jump to navigation

Terror in Ireland 1916 − 1923 (II) October 4, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish History, Irish Politics.

For the original thread on the book please go here.

This isn’t a review, because I haven’t finished the book, which I borrowed from the Central Library a couple of weeks back. But it is an appraisal, I guess. Got to admit away from the more controversial aspects it’s great reading. Some fascinating material in here. Not least Jane Leonard’s piece on “‘English Dogs’ or ‘Poor Devils’? The Dead of Bloody Sunday Morning”, which lists those who died who were British intelligence and other officers and service men and those who were shot by accident.

Brian Hanley’s piece ‘Terror in Twentieth-Century Ireland’ brings a necessary overview of the fundamental nature of the term ‘terror’ and puts it into an equally necessary historical context.

And Fearghal McGarry’s ‘Violence and the Easter Rising’ is a very useful investigation of the use of violence during the Rising which notes odd statistics such as how few of those who instigated it were actually killed during those days. It also suggests that in large part those who fought in the Rising on the Irish side were scrupulous about waging conflict as cleanly as possible – though he also references instances where that standard was not adhered to.

David Fitzpatrick’s Introduction is also very interesting, as it seeks to contextualise the scope of the book. Some oddities though, and not least in the following:

Thought this book cannot claim to encompass the entire terrain of its title, it deploys documentary evidence, often recently released, to confront major unsettled questions about the legacy of terror…

And it continues:

Hovering in the background is another question, requiring a broader political analysis outside the scope of this book. Could a mutually acceptable Irish settlement have been achieved without the widespread use of terror? If so, how much was lost as the result of an unpredictable chain of events, instigated by the perverse determination of a few hundred rebels to challenge the British government in Ireland in 1916? What, then, was the ultimate cost of terror?

The odd thing is that in McGarry’s chapter on the Easter Rising it is very clear that 1916 was not some irruption that appeared as from nowhere. McGarry doesn’t mention the failure of Home Rule as a political project, nor its essential delegitimisation in the fields of France and on this island. But he has one telling anecdote.

Noting that:

Members of the Irish Citizen’s Army, in particular, were involved in dubious killings around St. Stephen’s Green. By his own account, Frank Robbins was prevented from shooting civilians, policemen and unarmed soldiers by his officer… The ICA’s relative ruthlessness may have stemmed from bitter memories of the 1913 Lock-Out. Asked how they should treat the police, James Connolly told his mean: ‘Remember how they treated you in 1913’. Patrick Kelly, a Volunteer, was initially angered when his officer prevented him from shooting an unarmed policeman outside Broadstone station: ‘I remarked that I was unarmed in 1913’.

1916 had roots that stretched far back into the past and into unpredictable places.

But all that aside a very very interesting book and well worth a read.


1. Jim - October 4, 2012

Read the book – it’s fine in parts, though Morrison and Fitzpatrick’s attempts to rescue Peter Hart’s credibility are rather pathetic. 1916 was a fairly bloodless revolution when compared to what was happening on the European continent at the time. I think it’s interesting how first world academics wring their hands over blood shed in an anti-colonial struggle, when theirs are soaked in it too. Revisionism is a purblind thing


CL - October 4, 2012

Histories are usually written by the victors. And the victims are seldom prosecuted for their war crimes. The technocrat, Robert McNamara, admitted that he was a war criminal, but also noted that he would never be prosecuted because he was on the winning side. He was a war criminal for his role in the bombing of Tokyo which killed an estimated 100,000 civilians.
A terrorist of course, as Brendan Behan pointed out, is someone with a small bomb.


CL - October 4, 2012

2nd sentence, shuould be ‘victors’


2. oirisn toimes - October 4, 2012

No evidence of any of the civilian murder that McGarry alludes to – and murder is intent to kill, remember that, so the ICA set out with murderous intent towards civilians – nothing but “may” and “relative” and a single line from Connolly referring not to the army but to the armed Dublin police force – and no actual reports of civilian murder by the ICA.. As for “unarmed” soldiers? What the fuck? In a conflict situation? What’s next, virgin whores? This is sophistry.


Dr. X - October 4, 2012

“Unarmed”, presumably, because they had been disarmed after being taken prisoner. (Did the revolutionary forces take any prisoners in 1916? Genuine question).

As you say though, the devil is in the linguistic detail. Who was it who said that while the English use words to illuminate facts, the Irish use words to obscure them?


oirisn toimes - October 4, 2012

The ICA shot prisoners of war? You really don’t have a high opinion of them, do you? I mean, that was your first thought here, no?

There’s a lot of Irish historians who don’t like the fact that there was a class element to Dublin and the 1916 Rising.

Mind you, McGarry doesn’t think the home rule fiasco or the Great War played a part either.

Rather like Thatcher, McGarry sees the question of violence in Ireland as a policing matter.

To de-class and de-politicise Dublin a mere 30 months after the end of the Lockout is quite a move.


Ed - October 4, 2012

I have McGarry’s book on the Rising, haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but glancing through the bibliography at the back, it struck me that while he described something that Ruan O’Donnell had written as having a ‘rather stale socialist-republican viewpoint’ (or something like that, not sure what the exact wording is), none of the other books he mentioned had warning-labels attached to them (Roy Foster, for example, might be said to have a certain political outlook that informs his writing, but you wouldn’t learn that from McGarry). Value-free history how are you …


Dr. X - October 4, 2012

“The ICA shot prisoners of war? You really don’t have a high opinion of them, do you? I mean, that was your first thought here, no?”

No, dear heart, that wasn’t my first thought (what do you think of Vincent Price’s performance in “Witchfinder General”, by the way?). My first thought was that war is a dirty, bloody business, and that – for example – the killing of prisoners is often a part of it. So, I don’t consider it prima facie implausible to say that this or that group engaged in WAR might have done dirty or bloody things.


eamonncork - October 4, 2012

I’m shocked by the suggestion that the ICA shot prisoners of war. They seemed so peaceful and reasonable when they were setting up the jam sponge baking competition at the local show.


Dr. X - October 4, 2012


eamonncork - October 4, 2012

You’re only a revisionist Dr X. Everyone knows that during the War of Independence the IRA only shot people who were facing them, against overwhelming odds and to the accompaniment of a pipe band.


WorldbyStorm - October 4, 2012

oirisn toimes… there’s some fair points in what you say, but I think you’re focusing too much on McGarry’s broader position on these matters rather than the actual quote I offer from his paper.

My point in the above post is to explicitly show up the contradiction between what FitzGerald said about 1916 – where he considers it ‘perverse’ and show that even in McGarry’s text there’s evidence that it wasn’t something that erupted without political/economic and other causes but to note out that it was a result of a broad range of dynamics including the power imbalances and repression of 1913 and the Lock Out.

In a way it’s entirely irrelevant to that point whether McGarry sees it as a policing issue, or the question as to whether soldiers were armed or unarmed. In truth it seems that the ICA and the Volunteers both sought to minimise casualties and to in the main fight against uniformed and armed combatants. That’s a standard they appear to have set for themselves and generally adhered to – albeit there were lamentable exceptions. So yes it was a conflict situation, and yes egregious errors and mistakes were made, but broadly speaking those involved on the Irish side attempted to minimise them and that is to their credit. But it’s not really the issue at hand.


3. Dr. X - October 4, 2012

“During the week of the Easter Rising, Sheehy-Skeffington, who had been living at 11 (now 21), Grosvenor Place, Rathmines, Dublin, was concerned about the collapse of law and order. On the evening of Tuesday, 25 April, he went into the city centre to attempt to organise a citizens militia (police) to prevent the looting of damaged shops.

He was arrested for no stated, or indeed obvious, reason while returning home, by members of the 11th East Surrey Regiment at Portobello Bridge along with some hecklers who were following him, and, after admitting to having sympathy for the insurgents’ cause (but not their tactics), he was held as an enemy sympathizer. Later that evening an officer of the 3rd battalion Royal Irish Rifles, Captain J. C. Bowen-Colthurst (a member of a County Cork family of the landed gentry), sent Sheehy-Skeffington out with an army raiding party in Rathmines, held as a hostage with his hands tied behind his back. The raiding party had orders that he was to be shot if it was attacked.[5]
The former Kelly’s tobacconist at Kelly’s Corner, where Sheehy-Skeffington was taken

Bowen-Colthurst sought out “Fenians”. He went to the home and shop of Alderman James Kelly at the corner of Camden Street and Harcourt Road, from which the name “Kelly’s Corner” derives. Mistaking the Alderman (who was a Conservative) for a rebel, the soldiers destroyed the shop with hand grenades. Bowen-Colthurst took captive a young boy, two pro-British journalists who were in the shop — Thomas Dickson and Patrick MacIntyre — and a Sinn Féin politician, Richard O’Carroll, all of whom he had shot. Skeffington witnessed the two murders on the way to Rathmines. The two journalists were killed with him the following morning. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was not told about her husband’s detention or his death and only discovered what had happened four days later, when she met the chaplain of the barracks. Bowen-Colthurst attempted a cover-up and ordered the search and ransack of Skeffington’s home, looking for evidence to damage him. This event resulted in a Westminster-ordered cover-up, as a result of which Bowen-Colthurst was detained in an asylum for eighteen months. He would later retire to Canada on a full pension.”



eamonncork - October 4, 2012

I remember a BBC play on this, The Trial of Bowen Colthurst, which was shown in 1981 and written by a guy called Bruce Norman. As was the wont in the BBC drama department at the time, it showed little sympathy for the British Army. Clive James reviewing it wrote, “In 1916, one is forced to assume, all the intelligent officers were away at the war, leaving Ireland to be garrisoned by idiots and bigots. Into which category Captain Bowen Colthurst fell remains a moot point. Anyway he shot the non violent Irish journalist Francis Sheehy Skeffington for no reason at all, whereafter the army covered the whole thing up in a manner seemingly calculated to generate the maximum amount of blood.”
Many people think, or at least I used to, that Bowen Colthurst was an English army officer imported to Dublin. However he was actually born and reared in Dripsey Castle, to the North West of Cork city, making him one of those rural Cork Protestants we hear so much about these days. He was a cousin of the great novelist Elizabeth Bowen.


4. CB - October 4, 2012

http://nearpodcast.org/pcast/?p=6683 David Fitzpatrick was interviewed on the History Show on Near FM about Terror in Ireland.


5. Brian Hanley - October 4, 2012

Maybe Oirish Times has calmed down enough by now to consider reading the McGarry article before commenting on it.
The gist of it is this. Several Dublin policemen were shot during the Rising. The uniformed DMP were unarmed and the Volunteers did not generally target them (and neither did the IRA from 1919-21). It seems the ICA did however shoot some of the DMP men who were killed. McGarry speculates (from Bureau of Military History statements and elsewhere) that the role of the DMP during the Lockout meant that ICA members were more inclined to attack them than the Volunteers were. So he doesn’t ignore the backgorund of the Lockout, or the class makeup of the different forces.
In general the Republican rebels in 1916 were very keen to be accepted as a conventional army representing a new government and wanted to adhere to the ‘rules’ of war. They wore uniforms, took prisoners (several British soldiers were held and treated well in the GPO) and as the Proclamation stated, were anxious not to dishonour their cause with ‘cowardice, inhumanity or rapine.’ However there were cases of the rebels killing civilians, sometimes in error, sometimes it seems on purpose. In general, though, McGarry concludes that the rebels did behave chivalrously (certainly in comparison to the British).
As for unarmed soldiers, prior to Easter 1916 most British soldiers while off-duty would have strolled around Dublin unarmed. Soldiers on leave in Dublin (including ANZACs in Easter 1916) were also usually unarmed. Hence on Easter Monday there were unarmed soldiers.


Dr.Nightdub - October 5, 2012

I think it’s worth adding that McGarry’s article in the book makes the point quite forcefully that while there were some civilian death caused by Volunteers / ICA, they were far outweighed by those caused by British troops – not simply because there were far more of them about than rebels (so the law of averages would kick in), or that they couldn’t distinguish between non-uniformed rebels and civilians, but also because indiscipline and drunkenness were problems affecting some of the troops. The killings of numerous people in their own homes around North King St are probably the most-publicised.


6. Niall Meehan - October 5, 2012


My reply to Professor Fitzpatrick and Dr Morrison’s response to my review of Terror in Ireland. Also included, a commentary on Brian Hanley’s discussion of the 1985 Sinn Fein pamphlet, The Good Old IRA, that I left out of my original review.

Included because Paul Bew explained the pamphlet’s significance for him at a conference on public history in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin, during the summer. I told Brian, who was in the audience, I had taken it out of my original review. As Bew mentioned it and as it was introduced into another thread with the same name as this one, I think it is appropriate to publish it now.

(BTW, two threads with the same name, is that a good idea?)


Mark P - October 5, 2012

Yes, the name part confused me when I tried to follow one of the references in your essay.


Dr.Nightdub - October 5, 2012

Niall, I’m surprised that you describe The Good Old IRA as being “constructed very much tongue in cheek”, given the very serious role you describe it playing in the realpolitik / propaganda war at that particular point in the mid-80s. It’s a while since I read it, but from what I recall it was fairly full-on with no sense of levity at all.


EWI - October 6, 2012

I admire your restraint and dry wit, sir.


7. Niall Meehan - October 5, 2012

Perhaps the thread above could have its name changed to ‘Terror in Ireland 1916-23 (II)’, and a link put in to the original thread at:



WorldbyStorm - October 5, 2012

Fair point… will do Niall.


8. Brian Hanley - October 6, 2012

Briefly re ‘The Good Old IRA’. It is far from the only example of republicans in the 1970s/80s dismissing that the idea that the 1919-21 war had a democratic mandate. It was a serious attempt to create a counter to the prevailing southern nationalist view that there was a fundamental difference between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ IRAs. Danny Morrison spoke about this at a debate in Drogheda during July and I didn’t get the impression that the project was intended to be ‘tongue in cheek.’


9. Seán Ó Murchadha - October 6, 2012

Senior counsel John O’Mahony speaking at the Liam Lynch Commemoration in Fermoy this year-
Acknowledging the oppression of nationalists in the North, Dr O’Mahony said there were “respectable limits beyond which the old IRA did not [go] and would not have gone as a means of addressing such injustices and wrongs”.

“They would not have blown up innocent people, nor would they have denied knowledge of the burial places of their assassinated victims,” he said, instancing the failure of the Provisional IRA to reveal where they had buried teenager Columba McVeigh in 1975.

Patrick Joyce, from Bearna, was executed by the IRA in 1920 for being an informer. His body was not discovered until 1996/7.
Was this an exception in the 1919-21 period or are there other examples, albeit not as systematic as what happened in the conflict in the 1970s?


Dr.Nightdub - October 7, 2012

You could argue it either way. In the pogrom period of the 1920s, I don’t know of anyone being disappeared and there was only one known instance of an informer being killed by the IRA in Belfast – Samuel Mullan from Havana Street in Ardoyne, whose body was found on 29th March 1922 on the Whiterock Road. Other informers were subject to non-fatal shootings, or tarred and feathered or tied to the railings of Dunville Park with a sign round their neck.

On the other hand, in terms of “going beyond respectable limits”, there were bomb attacks on trams in November 1921, one bound for Oldpark, one for the Shankill. A bomb on a tram is just as indiscriminate as one in a fish shop.


10. The 1985 Sinn Fein Good Old IRA pamphlet and historical revisionism – a response to comments « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - October 16, 2012

[…] His response on Cedar Lounge to my commentary on his discussion of the Good Old IRA pamphlet was: response on Cedar Lounge to my commentary on his discussion of the Good Old IRA pamphlet was: 8. Brian Hanley – […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: