'In the Name of the Republic' explores stories of the 'disappeared' of the Irish revolution. These people were abducted and killed, and their bodies secretly disposed of, by the IRA. Some were crown forces, some were civilians. Most died before the Truce of July 1921, but in Cork secret killings and burials continued until as late as June 1922. As the programme to be broadcast tonight (TV3, 9pm) shows, we still do not know exactly how many killings there were. It is, however, clear that far more people were secretly killed in Cork than anywhere else.
The information in the programmes was assembled in a major research project, 'The Dead of the Irish Revolution'. Funded by the Irish Research Council, it has identified, categorised and individually described almost all fatalities arising from Irish political violence between 1916 and December 1921. The first results were published by me last year in 'David Fitzpatrick (ed.), Terror in Ireland, 1916-1923'. In June I will provide data on the killing of civilian informers in 'James Kelly and Marian Lyons (eds.), Death and Dying in Ireland, Britain and Europe'.
Our research shows that crown forces definitely killed more civilians than did the IRA. In general, however, crown forces had no need to hide their victims because the law took their side. Crown forces sometimes massacred prisoners, as at Clonmult in Cork, and then claimed these had been shot after failing to halt when challenged or while attempting to escape. Over 300 such deaths in 1920-21, mainly of civilians, were investigated and invariably condoned by military courts of inquiry. In some areas crown forces also operated murder squads which carried out killings anonymously.
'In the Name of the Republic' concentrates on cases where people were killed and their remains secretly disposed of by the IRA. As well as captured policemen and soldiers, some civilians were wrongly killed as spies. This was officially acknowledged within a couple of decades by the Bureau of Military History.
The Bureau of Military History records were released in 2003, and are now online at www.bureauofmilitary-history.ie. They have transformed the study of the revolutionary years. The Government is now committed to opening an even bigger archive, the Military Service Pensions records. This remarkable collection of over a quarter-of-a-million files includes verbatim transcripts of interviews with applicants and senior IRA officers.
The collection will enable the descendants of 1916, War of Independence and Civil War veterans to find out what those veterans did. It will also enable the families of RIC, British military and civilian casualties to work out why their relatives died.
Over the last five years the collection has been brilliantly reorganised, a very useful guide has been printed, and many key records have been digitised. But despite years of discussions, government departments still cannot agree on who is to pay for renovating the building needed to provide public access.
The pensions records will do far more to increase public understanding and appreciation of the Irish revolution than a thousand costly parades or a million carefully crafted speeches at sites of commemoration. It is vital that they are released while the children of those caught up in the Irish revolution – be they the sons and daughters of IRA men, Cumann na mBan women, Fianna scouts, British soldiers, RIC men, B Specials, or civilians – are still around to consult them.
Sometimes the pensions records will confirm family narratives, sometimes the new evidence will challenge them. Take my own case: I often heard the story of the accidental shooting of a Protestant clergyman in Downpatrick by an IRA party led by my grandfather Hugh Halfpenny. The pensions file of the man who actually fired the shot give a distinctly darker version. Again, my grandfather Jim Moloney's pension records show that, in addition to roadside ambushes on RIC and British military patrols in Tipperary, and various civil war activities, he was involved in the revenge killing of an RIC constable as he left Mass.
'In the Name of the Republic', based mainly on IRA sources, addresses an aspect of the independence struggle which troubled many IRA veterans. We must not be afraid of our history.
Eunan O'Halpin is Professor of Contemporary Irish history in the Department of History, Trinity College Dublin