Between one war and another: Four days in June 1921

Between one war and another: Four days in June 1921 irish war of independence
Truce: Murder, myth and the last days of the Irish war of independence

by Padráig Óg Ó Ruairc (Mercier Press, Cork, €17.99)

Ian D’Alton

The Irish Revolution industry marches on. This book is somewhat ahead of the centenary of the events it chronicles, so it is almost a welcome diversion from the veritable tsunami of books about 1916 that are threatening to engulf us this year.

It is a substantial work which adds to our knowledge of the revolutionary period, a worked-up 2014 PhD thesis, undertaken at the University of Limerick, with Fearghal McGarry, one of the doyens of Irish revolutionary history, as external examiner. It thus carries an impressive academic genealogy and imprimatur, reflected in the wide range of primary and secondary sources consulted, and a suitable array of references and footnotes.

But in a dozen different ways – from the sorts of historians and others that Dr Ó Ruairc thanks, to a pervasive sense of the overriding legitimacy and normalcy of the IRA in the 1920/21 period – the book has the tone of a professionally-trained historian struggling with more visceral feelings. Broadly the historian wins – but the feelings keep emerging, like damp in a wall.


What is it about? The very subject-matter is itself significant as to the impetus behind this study. It principally concerns a very short period – July 8-11, 1921 – between the announcement of the truce between the British forces and the IRA, and its coming into effect.

Dr Ó Ruairc’s contention is that, over time, the narrative around this twilight zone has become entirely one-sided, resulting, he claims, “in a biased history of the last days of the conflict, in which those killed by the IRA are remembered as the victims of vengeful and futile militarism while those killed by the British forces are conveniently forgotten”.

A detailed and useful scene-setting chapter chronicles the high politics of the genesis of the Truce, and also how it was seen at local level. Ó Ruairc would perhaps have benefitted from consulting Ronan Fanning’s Fatal Path (published in 2013, but not quoted in the bibliography) which covers similar ground, and with which there are some important differences.

His use of statistics of IRA activity from 1919 to July 1921 purports to show that the IRA was becoming more active, not less, right up to June 1921, and thus concomitantly was working from a position of strength, not weakness. That is an important perspective. One of the interesting points he makes is that the British government was constrained by the relatively open reporting of the conflict in Britain; it had to bow to public opinion in a way which, perhaps ironically, the IRA in Ireland didn’t have to (or felt they needed to).

In subsequent chapters, the author examines the ‘execution’ of spies, informers and traitors (as defined by the IRA), attacks on British forces, and fatalities inflicted by those forces. He looks at the issue of sectarianism and concludes (I believe correctly) that Protestants attacked by the IRA were targeted for military and intelligence reasons mainly. Playing the probabilities, it seems self-evident, really – most loyalists were Protestants, and most Protestants were loyalists.

He has a piece on what he calls ‘Belfast’s Bloody Sunday’ on July 10, 1921, in which there were 22 or so deaths in sectarian riots. Such rioting was part of the city’s DNA – but this bout was undoubtedly sparked by the ‘Raglan Street ambush’ on July 9, in which 15 members of the Crown’s forces were killed. Ó Ruairc manfully tries to find other older sparks which may have been responsible for reigniting the sectarian flames but, really, the relatively simple explanation is probably the obvious one.

Given the screamingly obvious connectivity, it might have been more comprehensive to list all the fatalities immediately before the Truce (rather than just those on July 10 and 11) which would have included those killed at Raglan Street.

Ó Ruairc targets “revisionism”, which in his view propagates “myth, propaganda and fabricated ‘evidence’”.


In his own revisionism (and this book is seriously revisionist, in the sense that it revisits and reinterprets a period, using new evidence), Ó Ruairc has set himself a high standard. By and large, he meets it. There are some minor issues inherent in the work. Thus, there is a contradiction as to whether the Belfast riots resulted in 21 or 22 deaths (pages 260 and 273-4).

Again, it is somewhat contradictory to focus heavily on, and quote liberally from, not the usual suspects, but polemicists such as Kevin Myers and Eoghan Harris, whose claims “cannot be treated with the same weight as serious historical research by academics”. So why does he give them any attention? And the author should note that Dublin has a Lord Mayor not a Mayor.

Dr Ó Ruairc’s book is an engaging, well-researched read. Ultimately, though, did these four days in July 1921 matter? Possibly not much in themselves. Their story, as relayed here, is one of the genre of the micro-history of the decade of constitutional upheaval.

As such, the value of this book lies in feeding eventually into the popular histories, giving us a better understanding in the round of the Irish Revolution from 1912 to 1927.