From Pogrom to Civil War: Tom Glennon and the Belfast IRA, by Kieran Glennon (Cork: Mercier, 2013).
Investigating a neglected part of our history while simultaneously exploring the part played in that history by your own grandfather must present challenges to any author. Tom Glennon was a significant player in the Revolutionary years, and this makes his experiences valuable to any historian who takes on to investigate and evaluate it. But a reader can be excused for wondering whether his grandson can sustain the necessary objectivity to succeed.From Pogrom to Civil War
examines the Troubles in Belfast and Antrim; Tom Glennon’s subsequent internment; the Truce and its bloody aftermath in Belfast; the Civil
War and Glennon’s role as a Free State fighter in Donegal; finally his mysterious and haunted personal life thereafter, and his grandson’s solving of the mysteries and discovering a wider family.
Thus there is a human as well as an historical tale told here, and Kieran Glennon tells it in a well-paced and well-written way. Because this is history as well as biography, and because the subject of the biography, while a significant player was not a central one, Tom Glennon disappears from the account for many pages at a time; nevertheless his grandson sustains continuity and integration in his book.
The most important thing that this book tells is how different the Revolution was in Belfast—and how complex. Several times I was reminded of Behan’s famous remark about “the split”: it could never be more applicable than to the situation in Belfast, where long before the split over the Treaty, the Catholic/Nationalist community was divided between those who looked to the Volunteers/IRA, and those who looked to the AOH. There was antipathy between the Antrim and Belfast IRA, and later between the more aggressive and more cautious elements within the IRA. Republicans were conflicted between their wish to fight Crown forces and their need to defend their constituency against sectarian attacks. Complicating things further was the partial dependence for arms and ammunition on sympathetic policemen and even corrupt B-Specials and British soldiers. The role of ex-servicemen also seems to have been different in Belfast than in the rest of Ireland (p. 271).
Uniquely the Ulster IRA was faced with a conundrum that had both practical and moral aspects: attacks on Crown forces, the primary target, must lead to retaliatory sectarian attacks on heavily outnumbered, and out-gunned, Catholics. Divisions that emerged within the IRA before the Treaty were the result of this conundrum.
But there were further complicating factors. Catholic RIC feared Loyalist reprisals against their co-religionists, and thoughtful Loyalists feared that such reprisals would ruin their community financially, for compensation for arson and damages had to be footed by the predominantly-Unionist rate-payers. This concern became more pressing after the Belfast Brigade adopted arson of Unionist property as policy; but—reflecting further complication—the nascent Free State also was worried by this development, as it might be held liable for compensation.
The ironic consequence of the conundrum was that the primary target of the IRA—Crown forces—became an ally-of-sorts. British troops were even-handed in their peace-keeping responsibilities; if anything, indeed, they may have been more sympathetic to the IRA than to the B-Specials and Orange mobs in the appalling pogroms that followed the Truce. This sympathy was in part due to resentment at the massive wage-differential between soldiers and Specials, but it also likely was rooted in traditional English sympathy for the underdog. The end result was that it became IRA policy not
to attack British soldiers (pp. 178, 268).
It was probably this factor more than any other that brought to mind the observation that the War of Independence more accurately could be described as the First Irish Civil
War, and Glennon’s chapter, “Legacies”, confirms that in Belfast, between July 1920 and October 1922, only four out of 498 fatalities were “Military” (p. 263); and if non-Irish likely were included in the 20 “RIC/RUC” fatalities, possibly Irishmen were among the “Military” fatalities.
All this complexity, tragically, was lost on the authors of our destructive revolution who, for the most part, thought not with political and military logic but rather with an ideology that was informed by wishful thinking and a simplistic view of history. Not for the last time, Dev got things catastrophically wrong when he
expressed the view that the adoption of a general abstentionist policy by the anti-partitionists would precipitate a split in Unionism along class lines within the new northern parliament and so hasten its destruction (p. 66).
The effect of abstentionism rather was to bolster Unionist power and facilitate decades of anti-Catholic discrimination. Nor was Dev alone in foolish thinking. Eoin O’Duffy, a decade on from formation of the UVF, still could bombastically declare that “The Ulster people had very little force themselves if unaided by British armed forces” (p. 89)—he was clearly unaware that by this stage the sympathies of at least some of the “British armed forces” were with the Catholic minority. Collins “completely failed to appreciate that northern Protestants had economic, political and religious motives of their own for wishing to preserve the union” (p. 281).
While the pogroms that followed the Truce were terrifying, there were Unionist attempts to make the new polity work for all its subjects. Soon after the Truce a wary agreement included acceptance of “An Advisory Committee composed of Catholics to be set up to assist in the selection of Catholic recruits for the Special Police”, as well as joint Catholic-Protestant police patrols (p. 107). The continued IRA campaign against the police rendered this provision void.
Even more lamentable in its outcome: on the Nationalist, nay, Republican side, one of the conditions on which the Northern IRA was prepared to accept the Treaty was “Minority safeguards … in order to secure some measure of just representation in proportion to population” (p. 97). This aspiration was not necessarily a vain one, for proportional representation was written into the Government of Ireland Act; besides, on the Unionist side there was both “a practically unanimous detestation of anything in the nature of permanent partition of Ireland” and “a genuine desire for Peace [and] no wish whatever to oppress their Catholic fellow-countrymen in any way” (pp. 189-90). One can be forgiven for doubting how “unanimous” such feelings may have been, but it was the refusal of Nationalists to take their seats in the Northern Ireland parliament that permitted removal of the very “Minority safeguards” that had so concerned the Northern IRA, and the Council of Ireland that was intended to integrate the island over time. If Stormont turned into “a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people” it was able to do so only with the collaboration of those who sacrificed limited political power to ideological aspiration.
In addition to portraying the complications of the Revolution in Belfast and Antrim, Kieran Glennon shows how anomalous was the situation in Donegal through the Civil
War, where anti-Treaty forces were for the most part outsiders who were treated with hostility by the locals, some of whom, though not affiliated with the Free State, may have taken armed action against the intruders. Sadly, there was nothing anomalous in the savagery and bitterness that marked this conflict. As in every war, and civil
war in particular, this one attracted the worst element. Men from Cork and Kerry were shocked and disgusted by the “truculent and venomous religious bigot[s]” they found themselves fighting alongside (p. 156); men who were “the soul of honour” were “appalled” by others “with a reputation for recklessness and bloodthirsty callousness” (p. 210). Not surprisingly morale collapsed and anarchy frequently emerged in the absence of law and order.
The biographical side of the book is more engaging because of the human interest, yet seems less satisfying, if only because a great deal of detail has been lost on the life of a man who was “haunted” by a “terrible procession of the dead [whom] he tried to bury ... by shrouding them in silence” (p. 302). Glennon’s conclusion that his “grandfather completely stepped aside from history, both from creating it and from remembering it” (302-03) seems very poignant and reflective of what war can do to a man. Yet the author is admirably—even ruthlessly—objective in his treatment of a man for whom he understandably must feel filial love and admiration. He reports the deep hatred which Peadar O’Donnell and others had for his grandfather, the fact that he was a poor shot, an allegation that he appropriated the tool-kit of a motor car, and—though he can understand how it could have been rationalised—“[finds his] grandfather’s participation in the reprisal execution of prisoners to be unforgiveable” (pp. 299-300). While Tom Glennon remains an elusive personality, this reader is left with an impression of a fundamentally decent man who did dreadful deeds, for which he paid with a lifetime of remorse. From Pogrom to Civil War
is a very good book, and the criticisms that I find do not take from that evaluation. While the book is well accounted for—26 pages of end-notes and eight of bibliography—its primary sources are predominantly Nationalist, most written by people who could not have been objective. This is not to impute anything unprofessional to Kieran Glennon; I merely mean that a few different perspectives could have given a greater sense of objectivity.
I also feel that some of the sources may reward investigation by other historians. For example, interrogation of the cited opinion, “The Hibernians were of no use. Indeed they were a menace through their weakness” (p. 270), might form the core of an interesting MA or PhD thesis, whatever the answer the student comes up with.
This book’s main strength is the great detail that it provides on a theatre of war that tends to be neglected. It has the additional great virtue that its author knows the rules of grammar and usage of the English language, something that cannot be said for a depressing percentage of allegedly-professional writers in recent years. (And it’s heartening to discover someone who shares my affection for that endangered species, the semi-colon.) Mercier Press have done a good job of proof-reading too.
But not to be pedantic: the book is well written in another and more important way—it’s a good read, one that I recommend strongly to the forum.