Ireland’s Wars: The IRA In The Late 1930s

We have spent a number of entries discussing the Irish Free State’s, and then Ireland’s, internal politics and foreign relations, but now we must turn back to the case of paramilitary organisations within the confines of Ireland, namely the Irish Republican Army. This entity had undergone a number of significant changes in status and ability since the end of the Irish Civil War, with a turn to the left one of the most obvious elements of its existence, before a dalliance with political legitimacy. But now, on the eve of the greatest conflict that the world would ever see, the IRA was about to undergo yet another political re-alignment, as it came under the leadership of a man who wanted to place war with the United Kingdom firmly back on the agenda.

Sean Russell was a Dubliner, who had joined the Irish Volunteers at age 20 and participated in the Easter Rising as an officer under Thomas MacDonagh in the Jacobs Biscuit Factory area. Interned in Frongach afterward, he became a significant presence in the IRA following his release, appointed Director of Munitions in 1920, and later was a member of the anti-Treaty faction. Arrested by the provisional government, he was held in confinement until late 1925, when he orchestrated an escape from Mountjoy Prison. In the post revolutionary period years he was one of a few voices pushing for much more radical action from the IRA, and was part of the delegation that visited the Soviet Union in 1926. IRA Quartermaster General from 1927 till 1936, Russell became one of the key organisers of the entity in this period, travelling the length and breadth of the country, and abroad, giving speeches, offering training courses, meeting with government officials during the IRA’s legalisation, organising IRA involvement in protecting strikes and generally helping to keep the IRA from slipping into obsolescence. Russell was noted as someone who attempted to stay out of the IRA’s ideological shift in this time, and was part of the court martial that tried those members who quit the IRA to form the Republican Congress.

He also ruffled feathers, and conflicts involving Russell would culminate in a fractious convention that took place in 1938. In the years running up to this Russell had been censured for undertaking fundraising missions to the United States without the authorisation of the Army Council, and for alleged misappropriation of funds: Russell would counter claim that too many of the IRA leadership at the time seemed to have little appetite for conflict with Britain, an attitude that Russell did not share. As early as the mid-30’s he was courting the opinion of IRA members as to the possibility of a coordinated campaign against the UK, where bombings would be a key component, and received much support, moral and financial, from the American based Clann na Gael.

The IRA at this time was in a bit of turmoil at the top, with crumbling numbers and a succession of short-lived Chief of Staff tenures. Sean McBride, son of John MacBride, had been installed at the head of the IRA in 1936 upon the arrest and imprisonment of Moss Twomey, but the organisation was already becoming riven by discord and factionalisation: between left and right, between those who went to fight for the Spanish Republic and those who thought such an adventure was foolhardy and between those who wanted to push forward with military action within Britain in the form of bombings – ie, Russell – and those who preferred alternative methods, like a focus purely on Northern Ireland. In 1937 a frustrated MacBride would actually resign ffom the IRA, and instead pursue a career in legitimate politics. We’ll come across him again in the latter 1940’s when his Clann na Poblachta party became a significant player in the Dail.

MacBride first’ successor was Tom Barry. He wanted to push ahead with military action in the North, and told anyone willing to listen at IRA leadership meetings and conventions what his intentions were. His plans were ambitious, and not exactly rooted in reality: Barry insisted that it would be possible for the IRA, even in its reduced state, to seize a town on the other side of the border, hold it and then move on to another town, with Barry explicitly drawing comparisons between such tactics and 1916. Russell was scornful of such plans, and not just because they were fantastical in their ability to overestimate the IRA’s reach: Russell believed that if such things were executed, they would just visit destruction on Irish territory and Irish people, and the IRA were better off doing such things in the homeland of the actual enemy.

Barry’s plan would never get the chance to be put into action. He made large personal efforts to train a force in the countryside of Cork while he himself was living on the run, import arms, scout out locations in Northern Ireland and even get in specialists from Britain, but it was all for naught: when IRA leadership realised that news of the operation had become common knowledge among republican circles outside of the IRA in the North, it was recognised as too dangerous to proceed. Volunteers had travelled to Dundalk ahead of an expected attack against Gough Barracks in Armagh to take place imminently, but were stood down. It was probably just as well: notwithstanding Barry’s enthusiasm and belief that the British could be forced out of the North by military force, the IRA would have been operating in relatively small numbers in hostile territory, and would have faced overwhelming odds shortly after any military action was started. At best they would have been able to take an unprepared barracks and hold it for a time, but military victory seems fanciful as an expectation when discussing such things.

Barry found his efforts consistently stymied by the problems within the IRA, with more and more Volunteers leaning towards Russell’s ideas of attacking Britain directly. Looking around for allies, Barry would take what would become an extremely controversial trip to Nazi Germany in January 1937, organised after contacts between German agents in Ireland and Barry. He would later claim he made the journey at least partially to discover how much penetration the Germans had been able to manage within the IRA. There he secured a commitment from the Abwehr, the Germany military intelligence service, for financial support in the event of a war with Britain, to be organised through republican organisations in the United States: with this, the IRA would attack British military installations in Northern Ireland. Naturally history has taken a dim view of such contacts, but at the time Barry was simply looking to become friends with those who shared his enemy. Of course Nazi racial ideology, anti-Semitism and aggressive territorial expansion was not some secret at the time, so Barry, and others who followed the same path afterwards, should not be entirely immune from criticism either.

Upon his return to Ireland from this trip, he was prepared to present the so-called “Barry plan”, an organised IRA offensive in Northern Ireland, to the IRA leadership, but he found much less takers than he expected. When he failed to get popular support for his plan at a convention in Dublin, where he attempted to get the Dublin Brigade of the IRA to immediately march on the North, Barry resigned. He was briefly replaced by Mick Fitzpatrick, before that contentious 1938 convention solved the matter of the IRA’s leadership and policy for the immediate future.

There, in April of that year, the debate between the militarists, as exemplified by Russell, and the Northern focused faction of Barry and others, came to its head. Barry, Fitzpatrick and others were targets for unexpectedly strong criticism for the IRA’s general level of inactivity, while Russell’s proposals for an immediate effort to commence bombing of military targets in Britain had more support than ever. Barry was scathing of such plans, deeming them both immoral, in terms of the likely dead, and a waste of resources that could be used against military targets in the North. He even suggested he could led a column against the House of Commons as an alternative, but this was not treated seriously. In the end, Russell and his supporters were now numerous enough to be able to gain control of the IRA, in both its executive and in the chief-of-staff position, which Russell took up. Barry, who espoused a belief that the British bombing campaign was being pushed by Nazi sympathisers, resigned along with several others in protest.

In truth Barry’s decision may well also have been influenced by his fatigue at living constantly on the run, and a series of arrests and brief confinements during his time as Chief-of-Staff. After serving as an intelligence officer in the Irish Army during World War II, Barry returned fully to a civilian life, writing his memoirs, claiming a state pension and living relatively quietly. That said, he was never shy about expressing support for the IRA, or the later Provisional IRA, in terms of targeting the British military whenever they could. However he also never let go of his opinion that the IRA’s use of bombing as a tool of war, all the way to the 1970’s, was morally repugnant. He would die in 1980, aged 83. Of all of the IRA’s commanders during the revolutionary period and after, there are few who measure up to his success at a tactical level, his popularity as an officer among the rank-and-file and his impact on IRA strategy across multiple wars: Barry remains one of the key personalities of the IRA, guerrilla warfare and Irish 20th century history generally. His departure from the stage in 1938 marked a significant change in the IRA, as it now proceeded on the basis of Russell’s militarist leanings.

One of the first things that Russell organised to do was to shore up the IRA’s political legitimacy, as much as it could be shored up. For this, he utilised what was left of the Second Dail, that which had been elected in the Summer of 1921, some of whose members maintained that it constituted the last legitimate government of the Irish Republic. Taking a basis from a March 1921 resolution of the First Dail, that the IRA could form a provisional government of its own if the number of TD’s fell to too low a point, a group of seven TD’s from the Second Dail – most notably Mary McSwiney, Count Plunkett and Tom Maguire – who deemed themselves the “Executive Council” of that body, met with Russell and signed over the authority of the Republic to the IRA Army Council. Thus, Russell was able to claim that he and he IRA leadership constituted the only legitimate governing body in Ireland. This was important ahead of the planned campaign within Britain, for which he intended to make a formal declaration of war. More long-term, the act has been used to justify the political authority of numerous groups down the decades, even if it constituted mostly political theatre.

More concretely, Russell’s tenure would showcase a marked turn to the right for the IRA. The days of the Republican Congress were past, now the movement would be more dominated by conservative ideologies with roots in Catholic social teaching, corporatism and bits and pieces of what we would recognise as fascism. Some of the Irish fighting for the doomed Republic in Spain were sometimes banned from re-enrolling in the IRA if they had been Volunteers. Members of the organisation dallied with or openly joined entities like Ailtiri na hAiseirghe (“Architects of the Resurrection”), an openly fascist political party that would achieve some small measure of electoral success over the following few years. Anti-Semitic comments and ideology also began to be expressed by Volunteers, between approval of Nazi oppression of Jewish communities in Germany or claims that the Irish government was overly influenced by “Jews and Freemasons”, the two often going hand-in-hand in right-wing minds. The IRA even made tentative steps to reach a rapprochement with Eoin O’Duffy, going so far as to invite him to re-join, but O’Duffy would decline.

Perhaps most importantly, more contacts were made with Berlin. Seamus O’Donovan, a former leading light of the bombmaking elements of the IRA who now served as one of Russell’s most senior subordinates, was the key instigator, making the first of several trips to Germany in 1939. There he negotiated the supply of arms and other equipment, but also became increasingly supportive of Nazi teachings and ideology, especially as it pertained to “Jewry”. Others would also make the trip to Germany in the following years, not least Russell himself, but I will cover that in a later entry.

The combination of all these things was to turn the IRA into an entity that was on more of a war footing than at any point in the recent past. Russell had no intention of being another IRA leader who merely oversaw the existence of the organisation. He was committed to carrying out a war with Britain, and to bringing that war to Britain itself. The manner in which he would do so would be known to history as the “Sabotage Plan” or “S-Plan”, and we will come to that in time.

But now we will instead briefly turn towards Europe. In 1936 a conflict broke out among rival factions in Spain that would become a microcosm of the larger political divide driving the continent apart, and it would suck in soldiers from all over the world to either side. Ireland was not immune from this effect, and next week will we begin to discuss the Irish experience of the Spanish Civil War.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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10 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The IRA In The Late 1930s

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  7. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Sean Russell In Germany | Never Felt Better

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