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February 6, 2017

Law and the Revolution

Séan Enright, Soldiers, Lawyers and the Trials of the Irish Revolution (Merrion Press, 2016, 244 pp, €17.50 PB, €45 HB, ISBN 978-1-78537-051-9)

Eamon Ceannt, an Easter Week leader, once wrote that ‘[nationalist] agitation should be confined to constitutional methods only where the laws of the country have been made and are being administered by the people of that country’. This can be said to define Irish republican resistance to the British state in Ireland throughout the twentieth century. The leaders of the Easter Rising wanted to make the statement that Ireland did not have to adhere to England’s laws. On the other hand constitutional Irish nationalists, most notably Daniel O’Connell, utilised the legal system to vindicate the rights of Catholics and nationalists.

The years between 1917-1921 were the most successful years for Irish nationalism. Together with the establishment of a semi-functioning alternative state, the Irish Republic garnered widespread international sympathy and a significant proportion of the population was waging, or supporting, a guerrilla campaign. All these strands were united by a rejection of the law in Ireland. The law was implemented by, among other elements, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Members of the RIC and their relatives were often boycotted. This was part of an attempt to isolate the RIC and disrupt their administration of the law. The tactic worked and by the summer of 1920 the RIC were largely marginalised. This allowed the Republican government to set up its own court system and police. Many Irish lawyers and judges also happily worked for the Sinn Féin courts.

Séan Enright examines how the Irish legal system and the Dublin Castle administration in Ireland reacted to these changes. Enright is currently a circuit court judge, having previously practiced in London, giving him a legal as opposed to entirely historical take on the subject. With the exception of the writings of Charles Townshend, D.M. Leeson and the late Michael Hopkinson, there has been little thorough research into British responses to the situation in Ireland, making Enright’s book a welcome volume. Enright has previously examined the trials of Volunteer and Citizen Army leaders following the Rising and the trials of civilians under martial law in 1921. In this volume he examines the breakdown of the legal system in Ireland and the rise of the martial law system.

Enright carried out substantive research in various archives including British Army regimental archives and the National Archives in London. He also utilises the Irish Bureau of Military History witness statements well. Initially the book covers the immediate aftermath of the Rising. Through an examination of The Royal Commission on the causes of the Rebellion in Ireland, Enright show how much the British government in Ireland knew of the impending rising but failed to deal with it. During the war the main concern of Britain, in relation to Ireland, was to keep a steady level of recruits coming into the army. The government felt this would be best achieved by interfering as little as possible in Irish affairs, in effect letting the Volunteers/ Irish Citizen Army continue to operate unhindered. From 1918 to mid-1920 Ireland still was not a major priority, due to continued concerns further afield. In mid-1920 Britain decided for the first time to seriously address the problem of rising IRA violence through a policy of militarisation.

By 1921 much of the country was under martial law and the Crown forces operated with often only the faintest modicum of respect for the law. The upholders of law and order were no longer answerable to it. The British administration clandestinely encouraged reprisals but they were publicly denied. The Chief Secretary, Sir Hamar Greenwood, who was also a lawyer, seriously suggested the people of Cork burned their own city. After a week-long reprisal, in November 1920, in which the Crown forces burned homes and businesses and killed a number of civilians in Tralee, the RIC County Inspector for Kerry wrote that it was ‘not known’ who was responsible for the reprisal. Enright highlights a rare example when an Auxiliary was brought to court for an offence ‘he complained not that he was innocent but that he had been let down by the government who had urged on the Auxiliaries’. In a curious situation those sent to administer and uphold the law were in fact breaking it. In fact the arrival of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries resulted in an increase in IRA activity.

Enright argues that this policy of reprisals was partially due to the frustration of members of the Crown forces viewing a legal system, that through factors such as the inability to get jurors and lack of evidence, could not punish those responsible for the killing of their comrades. Reprisals are described as ‘spontaneous’. This is true but reprisals were also sometimes over-reactions to often limited IRA violence. Small scale ‘reprisals’ sometimes took place without any provocation, and cannot even correctly be labelled reprisals.

Enright correctly highlights that ‘the greatest suffering was borne by non-combatants’. He notes that despite the increasing military control there was still an inability to actually identify and charge, let alone convict IRA men with crimes, often due to a lack of available evidence.

There were a number of extra judicial murders but Enright shows judicial executions of IRA men were relatively rare. In contrast the Free State learned from the mistakes of their predecessors and decided to side step judicial procedures and engage in state terror – the four anti-Treaty leaders Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Dick Barrett and Joseph McKelvey, executed in December 1922, were not actually charged with any offence.

There are some issues with the book. Enright’s use of dramatic adjectives such as the ‘unworldly’ Eoin MacNeill , the ‘fastidious’ Terence MacSwiney, the ‘prudish’ De Valera and the description of Captain Bowen Colthurst as having ‘dark features and a grand moustache over a long face’ gets a little tiresome. The book could also perhaps have been arranged in a more consistent fashion. Chapters one to ten are a summary of events from the end of the Rising to the truce in 1921. The book then gives a summary of some of the prominent cases brought before courts in Britain and Ireland between the Rising and the Truce. From events in 1921 we are then brought right back to 1916 and the trials of Eoin MacNeill, Roger Casement and Captain John Bowen-Colthurst. This jumping back and forth does not quite work. I would suggest that these cases should have been placed next to the chapters on the aftermath of the Rising. The book would have also benefited from a conclusion.

There are also occasions when more footnotes or extrapolation would be appreciated. He mentions ‘some historians’ regarding the Restoration of Order Act as incorrectly equating to martial law, and other historians wrongly believing that Michael Collins’ assassination squad on Blood Sunday morning destroyed British intelligence operations in the city. I cannot but ask who these historians are? Given the extensive bibliography Enright provides this would be not too hard to point out on his part.

Some areas of the book are in need of further substantiation. In relation to the ‘German plot’, of the spring of 1918, he describes the German High Command as being ‘desperate’ to land guns and that the plot was ‘real enough’. Germany then had a chance of winning the war following Russia’s decision to withdraw from the conflict but this does not necessarily correlate with Germany being concerned with Ireland. Unfortunately Enright’s sources, for this section on German involvement in Ireland in 1918, are entirely Bureau of Military History statements. Their veracity is questionable and they should not be the only sources used. German U-Boats were apparently ‘beating up and down the west coast looking for a chance to drop off arms’. To make such a large statement it may have been helpful to do more research. Joseph Dowling, a former member of Casement’s Irish Brigade, was landed off the Clare coast by a U-Boat and he seems to have had some vague plan to meet the Home Rule leaders John Redmond (then deceased) and John Dillon. Charles Townshend has recently noted that ‘the Germans may have sent him to set up a communication station, but nobody on the Irish side knew this’. One man landing in Ireland with no clear mission hardly seems like the actions of a ‘desperate’ German military. And why if the plot was ‘real enough’ did the Germans make no attempt to make any serious links with the burgeoning and open Sinn Féin movement? Senior members of the British government in Ireland, in fact, felt the ‘German plot’ was fanciful. Given the extensive research done for the book this is a strange conclusion on Enright’s part.

Sometimes his analysis leaves more to be desired. He often describes the brutal nature of IRA operations, and how their victims deserved better fates. Sir Henry Wilson is described as an ‘old man tugging at his ceremonial sword’ when he was killed, but Enright does not actually mention when and why he was targetted by the IRA. This seems to imply he was an innocent or innocuous victim. Wilson was actively supporting the nascent Northern Irish state then involved in, as of yet not fully researched, violence against its own citizens. Indeed an interesting aspect to this area of the revolution would be how the legal system was effected by partition, and to what extent did northern Catholics utilise the legal system to vindicate their rights following the Belfast pogroms?

Other than these issues the book is interesting and well researched. It is curious to observe the aggressive moves of an administration trying to hold onto power despite an increasing lack of credibility. The implementation of martial law in many respects might seem to mark the beginning of the end for the British administration, the last aggressive actions of a dying or caught animal – at least in what was to become the Free State.

Thomas Earls Fitzgerald is a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin researching civilian experiences of the Irish revolution, 1918-23.