When one hears the words “Óglaigh na hÉireann”, one can be forgiven for immediately thinking of the terrorist organizations that have come to be associated with it.
Those three words have a torturous history, stretching as far back as the beginning of our main revolutionary past. Today, the rightful heirs to those three words are in dispute, and this dispute can be instrumental as a lens by which to view the paramilitary activity that has largely defined parts of our 20th century history and discuss the legitimacy of such groups.
That name first enters our history back in 1913 and the founding of the Irish Volunteers. Though the words can be translated into English in many forms – Soldiers of Ireland, Warriors of Ireland, Young Men (what “Oglaigh” is actually in reference to) of Ireland – it was picked out as the Irish language title for that Home Rule defending group.
After the Volunteers split and defeat in the Easter Rising, the new entity of the Irish Republican Army was created out of the ashes. A sense of continuity was established by the carryover of “Óglaigh na hÉireann” as the group’s Irish title. Following the end of the revolutionary period in the mid-20s is where it gets complicated.
From that point, two opposed groups (or rather, one a group, and a contrasted mass of groups) have used the words. They are continuing paramilitary groups that have claimed the title of “IRA” in both their Old, Provisional, Continuity and Real forms and then the Irish Defence Forces, the recognised military of the political entity known as the Republic of Ireland (though the name is really just, “Ireland”). The IRA groups claim it as a bolster to their own expressed sense of continuity with their parent organisations, as they are the only claimants still “fighting” for the United Ireland of the Old IRA. The Defence Forces claim it as the natural progression of the independence movement, the irregular forces that won sovereignty transformed into a traditional army, that defeated the anti-Treaty IRA in the Civil War.
As this year will mark the centenary of the Irish Volunteers being founded, the remembrance of our revolutionary past brings the debate over “Óglaigh na hÉireann” front and centre. The Irish Defence Forces have recently begun to more aggressively use the title in press releases and the like, drawing a very direct link between themselves and the Irish Volunteers in the process. The message is that they are the only ones with the right to use the title in such an activity. They are directly opposed to the C-IRA and R-IRA splinter groups that have, in the last decade, exclusively used the words to describe themselves (though, at least one of them now appears to be defunct).
So, who is the rightful heir? Well, it’s the IDF and I’ll tell you why:
-The Irish Defence Forces are the only claimant to be a recognised, official armed force.
-They are the only claimant to take their orders from a democratically elected government.
-The people of Ireland elected a pro-Treaty government in the early 1920’s, thereby signalling an end to the popular mandate of the IRA to wage a republic-seeking war against the United Kingdom.
-The people of this island reaffirmed that decision, and the recognition of the North, by ratifying the passage of the Good Friday Agreement.
-Therefore, the actions of any other group calling itself “Óglaigh na hÉireann” is without mandate or legitimacy from the people it claims to represent.
– Considering the illegal and continued targeting of civilians by those groups, I would consider any moral legitimacy, when compared to the O-IRA which primarily targeted British forces, to be irreparably damaged.
-Sinn Fein might still call them “Óglaigh na hÉireann”, but Sinn Fein does not hold power in the majority of the island of Ireland, and has no authority to decide such things.
-Somewhat ironically, the original title was used by a group founded to defend Home Rule – that is, not a 32 county Republic. There is some subjective cut-off in influences I suppose.
While this is primarily a modern issue, it has some important ties to the past and to remembrance of that past. Our Defence Forces have to take the lead in the centenaries, or else they could well be hijacked by illegitimate paramilitary groups that, beyond any right, claim the same Irish name, despite all reasons to the contrary. The IDF is the successor of the groups that fought for and created a free Irish state, even if that exact state isn’t what they started the fight for. But the people, time and again, have given their judgement on that matter.
Óglaigh na hÉireann, the correct one, will lead the centenary decade.