Reviews of UCC’s “Atlas”

An ‘Atlas’

which is no guide

A collection of reviews of The Atlas of the Irish Revolution
An Atlas….. Which is no guide
A collection of reviews of The Atlas of the Irish Revolution
Dr. Philip McConway
Dr. Pat Muldowney
Jack Lane
Brian Murphy OSB
Brendan Clifford
Aubane Historical Society
Aubane, Millstreet, Co. Cork

 ‘ATLAS OF THE IRISH REVOLUTION’ Edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo.  Cork University Press, €59


Last month Cork University Press launched their long awaited, ambitiously conceived, and visually striking Atlas of the Irish Revolution, its flagship project for the ‘decade of centenaries.’ Weighing 5 kg, with 364 maps and 707 images, the tome is hailed as a ground-breaking, magisterial publication. A best seller, reviews are glowing. The Irish Times declared the tome ‘A mammoth, magnificent achievement.’ However, all that glitters is not gold. The praise, at least for the Offaly coverage, is misplaced. No Offaly historians were consulted or research repositories in the county visited.  This partly explains the geographical and historical shortcomings on the midlands.


The 140 inter-disciplinary scholarly contributions vary in quality. Offaly features in the ‘War of Independence: Regional Perspectives’ in an essay on Leinster by Dr Marie Coleman, a lecturer in Queen’s University Belfast. The treatment is tokenistic with barely half a page of the essay’s text devoted to Offaly.

Unduly dismissive, Coleman argues the Offaly Irish Republican Army (IRA) was ‘ineffective’ and there was ‘no serious activity’ in the county until 1920. The hackneyed narrative of the quiescent Offaly IRA is perpetuated. Her assessment, replete with speculation (‘appears’, ‘seemed’ ‘might serve as a partial explanation’), is at odds with Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), IRA, British Army and newspaper reports.

According to Coleman, IRA GHQ was ‘exasperated’ with both Offaly brigades. Misreading sources, her assumption is fallacious. The IRA’s unsuccessful attempt to ambush a train transporting British Army troops near Clara on 26 March 1921 infuriated Richard Mulcahy, the IRA Chief of Staff. Following this operation, Mulcahy accused Banagher native Sean Mahon, the IRA’s South Offaly No.2 Brigade commander, of incompetence, ‘slovenliness,’ and ‘tinkering with the honour of the nation.’ Historians Maryann Gialanella Valiulis (Mulcahy’s biographer), Charles Townshend, the late Michael Hopkinson, and now Coleman, fail to provide any context to Mulcahy’s invective which is accepted at face value. Mahon’s version is ignored. He recalled the presence of an enemy aeroplane patrolling the railway line compelled the IRA to change their plan. The IRA decided to derail, rather than ambush, the train. The RIC County Inspector stated the attempted derailment was the most serious incident that month in a ‘very disturbed county.’

Temperamental, Mulcahy overreacted. The IRA Volunteers tasked with derailing the train evaded capture and suffered no casualties. Mulcahy was equally at fault for giving Mahon short notice and neglecting to provide him with adequate intelligence. Mulcahy’s disparagement of Mahon, which concerned a single incident, is misconstrued in the historiography to denigrate the entire Offaly IRA. Debunking the persistent myth of the IRA’s seemingly maladroit and ‘inactive’ Offaly Brigades is long overdue.

Gaining the trust of Michael Collins, the IRA’s Director of Intelligence, Mahon served as a GHQ organiser in Sligo in 1919. Mahon was one of the Offaly IRA’s most significant, energetic and underrated leaders from 1918-1921. Thomas Burke, a GHQ organiser and successor to Mahon as the South Offaly Brigade commander, admitted: ‘It [South Offaly] was one of the most active brigades in the country in some ways.’ The IRA’s in-house journal An tÓglách lauded the brigade’s sabotage as ‘an example of how to win a war.’ This more complex, nuanced and balanced portrayal is absent in the Atlas.

Ensconced in Dublin, Mulcahy relied on written reports and occasional debriefings from Offaly IRA officers. There is no evidence he visited Offaly during the War for Independence. In the Truce he inspected the South Offaly Brigade at Five Alley and its northern counterpart at Durrow Abbey. Contrary to Coleman’s specious depiction, Mulcahy’s first-hand appraisal was favourable: ‘I was very agreeably surprised and pleased with the turn-out of Leix and Offaly no’s 1 and 2 [Brigades]…There seems very good material among the rank and file of these Brigades, but Officers are not very apparent.’ He criticised the North Tipperary Brigade which ‘did not show up well…the parade of the 1st Battalion (Nenagh) was rather a bit of a fiasco…’


Many historians persist with the reductive body count barometer to determine the IRA’s ill-defined ‘activity.’ A perceptive essay by Dr Eve Morrison on ‘The Bureau of Military History’, challenges this straightjacket approach.  The BMH was a government sponsored project established in 1947 to compile ‘witness statements’ and original sources from veterans of the revolutionary struggle. The BMH’s John McCoy evaluated IRA brigade activity from 1919 to 1921 based on the 1934 Military Service Pensions referee’s ‘activities records’. Morrison notes how McCoy devised two categories of activities, ‘military’ and ‘semi-military’. ‘Military’ activities consisted of large-scale IRA attacks on Crown forces, British-held posts or RIC barracks and ‘minor operations’ such as raids for arms, equipment, munitions, and funds; intelligence gathering, cutting telegraph and telephone lines, blocking and trenching roads, destroying bridges, burning buildings, punishing informers, and protection duties. ‘Semi-military’ activity involved assisting the Dáil’s arbitration courts, Republican police work, enforcing the Belfast Boycott, propaganda, collecting local government rates and the Dáil Loan. Of the eighty brigades and independent battalions ranked by McCoy, seventeen were considered ‘good’, thirty (including the two Offaly Brigades) were ‘fair’, and thirty-three were ‘poor.’ The Atlas publishes a map detailing the IRA’s ‘Level of activity’ under these three classifications. Morrison concludes: ‘McCoy’s assessment is broadly accurate.’ His template is a cogent counterweight to Coleman’s unsatisfactory hypothesis and is a more reliable guide to measuring the IRA’s performance in the regions.

Offaly IRA veterans often maintained the flat terrain mitigated against successful ambushes. While less lethal than other regions, the IRA’s Offaly brigades killed seven policemen and nine civilians (seven suspected informers and two militant loyalists) from 1919-21. The first fatal shooting occurred at Lorrha when the IRA killed an RIC Sergeant. The IRA unit responsible for the unauthorised killing subsequently transferred to the North Tipperary Brigade. Three Offaly IRA Volunteers were shot and mortally wounded by Crown forces. The Atlas mistakenly infers the first fatality, IRA Captain Patrick Seery, fought with the Westmeath IRA. Seery, from Cloneyhaigue, was seriously wounded in the IRA’s large-scale attack on Clara RIC barracks in June 1920. He later died in the Mater Hospital, not in Westmeath as Coleman claims. The British Army shot dead Thomas Feery, an elderly civilian, at his home in Ballycommon. From information compiled from the Irish Bulletin, the Atlas records this incident in a map detailing the locations of killings of unarmed civilians by Crown forces. Feery is not named.

IRA brigade boundaries were complicated and constantly changed. From the IRA’s perspective county borders were redundant, underlining the weakness of rigid county studies on the revolutionary period which remain the default methodology. At various periods from 1918-1923 the IRA’s Offaly brigades incorporated areas in North Tipperary, Westmeath, and Laois. A useful map detailing the borders of the two Offaly brigades, dating to the Truce of July 1921, is published in the Atlas. The map contains a disclaimer noting it ‘should not be seen as either complete or definitive.’ By this stage the North Offaly Brigade’s 4th Battalion (Edenderry) was transferred to the IRA’s nascent 3rd Eastern Division (covering areas in Dublin, Kildare, Louth, Meath, and Westmeath).

Several maps in the Atlas display aflimsy grasp of the midlands geography.Kilbeggan, a key centre of the IRA’s North Offaly Brigade operations, is misnamed ‘Kilbrennan’ in a map supposedly documenting IRA attacks on Crown forces in Leinster. A Civil War map, purporting to show the National Army’s Athlone Command area, confuses Offaly with Queen’s County. Walsh Island is mislocated. A map highlighting an IRA raid on the Grand Canal inaccurately notes Pollagh is in Nenagh. A map on ‘Locations of Na Fianna troops, 1909-22’ contains a baffling reference to ‘Cloone’. A novel map on the collection of sphagnum moss, used to treat battle wounds in the Great War, refers to ‘Bellmount’ instead of Belmont. A map listing the distribution of pawnbrokers in 1893 notes ‘Parsontown’ rather than Parsonstown (Birr). A map detailing the eighty-one Civil War ‘official executions’ by the Free State government, refers to two executions in Birr Castle and one execution in Birr town. In fact all three executions were in Birr Castle. The evidence indicates the victims were civilians, not IRA Volunteers. Such sloppiness detracts from the Atlas and calls into question the foreword by President Michael D. Higgins exalting the ‘scholarly masterpiece’ and ‘fine focus on local detail.’


Half of Coleman’s cursory coverage is devoted to the Coolacrease incident. On the orders of Thomas Burke, the IRA executed the two Pearson brothers, Abraham and Richard, and burned their home on 30 June 1921. The unequivocal motive for the killings was that the three eldest Pearson brothers opened fire with shotguns on IRA Volunteers constructing a roadblock. An IRA Volunteer was seriously wounded.

Noting the Coolacrease incident proved ‘controversial,’ Coleman does not elaborate why. The reason was the discredited 2007 RTÉ 1 pseudo-documentary ‘The Killings at Coolacrease’ which is unwisely cited as a source in the Atlas. RTÉ’s deception could be discerned from the politically loaded working title ‘Atonement, Ethnic Cleansing in the Midlands.’ Falsely insisting the killings were a ‘hidden history,’ RTÉ broadcast lurid atrocity propaganda that was knowingly fictitious, a precursor to the current problem of ‘fake news’. The bogus allegation of the Pearson family witnessing the executions; the notorious hoax of premeditated, sadistic mutilation of genitals; and the sly but groundless insinuation of a sectarian land grab motive generated sensational headlines in the gullible national press. Coleman is ambivalent about RTÉ’s unethical behaviour and the complicity of some academic historians.

Far from providing fresh insights and unearthing new sources on Coolacrease, Coleman rehashes red herrings that have long since been demolished. The land grab canard is rehearsed. IRA veterans did not benefit from the Land Commission’s eventual division of the Pearson’s farm. Coleman refers uncritically to the Pearson family’s compliance with a tillage order during World War One which allegedly caused local resentment. The implausible story, emanating from William Pearson’s tainted evidence to the Irish Grants Committee (IGC), is not corroborated by police and newspaper reports. Assessing malicious injury claims at Birr Quarter Sessions, Judge Patrick Fleming K.C. stressed William Pearson’s tendency to embellish: ‘…there was a good deal of exaggeration in some of the claim.’ Nevertheless, Judge Fleming awarded the Pearson family £7,800 in compensation. William Pearson received a further lavish ex-gratia payment of £7,500 from the IGC before his family settled in Australia.


Coleman erroneously claims the IRA said the Pearsons stored Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) munitions in their home. Kinnitty native Michael Cordial, a member of an IRA Active Service Unit (ASU), suggested the Pearsons stored ammunition. He never alluded to the UVF. In a report to GHQ, Thomas Burke noted: ‘They [Pearsons] had always displayed open hostility towards the IRA and have been active in promoting the Ulster Volunteer movement in their district in which there are a number of planters.’ Burke’s report is arguably the most fascinating aspect of the Coolacrease episode which deserves careful dissection.

The ‘planter’ expression referred to William Stanley, a loyalist who sought refuge at Coolacrease in April 1921. The role of the shadowy Stanley is vital to unravelling what happened and why. A distant relative of the Pearsons, Stanley was from Luggacurran in Co. Laois. His father was one of the loyalist planters with Orange Order links who replaced evicted tenants on Lord Lansdowne’s estate in the 1880s.

With Stanley in mind, Burke’s UVF label was a synonym to describe loyalist resistance. Stanley was a self-confessed informer for the Crown forces and a guide for the British Army.  Warned by the lenient Laois IRA, Stanley fled to Coolacrease where he was known by the alias Jimmy Bradley. In hindsight the Coolacrease tragedy would likely have been prevented had the Laois IRA shot Stanley in what was a clear-cut case of espionage. Tensions in the local community heightened when Stanley arrived at Coolacrease. Indoctrinating the Pearsons with a vengeful militant loyalism, his presence precipitated the arrests of local Republicans. Coleman inexplicably omits crucial details surrounding Stanley.


Further problems arise in an essay on ‘The Burning of Irish Country Houses, 1920-21,’ by Professor Terence Dooley,Directorof the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates (CSHIHE) at NUI Maynooth. Marred by groupthink and a bias towards landlords, circumspection is required for scholarship emerging from this Centre.  Dooley claims the IRA torched two ‘Big Houses’ in Offaly during the War for Independence: Moorock and Derrylahan (misspelled ‘Derryglahen’ and ‘Derrylahen’).Symptomatic of Dooley’s inattention to detail, Derrylahan is in North Tipperary, not Offaly. The mansion belonged to Charles Head, a retired British Army officer and outspoken critic of the IRA.

Dooley’s cited figure of sixteen Big Houses burned in Offaly from 1920-23 is inflated. The figure derives from the unreliable and partisan research of Dr Ciarán Reilly, a CSHIHE Research Fellow whose patron and mentor is Dooley. The views of supervisor (Dooley) and student (Reilly) are interchangeable with no room for dissent. The conformist culture in the CSHIHE is disturbing. Imitation displaces innovation. The Derrylahan error originated with Reilly. Misinterpreting sources, Reilly incorrectly claimed the residence of the loyalist Jaspar John Joly at Charneux House in Clonbullogue was razed in 1922. In reality the IRA burned a different house owned by Joly which was formerly occupied by the RIC. Reilly’s figure also mistakenly includes Ballybritt Castle where only hay and straw were burned in 1923.

Dooley defines a Big House to be the main country residence of a landlord owning more than 500 areas. This criteria excludes the burning of Brookfield House, on the Charleville estate near Tullamore, where the loyalist land agent Ernest Browne lived. The inclusion of Mullacrew House in Mountbolus and Mullagh House in Killurin in Dooley’s tally is also questionable.  A strict adherence to Dooley’s criteria reduces Reilly’s exaggerated statistic of sixteen country houses to eleven. Misinformed, it is unclear what, if any, fact-checking was undertaken by Dooley.

Ascribing a medley of motives, he surmises most Big House burnings were to deny billets to Crown forces, IRA counter-reprisals for British reprisals, owners supporting British authorities, and ‘ancestral or festering agrarian grievances.’ Mirroring Free State propaganda, Dooley resorts to crude conspiracy theory arguing unnamed local IRA Volunteers were embroiled in atavistic land hunger. He has yet to identify a single IRA arsonist acquiring land from a Big House estate in Offaly. Evidence complicating and contradicting Dooley’s tendentious theory is ignored. The Offaly IRA reigned in agrarian impulses from 1920 when Republican arbitration courts were organised. In 1922 the IRA published notices in the Midland Tribune warning people to desist from cattle driving and land seizures. Moreover, the IRA protected landed gentry (among others) at Hunston House and Golden Grove from agrarian and labour agitators.  Instead of fixating on the IRA, a more fruitful line of enquiry would be to ascertain how many Cumann na nGaedheal supporters and National Army officers acquired farms from the break-up of landed estates. The Leap Castle estate is an instructive example. Were prominent IRA officers inveigled into joining the National Army by promises of land following the signing of the Anglo-Irish ‘Treaty’?

Dooley’s ex cathedra pronouncement that ‘there is no denying’ an agrarian motive for the IRA’s burning of E.J. Beaumont Nesbitt’s mansion at Tubberdaly in Rhode is unproven. The pioneering research on Beaumont Nesbitt’s Tubberdaly estate by Croghan historian Oliver Dunne is ungraciously unacknowledged. Overly reliant on guesswork, using a limited range of sources, and failing to understand the IRA’s chain of command, Dooley’s unconvincing analysis occurs in a vacuum. He contends: ‘…unless the full circumstances of social, political and agrarian activities in the locality – both at the point in time of burning and in the historical past – are explored, one cannot be certain that there were no other underlying reasons.’  Hamstrung by localism and pursuing blind alleys, he circumvents pertinent external military factors. 

The decisive wider context to the burning of Tubberdaly can be traced to individuals beyond Offaly. Seasoned IRA outsiders acting on orders from their Chief of Staff Liam Lynch, not opportunistic and avaricious locals, instigated co-ordinated arson attacks on mansions in North Offaly in 1923. The IRA leaders implicated in the incendiary onslaught were from Tullamore and other urban areas of Westmeath and Laois. The same North Offaly Brigade IRA ASU, led by a Westmeath native, were responsible for the Big House burnings at Tubberdaly, Durrow Abbey, Ballyburley and Greenhill. Another IRA unit, instructed by the North Offaly Brigade commander, torched Middleton Biddulph’s mansion at Rathrobin. The owners were targeted because of their longstanding family tradition of administering British rule in the county. Holding titles of Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant, they were ‘Imperialists’ in the eyes of Liam Lynch. In consequence these mansions were condemned to a fiery fate as counter-reprisals for the executions of IRA prisoners in Portlaoise Jail.


Dr Gavin Foster’s illuminating essay on ‘Locating the “Lost Legion”: IRA Emigration and Settlement After the Civil War’ contains an intriguing document from the IRA’s ‘Foreign Reserve List.’ The document, dated 1927, is signed by Joseph Reddin, an IRA leader from Cloghan. He requested permission from IRA GHQ to emigrate. After the Civil War economic recession and Free State repression propelled an exodus of IRA emigrants.

Foster’s research, drawn from a sample of 338 IRA veterans, reveals the majority of former revolutionaries like Reddin emigrated to the USA. His sample is admittedly only a fraction of total Republicans who emigrated. Unfortunately there are no figures for Offaly. Most of the USA-bound emigrants gravitated to New York. The New York ‘Sons of Offaly Association,’ comprising IRA veterans, was founded in the 1930s with Reddin as president. Many expatriates helped finance the IRA memorial on the courthouse grounds in Tullamore. The inscription on the memorial emphasising ‘Their comrades in arms of Tullamore and America…’ is a reminder of their influence. In 1957 Reddin and his wife returned to live in Offaly.


Dr William Murphy’s essay discusses the GAA’s impact on the Revolution. He warns against overstating dual membership of the GAA and revolutionary activity. There is a familiar photograph of the South Offaly No. 2 Brigade IRA internees’ hurling team in Rath camp, the Curragh, in 1921. Regrettably none of the internees in the photograph, sourced from Kilmainham Gaol Museum, are identified. Many of the internees were from Cadamstown, Drumcullen, and Killoughey. The same photograph is in the Offaly County Library archives where the caption is misnamed ‘Rath Brigade at Newbridge internment camp’ and misdated to 1923. The photograph was previously published in two local history books and the Offaly Independent.    


While sparking debate and displaying flashes of insight overall the Atlas,for all the superlative blurbs, does a disservice to Offaly. The modest assertions by the editors that the tome offers ‘an overview’, is ‘incomplete’ and a ‘work in progress’ strikes a cautionary tone. The Atlas cannot be regarded as an authoritative guide for the county. No doubt some of its tentative and dubious conclusions will be challenged by rigorous, in-depth local studies in the future. Hopefully deficiencies on the midlands will be readdressed by the editors’ promise that ‘All counties will receive fuller treatment via our continuing online presence…’

[Published in the Tullamore Tribune and Midland Tribune, 26 Oct. 2017.

Professor Terence Dooley and Dr Marie Coleman declined a right of reply offer.]

Dr. Philip McConway


An Atlas Which Is No Guide

The introduction to this Atlas is headed with a quotation from Fr. Michael O’Flanagan in June 1916: “Geography has worked hard to make one nation of Ireland; history has worked against it.” It then goes on the claim that “Geography is not just some ‘objective’ counterpart to history, however, or even a mere backdrop to historical events and processes. It is often integral to them.” It goes on in this vein as if O’Flanagan was giving a geography lesson to the volunteers in 1916 and explains that the title of Atlas of the Irish Revolution for the book is to deliberately highlight geography as being a crucial element in this history. Hence the need for the numerous and elaborate maps, tables, illustrations, etc.

It is incredible that the editors seem totally blind to the fact that what O’Flanagan was actually saying was that geography did NOT matter and the national divide among the people in the island of Ireland was what mattered and needed to be faced up to. Geography tended to obscure not highlight that most important fact.  That was his point. The editors show the usual total blindness to the stark staring reality of two nations in Ireland that O’Flanagan pointed out over a hundred years ago. When will they ever learn?

They go on to acknowledge their inspirers: “Erhard Rumpf, David Fitzpatrick , Tom Garvin and Peter Hart have been to the forefront in interrogating the geography of revolution in Ireland via their attempts to construct explanatory models based on spatial patterns of revolutionary mobilisation, support, activity and violence. The island maps in this Atlas generally confirm the broad pictures that have emerged from their scholarship, such as Munster’s centrality to armed conflict; north-east Ulster’s long term resistance to Irish nationalist demands;” So the mountain of labour of these authors and many others have produced the mouse that says Munster was very active in support of Irish nationalist demands and Ulster was very resistant. Thanks a million for that earth shattering conclusion. Now we know! But it hardly needed 964 pages and a small forest to tell us. The whole theme of the introduction is laughable if not embarrassing for its pretentious but intellectual paucity and complete misreading of Fr. O’Flanagan. They should leave geography to the Geography Departments who can produce good history when dealing with their subject.

Michael D Higgins has a foreword which among other things praises it because “The Atlas, eschewing any temptation to homogeneity of motive or structure of events documents the sequence of happenings from the outbreak of the first World War in 1914….” To call any history worthy of the name “a sequence of happenings’ is oxymoronic.

After this introduction and foreword I despaired at reading it never mind reviewing its nearly 1000 pages and 5 kilos. Life seems too short for some things. With this book it’s a case of ‘Never mind the quality feel the weight’ to paraphrase a comedy show of some years ago.

However, I noted that John Borgonovo writes a chapter on Cork. He seeks to explain Cork’s distinctive role in the War of Independence. He does this by simply lumping together what existed in Cork in terms of the minuscule Sinn Fein, IRB, Gaelic League, GAA and Inghinidhe Na hEireann that existed there before 1916 and then adds William O’Brien and the  All for Ireland League (AFIL). The latter put all the other bodies mentioned in the shade in terms of size and influence. But we are left to guess how this might have been the case. The nearest thing to an explanation of this phenomenon is a footnote to a photograph though it patently deserves a chapter by one of the approximately 100 contributors in any book claiming to be an ‘Atlas’ of the Revolution. Borgonovo would find it difficult to do so as his last book had nothing but a litany, the usual litany, of disparaging and dismissive comments on William O’Brien and the AFIL. See “The Dynamics of War and Revolution: Cork City, 1916-1918.” He had totally failed to appreciate the unique dynamic of Cork politics which was the AFIL. He has learned something about it since but not much.

We are told that “Cork did not support John Redmond’s constitutional nationalism”.  Cork fully supported constitutional nationalism, up to the hilt, in supporting William O’Brien who was a true constitutional nationalist. O’Brien did not have a well organised, well-funded militant organisation like the Molly Maguires to support him. They showed their true colours to the world at the Irish Party’s 1909 ‘Baton Convention’ when its thugs prevented O’Brien and anyone with a Cork accent from speaking from the platform by batoning them from the hall. This was in opposition to O’Brien’s and the AFIL’s policy of ‘Conference, Conciliation and Consent’ towards the Unionists – a very constitutional approach compared to Redmond’s which was to treat the Unionists with contempt and rely on the British Government and army to deal with them.

That Convention was Redmond’s ‘constitutional nationalism’ in action and it showed itself at every election in defence of Redmondsim.

Also, O’Brien did not put himself at the head of an army as Redmond did with the National Volunteers and put himself forward as an authority on warfare and launched Ireland into a war that destroyed him and his Party. Redmond was the most UNconstitutional nationalist as O’Brien never tired of pointing pout. But Borgonovo feels obliged to keep the revisionist picture of Redmond shining bright by not mentioning these things. He should really remove the revisionist blinkers he took to wearing a few  years ago and take  serious note of O’Brien and the AFIL.

Borgonovo though an early critic of Peter Hart’s sectarian thesis now feels obliged to throw a sop to it by claiming that “the Protestant population in parts of west Cork feared republican intentions. Sectarian and political tensions in that locale later featured in the controversial ‘Bandon valley killings’ of thirteen Cork Protestants in April 1922.” (564). There is no evidence produced to establish that Protestants qua Protestants feared Republicans and the reference to the Bandon valley killings is a collection of weasel words equating ‘sectarian and political tensions’ as the motivation which is all that ‘featured’ can mean. If he believes this he must know who did it and why and be able to show us how exactly these two elements ‘featured’ in the episode. He should also include an explanation of the attempted killing of Catholics in the same episode.

However, in another piece on ‘Suspected Informants in Munster’ after listing the number and backgrounds of those executed he tells us that ‘the selectivity of this list should be emphasised. For example, it did not reflect a blanket IRA suspicion of the unionist gentry, former policemen, or even of civilian contractors working for the RIC and military.” (570). If these groups, whom we can assume were sympathetic at least and some active supporters of the Crown forces in many ways, were not targets why should the Protestants community have been considered targets by Republicans  and have reason to fear them? As Borgonovo well knows it was Republicans led by Tom Barry and other leaders who physically protected Protestants during this episode but that is conveniently ignored by him when he has to genuflect to the Hart thesis.

Borgonovo began his career as the very first academic who saw through Hart’s historical ‘sectarian’ chicanery and established a case against it over 20 years ago. It is sad and ironic to see that he now feels obliged to give some credence to that thesis when more and more academics are dropping Hart like a hot potato. Borgonovo could have led this movement and saved academia the decades of  embarrassment that Hart and his mentors have caused it. But he took another path in the groves of Academe.

Jack Lane

(Aubane Historical Society.)

(Irish Political Review, November, 2017)

P.S. Readers should access the Tullamore Tribune from the 26 October where  Dr. Philip McConway reviews the book in relation to what it says about County Offaly and lists at least thirteen geographical and historical errors of  fact in relation to that County. See below.


Brief summary of some errors relating to County Offaly outlined in Dr. McConway’s review in the Midland Tribune of 26 October 2017 which have not been refuted by the authors concerned, despite an invitation  to do so.

Dr Marie Coleman, ‘War of Independence: Regional Perspectives’ essay (pp. 579-587).

  • Coleman incorrectly infers the Offaly IRA’s first fatality from combat, Captain Patrick Seery, fought with the Westmeath IRA and died in that county (p.580).  
  • Coleman claims IRA GHQ was ‘exasperated’ with both Offaly brigades (p.580). The evidence reveals Richard Mulcahy, the IRA Chief of Staff, was frustrated with Sean Mahon, the South Offaly No. 2 Brigade commander. Mulcahy sought to demote Mahon following an unsuccessful attempt by the IRA to ambush a train carrying British Army troops in 1921. Coleman misrepresents this incident to disparage the entire Offaly IRA.
  • Elsewhere, a biographical profile of Mulcahy mistakenly includes a photograph of Patrick Hogan (p.785).
  • Disproportionate and distorted coverage is devoted to the Coolacrease killings (pp.581-82).
  • Noting the Coolacrease incident proved ‘controversial,’ Coleman does not elaborate why or discuss RTÉ’s well publicised deception. Why is RTÉ’s discredited pseudo-documentary ‘The Killings at Coolacrease’ cited as a source in a prestigious publication?
  • Why does Coleman rehash the long demolished land grab canard (p.582)?
  • Coleman erroneously alleges the IRA said the Pearsons stored Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) munitions in their home. No explanation or context is provided for the UVF reference (p.582).

Professor Terence Dooley, ‘The Burning of Irish Country Houses, 1920-21’ essay (pp. 447-53).

  • Dooley falsely asserted Derrylahan House (misspelled ‘Derryglahen’ and ‘Derrylahen’) is in Offaly, rather than North Tipperary (p.449).
  • Dooley’s cited figure of sixteen Big Houses burned in Offaly from 1920-23 is inflated (p.449). Dr. McConway’s verifiable figure is eleven.
  • Dooley’s speculative claim that ‘there is no denying’ an agrarian motive for the IRA’s burning of E.J. Beaumont Nesbitt’s mansion at Tubberdaly in Rhode is unproven (p.452).The corroborated motive was an IRA counter-reprisal for the executions of IRA prisoners in Portlaoise. Dooley is aware his speculative motive is contested. However, he decided to ignore conflicting evidence thereby misleading readers.


  • Several maps in the Atlas display a flimsy grasp of the midlands geography. Kilbeggan, a key centre of the IRA’s North Offaly Brigade operations, is misnamed ‘Kilbrennan’ in a map supposedly documenting IRA attacks on Crown forces in Leinster (p.583).
  • A Civil War map, purporting to show the National Army’s Athlone Command area in 1923, confuses Offaly (King’s County) with Queen’s County. The county name change dates to 1920. Walsh Island is mislocated. (p. 714).
  • A map highlighting an IRA raid on the Grand Canal inaccurately notes Pollagh (Offaly) is in Nenagh (North Tipperary).
  • A map on ‘Locations of Na Fianna troops, 1909-22’ contains a baffling reference to ‘Cloone’ (p.174).
  • A map detailing the eighty-one Civil War ‘official executions’ by the Free State government, refers to two executions in Birr Castle and one execution in Birr town (p.737). In fact all three executions were in Birr Castle. The evidence indicates the victims were civilians, not IRA Volunteers.


Review: Atlas of the Irish Revolution

Coolacrease revisited

The events of 1918 – 22 (or thereabouts) used to be known as the Troubles, but that name has now been transferred in popular speech to the more recent Northern conflict. More formally, the 1918-22 events were widely referred to as the War of Independence, and that is still their popular designation. But the current academic fashion is “Irish Revolution”, a term which was practically unknown until it began to be pushed by academic historians. So what is wrong with “War of Independence”? I suspect that latter is not ‘neutral’ enough. ‘Revolution’ can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. But ‘Independence’ is always good, isn’t it, not like dependence or compulsion? My God, it’s almost the same as “Freedom”! We can’t be having that now, can we. Better get this new value-free terminology into the heads of innocent schoolchildren before the more popular title used by the ignorant common people takes hold of them. Independence was authorised by a constitutional, democratic vote in December 1918. That was not revolutionary. The fact that the people had to then conduct armed defence of their vote does not make it a revolution. Calling it a Revolution suggests that the Irish vote was unconstitutional or undemocratic.

A generation earlier there was a change in land tenure when tenant farmers used government loans to purchase their farms. But when Council tenants buy their houses on favourable terms it is not called revolution. There was a Glorious Revolution in 1688, but the native Irish chose the counter-revolutionary side. The Editors of the new Revolutionary Atlas are named as: John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. 

A rather jaundiced review in the Irish Catholic newspaper, by Felix M. Larkin, gives the book “two cheers”: “The many plaudits this volume has received since its publication in mid- September are well justified. It is an epic production, running to almost 1,000 pages and weighing in at five kilos. Even Atlas himself would have difficulty holding it in his hands in order to read it. The other and more general use of the word ‘atlas’ is to refer to a book of maps, and what this volume aims to do is to map the Irish revolution of 1912-23 in words and images. It comprises over 150 concise chapters, written by over 100 contributors —on subjects ranging from the 19th Century antecedents of the revolution to the contemporary public and cultural memory of it. Another shortcoming of the Atlas is a certain lack of balance. The editorial line is largely uncritical of the Irish revolution and of the physical force tradition of Irish nationalism. Seminal articles by F.X. Martin and Francis Shaw—dubbed elsewhere by Pádraig Ó Snodaigh as the “two godfathers of revisionism”– are, for instance, marginalised in this volume. Even Patrick Maume’s chapter on constitutional nationalism emphasises that Parnell, Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party were happy to honour the physical force tradition as well as the constitutional one. True, but Maume may underestimate the extent to which this appropriation by Home Rulers of a tradition antipathetical to their values was simply an attempt to obviate the danger of being outflanked by more extreme nationalists.”

A review in the Tullamore Tribune, a County Offaly newspaper, criticises the book from a different angle. Philip McConway writes (October 25 2017) that its account of the war in Offaly is seriously inaccurate, prejudiced and deficient. He describes bias, inaccuracy, propaganda and conspiracy theory in an essay on ‘The Burning of Irish Country Houses, 1920-21’, by Professor Terence Dooley, Director of the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates (CSHIHE) at NUI Maynooth. According to Dr. McConway, the essay by Marie Coleman of Queen’s University, Belfast, regurgitates discredited atrocity propaganda about the IRA killing of the Pearson brothers in Coolacrease, Co. Offaly. This was first dished up by Eoghan Harris and Niamh Sammon in an RTÉ programme broadcast ten years ago in October 2007. So “Atlas” seems to be a very mixed bag. What is the use of this and similar academic publications about the War of Independence? With a few honourable exceptions they serve, not as reliable sources of information, but as a kind of weather-vane indicating which way the political wind is blowing. “Atlas” probably signifies an attempt by some academics to establish some credibility for themselves by distancing themselves from an increasingly tarnished British orientation on the War of Independence.

Pat Muldowney

Editorial Note: Perhaps the term War of Independence has been dropped because it raises the question of ‘independence from what oppressor’?

                                                                     (Irish Political Review, November, 2017)


Report: UK Launch of “The Atlas Of The Irish Revolution”.

The Department of Foreign Affairs organised   a lavish UK launch of the “The Atlas of the Irish Revolution” at the Irish Embassy in London on 9th November 2017.   The canapés were nice and the wine and Guinness flowed freely. A panel discussion was advertised with the Editors of the Atlas (Dr John Crowley, Mr Mike Murphy, Dr Donal Ó Drisceoil and Dr John Borgonovo) that would be moderated by Mr Fergal Keane. But none of this happened. Mr Keane did not show without any explanation given and there was no discussion as promised to the disappointment of many.

After registering I got permission to give out copies of the review below together with a copy of Dr. Philip McConway’s review in the Midland Tribune. I distributed about 30 copies of each to the people waiting to be admitted to the launch meeting room upstairs, not yet open, including copies to Donal Ó Drisceoil. About 10 minutes later I was ordered to stop giving them out which I did. Then a very angry John Borgonovo came down from the launch room and asked me “Why was I doing this?” I said I was giving out reviews of the book – what was wrong with that? Philip McConway’s review was clearly known to him and others   and they were really annoyed at it being brought to their attention. He held up Philip’s review and asked why we were not doing something ourselves. I reminded that he also had a copy of our review in his hand to which he seemed oblivious in his rage.  He stormed off. This was a repetition of John’s reaction to reviews of an earlier book of his in the IPR back in 2012 when I passed him in the street in Cork. He then promised/threatened to send us a response. But none came.  Let’s hope that this time he translates his anger into a response. But he is probably not keen to move out of the academic comfort zone into the real world.

The launch itself had well over a hundred present. When I sat down   I was approached by a  burly gentleman  man  who introduced himself  and checked who I was and ordered  me again not to give out leaflets which I  had already given up. I said I had got permission for those I had given out downstairs. He said ‘Not from me and I’m in charge’.

The deputy ambassador opened the event.  The superlatives started rolling and never stopped. The new President of UCC, Patrick O’Shea was next in a similar vein. The superlatives were again many and varied.  He was delighted that it was not only reviewed but editorialised about in the Examiner papers and had several laudatory items in the Irish Times.  What higher praise could there be! He was particularly fulsome in his praise of all the illustrations, graphics etc.  The highlight for him apparently was the fact that they contained a photo of a smiling de Valera (sniggering laughter). He did not seem to realise that this could be interpreted as having damned it with the faintest of faint praise.

Ken Loach who launched the book was also fulsome in his praise, it was magnificent, a true weighty tome. There had been a shared history with Britain but it was not a pleasant but a brutal one. It had been a conflict between the British ruling class and the Irish people. Not with the British people. But what government of the British ruling class has ever paid any price for their approach to Ireland?  Ken’s approach to this history is that of a morality play of good Irish people and good British people versus a bad British ruling class. It is lay preaching like so many on the Left on numerous other issues. However he did note that the title needed explaining as there had not been a revolution in Ireland. He certainly knows more about revolutions than the editors. But he hoped it would contribute to a revolution in Ireland.  Dream on, Ken.

Donal Ó Drisceoil  followed. He told us that a ship with a reprint of 14,000 copies weighing 75 tons was at that moment sailing to Ireland from the Italian printers and all were already sold. Then he went from superlatives to fantasy when he said that  this  reminded him of the Aud sailing with another revolutionary cargo over a century ago.  He noted that the story goes on and there will be debates as shown by the leaflets distributed earlier.   But there was no opportunity provided  to continue the debate on this occasion.  No discussion or contributions    from the audience  followed as was expected by many there.

 It was reported that apparently all British publications approached, including the BBC and  The Guardian have refused to review it.

 I was going to ask a few questions. Did the 75 ton reprint take on board the errors highlighted by Philip  McConway  and rectify them? Could John Borgonovo provide actual evidence of the “Republican intentions”  that would have caused fear among the Protestants qua Protestants of West Cork? He must be familiar with all newspaper reports of the period, all books, memoirs, archives, the BMH witness statements, the pension statements etc. and  it should be easy for him to produce it – if it exists.

If he knows the motives of the Bandon Valley killers, as he claims,  he must know who they were. Who were they? If he cannot answer these  questions satisfactorily then he is feeding  the sectarian thesis that is now  pursued by  members of the ranters and ravers  club such as Eoghan Harris.

Despite all the sources available John probably lacks a vital source – personal knowledge of people who fought in the War of Independence with a resulting lack of empathy with them and what they were. I grew up among them, they were my neighbours. They took on the Tans, the Auxies, the Regular Army and the most despised of all, the good Catholics in the RIC. If John’s allegation was put to them I think that they would find it incomprehensible and insofar as they could comprehend it they would, quite rightly, consider it beneath contempt.

I have a suggestion to help him. The handsome figure  that adorns  the cover of the Atlas was one of those neighbours, Roger Kiely from Cullen, an intelligence officer with the Millstreet Battalion of the IRA – but   not identified in the book.  As he was chosen to ‘front’ the book the editors might have had the decency to identify him. They might  even have  included  the artist Sean Keating’s opinion of him: “Roger Kiely was about the best and finest man I ever knew.  A few years ago I went to look for him in County Cork. I found him a poor school-teacher in a poor little school near Kanturk. I asked him about the others and found that death, poverty and America had claimed them – the Unknown Soldiers.”  (BMH Witness Statement 505).  But instead  of that generosity of spirit we have  despicable, mean spirited  allegations by  well-paid  editors and professors  who would  not be fit to tie the shoelaces of such men.

  His son, Der, is alive and well in Millstreet and a renowned servant of the community – like his father. I suggest that Borgonovo  takes his head out of the archives for a day and visit him and he will get some idea of what the war was really about. While there he could drop in on another neighbour, Tom Meaney, the son of the local Battalion Commandant. He might come away a wiser man.

Jack Lane

  Atlas Of The Irish Revolution!   What Revolution?   There was an Irish War of Independence.  Ireland wanted to govern itself independently of England.  It did not want to turn the world upside-down in pursuit of some wild vision.  It just wanted to govern itself.  That is what it voted for in the 1918 General Election. There would not even have been a War if England, which had just won the Great War for Democracy and the Self-Determination of Nations, had not made war on the elected Sinn Féin Government.   For three generations the events of 1919-21 were known as the War of Independence.  Then Oxford University invented the Irish Revolution, and some Irish academics took the hint and prospered.   It was entirely discreditable to England that it made war on a sober, democratically-mandated, independent Government in Ireland—but a wild Revolutionary turmoil:  that would be something else!    The late Peter Hart, a Canadian graduate  of Trinity College, Dublin instructed by Australian Professor David Fitzpatrick, concocted a tale about an Irish revolutionary upheaval that became genocidal.  It was immediately hailed as a classic by  Emeritus Professor Roy Foster of Oxford University, and was given mass circulation around the world by Oxford University Press.   That story has now been discredited by serious academics.  John Borgonovo, an  Associate Editor of this Atlas, and a contributor to it, was once one of those serious academics.  It is sad to see how he has declined since being adopted into the revisionist coterie that runs the History Department at University College, Cork, and disparages Cork’s contribution to national development and to the War of Independence by being an apologist for Peter Hart’s chicanery just as earnest academics in Ireland and Britain are unravelling Hart’s concoctions and causing the tide to turn.   (See the work of John M. Regan, University of Dundee.) Poor John has clambered aboard a sinking ship.   For example, he says that “the Protestant population in parts of west Cork feared republican intentions. Sectarian and political tensions in that locale later featured in the controversial ‘Bandon valley killings’ of thirteen Cork Protestants in April 1922.” (564). There is no evidence  produced to establish that Protestants qua Protestants feared Republicans  and  the reference to the Bandon valley killings is a collection of weasel words equating ‘sectarian and political tensions’ as  the motivation which is all that ‘featured’ can mean.  If he believes this he must know who did it and why and be able to show us how  exactly these two elements ‘featured’ in the episode. He should also include an explanation for  the attempted killing of Catholics in the same episode.    However, in another piece on ‘Suspected Informants in Munster’ after listing the number and backgrounds of those executed he  tells us that ‘the selectivity of this list should be emphasised. For example, it did not reflect a blanket IRA suspicion of the unionist gentry, former  policemen, or even of civilian contractors working for the RIC and military.” (570). If these groups,  whom we can assume were sympathetic at least, – and some active supporters of  the  Crown forces in many ways –  were not targets  why should the Protestant community  have been considered  targets and have reason to fear ‘Republican intentions’? As Borgonovo well knows it was Republicans led by Tom Barry and other leaders who physically protected Protestants during this exceptional episode but that is conveniently ignored by him when he has to genuflect to the Hart thesis.   The Irish Government of 1919-21 issued a regular publication, the Irish Bulletin, detailing events in the War which it circulated to Westminster politicians and to the world press.  Those Bulletins were scattered in libraries around the world.  The Aubane Historical Society has collected them, has published three volumes of them, with more to come,  The Atlas includes a little chapter on the Bulletin.  Other chapters have ample reference endnotes, but this one has none . The fact that there is a comprehensive collection of the Irish Bulletin currently available is concealed.  The political bias is blatant.             This ‘Atlas’ is a vanity project.  Cork University is awash with money and is looking for things to do with it.  So it produces this flashy display literature that will not be influential because of its poverty of content, and will not be widely read because it is physically too heavy for anyone but a strong man to lift.    With regard to content, the Midland Tribune, in a long review, has shown what a slipshod piece of work it is in its dealing with Offaly.  Its quality is certainly no better in its coverage of Cork.  And its grandiose title of Atlas is entirely unwarranted.  Geographers have written some of the best history, but this Atlas is neither  reliable geography nor history.   The introduction to this Atlas is headed with a quotation from Fr. Michael O’Flanagan in June 1916 “Geography has worked hard to make one nation of Ireland; history has worked against it.” It then goes on to claim that “Geography is not just some ‘objective’ counterpart to history, however, or even a mere backdrop to historical events and processes. It is often integral to them.”   It goes on in this vein as if O’Flanagan was giving a geography lesson to the volunteers in 1916 and explains that the title of Atlas of the Irish Revolution for the book was chosen to deliberately highlight geography as being the crucial element in this history. Hence the need for the numerous and elaborate maps, tables, illustrations, etc.   Fr. O’Flanagan was a Vice President of Sinn Féin under President de Valera.   His point was that, in the case of Ireland, the geographical condition of being an island did not shape the population into a corresponding nation.  Fr. Flanagan was a two-nationist, who recognised the Ulster colony of the early 17th century had undergone a distinct national development of its own which did not fit in easily with the national development of the native population.  Nothing of this will be found in the would-be Atlas.   The Northern Ireland dimension of the ‘Irish Revolution’ gave rise to a 28 year  ‘Long War’ in recent times.  It is sketchily dealt with in a chapter called The Unionist Counter Revolution And The Invention Of Northern Ireland.  The Ulster Protestants were Counter-Revolutionaries because they just wanted to stay as they were within the British state.  But the fact is that they did not invent the Northern Ireland system, which generated Protestant/Catholic antagonism from the start.  That was done by Westminster.  It was what led to the recent War.  But it is important to the Editors that Westminster should not be held responsible for the things it was responsible for.    Regarding Cork:  Peter Hart’s thesis was that there was something about Cork which predisposed it towards “political violence”, and towards religious genocide.  There are echoes of this discredited thesis in Borgonovo’s contribution.   He says that “Cork did not support John Redmond’s constitutional nationalism”.  That might be true enough if Redmond’s nationalism was constitutional. Redmond’s nationalism was challenged in Cork in the 1910 Elections by William O’Brien’s All-For-Ireland League (AFIL). The AFIL took eight of the nine Cork seats away from Redmond.  Its case was that Redmond had made the Home Rule movement into a Catholic Ascendancy movement by weaving the Ancient Order of Hibernians into the structure of the Home Rule Party;  that his strategy of forcing through a Home Rule Bill at Westminster in tight alliance with the Liberal Party, which meant supporting the Liberals against the Tories on internal British issues, was driving Ireland towards Partition.               Redmond held Unionist Ulster in contempt.  He relied on the British army to break its resistance to all-Ireland Home Rule.  After the Curragh Mutiny of March 1914 he got an Army of his own by taking over command of the Irish Volunteers.  Then, as the situation was ripening for Civil War, Britain joined the European War and made it a World War for the destruction of Germany and Turkey.  Redmond committed the Home Rule Party to British Army recruitment for this Imperialist War in which there were 50,000 Irish casualties.        He enacted this reversal of the traditional nationalist view of Britain’s wars without seeking an electoral mandate for it.  And, when the 1910 electoral mandate of Parliament ran out, he agreed with the Liberals and Tories that elections should be suspended till the end of the War, with Parliament continuing as if elected.   It was Redmond’s autocratic reversal of the Irish national view of British Imperial War that precipitated the Easter Rising.  Redmond’s Party was swept aside when Elections were eventually held in December 1918.  The AFIL merged with the new Sinn Féin Party.  The handful of Redmondites elected refused to attend the national Parliament that was mandated by the electorate.   John Borgonovo needs to learn a lot more about the history of Cork and acknowledge the unique contribution of William O’Brien and the AFIL to that history and have the courage to say so. Jack Lane Aubane Historical Society, 9.11.2017  
IRISH BULLETIN                                         a reprint of the official daily newspaper of Dail Eireann   Volumes 1-3 12 July 1919 – 1 January 1921 (1,597 pages) Published by the Aubane Historical Society     Order to:

Review of ‘The Atlas of the Irish  Revolution’:

Some thoughts prompted by a reflection on the role of Bishop O’Dwyer of Limerick in

the Easter Rising.

The French have an expression: ‘c’est le premier pas qui coute’ – it is the first step which counts; and my first step taken in reviewing this book was shaped by a conference that I had attended a day or two before I received this book as a gift.  The one day conference was held at Mary Immaculate Training College, Limerick, on 13 October 2017 and was designed to mark the centenary of the death of Bishop Edward O’Dwyer of Limerick on 19 August 1917.  Many aspects of the life of Bishop O’Dwyer were discussed and central to the debate was his role in support of those who had taken part in the Easter Rising. 

My first step, therefore, as I began reviewing the book, was to check the index and to locate references to Bishop O’Dwyer but his name was not in the index!  I then turned to articles relevant to the Easter Rising and to the Catholic Church in order to see if, by chance, he did appear in the text but not in the index; but his name was not to be found.  Subsequently I came across a reference to him in an article by Ray O’Connor and Noreen Byrne on ‘Horace Plunkett, the Co-operative Movement and the Cultural Revival.’  The article was very informative but made no mention of a close friend of Bishop O’Dwyer, Mgr. Michael O’Riordain, whose book ‘Catholicity and Progress in Ireland’ (1905), presented a compelling challenge to the views expressed by Plunkett in his ‘Ireland in the New Century.’  O’Riordain, as rector of the Irish College in Rome, played a major role in shaping Bishop O’Dwyer’s approach to the Easter Rising, which will be the main focus of this review.

Clair Wills in her article on ‘Staging the Easter Rising’ concludes that it was ‘a symbolic sacrificial gesture’ and Fearghall McGarry, in his article on ‘The Easter Rising’, while making some mention of the practical plans by the military council of the IRB ‘to mount a serious military challenge,’ ultimately highlights ‘the symbolic nature of the insurrection.’  In many ways McGarry’s article appears at variance with his finely balanced account of these events in his book, ‘The Rising, Ireland: Easter Rising 1916’ (2010).  He writes that Pearse, MacDonagh and Plunkett ‘appeared to see the spilling of blood as a

prerequisite for the redemption of the nation’ and concludes that ‘the rebels’ behaviour and their propaganda attest to the symbolic nature of the insurrection.’  McGarry concludes that the rebellion was ‘revolutionary street theatre’ which was ‘morally wrong’ and he writes of Pearse that he was ‘a relative late comer to the conspiracy.’  This verdict on the morality of the Rising was largely based on the address given by Eoin MacNeill, President of the Irish Volunteers, to the Volunteer Council in mid-February 1916.  A copy of one of the pages of MacNeill’s handwritten memorandum is to be found on page 230 of this book.  Recognition of the role of Bishop O’Dywer tells a different story: not only about the morality of the Rising but also about the context in which the Rising took place, in particular with reference to the First World War.   The issues of ‘blood sacrifice’ and ‘staged theatre will be discussed after a survey of Bishop O’Dwyer’s actions in these revolutionary years.

Even in the years immediately before the Rising, Bishop O’Dwyer merits attention for his criticism of John Redmond: firstly, for his support of England’s war aims; and, secondly, for his rejection of Pope Benedict XV’s many calls for peace.  The Pope’s first statement was made in November 1914, soon after he became Pope, and it was Redmond’s failure to respond to a papal appeal in July 1915, ‘To the People now at War and to their Rulers’ which served as a prelude to O’Dwyer’s most outspoken criticism.  In November of 1915 Redmond described some young Irishmen emigrating from Liverpool to escape conscription as ‘very cowardly.’  In a public reply, made on 10 November 1915, O’Dywer declared ‘what wrong have they done to deserve insults and outrage at the hands of a brutal English mob … their crime is that they are not ready to die for England.  Why should they? What have they or their forebears ever got from England that they should die for her? … This war may be just or unjust but it was England’s war, not Ireland’s.’  The impact of O’Dwyer’s statement was recognised by Augustine Birrell, Chief Secretary of Ireland, who told the Royal Commission on the Rebellion in Ireland in 1916 that ‘it was one of the most formidable anti-recruiting pamphlets ever written.’  Despite this British official recognition of Bishop O’Dwyer’s influence on the recruiting campaign, there is no acknowledgment of his impact in John Horne’s article on ‘Ireland and the Great War.’  While there are interesting illustrations about the scale of recruiting, there is no mention of Bishop O’Dwyer or, for that matter, of Lord Wimborne, the Lord Lieutenant, who was head of recruiting in Ireland during the years 1916-1918.  

Bishop O’Dywer’s trenchant criticism of the British war effort was probably influenced by his knowledge, through Mgr. O’Riordain in Rome, of the terms of the secret London Treaty of 26 April 1915.  This treaty between the Entente powers and Italy explicitly declared that the Pope’s appeals for peace should be rejected and that he was not to have a place at any subsequent peace conference.  This detail alone casts an interesting light on British war aims and the treaty also confirmed that England and France should have special claims to Turkish territory in the Middle East after the war.  The secret Sykes Picot agreement of 19 May 1916 further clarified and extended these claims, while the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917 recognised a state of Israel in Palestine.  Indeed, on reflection, it might be said that the zones of influence created by these treaties persist to the present day and have contributed greatly to the contemporary wars in that area.  No reference to these significant treaties appears in the book.  Moreover, while some articles do mention the united nationalist Irish opposition to the British imposition of conscription in April 1918, the precise formulation of that opposition is not spelt out.  The Mansion House Declaration of 18 April 1918 stated that ‘the passing of the Conscription Act by the British House of Commons must be regarded as a declaration of war on the Irish nation.  The alternative to accepting it as such is to surrender our liberties and to acknowledge ourselves slaves.  It is in direct violation of the rights of small nationalities to self-determination.’  It was agreed by all Irish parties: de Valera and Griffith for Sinn Fein; Dillon and Devlin for the Irish Party; and representatives of the Labour party.  It was also supported by the Catholic hierarchy.  In short all Irish parties had come around to the view expressed publicly by Bishop O’Dwyer in November 1915 that ‘it was England’s war, not Ireland’s war;’ it was not ‘our war.’  For that reason alone one would expect his name to appear in the book.

Bishop O’Dwyer’s intervention on the Easter Rising was no less momentous than his role as anti-recruiting agent and opponent of the war.  He is best remembered for his public attack on the policy of General Maxwell in May 1916 – even that does not receive a mention in the book – but before that he was indirectly aware, through Mgr. O’Riordain, of events that were central to the planning of the Rising.  He knew that Count Plunkett had visited Rome and, with the help of Mgr . O’Riordain, had a private audience with Pope Benedict XV, on 8 April 1916, and, at that meeting, the Count had received a papal blessing on the Irish Volunteers; not, it should be stressed, on the IRB nor on an armed rising.  It should be remembered that John Redmond had visited Pope Pius X in 1905 and received his good wishes that he might ‘win that liberty which makes for the welfare of the whole country.’  The papal blessing which Count Plunkett received was of the same character and it was designed to overcome the moral issues which Eoin MacNeill had presented to the Council of the Volunteers in mid-February.  Although Jérôme aan de Wiell has mentioned Count Plunkett’s visit to Pope Benedict XV in his article ‘Ireland’s War and the Easter Rising in European Context,’ he makes no mention of Bishop O’Dwyer and Mgr. O’Riordain.  He has, of course, written extensively about them in his other publications but it is unfortunate that their important roles in this particular incident of the papal blessing have not been recognised.  When Joseph Plunkett informed MacNeill of the blessing, on 22 April, he declared that he ‘was then ready to take part in the rising’ and issued orders to that effect.   Thomas MacDonagh was also happy to tell Brennan Whitmore that a papal blessing had been received.  Within hours, however, MacNeill countermanded that order, after news came through of the failure to land arms in Kerry and of the capture of Casement.  The Rising, therefore, which had been carefully planned for Easter Sunday, 23 April, took place amidst total confusion.  It began on Easter Monday, 24 April; Patrick Pearse’s cease fire order was carried out on 29/30 April; and the execution of 15 of the rebels took place between 3 and 12 May.  General Sir John Maxwell had arrived in Ireland as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in the late evening of 27 April with orders to crush the rebellion and he was responsible for the policy of execution.  It was in this context that Bishop O’Dwyer made his major contribution to the Easter Rising.

Bishop O’Dwyer’s first public intervention on the Rising occurred on 17 May 1916, when he replied to two letters of General  Sir John Maxwell which had been written on 6 and 12 May and which requested the Bishop to sanction two of his priests.  He replied, on 17 May, ‘the events of the past few weeks would make it impossible for me to have any part in proceedings which I regard as wantonly cruel and oppressive.  Personally I regard your action with horror, and I believe that it has outraged the conscience of the country … your regime has been one of the worst and blackest chapters in the history of the misgovernment of the country.’  Bishop O’Dwyer was the only member of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to declare publicly for those who had taken part in the Rising.  His letter, despite the restrictions of the Defence of the Realm Act, was publicised not only in Ireland but also in Rome, the USA and the rest of the world.

Bishop O’Dwyer’s second public statement in favour of the Rising was made on 23 June and was issued in a form of a public letter to the Tipperary Board of Guardians who had congratulated him on his previous letter.  He thanked them for their approval of his response towards ‘that brute Maxwell’ and added: ‘while our young men are not afraid to die for her in open fight and when defeated stand proudly with their backs to the wall as targets for English bullets, we need never despair of the old land and your letter will be a comfort to those who reverence the memory of Ireland’s latest martyrs.’   This statement gained the same publicity as his first letter.

Bishop O’Dwyer’s third public statement was made on 14 September 1916, in his acceptance speech to the Limerick Corporation, when he was awarded the Freedom of the City of Limerick.  In the course of a long speech, he addressed the issue of the morality of the Rising and affirmed that ‘these Irish Volunteers imagined that Ireland had an inalienable right to govern herself (applause); that the deprivation of it was worse for every interest of their country than any number of bad laws in detail.  That a foreign Government forced on an unwilling people was a usurpation, and resistance to it was a duty. (applause) … The rebels were the true representatives of Ireland and the exponents of her nationality.’  This statement received world-wide coverage and generated much sympathy for those who taken part in the Rising. 

The Bishop’s use of the term ‘usurpation’ to describe the character of British rule in Ireland introduced a new concept which, if accepted, undermined the traditional principles which were required for a just rebellion against a ‘tyrannical’ government.’  The traditional principles, which had been presented by MacNeill to the Irish Volunteers in February 1916, required that the people be grievously oppressed; that there be no constitutional hope of redress; and that any opposition to the government must have a reasonable chance of success.  By introducing the term ‘usurpation’ to describe the character of the English government in Ireland, Bishop O’Dwyer not only nullified the arguments of Eoin MacNeill and justified the actions of the rebels but also he has made an enduring contribution to the debate on political legitimacy.  Remarkably, and even Bishop O’Dwyer does not appear to have adverted to this fact, the word ‘usurpation’ appears in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.  It states:  ‘we declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.   The long usurpation of that right by foreign power and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people.’   These considerations about the morality of the Rising, allied to Bishop O’Dwyer’s brave and isolated stand against the horrors of General Maxwell’s martial law regime, indicate forcibly that one cannot tell the story of the Easter Rising without mention of his name.

Further considerations about the working of British Intelligence at the time of the Rising tell us much about the character of the Rising: it confirms that the IRB was planning for military success and was not merely engaged in a work of drama.  The detailed exposure of the role of Admiral Hall and his staff at Room 40 of the Admiralty also raises question about the morality of their own actions.  Jérôme aan de Wiell, in his article expands on the work of British Intelligence in detail.  In particular he provides information as to how Admiral Hall and Room 40 at the Admiralty Office had broken the German telegraph code from the start of the war and was aware of contacts between the IRB in Ireland with John Devoy, the head of Clan na Gael in America, and with various German authorities.  They were even aware of an IRB message to Devoy, on 5 February 1916 stating that a Rising was planned for 23 April.  Recent work by Geoffrey Sloan has increased our knowledge of these events.  He noted that a memorandum in Prime Minister Asquith’s papers reveals that he was made aware of this IRB message on 23 March by a directive from the Director of Military Intelligence.  The same directive spoke of the landing of German arms in Ireland and noted that Admiral Bayly at Queenstown, Cork, had been made aware of these plans.  Sloan also reveals that, on 17 April, General Stafford, also based in Queenstown, made the authorities in Dublin, both civilian and military, aware that arms were to be landed in Kerry and then moved to Limerick.  In response to this information General Stafford visited Limerick and made an appraisal of the situation there.  At the same time he advised the Dublin Metropolitan Police to keep a watch ‘on the turbulent spirits in Dublin.’ 

While one may criticise the lack of response by the Dublin authorities, the reaction of Admiral Hall was more calculating and, indeed, raises the question of the morality of his actions.  When Casement was a prisoner in London, he asked Admiral Hall, on 23 April, for permission to make contact with Dublin and to persuade them to call off the Rising planned for the next day.  Hall refused the request.  Casement interpreted this action to mean that for Hall ‘it is better that a cankering sore like this should be cut out.’  This opinion of Casement has been endorsed by Eunan O’Halpin, who concluded his fine study of ‘British Intelligence in Ireland 1915-1921’ by stating that ‘given Hall’s outlook and general behaviour, it is quite possible that he intended the rebellion to take place, knowing that it would be crushed and that the government would be obliged to follow a policy of repression in its wake.’ It is in this context that questions arise over the morality of Hall’s conduct: if the rebels are to be blamed for the loss of civilian lives, is it not reasonable to attach the same blame to Hall and his political superiors or, at least, to regard their actions as a moral issue?  

Other information about plans by the IRB to conduct a rebellion also proves that the actions of Pearse were not merely part of a dramatic blood sacrifice.  This information is extremely relevant to the portrayal of the Rising by McGarry and Wills.  While working in the German archives, Colonel J.P. Duggan discovered the plans made in the summer of 1915 by Joseph Plunkett and Roger Casement, during their time in Germany, for an armed uprising, which were made with the co-operation of German military officials. (Sunday Press, 31 March 1991).  These plans provided for a landing of arms and men at Limerick, with the further aim of providing a line of resistance along the River Shannon up to Galway and Athlone; plus other links with Cork in the south and with Limerick Junction and Tipperary to the east.   There was also provision for German assistance in regard to military action in Dublin. It should be recognised that, since September 1914, German prisoners of war had been evacuated from France and detained in Templemore Barracks, which was near Limerick Junction.  By December 1914 there were about 2,000 German prisoners in the barracks.  Pierce McCann, commandant of the mid-Tipperary Volunteers, made plans to free these prisoners and to use them in any uprising against English rule.  These plans became known to the RIC special branch and it was probably as a result of this that all of the German prisoners were removed to Leigh in Lancashire, England, in early February 1915.  However, as Roger Casement had visited Irish prisoners of war in a camp at Limburg, Germany, in early December 1914, it is possible that his plans for them to participate in an attack on British rule in Ireland may have become known to Admiral Hall and his team.

The plans revealed by Colonel Duggan certainly changed previous interpretations of the Easter Rising.  On seeing the documents and the maps, F.X. Martin stated that they were ‘tremendously important’ and that, ‘from the historian’s point of view, they are nothing short of sensational.’  He concluded that ‘now, at last, we have evidence of the existence of a plan for an all-Ireland rising that was not hare brained’ and he added that ‘I will have to eat some of my words in relation to Joseph Plunkett.  Such a reappraisal was also accepted by Professor Donal McCartney of UCD who acknowledged that the documents ‘put a totally different complexion on the aims of the 1916 leaders.’  Although, as Diarmuid Lynch had narrated many years ago, these plans were modified by Pearse in January 1916 and Fenit, county Kerry, was selected as the location for the landing of German arms,  the significance of the plans remains the same: there was no desire to engage simply in a blood sacrifice.  

This message had also been spelt out in Seamus O Buachalla’s edited version of Pearse’s letters, which was published in 1980.  From the Howth gun-running, 26 July 1914, Pearse wrote many letters to Joe McGarrity in Philadelphia giving a shrewd analysis of the political situation and precise details in regard to military planning.  One letter, written on 12 August 1914, sheds a revealing light on Pearse’s approach to war which should serve to dispel some of the malicious myths about him.  He wrote ‘moreover the ammunition landed is useless.  It consists of explosive bullets, which are against the rules of civilised war and which, therefore, we are not serving out to the men.’  On reading the letters, Professor Joe Lee concluded that Pearse ‘had spent two years trying to ensure that the Rising would not be a blood sacrifice, however willing he was to play the blood sacrifice role once events took their course.’  Professor F.X. Lyons, who wrote the foreword to the book, came to the same conclusion writing that ‘future biographers will have to weigh this pragmatic correspondence against the flamboyance, sometimes the barely suppressed hysteria of Pearse’s published writings from 1914 onwards.  In doing so perhaps they will come at last to a balanced view about a man whose letters no less than his actions stamp him out as one of the most remarkable creators of the Irish revolution.’ 

Unfortunately the articles by Wills and McGarry have failed to recognise either the importance of these letters by Pearse or the significance of the armed plans for a Rising made in 1915.  Recognition of these realities makes it impossible to describe the Rising in terms of ‘blood sacrifice’ and ‘staged theatre.’

 Brian Murphy OSB