THE IRA VOLUNTEERS OF THE 1950s
(From Saoirse, "50 Years Ago Today")
"DESPITE the IRA's ties to Sinn Féin, the Volunteers of the 1950's were non-political. They wanted to end partition, abolish the border, unite Ireland."
Thus Seán Cronin in his Washington's Irish Policy 1916-1986 described the members of the new generation who joined the IRA. He went on: "Their predecessors in the 1940s, the 1930s and the 1920s wanted to establish 'the Republic'. Of course the 26-County republic had been inaugurated in 1949 and this caused confusion regarding the word 'republic'."
"They were recruited more or less openly, they trained more or less openly, they attended summer camps in the Wicklow mountains," Cronin continues. The writer took part in those training exercises and would contend that while the Special Branch often became aware of and observed the very large training camps at a distance, training was conducted discreetly and covertly.
Land and buildings were generally used with the consent of the owners or occupiers and local people who came by chance upon classes or exercises did not report them to the police. Training was not conducted as openly as in 1914-16 or the 1932-34 period.
Cronin goes on: "Like the 1914 Irish Volunteers, they saw themselves doing national work. And they enjoyed a degree of tolerance and support because of the anti-partition campaign and the Ireland Act (1949)."
He sketches the background very ably and quotes a report to Washington from the US Legation in Dublin entitled Possibility of Resort to Arms Over Partition of Ireland; Organisations Advocating Use of Force, and dated September 16, 1949. There was no mention in that title of "violence" or "terrorism", mark well.
The report ends: "As in the case of all other nationalist organisations the British 'Ireland Bill' of 1949, was cause for an intensification of the IRA programme.
"The IRA contends that the world at large will not take cognisance of partition until it develops into an armed conflict of international proportions. The cardinal point of its constitution is that partition must be abolished by force of arms if necessary."
Cronin comments; 'The 1949 Act closed all doors to peaceful change , unless the Unionists underwent a miraculous conversion to the political theory of Irish Nationalism.
"As in 1914, young Nationalists, North and South began to examine, at least, the physical force alternative. As the (US) Legation noted a number of times, one of the examples cited was the creation of Israel. The British left Palestine because they were forced out.
"In 1949, the IRA was little more than a bogy (sic) to mobilise Unionist voters in the North. Except for a small minority, most Republicans of the 1930's and 1940s supported Clann na Poblachta.
"Although many grew disillusioned when McBride joined the [Coalition] government, they were willing to give him a chance to end partition through dialogue and negotiation.
"Northern Nationalists were willing to wait until world opinion, meaning America, made the Unionists and the British see reason. They believed time was on their side. Conditions were better in the North than in the South. They were in no hurry, partition could not last.
"By the summer of 1949 Northern Nationalists began to realise that the British had no intention of talking about partition, let alone ending it. The optimism generated by Costello and McBride had no foundation.
"Many believed that the British government had deliberately ignored the opportunity of solving the problem peacefully, an opportunity that might not come again.
"If this thing is done to our country, I say for myself that then feelings will be back to what they were in 1919 to 1921', de Valera said of the Ireland Bill when he heard of it. 'If these people are to tell us that our country can only be united by setting us an impossible task, we hope another way will be found that will not be impossible. We had hoped for something different than that."
Cronin was quoting de Valera from the Irish Press of May 2, 1949. He wondered: "What did this mean? It could mean that, as in 1919 to 1921, the use of force in defence of right was inevitable. In those 'glorious years', as the romantics had it, the Irish fought for independence rather than pleaded for Home Rule. Some members of Fianna Fáil advocated force in the summer of 1949.
"The IRA, as the Legation analyst noted, was the natural repository of the physical force tradition. But Fianna Fáil in the 1940s had done its work well, with some help from the IRA. The organisation was practically wiped out in the South.
"If the membership of the IRB in 1912 could have seated comfortably in a concert hall, the IRA in 1949 would have managed quite well in a school classroom.
"A call to arms against the Ireland Act would have mustered a platoon at best. There was little reality behind talk of force in the Northern Ireland of 1949.
"Between 1949 and May 1951, the IRA was caught up in its own internal wrangles and purges, all having to do with its future course.
"From these emerged Tony Magan as Chief-of-Staff who 'wanted to create a new Army, untarnished by the dissent and scandals of the previous decade', as J. Bowyer Bell put it, with 'no shadow of a gangster gunman, no taint of Communisn, but a band of Volunteers solely dedicated to reuniting Ireland by physical force".
"The recruits of the IRA in the 1950s came out of the anti-partition agitation against the Ireland Act. They were young idealists, much like the Irish Volunteers of 1914."
There follows the paragraphs quoted at the outset of this article. With regard to the charge that the Volunteers were "non-political" despite the IRA's ties to Sinn Féin, it depends what is meant by "political".
In general the recruits were of course nationally minded and wanted Irish control and native development of Ireland's natural resources. They were mainly working-class in the cities and towns and their interests and attitudes would reflect this.
In rural areas they were from the small farm countryside. Culturally many were attached to Conradh na Gaeilge and or the GAA as one would expect. They were certainly left of centre and would have strongly supported "equal rights and equal opportunities" for all citizens as stated in the 1916 Proclamation.
A few were third level students, teachers, civil servants or local council officials and many " but not all " were members of Sinn Féin. This latter and involvement in the Westminster elections North of the Border, and local and parliamentary contests South of it inevitably sharpened their politicisation.
A third-level student, Frank Gogarty - later of the Six-County Civil Rights Association "had some verse carried in the December 1952 issue of An tÉireannach Aontaithe/The United Irishman. It appeared under his usual non-de-plume 'P Mac Giolla Chroim'.
On Reading of the Capture of Arms from an English Military Post was the title and it read:
"Some, with bitter words will say
Their acts were all a folly and they
Who dared it were wanton youth
Distracted by a creed uncouth
And unworthy of these latter days.
This they will say, and go to tell the praise
Of shameless men who stain
A nation's glory for political gain,
They, who with cunning word and wit befool,
And foster still the alien rule.
"But their evil power must pass and their exalted fame
Be remembered only with shame.
Forgotten will be their little days
Of glory when men will learn to praise
Today's outlawed deed, and honour the youth
Who strove for the single truth
That their nation's honour must be rewon
And by the way of Pearse and Tone.
'Tis these I praise, the youthful few
Mindful of their hallowed trust, and true
To the splendid heritage of Things
That love and lore to battle brings.
Surely they love their country well who dare
Forage even in the enemy's lair!
"May they learn, these few brave men
Be they in city streets, or rocky glen,
Or live in valley, plain or wood:
May they learn of the gratitude
They win in hearts as mine;
May they know our joy, and our pride in them
Bringing glory back to our country again.
"What, though the selfish say
Their act were all a folly! We rejoice that they
Who dared it are the best of Ireland's youth,
Soldiers, fearless in the truth
That their country's honour can and will be won,
By one way only - the way of Pearse and Tone."
-- Mac Giolla Chroim
Well said, Frank Gogarty. Beannacht Dé led anam calma.
(More next month. Refs. Washington's Irish Policy 1916-1986: Independence, Partition, Neutrality by Seán Cronin, published 1987 by Anvil press, Dublin and An tÉireannach Aontaithe/The United Irishman, December 1952.) http://www.iol.ie/~saoirse/2002/dec02/50yrsago.htm