The right-wing IRA of the 50s

Submitted by Janine on 5 September, 2004 - 9:29

Thomas Carolan continues his series about the history of Irish Republicanism

The Irish Free State changed its name to “The Republic of Ireland” in April 1949, 27 years after it was founded at the end of a two and a half year war of independence against the occupying forces of the British Crown. Simultaneously the 26 County state withdrew from the Commonwealth.
The Free State, the “maximum concession” which Britain had been prepared to make to insurgent nationalist Ireland, had given Dominion status within the British Commonwealth to 26 Irish counties. The King of England would remain King of Ireland.
This “compromise” had been imposed on Republican Ireland by British threats of “immediate and terrible” resumption of war, and only after a bitter year-long civil war, which the Free State party won with the backing of Britain and of all the forces of social conservatism in Ireland.
That Free State party, now called Fine Gael, was the strongest party in the coalition government which changed the name of the “Irish Free State” to “The Republic of Ireland” in 1949.
In fact the major changes as between the constitution of the Irish Free State of 1922 and that of the Republic of Ireland had already been carried through a dozen years before 1949, by the party that lost the civil war, De Valera’s Fianna Fail. 1949 gave a measure of satisfaction to most 26 Counties people; yet it was no more than a change of name, a mere “dictionary Republic”.
Withdrawing from the Commonwealth put additional barriers between the 26 and Six-County Irish states.
It was accompanied by a large international propaganda campaign, in which the 26 Counties government (a key component of which was Clann na Poblachta, the party of the “physical force” Republicans of the late 1920s and 1930s) and De Valera in opposition, combined to indict Britain for partitioning Ireland.
That propaganda campaign would have only one important consequence: it would breathe new life into the all-but-defunct underground Republican movement.
The campaign placed ending partition at the heart of nationalist Irish endeavour, one of the two “great national goals” (the other was the revival of Gaelic as the main language of the people: in fact Dublin let economic erosion and emigration radically reduce the population of the Gaelic-speaking pockets which existed at the time of independence).
It sanctified the delusion — the ideological lie — that the fundamental reason for partition was the British commitment to maintain it so long as a Northern Ireland majority wanted it, and not the fact that the people in north-east Ulster wanted it.
It thereby fostered the delusion that Northern Ireland could be sensibly defined as “British-occupied Ireland” and buttressed the physical-force-on-principle Republicans’ idea that war against “the Crown forces” there could “liberate” “British-occupied Ireland”.

If “anti-partition” propaganda failed to move either the Unionist majority in the Six Counties or the British state, it moved young, patriotic Irish Catholic men and women; and its failure moved them to want to try the methods of the rump IRA, those sanctified alike by nationalist romance and by success at the beginning of the 1920s (in liberating the 26 Counties — where, in contrast to the Six Counties, or strictly speaking four of the six counties, the big majority wanted to be so liberated).
This, for example, is the simple-minded call of the Sinn Fein/IRA Republicans in a newspaper advertisement for a meeting in Clare in 1953, to commemorate “The Manchester Martyrs”, three Fenians, Allen, Larkin and O’Brien, publicly hanged in Manchester in 1868.
Big headline: “86 years ago England’s revenge”
Smaller headline: “Force Against Force”.
And the message: “The same old story, the same old cause, the same old methods. Ireland her own from shore to shore. The west’s awake! The west’s awake!” (using the title of a well-known nationalist song by Thomas Davis).

From the mid-1940s, as the gates of the internment camps and jails in which so many of them had spent the long, slow years of the World War opened to turn them loose, the shattered forces of physical-force Republicanism began to knit together in new organisations — politically, in Sinn Fein, and militarily, in a revived illegal “Irish Republican Army”. In 1948 they started a monthly paper, The United Irishman.
The heroic perseverance of those men and women, their indomitable spirit, can only evoke respect and admiration in socialists. If we are anything like as good in our own cause, then we will be worth something to the working class and to socialism.
Leon Trotsky greatly respected the revolutionary Republican tradition. In June 1936, replied (in his own English) to a letter from Nora Connolly, James Connolly’s daughter: “Since my early years I have got, though Marx and Engels, the greatest sympathy and esteem for the heroic struggle of the Irish for their independence. The tragical fate of your courageous father met me in Paris during the war. I bear him faithfully in my remembrance...”
“The revolutionary tradition of the national struggle is a precious good. Would it be possible to imbue the Irish proletariat with it for its socialist-class struggle, the working class of your country could, in spite of the numerical weakness of your population, play an important historical role and give a mighty impulse to the British working class now paralysed by the senile bureaucracy.”
The tragedy of revolutionary Republicanism in much of the 20th century — most pointedly of those who have thought they were socialists as well as Republicans — lies in the contradiction between the heroism and selflessness of its militants and their inadequate, narrow, threadbare, and not infrequently reactionary, ideas and goals. Their ideas of Northern Ireland bore little relationship to the realities. If that was “British-occupied Ireland”, then the main “British occupiers” were the majority of the population — Irish people with a distinct origin, tradition and identity.
By the 1950s the physical-force-on-principle Republicans were as lost politically as the European explorers who found America and thought it was India and the people living there, “Indians”.
The root of their ideological lying to themselves lay in Catholic-nationalist Ireland’s inability emotionally and intellectually to accept the fact that their nationalism could not encompass the people of the whole island, and in their refusal to see the distinction between the geographical fact of a single island and the political postulate of a single Irish people.
By the 1940s that postulate was, in the light of long experience, simply preposterous.
In the Six Counties the need for this ideologising lay in the oppressed status of the Catholic minority there as second-class citizens, and in the fact that the Catholics in the Protestant heartlands of north-east Ulster would always be in a minority in anything other than a single united Irish state. Their situation made it difficult for them to formulate the issues clearly.

The physical-force Republican movement began to piece itself together in the second half of the 1940s and picked up momentum in the early 1950s. Politically this was the most inadequate, narrow, and downright reactionary “Republican” formation in Irish history. The early Provos, at the end of the 60s and early 70s, were their progeny and in key particulars the same people.
The Dublin trade union official Matt Merrigan, writing in the New York Labor Action and in the London Socialist Review(the distant ancestor of Socialist Worker) described those who launched a new military campaign in Northern Ireland (in 1956) as possessing the traits of fascism. He was not mistaken.
Essentially, uniting the island was now the only concern of physical-force Republicanism. But their Catholic Irish nationalism could never — whatever attitude the British state took — be a basis for persuading a majority of the Unionists, whose felt national identity was British, to unify Ireland. Decidedly the opposite.
The only conceivable constitutional basis for a bourgeois — or indeed a working-class socialist — united Ireland would have to be some sort of federal system that would accommodate the British-Irish minority’s autonomy within a united Ireland — that is, a democratic republican programme. Accommodating the Irish Protestant-Unionist minority would mostly likely also involve the creation of some looser confederal relationship between Britain and Ireland — the opposite to withdrawal from the Commonwealth (which, for that reason, De Valera was privately against). History had shown that the two objectives of the Republicans, Irish unity and Irish independence, were mutually exclusive.
The idea of “British-occupied Ireland” implied an attempt to conquer the Northern Ireland Protestants, who in fact were the real “British occupation forces”. Both De Valera and the parties that formed the 1948-51 coalition government in Dublin ruled out any such conclusion.
They knew it was not possible. The most that a concerted drive to conquer the North could achieve would be to annex to the independent Irish state the Catholic-majority areas along the Border — that is, move the Border north and east. They positively did not want that: the existence of a big Catholic minority in the North constituted their strongest argument against Partition (and in the 1960s and 70s it would destabilise the Six Counties and be the undoing of the Protestant government in Belfast).
There was, and after 1949 remained, a very important distinction between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in that Fianna Fail (like the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein today) simply “blamed England” for not “persuading” or coercing the Six Counties Unionists into a united Ireland, and Fine Gael, not closing its eyes entirely to Northern Ireland realities, tended to look more for an intra-Irish and not a British solution.
But for the self-reconstituting physical-force movement of the late 1940s, stimulated by the crescendo of official anti-partition propaganda, war on the “Crown Forces” in “British-occupied Ireland” became their reason for the existence of their movement.

The idea of invading the Six Counties had been rejected in the discussions of the late 1930s which had redefined physical-force Republicanism in the aftermath of De Valera’s settlement with England. Instead the IRA, forming an alliance with Germany, had declared war on England.
Now they would try invading the North. In their model of revolution, the time was always ripe for revolutionary action; or revolutionary action would make it ripe. Everything depended on recruiting enough revolutionary soldiers and procuring enough guns, bombs, and ammunition.
So, from the early 1950s, the IRA a-forming engaged in raids for arms on British army and RUC barracks in Northern Ireland and in Britain. They would not from this point on engage in conflict with the 26 Counties state. If cornered in the 26 Counties they would lay down their weapons and surrender.
The raiders sometimes succeeded in getting away with weapons; sometimes they were caught and jailed. A new generation was hardened and tempered in Britain’s jails. Among them was an Englishman with an Irish mother, John Stephenson, who, gaelicised as Sean MacStiofain, would be the first Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA in 1969.
It was all very small scale, no more than nuisance-level stuff. But the attendant publicity won them recruits from among young people whose opinion of the “Six Counties problem” had been formed in the history lessons in Southern schools and by the official propaganda of the state and the Southern political parties, especially Fianna Fail and Clann na Poblachta.
Ardent young people were steeped in romanticised nationalist history, in a sado-masochistic fundamentalist Catholicism with its central cult of the scourged and crucified God sacrificing himself for humanity, and in the mystique of the “blood sacrifice” of the “men of 1916” — which was more poetic myth than history. It was difficult for them to understand why the Southern Establishment and the constitutional nationalist parties did not use force. Difficult for them to forgive them for not doing it.
Dominic Behan - who came from a Stalinist-Republican family in Dublin — brilliantly portrays this mindset in his song, “The Patriot Game”, about Fergal O’Hanlon, an adolescent Republican killed in January 1957 on a raid into Northern Ireland.
“My name is O’Hanlon, and I’ve just turned
sixteen.
My home is in Monaghan, and where I was weaned
I learned all my life cruel England’s to blame,
So now I am part of the patriot game.

This Ireland of ours has too long been half free.
Six counties lie under John Bull’s tyranny.
But still 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 are lackeys for war never guardians of peace...”.
The elements of the mindset are all here: the revolutionary (indeed, quasi-anarchist) attitude to the state; the identification of the Six Counties ‘problem’ as only another episode in the long heroic struggle of Catholic Ireland to be free of England; the bitterness towards the “shirking”, cowardly, traitorous, aged ex-Republican Establishment of the 26 Counties; the will to sacrifice everything; and even the wish for martyrdom.
In a cause which blended and melded religion and national feeling until they were inextricable, there was more than a little in common with today’s Islamist would-be martyrs. The young men from puritanical, poor, self-mythologising Catholic Ireland who attacked along the partition border also felt that they represented a religion and a culture and an ancient civilisation far superior to the English embodiment of what Yeats had named “the filthy modern tide”.

This “second generation” of Republicans of the era after the De Valera Constitution of 1937 grew up in an Ireland considerably different from the Ireland of the 1930s. Then, the echoes of the Irish national revolution of 1916-23 still reverberated. Much was as yet unsettled. Emigration had more or less stopped in the 1930s, and the pressure to “find a solution” to social problems within Ireland was strong. There was a strong current then of populist left-wing Republicanism.
Even the right-wing IRA of that time in the Irish small towns and the countryside took into itself and gave distorted expression to all sorts of social conflicts. On a rank and file level it was very much a movement of the town and country labourers. Its rejection of the existing Irish states allowed it to express revolutionary social drives, as in its time anarchism had done in the countries of southern Europe. Socially, the IRA functioned as a quasi-anarchist movement. (See Workers’ Liberty 58, October 1999, for a more detailed account of the social role of the IRA in the South).
For the “second generation”, rising out of the grave of the Republican movement smashed at the beginning of the 1940s, everything was changed. Populist left-wing Republicanism was almost forgotten (though its main proponents, Paedar O’Donnell and George Gilmore, were still alive: they would begin to regain influence in the 1960s).
Mass emigration — a thousand a week from a population of not quite three million all through the 1950s and 60s — siphoned off much of the old social tension. The town and country labourers had fled — often followed by their families - once World War Two made jobs abundant in England’s cities.
The rule of the bourgeoisie was stabilised. The radical smaller bourgeoisie who had backed De Valera had grown fat. Within its bourgeois-democratic facade, Ireland was more of a theocracy than Portugal or Spain, ruled as they were then by clerical-fascist regimes.
It was the world of the Cold War, in which everywhere the Catholic Church was the vanguard of the struggle against “Communism” (that is, Stalinism) and every sort of socialism. Public life in Ireland was deeply right wing and heavily hierarchical and authoritarian, in a way and to a degree which it is difficult now even to imagine.

One way into it for us will be to look at public life in a typical southern “Republican” town at that time, Ennis in the county Clare. Ennis was the centre of De Valera’s constituency, the county town, with an urban population of about five thousand and maybe two times that many people in the surrounding rural areas. It was a market town, a town of boys’ and girls’ colleges, the local centre of business and state administration. In its range of functions and activities it was a small city.
It is a very old town, and one of the few in Ireland not founded by Vikings, Normans, or English. It had grown up, from the 13th century, on an island in the River Fergus, around a Franciscan monastery and as the seat of a local king. It had a long tradition of nationalism and militant Catholicism.
There, in the mid 18th century, the Methodist John Wesley, when he tried to preach in the market place, had been howled down by Catholics, who legally had few rights under the anti-Catholic “Penal Laws”; there, in 1828, Daniel O’Connell had been returned to parliament to win “Catholic Emancipation” in 1829.
There, the first avowedly Parnellite MP, pledged to disrupt the Westminster Parliament in pursuit of Irish Home Rule, had been elected in 1880; there Parnell had delivered a famous speech advocating the tactic of “shunning” the enemies of the peasants, the policy that became known as “boycotting”, after its first well-known target.
There, one of the first two Sinn Fein MPs pledged to leave the London Parliament and set up an independent Irish Republican parliament in Dublin had been elected in 1917 - Eamonn De Valera.
It was also a town with a — sometimes militant — labour movement, though the proletarians were a minority of less than 25% among the shopkeepers, monks, priests, civil servants, school and college teachers, lawyers, and doctors, etc (see Workers Liberty no.58, October 1999).
We will look at the public and political life of Ennis in 1953.
“An Tostal” — or Ireland At Home — was a short-lived attempt to create a kitsch-Irish annual event for tourists. The first was celebrated throughout Ireland at Easter 1953.
In Ennis it was opened on Easter Sunday by “the Lord Bishop Dr Rogers”, coadjutant Bishop of the Diocese of Killaloe.
In a public ceremony in the grounds of the courthouse — a large and imposingly columned limestone building, built in the 1840s to cow the taigs — Bishop Rogers blessed the members of the FAC (territorial army), the organisation of national ex-servicemen (ex-members of the Free State army), members of the “old IRA” (veterans of the War of Independence), the Catholic Boy Scouts, the blue-uniformed Red Cross and the light-blue uniformed ambulance volunteer organisation known as the Knights of Malta. He also blessed flags for “The Irish Countrywomen’s Association” and for business firms and for airlines operating out of Shannon Airport (15 miles away)...
“His Lordship” as the Clare Champion called him, told them that the flags “denoted service” to the country and to their fellow men. The “Blessing of God” was on all the flags and he hoped they would be used in the service of God, of their country and their fellow men.”
He was “glad to see that the first act of those present at the opening of An Tostal was to march to the cathedral and kneel before the feet of Jesus Christ”… glad to see “their young soldiers stand as a guard of honour” at the Cathedral “to their eucharistic king and pledge loyalty and fealty to him…”
He presented each of them with a special flag. Members of the FAC had formed a guard of honour inside the Cathedral, around the altar rails during mass. When the wafer which was “the body and blood” of Christ was help up in a golden monstrance — shaped like a spikey sunburst — the soldiers presented arms.
At a special concert, an army band played music, “The march of the Dalcassians”, written especially for the occasion by Dr Regge, the Belgian professor of music at the town’s St Flannan’s college, named for the quasi-mythical first Bishop of Killaloe in the Dark Ages.
On the Tuesday there was a lecture on “The land of the Dalcassians”. The Dalcassians were a Clare sept that produced the great king Brian Boru in the 10th and early 11th centuries.
There was a clay pigeon shooting contest; a golf-club contest; an exhibition by the Red Cross; a “Tostal Publicity Dance” at 7s 6d a ticket (labourers in the town earned about £3 a week); and a concert by the “Ennis Massed Choirs”.
Finally, on the last Sunday, there was a special service at the Cathedral to mark the end of An Tostal. Afterwards, De Valera, the senior Clare TD and still Taoiseach, took the salute at a “march past” in the square, standing on a plinth at the foot of a giant column on which, high up in the sky, stood a statue of Daniel O’Connell.
“Marching past” were the organisations that marched past Bishop Rogers at the start of An Tostal, and others. Pupils — a lot of them future priests — at St Flannan’s College; pupils from the school run by the Christian Brothers (a monk-like teaching order); from the vocational school, from the nun-run college and boarding school; from the convent (nun-run) girls’ school, and from the (priest-managed) boys’ National School; Irish dancers in stylised “ancient” costumes; workers from the one real factory in the town (making laces and braid) and from the tiny, foreign-managed, and recently-started cultured pearl factory; members and employees of the Ennis Urban Council; and the Ennis Fire Brigade.
There was also a beauty contest to select “Miss An Tostal”, and an exhibition of the “national game”, hurling.
This was a tightly managed world, at the head and heart of which stood the bishops, priests, friars, and nuns. The nuns also ran the County Home, the renamed workhouse established under the British Poor Law, which was hospital, infirmary, fever hospital, and pauper asylum.

The strange mix of kitsch invented tradition, militarism and piety, Republicanism and abject, though addled, king-worship, which I have described, was not one culture in a pluralistic society. It was the only culture, organising and permeating the entire life of the townspeople. There would have been weak “other cultures” in Dublin and Cork: but otherwise this culture ruled everywhere, saturated everything.
The newspaper of the town and country, the Clare Champion, was run by the McGuire family, who were members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. A ramshackle, old-fashioned, under-edited paper, packed with information on the lives in the town, it was more like a political “cadre paper” (or more like The United Irishman) than a modern newspaper. There is no reason to suppose it was exceptional.
Every issue would have consciousness-forming articles about events in the nationalist or Catholic calendar — about uprisings and resistances to the foreign heretical tyrants (taught also in school history), but with special reference to Clare.
The cause of Ireland was always the cause of Catholicism, and vice versa — that was the message. It was an integrated world outlook. The dominant ideal was one of a society of small producers.
The clergy made systematic propaganda against socialism.
It was the aftermath of the defeat of the Mother and Child scheme (see Solidarity 3/56). The clergy thought of England (now Tory-ruled) and Northern Ireland as “socialist” because of the post-war Labour government’s reforms.
In February 1953, under the headline “Lecture on socialism”, the Clare Champion reported extensively on a talk given in the town by a Jesuit priest, Paul Crane of the “Oxford School of Social Studies”. It was presided over by Bishop Rogers and attended by the priests of the town, including the clerical teachers at the Christian Brothers school and St Flannan’s College, and National school teachers — the intelligentsia of the town.
Rogers declared that: “God has stamped each soul with a very distinctive brand and has given to every individual the right to earn and be independent. It would be a very sorry prospect if the state was to help not only the necessitous but everybody else as well”.
Rogers “noted” “the schemes put forward to remove the ills of mankind” and was “very disturbed by socialism, communism, and other ‘isms’.”
The other “isms” included fascism, though he didn’t name it. In the 1930s Rogers’ coadjutant Bishop, Dr Fogarty, had been an outspoken Blueshirt fascist, and it would be surprising if Rogers hadn’t been one too.
The English Jesuit despaired of England and, though he didn’t mention it, of the North. “The Englishman did not know how his country stood through the prices of commodities because socialism was controlling the rent of his house, the price of the coal he bought, and subsidising other commodities”. The state should not do such things. In England, “socialism wanted to plan the life of the individual for him. A man was left without any motive for extra effort by the so-called free social services. The state then had to tax heavily...” Socialism sapped the will to work.
A vote of thanks to the lecturer and to Rogers for presiding was passed unanimously.
These people — and the IRA — subscribed to an idea of Ireland as a simple commodity producing society. It had little purchase on the modern industrial society in north-east Ireland.

This was the social and mental world in which arose the second generation of Northern-Ireland-focused physical-force Republicans.
It was defined not by Irish Republicanism as a democratic revolutionary creed which aimed like Wolfe Tone to “unite the people of Ireland, Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter”, but by the ethnic-sectarian “history”, Catholic identity, and outlook of the Catholic Orange Order, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
This IRA/ Sinn Fein was deeply right wing and profoundly Catholic. Their monthly publication, The United Irishman, was a narrow-minded piece of ethnic-sectarian devotional literature, celebrating the past, lauding martyrs, propagating a fantastically distorted picture of the Ireland (and especially the Northern Ireland) which they proposed to transform by guns and bombs.
They subscribed to all sorts of right-wing mental and political debris from the 1930s and 40s. Influential writers in The United Irishman believed in such things as “Jewish capital”, which was the cause of all that was wrong with capitalism. They were still oriented to the alliance with Hitler’s Germany that had consumed the previous Republican movement (some of whom, of course, survived to shape the re-formed movement).
A layer of these “Republicans” were devotees of a cult of the Virgin Mary called “Maria Duce” (Duce as in Mussolini’s equivalent of Hitler’s “Führer”, “Il Duce”), run by a fascist priest, Father Dennis Fahy.
Fahy had published an edition of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, the forgery about “the world Jewish conspiracy” concocted by the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, at the beginning of the 20th century, and described accurately by one writer as a “warrant for genocide” - for the slaughter inflicted on the Jews of Europe in the middle of the 20th century. The title of Fahy’s edition was Waters Flowing Eastward.
Fahy had published pamphlets in the 1930s, in one of which he classified Trotsky’s “Fourth International” as only a front for the more militant policies of Stalin’s state.
He was a crank, but not an isolated one. Fahy was Professor of Philosophy and Christian History at the Holy Ghost Missionary College, Dublin, a man of some influence in Ireland.
Maria Duce preached corporatist economics, anti-semitism and anti-”communism”, and it found ready believers among the mid-1950s Republicans, influenced as they were by other reactionary ideas from the 1930s and from their alliance with fascism in the early 1940s. This was one of the aspects of the Republican movement which led Matt Merrigan to classify it as fascistic.
A freak of political history is that one of the Fahyites, Gery Lawless, became a sort of Trotskyist in London in the early 1960s (see WL.58).
Such was the “Republican” movement that “invaded” Northern Ireland in December 1956.

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