TV documentary Review: In the Name of the Republic

Eunan O’Halpin.

Broadcast TV3, 18 and 25 March 2013.

Tile Films 2013.

Reviewer: John Dorney


In this programme Eunan O’Halpin, who has spent the last ten years researching, ‘The Dead of the Irish Revolution’  claimed that the IRA ‘disappeared’ into anonymous graves 200 people between 1918 and 1921 – 180 civilians and 20 members of the Crown forces. *

Immediately this set alarm bells ringing. In 2012, O’Halpin published the first results of his and Daithi O Corrain’s research, which revealed that the IRA in the War of Independence, was responsible for 281 of the 898 civilian fatalities, with British forces being responsible for 381. A further 236 deaths could not be confidently attributed to any party (the IRA, loyalist, rioters, undercover Crown forces). [See Terror in Ireland, p153-154]

In this programme Eunan O’Halpin, claimed that the IRA ‘disappeared’  200 people between 1918 and 1921 – 180 civilians and 20 members of the Crown forces.

This brings up two questions – first of all, where did all the extra ‘disappeared’ victims come from? There was no effort made in the programme to verify this figure of 200 secret killings by the IRA. Secondly, given that state forces actually killed more civilians, why was this not given greater prominence in the programme?

No one can doubt that, especially in the first six months of 1921, the guerrilla conflict in Ireland became a brutal business and the IRA became increasingly ruthless about shooting suspected informers. A narrative exists, coloured also by the prejudices of the subsequent Civil War, that ‘youths given the power of life or death over whole counties’, in PS O’Hegarty’s phrase, quoted in the programme, killed all around them.

But this is a highly partisan strand of contemporary thought. O’Hegarty’s The Victory of Sinn Fein was essentially a Treatyite rant against the anti-Treatyites of 1922-23. Even allowing for television dramatisation, to present it as the unvarnished truth is unbalanced. Even worse was the programme quoting the Royal Irish Constabulary as an impartial witness to events. An RIC DI was quoted saying,  ‘People are afraid to be associated with the forces of the crown’, by an IRA – ‘system of universal terrorism’, and called for the ‘extermination of these bandits’. What else would a party to a counter insurgency campaign say?

Regardless, if there are hundreds of bodies secretly buried around Ireland by the guerrillas of that era, then there are. But there was very little evidence presented for this either.

In County Laois, O’Halpin investigated a rumour of bodies from Tipperary buried in a Quaker farm. Archaeologists, including history blogger Damien Shiels, were hired to look for the bodies. The speculation was that two men, Fitzsimons and Coonan, disappeared from North Tipperary in 1921. Not only did the JCB not turn up any bodies, the two proposed victims turned up in the records as never having been killed, by the IRA or anyone else.

In the second part, looking at County Cork, it was alleged that the IRA Cork Number 1 Brigade, which covered north Cork and the city, abducted and killed up to 90 victims and secretly buried them on the farm of one Martin Corry.

Corry claimed in his IRA pension that 27 bodies were buried on his farm and in a bog (now forest) called Knockraha. In recordings in the 1970s he claimed that there were ’60 even’. The problem with this testimony is that there does not seem to have been 60, 90 or even 30 victims missing that could fit into the alleged mass graves. Corry for instance told local historian Jim Fitzgerald that 17 ‘Camerons’ (of the Highland Cameron regiment) were buried there. In fact, John Borgonovo tells us, the regiment had only 3 men missing in its time in Cork.

A reenactment from the programme of the killing of an informer. Image TV3
A reenactment from the programme of the killing of an informer. Image TV3

I am informed that Jim Fitzgerald himself estimates that between Corry’s farm and Knockraha there may be 15 bodies buried. The figure of 90 secret deaths comes from Gerard Murphy, whose book, the Year of the Disappearances, was rightly savaged here on the Irish Story by Padraig Og O Ruairc for presenting supposition as evidence.

Now none of this should lead anyone to think that the Cork IRA had clean hands in the period. They did, as the programme tells us execute an aged loyalist, Mrs Lindsay for giving away an IRA ambush, for which 6 Volunteers died (one in action and 5 executed). They did abduct and kill and secretly bury William Parsons, a teenage Boys Brigade member because he was suspected of spying. And they did kill and ‘disappear’ two former RIC men in mid 1922 (well after the truce and Treaty) in revenge for the assassination of Tomas MacCurtain in 1920.

No evidence presented for scores of disappeared civilians. Nor for tendentious talk about the Cork IRA’s campaign of ‘extortion’ and ‘torture’.

But there was no evidence presented for scores of disappeared civilians. Nor for tendentious talk about the Cork IRA’s campaign of ‘extortion’ and ‘torture’. The casual viewer would never have guessed that the IRA represented a political movement with overwhelming electoral support in the elections of 1918 and 1920.

O’Halpin concluded, ‘It is time to seek truth and justice for disappeared’. ‘Where’s their memorial?’ While this reviewer has nothing against that, whatever their numbers may be, this was a bafflingly biased programme. It presented and inflated all the bad things the IRA did, shorn of context while proposing a thesis of hundreds of disappeared which was never even remotely proved.

Baffling not only because Eunan O’Halpin’s ancestors were all in the IRA of that era, but also because elsewhere he has written (in for instance, this fairly balanced piece and here on The Irish Story) that his research suggests that in the brutal low intensity war of that period, Crown forces were considerably more indiscriminate in their violence than were republican guerrillas. So why the sensational anti-republican tone of ‘In the Name of the Republic’?

There is nothing to be gained by treating nationalist history as a sacred cow but nothing either by making radical claims unsupported by evidence.

*Professor O’Halpin has since been in touch to say that the figure of 200 people ‘secretly disposed of’ refers to both civilians and Crown forces, killed as spies and informers in non-combat situations. The number of those who were killed and ‘disappeared’ in 1919-21 he states is 57.

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