Havoc: the Auxiliaries in Ireland’s War of Independence

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

Collins Press
ISBN 9781848893061

Reviewed by Eamonn T. Gardiner

Although painting a vivid picture for readers,Paul O’Brien’s latest offering falls short of thepromised ‘balanced examination’ promised. With this work O’Brien, who has previously established himself as an authority on military strategies during the Anglo-Irish War, dips his toe into the morenuanced world of colonial policing and counterinsurgency.

From the commencement of hostilities at Soloheadbeg (21 January 1919), the IRA waged a deliberate war against the police, ruthlessly murdering them in their communities, coming from their places of worship and in the line of duty. Strong, loyal and unquestioning, the Constabulary’s pervasive presence had made it virtually impossible for the IRA to gather, train or carryout effective military operations. A steady stream of police resignations shattered the Constabulary’s coherence and, in turn, Dublin Castle’s complacency. Under considerable pressure during the summer of 1920, David Lloyd George’s government began to explore unconventional solutions to the growing manpower crisis.

The solution came from Winston Churchill. The Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary (ADRIC) was a gendarmerie and mobile strike-force, recruited from the considerable cohort of unemployed ex-officersdemobilisedafter the First World War. About 2,300 temporary cadets (they were rated as temporary officer cadets for administrative purposes)passed throughthis corps d’élite, though it constantly struggledto remain above its establishment strength of 1,500. Loosely organised along paramilitary lines, ADRIC’s quasi-independent field companies were given considerable latitude in operations against the IRA.

Although active for only eighteenmonths, the notoriety attached to their actions earned the Auxiliaries a place of infamy in the Irish cultural landscape. Yet despite these high-profile events, it is tales of the dignity and determination demonstrated by ordinary Irishmen and womenin the face of provocation which are still the most emblematic of the period for me as a historian. Not content with being a veteran of the Great Warand a teacher in Fermoy’s St Colman’s College, Nicholas de Sales Prendergast also helped his wife Eileen to run the town’sBlackwater Hotel. Although accounts vary, the consensus appears to be that Prendergast had the temerity to object to excessive behaviour from a party of Auxiliarieswho had stopped in the town (possibly travelling from Cork for the funeral removal of the Auxiliary dead after the Kilmichael Ambush). Later that night, whilst having a drink in a local hostelry he was confronted by incensed Auxiliaries. Dragged outside, viciously assaulted and thrown from the town’s bridge, his body lay undiscovered in the riverine environment for weeks. Although accounting for the understandable difficulties with source material which the author must have encountered, it still strikes me as odd that some prescient, though less graphic, incidentshave been excised from his work.

O’Brien’s utilisation of space and topics isperplexing. An integral aspect of the Auxiliaries’ overall story has to be the unusual composition of the Division’s cohort,which merits far more attention than it receives. For example, in his examination of the seminal Kilmichael ambush, O’Brien overlooksthe fact that several members of the ADRIC patrolhad been drawn from the British military’s traditionally non-combat support arms, had suffered neurological/psychological injuries during the Great War or had been noted for ‘cutting corners’, all of which may well have contributed to a poverty of martial prowess. Despitethe destruction unleashed during the ‘Burning of Cork’ (Chapter Ten), the sack of the provincial capital only merits a scant twelve pages. This famine stands in stark contrast to O’Brien’ssuperfluous allegorical treatise on the nature of special forces (which the Auxiliaries were most definitely not!), receiving the same level of attention as the destruction of an Irish city.

Furthermore, he relegates Bloody Sunday’s massacre at Croke Parkto a brief paragraph in Chapter Eight’s ‘Shadow Warriors’; O’Brien notes that ‘conflicting reports’ existed of events following the Auxiliaries’ arrival at the crowded stadium, ‘resulting in the deaths of fourteen people’. One wonders why the authorfelt it necessary to stray intothe realm of sensationalismwhen he drew renewed attention to the description of a particular Auxiliary as a ‘roaring homosexual’, and blatantly stating the explicit (and unprintable) response offered when asked for the meaning of the letters ‘T.C.’ on Auxiliary uniforms.

Whileother reviewershave dealt satisfactorily with the questionable claim that Havoc draws upon ‘archival material from the bloody annals of British imperial history’, it is unfortunate that,where employed, such material merely receives a light touch. Although clearly not intended to be an academic work, another point of concern must be the fact that thereis not a single reference in the chapter dealing with the round-up at Kilmashogue in the Dublin Mountains, including the controversial (and possibly extra-legal)killing of IRA Volunteer Seán Doyle.

With Havoc, O’Brien has stepped out of his previous comfort zone and has taken on a difficult subject and still produced a decent body of work, for which he should be commended. Although far from perfect, Havoc may still retain some interest for the casual reader and would complement Bennett’s The Black and Tans handsomely.

Eamonn T. Gardiner is the author of Dublin Castle and the Anglo-Irish War: counterinsurgency and conflict (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2009).


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