When I was a small boy living in a small town in Co. Tipperary, an old man lived across the road from us whose name was Jack Meagher. I must have been quite young when he died, because my memories of him are vague. I think he was from up the mountains … an old-style countryman, garrulous and jovial, who would walk in the back door of our house without knocking and declare ‘God bless all here!’, then stay chatting for hours. Jack was a character.
Years later my sister told me something about him that I hadn’t known – he had been in the Old IRA* of 1919–21, and had, it seems been the local brigade’s executioner. When prisoners needed to be killed, in reprisal for the execution of IRA prisoners by the British, Jack was the man that did the deed. He didn’t fit the stereotype of the old soldier who ‘doesn’t like to talk about the war’; apparently he had no qualms about regaling my uncomfortable parents, around the kitchen table, with gory details of how he had ‘plugged’ some unfortunate captive.
Reminders of the violent past were hard to miss in my town. Walking to primary school, I used to pass first a memorial – a stone Celtic cross – to the local men who had died fighting for Britain in the two world wars, and then a smaller memorial marking the spot where a local man, having been dragged from his bed, had been shot dead by the Black and Tans. Finally there was a large monument bearing the names of all the local IRA men who had died in 1919–21 and the subsequent Civil War, which occurred when the IRA split into pro- and anti-Treaty factions.
My best friend was proud of the fact that his uncle had been killed in the guerrilla campaign that we called, somewhat grandly, ‘The War of Independence’ … there was a song about him, and we used to listen to it on a record. As an altar boy, I noticed that the plasterwork of our large, high-vaulted church appeared to be pock-marked by bullet-holes, which presumably dated from some incident in those days.
It was a short war prosecuted by young men who made it up as they went along, and it demonstrated how efficacious irregular tactics could be against a vastly superior military force that was seen by many of the ordinary people as an occupying army.
I recently bought a book called On Another Man’s Wound by Ernie O’Malley, one of the young IRA leaders of the time, which I first read a long time ago. O’Malley took the Republican side in the Civil War, during which he survived being hit by 23 bullets while trying to escape from a house in Dublin. He was a very good writer, and gives an excellent insight into the time and place. I must post some extracts from the book here.
*The distinction between the 1919–21 IRA and the so-called IRA of the modern ‘Troubles’ is important. The Old IRA (formerly the Irish Volunteers) was officially adopted as the army of the self-declared republic by the majority of elected representatives of the Irish people. Although its legitimacy can be, and has been, questioned, it effectively founded the first free Irish state, in which we are happy to live. I think it’s fair to say that its members, by and large, were brave, resilient and honourable people who simply decided that the time for drastic change had come.