We are where we are are, as we are so frequently told, in identifying our journey from boom to bust. And, historically, we are now where we are, in a free Ireland, in a journey which entered its final phase in the ‘Troubles’ of almost a century ago.
It has been a blood-spattered, death-strewn journey, especially in Co. Tipperary.
Christopher Power, whose father was a native of Tipperary Town, has now written a very small book, mapping the conflict, under the title: “From Tyranny to Treaty - The Conflict in Tipperary 1919-1923.”
This is a long essay, just 76 pages including several pictures. It is a narrative which gives signposts to the geography and sequence of events; ambushes, burnings, disappearances, but there is little detail and few names of participants.
Power’s sources are largely the newspapers of the time, significantly ‘The Nationalist.’
His theory is (and I quote) that “whenever the War of Independence in Tipperary is mentioned, three names are invariably associated with it, namely the ambush at Soloheadbeg in January 1919, and its instigators Sean Treacy and Dan Breen. He maintains that this event and those names “interesting though they are, have overshadowed the memory of many other participants who fought and died for the Cause.”
Soloheadbeg, which is still annually commemorated in Tipperary, is now accepted as the opening salvo in the final phase of Ireland’s journey to self-governance. On a quiet country road on a winter’s day, two Irishmen shot two other Irishmen, in the pursuit of a small cache of gelignite. From that event in 1919, the Troubles continued until the Truce in July 1921 and the subsequent ratification of the Treaty. Then came the Civil War, which officially ended in the county and country in 1923, though there are many who would contend that it continued into the 1940s in isolated incidents, such as the murder of the Wexford man, Devereux, whose body was located on Tipperary’s Slievenamon.
Christopher Power traces Tipperary’s choice of the physical route back to Fenianism, to John O’Leary who was born in Main Street, Tipperary Town, and the failed rebellion of 1867. And, of course, there was the novel “Knocknagow, written by the old Fenian, Charles Kickham. (Incidentally, in one of those strange quirks of Irish history, he was a descendant of a farrier in Cromwell’s army!). Shadows of that Fenian tradition still lingered in the county well into the 20th century.
But there were also more immediate influences, fueled by a particularly British military-mindset intransigence which identified a military solution as the only possible solution. The execution of the 1916 leaders, for instance, has long been identified by historians as a catalyst for what came later. Ireland has always had a love-affair with its martyrs. But even more immediately, there was the imposition of martial law and curfews which impinged on the lives of ordinary people, gong about their ordinary business. This resulted in the conversion of an often indifferent public into participation and support, into safe houses and shut mouths.
The sociology and pyschology of conflict can be an interesting study in hindsight. It can be parsed by academics from the comfort of modern Ireland. But, even with the limitations of this small book, there is the ever-present echo of the passions of young men, on all sides, with the inevitability of dead bodies on the country roads of Tipperary, or still unrecovered bodies of alleged informers buried somewhere in bogs.
The youth of these men is illustrated particularly in two of the several pictures in this book: one, a group of mostly unidentified volunteers from Cahir: all present and correct, unsmiling, staring into the camera lens, all proudly holding their rifles.
The second photograph was taken by Jack Sharkey of Clonmel (a jeweller who was also a keen photographer). It is presented as a typical Flying Column - a unit which accommodated mobility and the members of which could “live off the land.” It shows four members of the unit, their makeshift uniforms askew, their cloth caps at jaunty angles, all smiling. All boys!
Although as I said, this book is short on detail, it does impinge on an aspect of the conflict, at least for some of the participants, and that is the juxtaposition of religion and revolution. Dinny Lacey is described as “much admired by his men... selfless and deeply religious.... bad language and drinking were not tolerated... his free moments were spent in prayer.” After a particularly bloody ambush, the dead and injured men (the enemies) were dragged away from the fire generated by the petrol in their Crossley Tender.
The enemies were, more often than not, fellow Irishmen in RIC or even in the hated Black and Tans, though this fact is not generally conceded. Many had served in the First World War and, according to Power, were mentally damaged in terrible battles like the Somme. As in the nature of conflict, action led to reaction, bloody incidents led to reprisals, and reprisals led to further reprisals. Violence has a predictable momentum.
The final section of “From Tyranny to Treaty” deals, very briefly, with the Civil War. My parents lived through this period of Irish history and would never speak about it. There were two “disappeared” in the parish in which they lived. I have friends whose fathers participated as young men, and they tell me the subject was never mentioned. Christopher Power states that many of those involved subsequently emigrated to the United States and would never talk about it.
This publication, which is in the bookshops, is a signpost to a very troubled time in the Tipperary of 1919-1923. It might encourage readers to explore further. Or it might make them weep!