in support for Fianna Fáil and the IRA, and the latter organisation was in a period of rapid growth, with young people flocking to join its ranks.
The repressive policies of the Free State government of W.T. Cosgrave, the onset of the Great Depression with its dire effect on jobs and living conditions in Ireland, the restriction on emigration to the United States, as well as the unresolved issue of national sovereignty and partition, contributed to the growth of the IRA. Coming out of a period of intense repression following the Civil War and developing a radical social and economic agenda, the IRA leadership attracted the support of urban workers and small farmers. But the story of these years is the story of how that support was whittled away by Fianna Fáil, with the IRA unable to find a definite political or military strategy to move towards its objectives.
Twomey kept the organisation together, but in the long term he could not reconcile the various trends in the leadership and they never resolved the question of the exact role and function of the IRA. In theory, preparations for war were ongoing, but it was never clear in this period what form armed struggle should or would take. From today’s perspective it is surprising that there was not more focus on the Six Counties. But it must be remembered that this was in the wake of the Civil War, and British imperialism was seen by Republicans as maintaining its grip on both the Free State and the Northern state. De Valera’s step-by-step breaking of the Free State’s links with the British Empire and the Crown progressively narrowed the political ground on which the IRA could operate.
This study shows that the social radicalism of the IRA was genuine and arose out of the harsh economic conditions of the time, as well as drawing from the progressive Republican tradition of Tone, Lalor, Connolly and Mellows. But again there was no agreed strategy. Republicans failed either to develop a political party capable of challenging Fianna Fáil or to influence that party. In the early ’30s they believed they could push Fianna Fáil in a more republican direction but disillusion quickly set in, reinforcing the traditional suspicion of ‘politics and politicians’.
Those who left to form the Republican Congress in 1934 were equally bereft of a strategy and came to grief very quickly, themselves splitting and fading away. Much has been made of the abortive Congress initiative, but this work finally buries the gross simplifications which portray Congress as the ‘left’ of the IRA and wrongly dismiss those who remained, like Twomey, as ‘right-wingers’ and ‘militarists’. The book sheds much new light on many aspects of the IRA, including its relatively successful electoral interventions in the North, its relationship with the trade unions and Fianna Fáil, and its support for struggling peoples around the globe. The influence of the Soviet Union and communism on the IRA is also highlighted. The papers also contain interesting material on attempts to organise among the Irish in America.
Twomey’s departure as Chief of Staff was followed by a succession of internal battles for the leadership. By 1936 Dev was already on a collision course with the IRA and its fortunes declined rapidly thereafter. Tom Barry was Chief of Staff in 1937 and favoured an armed campaign across the Border which never took off. He was ousted, paving the way for Seán Russell and the doomed 1939 bombing campaign in England, which went ahead despite Twomey’s report of the woeful state of unreadiness of the IRA in Britain.
The only fault I can find with this excellent work is that the author does not tell us more about Twomey himself, particularly his early years in the IRA and his life after he ceased full-time activism. This makes the book somewhat less accessible to the general reader. Twomey’s major achievement was to hold together the disparate elements of the IRA—elements that would later diverge widely—but he and his comrades were never able to develop and implement a coherent strategy, and were undermined and outmanoeuvred by Fianna Fáil at every stage.
Micheál MacDonncha

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