Well-known historian Liam O’Duibhir’s latest offering ‘Donegal and the Civil War – The Untold Story’ is a remarkable look at the county from 1921 through to the Treaty debates and up to the Civil War.
It follows on from Liam’s very successful first book with Mercier Press ‘The Donegal Awakening’ which told the story of Donegal during the Irish War of Independence.
Here Liam gives a brief synopsis of his new work while it is also reviewed.
Donegal and the Civil War – The Untold Story:
Donegal and the Civil War – The Untold Story is the first comprehensive look at county Donegal from the Truce of July 1921 through the Treaty debates and Northern Offensive to the Irish Civil War.
The IRA and Sinn Fein in Donegal overwhelmingly supported the Treaty, which was signed in December 1921.
Following the signing of the Treaty in January 1922 the IRA split into pro and anti-Treaty factions. The primary focus of the anti-Treaty IRA was to continue the war against the British in the Six Counties at the behest of Michael Collins.
This offensive was designed to undermine the authority of the newly established Belfast government. In what became known as the Northern Offensive Michael Collins, Liam Lynch and others conspired to undermine the unionist led government through a military and economic war.
The majority of the anti-Treaty IRA was made up of seasoned IRA officers and Volunteers from the southern counties and using Donegal as a base engaged with the forces of the Belfast government and the British military.
The most significant episode of this campaign was the battles of Pettigo and Belleek in May / June 1922.
This episode saw a joint effort by both pro and anti-Treaty IRA combining against the vastly superior British military. The battles of Pettigo and Belleek were unique in that it was the last joint IRA stand against the British with a defined battle line with heavy artillery being used in Ireland for the first time since 1916.
The outbreak of the Civil War in Donegal found the IRA (anti-Treaty) unprepared and the Free State forces (pro-Treaty) moved quickly to attack IRA positions.
The Civil War in Donegal resulted in many unnecessary deaths on both sides as it dragged on much longer than it should have and before long was reduced to a game of cat and mouse between the Free State forces and the IRA.
By November 1922 the IRA had all but given up on Donegal and following instructions from Ernie O’Malley was in the process of evacuating the county when a small column was arrested in the west of the county.
Four members of this column were later executed at Drumboe Castle, Stranorlar only weeks before hostilities were to end. This event effectively ended the Civil War in County Donegal, but cast a dark cloud over the county for many years.
Donegal and the Civil War – The Untold Story by Liam O Duibhir
Reviewed by Jenny Laing
This very readable book gives an intriguingly detailed account of County Donegal during the Irish Civil War, 1922–3.
Using surviving documents such as diaries and newspaper reports as well as unpublished material, Liam Ó Duibhir has skilfully traced events that changed the subsequent history of the county.
And an extraordinarily detailed and emotive story it is! The accounts range from the amusing and the ‘derring-do’, to the desperately sad, the tragic and the downright shocking.
Some are so vivid, yet so sparsely told, they read like trailers from film scripts.
The survival of historical material is, of course, a matter of chance, so there are some poignantly detailed cameos of certain events or people, and frustrating voids for others.
The operations and intelligence reports covering the period 1 – 26 March 1923, for example, are simply missing from the collection held at the Bureau of Military History, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin. But such unevenness makes the story all the more compelling.
Ó Duibhir has taken a non-judgmental ‘back seat’ and lets the characters speak to us in their own words.
Two notable aspects are highlighted: the poverty (famine-level at times) of the local people, and the youth of the protagonists (few were out of their twenties, many younger still). At a mere nineteen years’ old, Todd Andrews was put in charge of training at Dungloe, the first IRA training camp.
Peadar O’Donnell, the Donegal-born republican activist, took him under his wing and invited him home, where Andrews was welcomed by O’Donnell’s mother.
Displaying an unexpected but undoubtedly significant vulnerability for one engaged in such deadly serious objectives, he later reported, ‘I was not used to being treated in […] so adult a fashion’.
There were some redoubtable women involved: when Eithne Coyle, the Cumann na mBan activist, was arrested near Ballybofey, the two men arrested with her were put in a cell, but she was ordered to stay outside. ‘Wherever the boys go, I go along too,’ she insisted.
On another occasion, Coyle cycled into Letterkenny Railway Station ‘as always […] very well dressed, wearing a type of grey uniform and a felt hat’, where she ‘held up the guard of the van with her reliable old trigger-less revolver’.
The story of her escape from Mountjoy Jail with, amongst others, Linda Kearns, contains sheer comedy.
Aside from political allegiances, interaction between activists and locals was not always straightforward. Charlie Daly (eventually IRA Commandant General) was disgusted to discover that schoolchildren were given a drop of poitín in their bottles of milk.
Wanting to emphasise the high morals of the IRA, he ordered the immediate destruction of all stills – which did not meet with the expected universal approval since production of the illicit liquor was the sole means of income for some.
Ó Duibhir has devoted a large section to what became known as the Northern Offensive – when the IRA objective was not only to undermine the Belfast government, but was a response to the escalating sectarian violence being meted out to the nationalist population in the six counties that began in June 1920.
It is significant that many of the men involved on the republican side – including the ‘Drumboe Martyrs’ – had been brought in from southern counties such as Kerry and Cork. This part of the story is not easy reading, with bloodshed, tragedy, murder, assassination and armed confrontations.
Drumboe Castle is the scene of many dramatic events chronicled in the book.
Hitherto un-revealed as a narrative, the Donegal aspect of the Irish Civil War deserves to be highlighted, for Liam Ó Duibhir’s account will undoubtedly be a catalyst to new ideas and fresh insights.
*Jenny Laing is from Cambridgeshire, England and is a writer and photographer with a particular interest in conflict in the early twentieth century, and Ireland in the Dark Ages.