TV eye

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Feature Article, Issue 3 May/June2013, Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 21

In the name of the Republic

TV3, 18 & 25 March 2013
Title Films
by Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc

 

Above: A re-enactment of the IRA capturing a suspect informer.

Above: A re-enactment of the IRA capturing a suspect informer.

IRA leader Tom Barry once likened the more unsavoury aspects of the War of Independence to being dragged ‘down into the mire’. The two-part documentary In the name of the Republic, presented by Professor Eunan O’Halpin, explored that mire by examining the uglier aspects of the period. These included the assassination of RIC men, the killings of unarmed British soldiers, and the execution and secret burial of alleged British spies.
The first episode focused on Ashbrook farm, Co. Laois. The owner related how a predecessor, Jack Walpole, told him that three bodies were dumped there in the 1920s. Walpole, who was described as ‘a bit eccentric’, claimed to have buried one of the bodies himself. The supernatural was a strong feature of Walpole’s tale and he stated that his horse could sense the location of the graves, refusing to draw a plough over them.
There were obvious problems with this information. First, there was an automatic assumption that Walpole’s stories were a factual account of real events rather than tall tales invented by an eccentric farmer to frighten local youngsters. Second, all three alleged victims were unidentified and it was taken for granted that they were victims of the IRA rather than the British forces, agrarian violence or criminality.
Whilst admitting that there was no evidence other than ‘local rumours’, the programme’s investigation continued and a team of archaeologists began excavating. Despite using geophysics and modern scientific methods, the archaeologists failed to unearth anything more sinister than a limekiln—presumably they would have had more success with Jack Walpole’s psychic horse. Next, O’Halpin attempted to identify those rumoured to be buried on the farm using documentary sources. He identified three possible victims, but it soon transpired that none of these were killed by the IRA. The first episode concluded with O’Halpin admitting that these revelations were ‘farcical rather than shocking’.

Loyalist Mary Lindsay (seen here in the programme’s re-enactment of her interrogation prior to execution) informed on the January 1921 Dripsey ambush. She was executed when the British refused an offer to exchange her life for the five IRA volunteers who were captured at Dripsey and who were sentenced to be shot. The fates of such named individuals whose deaths are confirmed historical fact were explored in grim detail, but accompanying these were sweeping statements, rumours and folklore about dozens of unidentified IRA victims for whose existence there is no reliable evidence.

Loyalist Mary Lindsay (seen here in the programme’s re-enactment of her interrogation prior to execution) informed on the January 1921 Dripsey ambush. She was executed when the British refused an offer to exchange her life for the five IRA volunteers who were captured at Dripsey and who were sentenced to be shot. The fates of such named individuals whose deaths are confirmed historical fact were explored in grim detail, but accompanying these were sweeping statements, rumours and folklore about dozens of unidentified IRA victims for whose existence there is no reliable evidence.

A worrying aspect of the first hour of the documentary was the reproduction of anti-republican propaganda as fact. O’Halpin stated that RIC Constable Alfred Needham was shot in front of his new bride as they left their wedding ceremony. This colourful story, which has also featured in Kevin Myers’s writings, has no basis in fact. The local Civil Registration Office has no record of an Alfred Needham being married on that date. Contemporary press and police reports state that Needham was shot as he stood by a stable gate, not whilst exiting a church. Nor do these accounts mention a wedding or a wife. Surely the veracity of the fantastic tales about Needham’s shooting and the bodies supposedly buried in Laois should have been fully checked before being broadcast?
The second episode focused on Cork, and in particular on suspected spies and British troops captured and killed by the IRA at Knockraha, a few miles east of Cork city. There is no question that a significant number of IRA executions were carried out in this district, but there is considerable debate about the total number killed. The programme made extensive use of recorded interviews with IRA veteran Martin Corry, who claimed that about 37 people had been executed by the IRA and buried in the area.
Corry, however, was prone to exaggeration and is not a very credible witness. In an audio clip included in the programme Corry stated that seventeen Cameron Highlanders were executed by the IRA, but British records indicate that only three soldiers from that regiment went missing in Cork and the programme could only identify two ‘disappeared’ Camerons. How, then, are we to account for the dozen or more unidentified members of the regiment that Corry states were killed? This was the recurring problem that plagued the programme. The fates of named individuals whose deaths are confirmed historical fact were explored in grim detail, but accompanying these were sweeping statements, rumours and folklore about dozens of unidentified IRA victims for whose existence there is no reliable evidence.

Presenter Professor Eunan O’Halpin (left) and director Martin Dwan (right). (All images: Title Films)

Presenter Professor Eunan O’Halpin (left) and director Martin Dwan (right).
(All images: Title Films)

O’Halpin stated that between 1920 and 1921 at least 200 of the IRA’s opponents ‘were abducted, executed and their bodies secretly disposed of’, and that this figure included ‘over 180 civilians’. This figure seems far too high to be accurate. Whilst it is certain that between 100 and 200 alleged British spies were killed by the IRA (a phenomenon common to guerilla conflicts internationally), the vast majority of their bodies were left in public places to serve as a warning to others, and were recovered and afforded formal Christian burials.
British documents offer far more conservative estimates of the number of ‘disappeared’. The British government’s official ‘Missing List’ names just 59 missing persons assumed to have been killed by the IRA. At least eight of those later turned up alive and well, including one RIC constable who went ‘missing’ to join an IRA flying column! In 1922 the British authorities issued a list of 85 missing British soldiers (Military Archives, A/07304). If we assume that all of those named on these two lists were killed and secretly buried by the IRA (which we know is not the case), this would give a grand total of 134 ‘disappeared’—far short of O’Halpin’s figure.
The documentary concluded with a ‘List of the known disappeared’. This contained just 57 names. It was emphasised that the true figure was likely to be far higher but that those identified were ‘known with certainty’ to have been ‘disappeared’ by the IRA. Amongst those named was William Shields, a British spy from Boherbee, Co. Cork. For the record, Shields was never captured by the IRA and fled Ireland in 1921. During the Civil War both the IRA and the Free State Army attempted without success to locate and assassinate Shields. It is clear that when Shields disappeared it was with the assistance of the British Crown, and not into a shallow grave dug by the IRA.
Historians of the Irish Revolution are fortunate to have an abundance of documentary evidence, including veteran testimony, official records and other material from both British and republican sources. Using these, it should be possible to identify the full name, date and circumstances of each of the disappeared. Speculative estimates of the numbers killed, based on anonymous fatalities, are hugely problematic. It is simply not good enough to say that the IRA killed 200 people but we don’t know who the majority of them were because ‘. . . their names [are] lost in a maze of records’. Those who want to know the truth regarding the disappeared need to navigate that maze and identify those killed instead of taking shortcuts. HI

Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc is a Ph.D student at the University of Limerick. His article on British troops who ‘disappeared’ in County Clare can be found in HI 20.6 (Nov./Dec. 2012).

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