I’m making my way through Tim Pat Coogan’s The IRA, which is considered the definitive historical work on the Irish Republican Army. I’m only about a third of the way through it, which corresponds to the late 1940s-early 1950s, but the IRA comes off as a violent but incompetent group that was ineffective in achieving their goal of a united, independent Land of Eire.
The topic first came to my interest after I watched Michael Collins, which ends in the title figure’s death at the hands of the IRA (specifically, Jonathan Rhys Meyers character, so it could be said that Henry VIII killed Michael Collins). Collins had worked out an agreement with Great Britain which amounted to freedom for 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties, the remaining six being the “Northern Counties” dominated by Protestants. The President of the Irish Free State at that time was Eamon de Valera, who opposed the treaty but essentially accepted it once it was ratified. Collins saw it as a step forward, since it gave the 26 counties what amounted to freedom, and had he lived, it is thought that he would have worked towards unification.
The militant opposition coalesced into what we know as the IRA, and began a campaign of violent opposition to the “occupation” of the Northern Counties. This campaign began with a civil war and Collins’ death and eventually fizzled out as the independent militia was crushed between English forces in the North and de Valera’s counterinsurgency in the rest of the country. The IRA was a threat to his rule, and as he saw it, a threat to the stability of the country. He would use them as a political foil when it was useful, but often was at odds with what they were doing. Many of the leaders of the IRA ended up in prison or dead, sometimes through assassination (by both British and Irish opponents) and sometimes through incompetent bomb-makers whose creations went off a bit too soon.
By the time the Nazis rose and war loomed in 1938-39, England was in a tight predicament. They did not want Ireland to fight against England if it came to war, but they also did not want them to sit out, which was de Valera’s preferred tactic. The Nazis wanted Ireland in the fight against England, as did many in the IRA and some in the Irish populace. This isn’t to say that those elements were necessarily pro-Nazi, but merely that they were anti-English and saw an opportunity to unite the country.
Some Irish decided to fight, despite their country’s official neutrality. After the war, these men were blacklisted, and some place blame for this on the Irish government at the time. This clouds the issue though, and ignores some relevant facts.
First, the Irish government, like any other, is a political organization, subject to political considerations and influenced by the people it governs. If it was expedient to blacklist the men who fought for England, then they would be willing to do so. This isn’t to defend them, but merely to explain their actions – they felt justified in blacklisting the men because they felt they would suffer no repercussions from the populace.
Second, accusing the Irish government of being pro-Nazi (as some do) ignores the good that was done for the Allied cause by de Valera’s government during the conflict. Flyers who were downed over Ireland either went to prison or they were returned to their country of loyalty. But the crux of the matter is that, according to Coogan, only British flyers were returned to the fight – Luftwaffe aircrews were detained. In one case, a group of British flyers were collected, driven north to the border with the six counties, and left alone as they crossed over. Now, people can quibble over whether or not Ireland was truly neutral, or whether they should have fought against the Nazis, but actions like that were much more beneficial to the Allies than to the Nazis.
Some people don’t understand the depth of the Irish hatred for the British; it is not easily extinguished or dimmed simply because there was a war on. They also confuse the actions of the IRA, which according to some sources ineptly tried to get the Nazis to invade Ireland, with the actions of the Irish Government. The two are not the same. The IRA was and is an independent militia, organized against the ruling government in favor of a government that rules all 32 counties, not just the Catholic 26 in the South. The Republic of Ireland is an internationally recognized government, able then as now to decide its level of involvement in foreign wars.
As I said, I’m only about a third of the way through the book, but it is an interesting read. It gives needed perspective for a conflict that runs even longer than the past century.