A partisan story by the name IRA

The historical lecturer Séan Ó Duibhir has on the RTÉ website an interesting, albeit flawed, overview of the many insurgent groups in the 20th and 21st centuries who used the title “IRA” or “Irish Republican Army”. Among his observations is this claim:

Contrary to popular belief, there was technically no organization operating under the name “Irish Republican Army” or “IRA” during the War of Independence. Rather, the “Army of the Republic of Ireland” was officially known as “Óglaigh na hÉireann” (Irish Volunteers). Granted, the term “IRA” has been used as an abbreviation by the media, Sinn Féin politicians and many volunteers. Still, the fact remains: “Óglaigh na hÉireann / Irish Volunteers” was the correct title of the organization that fought against the Crown Forces until an armistice was agreed in July 1921.

Yes and no. It is surely true that the Irish Volunteers, or IV, founded in November 1913, were in fact the main organization that fought against the colonial forces and the UK government in Ireland from 1919 to 1921 (and arguably beyond). However, by this time the IV had also officially been inducted into the “Army of the Irish Republic” or “Irish Republican Army”, the umbrella name for the armed forces under the authority of the short-lived Provisional Government of the Irish Republic during the 1916 Easter Rising. While other bodies sharing the general description, including the Irish Civic Army, Cumann na mBan, the Fianna Éireann and the Hibernian Rifles, the popularity and size of the volunteers made them the IRA and heirs to the title deeds, so to speak.

This is reflected in the fact that IV units used the name Irish Republican Army and variants of it relatively early in the Revolutionary War, and most people considered the descriptions to be interchangeable. Including the UK authorities. The claim that the term IRA is incorrect for the organization that fought the British forces up to the July 1921 armistice is therefore highly controversial.

Likewise, this statement is:

This “IRA” did not survive the tensions created by the Anglo-Irish treaty, however. In the early months of 1922 the organization split into three factions: the treaty-friendly IRA (which turned into the army / defense forces of the new Irish state) and briefly two separate illegal IRAs (which merged in June 1922) violently against the Country).

This is a controversial point to say the least. It could also be argued that the Irish Republican Army survived the divisions over the treaty signed with Great Britain in late 1921, as it was the pro-treaty minority faction that broke up and formed a new organization, the Irish National Army, in January 1922. This body originally focused on the Dublin Guard, an earlier amalgamation of elite IRA units and personnel in the capital, most recently co-opted by the contractual group. The ensuing civil war then took place between the IRA and the INA, the latter relying on British military aid and personnel to survive (although some in the INA admittedly continued to define themselves as the Irish Republican Army and sometimes used adjectives such as “official” or “regular” IRAs to differentiate themselves from their “irregular” opponents).

Equally controversial is the allegation that the Irish Republican Army “joined forces in June 1922 to oppose the state by force”. The civil war began when the pro-contract members of the UK-mandated Provisional Government of Ireland directed the INA to attack the IRA garrisons in the capital, aided by elements of the British armed forces in the area. It might as well be argued that it was the “oath-breaking” Provisionals who sparked the Internecine conflict of 1922-23 by forcibly usurping the Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916 and ratified by successive majorities in subsequent national and local elections on Island.

There are a few other interpretations in the article that I would argue with. And the lack of reference to the use of the name Irish Republican Army or Army of the Irish Republic by the military wings of the various Fenian organizations in Ireland and the United States in the 19th century is glaring. The overall piece, however, is probably worth reading. Though one that is likely to please the views of a very specific type of “Free State” audience.

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