Off the Shelf Book Review: The Dead of the Irish Revolution

Off the Shelf: The Dead of the Irish Revolution
By Einan O’ Halpin & Daithi O’Corrbin
Yale University Press ISBN 978-0-300-12382-1 2020 705pp. Review by Terry Kenneally

For those readers who consider themselves history buffs, this month’s selection is a humdinger. It is the first comprehensive account to record and analyze all deaths arising from the Irish Revolution.

Between 1916 and 1921, Ireland was wracked with civil unrest as separatists struggled for independence from Britain. The turbulent period witnessed the Easter Rising of 1916, the War of Independence, the partition of the island of Ireland, and ultimately the formation of the independent Irish state. 

The object of the book was to determine, as accurately as possible, how many people died as a consequence of political violence between April 1916 and 31 December 1921. The sources for the study were numerous and included the state records of the Bureau of Military History, the Military Archives of Ireland, the National Archives of Ireland as well as several others.

The study used the historical county as the geographical unit for counting the dead. While not an ideal measure in comparative and analytical terms, the county was the primary unit by which administration was exercised by both the state, including the courts system and policing, and its separatists’ enemies.

The classification of the responsibilities for fatalities are broken down into various categories, including Misadventure and Suicide; Female Fatalities; Sectarian Killings, including the killings of ‘spies’ ‘informers’, ex servicemen and officials; the killings of prisoners after surrender or capture; missing bodies(?); deaths during the intercommunal and other riots; shot while attempting to escape and shot for failing to halt when ordered; and post-truce revenge and other killings.

Chapters are organized by year, from 1916 to 1921. While this obviously is a book not to be read from cover to cover, due to the nature of the material covered, it nonetheless makes for interesting reading.

For instance, take the date of 28 November 1920, the infamous Kilmichael, Macroom, Cork IRA ambush. In impact, if not execution, it became the most celebrated IRA ambush of the War of independence. Sixteen Crown forces, three Volunteers and an auxiliary who escaped only to be captured and killed the next day, died.

The ambush has remained controversial due to contemporary and later disputes about aspects of the engagements, and wider debate about historical ‘revisionism’. The officer commanding, Tom Barry, maintained that a ‘false surrender’ caused the deaths of his three men.

Contemporary British sources, on the other hand, alleged a massacre of wounded and defenseless men, some of whose bodies were mutilated after death. Noted Irish historian, Diarmaid Ferriter, has stated the book is ‘unique and powerful. A towering monument to all those who died as a result of the Irish Revolution.’

I found it to be a truly remarkable piece of work and a TOP SHELF read.

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