new books will stimulate new interest and controversies
about the IRA in the 1916-1923 period. The IRA
at War 1916-1923, by Peter Hart is very much a
statistical history of the Irish Revolution. Peter
Hart 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 assumptions
(namely Nationalist/Republican) about the period.
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 1916-1923 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 1916-1923
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
the Kilmichael ambush in November 1920 which left
16 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.
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
made 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 those two new books in parallel show
how violent the clash between the traditional and
the new revolutionary history is.
information allows Peter Hart to both challenge and
confirm the traditional image historians had of the
IRA of that period. From statistical evidence, Hart
shows that in terms of social composition the 'volunteer
type' is that of a Catholic almost without exceptions,
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 more
likely to be found in the IRA as in the general population.
Agriculture absorbed most of Ireland's labor force,
and one of the most striking thing was its consistent
under representation in the ranks of the IRA.
chronological and spatial terms, IRA activity was
uneven. Over 64 percent of IRA operations during 1920
took place in Munster, and 54 percent 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 percent of total casualties of the period,
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 (after
the 'Tan War'), 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 percent)
drew no casualties and 6 (10 percent) resulted in
only light wounds. The remaining nineteen (32 percent)
resulted in losses averaging 2.9 killed or seriously
wounded per incident, close to the average for IRA
ambushes as a whole.
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."
county Cork in 1921 for example, only one third of
the IRA's victims were killed or wounded in actual
is not the sort of impression one gets from reading
Meda Ryan's book. Over two thirds of her biography
of Tom Barry deal with the 'Tan War' period and the
Civil War, providing detailed and colorful descriptions
of legendary IRA ambushes, like Kilmichael, Crossbarry,
Rosscabery, Toureen and other engagements.
most interesting chapter is the one about the Kilmichael
ambush in November 1920, during which 16 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.
huge controversy developed round 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, also on the fact
that the false surrender is not mentioned in Barry's
pre 1949 writings, and finally on interviews with
presents evidence that casts doubts 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 greatly from the
available evidence. Therefore, a definite question
mark must be placed over the authenticity of the document.'
Ryan shows 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, so did the Kilmichael section commander
in 1937. Finally, Ryan even casts doubt on Hart's
sources, as all the survivors were dead or incapacitated
as the time of their alleged interview.
implication is clearly that whoever Hart interviewed
was not an eyewitness, unless Hart reveals who his
sources were and is able to provide evidence of their
credibility. 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 in as honest and accurately
as was humanly possible.
substantial part of Hart's new book tries to fit the
1916-1923 period within the frame of 'ethnic conflict'.
Hart is most controversial when arguing that sectarianism
was embedded in IRA operations of the period, leading
ultimately to massacres and expulsions of Protestants
in 1921 and 1922. For example, in late April 1922
the IRA killed 13 Protestants in the vicinity of the
town 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 percent of whom were Protestants, five
times the percentage of the Protestant population.
Of the 113 houses burnt by the IRA, only 17 belonged
to Catholics. Between 1911 and 1926, the 26 counties
lost 34 percent of its Protestant population, for
Hart this Protestant exodus is partly explained by
the impact of Republican violence and intimidation.
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 percent
of those killed by the IRA in the Cork area entered
that category, and that none of them actually informed
on the IRA.
book shows strong evidence that 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 Dunaway 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.'
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
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.'
she 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 behavior'
but their religion or they being 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'.
The IRA at War, Hart suggests that 'the revolution
made Protestants 'fair game' to any of their neighbours,
whether angry or covetous.' Ryan claims 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?'
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 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.
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 developing (for example, in
his new book 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 1916-1923 period is likely to intensify,
a fact that will be welcomed by both the 'new historians'
of the revolution and their opponents.
(originally published in History Ireland, Spring 2004,
Carried with permission from the author.)
Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews +
Letters + Archives