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Author: Marc Mulholland
Title: The Boys from the County Cork
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Last modified: Thursday, 24-Oct-2002 14:46:51 CDT


Peter Hart, The I.R.A. and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923 (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998).

Peter Hart's book, long in gestation, was greeted with acclaim on its publication. This is not to be wondered at. Though David Fitzpatrick's seminal social analysis of the Irish revolution in county Mayo, Politics and Irish Life 1913 - 1921, appeared over twenty years ago, few grassroots analyses of the War of Independence have since been produced. This is all the more surprising because, as Hart points out, a vast amount of material survives from the period; for a secret army the IRA were assiduous in their production of reports, journals and ephemera, not to mention subsequent memoirs. Even though he concentrates on only one county, Cork (admittedly an epicentre of political violence during the revolution), Hart has copious material on which to draw.

This has allowed him to probe the social composition of IRA volunteers and dissect in great detail their operations. It will probably surprise few to find that the average IRA volunteer was catholic, urban, artisanal, young and, as the revolution intensified, becoming progressively younger and more plebeian. Though Hart spends much effort in anatomising the IRA in this way, and very instructive it is too, his book has really attracted attention by his unblinking portrayal of IRA violence. He opens with a bloodchilling description of the cycle of assassination and counter-assassination surrounding the 'killing of Sergeant O'Donoghue' in 1920. The famous Kilmichael Ambush of the same year, in which an IRA Flying Column, led by Tom Barry, killed seventeen soldiers of the Crown Forces, is successfully demythologised. Barry's later claims that he wiped out his opponents following a treacherous false surrender and shooting down of three of his men are shown to be highly dubious. Hart, through some amazing statistical reconstructions, shows also that the elimination of so-called spies more often than not targeted undesirable vagrants, British Army veterans and protestants, rather than the real culprits (republican family members and priests). His portrayal of a 'settling of accounts' with a local, loyalist and protestant family uncovers a shameful (and shaming) episode in the IRA's 'liberation war'.

While the comrades of the Turtle thirst, no doubt, for revolution it is salutary to be reminded that more often than not it is accompanied by chaos, bloodshed, destruction and suffering. Neither is Hart one-sided: Crown Forces, who reacted to every IRA success with their own extra-judicial killings, come out poorly in his account. Nevertheless, one is left with some doubts about Hart's modus operandi. On the Kilmichael Ambush, for example, I have no difficulty in believing that Barry intended to wipe out his opponents; whether a false surrender took place or not was pretty much incidental. This, indeed, is perfectly clear from any half-close reading of Barry's memoirs, Guerrilla Days in Ireland, where he explains that a major success against the feared 'Auxilaries' was a political and military necessity. Indeed, it succeeded in impressing upon Lloyd George's Cabinet the credibility of the illegal separatist Government of Ireland, Dail Eireann. Hart is correct not to whitewash, but his desire to expose and condemn seems to take precedence over illuminating the wider picture.

Hart's approach, following his mentor Fitzpatrick, is localist and emphasises the victims of violence. This is excellent for picking up on the bandit nature of the IRA, complete with intense familial rivalries, vendettas, a dash of sectarian bile and small-town swaggering. This is, at most, only half the picture, however. The revolution in Ireland was emphatically national. Hart draws parallels between the IRA and Irish agrarian terrorists so prominent in Ireland from about 1750 to the Famine. These 'Whiteboys' were often clad in symbolic costume and Hart cites as evidence of continuity a newspaper report of an IRA unit dressed as females, complete with make-up. Even if this report is credible, which frankly I doubt, it is thoroughly unrepresentative. The IRA modelled themselves not on agrarian terrorists but on the armies that had so recently devastated Europe. Its unwieldy order of battle, attempts at uniform, standards of chivalry, even when observed in the breach (the contemporary IRA, after all, would hardly feel embarrassed by the ruthlessness of Kilmichael) and, most useful for historians, bureaucratic production of memoranda, were all direct borrowings from the British army. The IRA were motivated not simply by clannish lad culture, youthful high spirits and bigotry, but by a sense that they represented the martial valour of their nation. By concentrating on their victims, Hart over-emphasises IRA actions that drew blood (typically backstreet assassination) at the expense of the much more typical IRA operation: the attempted ambush. That the average volunteer spent most of his time attempting to engage 'hard targets', rather than terrorising civilians, says much of their psychology.

Hart's book, and more so his reviewers, raises the issue of the morality of IRA operations in this period. That much callousness and extremism attended their activities is undoubted. Yet the war, it must be said, was in the context of a British refusal to recognise the mandate for separatism (in the twenty-six counties) represented by the 1918 general election. The escalation of violence (better delineated in Joost Augusteijn's From Public Defiance to Guerrilla Warfare, 1996) is instructive. The Volunteers pre-dated the establishment of Ireland's first native republican government (Dail Eireann) but quickly came to see itself as validated by its popular mandate. At first it did little more than drill but, facing repression, a hardened cadre found itself progressively outlawed. Feeling acutely the ridiculousness of an army that refuses to fight when confronted by foreign aggression, this hardcore took increasingly offensive action, in turn fully reciprocated by Crown Forces. Though terrorised by the widening gyre of violence, most civilians, including rather reluctantly the republican civil government, took moral responsibility for the IRA. The IRA, thus, much better represented democracy than did Crown Forces.

As the civil war was to show the IRA was neither synonymous with nor under the control of Irish democracy. Yet, as Hart's book indicates, behind the occasional anti-democratic bluster of the republican puritans, there was a certain unwillingness to militarily engage the pro-Treaty but native government. The IRA, now in arms, were less spoiling for a fight than unwilling to betray their inchoate but strongly felt anti-foreign dictation ideals by voluntarily demobilising. The Government, of course, could not be expected to allow a private army in their state and to this extent their confrontation of the IRA was justified and the Irregulars' bloody resistance was not. The impression here, however, is not of an IRA arrogantly disregarding popular opinion (as painted by Tom Garvin) rather a tragic impaling on idealism. Hart inclines me to question some high estimates of the Civil War's fratricidal carnage by pointing out the Irregular's unwillingness to fight their erstwhile comrades.

In short, Hart's concentration on the pre-modern motivation of the IRA, and his searching depiction of their often vicious activity, somewhat distracts from the complicated but distinctly modern psychology of the average volunteer. These were not 'primitive rebels' but, in their own minds, soldiers of their country. This observation does not detract from my enthusiasm for a painstaking yet highly readable reconstruction of a traumatic and exciting time in recent Irish history. By global standards Ireland's revolution was small beer, but Hart reminds us that the individual is irreducible. For the people who suffered and died, whether culpable or innocent, the sacrifice is no less than those similarly afflicted in world catastrophes of much greater moment.