Category: Archive

Op-ed: Failed ’50s Border Campaign remains heyday of the IRA

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Several IRA were hit. Sean South from Limerick and Fergal O’Hanlon from Monaghan were severely wounded. Under heavy fire, the column withdrew in the pulverized truck. The transport was abandoned at Baxter’s Cross, a few miles away. South and O’Hanlon were placed in the shelter of a cow pen, with the hope that assistance would be forthcoming from the locals. The remainder, then, struggled off cross-country toward the border. A short time later, a long burst of automatic fire was heard from the direction of the cow pen. The pursuing RUC had finished off the dying volunteers. After hours evading a massive dragnet, the survivors crossed the border into Monaghan, where they were eventually detained by the Southern authorities.
In the nationalist consciousness, the Brookeborough Raid is the most enduring engagement of the IRA’s Border Campaign. In a demoralized Southern State, wracked by economic stagnation, unemployment and massive emigration, two young Irishmen forfeiting their lives, in an obscure Fermanagh village for a cause beyond themselves, juxtaposed with the complacency of the political establishment in Dublin, galvanized the nationalist imagination. In the era before intensive censorship, and pervasive propagandizing by an establishment-dominated media, the men were quickly elevated to the status of martyrdom.
Sean South and Fergal O’Hanlon were hardly disgruntled deviants festering on the margins of Southern society. The 27-year-old South was a clerical employee in his native Limerick, a Gaelic scholar, an ardent Catholic and an officer in Southern Ireland’s territorial army. O’Hanlon, 19, played senior football for Monaghan and was extremely popular. Their deaths were followed by what was a week of national mourning in the South. County and municipal councils passed motions of sympathy. Fifty thousand people, including many elected officials, attended South’s funeral. Taoiseach John A. Costello’s government was seriously concerned. It seemed that the Southern State was on the brink of a renewed conflict with Britain.
The Border Campaign proper had begun some weeks earlier. On the night of Dec. 11, 1956, coordinated attacks and sabotage occurred all over the Northern statelet. The Stormont administration was caught completely unawares. Its perturbation was transparent in its concern as to how four County Cork saboteurs had penetrated as far north as Torr Head in County Antrim before been detained.
The era was marked by IRA operations renowned for their audaciousness. The foray into Omagh Army Barracks in County Tyrone in 1954 and the incursion into Blandford military camp in Dorset, England, in 1958 were just some of the incidents that inspired the nationalist imagination.
On the Saturday afternoon of June 12, 1954, 20 IRA men invaded Gough Army Barracks in Armagh. They seized the guardroom, effectively controlling the barracks, until they drove off with the contents of Her Majesty’s armory. There was considerable elation at the audacity of “the lads.”
A unit led by Ruairi O Bradaigh raided the Arborfield Military Depot, near Reading, England, in the early morning of Aug. 12, 1955. Again, a British military installation was effectively under IRA control, while the volunteers proceeded to relieve the army of five tons of ordnance. Three IRA men later received life sentences for their part in the operation. The length of the sentences prompted by the severe embarrassment caused to the British Army.
Operations on the border itself resonated with many in the South. Flying columns of young volunteers, lightly armed and fortified only by their courage and zealousness, engaging an enemy vastly superior in experience and resources, brooked memories of the War of Independence. Indeed, many of the IRA had been greatly influenced by the literature of that conflict, especially by the philosophies of Tom Barry.
By the early 1960s, the Border Campaign had effectively petered out. The IRA had been unsuccessful in obtaining the heavy weaponry necessary to make a serious impact. The suppressive policy of the Irish government made the South an unwelcome redoubt. Dublin had reintroduced internment of IRA suspects and, later, military tribunals. For all the acclaim generated in Ireland, and in the diaspora, much of it turned out to be “pub patriotism.”
The IRA itself was riven by internal disputes mainly caused by dissension within the Curragh internment camp. Post-war prosperity, boosted by Sean Lemass’s economic policies, was finally reaching the South. The nationalist consciousness was becoming distracted by the unprecedented affluence, to the detriment of the more incorporeal issue of the Fourth Green Field.
On Feb. 26, 1962, the Army Council issued the order to dump arms. Exhausted by life on active service, internment and imprisonment, many of the volunteers dropped out. Some immigrated to the United States. Many remained active on the anonymous periphery of the cause, to which they had devoted the passions of their youth.
Former chief of staff Sean Cronin became a journalist and for years was the Irish Times’ correspondent in Washington. Vincent Conlon, who managed to drive the bullet-riddled Brookeborough truck to Baxter’s Cross, thus ensuring the escape of the surviving volunteers, was a stalwart of the Clan na Gael organization in New York for many years.
The Border Campaign was the last time the IRA would be dominated by Southerners, conservatives and centrists, or “the rosary around the .303 brigade.” Under Cathal Goulding, the organization spent the ’60s lurching steadily to the left, alienating Irish-American opinion, much to the chagrin of Clan na Gael. By 1969, when the Northern statelet exploded, the IRA had been effectively demilitarized, having been so emasculated by the theoreticians of the left that it was unable to mount a concerted defensive action.
The Provisional IRA’s continued na

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