Combatants and Civilians in Revolutionary Ireland, 1918-1923, by Thomas Earls Fitzgerald, Routledge, 256 pp, £96, ISBN: 978-0367333522
One day, as a young child, I was sitting beside my grandmother in the back seat of my mother’s car as we drove east from the family home in Tralee. All was well. As we passed the familiar Ballyseedy memorial my grandmother lifted her right hand from the tartan blanket across her knees and routinely blessed herself. Suddenly and unexpectedly my mother slammed on the brakes, pulled the car over and exited the vehicle. She hurried over to the bronze statuary commemorating the victims of Ireland’s most notorious civil war massacre, figures fashioned in the 1950s by the Breton sculptor Yann Goulet (who, somewhat ironically given the Soviet socialist realism style of the statues, was a wartime Nazi collaborator). I watched as my mother made for the nearest statue, his limbs muscular and sinewy, his right fist upturned in righteous anger, and ripped some recently draped rosary beads from the figure’s wrist. Throwing the rosary beads into the field behind the monument, she yelled something that was inaudible from behind the glass of the car window. I looked on, astonished.
I mention this incident, which I’ll return to later, because it speaks to the central theme of Combatants and Civilians, an important first book by Thomas Earls FitzGerald: that is, victimhood and perceptions of victimhood emanating from the most important juncture in Ireland’s twentieth century. In considering this theme through the prism of the revolutionary period in Co Kerry Earls FitzGerald achieves a spot-on balance and tone, although one can’t help but feel that the civil war section requires development. Belying its generically bland cover art, which is a concession to publishers which academic historians are routinely forced to endure, this book provides a thorough and engaging case study of violence in post-World War I Ireland and Europe. For the benefit of those who might not be able to afford its substantial hardback price, this review will summarise its contents chronologically before going on to examine its wider value within Irish historical studies.
This careful and thoughtful study, the product of the author’s doctoral dissertation at Trinity College, begins by querying the extent to which the Irish Republican Army of the era could be considered “of the people”, weighing this against the well-documented vanguardist self-identity of the “revolutionary generation” and broader evidence from that now staple Irish historical resource, the Bureau of Military History records. Refreshingly, the author adopts a comparative transnational approach telling of the influence of UCD’s Centre for War Studies over the last decade. Although the Finnish comparisons are a little overdone, important analogies are made with the relatively recent context of the suppression of the South in the American Civil War. While acknowledging general correlations between class, terrain and republican sympathy, Earls FitzGerald reminds us that the IRA in Kerry regularly stamped out radical agrarianism; frustration with the “plain people” they sought to liberate would arguably reach its zenith during the anti-Treaty struggle, when many people’s desire for food and normality militated against any lingering romantic sympathies with the cause.
Although there is little that is revelatory in this opening consideration of republicans and civilians, its necessity becomes clear in the subsequent chapter, which marks a departure from some histories of the period by shifting the focus from republicans to crown and Free State forces. Here Earls FitzGerald’s research exposes the poverty of an older historiography which failed to properly contextualise republican actions against ample and consistent evidence of crown forces’ misrule/racism and Free State forces’ classism/sexism. The author contrasts the IRA’s awareness of civilian hostility with crown forces’ paradoxical belief that they enjoyed civilian support amid ever intensifying intimidation; importantly too, this chapter establishes the willingness to resort, if necessary, to the colonial template of quelling rebellion by herding innocent people into camps.
But this is no hand-wringing lament on violence that opts for a fence-sitting plurality of blame on all sides. Once the perpetrators’ perspectives on their victims are established, the book turns to the welter of events in the year 1920 as the key accelerant of the ferocity. As a paramilitary force, the IRA of course relied on the propaganda of the physical deed, but its radicalism was tempered by a desire to establish governmental legitimacy by protecting private property and combating anything regarded as non-political crime or delinquency, including intemperance and itineracy. Although illiberal, discriminatory, and signifying a lack of desire to achieve more meaningful social change, this represented an emergent “constructive conservatism” or, if you prefer, a formalised policing of the internal moral economy, a nascent state of Dáil courts and IRA enforcers. This, however, was to be throttled by the aggressive reprisals policy initiated by crown forces in 1920 and officially sanctioned later that year, and the callous actions of the crown forces are correctly identified as a key determinant of increased violence against civilians.
In Kerry, as elsewhere, Crown forces tended to retain control of the more secure Royal Irish Constabulary barracks in towns while the IRA held the countryside. Thus in the county town of Tralee, the author notes, violence against civilians by the controlling crown forces appears more indiscriminate compared with rural North Kerry, where it was more targeted against republicans. While the extent to which Black and Tan violence was “discriminate” or “indiscriminate” continues to be debated by historians of this period – see the work of UCC’s John Borgonovo ‑ it is not in doubt that prime minister David Lloyd George enabled a culture of denial around the ill-effects of crown force reprisals on civilians, insisting on the absolute culpability of their republican foes.
Earls FitzGerald provides much evidence to check attempts to “revise” the drunken, sadistic, marauding Black and Tans – “the Tans appeared to have gone absolutely mad”, remarked one witness of the siege of Tralee: “they shot and plundered all around them”. Nor does he explain away the violence as the mere result of heavy boozing: the chapter on crown violence is deservedly the lengthiest. Although the nature of reprisals differed as per local context, the scale and consistency of lootings, burnings and beatings by crown forces in Kerry makes for compelling and appalling reading but this account is carried off with a scholarly poise which resists any hint of sentimentalism. The statistics relating to the crown forces’ campaign against the people of Kerry reveal a much more intensive and sustained assault against civilians than that of the county’s IRA, which was on the whole much less willing to resort to tactics of serious damage to either bodies or buildings than their counterparts in neighbouring Cork.
Crown forces’ resort to lethal violence and the imposition of martial law escalated IRA violence to more lethal proportions from late 1920 onwards. This book affirms that individual agency was important, too. The arrival of Andy Cooney from GHQ revitalised the IRA in the county and, in contrast to the case in some other counties, inter-brigade cooperation occurred. Although ex-servicemen were disproportionately targeted by the IRA, the execution of loyalist spies and informers in Kerry does not demonstrate a distinctly sectarian prejudice and pales in comparison to events in Cork. Instead, the crucial factor of the agency of crown forces is once more reiterated, for – as the author correctly emphasises – it was they who had made the killing of civilians seem permissible in the first place.
The final chapter examines the civil war of 1922-23 following the Treaty split. In Kerry the fratricidal division was “particularly bitter”. While capturing the essential impotence of the anti-Treaty cause, Earls Fitzgerald avoids the condescending dismissal of its actors as swivel-eyed fanatics or “irregulars”, to use the old revisionist parlance. Nonetheless, the book’s coverage of the civil war in Kerry is disappointingly short, especially when compared to much older works such as Eoin Neeson’s The Civil War 1922-23 (1966). While no modern reader would expect a rehashing of these atrocities à la Dorothy McCardle’s classic Tragedies of Kerry (1924), the verdict that Free State forces largely left civilians alone is a bit too sweeping and is contradicted by some of the evidence presented in Tom Doyle’s The Civil War in Kerry (2008). Following the Treaty there was an upsurge in IRA violence against property owners considered loyalist and the landowning Protestant Blennerhasset family was a particular target. The outbreak of conflict once more in the summer of 1922 would lead eventually to the war crimes spearheaded by Free State commander Paddy O’Daly in 1923 when, in the space of two weeks, nineteen republican prisoners were taken from their cells to country locations, strapped to landmines, and blown up. Which brings us back to Ballyseedy.
This book starts and ends with a lament for the civilian victims of Ireland’s revolutionary period, human beings whose deaths fit neither of the two tired old opposing metanarratives, nationalist and revisionist. As such, and as its author reflects, it could have been a very different book about the distortions of popular historical memory, but instead it has a “different purpose in mind – to look at those who suffered”. In doing so, it reflects the welcome shift in Irish historiography in recent years towards a more intimate and personal consideration of victimhood and identity where the emphasis is not reduced to questions of state seizure and state building.
I hope, then, that readers will forgive this reviewer’s indulgent personal reminiscence by way of illustrating what I feel is the importance of this book in enriching the question of victimhood in the era. When my mother returned to the car that day in Ballyseedy, my grandmother – a de Valeran disciple born in 1914 and herself a child victim of the violence of crown forces in the period – scolded her for her actions. I’ve asked my mother about it since but she now can’t remember the event at all and brushes it off. I can only assume that her protest was borne of a personal sense of victimhood against Catholic Ireland triggered by what she regarded as a hypocritical post-hoc Catholic ownership of Ballyseedy’s excommunicated victims. My only further memory of the event was that she silently bore the protestations of my grandmother while driving on, face flushed red and tight-lipped. Up until that point my childish understanding of the war in Kerry 1918-1923 had gone something like this: IRA goodies defeat Tan baddies; Kerry football later overcomes Civil War legacy because Free Staters like Con Brosnan play alongside Republicans like John Joe Sheehy and Joe Barrett.
My mother’s action, therefore, was at once incomprehensible, fascinating, and multi-layered. It shattered the comforting certainties of a one-dimensional historical narrative and helped stoke my interest in the historical discipline. I’ve been trying to more fully understand the history behind it ever since. The reason I bring it up is because, more than any other history of revolutionary Ireland, I think that this book has helped me to do just that.
This isn’t just an important addition to Kerry’s story, however. Irish historical revisionism is now old hat, but nowhere has its protracted death rattle been more audible than in studies of the 1918-1923 revolutionary period. This is largely due to the long shadow cast by the work of the late Trinity scholar-provocateur David Fitzpatrick and his late protégé, Peter Hart, to whose breakthrough The IRA and its Enemies (1998) any academic consideration of the period most now inevitably refer. Thomas Earls FitzGerald’s book is from the Trinity stable too, with much of it written under the doctoral supervision of Eunan O’Halpin. It is significant, therefore, that this elegantly written and well-researched study of Co Kerry during the period, while naturally indebted to the Fitzpatrick/Hart approach, simultaneously exposes its occasional excesses and blind spots. In doing so, it reaffirms a welcome generational shift in approaches to the violence of the era.
Earls FitzGerald doffs his hat to the very extensive historiography on this topic (notably the Fitzpatrick/Hart “single county” approach and important later work by Clark, Hughes, Borgonovo, Coleman et al). He goes on to offer a nuanced qualitative/quantitative approach to the question of violence which rates alongside some of the best histories of the period. Although this book could have profitably explored social themes of faith and gender in greater depth, its source-based rigour and close familiarity with the academic literature also combines due consideration to the work of Kerry-based historians outside the academy; all of which wrests the story away from the arguably over-ploughed furrow of Co Cork in the revolutionary era.
Perhaps another impact of the Peter Hart controversy is that some accounts of the Irish revolutionary period are so microhistorically forensic that they feel pedantic and insular. This isn’t the case here. Although this is a case study of just one county which cautiously handles local source material, Earls FitzGerald rightly points the reader to the broader European context around the First World War: the great transfer of populations, the fall of empires, the creation of new national entities. This colonial comparative perspective really enriches the work and the parallels with British actions in the Boer War, for example, are astute rather than sensationalised. The big difference with the European postwar experience, of course, was the absence of a credible communist threat.
The author considers his study part of a wider chain of research to which Peter Hart’s 1990s studies belong, but while the focus on the ground-level realities of conflict is a commonality, his conclusion that the Kerry IRA were part of a “relatively restrained national movement” could not be more different from Hart’s.
Irish historical revisionism arguably reached its provocative highs and its lopsided lows during the Northern Ireland Troubles, when it waged an at times necessary assault on lazy anglophobia and republican solipsism. Yet the broad revisionist project was at its haughty worst when it occasionally abandoned its professed objectivity in favour of a sneering attitude towards anything that whiffed too much of the “popular”: anything too republican, provincial, left-wing or feminist. And it was at its most snarlingly nasty when attacking anyone who approached the source work of Peter Hart (1963-2010) in anything but reverential terms. This book represents a gentle but firm rebuttal of this trend, distinguishing it from some of the more shrill of Hart’s detractors and retaining the source-based integrity which distinguishes the best type of academic history.
No history is written in a vacuum and trends are often generational. It is heartening to read an historian who frankly abandons the nonsensical pretence to a 100 per cent detached objectivity and acknowledges that his book might have taken on a very different form. It is important to note that Peter Hart rejected the revisionist label as a pejorative, yet this might have been a different book if written, like The IRA and Its Enemies, twenty-five to thirty years ago against the backdrop of Europe’s worst ethnic conflict since the Second World War, when the temptation to go from raising legitimate questions about the dirty work of guerrilla warfare may have understandably spilled over into an over-indulgent embrace of the paradigm of nationalist ethnic cleansing. Rightly, Earls FitzGerald rejects the wrong-headedness of an exaggeratedly “sectarian” explanation of Irish revolutionary violence. Unequivocally, and from an early juncture, the violence of crown forces is established as “more brutal, indiscriminate and drawn out” than that of their IRA antagonists and a precursive accelerator of IRA actions. There is a clear break here, then, with a previous historiographical tendency which was at times unwilling to scrutinise Irish victimhood as part of wider British colonial violence. On the other hand, it is important to restate that neither is the IRA let off the hook.
The challenge for today’s generation of modern Irish historians is surely to retain the rigour and occasional mischief of the revisionist school while at the same time highlighting its theoretical shortcomings and ideological biases, and to do so without falling into some of the po-faced ahistoricism of “woke” contemporary history-writing. In many ways, this book does just that, and it stands as an excellent contribution to our knowledge of the revolutionary period.
Bryce Evans is associate professor and director of the European Institute of Humanities at Liverpool Hope University. He is the author of Ireland During the Second World War: Farewell to Plato’s Cave.