Since its foundation the Special Branch has been the subject of much vilification…much of the criticism was justified given the hardball tactics and summary beatings handed down by the early anti-subversive unit…Despite long hours and modest wages, this tough squad of detectives fearlessly confronted the ruthless gunmen of the IRA…
Or, to read it another way, the ends justify the means.
A former member of the Gardai (and one of the people who set the ball rolling in regards to the controversial RIC commemoration), Gerard Lovett has given us a book dedicated to an often overlooked body and the role they played in the first twenty five years of the Free State. This is very much a welcome development as all aspects of our recent history should be up for discussion and examination.
And while there is a lot to recommend here, it also does not paint a healthy image of the Special Branch or the Free State, showing how violence and control was very much an integral part of the culture from the inception of both. With this in mind, it should be unsurprising that that this attitude would seep into the culture of the uniformed Gardai, with the likes of the ‘heavy gang’ later appearing in response to political pressure, or the Emergency Response Unit which once killed bank robbers without the latter firing a single shot.
Told in chronological order from the 16th June 1922 (where the pro-Treaty Sinn Fein won 58 seats in the Dail) up to the end of World War II, we get tales of numerous battles between former comrades as they take their sides in the Civil War and the embittered legacy it leaves behind. There’s a lot of spilt blood, a lot of beatings and the end result is (as one reviewer put it) not too dissimilar to a Paul Williams book.
In one sense, the book will serve as a handy reference point for attacks on the Free State due to Lovett’s attention to detail and cross-referencing texts like Harry White’s memoir for further information or even alternative theories. However, it’s a little too dry (narrative wise) at times as it pretty much sticks to a formula of documenting an attack and the consequences (repeated ad nauseum) and there could have been times where a less rigid agenda would have allowed more context (be it social, political or worldwide) to be brought in to give the events described even greater weight.
Although Lovett does his best to be neutral, there are moments where the more discerning reader will raise their eyebrow. For example, when discussing the killings of uniformed Garda Hugh Ward and James Fitzsimons, Lovett writes that:
The deaths…were the last straw for a force that since its foundation endured continuous threats and intimidation and suffered eight fatalities in their four years of existence…Most of the new force consisted of former pro-Treaty IRA men themselves and took a dim view of being targeted by their erstwhile comrades in arms.
Erm, doesn’t that go without saying?
Here’s another example in relation to Hermann Gortz:
His views on the IRA were far from flattering. He told one IRA man, ‘you know how to die for Ireland, but how to fight for her you have not got the slightest idea.’ On another occasion he referred to them as ‘the most incompetent lot I ever met.’ After the war…Lahousen…Sabotage Chief of the German Intelligence Service, revealed that the Germans intended to work with the IRA and use Ireland as a base for sabotage operations against British targets. They would prepare the political groundwork for an uprising in Ireland to coincide with a German invasion of Britain.
Despite being correct (historically speaking), Lovett is indulging in his own cake here by portraying the IRA as both shambolic and a sinister threat (a contradiction in terms). Ultimately, the Germans did not proceed with the plans because they concluded that the IRA were in no position to deliver what the Nazis wanted, so the ‘shambolic’ label is more appropriate in this case. Doesn’t ‘sinister threat’ at least suggest a necessary level of competence?
Ultimately, Lovett demonstrates that those who fought in the War of Independence and accepted partition were just as brutal at times as the ones who stuck to their principles and he does, at least, admit the brutality that took place.
But for all of the eulogising of the Gardai and its Special Branch, I can’t help but think of Padraig O Ruairc’s words:
During the Civil War both sides accused their opponents of cowardice, denouncing them as ‘eleventh-hour warriors’ and ‘Trucileers’, i.e. men who joined the IRA at the time of the Truce but who had played little or no part in the War of Independence. The military record of its various supporters and opponents often dominated the debates surrounding the acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Free State propaganda defined republican opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty as ‘Johnny-come-latelys’ who ‘had never challenged Dublin Castle’ or ‘ever fired a shot against the British forces’. Furthermore they denounced the guerrilla tactics used by IRA ‘Trucileers’ and, with no sense of irony or hypocrisy, encouraged them to ‘fight fair’ even though the exact same guerrilla tactics had been employed during the War of Independence.
But sure, the ends justify the means, don’t they?
Gerard Lovett, 2022, Ireland's Special Branch: The Inside Story of Their Battle with the IRA, 1922-1947. Eastwood Books, ISBN-13: 978-1913934293)
🕮 Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.