The IRA Disappeared Of The 1920’s: Gerry Adams vs. Niall Meehan

“The IRA of that period disappeared scores of alleged informers – men and women. It is claimed this number may be as high as 200.

“Following the conflict, there was no attempt to recover the remains – unlike republicans of this generation who have helped secure the return of 10 of the 15 who were secretly buried in the 1970s.”

The two sentences above are the takeaway from Gerry Adams’ latest post on his blog Leargas, entitled ‘The Good Old IRA’. In what a report on the Ulster Television website describes as a critique of political opponents in the South, Adams slates Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour opponents of Sinn Fein for their hypocrisy in condemning the IRA of the recent Troubles while lauding ‘the good old IRA’ of the 1920’s and leaders like Michael Collins.

Much of what the Sinn Fein president writes is indisputable and well worth repeating (in fact I remember Danny Morrison writing a pamphlet back in the 1980’s with the same title as Gerry Adams’ latest blog post): the old IRA, like its modern counterpart, did operate ‘kangaroo courts’, did execute informers, did import weapons from America, did rob banks and post offices and did levy taxes on civilians. In these important respects there was no difference in what Adams correctly calls “the brutality and violence” of the two groups. The founders of the Irish state had as much blood on their hands as the leaders of the Provisional IRA.

IRA members in West Cork, circa 1921

IRA members in West Cork, circa 1921

What he has to say about the old IRA ‘disappearing’ alleged informers is, however, a different matter. The historical evidence to support his assertion is, to say the least, strongly disputed. The only remotely reliable instance of any IRA victims being disappeared was in west Cork following the July 1921 Truce when, allegedly, unauthorised (by the national IRA leadership that is) killings and disappearances of suspected Anglo-Irish (i.e. Protestant) informers took place in circumstances which suggested old scores were being settled (although even this much is a matter of controversy and disagreement).

The allegation that the IRA of the 1920’s engaged in the same disappearing policy as its modern counterparts, that is a national policy endorsed by the IRA’s GHQ as opposed to unofficial and localised instances and implemented during the conflict not after it had ended, is a very new one. It was put forward as recently as March last year by Trinity College Dublin history professor Eunan O’Halpin in a two-part television documentary broadcast by TV3.

O’Halpin claimed that 200 alleged informers were killed and disappeared by the IRA of the Anglo-Irish war period and since Gerry Adams also cites the number ‘200’ as an estimate of those hidden away in secret graves during the 1920’s, it is reasonable to assume that the Sinn Fein leader is relying on O’Halpin for his evidence.

If so, then that creates a very interesting and, for Sinn Fein, delicate situation for Eunan O’Halpin’s thesis was comprehensively – perhaps brutally would be the better word – demolished by Niall Meehan, Faculty Head of Media and Journalism at Griffith College, Dublin.

Niall Meehan

Niall Meehan

Except Niall Meehan is not just an academic. He is a devoted and enthusiastic Sinn Fein supporter who some believe specialises in….how shall I put this?…..delicate, back room work on behalf of the party. Whatever the truth about that it would be no exaggeration to say that the Griffith College lecturer is nonetheless an important cog in the Sinn Fein machine.

None of this subtracts from his masterly, lengthy critique of O’Halpin’s thesis which can be summarised in a short, pithy sentence: it doesn’t pass the smell test.

But it does put Meehan in an awkward position vis-a-vis his leader who desperately needs to establish that what the modern IRA started to do in the summer of 1972 when Joe Lynskey was driven down to Monaghan town to meet his maker in an anonymous hole in the ground was no different from the behaviour of the founders of the modern Irish state.

And it raises an intriguing question: will Niall Meehan now withdraw his critique of O’Halpin in deference to his leader, or will he stand over it?

Anyway here is Niall Meehan’s take on Eunan O’Halpin. Readers can make up their own minds:

CORRECTION: I am reliably informed that it was the late Mick Timoney, editor of An Phoblacht at the time, who wrote the pamphlet ‘The Good Old IRA’ and not Danny Morrison.

7 responses to “The IRA Disappeared Of The 1920’s: Gerry Adams vs. Niall Meehan

  1. Thank you for drawing attention to my critique of the historical documentary, ‘In the Name of the Republic’ (TV3, 18, 25 March 2013), entitled ‘Gravely Mistaken History’ (at, academia.edu/3218006/).

    The assertion by Gerry Adams on his blog (leargas.blogspot.ie/), ‘It is claimed that this number [of disappeared bodies during the War of Independence] may be as high as 200’, is probably, as you suggest, based on the TV3 programme and its writer/presenter Professor Eunan O’Halpin’s views.

    It is curious that you do not claim Professor O’Halpin as the Sinn Féin leader’s historical advisor. Contrary to your speculations (and as the article you cite demonstrates), I play no role in the Sinn Féin party.

    If I did, I might suggest what follows to Gerry Adams and, now also, to you.

    The figure of 200 disappeared bodies arising from the War of Independence is probably an exaggeration. As my review put it:

    ‘It is possible to have evidence of named persons, for whom no bodies have been discovered. It is possible to have bodies with no names attached to them. In the name of the Republic had neither. What it did have was opinions for which no hard evidence was produced. In the absence of elementary information, O’Halpin’s category of ‘disappeared’ persons is quite possibly largely non-existent.’

    As I pointed out also, however, there are bodies from that era that have never been recovered, that have, in other words, disappeared:

    ‘Loyalist Mary Lindsay informed on the IRA’s planned January 1921 Dripsey Ambush [in Cork]. The British refused an offer to exchange her life for five sentenced to be shot IRA volunteers captured after the ambush was surrounded. Ambush commander Frank Busteed executed Lindsay after the British executions. Her missing remains are probably undiscoverable.’

    Similarly, I cited local historian Jim Fitzgerald in Cork, who questioned some tall stories on which the O’Halpin programme partly relied:

    ‘Fitzgerald regarded [former Fianna Fáil TD Martin] Corry as capable of ‘outlandish’ statements. He estimates that 10 to 15 bodies may be in the bog-land area [discussed in the programme] that is now wooded, and that 4 to 5 were possibly buried on Martin Corry’s farm.’

    If so, possibly they are still there. Therefore, Gerry Adams may be correct if he is suggesting that there are more bodies undiscovered from that period then from the more recent, longer lasting, Troubles.

    The title of Gerry Adams’ blog post, ‘The Good Old IRA’, is (as you intimate) probably taken from a pamphlet of the same name published in 1985, that I scanned and made available to the Cedar Lounge site:

    cedarlounge.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/good-old-ira-sf-publ-dept-1985.pdf

    Danny Morrison wrote the introduction. A letter originally published in the Irish Times, by An Phoblacht Editor the late Mick Timothy (not ‘Timony’, as you incorrectly correct yourself), was also included. A history student contributed the actual analysis. The pamphlet concentrated on what it saw as military similarities between the two periods, and between the two IRAs. It cited unfavourable media reporting to illustrate its argument.

    I critiqued that pamphlet (academia.edu/1994527/) in October 2012 and made it available online for two reasons.

    First, Paul Bew from Queen’s University Belfast remarked at a symposium on ‘Historians and Public History’ in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in June 2012:

    ‘It’s not Peter Hart …. It’s the Sinn Féin Publicity Bureau in Belfast, its Danny Morrison when they brought out The Good Old IRA pamphlet… nothing at all to do with Peter Hart.’

    Bew’s reference the late Peter Hart and his controversial analysis interested me (see, academia.edu/8348624/, ‘Examining Peter Hart’).

    Second, in an excellent discussion in a then recently published edited collection dedicated to Hart’s memory, Brian Hanley also mentioned the pamphlet (David Fitzpatrick, ed., ‘Terror in Ireland 1916-1923’ – my review, academia.edu/1871818).

    As I had thought about a role the ‘Good Old IRA’ pamphlet appeared to play in the imagination of some historians, including Hart’s, I decided it was a good time to explore the subject. Essentially, Hart’s historical analysis of the War of Independence in Cork is a transposition backwards of a view of the 1969-94 Troubles. My ‘Good Old IRA’ pamphlet critique concluded:

    ‘As [Brian] Hanley unwittingly intimates, this 1985 republican perception (which he calls ‘stirringly ‘revisionist’ stuff’, p.15) was a breach through which Peter Hart’s ulsterised conception of the 1918-21 period eventually entered. In it sectarianism became an all-Ireland phenomenon, one in which an argument for partition based on ethnic antagonism was advanced. It was an argument sustainable with weak to non-existent evidence that ignored astute contemporary understanding, such as RIC, then RUC, inspector John Regan’s observation that the further one travelled from Belfast, the less sectarianism there was, generally.’

    One similarity in the approach of some historians and contemporary commentators is that they tend to be IRA centred (or perhaps fixated) rather than society centred. They are therefore handicapped in their understanding of the multiplicity of forces and circumstances acting on all political/military actors. It leads to cartoon history and commentary.

    Since my work is (as indicated) online, it is available for evaluation as independent commentary. I hope this clarifies matters.

  2. Indeed, a reply by Eunan O’Halpin (EOH) is on the Pensive Quill site:
    ‘The 1920s Disappeared: The Real Question Not Addressed’
    http://thepensivequill.am/2014/11/the-1920s-disappeared-real-question-not.html

    (See also, my reply to Moloney, above)

    NM note:
    I reviewed EOH’s TV programme (which Ed Moloney commented upon), not his published research, the basis of his PensiveQuill reply. However, Eunan relied upon the same research for the TV programme that he appears to want now to ignore, On the programme, he said:

    ‘In 1920 and 1921 at least 200 people were abducted, executed and their bodies secretly disposed of by the IRA. These included over 180 civilians, as well as policemen and soldiers….’

    The statement is reproduced as a front piece to my review: academia.edu/3218006

    Now EOH says:
    ‘The Broken Elbow [Ed Moloney] asserts that I stated that ‘hundreds’ of alleged civilian spies were killed and secretly buried during the War of Independence, and that Niall Meehan has demolished this claim. Had I made such a claim, even so incorrigibly long-winded a writer as Mr Meehan might be able to show it was nonsense. But I did not.’

    In other words, according to Professor O’Halpin: ‘I made such a claim…. it was nonsense’.

    In his latest intervention EOH starts off by asserting that 70 documented spies were shot in cork.

    The figure appears largely non-contentious. There might be quibbles here and there. However, not content with that, EOH yet again puts forward former FF TD Martin Corry’s tall stories and a remark by Mick Leahy to Ernie O’Malley, that also featured in EOH’s TV programme:

    ‘One report I quoted came from E Company, 4th Battalion, Cork No. 1 Brigade, commanded by Martin Corry, later a Fianna Fáil TD. Corry claimed that ’some 27 Ennemy spies & Intelligence officers were captured … & duly executed’ by his Knockraha company up to the Truce.’

    O’Halpin then gives a strong hint that he is not sure of this account since he goes on: ‘Corry’s claim, if accurate…’

    He then states cites more testimony while also appearing to remain circumspect about it:

    ‘Martin Corry wrote that [Edward] Moloney [‘governor’ of IRA ‘Sing Sing’ prison, Knockraha, Cork – NM] handled over 150 prisoners of all kinds in Sing Sing, including civilians serving short sentences imposed by republican courts. Moloney said (interview with pensions board, 18 February 1939) that he received prisoners not only from Corry, but directly from IRA units in ‘Middleton, Carrigtwohill, Queenstown, and even from Mount Mellery’. ‘There was over 50 of them’, between ‘[army] officers, spies, Tans and IO[Intelligence Officers]s’. Amongst these he handled ‘about 50’ spies. Further research, some of it dependent on the release of further pensions records, will be needed to probe the reliability of these figures. But, combined with the evidence I have already cited from IRA testimonies such as those in the Ernie O’Malley papers – where, as published in Kelly and Lyons, I quote Mick Leahy of Cobh as telling O’Malley that ’90 spies were buried near Knockraha … an excellent place’ – it is highly likely that the actual figure for concealed IRA killings of civilians in East Cork is higher than previously accepted or published by me.’

    In his pension statement Moloney speaks of over 150 people from a variety of sources in his custody and ‘about 50’ spies.

    23 were allegedly British intelligence officers. What is EOH suggesting? Is he stating that these people were shot? What is his evidence? Where is the British acknowledgement that so many were killed? Did the British in the country as a whole lose that many intelligence officers during the conflict?

    Is EOH standing by this testimony as part of his argument? Is there more? Is EOH merely citing these assertions as evidence?

    In relation to civilian deaths, all EOH has to do is give us names of missing people and/or evidence of families inevitably searching for them, or the bodies themselves. He is unable to, it appears.

    EOH is in effect asserting: ‘here is my conclusion, I will now unearth evidence in support of it’.

    History is what the evidence compels us to believe. An assertion by Martin Corry or Mick Leahy is not evidence of what they assert, merely of the fact of their assertion. It is suggestive of more… but proof of more requires evidence, not yet more speculation calling for yet more research.

    In the absence of names of missing people, where are the bodies, or substantive evidence from other sources of their existence?

    ‘Further research …. will be needed’ seems to be the extent of EOH’s contribution, because, it appears, he has not actually done very much, apart from reading some pension statements, citing assertions in one, plus a remark in the O’Malley notebooks from Mick Leahy.

    The purpose of EOH’s assertions is to conclude that there was IRA paranoia and wild accusations of spying against innocent people, who they shot dead.

    Evidence, bodies, please?

    Habeas corpus.

  3. I think it fair to say that the lack of critical analysis of the tactics and morality of the earlier insurgent campaign at the beginning of the 20th century has had (at least ) 2 obvious consequences – firstly the glorification of the former campaign and secondly the failure by the latter insurgents (towards the end of the 20th century) to ensure that those unsavoury elements were not repeated – in so far as you can fight such a war against the British in the midst of a civilian population amongst whom are sizeable numbers (Unionists) who support the British presence.

    Some thoughts on these matters are covered in the link below.

    http://fitzjameshorselooksattheworld.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/the-ira-by-numbers-guest-post-by-sammy-mcnally/

  4. Pingback: Is This Proof That The IRA Disappeared People Before Jean McConville….? | The Broken Elbow

  5. Dear Niall, It seems the Sinn Féin connection /slur will follow you everywhere. It already exists in the mind of your Mum’s old friend Kitty Harney and she is loathe to send you a card for the strange Liam Lynch Commemoration that we hold in July at the monument.. We have John on the list and he automatically gets a card, every year. I, also out of your Mum’s past Emer Ni Ronáin, (you would have known me as Emer Uí Mhuirthile) I have been arguing with her that we should send you a card also. How is you Mum these days…I know she was in hospital and might have gone into residential care from there. My mobile no is 0872336603. Maybe you’d ring me? It’s easier to talk about complicated things than write them down. I told Kitty that you were of similar mind to Brian Murphy…who gave us a lecture for the 1916 Commemoration. People become fixed in their ways. But you knew that…Hoping to hear from you sir, Is mise le mórmheas, Emer.

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