The Aftermath of Revolution: Sligo 1921-23, Michael Farry. (University College Dublin Press, £16.95) ISBN 1900621398

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2001), Personal History, Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 9

The relative inertia of the Sligo IRA during the Anglo-Irish War did not prevent the county witnessing protracted violence during the Civil War. This illuminating study, providing both a chronological and thematic account, begins with an overview of the rise of militant nationalism in Sligo. The campaign of 1919-1921, denoted by minor skirmishes and acts of sabotage, saw Volunteers largely confine their activities to evading arrest. Lack of initiative and munitions precluded militancy. Local activists were distanced from their nominal national leadership as none of the local Republican leaders had experienced internment in 1916. According to the author this strongly influenced the extent of their military operations and their perspective in the debate on the Anglo-Irish Treaty. It is unfortunate, however, that the author does not elaborate further on the radicalisation of Sligo nationalists prior to 1921.
Despite their passivity, local IRA leaders were not slow to claim a dubious victory over their opponents with the commencement of the Truce of July 1921. This period saw them enthusiastically dispense patronage throughout the county’s civic institutions. The author vividly recreates the political-military tensions that arose as the IRA declined to defer to any elected authority. The imposition of levies created resentment amongst many influential members of society. Failure to reconcile their position within the existing local political establishment, or indeed their tenuous association with GHQ in Dublin, reinforced the isolation of the Sligo IRA. From the evidence provided by Farry it is possible to argue that the revolution in Sligo occurred not in the ditches and by-roads, but rather in the chambers of Sligo County Council.
As with many elements of the provincial IRA, the activists in Sligo busied themselves in establishing a fiefdom and their increasing parochialism left them disinclined to accept the compromises of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Personal animosities were as important as ideology in defining divisions over the Treaty. The question of partition was ignored as the rhetoric closely mirrored the Dáil debates.
The general election of 1922 accelerated polarisation. The subsequent evacuation of British forces saw the opposing factions consolidate their military positions. Throughout April and May sporadic clashes occurred, the protagonists showing none of their previous reticence. The Anti-Treaty forces were dislodged from their positions with the intervention of regular Free State troops in July. The reluctance of the Anti-Treaty leaders to combine and concentrate their efforts afforded their enemy the opportunity to overrun isolated pockets of resistance, a failing repeated throughout the initial stages of the Civil War. In Sligo, as elsewhere, they retreated into guerrilla warfare as the Free State Army garrisoned the towns. The inability of either force to inflict a decisive defeat on their opponents saw the conflict quickly descend to a campaign of sabotage, ambush and intimidation. Topography, rather than military acumen, dictated the extent of hostilities.
The strength of this work lies in the author’s extensive statistical analysis of various aspects of the conflict. Examination of the geographical distribution and socio-economic status of participants reveals no direct correlation between class and political allegiance. Uniquely, the impact of hostilities on civilian life is quantified. Destruction of road and rail infrastructure, a key element of the Anti-Treaty strategy, further diminished the already depressed agricultural economy. Disruption of social and sporting events and levels of school-attendance similarly denote the impact of hostilities. In examining the position of the minority Protestant population, the author concludes that land-hunger was a more potent force than sectarianism. No evidence is presented of a concerted effort to drive Protestants from the county; their decline in numbers simply an acceleration of an existing trend of migration to Ulster.
In reconstructing the period through a varied range of local and national archives, Michael Farry has produced a very comprehensive analysis. Those readers already familiar with the period will immediately recognise that Sligo serves as a microcosm of events at national level. This book should serve as a template for future local studies of the period.

Alan Burke

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