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The Fish and the Water

Defying the IRA? Intimidation, coercion, and communities during the Irish revolution, by Brian Hughes, Liverpool University Press, 230 pp, £75, ISBN 978-1781382974

From an early stage, the Irish government felt that the centenary of 1916 should act as the centrepiece or main event for the current “decade of centenaries”. One of the reasons for this is, presumably, that the Rising has an easy-to-understand narrative – a rebellion over the space of a week in the capital. It also has a certain aesthetic clarity or type of epic feeling – the classical columns of the GPO on the centre of O’Connell Street, Dublin in flames, the Stonebreakers yard etc. The years following the Rising are different. The Rising represents one event at a particular time, in a definite place, while the years 1918-23 offer no similar straightforward narrative. The later stages of the revolution took place across the country, indeed countries and to an extent continents, with a variety of individuals and groups involved. In contrast the Easter 1916 appears simpler, not least in relation to tactics. The Rising, for instance, can be seen as clean fight – occupied garrisons, and to a degree actual battle lines. The IRA’s tactics in the War of Independence, on the other hand, from their inception to the present day have always created debate and fuelled unease.

Brian Hughes’s compelling book addresses these questions of unease and uncertainty that appeared as result of violent revolution in Ireland. The book examines how the IRA dealt with civilians whom they believed to be their opponents, how that opposition manifested itself and the results of that perceived opposition. For many it may make uncomfortable reading.

Since the 1990s, particularly with the publication of Peter Hart’s The I.R.A. & Its Enemies: Violence and communities in Cork 1916-1923, the Irish revolution has been addressed within new and dynamic parameters. The availability of new sources, such as the Bureau of Military History and the Military Service pensions, and the willingness of scholars to use material outside Ireland – particularly the files of the Irish Grants Committee, set up by the British government to assist southern loyalists who had suffered on account of their “loyalty”, housed in the United Kingdom’s national archives – have raised new questions and problems. A number of scholars have been keen to address issues around how the IRA implemented their violence and particularly who they decided to target. Uncomfortable questions around possible sectarianism and violence against Irish-born veterans of the 1914-18 war have stirred debate and ignited passions. In response, some have stressed the democratic validity of the IRA’s revolution, others that unpleasant actions are unavoidable in war, and that issues around sectarianism and violence against innocent people are exaggerated or overblown – some would go as far as to say non-existent. Traditional narratives continue to vie with what have been labelled “revisionist” approaches. Roy Foster wrote in the late 1980s that “we are all revisionists now”; in 2017 this could not be further from the truth. Hughes’s work instead addresses the complexities of these issues and demonstrates that no easy answers are available. He shows, for instance, that sectarianism did exist but was by no means a defining element of IRA violence, and that ex-servicemen were targeted ‑ but it was not simply because they were ex-servicemen.

The book reveals an interesting and fundamental aspect of human nature: most people simply want to live in peace. Using as a model Stathis Kalyvas’s The Logic of Violence in Civil War, a book that examines guerrilla conflicts ranging from the Peninsular War of the early nineteenth century to the Afghanistan war of the early twenty-first, Hughes shows how the actions of the IRA and the reaction of civilians mirror how combatants and civilians have acted in other guerrilla conflicts. Transnationalism and comparative studies are very much the buzz words in current academia, and in some scholarship the addition of an international aspect appears forced or there for the sake of appearances. Hughes’s presentation of how the 1919-21 conflict compared to other guerrilla conflicts, on the other hand, is both seamless and interesting.

In a memorable phrase, some civilians are described as “canny”. Hughes gives a number of almost humorous examples of individuals trying to placate the side that appeared to be winning, or playing both sides of the fence. But most often civilians come across as weary bystanders who simply want to be left alone. Hughes highlights an interesting middle ground by showing it was quite possible to support republicanism but to feel that the IRA were often asking for too much – with their frequent arms levies or other such calls/demands for financial aid. IRA leader Liam Deasy would say that by the time of the truce and civil war, civilians were almost being “taken for granted”.

The republican movement from the outset of their revolution did want to create a new type of Ireland. This could involve cracking down on alcohol consumption and forcibly preventing people from emigrating, but most importantly it entailed preventing civilians from having any type of cooperation or association with the old British administration in Ireland. In effect people across the country were explicitly told not to have any association with, particularly, the Royal Irish Constabulary, Britain’s armed and mainly Catholic and Irish gendarmerie in Ireland. A major theme of the book is exploring those civilians who suffered on account of their real or perceived connections to the RIC. Hughes notes that threats were common but that it was more likely for the IRA to make a threat rather than act on it. In 1919-1920 the families of members of the RIC, ex-RIC men and business people who continued to trade with the RIC were frequent targets of republican aggression. Boycotts were organised of traders with associations with Belfast firms or links to the Crown forces. Hughes has a keen eye for both contradictory and self-serving acts. He notes that some used revolution for private gain. In one instance he shows it was possible for opportunistic republicans to organise a boycott of a tradesperson simply as a means of reneging on their debts.

Hughes is interested in looking beyond the more common focus on lethal violence and instead examines everyday small scale acts of violence and intimidation. Historians have tended to focus on a particular violent county – such as Cork – and have been preoccupied with issues around death and killing. Hughes, on the other hand, is drawn to the more quiet counties where lethal violence was not that common. He shows that despite the lack of lethal violence the IRA could still be engaged in incessant intimidation of civilians. He also forgoes the traditional county study by instead looking at individual parishes. He examines Arva in Co Cavan, which on the surface would appear to be one of the parts of the country least affected by violent revolution. Through an examination of compensation claims, he shows festering and bitter communal tensions beneath the seemingly quiet surface. On one level, the local study or county model allows for a complete analysis of how a particular issue affected a certain county or area, where a thirty-two-county-based study can sometimes appear as an overview and not provide a similar level of totality.

Hughes’s book also looks at the entire island – the brutal nature of the foundation of Northern Ireland is another aspect of the period that remains woefully underresearched – and he is to be applauded for examining the entire country before and after partition. In an interesting chapter, he shows how the dynamics of IRA relations with civilians in Belfast were entirely different from in the southern counties, not least thanks to intra-nationalist/Catholic tensions, as constitutional nationalists held sway in the city and deeply resented republicans. Given heightened state/unionist violence and majority nationalist support for constitutionalism the IRA found it difficult to operate in the city, unlike in the rest of the country.

The dynamics of the conflict would change in late 1920 and into 1921 – particularly in relation the IRA’s decision to kill civilians they believed to be informers. Hughes deals with the question of civilians executed by the IRA in 1921 with both sensitivity and originality. He notes that regardless of whether the victims were actively working against the IRA these killings created real apprehension among the public, as they were widely reported on in the press. As the written warnings of 1920 were intended to stop association with the RIC, the killings of 1921 were another way to “dissuade others from acting in a similar fashion (informing)”. And they were as much about eliminating potential threats as actual threats – the labels left on the dead informers, “Spies and informers beware. I.R.A.”, were very much meant to be seen. Hughes notes that sectarianism was by no means widespread but makes the point that the not infrequent killings of Protestants, in places like Cork and Leitrim, as spies created a sense of persecution and insecurity for the religious minority in what was to become the Free State. The killings, he writes, created “an atmosphere of terror well beyond the reality”.

Hughes suggests that the killings of civilians as spies in 1921 represented an admission by the IRA that the written warnings and boycotts of 1919-1920 were no longer working and that more extreme measures were necessary to deal with civilian threats. This leads to another element – the agency of Britain. Hughes chose to examine the actions of the IRA alone, and this is understandable. The book is based on a PhD thesis, and for any substantive research project it is only possible to undertake so much research and necessary to make clear points of demarcation in terms of what a scholar chooses to examine. This, sadly, as any research student will tell you, results in it being necessary to cut out areas of inquiry for the purpose of focus.

Focusing on the IRA alone, rather than also examining the activities of their opponents, has long been an aspect of the historiography. Since the 1990s most scholars of revolutionary Ireland have been drawn to the IRA – in some respects Peter Hart’s 1998 publication acted as something of a clarion call both to other scholars who wanted to see how his research related to other parts of the county and for others to show how his findings were exaggerated or could not be seen as having universal application. With the exceptions of DM Leeson, Charles Townshend and more recently Brian Heffernan, who engage with the campaign by the Crown forces, the overwhelming emphasis within Irish revolutionary research has been on the activities of the IRA. In some respects this appears logical – the activities of a nationalist volunteer guerrilla army are clearly more compelling than imperialist counter-insurgency. However, what has been lost within the historiography is a sense of context and this is, partially, evident in Hughes’s book.

The book focuses on IRA intimidation of civilians, but it must be said that intimidation of civilians by Crown forces was more common. They killed more civilians than the IRA; they were also more likely to assault civilians and damage their property – and, illogically enough, government property too. But in particular relation to this research it is necessary to observe the discrepancies and similarities in terms of how the IRA and the Crown forces treated civilians. For instance, Hughes argues that the IRA began to use more lethal violence against civilians in early 1921 as their previous non-lethal threats were no longer working and stronger measures had to be resorted to. It also could be argued that the arrival of the Black and Tans/Auxiliaries in the summer of 1920 intrinsically changed the conflict. The arrival of the reinforcements resulted in the death of civilians becoming more permissible or normal, as their presence resulted in an upsurge in lethal violence, not least of civilian victims. Through the autumn and winter of 1920 the Crown forces put the safety of the IRA in jeopardy by constant raiding of republican homes and attacks on republicans and their relatives, and people with no connection to Sinn Féin or the IRA. In late 1920 they developed a better intelligence system, and the records show in late 1920 more people were coming forward to give information on the IRA. In order to maintain their own safety it was grimly logical that the IRA would seek out and kill civilians perceived as threats. But the crucial aspect is the arrival of the British reinforcements who reshaped the dynamics of the conflict.

It is also necessary to reflect on how the tactics of both sides came to mirror one another. The Crown forces, like the IRA, also started to send threatening letters or post public warnings. The IRA would often cut off the hair of a young woman for associating with the Crown forces, and in response the Crown forces would cut off the hair of, usually, the sister of an IRA man or a member of Cumann na mBan. The violence that emerged had a cyclical or copycat quality, with each side effectively feeding off the other. Hughes does state early on that for a fuller understanding of this topic the role of the Crown forces needs to be considered. My remarks here are not meant as a criticism but as a means of suggesting that further scholars can examine some of the issues raised by Hughes in the context of the Crown forces. This concern aside, this is an important book that deserves a wide readership, and hopefully a paperback will appear in due course.

On the one hand Defying the IRA? Demonstrates that the ways in which the IRA implemented its war could involve startling brutality, but also that on some levels its violence was relatively restrained and some of the accusations made against it cannot survive scrutiny. Hughes brings a degree of clarity – together with empathy and occasional humour – to the most divisive of topics in modern Irish history. A keen knowledge of the available primary sources is displayed and he also carefully navigates the historiographical debates on violence in the Irish revolution without ever being bogged down by them. This is by no means an easy skill to master. In the years 2019 onwards, the issues addressed in this book will inevitably be brought up in both academic and public discourse. It is to be hoped that publications such as this will both inform and stimulate conversation.


Thomas Fitzgerald is an Irish Research Council research fellow at Trinity College Dublin.



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