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The War of Independence in The North September 2, 2016

Posted by irishelectionliterature in Irish Politics.
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I’ve been reading a lot of material about the 1916 rising and then found myself reading a biography of Joe Cahill. What astonished me was even from reading the Cahill book was my ignorance of events in the North from 1916 onward to the troubles. It was as if it had been written out of History, that the War of Independence stopped at what is now the border. The major moments of the War of Independence in Belfast, Armagh, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Derry never seemed to get much, if any mentions in the History books in school and wider History. It was Dev, Dan Breen, Michael Collins and others who became associated with the war and the impression that all that happened in the North was that they were anti Home Rule, went off to the Somme and then Partition came and everything was grand for the ruling Unionist class there until the Civil Rights marches and 1969.
I can only presume this History was due to a certain guilt over Partition and later a need to separate the IRA of the Troubles from the IRA of the War of Independence. Yet Partition must have caused an awful guilt for the likes of Frank Aiken who had commanded rebels in Armagh. Am I wrong about the ignoring of the North or was I missing those days in School?

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1. 6to5against - September 2, 2016

No. You’re right. And I often wondered about it in a lazy way.

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WorldbyStorm - September 2, 2016

Yeah, spot on IEL. It’s a disgrace in its own way. A symptom of how partition literally and figuratively meant that the North just faded out of the consciousness of the South (bar the obvious exceptions).

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EWI - September 2, 2016

it was deliberately excluded – first by CnanG, then by FF (and Labour went along with it under Johnson, of course, as they accommodated themselves in every situation).

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gendjinn - September 2, 2016

Some stuff Roddy said earlier this year really brought this to fore and it’s been niggling away at me since. Finding stuff on the north 1916 to 1969 is hard enough, what have you been reading?

From growing up the “official” line I got was we were outnumbered in the north and so kept the heads down relative to what went on in the south. Now that was from the great uncle who ran guns for the border campaign (too young for WoI) but he was always one for the dogma so I’m not sure I believe him on that score.

Were the unions as good in the north as they were in the south during the WoI?

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EWI - September 2, 2016

Finding stuff on the north 1916 to 1969 is hard enough, what have you been reading?

Eamon Phoenix’s ‘Northern Nationalism’ is eye-opening, but primarily I’ve been going through a lot of written personal accounts by that 1916 generation.

The union movement as a whole here was acquiring IRB men in senior positions as early as the turn of the century. But during the WoI, their efforts to break union connections with/control by British unions were intensified, with results. The internal name within the movement for this intelligence work was the ‘Labour Board’.

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2. EWI - September 2, 2016

How many people realise that two of the six counties had Nationalist majorities at the time, and were suppressed by force after partition?

How many realise that everyone’s assumption in the Treaty debates (and after) was that massive amounts of ‘Northern Ireland’ would have to be transferred to the south, out of natural justice?

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3. An Sionnach Fionn - September 2, 2016

To recognise an all-Ireland war of independence would be to recognise the all-Ireland state it was fought over, one sanctioned by an all-Ireland electorate. That would mean that citizens of this state were abandoned and sacrificed in 1921-23 by the very state they supported and fought for. In other words southern nationalists bartered their freedom with the continued lack of freedom for their northern nationalist peers. It doesn’t make for a very heroic end to a supposedly heroic struggle.

If killing British soldiers on the streets of Dublin and Belfast in 1921 was legitimate when did it cease to be legitimate on the streets of Belfast? An uncomfortable question for some.

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gendjinn - September 2, 2016

It wasn’t just a choice between freedom for the 26 and enslavement for the 6. It was also the choice between Churchill crushing the country and rebellion militarily or accepting the treaty. They weren’t just choosing partition. They were also choosing life.

The British held a gun to the heads of the Irish people on the treaty vote. It was held under duress. With all the attendant implications of morality under duress.

And yes the south did abandon the north, not just in 21 but day in and day out since and there needs to be restitution for that.

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4. Brian Hanley - September 2, 2016

I’ll give my own opinions on this at some stage (including asking why so much of the northern IRA supported the Treaty) but just to be going on with
Kieran Glennon: From Pogrom to Civil War
Jim McDermott: Northern Divisions
Fergal McCluskey – two recent books on Tyrone
Robert Lynch: the Northern IRA
Matthew Lewis: Frank Aiken
B. Evans & S. Kelly: Frank Aiken

A lot of the writings on labour and partition date from the 70s and 80s- still worth checking out.

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gendjinn - September 2, 2016

Are they easier/cheaper to get in Ireland, some of them are fierce expensive in the US (if you can even find them)? McDermott is over $300 (books are better investment than banks these days!)

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Jim Monaghan - September 4, 2016

Farrell’s Northern Ireland: The Orange State
by Michael Farrell

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1596363.Northern_Ireland

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5. Joe - September 2, 2016

Well. Is it just the 6 counties in the WoI that is/was ignored in the history we learned? I read someone once saying that the WoI was only really fought in Munster and Dublin. So I’d take from that they were saying that the real action was in Munster and Dublin and little enough everywhere else. So maybe we learned little enough about what happened in the 6 and other counties because little enough happened there?

Now I know I’m biased but all I know about the WoI in NI is;
that most of the Northern IRA supported Collins and the Treaty
that Frank Aiken was involved in an alleged sectarian atrocity in sth Armagh
that there’s a row in nth Antrim at the moment about the naming of a GAA ground after two local WoI IRA volunteers
that there’s a story that when Frank Aiken led anti-Treaty men capturing the barracks in Dundalk in the Civil War, that he kicked the head of a dead Free Stater around the barracks square.

But I ain’t no historian. Over to you Brian Hanley.

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WorldbyStorm - September 2, 2016

How would you regard yourself as biased? Genuine question.

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Joe - September 2, 2016

I suppose what I mean by my bias is that I might have selective hearing/memory. So I might remember hearing about a nationalist sectarian massacre in sth Armagh but forget about pogroms against nationalists in Belfast. Which I now remember hearing about but know little about.
Was it also a policy of the IRA at the time not to do much in the north for fear of stirring up sectarian war?

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WorldbyStorm - September 2, 2016

I don’t think you’re unbalanced that way. And in fairness these were subjects the southern state took some pains not to delve into.

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Joe - September 2, 2016

Ok. So what way do you think I am unbalanced? :):)

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WorldbyStorm - September 3, 2016

Hahah… we’re both ex WP – surely that qualifies? 😉

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Dr. X - September 4, 2016

” I read someone once saying that the WoI was only really fought in Munster and Dublin. ”

The best thing Peter Hart ever did, IMO, was a paper he had in Past and Present where he demonstrated an inverse relationship between an area’s participation in the Land War, and its participation in the Tan War a generation later.

(I used to run into Peter occasionally, and he always seemed OK to me).

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Michael Carley - September 4, 2016

Did he put forward any reasons that might be so?

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6. roddy - September 2, 2016

Southerners make the mistake of thinking that the unionist “majority” was uniform throughout the 6 counties.Whatever about the time of the treaty,nowadays only Antrim and Down would have a unionist majority(and Down only due to an overwhelmingly unionist North Down).The fact is that the North is held by Britain due to the wishes of the inhabitants of a small preportion of it’s overall land mass.With regard to the Northerners supporting the treaty,I would put that down to a state of total confusion at the time of the treaty.I would know all the descendants of tan war volunteers locally and they would all be anti FG .Their forefathers would all have been Dev men.No later than last Sunday I returned to Murlough Bay(I had been there at a Casement commemoration a few weeks ago).There on display on a noticeboard was a report of a visit by Dev in 1953 where he was feted by virtually all surviving members of the “pre truce IRA”. The house I live in was once lived in by Tan war veteran who finished up a Garda sargeant in Galway but I can assure you that all of his family still living locally would be totally republican.As a child ALL the veterans would have attended the (pre 69 split) SF commemorations.Also Dan Breen travelled as far North as Draperstown to train volunteers.Elderly men locally claimed to have been present when he trained them in the use of grenades , a story I treated with some scepticism until I read newspaper reports from the time.These detailed him leading hundreds from a training camp in the Sperrins through the streets of Draperstown one night while the RIC wisely stayed in their barracks. My point is that any support for the treaty quickly dissipated among the Northern IRA when its outworkings became apparent.

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Pasionario - September 2, 2016

Roddy assumes incorrectly that a majority of catholic/nationalist/republican voters signifies automatic support for a United Ireland.

All the recent polling suggests that’s not true and that about half of NI nationalists/republicans would actually vote to remain in the UK. Support for a United Ireland is at less than 20 percent across the province:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Ireland

Lots of Sinn Fein voters apparently do not want a United Ireland, which is a bit of a paradox, but seems consistent with SF’s shift under the GFA towards power-sharing and generally getting Catholics a better deal within Nothern Ireland rather than overthrowing partition. That’s what’s really going on, notwithstanding the occasional noises about a border poll. Maybe Brexit will change that but it’s a big maybe.

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EWI - September 2, 2016

Lots of Sinn Fein voters apparently do not want a United Ireland, which is a bit of a paradox, but seems consistent with SF’s shift under the GFA towards power-sharing and generally getting Catholics a better deal within Nothern Ireland rather than overthrowing partition.

Can ‘Ulster’ unionism survive in an arrangement where they’re not allowed to perpetually kick the Catholics? That’s the other way of looking at power-sharing.

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WorldbyStorm - September 3, 2016

That’s an interesting point EWI. Sometimes I think we forget just how big an ask it was for tranches of unionism to accept power sharing with nationalists, and then power sharing with Republicans. And to accept that the North is no longer as British as Finchley, that it has a completely different political structure overlaying the UK one. And that it has some shared sovereignty with the RoI. I’m not going as far as saying they’ve any reason for complaint or that it was an impossible ask or that any of this is optimal. But it pushed the DUP into first place ultimately, and strikingly many unionists have, it would appear, come to quite like the set up. Which is telling in itself.

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Jim Monaghan - September 4, 2016

I think there is a need to factor in the difference between what people want and what they might accept. Most people are fairly pragmatic and would accept equality and fairness. The reality is that the 6 county statelet was based on keeping them down.

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7. roddy - September 2, 2016

I have no doubt if my own county of Derry was allowed a vote,it would vote for unity. The referendum would reenergise dormant voters and gain a momentum like Scotland who nearly pulled it off despite poor initial opinion polls.Secondly NEVER trust a northern opinion poll.When SF were trouncing the SDLP ,polls were showing the SDLP in the lead.Any polls now consist of consulting a “panel of some sort which are worthless.Many people up here still subscribe to the “whatever you say ,say nothing” line.

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Joe - September 2, 2016

I’d love a Border Poll now – just to see what’s what. If we could have it without anyone getting killed that is.

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EWI - September 2, 2016

How many people in the North, otherwise amenable to the idea, would defer a united Ireland out of the knowledge of how large sections of unionism will react?

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8. C B - September 3, 2016

Here is a video of a lecture by Kieran Glennon entitled Pogrom or Civil War? The north east in the Irish revolution 1920-22. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVaOBB6cQPU

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9. makedoanmend - September 3, 2016

I remember a grandfather (Tyrone) saying that every townland around them from c. 1910 onwards, in what is a somewhat “mixed” community, had nationalist volunteers who routinely went through training drills. However, scepticism was rife. Training with broom handles but knowing your non-nationalist neighbors had real guns; the establishment authorities were “tooled-up” to the back teeth; and the government ready to institute policies detrimental to nationalists who could easily by ID’d by their neighbors wasn’t exactly encouraging. Knowing that resources were scarce and would remain so, how little contact with, say, Dublin they had, and the patchwork nature of differing populations made them very wary right up until the border became a concrete object of “mappiness”. Apres the deluge and all that. Scepticism became the norm among nationalists in the six counties and often turned to a mild bitterness (some born of experience) by some about anyone outside of the six.

There were small groups of people that were promised weapons or had already procured them. However, resources were scarce, the communities poor and the means of communication relatively primitive. While one would not have thought of a North-South divide, like we have been taught and experience, there was a sense that higher density non-nationalist areas in Ulster Province were a bit different than say Sligo, most of Cavan or West Donegal (Ulster). These were places that Tyrone people would travel to and know about and reference to measure their own place in the world. The differences were subtle but not as concrete, from what I could gather, than I would have experienced in my lifetime.

Being canny, the old man never mentioned anyone of those who prepared to do battle. Never. He just said these people never got their chance due to many factors.

Many nationalist and non-nationalist attitudes in the six, especially about the 26 counties, are slowly changing and the wariness et. al. is disappating. OTOH, it seems that there is some outside the six (from a Northern perspective) that show their unmitigated glee that things are the way they are these days. It seems they would map their own limited experience (and all too often neo-liberal ideology) onto all of our chequered histories – sort of like reversing or extending the exclusionary principle. Those who are or were excluded from one perspective often see a new exclusionary principle at work.

Of course, the ultimate exclusionary principle, class, is always at work.

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10. Kieran Glennon - September 9, 2016

I meant to reply to the original post before now, so apologies for the delay.
I think there’s two aspects to the previous silence around the War of Independence in the north, you could characterise them as “southern silence” and “northern silence”.
The southern silence may have been partly to do with guilt for abandoning the fourth green field, but I reckon it’d be more accurate to say that talking about the WoI in the north would’ve created awkward dissonance with the foundation narrative of the southern state, which basically said “We won. We fought the Tans to a standstill and got our freedom.” Two reasons why this jarred? Firstly, because the fighting in the north continued for about a year after the Truce of July 1921 and secondly, because the northern IRA that fought the WoI was beaten. Using either the Truce or the Treaty as the end of the WoI is convenient in southern terms because it avoids the whole messiness of the Civil War, so they’re treated as two separate wars. The north doesn’t fit that, either in terms of timeline or in terms of victory.
So despite the fact that the northern IRA embarked on the same WoI as their southern comrades, before partition was even on the statute books, employed similar methods (arms raids, attacks on barracks, etc) and shared a common enemy in the RIC, the whole period is simply swept under a big convenient carpet labelled “The Pogrom.” A ghastly affair, to be sure, but nothing to do with the “four glorious years” down here.
On the other hand, the northern silence is obviously due to the fact that no-one really wanted to tell a story that ends in “We lost.” The story of HOW they lost couldn’t be told publicly, as the Stormont regime used to even suppress commemorations of the Easter Rising (see this post on the excellent Treason Felony blog https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2015/04/02/early-easter-rising-commemorations-in-belfast/), so it was only passed down orally – if at all.
I add that last rider because, having attended various conferences and events involving children and grandchildren of ‘20s northern IRA members, it’s remarkable how often you hear people saying “He never talked about it – except maybe with former comrades.” This even includes one of Frank Aiken’s sons, who I’ve met a couple of times.
The memoir industry that helped fuel the southern narrative of the WoI, with books from the likes of Tom Barry, Dan Breen, Ernie O’Malley and so on, or the such-and-such-county’s Fighting Story series, were never likely to have northern variants. The majority of the northern IRA leadership remained in bitter exile in the south afterwards, while others like my granda who did eventually return to Belfast, kept their heads firmly down.
Part of that relates to the sheer horror of those years, particularly in Belfast but also along the border. Comparing body counts is a crude and ugly way to go about it, but all of us on here grew up with the more recent Troubles, in which around 3500 people died across the whole of the north over the space of roughly thirty years. From 1920-22 just under 500 people were killed in a mere two years just in Belfast – that rate of killing, achieved with far more primitive weapons, would have resulted in 15,000 deaths in Belfast alone over thirty years. Why would you want to revisit that, when the memory was so painful and so recent?
I would differ with a view that says the northern IRA supported the Treaty. It would be more accurate to say that they adhered to the pro-Treaty side in the Civil War, but that wasn’t out of any particular conversion to the joys of partition. God love him, even Joe McKelvey, later executed in Mountjoy, initially told Collins and Griffith he’d accept the Treaty, subject to conditions which Collins accepted. Not for the first time, Collins talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.
The northerners stuck with the pro-Treaty leadership mainly because the latter came up with a more generous offer of guns and ammunition than the anti-Treaty side could match – it was an auction and Eoin O’Duffy outbid Rory O’Connor. Then you get into the whole shambles of the May 1922 northern offensive, or “northern rising”, and you end up with the O/C of the Belfast Brigade, and his brother the adjutant of the Antrim Brigade, both in the Free State army during the Civil War, both fighting anti-Treaty Republicans in Kerry and Wicklow respectively. Not so glorious, and best forgotten, and all a bit awkward if you’re descended from Roddy McCorley who was out in ‘98.
Two things that I think are notable in relation to the telling of the story of the WoI in the north that has begun to emerge in recent years – see Brian’s list above, to which, apart from Eamon Phoenix’s “Northern Nationalism”, you could also add Alan Parkinson’s “Belfast’s Holy War”.
Firstly, these works only began to appear after the signing of the GFA; I do think that while the Troubles were still ongoing, revisiting the 1920s just wasn’t a likely prospect; even Jim McDermott’s book, the first to tell the story of the “good old IRA” in Belfast, was published by a distinctly non-mainstream publisher – the more mainstream or academic publishers were still very hands-off.
Secondly, there is still a general reluctance on the part of southern historians to engage with this period – apart from Robert Lynch who is based at a university in Stirling in Scotland, all the other authors Brian named are (or in my case, were) northerners. Apart from Brian, Eunan O’Halpin of TCD, who is also northern in terms of family background, is the only southern-based one to show even the remotest interest.
I think that’s somewhat telling in itself.

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Kieran Glennon - September 9, 2016

@ gendjinn There’s a bookshop on the York Road in Belfast, they’re on Twitter at @BelfastBooks, I believe they have copies of Jimmy McDermott’s book at far less eye-watering prices than what you mentioned.

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