The Death Pangs Of Irish Historical Revisionism……?

As regular readers of will know, I recently posted a fascinating article about the IRA’s treatment of informers during the 1919-1921 War of Independence that had originally appeared in The Irish Story blog.

The piece was written by the historian, Padraig Og O Ruairc and among the gems in his article was a claim that out of 196 alleged informers killed by the IRA during that conflict, some twenty-five had been ‘disappeared’, shot dead and their bodies dumped in secret, unmarked graves where, presumably, most of them still lie.

If true, that assertion suggests that the Provisional IRA’s adoption of the same practice in 1972 was not an aberration but a tactic borrowed from an earlier generation of republican militants (and who knows, perhaps even from older antecedents), men whose leaders went on to form the Irish Free State and then De Valera’s Ireland, some of whom may even had had a hand or part in those disappearances.

Padraig Og O Ruairc

O Ruairc’s article was based on his book published last year by Mercier Press, which was in turn apparently derived from his doctoral thesis at the University of Limerick.

Titled, ‘Truce – Murder, Myth and the Last Days of the Irish War of Independence’, I was able to quickly obtain a copy courtesy of Kindle, and am now thoroughly enjoying what so far I have found to be a well-written and revealing account of what, it seems, has been a badly distorted chapter in Irish history.

I reproduce the first chapter below, not just in the hope that it may whet the reader’s appetite for more, but because it well illustrates that point. He begins with an especially inculpatory and tone-setting quote from an article written by Kevin Myers in The Irish Independent in June 2011.

It was published to mark the 90th anniversary of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Truce which culminated later that year in the Treaty, which ended the Tan War and cemented the partition of Ireland and, true to form, Myers was his usual unsparing foe of all thing Irish republican.

I have known Kevin for more years than I care to remember, meeting him when he worked and lived in Belfast, mostly for The Observer, in the early days of the Troubles; he was one of the finest British journalists in the North at the time, with sources across the spectrum, and a lovely writer, occasionally provocative and biting but always worth reading.

But in the late 1970’s, suffering a broken heart, he moved across the Border to Dublin, and at some point thereafter morphed into perhaps the leading journalistic propagandist for Irish historical revisionism, not just by reviling the IRA and its friends, but through single-handedly restoring the memory of the historic blood ties between the British Army and Ireland.

If there is one person responsible for the sight of red poppies in lapels in Dublin in November these days, or the names of British soldiers killed in 1916 being carved into the marble Rising memorial in Glasnevin cemetery, it is Kevin Myers.

But I often wondered if the disappointment that drove him southwards also turned him against the North and led him down this path.

Kevin Myers

Irish revisionism reviles all matters that smack of nationalism or republicanism and there is no doubt that the great fear of the North that descended on the South after Bloody Sunday in 1972 was its midwife.

Initially there was great sympathy for the civil rights movement in the North but when the guns started firing, it morphed into a strange and alien place for many Southerners, especially in Dublin’s more affluent sections, a source of terrifying instability and bewildering violence that might stream across the Border at any moment.

And so, in the wake of Bloody Sunday when the fever that had gripped the North threatened to contaminate the South, the Irish establishment – political, academic, journalistic – began to rewrite, revise and in the process revile crucial aspects of the origins of the State, most notably the character of those who had done the fighting that led to the Truce and Treaty.

After all, the methods and tactics used by the Provisional IRA – as O Ruairc’s claims about ‘disappearing’ informers during the 1919-21 period graphically illustrates – were in essence no different from those used by the founders of the Southern State. It was not intellectually possible to denounce one while exalting the other. So both had to be condemned.

And so revisionism was born, with one of its principal characteristics an eagerness to re-sculpt the founders of the Southern state in the image of the terrifying and diabolical Provos who now threatened the peace, prosperity and safety of the comfortable classes of Dublin and allied places elsewhere south of the Border.

The quote from Kevin Myers’ Indo article employed by O Ruairc is a classic of its genre. He describes how, with the Truce just hours away, two IRA gunmen took advantage of a lowering of the British guard to murder 20-year old Alfred Needham, an RIC man as he emerged from the registry office where he had just married his sweetheart.

But in fact, no such incident occurred. Needham, a Black and Tan, not a policeman, was shot dead for sure, but outside a stable, not a wedding registry, and in the company of armed RIC men; no happy bride was on his arm or anywhere nearby.

One can only assume that if O Ruairc’s account is correct, Myers did not bother to check the facts but took as gospel accounts that had been written up by others who may have had their own axes to grind, such as former RUC man Richard Abbott in his history of the RIC. But the story did its job: the IRA of 1921 were cowards and brutes, just like the monsters bombing Belfast in the 1970’s and ’80’s.

The extraordinary thing about this story is that the inaccurate Myers’ account has been repeated ad nauseam by other writers, even those who could not by any stretch of the imagination be described as revisionists, like Tim Pat Coogan.

What emerges from this story, at least to my mind, is a measure of the enormous damage done by Irish revisionism, not just to the historical record, but to the courage and independence of history writers – and others whose job was also to tell the truth.

To challenge the Myers’ version of the story risked the accusation of sympathy with Alfred Needham’s killers. Far easier just to let the matter rest.

I lived and worked as a journalist through the worst years of Irish revisionism when the charge that struck most fear in the hearts of reporters was the potentially career-ending accusation that you were ‘a fellow traveler’, or ‘a sneaking regarder’, i.e. that you were in the same camp as the Provos.

It didn’t take much to earn the charge. Such an imputation could be made  simply by questioning the guilt of the Birmingham Six or the Guildford Four. That is why it was British reporters and politicians who led the fight to establish their innocence, not Irish.

It was Ireland’s McCarthyite period, a shameful time which, by suppressing full and honest examination of what was happening in Ireland, warped understanding of the violence and why it happened, and in turn delayed – I suspect by many years – a resolution of the conflict.

And, just as McCarthyism imposed an ugly conformity on potential victims, so Irish revisionism forced many – journalists and historians – to keep their heads down.

The work of a new generation of Irish historians such as Padraig O Ruairc thus represents a refreshing, overdue and honest break with that mendacious past. It is to be welcomed with open arms.


For decades, nationalist Ireland has told glorious stories of IRA flying columns beating the dastardly Black and Tans. In fact there were few flying columns and an awful lot of … murders … In [July] 1921, with the Truce just hours away, an RIC man named Alfred Needham, aged 20, clearly thought that finally he could marry his sweetheart. But a clerk in Ennis tipped off the IRA that the groom’s profession was ‘Constable’. So a beaming Alfred and his teenage bride emerged from the registry office and two gunmen shot him dead. Yet … this July our political classes will once again unite around the fiction that ‘the War of Independence’ was honourable and necessary and largely worthwhile.

This is how newspaper columnist Kevin Myers described one of the last killings of the Irish War of Independence in an article in the Irish Independent marking the ninetieth anniversary of the Anglo-Irish Truce, which ended the war on 11 July 1921. Myers dismissed the IRA military campaign of 1919–21, which eventually led to the creation of an independent state in southern Ireland, as part of a ‘cycle of psychiatric futility’. Furthermore, he claimed that the ‘murder’ of Alfred Needham exposed as a fiction the concept of the War of Independence as a necessary and legitimate war.

Ironically, Myers’ account of Needham’s killing is almost entirely fictional. There was no wedding ceremony, no teenage bride and no clerk who tipped off the IRA. Needham, a Black and Tan from London, was shot standing at the door of a stable with two other armed members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) –not while leaving a registry office with his new bride. The tale about Needham being killed immediately after getting married appears to have been invented for melodramatic effect in a propaganda story. Yet different versions of this story continue to resurface every few years masquerading as factual history.

Author Richard Abbott, an RUC officer who compiled a history of RIC casualties during the War of Independence, claimed that the IRA had attacked both Needham and his new bride after their wedding ceremony – killing him and hospitalising her. Eunan O’Halpin, Professor of Contemporary Irish History at Trinity College Dublin, stated in a recent television documentary that Needham had married in a church ceremony and was shot dead in front of his new bride just minutes after they had exchanged wedding vows. A common element in most of these accounts is the suggestion that the IRA Volunteers who killed Needham knew a ceasefire had been agreed with the British forces and that this was a motivating factor in the attack.

The stories about Needham’s wedding are part of a wider narrative about the War of Independence, which claims that the announcement of the Truce on 8 July 1921 led to a wave of unjustifiable ‘eleventh-hour’ IRA attacks before the ceasefire began. Supporters of this narrative claim that republicans launched a determined campaign to kill as many people as possible before the war ended and that these final IRA attacks were made mainly against so-called ‘soft targets’, i.e. unarmed members of the British forces and loyalist civilians. Some historians and commentators allege that attacks on ‘soft targets’ accounted for the bulk of IRA activity throughout the War of Independence, which they claim was more akin to terrorism than to a military campaign. It has also been asserted that Protestants were targeted as part of a sectarian campaign conducted by the IRA, and that such attacks intensified after the Truce was announced.

A number of stories similar to the one about Needham’s wedding are reproduced regularly in histories of the War of Independence to support the idea that the IRA exploited the declaration of the Truce as an opportunity for wanton violence. These include claims that:

• After the announcement of the Truce, the IRA killed up to a dozen alleged spies, most of whom were innocent Protestants with no connection to the British forces.

• Four teenage soldiers, mere boys who had left their post to visit a sweet shop, were abducted and murdered by the IRA for no apparent reason. • Three Protestant boys were abducted, killed and secretly buried by the IRA in Cork city because of republican paranoia about spies.

• A devout Catholic serving in the RIC was shot dead by IRA gunmen while on his way to Mass on the morning of the ceasefire.

• The IRA in Kerry launched its only attack of the war, killing a soldier and an innocent young woman, just minutes before the Truce started.

• A Black and Tan strolling through a picturesque Wicklow village was murdered by republicans less than an hour after the ceasefire began.

Some of these stories have a grain of truth to them. Others are entirely fictional or are genuine killings taken out of context and with new details invented for propaganda value. For years, Irish and British authors writing about the War of Independence have accepted these stories as truthful, repeating and recycling them without question. Meanwhile the activities of the British forces in the same period have been ignored, with many authors unquestioningly accepting assurances that the British Army, RIC and Black and Tans all ceased hostilities the minute the Truce was announced, leaving the IRA as the sole protagonists in the final violent days of the conflict.

The allegation that the IRA callously took the announcement of the Truce as an opportunity to attack ‘soft targets’ was first employed as anti-republican propaganda in early accounts of the war written by British authors. The official history of the British Army’s 6th Division in Ireland, written in 1922, claimed the IRA exploited the declaration of the Truce as:

… an opportunity for attacking and murdering people when vigilance would obviously be relaxed, and if they could only postpone these murders to the last moment, the murderers could not possibly be punished. They carried out their programme to the letter. A private of the Machine Gun Corps was murdered on July 10th … four unarmed soldiers were kidnapped and murdered in Cork, and a patrol in Castleisland was ambushed, with results more disastrous to the rebels than even to the patrol itself; and finally, within fifteen minutes of the Truce, the inhabitants of Killarney, who had never summoned up courage to strike a blow for freedom during the progress of the war, attacked two sergeants of the Royal Fusiliers in the street, one of whom died. Thus was the Truce inaugurated.

Walter Phillips, an English historian who published one of the first popular histories of the conflict in 1923, said: ‘the weekend before the coming of the Truce was one of the bloodiest on record in Ireland’. Phillips held the IRA solely responsible for this increase in violence and focused on the killings of off-duty soldiers and loyalist civilians. In his memoirs, published in 1924, General Nevil Macready, the former commander of the British forces in Ireland, contrasted the morality of the military campaigns waged by the rival forces in the final days and hours before the Truce began.

According to Macready, British forces refrained from any hasty and unnecessary last-minute attacks, while the IRA intensified its military campaign through opportunistic killings:

The Truce would begin at 12 noon on 11th July, 1921, until which time the troops, while taking no risks, should abstain as far as possible from unnecessary activity against the rebels, who, far from imitating such chivalrous forbearance, continued their campaign of outrage and assassination until the clocks struck twelve on 11th July.

Like Phillips, Macready cited attacks on the British forces, the killing of civilians and the destruction of the homes of loyalists as proof of an IRA ‘campaign of outrage’ prompted by the announcement of the Truce.

Allegations that the IRA engaged in unjustified military operations in the dying hours of the conflict were not confined to British writers. This accusation became a core piece of anti-republican propaganda in the Irish Free State. During the Civil War both sides accused their opponents of cowardice, denouncing them as ‘eleventh-hour warriors’ and ‘Trucileers’, i.e. men who joined the IRA at the time of the Truce but who had played little or no part in the War of Independence. The military record of its various supporters and opponents often dominated the debates surrounding the acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Free State propaganda defined republican opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty as ‘Johnny-come-latelys’ who ‘had never challenged Dublin Castle’ or ‘ever fired a shot against the British forces’. Furthermore they denounced the guerrilla tactics used by IRA ‘Trucileers’ and, with no sense of irony or hypocrisy, encouraged them to ‘fight fair’ even though the exact same guerrilla tactics had been employed during the War of Independence.

In his 1924 book The Victory of Sinn Féin, the Free State polemicist P. S. O’Hegarty condemned the anti-Treaty IRA as ‘a terrorist army’ of ‘Tinpikemen’ that had shied away from danger during the War of Independence but who had sprung into action at the last moment: ‘all the young men in all the counties who had kept aloof of the fighting when it was dangerous were now eager to become heroes, and to be able to tell stories about this and that ambush’. Piaras Béaslaí, the former IRA director of publicity who wrote a biography of Michael Collins shortly after the Civil War, castigated the republican opponents of the Treaty, whom he dismissed as ‘Trucileers’:

A great many eleventh-hour warriors, in comparatively peaceful parts of the country, hastened to make up arrears by firing shots at the last moment, and there were attacks on the English forces up to within a few minutes of the Truce. These belated exhibitions of prowess, with no military objective, when the danger seemed past, reflected no credit on Irishmen.

Many of the IRA units responsible for these operations later fought against acceptance of the Treaty, and Béaslaí’s comments are likely to have been influenced by his support for the Treaty and his experiences during the Civil War.

Abusive comments about ‘Trucileers’ were directed in particular against republicans in Kerry, where there had been limited IRA activity in the pre-Truce period but an increase in operations in the last days of the war. In October 1933, following a republican attack on a ‘Blueshirt’ rally in Tralee, Eoin O’Duffy, leader of the pro-Treaty Fine Gael party, taunted his political opponents in the county by declaring: ‘Kerry’s entire record in the Black and Tan struggle consisted in shooting an unfortunate soldier the day of the Truce. To hear such people shouting “Up the Republic” would make a dog sick.’

Years later, a number of historians began repeating allegations that the IRA had exploited the announcement of the Truce to commit unjustified and morally questionable attacks, and over time this allegation became widely accepted as historical fact. In his book The Black and Tans, Richard Bennett claimed that there was ‘a wild flurry of activity’ by ‘Eleventh hour warriors of the IRA [who] hurried to get their last shots in’. Bennett cited the IRA execution of civilians suspected of spying and attacks on off-duty members of the British forces as proof of this. He claimed that these ‘eleventh-hour’ attacks were typical of the IRA’s military campaign, which had ‘relapsed into a moral anarchy unconnected with any political or social or practical end other than the muzzle of a gun’.

Charles Townshend has claimed that the Truce was ‘preceded by one of the bloodiest weekends in the conflict, with the IRA killing some 20 people in the last 36 hours’. Joseph Curran attributed a propaganda and political motivation to the apparent escalation in IRA violence immediately before the ceasefire: ‘On July 8 Macready ordered his troops to abstain from unnecessary activity in view of the Truce agreement. The IRA, on the other hand, kept up its attacks until the last moment to demonstrate its capacity and willingness to carry on the fight.’ Tim Pat Coogan claimed that the IRA committed ‘cold-blooded’ killings after the Truce’s announcement: ‘the IRA kept up the offensive to within minutes of that noontide. On some it had a galvanic effect. Knowing that retribution could not occur after the 11th, many literally eleventh-hour warriors now took the field’. Maryann Valiulis claimed that some bloodlust was to be found on both sides in the last days of the war, but suggested that the republicans were primarily responsible, having provoked British forces through a series of unjustified and gratuitous killings:

Neither side … would let the hostilities cease without one last burst of violence before the Truce came into effect. The IRA received word that the British forces would attempt one final action … The reason for the contemplated action by the British forces was that six soldiers were captured and shot on about 9 July 1921. In addition, records indicate that 11 spies were executed by the IRA just prior to the advent of the Truce.

Peter Hart stated that local IRA units had advance knowledge of the Truce and this led to an increase in republican violence deliberately calculated to inflict fatalities on British forces and to kill loyalist civilians and other ‘soft targets’:

The first eleven days in July did bring a last-minute upsurge in political activity … this was partly a product of the impending Truce, allowing IRA units outside Dublin to wreak maximum havoc in the knowledge that they would soon be immune from retaliation … Civilian targets, in fact, offered the only remaining untapped market for IRA operations in early 1921, which guerrillas were already beginning to exploit when the Truce mercifully intervened.

Hart further claimed that anti-Protestant violence perpetrated by the IRA increased continually until the Truce began on 11 July 1921. According to him, the IRA engaged in a spate of unwarranted killings after the ceasefire was announced: ‘many guerrilla units had made a point of killing as many enemies as possible up until the last minute (twenty people in the last thirty-six hours)’.

More recently, Marie Coleman has suggested that IRA Volunteers who knew the Truce was imminent might have had a sectarian motive in launching last-minute attacks. Coleman cites the executions of the Pearson brothers, two Protestant farmers at Coolacrease, Co. Offaly, and suggests that their killers were motivated by ‘the desire of the hitherto inactive Offaly Brigade to record a success before the Truce’.

Through frequent repetition, the claim that the announcement of the Truce led to a surge in unjustifiable ‘last-minute’ republican killings has effectively become part of the standard narrative of the War of Independence. Over time, this narrative has become more exaggerated and has been incorporated into an increasingly melodramatic, propagandistic and factually inaccurate history. This repetition and promotion has been part of a wider ideological debate about ‘revisionism’ in the academic study of Irish history and an ongoing political debate on the legitimacy of physical-force republicanism. The debate on these issues has been conducted in overtly political and moral terms in newspaper articles, and on radio and television, with politicians and polemicists such as Conor Cruise O’Brien featuring prominently.

Newspaper columnist and political activist Eoghan Harris, a self-described anti-republican revisionist, has produced a number of television pieces and articles critical of the IRA’s conduct during the War of Independence, which allege that republican violence in that period had a strong sectarian intent. He has insisted that ‘the first duty of academic historians is to protect past victims of the IRA who no longer have a voice’. Harris has also made the specific claim that republican ‘bloodlust’ led to an increase in IRA violence after the announcement of the Truce.

Kevin Myers has made similar claims in his newspaper columns, which regularly feature the War of Independence as a topic. He has frequently repeated the claim that the IRA exploited the announcement of the Truce as an opportunity to indulge in sectarian killings and attacks on ‘soft targets’. In The Irish Times, Myers alleged that: ‘The conference in the Mansion House in Dublin, where the details of the ceasefire were being hammered out, gave three days’ notice of the Truce. Those days were filled with bloodshed as killers embarked upon a once-in-a-lifetime Summer Sale of murder, guaranteed without legal consequence.’

Claims by Myers and Harris cannot be treated with the same weight as serious historical research by academics, but the media in Ireland plays an important role in shaping perceptions of the conflict and opinion pieces by these commentators have helped to promote and expand the existing narrative of pre-Truce violence.

This book attempts to separate the fiction, myth and propaganda from the facts, and to establish what really happened from 8–11 July 1921 –to find out if there is any truth in the allegations, or if they are just made-up stories that have enjoyed an unnaturally long life. To date, almost all of the books and articles which claim that the announcement of the Truce led to a massive surge in violence have focused entirely on killings carried out by the IRA and ignored the actions of British forces in the last days of the conflict. This has resulted in a biased history of the last days of the conflict, in which those killed by the IRA are remembered as the victims of vengeful and futile militarism while those killed by the British forces are conveniently forgotten. Here, contemporary accounts from newspapers, military and police reports, testimony from Irish loyalists and eyewitness accounts from veterans of both the IRA and the British forces have been used to build up a detailed and accurate picture and to establish for the first time what really happened during the final days and hours of the Irish War of Independence.

One response to “The Death Pangs Of Irish Historical Revisionism……?

  1. Excellent review of an excellent book! Unfortunately, many people still trust Peter Hart’s work uncritically. It is important to be critical of the IRA during the War of Independence, but some people seem to have had an agenda.

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