By John O'Mahony
When Fianna Fail comes to power in March 1932 (it is dependent on Labour votes in the Dail for the first of its unbroken 16 years in power), De Valera opens the jails and releases the Republican prisoners. Banned organisations are unbanned. One of the first acts of De Valera's Lieutenant Sean Lemass, now a Minister, is to visit Republican prisoners to tell them they are being released.
There is now an upsurge of Republicanism, rendered triumphalist by Fianna Fail's victory. The Stalinist-Republican Frank Ryan coins the slogan: "No free speech for traitors". They start to attack meetings of the ex-government party.* The ex-government party, in response, begins to organise its own "IRA", the Army Comrades Association.
De Valera immediately stops the payment of the farmers' mortgage money ("land annuities") to Britain. Britain retaliates by banning imports of Irish beef, and takes other hostile economic measures. An "Economic War" develops between Britain and the 26 Counties.
The accumulation of marketless cattle allows De Valera to give free meat to the poor. Such measures, and stopping the farmers' repayments to Britain (the farmers paid a lesser sum to the Dublin government instead) built up popular support for Fianna Fail.
Fianna Fail's politics amounted to a lesser, poorer, version of the US's "New Deal", which started a year after Fianna Fail came to power.
The Blueshirt fascist challenge
Britain's ban on Irish beef threatens the big farmers ("the ranchers"), represented by the ex-government party Cumman Na Gael, with ruin. The result is that the Army Comrades Association becomes the nucleus of a mushrooming, soon blue-shirted, fascist party of the southern European, clerical-fascist type. When De Valera dismisses the long-time chief of police, Eoin O'Duffy, they have a ready-made Il Duce, Taoiseach, chief. The ex-government party sinks itself in the new movement. Overnight Irish fascism has sprung up fully formed, a contender for state power. They have the backing of the princes of the Church, who raise a great hue and cry against the danger of "communism" lurking inside the Republican left. De Valera is depicted as a "Kerensky", an unstable bridge towards Republican-Communist revolution.
They were odd fascists as the species went then. They advocated "free speech", in the first place their own; they were less nationalistic than either the government or the IRA; they had imposed "Britain's treaty" in a cruel civil war and been allied to Britain during their years of power. To many, during the "Economic War", they seem to be Britain's ally still.
Faced with a militant fascist opposition for two years - it quickly fell apart: the old Free State party reconstituted itself as Fine Gael - De Valera relies on the IRA for unofficial paramilitary auxiliary support. The IRA and the labour movement spearhead the fight against the fascists in the streets - until the government feels strong enough to do without their support.
Republicanism in power
What did Republicanism represent now that one of its post-Civil War segments was the government and the IRA was not, in political terms, significantly different?
The dominant - "rational" - Republicanism now was that of Fianna Fail. "Fianna Failers with guns" was no misrepresentation of the political position of the IRA.
De Valera's government sets about rearranging relations between the 26 Counties and Britain along the lines De Valera had advocated in 1921/22. Instead of Dominion Status within the British empire, they work for De Valera's "external association". They get rid of the British-appointed Governor General; they fight the Economic War with Britain to a state of limited conflict by the mid-'30s, and to a full agreement with Neville Chamberlain's government in 1938. Under the 1938 agreement, the last British naval bases in the south are handed over to the Free State. When the British king Edward abdicates to marry Wallis Simpson, De Valera seizes the chance to abolish the Oath of Allegiance to the king.
After a referendum, De Valera codifies his constitutional changes in the December 1937 Constitution. This claims the whole island as the "national territory", including the Protestant-Unionist parts, but also recognises a "special place" for the Catholic Church in the state.
De Valera can now truly describe the Irish Free State as "a republic, externally associated with the British empire". He has achieved the political alternative for which, insofar as the Civil War can be reduced to clear-cut politics, the Republicans had rejected the Treaty.
In justice, it should be said that the 1931 Statute of Westminster, which made these things legally possible, was in part the result of efforts made by the Irish government in the 1920s to expand what Michael Collins, championing the 1921-2 Treaty, had called "the freedom to win freedom".
De Valera's New Economic Policy
Arthur Griffiths' original monarchical Sinn Fein had advocated building up Irish industry behind high tariffs. Though Britain maintained a policy of free trade until 1931, and most likely would not have retaliated then, (other dominions had tariffs) nothing was done about it until De Valera came to power.
Now, in a crisis-ridden world of intensifying economic nationalism, De Valera implements the old Sinn Fein policy. Small industries are created in the economic space made for them by high taxes against imports of competing foreign goods - including those of Northern Ireland. (The unfortunate corollary is that Irish goods so nourished can not compete outside Irish markets - but that will not matter much until after the Second World War.)
The ideal of both governmental and semi-oppositionist Republicanism is a mainly self-sufficient Ireland of peasant homesteads and small workshops and factories - a Gaelic Ireland and a Catholic Ireland.
The rule of a cultural sect
The Gaelic language is the language only of certain very poor and economically unviable areas in the west, the Gaeltachts. Its revival has been proclaimed one of the great "national goals". Gaelic is the official language of the state. But English is the native language of most Irish people.
For at least a quarter century, under Cumman Na Gael and under Fianna Fail, elementary schools use Irish as a vehicle for teaching many subjects to children whose native language, like that of their parents and grandparents, is English. Certain ultra-important subjects such as religion and commerce are taught in English…
The national schools - those not staffed by religious teaching orders - had been one of the great nurseries of nationalism, but the teachers' union at conferences vainly protested against this system. Its main victims were the poor: Gaelic became a hurdle to higher education and a precondition for all central and local government jobs, even road-sweeping.* Meanwhile, the number of native Gaelic-speakers declined continuously as people migrated. By the '40s and '50s the best exponents of traditional Gaelic music and singing were to be found on building sites and factories in London and elsewhere in England. The great Gaelic singer Seosamh Ó h Éanaí (Joe Heaney) was, for example, a doorman in London.
National oppression of a people by forcing a foreign language on it is a very common experience. It is hard to know what to call the language policy of the Irish state for its own people if not a perverse form of national/cultural oppression. It did not succeed in reviving Gaelic. The Catholic part of the ideal was easier to arrange. The Protestant population of the south declined continuously in the decades after independence; the border walled the others off.
The Republican Congress
Move on now to 1934. The predominance of Fianna Fail and its success in achieving what could be achieved, to move towards enlarged independence, and doing it legally and politically, has marginalised the IRA. It will do it further. Politically the medium-term result of the victories of De Valera Republicanism in the 26 Counties will be that the IRA will focus more and more on "the North". Force against the north is ruled out by the IRA, as by De Valera. In 1934 the first result of the IRA's political marginalisation is that some of the leftist IRA leaders conclude that they must now define themselves more clearly and more narrowly: proclaim the need for a Workers' Republic.
Their motion to that effect fails narrowly at the IRA Convention in 1934, and its advocates walk out, issuing a call for the convocation of a "Republican Congress". Their call says that a Workers' Republic should be the goal the Republican Congress sets for itself. Truly, that was the only way to rescue the revolutionary elements, who were drowning politically in the broad currents of Republicanism, and prevent revolutionary Republicanism developing as it did develop - into political incoherence and mysticism, substituting for politics a proto-Christian sado-masochistic cult of guns, self-sacrifice, blood and death. But by the time Congress meets at Mullingar later that year, most of the leaders - Ryan, O'Donnell, the two Gilmore brothers - have changed their minds.
The Communist Party of Ireland, which greatly influences them and takes a prominent role in the Republican Congress, is not of the Workers' Republic mind. The Irish Stalinists believe in a two-stage revolution: first "complete the bourgeois revolution", then the Workers' Republic - socialism. The successes of De Valera is undermining this position too. The result will be that "completing the bourgeois revolution" comes to be identified solely with ending partition. But this is not so yet. Stalinism and Stalino-Republicanism will from that point on be a bedrock of ideological support for cross-class Republicanism. At the 7th World congress of the Communist International - mid-1935 - CPI Secretary Sean Murray self-criticises the Party for initially being too critical of De Valera. In subsequent decades they will compensate for that!
In 1934 the Stalinists form the right wing of the Republican Congress - the most bitter opponents of the Workers' Republic as the goal to proclaim. In Northern Ireland, the CP preaches socialism to Protestant workers; but their position in Ireland "as a whole" is that "the bourgeois revolution has not yet been completed". We will later have to discuss the role of the CPI and its successors in Republicanism in some detail.
At its first national gathering, the Republican Congress splits between those advocating a Workers' Republic as the up-front objective and the majority of the leaders who now think "The Republic" is still the "high ground" on which to rally a big national "anti-imperialist" movement. Their problem is that Fianna Fail holds that ground.
This policy could mean nothing but that they - both Stalinist-Republicans and plain CPI Stalinists - would assume the position of "more advanced" Fianna Failers and critics of Fianna Fail, a Fianna Fail ginger group. Once Fianna Fail has made its constitutional changes, the "left" populist Republicans can have nothing but increasingly ill-defined nationalism and a - now platonic - mysticism of violence to sustain them. Peader O'Donnell would continue to write, not often about politics.
The Workers' Republic left wing of the Republican Congress - it included James Connolly's daughter Nora and his son Rory - disappeared too, some into the Labour Party. Nora Connolly had contact with Trotsky in the mid-'30s. Perhaps 200 left-wing Republicans went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, where half of them died.
The IRA and southern labour
Below the great political generalities, what was the IRA? Let us look at what it was in the 1930s in one area, Clare, and particularly in one town, Ennis, part of Eamonn De Valera's constituency. We are not, in this excursion, in which we will look at the labour movement in that town, wandering off the subject: we are trying to bring the IRA of that time and of such places, and the sort of people who joined it, into clearer focus. Republicanism is strong in Ennis, but Republicanism has become De Valerism. Alongside De Valera's Fianna Fail there is a "die-hard" IRA in the town. The last three of the 77 prisoners of war shot during the 1922-23 civil war after a pseudo-trial (others were killed without "trial"), Quinn, Mahoney and Shaughnessy, had died in Ennis. There is a "Republican plot" in the cemetery at Drumcliffe. In the 1930s, thousands march annually to do homage at the graves of the three martyrs.
Clare is a county of owner-occupier farms and shops in which most of the population is either self-employed or works for relatives in a family enterprise, shop or farm. The proletariat, people with nothing but their labour power to sell, is a small part of the population, largely confined to towns such as Ennis and the small port of Kilrush to the south. The class structure in these towns is caste-rigid.
A useful sociological study of Clare and of Ennis exists, made by two US social anthropologists, Solon Kimball and Conrad Arensberg in the 1930s. At the bottom in the town is a class of labourers, dependent for the most part on irregular work - building work, cattle drovering, all sorts of odd jobs. The "labour aristocracy" is made up of people with steady jobs and regular incomes - labourers in the bigger stores, railway workers...
A lot of them are pre-literate (the 26 Counties did not get an effective compulsory Education Act until 1926). They live in one-storey houses along the no-longer-used quays on the River Fergus - leading to the broad Shannon two miles away which leads to the sea - and in roads starting at the edge of the town - Drumbiggle, Turnpike, Old Mill Street, Boreen. These houses are officially described by the council as "hovels", without water or sanitation, without lighting other than paraffin lamps or cooking facilities other than the open fire; some are subject to annual flooding. They will be described as hovels again and again for decades, and nothing done about it. Some of them will be cleared away only in the '70s.
These are proud people, condemned to endless humiliation, quick to take offense and willing where they can to avenge themselves. They care how they appear in each others' eyes and in their own. The poverty of this proletarian underclass is dire and permanent. There are big families and bigger clans of extended families in the streets of "hovels", much sporting competition - hurling teams from the different streets and districts - and some feuding. Somehow out of this bonding together in families, hurling teams, named local clubs that hunt on foot with local packs of beagles, card schools and street patriotism, a magnificent culture of labour solidarity has developed. They have their own one-town trade union, the Ennis United Labourers' Union, with about 500 members (the population of the town is 5-6,000). Where you might expect savage competition for the little work there is, there has grown up the opposite - a culture of working class solidarity. In the period 1932-34, in the euphoria around the change of government, this takes the form of labour demonstrations that will lead to a mass trial of 24 pickets and a three-day General Strike in the town.
Much of the work the labourers get is from the council, repairing roads, or breaking stones (by hand at the side of the road) for road-making. Every December in the '20s and '30s there is a labourers' march and demonstration to the council to petition for two weeks' Christmas relief work so that they "can have a Christmas dinner". Labour disputes are often about the demand for the employment of union-only labour on such jobs. When a job starts at a quarry in Fountain, a couple of miles outside the town, half or more of the union's members form up behind their fife and drum band at nine o'clock in the morning and march the hilly roads up to the quarry, to recruit those employed there into the union. Representatives of the union go into the quarry, the rest stay in the road. When some of the quarry workers refuse to join the union, others come in from the road and fighting starts. Out of this incident will come the trial of the 24.
A small housing estate is due to be built at Ard na Greine and a small group of men are sent from the - newly opened - Labour Exchange to start digging foundations. Some workers there are not EULU members. The union members refuse to work with them. The job is closed down. Not long after, the job starts again with new men sent from the Labour Exchange. The union insists that this work belongs by right to the first group of workers, who had effectively been sacked. This is now a dispute about whether the union or the Labour Exchange and the employer will control the supply of labour. The union tells the new men sent by the Labour Exchange not to take the jobs. The workers accept the union's judgement. Another group is sent from the Labour Exchange to take their place. They too stand by the rights of the first group to the jobs - and for the right of the union to control these matters.
A big effort of imagination is necessary for even badly-off people of today if they are to put themselves in the place of these men and understand the tremendous guts and commitment to labour solidarity which they showed. They had nothing to fall back on, families to care for; there was not more than the beginnings of a welfare state - everything that might go to creating in them a "F. you Jack" self-centredness; the sort of situation that led dockers in Britain and Ireland, before they organised themselves in a union, to fight each other with fists, clubs and boots every morning for the chance of half a day's work. Yet they stuck to the union.
The upshot is a three-day General Strike involving about a thousand workers backed by labourers from the surrounding towns - and victory! A false victory. The County Council agrees to the union demand that work should go only to union members. A few months later the Dublin Government ministry will "overrule" the council...
Two months before the General Strike, on Christmas Eve 1933, 26 members of the EULU are arrested. Twenty-four are sent for trial on charges of conspiracy and assault in connection with the mass picket at the Fountain quarry. About half of those charged are from one of the roads of "hovels" - Old Mill Street. It is an attempt to put an end to the eruption of "Larkinism" in the town by state coercion and intimidation. In April 1934 the jury acquits the 24 men, despite the efforts of the judge, who had come close to an instruction to convict.
And where is the IRA? Right in the heart of it. It was from such people that the IRA mainly recruited. The EULU secretary, Michael Glynn, has two sons, Patrick and James, in the IRA. In 1934, James is shot dead in O'Connell Street, coming out of a meeting of the IRA club, by a blueshirt fascist, McNamara. A memorial meeting will be held by the union for its member, James Glynn. About the same time, James' brother, Paddy, is brought to court after some conflict with a policeman. The IRA does not recognise the "Free State courts." Paddy Glenn - who held the rank of captain in the local IRA - stands by his principles, refuses to recognise the court and is automatically jailed. He will spend almost as long in jail as will the blueshirt, McNamara, (who got 18 months) for killing his brother, James Glen. Such people are serious about their rejection of the state and the establishment, even with De Valera in power. The blueshirts too are strong in the area. The Bishop of Killaloe, Dr Fogarty, sits on blueshirt platforms; the clergy recruit for them. The union, like the IRA, is active in the fight against the blueshirts. That too involves sacrifices. For example, men who work regularly, cattle drovering from fairs for a "big farmer" who is blueshirt - as most of them are - will either "put on a blue shirt" or not be employed again.
The labourers vote Labour Party - there is a Labour TD for the area, Paddy Hogan, who had contributed a couple of pieces to James Connolly's Workers' Republic before 1916 and in the '30s is on the left side of the LP - and Fianna Fail. But what can they hope to do politically? In almost all of the 26 Counties, Labour is in a not too different situation from Labour in Ennis - a minority in a bourgeois and petty-bourgeois world. The precious seeds of a better world, labour solidarity, can grow abundantly as it does, but its possibilities are limited by the objective conditions of the working class. The struggle to make all council jobs union jobs is in its way an epic struggle, but for a small objective - not "some Hampden in his little fields", but Larkins in their little town and little one-town union.
Socialism is subjected to a permanent barrage of outright condemnation from the church. Nationalism and Catholicism lock them into a world outlook held in common with priests, small bourgeois, big farmers and enjoins them to accept their place. There is much working class anger and resentment. But such anger has nowhere to go politically in an Irish state from which the big battalions of the working class on the island have been severed by politics, religion and the partition border. The IRA in the south is, at this stage, the lower orders revolutionary movement that corresponds to this unripe social condition.
There is a bitter negativism towards the existing state; there is a condition of war or great tension with the Church even though the IRA member would almost always at this period be devoutly Catholic - their own understanding of Catholicism no matter what the bishops and priests say: which is a protestantising contradiction in terms; there is dissatisfaction with the condition of society and with their place in it, but no coherent acceptable alternative, no goals but small ones that can be plausibly formulated within their situation; there is no revolutionary working class movement, and the fraudulent substitute there is, the Stalinist organisations, are stigmatised with the mark of Satan, and can only get a hearing disguised as Irish nationalists; there is the mystique of violence and of the gun - which in such a context ceases to be a means to an end, a mere tool, and becomes a fetish, something in itself possessing magical power, and looked to as a substitute for clear social and class goals. That is what Republicanism is in the small towns and villages of the south. "The Republic" is an absolute, something beyond their own world, something immaculate: no wonder De Valera's practical steps taken towards realising the mundane real constituents of a real, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois republic, does not impinge - or not immediately - too much on the attitudes of many "die-hard" Republicans.
On the ground, amongst the town and country labourers in the '30s, who made up the rank and file of the IRA in the south, are social revolutionaries - without the prospect of making a revolution. Take a particular case, Michael Scanlon. Scanlon will be a life-long Republican in this town. (He died a few years ago, a supporter, I understand, of the Provisional IRA.) If the Irish are the black people of Europe, the tinkers (travellers is their preferred term) are the black people of Ireland, lower by far than even the labourers of such a caste-ridden small town as this. "Tinkers" are persecuted, driven from pillar to post, harried and routinely batoned and beaten by the police, and by vigilantes. They are jailed for begging, for trespassing, for fighting, for being drunk - for being. A couple of baton-swinging Guards have arrested an elderly drunk tinker, Martin Faulkner. A 19 year old youth steps out from the watching, amused crowd and harangues them: "Come on, let's save the tinker!" Michael Scanlon. He tries to do it himself, and winds up in court, which is how we have an account of it. Scanlon will spend the years of World War Two in an internment camp in Kildare, taken out of the town under armed guard on an open fenced-in lorry full of people like himself. He returned and helped rebuild the movement in the '50s.
Republicans and the North
Move to January 1939. We have now entered into the world of what might be called "Post-De Valera Constitution Republicanism". After the 1934 split with the Republican Congress people, the IRA is still a force, and still legal. Blue-shirt fascism has fallen apart. De Valera has won at least the tolerance of the larger bourgeoisie and the church. He no longer frightens them. He is no longer seen as a "Kerensky". Keeping the balance, in 1936 he bans the IRA.
His biggest blow at them, though, is the 1937 Constitution and all the achievements that it sums up. Die-hard Republicanism is thrown into a raison d'être crisis. What is it? What should it do? What can it do? Central leaders such as Sean McBride give up and fade out. The great unfulfilled goal of Republicanism now is "national unity", all-Ireland unity. That is least of all likely to come from the IRA with its anti-politics and its mystique of violence.
There are two Northern Irelands - the sizable areas bordering the 26 Counties, with a Catholic-Nationalist majority, and the Protestant heartlands of north-east Ulster. De Valera believes that coercion could at best only succeed in shifting the border northwards and east; the Protestant heartlands could not be won that way. Picking up the threads of the pre-1914 Home Rule Party's policy for Irish unity - rely on Britain to get the Protestants into a united Ireland - De Valera defines the intra-Irish divisions as Britain's responsibility. Irish unity is to be got from Britain - British persuasion, British pressure on the Irish Unionists. The Catholic majority areas on the border are arguably "British occupied Ireland", but the British "garrison" in most of Northern Ireland is the Protestant-Unionist Irish. The line that Britain is mainly responsible, that the Six Counties is just "British occupied Ireland" and not "Irish-British occupied Ireland", is used to cloak and mystify the primary reality of intra-Irish division. Mystification about British occupied Ireland grows out of and is nourished by Republican bafflement: "persuasion" would not work and coercion was not desirable - and it wouldn't "work" either. An external magic-working cure is sought where there is, immediately, no internal cure.
The malign influence of this mystification will echo down to the end of the 20th century.
The IRA and "British-occupied Ireland"
In the discussion in the IRA leadership about what to do, which now develops, Tom Barry, a hero of the War of Independence and its most successful soldier, advocates that they should invade Northern Ireland across the border. Border custom huts had been burned to "celebrate" the coronation of George VI in 1937. The other side, led by Sean Russell, who has the backing of key US-based Republicans, proposes that they declare war not on the North, but on England. Both proposals are equally fantastic. The Russellites win control and their opponents retire in disgust.
Early in 1939 the IRA give Britain an ultimatum to vacate "British-occupied Ireland", and soon launch a feeble but bloody bombing campaign in England.
"Modern" Republicanism has taken full shape - focused on Northern Ireland, rejecting politics; glorifying military action and the mystique of blood; resting on the central delusion that partition is only a matter of British occupied Ireland, regarding Britain in Northern Ireland as both chief villain and potential miracle worker. The militarist Republicans embody the nationalist ethos, mythology and stated goals of the 26 County state - and regarding Northern Ireland, of the '37 Constitution - adding to it only their own recipe for what to do.
Republicanism and Nazi Germany
Move now to 1945. Republicanism has been ground down to almost nothing. The IRA war again Britain had led them to kill a few British citizens - a woman in Coventry was cut in two by flying glass in an unintended explosion - and had made the perpetrators seem to be senseless maniacs. It was a no-hope gesture.
But "Britain's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity". Britain's enemy is Ireland's ally. So the IRA sought an alliance with Nazi Germany. In principle, representatives of an oppressed nation, if that is how you define Sean Russell and his friends, have a right to ally even with the Devil, on one condition - that it makes political sense. The idea that Nazi German victory over Britain would help Ireland become a free all-Ireland Republic was political idiocy - politically immoral idiocy, even if the idiotic calculation were correct, because of the price in other people's enslavement and destruction - the British included - which such an "Irish" "victory" over England would entail. Real Irish Republicanism is a democratic creed [see, for example, the Fenian Manifesto in WL57]: this was the narrowest Irish chauvinism, not Irish Republicanism.
Essentially, Russell is an apolitical innocent, thinking in purely military terms: except that there is no such thing as politics-free militarism.
Yet it is not only the right wing of 1930s Republicanism that allies with England's fascist German enemy - so does the most anti-fascist of the left, the leader of the Republicans who had gone to the Spanish Civil War to fight fascism, Frank Ryan, no less! Ryan is rescued from a Francoite jail, where he would probably have been killed by his fascist captors, as a result of the intervention of the German secret service, intent on using the IRA against Britain. In the early '30s, the IRA - to judge from their paper An Phoblacht - had connections with German nationalists. Now Ryan becomes a guest of the Nazi regime, where he works as a news analyst for the Germans and also as an unofficial representative - using the official Irish diplomatic channels - of De Valera in Germany!
When they "sprung" Ryan from his Francoite jail, the German-Russian alliance [August 1939-June 1941] was, seemingly, thriving. That event must have impacted oddly on the consciousness of a Stalinist-Republican who had travelled far from home to fight fascism, and had barely escaped a Francoite bullet. In any case Ryan will work with the Germans until he dies, peacefully, in 1944.
The 26 Counties opts to be neutral in the war, thus demonstrating conclusively, if it still needs demonstrating, that it is now a fully independent state. The IRA pulls off a spectacular but ultimately suicidal coup, capturing the main Irish army arsenal in Dublin and removing enormous quantities of weapons. The organisation is crushed in the crackdown which follows.
Republicans are jailed in the Curragh Internment Camp, and subjected to courts martial which impose the death penalty. Believing that the state cannot maintain neutrality if it allows a group of citizens to declare and wage private wars and enter into private military alliances, De Valera's ruling Republican regime kills and ill-treats their intractable political kith and kin. In the north, Republicans are openly pro-Axis. They are jailed as in the south, though in general they are less savagely treated. The IRA's German allies had contingency plans to invade Ireland (so had the British and the Americans). There is no reason to doubt that had they landed they would have exploited the divisions in Ireland as they exploited the Flemish-Walloon conflict in Belgium and used Croats against Serbs in Yugoslavia. Given the chance, would not the IRA have collaborated with them against the British-Irish? What that would have meant is not pleasant to contemplate.
The '50s campaign
Move forward 12 years to 1957. By now the once-new economic approach of Fianna Fail has led to murderous economic stagnation. The population of the 26 Counties is slightly under three million: 1,000 emigrants a week are leaving. In 1958 Fianna Fail will begin to dismantle the quarter-century old attempt at autarky and begin to open the economy to more international economic connections.
The IRA, smashed during the Second World War by Fianna Fail has laboriously been reconstituted. It has a monthly 12 page paper called The United Irishman - a very dull, mind-dead publication devoted to commemorating the events and the heroes of the past. The IRA's ideal remains the anachronistic one of small-island self-sufficiency - Fianna Fail's bankrupt and soon-to-be-discarded policy. It is deeply and piously Catholic. It is concerned with only one thing: freeing "British occupied Ireland." It is for boycotting all three parliaments: London, Belfast and Dublin. It exists to prepare the men and the weapons to "renew" the war with England. Flesh of the 26 County establishment's flesh and bone of its bone, the IRA/Sinn Fein has been boosted by the campaign against partition (partition seen as only a British imposition) which De Valera, out of office, launched in 1949. In the same year, a coalition government, in which the main force was Fine Gael, had renamed De Valera's 1937 Constitution-Ireland a Republic and formally left the British Commonwealth. Privately, De Valera thought that a mistake, raising more barriers between north and south. Britain had responded with legislation guaranteeing Six County membership of the British state so long as the majority there desired it. So De Valera took the anti-partition trail. De Valera had no weapon but propaganda blaming Britain for sustaining a Unionist regime in Belfast that ill-treated Northern Irish Catholics. In relation to this, the 1950s Republicans will be "Fianna Failers" prepared to try the gun.
But everything is becoming topsy-turvy here too. In 26 County schools and in the official ideology of the state, Irish Nationalism and Catholicism are taught as virtually facets of one religion - the cause of Ireland is the cause of Catholicism and the cause of Catholicism is the cause of Ireland.*
The state which inculcates those ideas then jails, interns and has killed the young men who act independently to secure the common objective. Dominic Behan's song, "The Patriot Game", about an adolescent Republican, Fergal O'Hanlan, shot dead on a cross-border raid in January 1957, poignantly sums this up (Behan was a Stalinist Republican):
My name is O'Hanlon and I'm just gone sixteen
My home is in Monaghan, 'twas there I was weaned
I was taught all my life cruel England to blame
They soon made me part of the patriot game
They told me how Connolly was shot in a chair
His fine body twisted, wounds bleeding and bare
And yet De Valera is greatly to blame
For shirking his part in the patriot game
I don't mind a bit if I shoot down police
They're lackeys of war, never guardians of peace
But yet at deserters I'm never let aim
Those quislings who sold out the patriot game.**
Formally, the IRA is apolitical. Inevitably, it is all of a piece with the deeply right wing Catholic consciousness of the 26 Counties and, as we will see, parts of it are far worse than that.
Faheyites and heros
The 1950s is a time when Catholic Irish provincial papers - in Clare, for example - run editorials lamenting the state of a world in which Tito's godless Yugoslavia could be a member of the United Nations while holy General Franco's Spanish Catholic regime is excluded, and in which so many of "the holy places" of Palestine have fallen into the hands of the Jews. In so far as the fifties IRA, or parts of it, differ from the consensus right wing politics of Catholic Ireland, it is in that they travel deeper into certain common lines of thought.
A spectrum of Sinn Fein and the IRA (once again two sides of one coin) are members of an organisation called Maria Duce - Maria as in the Virgin Mary, Christ's mother; Duce as in Il Duce - run by a Hitlerite priest, Denis Fahey! He preaches against the evils of financial capital, that is "Jewish Capital". He preaches against the Jews, the evil geniuses of the world. He edits and revises Waters Flaming Eastwards by L Fry, which, denouncing Zionism at length, includes an English language edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious forgery put out by the Tsarist political police, which one writer has aptly called "a warrant for genocide".
Fahey has written and still circulates crazy anti-Jewish tracts like The Rulers of Russia (1938), which, with copious quotations from others of his own mind, proves that the Jews - who also control finance capital - rule in Russia. (And Trotsky's Fourth International is a mere part of the Communist division of labour).
"'Stalin's government, in spite of all its attempts at camouflage, has never been and will never be, a national government. Israel will always be the controlling power and driving force behind it. Those who do not see that the Soviet Union is not Russian must be blind.'
"Trotsky and Stalin, though hating each other, are both being employed in their appointed roles. Trotsky has been excluded from the executive board which is to put over the New Deal concocted for Soviet Russia and the Communist Third International. He has been given another, but not less important, duty of directing the Fourth International.
"Whatever bloodshed may take place in the future will not be provoked by the Soviet Union, or directly by the Third International, but by Trotsky's Fourth International, and by Trotskyism. Any violent disorders and bloodshed which Jewish internationalists decide to provoke will not be traced back to Moscow but to Trotsky-Bronstein."
Nor was Fahey an isolated crank. The Rulers of Russia was published by the Holy Ghost Missionary College Kimmage, Dublin where Fahey was Professor of Philosophy and Church History. His pamphlets were issued under the imprimatur of Bishops. (Waters Flaming Eastward was published by Briton's Publications, London.)
Young Republicans who were "Faheyites" included Sean South of Limerick, whose death on the border on New Year's day 1957 made him a famous hero, celebrated in a very popular song of the time. "Sean South of Garryowen" was a Maria Duce anti-semite.*
In a series of mid-'50s raids on British army depots the IRA sought to accumulate weapons and to recruit from the publicity. An Irish-based writer, the trade union official Matt Merrigan, in Labor Action, the paper of the Independent Socialist League USA, justly described this IRA as quasi fascist.
Invading the north
What should they do? Declare war on the English - that is bomb English cities - as in 1939? They decided against that and in favour of a variant of Tom Barry's strategy of 1939. They would invade the north. But how can they, a very small group. effectively "invade" Northern Ireland? They decide on a strategy of attacks along the border in mostly Catholic territory. The entire campaign will consist of border raids from the south, by 26 County people.
They decide to avoid conflict with 26 County state personnel, and not to fire on them in any circumstances. In part this is learning from the catastrophe of the early '40s: more importantly it is recognition of the south as an independent state.
Their intended war is war against the British state; in practice it becomes war against the RUC. The Catholic identity of the main IRA forces is still decently wrapped up in traditional Republicanism - the Protestant-Unionists are only misguided "children of the nation", corrupted by Britain.
This statement is made by Sean Geraghty, a member of an IRA splinter group in a southern court in mid-'56. It is fantastic in the circumstances. It is interesting because it was probably sincere. Geraghty and three others are charged with having guns and ammunition.
"On behalf of my comrades and myself I wish to state that any arms and ammunition found on us were to be used against the British forces of occupation to bring about the reunification of our country and no Irish man or woman of any political persuasion has anything to fear from us. We hold that it is legal to possess arms and also believe that it is the duty of every Irishman to bear arms in defence of his country."
An instruction manual for members of the same splinter group - that was led by Joe Cristle and Sean Geraghty - describes what they want to do. It is found in a raid on a 21-year old who has a sketch map - seemingly for an attack on a border post - on which he has scrawled: "Infiltrate, annihilate and destroy." (This is the man referred to in the footnote on this page). From the instruction manual:
"The resistance movement is the armed vanguard of the Irish people fighting for the freedom of Ireland. The strength of the movement consists in the popular patriotic character of the movement, the basic missions of local resistance units are the destruction of enemy installations and establishments, that is, TA halls, specials huts (the special police penhuts), BA recruiting offices, border huts, depots, etc….
"Attacks against enemy aerodromes, and the destruction of aircraft hangers, depots of bombs and fuel, the killing of key flying personnel and mechanics, the killing or capture of high-ranking enemy officers, and high officials of the enemy's colonial Government, and traitors to our country in their pay, that is British officers, police agents, touts, high members of the Quisling Party [the Unionists], etc."
This pixillated, militarist elitism deals with an imaginary Northern Ireland, in which most of the people who actually live there don't count for anything. The Cristle group were wild men, but the official Republicans would not have told the story differently.
It will be useful here to show how the 26 County establishment saw the activities of these Republicans. After a border raid on New Year's Day 1957, the Taoiseach, John F Costello, he who had declared the Republic in 1949, lamented in the Dail, the death of three young Irishmen, one of them an RUC man.
"Young men, some of them hardly more than boys, have been led by a small minority group of older men - experienced and ruthless men - who believe that they can end partition by destroying the lives of others and endangering their own lives and liberty, in violent forays into the Six County area… [if this is allowed to continue] there would be further bloodshed. There would be all the bitterness and hatred that bloodshed causes. There would be a hardening of resolve among Irishmen in the north east to remain divided from us, to rely upon support from another country and to give to that other country the loyalty that is Ireland's due… Peace and order would vanish. Our democratic institutions would be undermined and the hope of a united Ireland would be defeated - perhaps for ever." A few police barracks are attacked, a handful of people, police and raiders, are killed. Many Republicans are locked up in Northern Ireland and, in 1957, when the leader of political Republicanism, De Valera, comes back to power after three years in opposition, internment is reintroduced in the 26 Counties.
By 1958 the military campaign is effectively dead, capable of only an occasional spark. Arguably the most important effect of the "Border Campaign" has been the election of four Sinn Fein abstentionist TDs from Border Counties.
Quite a few disillusioned Republicans wash up in London. Some of them, such as Liam Daltun, Phil Flynn, Sean Geraghty and Gery Lawless, became involved in left-wing politics. Since the early '50s, there had been a critical Irish left in London, opposed to the Communist Party-Connolly Association line of backing Fianna Fail. It came to be influenced by Trotskyism when the Communist Party was thrown into crisis by the Russian suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Brian Behan, a member of the Executive Committee of the CPGB, who had criticised the lack of working-class politics in the CPGB's extensive work among Irish immigrants - through the Connolly Association - became a Trotskyist. The refugees from the IRA's military fiasco became part of that London Irish left.
How the organisers of the campaign ever thought they could achieve any of their objectives by border raids is incomprehensible to minds not high on the magic mystique of violence and gripped by the hopes of a "miraculous" political transformation, like that of 1916-18. Revolutionary action for them, as for the insurrectionary sects of France in the first half of the 19th century, had been only a matter of assembling enough guns and soldiers and then raising the banner of war. Assessment of objective conditions seems to have played no part. The survivors will learn from the CPGB a "better" approach.
The IRA war of the '50s was an almost a gentle, humane, restrained affair in that era of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62) and the Greek Cypriot war against Britain (1956-60). The Algerians bombed French civilians in cafes and in the streets on a large scale; the IRA tried to be careful not to provoke Protestant-Catholic clashes. All that would change forever in the "next round".
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