Culture History Irish Republican Military Politics

A Partisan History Of The Name IRA

The historical lecturer Séan Ó Duibhir has an interesting if flawed review on the RTÉ website of the many insurgent groups in the 20th and 21st centuries who have used the title “IRA” or “Irish Republican Army”. Among his observations is this claim:

Contrary to popular belief, there was technically no organisation operating under the name ‘Irish Republican Army’ or ‘IRA’ during the War of Independence. Rather, the ‘Army of the Irish Republic’ was officially known as Óglaigh na hÉireann (Irish Volunteers). Granted, the term ‘IRA’ was used as shorthand by the media, Sinn Féin politicians, and many Volunteers. Nevertheless, the fact remains: ‘Óglaigh na hÉireann/Irish Volunteers’ was the correct title of the organisation that fought against Crown Forces, until a truce was agreed in July 1921.

Well, yes and no. It’s certainly true that the Irish Volunteers or IV, established in November 1913, was indeed the primary organisation that fought the United Kingdom’s colonial forces and government in Ireland from 1919 to 1921 (and arguably beyond). However by that stage the IV had also been formally incorporated into the “Army of the Irish Republic” or “Irish Republican Army”, the umbrella name for the military forces under the authority of the short-lived Provisional Government of the Irish Republic during the Easter Rising of 1916. While other bodies shared the overall description, including the Irish Citizen Army, Cumann na mBan, the Fianna Éireann and the Hibernian Rifles, the popularity and size of the Volunteers very much made it the IRA and the inheritors of the title deeds, so to speak.

This is reflected in the fact that IV units were using the name Irish Republican Army and variants thereof from relatively early on in the War of Independence, and most people regarded the descriptions as interchangeable. Including the UK authorities. So the claim that the term IRA is an incorrect one to apply to the organisation which fought the British Forces until the Truce in July 1921 is highly debatable.

Likewise is this statement:

However, this ‘IRA’ did not survive the tensions provoked by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. In the early months of 1922, the organisation broke into three factions: the pro-Treaty IRA (that morphed into the Army/Defence Forces of the new Irish State), and briefly two separate anti-Treaty IRAs (which coalesced in June 1922 to violently oppose the state).

This is a contentious point, to say the least. It could equally be argued that the Irish Republican Army did survive the divisions over the treaty signed with the UK in late 1921, since it was the minority Pro-Treaty faction that broke away and formed a new organisation in January 1922, the Irish National Army. This body was initially centred on the Dublin Guard, an earlier amalgamation of elite IRA units and personnel in the capital latterly co-opted by the Treatyite grouping. The subsequent Civil War then was one that took place between the IRA and the INA, the latter relying on British military aid and personnel to survive (though admittedly some in the INA continued to style themselves as the Irish Republican Army, sometimes using adjectives like the “Official” or “Regular” IRA to distinguish themselves from their “Irregular” opponents).

Equally contentious is the allegation that the Irish Republican Army “coalesced in June 1922 to violently oppose the state”. The Civil War began when the Pro-Treaty members of the British-mandated Provisional Government of Ireland directed the INA to attack the IRA garrisons in the capital, supported by elements of the British forces in the region. So it could just as easily be argued that it was the “oath-breaking” Provisionals who started the internecine conflict of 1922-23 by violently usurping the Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916 and ratified in subsequent national and local elections by successive electoral majorities on the island.

There are some other interpretations in the article that I would argue with. And the lack of a reference to the 19th century use of the name Irish Republican Army or Army of the Irish Republic by the military wings of the various Fenian organisations in Ireland and the United States is glaring. However the overall piece is probably worth a read. Albeit one that will likely satisfy the views of a very particular type of “Free State” audience.

3 comments on “A Partisan History Of The Name IRA

  1. There is nothing unusual about Independence movements world over changing their names repeatedly. It’s expected.

    That said, the whole business of The Irish Civil War strikes me as very unusual as civil wars go. For one thing it seems to fit the definition of “civil war” by a technicality at best. The Irish Free State was only months old when it started. The Republic wouldn’t exist for another 25 years.

    Am I the only one to wonder if that label was a few degrees off?

    A more “classical” civil war typically involves an extremely bloody conflict within an established nation state. The English Civil War of the 17th century and the Russian one of the 1920’s would be the most archetypal cases.

    This one looks more like a split-a very manipulated split-in an Independence movement than something even 100 miles within being like even an *atypical* Civil War.

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  2. Yeah, I don’t hate that article, but it seems to suggest discontinuity between the IRA(s) rather than seeing them as lineal successors in that some involved in the one’s in the 1910s wound up in those in the 1950s and likewise between then and the 1970s through to whenever. As Grace says it’s seen all over the world.

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    • It’s really hard to figure out what Britain was trying to do with the whole “Free State” and “Partition” plan. Obviously part of the motive was to hold on to Ireland, although after a certain point the question becomes why.

      If you assume the “Free State” was a transition period to a Republic, then it’s clear that by partition you are keeping all the difficulty and effort of holding onto Ireland-maybe more-without most of the “benefits”. (In my thinking most of the supposed “benefits” of controlling Ireland become progressively more questionable after The Napoleonic War.

      If you assume the Free State meant a permanent continuation of a relationship with the UK, where Ireland was going to have it’s own Parliament and PM, but would always have a Governor General selected by the Crown, as Canada still does, Partition is also a bad and bizarre move. At absolute best it introduces an unnecessary complication. Like two siblings who get qualitatively different “goods” from their parents, it would be a predictable set-up for resentment and hostilities even without the historical baggage involved.

      If all the demands made such as Loyalty Oats and Partition were simply an effort to save face, on the part of the British Govt, I can’t think of a more convoluted scheme in history to do that. The legalities of Partition during the Free State era when I look at them seem particularly strange.

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