The Moving Image Before Iraq & Afghanistan, There Was Ireland

By: Kalev I. Sepp

Modern insurgents rarely fight only one enemy for the territory they contest. Besides the counter-insurgents—be they state security forces, foreign occupation troops, or both—the insurgents often have to battle other insurgents, to settle whose political vision for their post-revolutionary government will prevail. These power struggles sometimes continue after the counter-insurgent is bested, and a new cycle of civil war ensues.

One of the most vicious sets of these compound civil wars took place in Ireland, from 1916 to 1923. The leaders of the Irish separatist movement, believing that the British home government and military would be unable to turn their attention from the Great War in France, mounted an insurrection in April of 1916, known as the Easter Rising. Unfortunately, the rebels overestimated the degree of public support they would inspire, and underestimated the sharpness of the British response. British intelligence had discovered the rebels were attempting to gain German military aid, and Whitehall reacted forcefully. The Rising was crushed in a week, resulting in the deaths of approximately 100 British troops and 300 Irish insurgents and civilians, and the arrest of thousands of rebels and sympathizers. Undeterred, many of the survivors of the Easter Rising, some while still in prison camps ("universities of revolution"), planned a more serious, betterorganized rebellion. Political mobilization of the Irish population gained widespread backing for the separatist Republicans. The exception was Ulster in northern Ireland, where Unionists held a majority. With strong popular support in the south, on January 21, 1919, the leaders of Sinn Féin, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, declared Ireland both independent and in a state of war with England.

The Irish War of Independence followed, characterized by urban and rural guerrilla warfare that pitted the insurgent IRA against the counter-insurgent Royal Irish Constabulary. The British augmented the beleaguered RIC with the infamous "Black and Tans" mercenaries, so called for their mixed uniforms of dark green or dark blue tunics and khaki trousers, which an Irish journalist likened to the piebald hides of local fox-hunting beagles. Assassinations and killings by both sides brought reprisals and property destruction—what young parliamentarian Winston Churchill called "murder and counter-murder." The conflict stalemated, and the belligerent parties agreed to a truce on July 11, 1921. The subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty of December/January 1922 formally ended the war, and set the political machinery in motion to create the Irish Free State. This outcome, however, was not what everyone hoped for, and the killing continued.

Claiming betrayal of their aim to free all of Ireland from British rule, in June 1922 the troops of the Anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army turned on their former comradesin- arms in the Irish Free State's new National Army. The Republicans had already attacked Northern Ireland, which had opted out of independence. Paradoxically, the National Army joined the Anti-Treaty IRA for part of this northern campaign, which failed when the mounting civil war in the south of Ireland drew their forces away. After a year of bitter fighting, the National Army gained the upper hand. In 1923, the Anti-Treaty leader Éamon de Valera ordered his IRA troops to surrender, grudgingly conceding, "Military victory must be allowed to rest for the moment with those who have destroyed the Republic."

Ultimately, the one-year-long Irish Civil War was bloodier than the three years of the War of Independence. The violence continued for decades between republican Catholics and loyalist Protestants in Northern Ireland, which remained in the British Empire. Some 1,400 died in the war to win Irish self-rule—about 700 British troops and RIC police, and 700 (or more) rebels and civilians. Then, as many as 4,000 more Irish may have died fighting their fellow Irishmen. The exact number is not known. What is well-recalled is the viciousness of the Easter Rising, the Rebellion, and the Civil War, in the incongruous setting of one of the most beautiful countries on the planet, among a poetically literate and cultured people. Who else might claim this as the story of their nation, as well?

Four motion pictures give a sense of this complex and cruel series of internal conflicts, from 1916 to 1923:

Michael Collins (1996) engagingly follows one of the principal leaders of the Republicans (strongly played by Liam Neeson) from the 1916 Easter Rising to the end of the strife. Collins rises as a tough underground guerrilla chief to military commander of the nation he helped create. He then must fight the Anti-Treaty rebels led by his former political chief, Éamon de Valera (Alan Rickman is excellent in this role). There are some minor historical inaccuracies, but these don't detract from the larger story of how tectonic events can vault a man from gang boss learning to wage an insurgent war, to army commander trying to end an insurgent war. The film was awarded a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

The Informer (1935) is a gritty, street-level view of a tough-but-flawed "foot soldier" in the Irish Republican Army in 1922 (played convincingly by Victor McLaglen). The intelligence section of the dreaded Black and Tans uses familiar methods to find and recruit an informer, and the rebels have to uncover the traitor in their midst. A highlight of the film is the underground court-martial of the suspect. The depiction of guerrilla justice, administered with cold-blooded directness, is a reminder of how strictly insurgent discipline must be enforced for the organization to survive. John Ford won the first of his four Best Director Oscars for The Informer, and the film won three more for Best Actor (McLaglen), Screenplay, and Music. Incidentally, at the 1935 Venice Film Festival, Ford was also nominated for the Mussolini Cup. He likely didn't miss having that trophy on his bookshelf. (There is a less-noted 1929 British-made motion picture, based on the same novel.)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) is on the one hand an attractive motion picture—shot on location in verdant County Cork, and with a lyrical title from a 19th century Irish ballad—but on the other hand it has the tinny drumbeat of political propaganda. The storyline runs from 1919 to 1923, and tells a metaphorical tale of two brothers who fight sideby- side during the War of Independence, then against each other in the Civil War. Despite this appealing plot, the more positive reviews called the movie's director Ken Loach "inflammatory," "brave," and "thoughtprovoking." Harsher critics wrote that Loach unevenly portrayed "the British as sadists and the Irish as romantic, idealistic resistance fighters" (this from an Irish historian), and that the film was "a poisonously anti-British corruption of the history of the war" (so wrote a Scottish journalist). These deficiencies and others, including stagey political dialogues and tiresome readings of manifestos, make this movie unhelpful to students of these wars, either as documentary history, or as an insight into the successive conflicts. That said, it won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as several Irish film awards, and did well at the box office in Ireland. At the least, it represents fine pro-IRA propaganda.

Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) is a well-done piece of historical fiction, which begins in 1921 Dublin, where the movie was filmed. At Trinity College, a prominent doctor (James Cagney at his professional best) is a medical school professor by day, and an insurgent unit commandant by night. The contradictory dilemmas of guerrilla warfare are presented one after another, from smuggling to hostage-taking to summary executions. When the news of the truce ending the War of Independence arrives, the commandant finds his unit divided between those relieved to see the fighting end, and the Anti-Treaty rebels who want to fight on. Actor Richard Harris has his first significant role in this movie, as a looselipped IRA gunman, short on smarts but long on mad courage. (Do not confuse this movie with the 2007 film of the same name, about the Rwandan genocide.)

Bonus Movie

Set in 1940s Belfast, where much of this film was shot, the acclaimed noir film Odd Man Out (1947) artfully depicts people unexpectedly entangled in political violence in northern Ireland. Although the Irish Civil War finished the fighting in the south, "The Troubles" continued in the nine Unionist counties of Ulster province that chose to remain under British dominion. Strapped for cash for operations, the leader of an IRA-like gang (James Mason) decides to rob a mill, and then must evade police "in a bleak labyrinth of havens and traps." In England, Odd Man Out was awarded "Best British Film," and was nominated for both a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and a Best Film Editing Oscar.


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