Out of the Ashes: An Oral History Of The Provisional Irish Republican Movement

On reading Robert White's latest work Simon Smyth found Out Of The Ashes a compelling read. Simon Smyth is an avid reader and collector of books.

Out of the Ashes: An Oral History of The Provisional Irish Republican Movement is an accessible yet challenging book examining the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein as a social movement. 

It isn't necessarily an easy book to read and can be more cerebrally challenging than say works by Martin Dillon or Tony Harden or even Ed Moloney. Despite this it is less of an emotive work than, for example, The Shankill Butchers. It takes a strictly academic approach but is nonetheless very readable and never feels like a chore.

This social movement study of Republicanism describes the uniqueness of the Provisionals but describes similarities with other social movement organisations.

The book begins with an explanation of the approach taken, with Chapter One entitled "Social Movements and Terrorism" which sets the scene and prepares the reader for the content, style and format of the oral history and the analysis.

The early foundations for the history of the conflict are explained a little superficially, but necessarily so, with Chapter Two "Resistance (1170-1923)".

The next 18 chapters contain a chronological oral history starting with a chapter covering 1923-1962 and ending with one from 1998-2005.

The book ends with chapters examining Sinn Fein's post 2005 activism together with that of anti-Good Friday Agreement Republicans both peaceful and otherwise. The conclusion re-examines themes which arose earlier and a summary of the Provisionals aimed at increasing the reader's understanding. In addition to an index there is a glossary, a number of appendixes, endnotes and a section covering sources and bibliography. The author's approach to this book is to study the subject matter to his but not the readers' exhaustion.

These interviews were skilfully carried out with open questioning as to 'why' action was taken instead of asking 'what' action an individual took. These weren't confessions but eye-opening views into the consciences of the participants.

The interaction between the author and his subjects can be very revealing, despite most interviewees remaining anonymous. A substantial spread of viewpoints is included all along the spectrum of modern day Republicanism. However as a social movement the individuals hold many similar positions regarding their own personal involvement.

A welcome addition is the challenge given to academics for their tendency to use the term "Terrorism" to describe only non-state actors globally and to disregard state terrorism. Terrorism is an emotive word and is often used to be critical of purely non-state groups even though many state actions globally can be more devastating and harmful. Look at certain states' use of White Phosphorus on civilians, for example.

There is such a wealth of oral evidence in this work that even an expert eye will discover something new. The Professor's analysis is meticulously researched and clearly explained despite the complexities involved.

Although most interviewees are anonymously portrayed a small number of the more well known participants are named. Professor White asked Ruairí O'Brádaigh if new recruits made him nervous. He replied "I am suspicious of everyone".

As well as featuring in this book O'Brádaigh is the subject of a 2006 biography by White. The more I read about O'Brádaigh the more I understand he was an intellectual giant. His sentiments about his fellow Republicans don’t make him unusually clever but there is much in this current work to demonstrate his ability to think outside the box and his prescience is admirable. Considering the relatively recent revelations on informers within Republicanism and the unprecedented echelons they reached (if, indeed, they were unprecedented) this warning by O'Brádaigh is now a lesson learned to the extent it's a truism.

As well as O'Brádaigh, over sixty Republican activists in 1984 responded for interviews by Professor White. He carried out another wave of interviews in 1995 and the last in 2007. He gained and lost participants along the way for different reasons. The interviewee's demographics are woven in and out of the Republican Movement as they included people from all over Ireland, from those recruited in the 1930s as well as more recently; political actors and those involved in the violence itself.

Brendan Behan quipped that the first thing on the agenda of the inaugural meeting of any new Republican group is the split. It is worth repeating myself by saying White interviews Republicans of every hue. From the 1930 recruit to Éirigí and everything in-between, this work has an all encompassing overview. The stark ideological differences, for example between Republican Sinn Fein and the 32 County Sovereignty Movement are explained in depth. The author documents some political advances that were scorned due to the unbridgeable gap, an ideological chasm based mainly around the concept of "Abstentionism". It is this esoteric detail which makes the book stand out.

Despite the wide demographic and political spectrum covered by White and the high price paid by all those involved in terms of lost time, damage to relationships, arrest, etc. none expressed regret for involvement in past activism. Some expressed regret about specific incidents or the cost inflicted on others but they were proud and said Republicanism gave meaning to their life. Activism shaped these people's lives and made them who they were.

I would recommend this book to anybody who has an interest in Irish Republicanism with the caveat that although the book is very readable and accessible it takes a certain amount of effort and commitment. That is not a criticism but with over 400 pages of detailed oral history and esoteric analysis the uninitiated or unprepared may be put off. It is a challenging book yet this is necessary given the task at hand. This challenging nature is also the main strength of the work. 

Individuals are unique. Each of us has a particular history and outlook that is influenced by the specific events we have experienced. In groups, however, individuals often share experiences and social conditions that lead them to react in similar ways to events and conditions - as men or women, as children of the Great Depression or as teenaged nationalists living through August 1969 in Northern Ireland.

Robert White, 2017. Out of the Ashes: An Oral History Of The Provisional Irish Republican Movement. ISBN: 9781785370939. Publisher: Irish Academic Press.

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    Anthony McIntyre

    Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

    10 comments to ''Out of the Ashes: An Oral History Of The Provisional Irish Republican Movement"

    1. Simon,

      thanks for a great review that was turned around very quickly.

    2. AM,
      No worries.

      When I was writing it I was going to mention Dieter Reinisch's collections of Ruairí O'Brádaigh's writings and speeches and although it didn't seem appropriate for the review itself I thought I'd mention it in the comments for anyone who may be interested. They're useful background books.

      Although the focus is on the Provisionals, Professor White's work is so comprehensive it covers all points of discussion in much detail. All the opposing arguments around practically every major turning point in the conflict is discussed. Fascinating stuff.

      Thanks again.

    3. I have just read Robert White's latest book and I found it surprisingly a good read, I write surprisingly as some of the academics who write this type of book often forget they are not only appealing to academia. Well worth a read. There is a very interesting section on the Loughgall ambush and how prior to it leading members of the South Tyrone IRA wished to change the strategy of the IRA and when this was refused by the army council it led to a security disaster not only to these men but across the north.

    4. Organised Rage, the flying column approach might have worked in the early twentieth century, however with modern infrastructure and surveillance technology it may not have had the desired effect.

      The potential problems with discipline and control with a flying column approach, highlighted in the book are also important as without a coherent structure and discipline you are less likely to be recognised as an army and more likely to fall into the terrorist category.

      This lack of discipline and control may have led to a sectarian campaign. An increase in independent action. I am not saying the South Tyrone brigade were sectarian just that more independent action would have been harder to control. If this happened international support would inevitability have been less.

      White explains that informers wouldn't be able to operate as easily within a flying column. However, the chances of everybody getting caught at once would have exponentially increased.

      I understand Tommy McKearney argues that keeping volunteers in their own areas led to a security disaster for Republicans. It remains untested that a flying column and "Total War" approach would have had the opposite effect.

      I know some people might argue things couldn't be worse but if there was total war things very easily could have worse.

      I guess if there were many flying columns it may have stretched British resources to the limit.

      Maybe a balance between the two approaches would have been more efficacious for the Provisionals.

      It's an interesting section right enough.

    5. The technology which intelligence services now have was nothing like it was back then. There was a problem with informers in cities like Belfast but keeping active volunteers within their home areas was always going to exacerbate it, with petty differences and personal slights growing out of proportion driving someone to inform. Not only that the police/spooks had easy access to turn volunteers as at times as they could set their clocks as to their where abouts. (when volunteers were not seen about the neighbourhood the spooks wheels began to turn)

      True flying columns like happened in the Tan war were not on the cards but small sealed units with autonomy to strike out without central authorisation seems a sensible idea.

      True it's untested, but it is worth questioning why the leadership did not test it in this tight knit group in South Tyrone?

      All Leadership like being in control, the longer they're in leadership positions the more control they demand, and the longer the chain of command the easier it is for police and spooks to infiltrate. Given this it's shocking the Adams leadership failed to regularly rotate those in leadership positions.

    6. Rage, "The technology which intelligence services now have was nothing like it was back then." I was comparing the technology and infrastructure of 1920 and 1985. My use of the word 'modern' was to differentiate early 20th century and the time which we were discussing.

      The point about striking out without authorisation was an aspect of the proposal but so too was operating outside your area. Where's the intelligence to operate outside your area going to come from? The risk of a breakdown in discipline was too great. All these autonomous groups acting without sanction?

      It would eat up resources, funds and personnel. Were these volunteers going to stay together 24/7 365 days a year? Surely a group of volunteers, always on the move, would be easy to spot what with checkpoints everywhere. Is the logistical support going to be perpetually mobile too?

      How long would it take before they stumble into the first checkpoint?

      I agree with your point on rotating positions. However there are pros and cons to everything. Rotating informers would mean they interact with more people I guess. However internal security is an obvious area where rotation would have been advantageous. The changeover to a cellular structure would only have had a limited albeit significant effect if informers at the heart of an organisation were ensconced in their position.

      I guess personal slights might have been a drive to inform but lack of self discipline and control leading to misbehaviour and subsequent exposure or falling for a trap would be prevalent too. Without organisational discipline, self discipline would be more difficult.

      The risk of creating renegade groups was too high. Get a couple of bad personalities together with a laissez-faire approach and the whole campaign may have gone down the tubes.

    7. Moreover, did any Volunteers question as to what use the huge arms shipments from Gadaffi was being put to?

    8. Steve R, the book discussed that, in the same chapter I think, and pointed out that so many arms shipments were being intercepted that a 'Total War' or 'Tet-style offensive' was unlikely to succeed or was impractical.

    9. Simon,

      despite your well-penned and comprehensive review, and indeed your previous nudge towards this book, I couldn't initially work up much enthusiasm to spending €25 on a copy.

      As an alternative the local library has once again come to the rescue and located it in a Donegal branch. I've taken delivery today and if I manage to stick with it I be back to you with my thoughts.

    10. Henry JoY,

      I hope you enjoy it. Everyone has their own perspective and taste but I am certain it'll give food for thought.


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