Book Review: From Pogrom to Civil War, Tom Glennon and the Belfast IRA

Glennon bookTitle: From Pogrom to Civil War, Tom Glennon and the Belfast IRA
Author: Kieran Glennon
ISBN: 978-1-78117-146-2
Price: €19.99 (Cheaper from the publisher’s website)
Publisher: Mercier Press 2013
Reviewer: John Dorney


I first heard of this book, when it was merely a germ in the brain of Kieran Glennon, on a Luas tram from Tallaght to Dublin city centre in the summer of 2011.

He told me how his grandfather Tom had served first in the original Belfast IRA during the period known as the ‘pogrom’ in nationalist memory of that city and how he went on join the National Army of the Irish Free State, ending up suppressing fellow republicans in county Donegal in the Civil War.

Like many people the Glennon family were only then recovering the role their family had played in the Irish Revolution through the extensive opening of previously closed archives. In the intervening two years, Kieran Glennon has painstakingly researched both his grandfather and his times. Along the way he contributed this evocative article on his grandfather’s role in the Drumboe executions of March 1923 in Donegal.

I am therefore pleased to now be able to review the finished book.

Both the Belfast IRA’s campaign and the Civil War were generally absent from traditional histories of the period, or at best referred to rather than examined in-depth. Glennon’s book is therefore not only  a family history but also a useful new look at these rather ugly aspects of the period.

Tom Glennon

Tom Glennon began his paramilitary career in the Volunteers in Belfast, and then in County Antrim, where the young firebrand attacked a number of Ulster Special Constabulary and RIC targets before the local Specials caught him and deposited him in the Curragh military camp. He escaped from there, shortly after the July 1921 Truce by hiding in a foul-smelling refuse cart.

Tom Glennon served first in the original Belfast IRA during the period known as the ‘pogrom’ in nationalist memory of that city and how he went on join the National Army of the Irish Free State, ending up suppressing fellow republicans in county Donegal in the Civil War.

After the Treaty of December 1921, he joined the new National Army which was being formed by the Provisional government. This might seem like a strange choice given that the Treaty effectively confirmed the partition of Ireland and meant that the Belfast republicans would be stranded in the hostile new state of Northern Ireland.

However, one of the strengths of Keiran Glennon’s book is that it shows, in all its tortuous detail, how Michael Collins and his man in Ulster, Eoin O’Duffy managed to get most of the Belfast IRA on their side by supplies of arms and money and also assuring them that the Treaty was only an interim settlement. More than 500 Northern IRA men joined the National Army.

On top of that of course, many Northern IRA men were on the run from the Belfast government and needed some sort of wage to support themselves and their families, something only the pro-Treaty side could supply.

At this point the story gets decidedly murky. Tom Glennon was posted to Donegal at a time when anti-Treaty fighters from Cork and Kerry were also being sent there for a purported ‘joint offensive’ on the 6 counties. What exactly was going on here has never really been made clear. Collins and O’Duffy certainly cooperated with anti-Treaty IRA leaders to arm and prepare units along the border but they also cancelled orders for a coordinated rising in May 1922 – meaning that the offensive never really happened.

Was Collins simply using the north as a way to try to re-unite the IRA? Or was he, even more cynically just making sure that anti-Treatyites could not outflank him politically on the question of partition? Or did both of these desires coincide with a genuine wish to help beleaguered northern nationalists? Kieran Glennon does not have definitive answers for these questions, perhaps no one ever will, but he does uncover a lot of very illuminating new evidence.

In any case, one result of the aggressive northern policy was that in County Donegal there were two armed forces, pro and anti-Treaty troops, ostensibly both trying to attack across the new border but answering to antagonistic former comrades in Dublin. They quickly came to blows. In May 1922, five pro-Treaty soldiers and very nearly Tom Glennon died in an ambush laid by the anti-Treatyites.

Tom Glennon appears to have been particularly hawkish – insisting at an early stage that the anti-Treatyites were, ‘our enemies’.  When the Civil War formally broke out in June 1922, a Free State offensive, aided by artillery, as elsewhere rapidly took the anti-Treatyites’ positions.

In Donegal as elsewhere, the remaining republican guerrillas were thereafter very gradually worn down by killings and arrests into scattered ineffective bands. You can read elsewhere on the Irish Story about the ‘Drumboe Martyrs’ whom Tom Glennon was ordered to execute in March 1923 – most likely for something they had not done.

Tom Glennon remained in the Free State Army for some years after the Civil War before emigrating to Australia. Family tragedy eventually took him back to Belfast, where he lived on his Army pension and his work as a family photographer until his death in the 1960s.

The Pogrom

An important part of the book, that diverges a little from Tom Glennon’s  particular story (he was from Belfast but spent most of his IRA career outside the city), is that of the violence of the period in Belfast. And here Kieran Glennon has some interesting and new findings to present.

The Irish revolutionary period in Belfast was a particularly bloody and ugly episode. The nationalist version, accepted across most of Ireland from the outbreak of violence in Belfast in mid 1920 until its close in late 1922, was that Catholics in that city suffered a ‘pogrom’ – a repeated series of massacres aided in some cases by state forces and particularly the Ulster Special Constabulary.

Kieran Glennon, through some excellent new research has new things to say about Belfast in 1920-22

Glennon shows that this is true to an extent. Of 498 killings in the city between July 1920 and October 1922, 266 were Catholic civilians and just 14 IRA, with another 37 Crown forces killed, mostly by the IRA. The proportion of Catholic civilians killed is very high since they comprised just 30% of the city’s population.

Peter Hart took issue with the idea of ‘pogrom’ in Belfast, arguing that the violence was not as one-sided as that, “more resembling a miniature civil war” and indeed Glennon catalogues 181 Protestant civilians killed in Belfast.  But Glennon shows that in fact the British Army, which was  fairly even-handed in battling rioters of both sides, killed 70 people, 35 Catholics and 35 Protestants. This means that Protestant non-state groups and police were nearly twice as likely to kill civilians of the opposing religion as their Catholic counterparts in Belfast.

The IRA or Catholic groups such as armed Hibernians, were however also guilty of attacks on Protestant civilians (notably the bombing of trams headed for the shipyards) and killed 142 Protestants civilians between them.

The idea of one-sided anti-Catholic violence in 1920s Belfast is therefore not entirely true but not entirely without basis either.

The other area of controversy that had always hung over the period was whether the IRA, having to some degree provoked a backlash on the Catholic community, was able to defend it. Robert Lynch in his groundbreaking book, The Northern IRA and the Early Years of Partition, wrote, ‘the IRA failed to perfect any kind of effective defensive strategy [in Belfast] and their many vigorous attempts to do so can only be viewed as failures’.

What Kieran Glennon shows is that although the IRA did not have the firepower to militarily defend Catholic areas from forces equipped, as the Specials were, with heavy armoured vehicles, their presence in parts of the city, especially around the Falls and Lower Falls had a deterrent effect on both loyalist and state reprisals against civilians. While in areas where they were weak – as in east and north Belfast, and the probability of retaliation much lower, Catholic civilians suffered more.


There are some drawbacks to this book and to family histories generally.

None of us can ever be totally neutral about our own families.

In the Civil War in Donegal Tom Glennon became a hate figure for anti-Treatyites. While Kieran Glennon appears to regard this as merely partisan bile, and tends to discount such opinions, he also in fairness presents the evidence for why they might have arisen. Republicans insisted that Glennon fired the first shot in the ambush of May 1922 that effectively began the civil war in Donegal. Kieran disavows this on the basis that his grandfather was a bad shot.

Later on there is a pretty good case to be made for Tom Glennon murdering a prisoner – a man named Gallagher who was ‘shot while attempting to escape’ from Tom Glennon’s custody in December 1922, along with another prisoner. This is always a dubious formula to hear in such circumstances.  Donegal republican Peadar O’Donnell also apparently loathed Glennon for his treatment of him as a prisoner in 1923.

Understandably Kieran Glennon tends to look for benign interpretations of his grandfather’s actions. Dilemmas such as this are what makes this reviewer happy that his ancestors spent the years 1912-23 trying to teach people Irish in Kildare and Dublin rather than engaged in armed insurrection or counter-insurgency.  For neither the former nor the latter leaves any hand completely clean. Yet who can be neutral when considering the misdeed of our own families?

Despite this slight criticism, this an enjoyable and illuminating book and the new evidence it presents on the Collins government’s  Northern policy and the 1920-22 violence in Belfast contains important new arguments.







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