Last Saturday was the anniversary of the execution by the British of 18 year old Kevin Barry. He was hanged on November 1st 1920. Kevin Barry was one of the ‘Forgotten Ten’ – IRA volunteers who were all executed in Mountjoy prison and buried there by the British Government. . He and nine other freedom fighters were afforded a State Funeral a few years ago when their remains were moved from Mountjoy to Glasnevin.
I was there that day and more important than all the pomp and ceremony
of the fitting state occasion was the huge turn out of citizens who
lined the pavements and joined the funeral ceremony. Kevin Barry was a
victim and a hero of the Tan War – a conflict that lasted two years and
was followed by a bloody civil war which saw atrocities committed by
His life and death and role as an IRA Volunteer was immortalised in song
shortly after his death. ‘Kevin Barry’ became one of the most popular
rebel songs of that and subsequent generations.
I remind you of this anniversary because one aspect of the current
controversy around how the IRA handled sex abusers during the recent war
years is the manner in which Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour have
rushed to condemn the IRA of that period, while commending the actions
of those who fought in 1916 and in the subsequent Tan War.
Finance Minister Michael Noonan speaking at Beal na mBlath in August
1984 said: “Our generation of the Irish owes more to (Michael) Collins
than any other Irish hero.” Noonan quoted with approval the words of
Arthur Griffith: “Collins was the man whose matchless and indomitable
will carried Ireland through the terrible crisis. He was the man who
fought the Black and Tan terror until England was forced to offer
In July last year in Cork Taoiseach Enda Kenny praised the actions of
the “Flying Columns of Rebel Cork and its most famous son Michael
Collins”. A year earlier addressing the annual Michael Collins
commemoration at Beal na mBlath he described Collins as a “reformer. A
thinker. A modernizer” and he praised “Collins’s ambition, mental force
and high idea.”
The Labour Party rushed to commemorate the founding the Irish Citizen
Army – a private, armed body of men and women established by James
Connolly who fought in the Rising and many of whom joined the IRA.
Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin speaking at Arbour Hill, where the
1916 leaders are buried, called the Rising “one of the most noble and
courageous events in Irish history. The leaders of the Rising were
patriots of honour and integrity who were prepared to sacrifice
everything so that the Irish people could be free.” And the leaders were
But those, like Bobby Sands and Mairead Farrell and Máire Drumm and
countless others who stood strong against injustice and courageously
fought the British government and its military machine to a standstill
in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s were part of a “terrorist campaign”. That
was “not a clean fight. It was dirty and nasty. And no amount of new
historical revisionism, willful amnesia or media indifference can alter
It is right that we remember those from previous generations who fought
and died or were imprisoned or exiled for their efforts to liberate
Ireland of British rule. But if there is a wilful amnesia it is within
the Dublin establishment parties. It has its roots in partition and the
abandonment by the Dublin establishment of nationalists and unionists
in the North and the ideal of an independent 32 county Irish republic.
Little wonder that the Government in Dublin has still to bring forward
plans to commemorate the 1916 Rising, now only eighteen months away.
There is no sense of the Proclamation in modern offical Ireland. Or of
its promise of equality for all. Except in the hearts and minds of
freedom loving Irish people.
Noonan and Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin hypocritically ignore the
brutality and the violence the men and women of that generation of the
IRA, led by Collins and others, used to prosecute the war against a
numerically stronger, better equipped and professional British Army
supported by the RIC, the Black and Tans and the Special Branch. They
say it was the good old IRA. Different, they claim, from the IRA of the
70s, 80's and 90's.
The fact is that the Rising in 1916 and the Tan War and Civil War were
not ‘clean’ fights. They were dirty and nasty and thousands of Irish
citizens and British soldiers died, in the two years of the Tan War,
along two and a half thousand, including some 700 civilians died.
During that period the IRA operated what would today be called kangaroo
courts to meet out summary justice in a climate in which the Royal Irish
Constabulary was regarded as little different from the RUC of later
The IRA of that time, like its successors of our time, executed scores
of people as informers and agents for the British, often leaving their
bodies in public places with placards declaring “Spies and informers
beware.” Most were shot but one was taken by boat into the middle of the
River Barrow and executed by drowning.
The IRA of that period disappeared scores of alleged informers – men and
women. It is claimed that 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.
And under that same Michael Collins, who Noonan and Kenny lionise, and
the same IRA lauded by Martin, the IRA imported weapons from America,
robbed banks and post offices, and levied ‘taxes’. Failure to pay this
tax was met with stern measures including beatings.
Collins ordered attacks on RIC members many of whom were shot from
ambush, in the back, in the dark, when they were unarmed, in front of
their families, in their beds, and without mercy. The IRA killed
civilians, including by accident, children. In one five month period 46
civilians were killed by the IRA and 163 wounded.
And when the Irish Independent condemned his actions as ‘murder most
foul’ what did Michael Collins do? He dispatched his men to the office
of the Independent and held the editor at gun point as they dismantled
the entire printing machinery and destroyed it.
And if Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and Labour speak of a mandate to wage
that war? They should be reminded that no one voted for war in the 1918
election. As in the 70's republicans of that time didn't go to war. The
war came to us.