The IRA in Britain, 1919–1923, ‘in the heart of enemy lines’

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

Reviewed by Ruan O’Donnell
Ruan O’Donnell is a Senior Lecturer in history at the University of Limerick

IRA-in-britainThis welcome addition to Irish republican historiography is long overdue. While Mairtin Ó Catháin, T. Ian Adams, Mary Barrington and Peter Hart are among those to have explored various aspects of the theme in often-important contributions, Noonan brings the crucial War of Independence and Civil War date range into central focus. This is significant, as the development of the revolutionary effort from January 1919, coupled with the implications of the resilient performance of Sinn Féin, resonated at all levels of society on both sides of the Irish Sea. As Ireland gravitated fatefully towards civil war and the creation of two malfunctioning jurisdictions, IRA cadres in Britain necessarily assumed a markedly different function. If, as has been asserted, London played a nefarious role in forcing the hand of Michael Collins in Dublin in June 1922, the Free State authorities maintained a degree of influence over potential as well as former allies in Britain. The revised position of the IRB, the most difficult key organisation to document in this period, was probably critical. Noonan noted: ‘By the outbreak of the civil war, the IRB was effectively dead’ in Britain (p. 242). To complicate matters, so too was Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP on 22 June 1922. The author is reserved in attributing direct responsibility to Collins, although it is acknowledged that he had given explicit orders to the unit for the assassination prior to the split and later dispatched Joe Dolan to investigate the possible springing of those responsible. Dolan accepted that Collins instigated the action. This controversy—which, as Noonan states, ‘hastened the outbreak of civil war in Ireland’—is skilfully debated using high-grade primary and secondary sources (p. 227).

The logic of attacking British political, military and commercial targets stemmed from the destructive and often atrocious conduct of London’s counterinsurgency campaign in Ireland. The Fenian concept of direct accountability presented numerous logistical challenges, but identifying, locating and striking back at individual officers, Auxiliaries and Black and Tans was possible. Fear of long-term IRA vengeance contributed to the decision of one ex-Tan commander to retire to St Johns, Newfoundland. Considerable Irish migration to Britain from the eighteenth century, reinforced by a tidal wave of Famine refugees into Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and London from 1845, created strong urban pockets of ex-patriates in which the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and the Irish Republican Brotherhood established a presence. While, as Noonan observes, Irish-born emissaries and activists played a disproportionate role in 1919–23, it is self-evident that the Hibernian ‘sea’ was nonetheless central to the capacity of IRA ‘fish’ to operate in the UK. Contingents from England and Scotland participated in the 1916 Rising and represented just one major manifestation of this dynamic. Tyneside and Glasgow were predictably staunch and well organised, and provided reach into Gateshead, South Shields and other regional centres where opportunities arose for retaliatory actions. The authorities responded by increasingly standardised means of raiding houses, watching ports, deporting suspicious persons and interning or jailing known subversives.

The IRA in Britain is detailed, comprehensive and well structured. Noonan has drawn effectively on recently available digital archives, which permit the marshalling of ‘new’ or at least hitherto inaccessible information. The result is a catalogue of dramatic incidents that reveal the extent and nature of republican activities in England, Scotland and Wales. The IRA rased swathes of Liverpool docks, trans-shipped weapons and explosives, shot off-duty Auxiliaries and targeted enemies, attacked the homes and farms of persons deemed obnoxious owing to their actions in Ireland, sabotaged communications by arson, wire-cutting and bombing, were imprisoned and generally created a ‘home front’ situation of an unprecedented nature. Whereas the often under-rated ‘dynamite wars’ of the Fenians sparked similar counterinsurgent responses, the coincidence of the UK campaign with the raging conflict in Ireland in 1919–21 established a new order of threat. Plans laid by Cathal Brugha, Rory O’Connor and Jim O’Donovan might well have inflicted damage of historic proportions had the Treaty not intervened, and the sophisticated contingency to annihilate the British cabinet would have changed the course of world history if it had been given the go-ahead by IRA general headquarters. The volume contains vignettes on republicans destined for later prominence, not least Eoin McNamee of Tyrone, and contextualises the missions of the peripatetic Liam Mellows, John Pinkman, Frank Thornton et al. No study of this nature can encompass the full range of issues in play, but Noonan’s in-depth overview will undoubtedly serve as an invaluable framework for future regional and unit histories. There remains ample room for a companion volume covering the period 1913–19, when the Irish Citizen Army, the Irish Volunteers, the Ulster Volunteer Force, Sinn Féin and many other significant organisations founded in Ireland extended their connections to Britain and beyond.

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