Category: Archive

A View North Recalling the Boys of the Old Brigade

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The Irish Republican Army must be among the world’s most written about illegal organizations, vying with the Mafia in terms of the kind of attention it has attracted from journalists and historians, not to mention novelists and film makers. This is in part because it has been around so long, at least 80 years as the IRA. Before that, it existed in embryo as the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. And before that, in the 19th century, there was the Fenian movement, which influenced the development of the IRA.

One of the most detailed and interesting accounts to have come along is Peter Hart’s "The IRA and Its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork 1916-1923" (Oxford University Press 1998).

Cork was the epicenter of the Irish revolution that began in 1916, and the exploits of its IRA volunteers have become legendary, largely thanks to a handful of incidents such as the Kilmich’l ambush when Tom Barry’s flying column killed 17 Black and Tans on Nov. 28, 1920.

The ambush, according to Hart, delivered "a profound shock to the British system." But as Hart, a research fellow in the department of Politics at Queen’s University in Belfast, painstakingly documents, such incidents were the exception rather than the rule. "Murder was more common than battle," he writes. In fact, the IRA fought the war in Cork in much the same way as it was fought in Northern Ireland during the recent Troubles.

A close examination of the violence shows that of the 700 people who died in the county between 1917 and 1923, one-third were civilians, "neither soldiers, policemen nor guerrillas." Most died unarmed. "The political arena was transformed into a nightmare world of anonymous killers and victims, of disappearances, massacres, midnight executions, bullets in the back of the head, bodies dumped in fields or ditches." Four hundred of the total were killed by the IRA which lost 195 of its own members. Ninety-three British soldiers died, as did 108 members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. During the Civil War, 70 members of the Irish army were killed.

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As in Northern Ireland, civilians comprised the largest category of victim, with 281 dying violently either at the hands of the IRA or the security forces.

In Northern Ireland between 1969 and December 1994, 3,350 people died, 2,230 of them civilians. The higher proportion of civilian deaths in Northern Ireland, where they make up around two-thirds of all victims, has to do with the fact that, unlike in Cork, there was a powerful sectarian element involved in the Northern Troubles, with more than 900 people — the vast majority of them Catholics — being killed by loyalist gangs such as the Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer force.

However, there was sectarianism in Cork. As Hart points out: "Scores of Cork Protestants had been killed as ‘spies’ or ‘informers’ . . . " Local Protestants had been threatened with reprisals for the attacks which were taking place against Catholics in Belfast at the time. A letter from the IRA had earlier warned Southern "loyalists" that their homes would be taken over because they supported the union with Britain and were therefore deemed to be in sympathy with the pogroms in Belfast.

But there was only one example of a systematic massacre of Protestants, when 10 were murdered during three days beginning in the early hours of April 27, 1922. The killings took place in the Dunmanway, Ballineen, Murragh and Clonakilty districts of County Cork and seemed to have been in provoked by the shooting dead of an IRA officer who was raiding the home of Protestant landowner the day before. They provoked an exodus of Protestants from Cork. Though condemned by the fledgling government in Dublin, no attempt was ever made to bring to justice the perpetrators of the murders, most of whom were well-known IRA men.

However, though the war in Cork was not a sectarian one, it was, like the struggle in Northern Ireland, very much a war of neighbor against neighbor. The assassination of a local RIC officer would be followed by reprisals, sometimes carried out by off-duty police officers who would target known republican families. Hart gives the example of the murder of an RIC sergeant, James O’ Donoghue, in Cork on the night of Nov. 17, 1920. Unarmed, O’Donoghue, who thought himself safe from IRA attacks, was gunned down on his way to the barracks.

Within hours, masked gunmen had raided several homes in the poor sections of the city, murdered three men, and seriously wounded two others. A policeman told O’Donoghue’s brother, a priest, that they had got one of the three gunmen involved in the sergeant’s murder. He was Charlie O’Brien, who was wounded in the face but survived. One of those killed, Patrick Hanley, was a friend of the O’Brien family, who were well-known republicans in the city. One of Charlie’s brothers, William, was also part of the team that murdered O’Donoghue. Another of those killed in retaliation, Eugene O’Connell, lived in a flat below that of the O’Brien’s. The third man murdered in reprisals was a businessman and pub owner, James Coleman. He had refused to serve some members of the new English constabulary, recruited to put down the rebellion, after they had become drunk in one of his pubs.

Actually, the killing of O’Donoghue reveals another characteristic of the Cork war which is in common with the North. It was carried out without consultation with the IRA command, during the wave of anger and emotion which swept Cork following the death on hunger strike of Terence MacSwiney. The IRA later issued an apology for the killing and court-martialed those responsible, "but they managed to bully the officers in charge and get out of it," Charlie O’Brien told the author in an interview 50 years later.

The Cork IRA was to the Dublin leadership what the South Armagh Provisional IRA is to Belfast. It more or less went its own way. It was too valuable to the war effort to risk antagonizing.

"The IRA and its Enemies" is full of detailed information about the social background of IRA volunteers in Cork, how they operated, why they joined the movement in the first place, and how they were viewed by their neighbors. It paints a rich tapestry of a complex organization that has done so much to influence the course of modern Irish history.

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