Ireland’s Wars: The IRA Leadership Crisis in 1942

Any organisation, if it wants to succeed, needs good leadership. That can take many forms depending in the situation, whether it is a firm guiding hand or something more stand-offish. But I think one consistent thing, is that good leadership is stable. An organisation that lacks stable leadership, that requires constant change at the top for whatever reason, is one that is bound to struggle to achieve its goals. Such was the case with the Irish Republican Army throughout the Second World War, but especially in the period between late 1941 and late 1942. In that time alone six men could claim to have ascended to the position of Chief-of-Staff, and the result was a chaotic and at times farcical perception of how the IRA was being led.

In the aftermath of Stephen Hayes’ dramatic fall from power, the leadership of the IRA nominally passed to one of the men who had been involved in his arrest and court-martial. Pearse Kelly was a Tyrone-born journalist who had seen his republican aspirations raised by attending the trial of future IRA Chief-of-Staff Eoin McNamee in 1939, and by the sight of British soldiers being present in the North in greater force as a result of the Second World War. Joining the IRA, his pro-active personality was apparent almost immediately, as he and a group of like-minded republicans burnt down a hall being used for British Army personnel, and then established their own version of Republican Police to enforce law and order in his local, nationalist-minded, area. Before the end of 1941 Kelly had been promoted to the command of the Belfast IRA, and a few months after that came his involvement in the Hayes affair. His advancement to the Chief-of-Staff position came afterwards, a decision made by whatever members of the Executive were available, and marked Kelly’s ascent as one of the most rapid in the history of militant Irish republicanism. But his time in the position would last only a few months, preventing him from applying the same zeal he had done previously on a larger scale: as previously discussed, Kelly was meeting German agent Hermann Gortz when the house used for the purpose was raided by police. Kelly was arrested and sent to the Curragh for internment.

His immediate replacement, again seemingly selected by a hodge-podge of whatever Executive members were free to do so, was Sean Harrington, who took the position in November of 1941. A Kerry native, Harrington had been an IRA Volunteer since a young age, and had also been involved in the Hayes affair. He barely got a chance to do anything in his role, being discovered by Garda and arrested only weeks after his appointment. Harrington too went into internment, and it would not be until February of the following year that he would be in anyway properly replaced as Chief-of-Staff. By that time the ability of the IRA to do anything in the south had been severely curtailed owing to the depredations of the police, with Volunteers, sympathetic contacts and safe houses suddenly all being at a premium.

Harrington’s replacement was Sean McCool, of an older generation than the previous two holders. McCool was a War of Independence and anti-Treaty veteran of the Civil War and had remained active in the IRA since, taking part in land annuities campaigns throughout the 1920’s, for which he spent nearly a year-and-a-half in prison. By the 1930s McCool was a senior member of the organisation, leading training camps throughout the country and establishing himself as one of the critical figures of the IRA in Donegal and the North more generally. Firmly on the left of the party, McCool dallied with communist organisations but choose to remain with the IRA when the Republican Congress split off. In 1936 he was arrested in Northern Ireland and would spend most of the next five years in prison; upon his release he returned to the south where he was promptly arrested again, but given his lack of activity over the previous five years it was decided not to intern him. His left-leanings may have prevented him from ascending to head GHQ when Kelly was arrested but with Harrington’s arrest the upper echelons of the IRA were in complete disarray, and the Northern Irish portion of the organisation now largely stepped in to fill the void, McCool would take the Chief-of-Staff role, but by then GHQ was so bare-bones it consisted largely of McCool and only a handful of others. McCool travelled Ireland seeking to re-vitalise the IRA ahead of planned operations in the North (the subject of an future entry) and even attempted to make contact with Nazi Germany again. He was making at least some progress on both fronts but barely lasted a month in his new role before he was discovered and arrested, and sent to the Curragh.

McCool’s internment allows us the opportunity to briefly examine the somewhat farcical situation that had developed among republican prisoners being held in the Curragh. A number of issues had created friction, among them a ideological divide between left and right, whether internees should shovel their own coal for fires in winter months (seen as a point of principle: those opposed felt the coal should be delivered to huts by those running the camps), debate on what the IRA should do in the event of an invasion of Ireland by an outside force and the details of Stephen Hayes’ confession. Late the previous year the O/C of the prisoners was a Cork man named Liam Leedy, but Pearse Kelly’s arrival heralded a change in their leadership that resulted in two distinct camps becoming apparent, between those who follows Kelly’s lead, and those who remained with Leddy. If a member of one side was seen talking to someone from the other, he was liable for ostracisation. McCool, when he arrived, brought orders that the split be healed, but to no effect. Kelly’s side would eventually win out in the dispute, publishing a radical manifesto in their “Statement on Republican Policy” which, among other things, contained thoughts on land redistribution and a lessening in priority for private property rights. But the entire affair painted a still grimmer picture of the IRA at the time where even in a period of mass imprisonment, struggled to find a united approach.

McCool’s replacement as Chief-of-Staff was his right-hand-man, Eoin McNamee. From the border area of Tyrone and Derry, McNamee joined the IRA in the early 30’s and proved an able organiser and recruiter, between that part of the North and London to which he emigrated. Despite obvious left-leanings – he was briefly involved in the Republican Congress – McNamee become a vocal advocate for Sean Russell and his faction, and was later involved in the carrying out of the S-Plan in Britain. Returning to Ireland during the Second World War, he spent time in prison in Belfast before ascending first to the head of the IRA’s Northern Command, and then the IRA in general once McCool was arrested. McNamee was an easy choice, as he had been working intensely with McCool before his arrest on trying to get the IRA up and running again. However, much like McCool, McNamee would never get a proper chance. He was discovered by the Garda in Dublin in May, barely six weeks after his appointment, and he too went to the Curragh.

McNamee was almost immediately replaced by Hugh McAteer, who became the fifth Chief-of-Staff in last than twelve months. A Derry bookmaker, McAteer came from a strong nationalist background and became active in the IRA in the 1930s, spent time in prison for gun-running and had become high up enough in the organisation that his replacement of McNamee was almost a given as soon as the former Chief-of-Staff was arrested. But he would last only a little bit longer in the role than the others had, making it to October 1942 before his own arrest. This time it was Northern Ireland authorities doing the arresting however, and McAteer was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his work with the IRA. Notwithstanding a period of a few months where he escaped from a Belfast prison before being re-arrested, he would not be free again until 1951.

The IRA was truly in crisis now, barely able to hold onto a figurehead at the top for more than a few months, and with an executive level that was being gutted by arrests all the time. The sixth Chief-of-Staff since Hayes’ fall from grace would be the one who would do more than any of the others to alleviate the situation. Charlie Kerins, born in Kerry in 1918, would be one of the youngest men to ever hold the Chief-of-Staff position, inheriting it when he was just 24, though he had only been officially a member of the IRA since 1940. His life to that date bears all he hallmarks of nationalism: a republican background, Christian Brothers education, membership of organisations like the GAA. Quickly ascending to a position within GHQ, Kerins proved himself no mere directing officer when, in September 1942, he was involved in the assassination of Denis “Dinny” O’Brien, a member of the Garda Special Branch. The Special Branch, for their efforts to bring the IRA to heel, had become especially hated, and O’Brien’s death, gunned down outside of his home in Rathfarnham, Dublin by three Volunteers – Kerins among them – armed with Thompsons was one of the more noteworthy examples of IRA efforts to fight back against their perceived enemies. Of course, like other such operations at the time, it was a largely self-defeating exercise: O’Brien, a veteran of the Easter Rising, War of Independence and anti-Treaty side of the Civil War, became something of a martyr in his death, the manner of it increasing public ill-will towards the IRA greatly and emboldening Garda efforts against the IRA, and Kerins would pay for it in time. But another effect was to increase Kerins profile within the organisation and this, combined with his already notable reputation as a GHQ organiser, meant he was selected to take up the Chief-of-Staff role in the aftermath of McAteer’s arrest.

Kerins was leading a truly gutted organisation, with the Dublin IRA in an especially bad state: Kerins himself was obliged to live on the run, never staying anywhere for too long for fear of arrest. And yet, despite these difficulties, during this period the IRA would begin another period of military action, albeit confined mostly to Northern Ireland. In this entry I have focused squarely on the leaderships issues of the IRA in this period, but in a future one we will talk about what the IRA was actually doing at the same time. The so called “Northern Campaign” would prove just another disappointment. But before then we must turn back to a larger lens, as we discuss the Irish relationship with the Allies in a more general sense, as de Valera and his government continued to navigate the difficult path of neutrality.

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

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8 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The IRA Leadership Crisis in 1942

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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