If the immediate time period after the end of the Second World War was a difficult era for Ireland in general, then it is fair to say that is was an extremely difficult era for the Irish Republican Army. World War 2 had been an immense opportunity for the organisation, presenting it with the potential for a serious strike against its declared enemy at a time of duress and with the possibility of making alliances with major European powers: the IRA, through its own inadequacy and the depredations of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s police forces, had conspired to throw those opportunities away. Now, they faced a very real existential crisis: low on manpower, public support and morale, what was left of the IRA needed to rebuild, and rebuild quickly.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the IRA could barely be said to have existed at all. Membership had fallen dramatically, with internment and persecution either keeping the more committed members behind bars, or driving others away from the organisation. Any semblance of a formal structure had collapsed and in 1945 the IRA essentially seems to have existed as a few ad-hoc units in rural areas, out of contact with each other or with Dublin, with very little in the way of finances or supplies. The idea of pro-active operations against either the Irish or Northern Irish state, let alone Britain, was fanciful in such circumstances. Some members of the de Valera government thought the IRA was all but dead, and it is not hard to understand why. In these circumstances, the IRA was essentially starting from scratch, and would be heavily dependent on a small number of individuals to resurrect itself. That process started even before the end of the Second World War, and would be centred on Dublin.
Using stolen information from the Garda to know who to invite, a meeting took place in O’Neill’s pub on Dublin’s Pearse Street early 1945: among the more important attendees in relation to the future were men like Willie McGuiness and Cathal Goulding, Volunteers with deep set militant backgrounds who were veterans of the failed S-Plan earlier in the war. Information was so slim that no one at the meeting could even be sure of the military experience of the others, but from it the nucleus of a new Dublin Brigade was created, and from there a drawing together of enough former members to create a new IRA Executive and Army Council (the latter body from here assuming a greater influence on IRA leadership than the Executive, whose existence became largely to select the members of the Council periodically).
Paddy Fleming, another S-Plan veteran recently released from British internment, was appointed as a new Chief-of-Staff, and one of his first acts was to declare a truce in the conflict with Great Britain, as a an endpoint for the war that had been formally declared ahead of the S-Plan campaign. Few would take much notice of such grandiose statements that truly did not reflect the dilapidated state of the IRA, but such things, along with the efforts to find free members of the last Executive to approve a new one, were important internally: it gave the new IRA organisation at least a veneer of legitimacy and authority, which was no small thing with the IRA in the state that it was. Even with that state, the infighting that had categorised internment still remained, and Fleming’s general unpopularity, combined with the continued predations of the Garda Special Branch, meant that McGuiness would be in the Chief-of-Staff position soon enough. But green shoots began to emerge: an effort at recruitment was launched, Goulding began to undertake training camps in the Wicklow Mountains for Volunteers, literature was published again and by 1947 the IRA was once again in a position to hold an Army Convention.
It was at that convention that a new leadership was selected, one characterised heavily by what became known as “the Three Macs”. These were Tony Magan, a Meath born farmer who had sold his land in order to dedicate himself full-time to the IRA cause, and had been interned during the Emergency; Paddy McLogan of Armagh, who had commanded the South Armagh battalion of the IRA during the War of Independence, was an abstentionist MP in Northern Ireland and was later interned during the Emergency; and Tomas Og Mac Curtain, previously mentioned in this series as the son of Tomas Mac Curtain and for his involvement in the killing of Garda during the Emergency. Magan, himself to be a multi-time Chief-of-Staff with his first tenure beginning in 1949, as to be particularly important as an organiser and hard-line militant, to the extent that his efforts to push out those he considered inferior, like McGuiness, would win some grudging respect. By 1948, the IRA controlled by the three men had committed itself to two key resolutions: to begin preparations for military action within Northern Ireland, and to defer any such actions in the south. In the first instance this decisively re-orientated the IRA to have a northern focus, where the combination of the British enemy and national reunification would go hand-in-hand, and with the second came an acknowledgment that the IRA was never likely to garner enough support to justify such operations. The declaration of the Republic of Ireland in 1949 may also have had an influence on such things.
The really key thing about this period and this leadership was the turn back to politics. The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty had precipitated an IRA that was utterly disdainful of politics, and the organisation had spent most of the previous 25 years opposed to the idea of any engagement with democratic processes, outright banning its members from joining Irish political parties. Under the Three Macs, this changed. The success of Clann na Poblachta in the 1948 election would surely have been a motivator, even if the IRA’s initial reaction to Sean MacBride’s entity was to expel those Volunteers who were members of it.
In 1949, the IRA resolved its previous fracture with Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein was in a state so weak at the time that it was almost directly comparable to the IRA, having not contested any elections in some time, lacking strong leadership and with a dwindling support base. It had never recovered from Eamon de Valera’s taking the bulk of its membership to form Fianna Fail. As such, it was remarkably easy for the IRA to essentially take over the organisation, after IRA leadership ordered its Volunteers to join Sinn Fein en masse. Within two years McLogan had been elected President of the party, with Volunteers holding most of the key positions. Sinn Fein now operated as a subordinate aspect of the IRA and its Army Council, and would begin contesting elections again within a few years.
The ideology of the IRA also began to change, yet again, around this time, though it was not so great a swing as had occurred in the 1930s. Then a very left-wing outlook had come to be obliterated by perspectives that bordered on the fascistic; now the IRA looked to the example of Portugal’s Estado Novo movement and the Papal encyclicals of the 1930s, in advocating for a corporatist Catholic state, one that would eschew parliamentary democracy in favour of something more singular in focus. An all-out fascist system was rejected as being too insular, but the IRA at the time has been described as containing plenty of fascist-minded individuals. The organisation would stick with this line of thinking until the 1960s, but of course would never get anywhere close to being in a position to actually implement any of it. This was just as well: grandiose debates on what kind of country an IRA achieved united Ireland could be were all well and good, but not when the IRA itself was almost totally without arms or any other means to achieve such things.
The next part of the plan was to get those arms. The IRA had made positive steps towards rebuilding and renewal, but it all meant very little when newly recruited Volunteers had no guns, and its leadership had no means to advance their political aims. In the next entry we will discuss how the IRA tried to reverse this situation, and announce themselves as once again a significant military and political player within Ireland.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.
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