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Brian Hanley: The IRA – A Documentary History 1916 – 2005, redux December 18, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, The Left.

I’d said I’d give a bit more detail on this book because I think it’s well worth more than a cursory examination. I mentioned I was fairly envious of it, which remains the case. It’s the sort of production, 230 odd pages in full colour throughout with lavish colour reproductions of an array of photographs and documents that would suit any archival source.

I also mentioned before that in that respect it fits neatly into a new, and very welcome, approach to history where rather than simple transcripts of texts we are now offered their physicality. There’s something particularly intriguing seeing a poorly typewritten set of notes from one meeting or another which gives at least some sense of place and time.

There’s also the interplay between those more covert documents and the more public manifestation of political groups. Page 135 has a reproduction of a 1957 copy of the United Irishman American Edition. American edition? I wasn’t aware that there was such a thing. And it’s small details like that which this book is particularly useful for.

The book follows a chronological sequencing in seven chapters starting with the War of Independence and engaging with the Civil War, the ‘Legion of the Rearguard’, the ‘Twilight Years’, ‘Towards Operation Harvest’, ‘A New Revolution and ‘From War to Peace’.

Within each chapter developments are dealt with in chronological order which is convenient. There is a main text and then shorter subsections which are used to illuminate individual images, as with ‘Support the Provisionals’ on page 173 which has a photograph of a PIRA member in the Bogside beside a mural with that slogan upon it and some text detailing the weaponry of the Provisional IRA. And the internal documentation is equally fascinating. For example, there are a number of pages given over to the minutes of the Official IRA Convention, 1972. As the text notes:

The Official IRA met in convention on October 22 1972, facing serious problems. The ceasefire declared in May remained in place but was under pressure, with several OIRA members killed in the previous few months. Cathal Goulding explained the thinking behind the Aldershot bombing and assassination attempt on Unionist MP John Taylor as ‘prestige type operations’, while Seamus Costello outlined how the Officials had taken £70,000 in robberies over the past two years. A total of £22,378 had been spent on arms but in some areas supplied had been depleted by British Army raids or by losses to the Provisionals…

There’s considerably more in that subsection but that is indicative of the amount of detail to be gleaned from it. I don’t think that the analysis contained in the book, which is essentially descriptive, will surprise anyone reading it. But in some respects it is surprisingly in-depth with a wealth of information that describes the rather more circuitous history of the IRA(s) over the past eight or so decades. And the linkage to the broader history of the island is useful.

For me one of the more striking aspects of the text was that areas which I had less familiarity with, for example the 1940s prove to be as interesting in their own way as earlier or later phases. Take the following referring to the 1940s ‘Northern Campaign’ from p.110.

…in February 1940, and IRA raid netted 30 rifles from the British Army’s Ballykinlar Camp in Co. Down. On Christmas Day of that year, 120 prisoners rioted in Derry Jail: in March 1943 a total of 21 men managed to tunnel out of the same prison (18 were recaptured in Donegal and interned in the Curragh). In 1942, an IRA Northern Command, under Hugh McAteer, was established to begin a campaign. McAteer was captured that year but in January 1943, along with Jimmy Steele, Paddy Donnelly and Edward Maguire, he escaped from Crumlin Road. At Easter 1943, the IRA took over the Broadway Cinema on the Falls Road and McAteer appeared and read out the organisation’s Easter statement.

To a certain extent one can see evidence there of an organisation in decline, with a curious half-life stuck between the occasional armed action and fending off the state on both sides of the Border. Indeed as Hanley notes about the later case of the execution of Thomas Williams who at 19 years of age was hanged for the murder of an RUC constable in 1942:

The case highlighted the Irish government’s differing attitude to IRA activities on either side of the Border. the press in the South was forbidden by the government censor form referring to Constable Murphy’s death as ‘murder’; but they were ordered to use the term ‘murder’ when reporting the deaths of gardaí in similar incidents. Williams’ co-defendants (who included Joe Cahill) were released in 1949. In January 2000, after a long campaign, Williams’ body was reinterred at Milltown Cemetary in Belfast.

The picture becomes more mixed in the 1960s, particularly the rupture of the movement into two competing groups at the end of that decade. The material from both formations is treated sequentially rather than in parallel. So one will read in Chapter 7 about the Provisional IRA, then the Official IRA, then back to PIRA and then a short section on the INLA.

There are some gaps. The Provisional IRA and other groups doesn’t have the same degree of internal documentation as previous incarnations of the IRA, and though this is hardly a surprise it does present some challenges. That said at that point the text leans more heavily on published materials such as leaflets and periodicals. That certainly works, but one can only look forward to future editions, and indeed other books, that will deal with any material like that that comes into the public domain. There are some other intriguing aspects. Despite formations such as the Real IRA and Continuity IRA now having been extant for over a decade there are no documents reproduced from either of them or from associated political groups. But as the Introduction notes:

This book is not a definitive history of the IRA, nor a complete study of it in any era.

And that instead it asks the question…

… what did the IRA actually say at various stages of its history? How were its arguments presented to members and supporters and did its key positions change over time?

This last question is central. Because beyond word of mouth the documents and publications in this book were the primary channel of communication with those who provided support and sustenance for these organisations.

What one comes away with most strongly is the sense of how active Republicanism, of whatever form, has been in terms of discussion, publications, and so forth across the 20th century, and on into the 21st.

Another review can be found here.


1. Brian Hanley on the IRA – Part I – Ideology | The Irish Story - December 18, 2010

[…] review of The IRA – A Documentary History is here at the Cedar Lounge Revolution. // Share| Tags: A Documentary History of the IRA, Brian […]


2. Finbar Lynch - December 20, 2010

There is a review of this book in the current edition of Saorise, the paper of the Republican movement. The reviewer makes the point that publications from the Republican movement post 1986 are not featured, but recommends it as a very informative collection of documents on the history of Irish Republicanism.


3. John Dorney - December 20, 2010
4. Brian Hanley on the IRA – Part II – The IRA at War | The Irish Story - December 21, 2010

[…] review of The IRA – A Documentary History is here at the Cedar Lounge Revolution. // Share| Tags: Ancient Order of Hibernians, border campaign, […]


5. The Rock of the Republic - December 22, 2010

The excerpts from the 1967 IRA meeting were fascinating, especially McMillan blaming lack of guns for the failure of Harvest and Costello attacking abstention. Is the complete document avilable I wonder? Does much more 1970s stuff exist? I also liked the Cumann na mBan letter from 1940 really taking the IRA to task for the bombing campaign. Surprised not more of the leaflets/posters from the rep movement post 1970. There must be loads in archives and libraries. That 1977 Rep News about the killing of the Du Pont boss is a cracker!


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