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12 May 2021

Ireland’s forever wars

A new book chronicles the killings that shaped a nation. 

By Roy Foster

Last November, Irish politics were convulsed by a triumphalist tweet from Brian Stanley, a Sinn Féin member of the Irish Dáil. He hailed the centenary of the Kilmichael ambush of 28 November 1920, where 16 Auxiliary members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) were killed by Republican forces during the Anglo-Irish War, and for good measure also celebrated the killing of 18 British soldiers at Warrenpoint by the Provisional IRA in August 1979. Stanley linked the incidents as “IRA operations that taught the British elite the cost of occupying Ireland”, and jeered that the latter were handicapped by being “slow learners”.

This added another variety of political incorrectness to an intervention which already broke several implicit rules of Irish political discourse. For one thing, Kilmichael is a particularly controversial incident because some killings were allegedly carried out by the IRA after surrender; for another, the Irish political establishment is not keen on assertions of direct descent (and moral equivalence) between “Old IRA” operations a century ago and the Provisonals’ more recent campaign.

Hauled rapidly into line, Stanley reverted to peace-process-speak: “As we work to advance reconciliation on our island we need to be able to talk about the past in a way that is honest to each other, to our beliefs, and in a way that does not deepen division or cause hurt.” But this somehow carried less conviction than the unconcealed glee of his initial intervention.

The episode raised the uncomfortable question of the history of violence in Ireland, and the extent to which “armed struggle” in recent times echoes that of the guerrilla operations of a century ago – or does not. When the Troubles exploded after 1969, several surviving activists from the earlier era went to considerable lengths to disassociate the IRA they had represented from its putative descendants – in terms not only of the methods of warfare used by the Provisionals, where civilians paid the heaviest price, but also of the inter-communal aspect of the violence. The Anglo-Irish War, by contrast, was presented as a liberation struggle against army and police – though very many of the “Crown forces” were Irishmen, and Catholics. Moreover, as The Dead of the Irish Revolution makes abundantly clear, the idea that civilians remained unscathed is very far from the truth.

The book assembles an immensely impressive gazetteer of nearly 3,000 deaths, and how they came about. The language employed is very far from Stanley’s: sober, even-handed, but nonetheless eloquent. It was inspired by the volume Lost Lives (1999) – which similarly tracked the grim record of deaths in the Northern Ireland Troubles and is a commensurate achievement – though the research involved is even more challenging, and the records more obscure. Eunan O’Halpin and Daithi Ó Corráin have followed up leads in a vast range of official and unofficial sources, from regimental records and local newspapers to the Irish Bureau of Military History witness statements and the Irish state’s pension records; more than 1,400 footnotes and a vast bibliography provide a powerful testament.

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[see also: A hundred years of trouble: How an outburst of violence exposed Northern Ireland as a failed state]

The main body of the text is composed of accounts of the dead, inexorably accumulating from 1916 to 1921. These amount to terse but vivid micro-histories, sometimes of famous people such as the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic, or Roger Casement; the record of deaths during the Easter Rising provides a kind of linked narrative of that legendary week, the arc ranging across IRA Volunteers, British soldiers, and civilians. The casualties also include children caught in crossfire, non-combatants shot by snipers when out to buy milk or coal, and people who simply died from the shock of being caught up in a terrifying contretemps or who took their own life rather than let a killing squad catch up with them. George Tilson cut his throat in the lavatory of the boat train from Fishguard, leaving a note: “I have been shadowed from Cork, not to be done in by them.”

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Well known incidents of the war of 1919-21, like the kidnapping and killing of Mary Lindsay and her employee in Cork, are reconstructed with forensic attention; but so are the deaths of obscure soldiers, or shadowy figures shot as “spies”. Age, religious affiliation, ­and family connections are researched, along with the amount of compensation paid to relatives. And there are several entries of “Unknowns”, bodies described by their accoutrements whose identity is impossible to establish.


Short as these stories are, they pack a punch, and sometimes the authors project the tale fascinatingly forward. An RIC officer, Percival Lea-Wilson, was shot dead while buying a newspaper in Gorey, County Wexford in 1920, having been a marked man since his maltreatment of the rebel leader Tom Clarke in 1916; “the murderers drove away ­laughing” according to the RIC report. Lea-Wilson’s widow received solace from the Jesuit community, and in gratitude presented them with a painting. In 1993 an astonished art historian identified it as a lost Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, and it is now a star attraction of Dublin’s National Gallery.

The majority of the entries are more laconic (though no less vivid for that). O’Halpin’s expansive and engrossing introduction ranges over the larger patterns and conclusions. As he points out, the record of the British auxiliary security forces (notably the so-called Black and Tans) emerges from these records every bit as appalling as in popular legend, with much harrowing detail about torture of their victims.

The London government colluded with this (Churchill defended them until the end of his life) but even a diehard unionist like General Henry Wilson found the policy of “reprisals” and the carte blanche allowed to Auxiliaries and Tans too much to stomach. The protests of churchmen like Randall Davidson and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and left-liberal organs such as this journal, played an important part in shifting British public opinion and paving the way to the Truce of July 1921 and the Treaty signed in December of that year, giving the 26 counties of Ireland Dominion status and a fairly elastic measure of autonomy.

Those mercenaries have left, however, very little in the way of record or self-analysis, unlike their adversaries. The memory of some Irish revolutionaries is preserved in the later writing of activists such as Ernie O’Malley, Sean O’Faolain, and most famously Frank O’Connor in his classic short story “Guests of the Nation”, about the abduction of two British soldiers by an IRA squad and the relationship that develops between captors and hostages before their execution. Other activists preferred to forget, or to remember selectively.

The youthfulness of those who died, on both sides, is striking, and so is the geographical dispersal of killing: Cork, Dublin and Tipperary are far and away the counties that see the most deaths (per thousand of the population) from 1917 to 1921. Belfast also figures large and O’Halpin remarks that the violent record of the Ulster Special Constabulary, which developed from the Ulster Volunteer Force founded to oppose Home Rule in 1912, remains less clear, partly through restriction of official sources.

A picture also emerges of the powers arrogated to themselves by local IRA warlords, perfunctorily killing, for instance, a farm-labourer who innocently filled in a trench dug to impede the military. The appellation of “spy”, often attached to a victim’s body, could be a handy rationalisation, and reinforce the process of intimidation and boycott that the revolutionaries manipulated so energetically. In one case, the wife of a victim instantly removed the label from her dead husband’s body and burned it. Many probably did the same.

This is the kind of detail that makes this book such mesmerising reading. A child on an errand is killed in crossfire, clutching the “parcel containing sugar and green peas” which inadvertently led to her death. A policeman shot in a pub “never stirred, and the glass in his hand was smashed to atoms, the contents being splattered into the face of one of the terrified girls”. As a dead body is heaved over the side of a boat, one of the party hears his companion “as if speaking to himself, say ‘I will never die content until the Shannon is full of you’.”

The body in question (that of Martin Heavy, a 30-year-old Catholic ex-serviceman) was yet another of those tagged as a “spy”. The killing of serving soldiers, by contrast, sometimes involved an etiquette of handshakes and mutual expressions of respect before despatch to another world. But this survey also suggests parallel patterns of inherited antagonisms, often over landownership, which lay behind fatal events – though overt sectarian motives, as O’Halpin points out, hardly ever feature outside Derry and Belfast, and the (very rare) deaths of clergy were universally deplored.


A death is a death, but difficult questions arise about criteria and definitions. Those whose lives were ended by shock or suicide may be seen as collateral casualties, but other terminations are less clear-cut. Sixteen per cent of the deaths recorded here were due to “misadventure” and 2 per cent to suicide. Some of the latter were clearly the result of the violent circumstances of the times; others are more obscure. “Misadventure” also raises interesting questions. Private James Allan, who drowned in the Shannon while drunk, finds his way into the main text, but other accidental deaths of British soldiers are relegated to one of the absorbing appendices.

Deaths met, for instance, while playing around with guns are recorded. IRA members who die of influenza in jail are also counted as casualties, which seems right, given the shifty approach by the authorities to explaining fatalities occurring on their watch (see “SWATE”, or “Shot While Attempting To Escape”, and “SFTH”, “Shot for Failing to Halt”). O’Halpin calculates that at least 26 per cent of the deaths inflicted by Crown forces on the IRA were outside the ordinary rules of combat.

The chosen chronology also, ­inevitably, might provoke discussion. The Irish Revolution (and ensuing deaths) begins here at Easter 1916 and so excludes the four Dublin civilians killed by soldiers on Bachelors Walk after the Howth gun-running on 26 July 1914. The survey ends on 31 December 1921, which seems correct; though 27 people would be killed in Belfast in April 1922, and many more after the Civil War took off two months later, waged against supporters of the Anglo-Irish Treaty (which confirmed the partition of Ireland) by those who wanted to hold out for an independent Republic. 

That Civil War was the climax of a classical pattern whereby revolutions devour their own children; Irish history is in debt to O’Halpin and Ó Corráin for so memorably demonstrating the origins of this process. Their book also conveys, as few historical records succeed in doing, the sheer cumulative sadness, as well as the intermittent heroics, of those revolutionary times – an achievement hitherto left to the realms of memoir and fiction.

At the end of O’Connor’s story “Guests of the Nation” the narrator remembers standing “very small and lonely” in a cold dawn outside the mountain cabin where his two charges have been held, their bodies now “stiffening into a patch of black bog”, “And anything that ever happened to me after I never felt the same about again.” 

Roy Foster’s books include “Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923” (Penguin)

[see also: Why the riots in Northern Ireland are about more than just Brexit]

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