Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2021), Reviews, Volume 29

Yale University Press
ISBN 9780300123821

Reviewed by Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc

The authors of this book deserve a great deal of praise for taking on the monumental task of identifying, researching and recording the deaths of every person killed as a result of political conflict in Ireland from the 1916 Rising to the end of 1921. Similar to Lost lives, which chronicled the modern ‘Troubles’, a book listing the dead of the War of Independence period has been long overdue. Previous books have recorded the fatalities of the 1916 Rising only, or have taken a partisan approach by recording only RIC or IRA fatalities. This book far exceeds any previous efforts by cataloguing the total cost of the conflict in terms of human life. It contains a brief entry for each of the 2,850 men, women and children whose deaths were a result of the Irish revolution. The name, age, religion and location are given for each fatality. Their status as civilian, British soldier, RIC constable, IRA Volunteer etc. is recorded, along with a brief account of each killing.

A detailed introduction by Eunan O’Halpin with a breakdown of the killings gives some very interesting insights into the Irish revolution. A comparison of the 504 fatalities from the 1916 Rising and the 2,346 deaths from the War of Independence period emphasises just how different the two events were. Civilians accounted for 55% of the casualties in the Rising compared with 39% in the guerrilla campaign. Women were far more likely to have been killed as civilian casualties in Easter Week, whilst only 4% of the fatalities of the War of Independence were female, almost all of whom were ‘collateral damage’. Aside from rare cases when the IRA executed alleged female spies, women appear not to have been specifically targeted.

O’Halpin’s introduction also gives a useful overview of the type of killings, which show how grim the conflict became as it intensified from the summer of 1920, with suicide rates amongst combatants spiralling, the killing of prisoners, those ‘shot trying to escape’, the execution of alleged spies and the ‘disappeared’. Often histories of the period focus on events in Dublin and Munster, ignoring Ulster, but because this book uses the county as a unit of record it gives the reader an insight into the nature of the war in the north. Not only was the conflict different north and south, but also this book shows how the fight differed drastically from one Ulster county to another. For example, 85% of fatalities in Antrim (mainly Belfast) were civilians, compared to just 34% in Cork. Whilst Antrim had one of the highest per capita fatality rates of any Irish county, Tyrone had the lowest.

Of course, the book is not just a numerical analysis; the main section contains chronological entries giving the human stories behind the statistics. The one thing that detracts from this otherwise impressive book were notable shortcomings in recording accurately the stories behind these killings. It would be impossible to publish a book of this scale without minor errors—the wrong townland, the wrong date etc.—but I was struck by how many significant errors were included, such as entries that seemingly attributed killings to the wrong faction. In other cases information vital to understanding the circumstances of killings was absent. In particular, I noted significant errors related to my native county of Clare.

The two-line entry on p. 269 for Joseph Green in Kilrush reads: ‘Green was shot through a window as he sat by the fire “reading a paper”. A newspaper reported rumours that “there is nothing political in the shooting”.’ A casual reader might wonder why, if there was ‘nothing political’ about the shooting, it was included in the book. Having studied the case, I was puzzled that a report by a British officer appended to the British Army inquiry, claiming that Green was murdered because ‘Sinn Féiners turned him out of his farm’, was not included. Furthermore, the inference by an IRA commandant that Green was an ‘enemy intelligence agent’ ought to have been mentioned.

The entry for the shooting of Francis Murphy near Ennistymon is similarly problematic. Like Green, Murphy was shot as he read by his fireside. The account of his killing here concludes with a reference suggesting British Army involvement. The fact that the ‘witness’ who claimed to have seen British soldiers at the scene was later jailed after confessing to perjury is not mentioned. The full context of the killing—reported in the press and raised at the inquest but notably absent from this book—is that Murphy’s family were involved in a long-running and extremely violent agrarian feud, as a result of which they had been given an armed RIC guard. A full examination of the case suggests that Murphy was killed by his neighbours rather than by British soldiers.

The entry for Thomas Shannon from Moyasta also seems wide of the mark. The book quotes a contemporary press report that Shannon ‘was not identified with any political organisations’. An account of his assassination is followed by a reference to a claim that Shannon ‘refused to pay a Sinn Féin levy’, giving the impression that Shannon was an innocent civilian killed by the IRA. In fact, Shannon was a judge in the Dáil Courts; his widow testified that she did not recognise her husband’s killers and that they spoke with strange accents. Shannon has long been commemorated as a republican martyr and the consensus amongst local historians is that he was killed by British forces. The reference given for the claim that Shannon ‘refused to pay a Sinn Féin levy’ is The Good Old IRA, a propaganda booklet published in 1985 by Sinn Féin, which is hardly an authoritative source. The claim that Shannon was in conflict with local republicans originated in Dublin Castle and was apparently invented to avert suspicion from the British forces responsible.

The killing of RM Alan Lendrum has garnered national attention for over a century. British propaganda concocted a story that Lendrum was drowned by the IRA, who buried him up to his neck on a beach at low tide. Over the decades many historians (myself included) have gotten elements of the case wrong. Eoin Shanahan’s article in this magazine, ‘Telling tales: the story of the drowning and burial alive of a Clare RM in 1920’ (HI 18.1, Jan./Feb. 2010), proved conclusively that Lendrum had been shot dead. The dead of the Irish revolution mentions Sir Arthur Hezlet’s 1972 version of the propaganda story but would have been better referencing Shanahan’s more recent and authoritative work debunking this propaganda. Lendrum’s entry in this book reports that ‘an autopsy revealed Lendrum had drowned, giving some currency to the belief that he had still been alive when placed on the beach’. The entry does not include the findings of a British military court of inquiry which ruled that Lendrum had been shot dead. Lendrum’s death certificate clearly states the cause of death as ‘murder by shooting’.

The same day that Lendrum was shot dead, the IRA also ambushed and killed six members of the RIC at Rineen near Miltown Malbay. In response, British forces engaged in widespread reprisals, killing one IRA Volunteer and six civilians. The dead of the Irish revolution wrongly attributes the killing of several of these victims, including civilians Joe Salmon and Tom Connole, to the police. In reality, these men were killed by soldiers from the Royal Scots, not the RIC. Blaming the Black and Tans instead of the soldiers responsible suited propaganda efforts to preserve the British Army’s reputation. Norah Fox, an eight-year-old girl from Ennistymon, was the youngest victim of the British Army reprisals for Rineen; her death is not included in the book.

The book’s treatment of the ‘Blackwater Massacre’ is also problematic. In February 1921 two teenage brothers Cecil and Aidan O’Donovan were shot dead by the RIC at Blackwater, Parteen, in south-east Clare. The dead of the Irish revolution suggests the incident began when British forces attacked a group of men engaged in military training and the O’Donovan brothers were killed after they came into the line of fire.  However, there is no evidence from independent sources  that there had been any IRA volunteers present when the RIC opened fire. Local accounts maintain that the O’Donovans  were innocent civilians shot dead without warning whilst they played in a field with two other boys searching for bird’s nests. This is one of several cases where the book seems over reliant on evidence presented by members of the British forces to British Army courts of inquiry. A more sceptical approach to the findings of these British rulings, or at least a greater balance with conflicting local accounts, might have benefitted some entries.

Aside from Clare, there are other significant cases nationally where important details relevant to understanding the context of killings are not included. The entry for IRA Volunteer Edward Fox, shot in a Dublin pub, does not mention that his killer, Daniel Whelan, was a British spy. An appendix to the official inquiry stated: ‘Whelan is one of our agents … as soon as this happened Whelan went to Dublin Castle … he was told to clear out … [because he had] jeopardised his position as an agent’. The document concluded with instructions from Major-Gen. Boyd, commander of the British Army in Dublin, that information concerning Fox’s killing should be ‘locked away’. This is the only case I’ve encountered where a high-ranking British officer left a written order to cover up a murder—yet despite this file’s being referenced in the footnotes none of the information contained in it was included in the book.

One of the last ‘fatalities’ mentioned in the book is William Shields, a British agent who was responsible for the capture of an IRA unit at Nadd, Cork. The dead of the Irish revolution lists Shields as being killed on 11 July 1921. The truth is that Shields fled Ireland after the Truce and both the IRA and the Free State Army pursued him during the Civil War. When IRA intelligence succeeded in locating him in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, he fled further afield—allegedly to a British colony in Asia. IRA intelligence spent a decade trying to locate Shields but never succeeded in killing him.

These caveats aside, the book is an extremely important work that makes a very significant contribution to our understanding of the revolutionary period. It is an absorbing read that is certain to sell well, so any errors or oversights can easily be addressed in future editions, as was done with the second edition of Lost lives. For the casual reader it will prove a mine of information about events in their county. Even seasoned academics will glean valuable new insights into the trends and nature of the conflict nationally. In short, it is essential reading for those interested in modern Irish history and an invaluable resource for anyone researching the Irish revolution.

Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc has a Ph.D in Irish history and has published several books on the Irish revolution.


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