The dead of the Irish Revolution

From Eunan O’Halpin‘s project ‘counting the dead of the Irish Revolution’, and chapter 8 in the book Terror in Ireland :

                           Between January 1917 and December 1921, 2141 fatalities have been recorded. That number may be broken down by the historic county (or country outside Ireland) where each death occurred:

FATALITIES BY COUNTY OR COUNTRY OF DEATH, 1917–1921

Cork 495                             Wexford 23                Dublin 309          King’s Co. (Offaly) 21

Antrim 224                                Donegal 20                         Tipperary 152       Kilkenny 19

Kerry 136                                 Westmeath 18                         Limerick 121         Sligo 18

Clare   95                                  Meath 17                         Galway   58             Tyrone 16

Roscommon   58                           Leitrim 15                         Mayo   43     Carlow 13

Londonderry   41                    Kildare 12                         Waterford   35     Great Britain 11

Armagh   28                      Queen’s Co. (Laois) 10                     Down   28            Cavan 9

Longford   26                             Fermanagh   9                    Louth   26            Wicklow 7

Monaghan   25                                 India   3

The number of fatalities in each county is, of course, a very crude index of the intensity of disruption experienced by people and communities during the Irish revolution…..Assigning responsibility for the 2141 fatalities reported is not a matter of simply splitting the total between rebels and government forces. The IRA were definitely responsible for 46% of these fatalities, and Crown forces for 42%. A further 6% were the work of undenominated snipers or rioters, almost all in sectarian clashes in Belfast. 2% occurred in cross-fire between Crown forces and separatists, 1% were killed by loyalists, 1% by civilians, and the killers of the remaining 2% are unknown Within the aggregate of 2141 deaths, 898 (48%) were civilian and 1243 (52%) combatant.

The civilian proportion rose from 39% in 1920 to 45% in 1921. This confirms Peter Hart’s finding that the proportion of civilian fatalities grew in 1921, which was also the most violent year accounting for 61% of all deaths between 1917 and 1921. However, Hart’s estimate that 64% of deaths in 1921 were civilian is clearly excessive. The discrepancy cannot be explained simply by methodological differences, such as our inclusion of deaths in motor traffic accidents involving police and military vehicles, which some might find problematic. Rather, it arises mainly from the restricted range of sources available when Hart conducted his research. Of the 1243 combatant fatalities, 467 (38%) were IRA, 514 (41%) police and 262 (21%) British military. Within these categories, 9% of IRA fatalities were inflicted by the victim or his comrades, as were 14% of police fatalities and no less than 26% of British military fatalities. Accidental shootings were mainly responsible, along with premature explosions in the case of the IRA and motor vehicle accidents in the case of the police.

It seems remarkable that a professional army should lose so many men in this manner, particularly by comparison with the hastily expanded police and the part-time, under-trained IRA…. Determining responsibility for the 898 civilian fatalities is quite challenging, particularly in Antrim. For the 194 civilians killed there during riots and sectarian clashes, it is often impossible to determine who fired a particular shot, and we can be fairly sure of responsibility in only 91 cases. Across the country, many civilians died at the hands of mixed groups of soldiers and police. Consequently, those forces have been banded together in assigning responsibility. The IRA may confidently be held responsible for 281 (31%) of civilian fatalities, compared with 381 (42%) attributable to Crown forces. A miscellany of rather vague categories (loyalists, snipers, civilians, either IRA or Crown forces) accounts for the remaining 236 (27%).

Only 92 (10%) of all civilian fatalities were female. The majority of these were untargeted killings in riots, or traffic accidents involving Crown forces. The IRA abducted and shot at least three women as spies in 1921 (Bridget Noble and Mary Lindsay in Cork, and Kate Carroll in Monaghan). Two of the victims had a reputation for social deviance: Kate Carroll kept an illicit still and Bridget Noble, although married, was held to be too friendly with a number of RIC men on the Beara peninsula. These killings caused acute embarrassment locally and at GHQ.

The project elucidates another vexed question, the experience of ex-servicemen during the War of Independence. Between 1919 and 1921, 420 ex-servicemen were killed, constituting 19.6% of all deaths. Of these, 227 (54%) were serving policemen, so their fates cannot be ascribed to their previous military service. Of the remaining 193 cases, 16 (4%) died as IRA men, leaving 177 (42%) who were civilians. Of these, the IRA clearly killed 99 (56%) and Crown forces 46 (26%). In the remaining 32 cases, including 13 in Antrim, it is impossible to determine responsibility.

What is more telling is the distribution of responsibility for civilian ex-servicemen’s deaths across the country. In Antrim, 26 civilian ex-servicemen were killed, mainly during riots or sniping in Belfast. In all 13 cases where responsibility can reliably be assigned, Crown forces were to blame. In Dublin, the IRA killed 14 of the 25 civilian ex-servicemen who died. Even there, it is dangerous to assume that all were singled out on account of their backgrounds: for example Frank Davis, caretaker in the Custom House, was shot because he supposedly went towards a telephone, not because he was a Boer War veteran. In Cork, the most violent county, 49 civilian ex-servicemen were killed. Of these, 32 were definitely victims of the IRA, while Crown forces killed 15, including one shot when caught in the act of raping a young girl (meaning that Cork accounted for almost a third of all civilian ex-servicemen killed by the IRA and likewise by Crown forces).

Though the evidence that ex-servicemen were systematically targeted by the IRA is strongest in Cork, more than half of all civilian casualties in two relatively ‘quiet’ counties were ex-servicemen, all killed by the IRA. In King’s (Offaly), the figure was 6 (60%), and in Meath 5 (50%). The 35 fatalities occurring on Bloody Sunday reflect the diversity of circumstances, often contested, associated with revolutionary killings in general. As noted above, members of the IRA (3), Crown forces (16) and civilians (16) were all represented, the civilian proportion approximating that for all fatalities (48%). All died after being shot, the predominant means by which death was inflicted throughout the War of Independence. All fatalities were investigated in an expeditious but cursory manner through military courts of inquiry. What sets Bloody Sunday apart is the three spectacular events for which it became notorious: the co-ordinated assassinations in the morning, the indiscriminate shooting of civilian spectators in the afternoon, and the killings in custody of three prisoners during the night. None of these three episodes, however, was truly representative of the conduct of either the IRA or its enemies during the Irish War of Independence. To that extent, the events of Bloody Sunday were sui generis.