It begins with the 1916 Easter Rising, when a small secret society, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and a tiny socialist militia, James Connolly’s Citizens Army, rose against the might of Britain’s Empire in the midst of the Great War and held central Dublin for a week.
The book closes three decades later after another world war, and after that rebel minority had won the long-sought goal of independence from Britain, only to be engulfed in an even bloodier internecine Civil War in which former Irish comrades killed each other. And even after peace descended, the conflicts of the Civil War continued – and still dictate much of Ireland’s politics today.
Paul McMahon is ideally placed to tell the story of the secret struggles behind the open wars in an absorbing narrative that, written with academic rigour, is nevertheless a riveting read. Irish born, and educated in Dublin and Cambridge, McMahon lives in London and bases his account on recently released British Intelligence files.
He shows that Britain’s response to the Easter rising was laughably incompetent – only matched by the ineptness of the rebels. After the revolt was crushed, the military authorities made the classic error of turning the rebel leaders into martyrs by executing them. A couple of years later, Sinn Fein won the 1918 election, and, ignoring Westminster, set up its own Dàil in Dublin.
A vicious guerrilla war spread across Ireland waged by Sinn Fein’s armed wing, the IRA, against police, magistrates, and the machinery of government. Losing control, Britain responded to the ambushes and assassinations by sending tough ex-soldiers, brutalised in the trenches, to exact reprisals. They soon became notorious, from the colours of their uniforms, as ‘the Black and Tans’, and their savagery has left a scar on Ireland to this day.
British rule, centred on Dublin Castle, had long relied on spies and informers to nip Irish sedition in the bud. Now, a guerrilla leader of genius, Michael Collins, turned the tables by planting his own agents in the castle’s heart. Collins, Ireland’s most wanted man, was even smuggled into the castle to read his own police file!
Collins’s gunmen, ‘the Squad’, killed 14 of Britain’s leading intelligence agents in one dawn swoop on Bloody Sunday, November 1920. The British replied that afternoon by opening fire on the crowd at a sports ground, killing 12. The massacres sparked a peace process which culminated in Collins signing a treaty giving Ireland independence – but as a ‘Free State’ within the Empire with Northern Ireland excluded. Republican hardliners rejected this compromise, and although they lost the ensuing Civil War, Collins was killed and the Republic was eventually established.
McMahon shows how the savage civil strife crippled Anglo-Irish relations until the end of WWII. Although the new Free State Intelligence chiefs – all ex-IRA gunmen – secretly co-operated with their British counterparts, the British never trusted them and branded them, in turn, as Bolsheviks and Nazis waiting to stab Britain in the back.
Fearing that the Germans would use Ireland as a springboard to invade Britain, Churchill was only narrowly persuaded not to re-occupy the island, and some extreme IRA men disgraced their cause by enthusiastically aiding the Nazis on the old Fenian principle that ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.’ Notoriously, President De Valera, the incarnation of uncompromising Irish republicanism, signed the condolence book at the German embassy mourning Hitler’s death.
This exemplary book is the definitive study of its subject.
Review by Nigel Jones