The IRA at war 1916–1923

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 2004), Reviews, Volume 12

Peter Hart
(Oxford University Press, £25)
ISBN 0199252580

Tom Barry: IRA freedom fighter
Meda Ryan
(Mercier Press, £30)
ISBN 1856354253



Two new books will stimulate fresh interest and controversies about the IRA in the period 1916–23. Peter Hart’s is very much a statistical history of the Irish Revolution. He has used a wealth of quantitative and qualitative information to draw a picture of the social composition of the IRA, the intensity and nature of its operations in spatial and temporal terms, etc. The book is a companion volume to his influential The IRA and its enemies (1998). It is full of interesting charts, facts and figures about the IRA of that period. Peter Hart is calling for a ‘new revolutionary history’: ‘The Irish revolution needs to be reconceptualised and to have all the myriad assumptions underlying its standard narratives interrogated’. The author is at his strongest when using the statistical data to challenge nationalist/republican assumptions about the period.

Tom Barry: IRA freedom fighter, by Meda Ryan, is precisely the kind of work that historians like Hart would attack as a mythical account of the 1916–23 period for its sympathetic account of the man and his times. Tom Barry (1897–1980) is remembered as one of the most successful commanders of the IRA in the 1916–23 period. He set up an IRA ‘flying column’ in West Cork and gained a legendary reputation after leading successful ambushes against British forces, the most famous being at Kilmichael in November 1920, which left sixteen British troops dead. Following the treaty, he fought on the republican side, and it was not until 1938 that he left the IRA. At the time of his death in 1980 he was still a staunch supporter of the present-day IRA, though he disagreed with some of its actions. However, even the most hardened ‘revisionist’ historian will find Ryan’s book a source of interesting and valuable material. Ryan had access to Tom Barry’s papers, and conducted extensive interviews with him and others from the early 1970s onwards. This work is important because it is the first substantial nationalist/republican account of that period which tries to directly challenge this ‘new revolutionary history’. Ryan’s biography of Tom Barry is in essence a sustained critique of Hart’s previous book on the IRA and its enemies in Cork. Reading these two new books in parallel shows how violent is the clash between the traditional and the new revolutionary history.

Statistical information allows Peter Hart to both challenge and confirm the traditional image historians had of the IRA. From statistical evidence, Hart shows that in terms of social composition the ‘volunteer type’ was that of a Catholic almost without exception, likely to be unmarried, unpropertied and probably under 30. The evidence is that building trades, drapers’ assistants, creamery workers, hairdressers and teachers contributed more than their share of rebels. Skilled tradesmen and artisans were twice or three times as likely to be found in the IRA as in the general population. Agriculture absorbed most of Ireland’s labour force, and one of the most striking things is its consistent under-representation in the ranks of the IRA. In chronological and spatial terms, IRA activity was uneven. Over 64 per cent of operations during 1920 took place in Munster, and 54 per cent during the first six months of 1921. The single district of Bandon in Cork produced eleven times as many casualties as the whole county of Antrim. The Cork brigade was responsible for 28 per cent of total casualties; it was the most active fighting unit. In an interesting chapter the author discusses the history of the Thompson submachine-gun in Ireland. Contrary to popular belief, its impact was limited. Introduced in 1922 (i.e. after the War of Independence), out of the 59 battles in Ireland in which the IRA were said to have used the submachine-gun between July 1922 and June 1923, 34 (58 per cent) drew no casualties and six (10 per cent) resulted in only light wounds. The remaining nineteen (32 per cent) resulted in losses averaging 2.9 killed or seriously wounded per incident, close to the average for IRA ambushes as a whole. According to Hart:

No ‘Tans’ ever ‘flew’ from ‘the rattle of a Thompson gun’, nor did many—if any—National Army soldiers or RUC policemen. Shotguns killed far more people in this period than submachine guns ever did, and even rifles often took second place to pistols and revolvers. Executions, assassination and murder were much more common than battles, and death was more likely to come at point-blank range, on doorsteps and ditches, than in a firefight.


In County Cork in 1921, for example, only one third of the IRA’s victims were killed or wounded in actual combat. This is not the sort of impression one gets from reading Meda Ryan’s book. Over two thirds of her biography of Tom Barry deals with the War of Independence period and the Civil War, providing detailed and colourful descriptions of legendary IRA ambushes like Kilmichael, Crossbarry, Rosscarbery, Toureen and other engagements.
The most interesting chapter is the one about the Kilmichael ambush in November 1920, during which sixteen British troops were killed by an IRA unit led by Tom Barry. The last of the killings occurred after what Barry claimed was a false surrender, during which the surrendering troops picked up their guns and began shooting again, killing two IRA volunteers. A huge controversy developed around the incident after Peter Hart contended in his 1998 book that there had been no false surrender, and that Barry had ordered the cold-blooded killing of the surviving British troops after the battle was over. Hart based his argument on the so-called ‘Rebel Commandant’s Report’ allegedly written by Barry after the ambush, on the fact that the false surrender is not mentioned in Barry’s pre-1949 writings, and finally on interviews with the survivors. Ryan presents evidence that casts doubt over the authenticity of the document and its accuracy. It is not handwritten by Barry and is not dated. It fails to mention a false surrender, but also fails to mention other salient features of the ambush. It contains serious discrepancies and inaccuracies. From her detailed analysis, Ryan concludes that the report ‘contrast[s] greatly from the available evidence. Therefore, a definite question mark must be placed over the authenticity of the document.’ Ryan presents evidence that Barry’s pre-1949 omission of the false surrender was not his work but that of the editorial staff, and that he was extremely unhappy with this fact. Also, Barry was not the first to mention the false surrender. General Crozier, who was commander of the Auxiliaries from 1920 to 1921, had mentioned it in 1932, as did the Kilmichael section commander in 1937. Finally, Ryan even casts doubt on Hart’s sources, as all the survivors were dead or incapacitated at the time of their alleged interview. For Ryan, Hart is guilty of twisted logic by implying that the lack of mention of a false surrender in some cases but not all cases implies that there was no false surrender. She concludes with Brian P. Murphy’s point that far more evidence is required before dismissing Barry’s account as ‘lies and evasions’. The author insists on many occasions that Barry couldn’t abide facts being distorted. He firmly insisted that history should be written as honestly and accurately as was humanly possible.

A substantial part of Hart’s new book tries to fit the 1916–23 period within the frame of ‘ethnic conflict’. Hart is most controversial when arguing that sectarianism was embedded in IRA operations, leading ultimately to massacres and expulsions of Protestants in 1921 and 1922. For example, in late April 1922 the IRA killed thirteen Protestants in the vicinity of Dunmanway after an IRA activist had been killed during a raid on a Protestant household. In County Cork, between 1920 and 1923, the IRA killed over 200 civilians, 36 per cent of whom were Protestants, five times greater than their proportion in the local population. Of the 113 houses burnt by the IRA, only seventeen belonged to Catholics. Between 1911 and 1926, the 26 counties lost 34 per cent of its Protestant population. For Hart this Protestant exodus is partly explained by the impact of republican violence and intimidation. Moreover, for Hart, IRA violence was not just directed against Protestants, it was also directed against outsiders, undesirables, people living on the margins of the communities and thus very likely considered to be real or imaginary informers and enemies of the Republic: ‘Freemasons, tramps and tinkers, corner boys, fast women, ex-servicemen, etc.’. Hart estimates that 8 per cent of those killed by the IRA in the Cork area were from that category, and that none of them actually informed on the IRA.

Ryan’s book questions the validity of Hart’s thesis. For example, a convention of Irish Protestant churches in Dublin in May 1922 signed a resolution that placed ‘on record’ that, apart from the Dunmanway incident, ‘hostility to Protestants by reason of their religion has been almost, if not wholly unknown in the twenty-six counties in which Protestants are in the minority’. A similar ‘statement emanated from a convention of Protestant churches in Schull, in the heart of the West Cork brigade area, on 1 May 1922’. Also, ‘no responsible political commentator or newspaper of the time ever made the allegation that the IRA military campaign was sectarian’. Lionel Curtis, political advisor to Lloyd George, wrote in early 1921 that
Protestants in the south do not complain of persecution on sectarian grounds. If Protestant farmers are murdered, it is not by reason of their religion, but rather because they are under suspicion as Loyalist. The distinction is fine, but a real one.

Similarly, Ryan criticises Peter Hart’s suggestion that the IRA’s targeting of spies and informers during the war ‘had little or nothing to do with the victims’ actual behaviour’ but rather with their religion or their status as outsiders. Ryan demonstrates that these individuals were kidnapped or killed ‘because of their status and power in society and as a bargaining ploy and had nothing to do with their religion’. In The IRA at war, Hart suggests that ‘the revolution made Protestants “fair game” to any of their neighbours, whether angry or covetous’. Ryan claims that there is no evidence that this scenario entered the equation for Tom Barry and his comrades, who drew a distinction between Protestantism and Loyalism. Sectarianism as such was condemned and opposed by the IRA. A number of Protestants were prominently involved in the republican movement: ‘could these Protestants have acted in such a manner if their fellow religionists were the calculated targets of sectarian attacks?’ Ryan also undermines Hart’s linking in his 1998 book of the Dunmanway massacres with a comment made by a republican (‘Our fellas took it out on the Protestants’) by pointing out that Hart takes the quotation out of context, as it refers to a completely different incident during the Civil War which is unrelated to sectarianism.
Peter Hart and Meda Ryan’s new books show just how polemical, controversial and passionate history can be. Peter Hart’s book ‘is not intended to end discussion but to begin it’. He admits that all his arguments are debatable and hopes that they will be argued with. The debate is just beginning. As more material is uncovered, new theories and paradigms elaborated, and more controversies developed (e.g. Hart advances the controversial thesis that there is no reason to think that Michael Collins was behind the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson in 1922, and that his killers had acted alone), the debate about the 1916–23 period is likely to intensify, a fact that will be welcomed by both the ‘new historians’ of the revolution and their opponents.

Liam Ó Ruairc


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