REVIEW – The Irish Civil War: law, execution, and atrocity

3 mins read

By Seán Enright
Published by Merrion Press

Seán Enright 
Merrion Press, £17.99 (pbk)
Seán Enright
Merrion Press, £17.99 (pbk)

Imagine this scene: soldiers bring out the body parts of executed men and place them outside their barracks; their loved ones arrive bringing coffins on carts and begin identifying the body parts and placing them in the coffins; all the while a military band plays dance music.

One mother had been told the body of a young man with black hair had been placed in the barracks and rushed there to find it was her son.

Not surprisingly, there was a riot.

Under which dictatorship could such a thing happen?

Not under a dictatorship. This happened in one of the few European states which remained a parliamentary democracy throughout the interwar period: the Irish Free State, the precursor of today’s Irish Republic. In March 1923. The new state, encompassing 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties, was born out a guerrilla war and civil disobedience. But the Treaty that Irish Republican leaders signed with Britain split that movement.

A majority supported it and created a new government which began to create a new state. The minority shift ed from political opposition to armed rebellion, sparking civil war.

This book is not a military history of that civil war. The author is a lawyer and an Irish judge. It is an examination of how, on the government side, an official and an unofficial execution policy developed during that civil war, the former decided by military tribunals that gave prisoners few, if any, rights.

Eighty-three executions were carried out by the Irish Army, including four prisoners not tried or convicted of any charge. Many others were simply killed with no pretence at justice.

Enright is very clear that terrible things were done on both sides, as would be expected in a civil war. But on the government side, the implementation of reprisal killings posed major questions about the nature of the new state, about its leaders, about the role of the military, and about the rule of law.

The new Irish Army was formed from those in the guerrilla Irish Republican Army who backed its charismatic leader, Michael Collins. They included the Dublin ‘Squad’, which had carried out an effective policy of assassination of key figures in the British military and administration.

But there were not sufficient numbers of them, and men were recruited from the demobbed British Army – which was being run down after the Great War – and even from the prisons. Collins described it as ‘an armed mob’ shortly after the civil war began. Recruits sold weapons and ammunition to the other side, carried out robberies, or deserted.

The first stage of the war was a battle of set-pieces with the IRA (the rebels had claimed that title) first trying to hold positions in central Dublin, and then in Munster, the south-west province where they had been most effective during the war with Britain.

But the new Irish Army had artillery and armoured cars – provided by the British – and the rebels could not hold fixed positions against this sort of firepower.

The second stage of the war was a guerrilla campaign in which the IRA tried to make the new state ungovernable; but the IRA lacked the popular support it had had in the fight against the British. In particular, it was denounced by the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, the Irish Army grew frustrated in a difficult insurgency, and atrocities were the consequence. County Kerry saw some of the bitterest fighting. March 1923 saw a series of notorious incidents in Kerry, where 23 Republican prisoners were killed and another five judicially executed in a period of just four weeks.

The incident occurred at Ballymullen Barracks in Tralee. A day before, five soldiers had been killed by a booby-trap bomb. That night, nine Republican prisoners were tortured, then taken from the barracks in Tralee to Ballyseedy crossroads, and there tied to a landmine. The mine was detonated. The survivors were machine-gunned.

Over the next 24 hours, five Republican prisoners were blown up by a mine at Countess Bridge near Killarney and four at Cahersiveen. Another Republican prisoner was taken out into the woods and summarily shot. That March, 27 Republicans were officially or unofficially executed.

Earlier, in December 1922, the IRA had shot dead a member of the Irish Parliament and seriously wounded another. The Irish Government had ordered the execution of four senior IRA leaders who had been in jail since the summer.

Those reprisal executions had sent a shock wave across the nation. It is interesting, as Enright points out, that afterwards senior Republican prisoners were not executed – only rank-and-file fighters.

Democracy in Ireland survived its troubled, bloody birth. The elected politicians did eventually face down the military and assert the rule of law though a legal system bequeathed by Britain.

The majority of the defeated Republicans eventually rallied around Eamon de Valera, who advocated a political solution and led them into a new party, Fianna Fáil, which accepted the new Irish state and its parliamentary democracy.

In 1932, de Valera won a general election. Before he took office, the outgoing government ordered the burning of all documentation relating to the executions and the military tribunals. It is to Enright’s enormous credit that, in their absence, he has been able to piece so much back together.

Until recently, the two main parties in southern Ireland, Fianna Fáil and the heirs of the 1922-1932 government, Fine Gael, based themselves on the sides taken in the civil war, not on any clear ideological differences. The bitterness of that conflict echoed down the 20th century, long after it had finished.

Such executions and reprisal killings continue, of course, but post-1945 they are now criminal offences under international law. This book looks back before that time, and it is a shocking read almost a century on.

Review by Chris Bambery

This article was published in the January 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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