While many decry the growth of the internet for its allegedly deleterious effects on the absorption of information by the human mind, as well as the decline of the reign of the printed word, I tend to view such claims with scepticism. The world wide web, like any technology, is what you make of it. People who made use of the knowledge to be gained from books during the era of the hardcopy will be the same people who will make use of the knowledge gained from the internet in the era of the softcopy.
In fact the availability of a global information network has opened up sources of information to literally millions of human beings who previously would never have had the opportunity to access them. I sometimes wonder if that, indeed, is the subconscious motivation of some of those who object to such a wealth of freely available knowledge – a world-wide digital library or archive for all. The move from the literate elites to the literate masses is perhaps something that not everyone welcomes. After all, information is power. And when that information does not come through one prism, one political, media or cultural establishment, then a plurality of views and opinions are possible.
Which makes the demands for a “capitalist web” of fee-paying, membership-only sites and domains all the more interesting. There is more behind the calls to “monetize” the internet than simply a motivation to create new sources of revenue and income in a new market.
However, all that (for the moment) is an aside. Let me turn instead to some of the benefits of the global archive for those of us with an inquiring mind. In this case I wondered if it was possible to find original, online sources for the first use of the term “Irish Republican Army” or “IRA”. Most people believe it to be a 20th century creation, from Ireland naturally enough. In fact its origins date back to the latter half of the 1800s and the United States of America. It was amongst the revolutionary Fenian Brotherhood (FB or in the Irish language Bráithreachas na bhFíníní, abbreviated as BnaF or BF) that the name originated. This was the Irish-American sister-organisation of the Ireland-based Irish Republican Brotherhood (the IRB. In Irish this is translated as Bráithreachas Phoblacht na hÉireann or BPnaÉ or BPÉ). It came to prominence during the period of the 1860s to 1880s in the Fenian Invasions of Canada as the title of the military wings of the various guises of the Fenian Brotherhood in North America, and occurred both as the “Irish Republican Army” and the “Army of the Irish Republic” (with the usual abbreviation of “IRA”).
I have been unable to discover what title was used, if any, by the formal military structure of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (or its off-shoots) in Ireland during this period and at the time of the Fenian Rising of 1867. It seems that the name IRB (or the more circumspect “Organisation”) was sufficient, though I would be very interested if anyone has other information.
The title of the IRA faded from organisational use in Irish Republican and Fenian circles until the 1916 Revolution when it was revived again as the Army of the Irish Republic or Irish Republican Army, this time by the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic (the members of the Provisional Government of course were all members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and a “Provisional Government of the Irish Republic” was proclaimed by the IRB in the late 1800s). In fact this IRA was an amalgamation during the insurrection of two separate military organisations: the Irish Volunteers (in Irish, Óglaigh na hÉireann or ÓnaÉ) and the Irish Citizen Army (ICA or Arm Cathartha na hÉireann: that is ACnaÉ or ACÉ). Three other revolutionary groups of the Easter Rising are sometimes included under this umbrella title: the Hibernian Rifles (the HR, “Rifles” or “Hibs”), the Cumann na mBan (CnamB), and Na Fianna Éireann (NFÉ or FÉ).
After 1916, as the revolution progressed, all these organisations retained their separate structures while the largest, the Irish Volunteers, quickly became the sole one synonymous with the name Irish Republican Army. Eventually the Volunteers adopted the term (or its long-standing abbreviation of IRA) as its normal English language title while its Irish language title remained Óglaigh na hÉireann (ÓnaÉ). In fact, in the Irish language the Irish Republican Army is Arm Poblachtach na hÉireann (APnaÉ or APÉ).
During Ireland’s Civil War of 1922-1923 the title of “Irish Republican Army” became indelibly associated with the majority Anti-Treaty IRA forces, while the break-away minority in the Pro-Treaty IRA became the Irish National Army (INA). Both, however, continued to style themselves in Irish as the Óglaigh na hÉireann. In fact, many INA units continued to call themselves the Irish Republican Army until relatively late in the conflict, refusing to give up their former title (much to the annoyance of the new Free State’s political establishment which was usurping the authority of the existing Irish Republic). In the 1930s, when the defeated Republicans of the Civil War rose to power again and many of the Anti-Treaty IRA volunteers joined and rose to positions of rank in the INA, it became, in English, simply the Irish Army.
Meanwhile, since the 1920s virtually all Irish Republican revolutionary forces have used the name Irish Republican Army in English while using Óglaigh na hÉireann in Irish (thus the Provisional, Continuity and Real IRAs all styled or do style themselves as Óglaigh na hÉireann or ÓnaÉ). Even the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) occasionally used the Irish term Óglaigh na hÉireann rather than a direct translation of its English name into Irish (Arm Saoirse Náisiúnta na hÉireann or ASNnaÉ). So far there has been a great reluctance by most Irish Republican military organisations to relinquish both the terms IRA and ÓnaÉ, especially as the former has such a historic and cultural pedigree. Strangely, given the Irish Nationalist cause revolutionary Republicans espouse, only two groups, Saor Uladh and Saor Éire, have used purely Irish names with no English equivalents.
So to my search and the four earliest (free-to-view!) mentions of the “Irish Republican Army” via Google News. All date from the latter half of the 19th century, the earliest 1866. They are small, but significant, snippets of Irish history.
Out of interest I also searched for the “Army of the Irish Republic”, and here are some of the earliest results (the first is particularly good):