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Ordinary Brutalities

Gavin Foster

Everyday Violence in the Irish Civil War, by Gemma Clark, Cambridge University Press, 250 pp, £27.99, ISBN: 978-1316635278

While we don’t yet have a comprehensive tally of casualties in the Irish Revolution, it is sufficiently clear that the upheaval between the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14 and the end of the Civil War in 1923 wasn’t all that violent in the broad sweep of Irish history or when compared to contemporary European conflicts. As Gemma Clark observes in Everyday Violence in the Irish Civil War, the Civil War was an especially restrained conflict by modern standards, the few pitched battles between pro- and anti-treaty forces quickly giving way to a low-level, asymmetric conflict which blurred with more diffuse forms of “everyday” violence largely ignored in military histories. And yet, the role of violence as a catalyst for political and social change is the principal reason why 1912-23 is considered a “revolutionary” period, though counter-revolutionary and state violence were no less constitutive of the country’s revolutionary experience.

The problem of violence is thus central to the Irish Revolution’s historiography, with scholars taking a variety of approaches to grapple with it, from traditional military histories and local studies; to statistical and geographical analyses of casualties and violent incidents; to thematic studies of particular forms of violence or classes of perpetrators and victims; to recent work on the intersection of violence with issues of class, gender, ethno-religious identities, and memory. Everyday Violence contributes to this crowded field by wading into ongoing debates over geographical disparities in revolutionary violence; the degree of victimisation experienced by the minority southern Protestant community; and republicanism’s relationship to social discontents like land hunger and sectarianism. Clark also reconnoitres new terrain by prioritising an underused body of sources that detail thousands of acts of violence against (and sometimes by) civilians, while offering an innovative examination of the forms and functions of this “everyday violence” that is attentive to comparative and theoretical perspectives on civil war, collective violence, and ethnic conflict. A comparative perspective informs the study’s underlying premise that, contrary to popular assumptions about the “mindless” or apolitical character of much violence in localised conflicts, communal violence in southern Ireland in 1922-23 possessed an internal logic, as reflected in perpetrators’ deliberate use of various time-honoured forms of punishment and reprisal for the purposes of achieving rational goals, from thwarting the state’s ability to govern, to (re)acquiring lands, to intimidating, economically crippling, and/or expelling “unwanted” groups.

Everyday Violence’s on-the-ground perspective on non-combatants’ experience of civil war is constructed out of a relatively neglected body of sources: compensation claims that civilian victims of “malicious” damage and injury submitted to the departing UK government and/or the incoming Irish Free State. Specifically, Clark uses the well-archived files of Britain’s Irish Grants Committee, which solicited claims from victimised “loyalists” in southern Ireland, plus less complete (and uncatalogued) materials from a separate claims scheme administered by the Free State under its 1923 Damage to Property (Compensation) Act which addressed civilian damages incurred at the hands of the anti-treaty IRA or other anti-state actors. (The Free State’s Personal Injuries Committee’s files have apparently not been preserved.)

Notwithstanding efforts to supplement these two key archives with other sources, the compensation claims are the focus of the study’s analysis and provide the bulk of the evidence adduced to support its conclusions. This heavy reliance on victims’ appeals for compensation is both a strength and weakness of the study. On the one hand, the claims provide fascinating insights into non-combatants’ experiences of assault, intimidation, expulsion, robbery, arson and other attacks on property, while collectively these sources illustrate the predominant forms and patterns this mostly low-level violence assumed. But on the other hand, reconstructing the complex micro-dynamics of socio-political unrest in the civil war by relying on “insurance statements for the purpose of financial remuneration” – many of which were disputed or rejected by sceptical and budget-conscious government administrators – provides a questionable basis for some of the author’s conclusions about the presumed identities, affiliations, and motivations of typically anonymous perpetrators. Questions also arise about the relative weight that should be accorded to the dynamics of violence and ascribed motives privileged by the claims process – violence ostensibly targeting political and ethno-religious minorities – as against dynamics of violence not recognised by the compensation schemes, most notably state violence and class-based conflict.

Given the scale of the compensation archives (and missing materials for some areas), Clark prudently narrows the focus to three well-sourced Munster counties – Tipperary, Waterford, and Limerick. Adjusting for some overlapping claims, this more “manageable” sample nonetheless comprises over two thousand individual files. As Clark argues, this tri-county area of Munster encompasses a diverse physical and economic geography, while it also covers a spectrum of violence levels, with Tipperary standing out as the most disturbed of the three counties, followed by Limerick, with Waterford trailing far behind. A concern to avoid the more “anomalously” “hard-line” counties of Kerry and Cork also influences this geographic focus. While promising a more variegated picture of local conditions with a stronger comparative thrust than the more typical single-county study, this regional approach results in a degree of myopia at times, as when Clark avers that “state brutality did not become the norm” in the Civil War. A brief glance next door in Co Kerry, where Free State general Paddy Daly presided over a systematic campaign of “counter-terror” to suppress local republican resistance – punctuated by infamous atrocities at Ballyseedy, Cahersiveen, and elsewhere – or within the Dublin Command, where scores of republican activists were killed in questionable circumstances, surely challenges such a rosy verdict on state repression.

These spatial boundaries are matched by temporal ones corresponding to the terms of the British and Irish compensation schemes which covered the period between the Anglo-Irish truce of July 1921 and mid-May 1923, when the anti-treaty IRA formally abandoned its armed campaign (though, as Clark acknowledges, civil war violence and disorder did not magically cease at that moment). In practice, however, Clark gives little attention to the unsettled period prior to An Dáil’s narrow ratification of the Treaty in January 1922 and also ignores the civil war’s volatile aftermath during the second half of 1923 to which the claims schemes did not technically apply. Such strict adherence to the conventional periodisation of the conflict constitutes a missed opportunity to illuminate the crucial historical fact that sporadic anti-state violence, continued government repression, rampant crime (often perpetrated by demobilised soldiers), and sundry forms of “everyday violence” all flourished months beyond the IRA’s dumping of arms. In particular, a bitter seven-month strike among East Waterford’s agricultural labourers that began in earnest in May 1923 complicates the author’s generalisations about that county’s relative quiescence in the period, while the class conflict dynamic of strike violence challenges the study’s broader conclusion that the well-spring of non-military violence in the civil war can be found in ethno-religious enmities of “ancient” vintage. Indeed, despite lamenting how organised labour “has been largely written out of the history of 1916–23”, Clark never develops a sustained, empirically rooted analysis of the class and labour contexts of some of the “everyday violence” that erupted in the civil war.

Notwithstanding such caveats, Clark offers an absorbing examination of the personal ordeals recorded within a sizeable sample of the compensation claims to the British and Irish governments. While the scale of the archive might suggest a quantitative methodology akin to pioneering work by Erhard Rumpf/AC Hepburn, David Fitzpatrick and Peter Hart, Clark demurs that the low-level character of much violence involving civilians, plus the problem of under-reporting, render quantification “in any real, mathematical sense … a difficult task”. Instead, she adopts a thematically structured anecdotal approach that circles around several overlapping themes, most notably the internal “logic” and underlying motives behind communal violence; the political and social meanings of certain forms of violence and intimidation; and possible patterns in victim selection.

An early chapter on “The Price of Loyalty” provides a useful mini-history of the Irish and British governments’ compensation schemes that accompanied the end of the revolution. Although the two schemes had distinct remits, Clark shows evidence of cooperation and overlap between them, while non-governmental groups such as the Southern Irish Loyalist Relief Association (SILRA) proffered additional assistance to victims. Some victims had access to dual claims (as well as government pensions in the case of ex-police and other state employees), while other needy claimants slipped between the cracks as neither government could afford to be too generous in granting monetary awards. Class distinctions could cut both ways: poorer claimants often lacked the legal resources and connections necessary to press their claims to the British government’s Irish Distress Committee (later the Irish Grants Committee), yet at the same time, the Irish finance ministry frequently rejected claims from wealthy persons whose losses did not entail any real “hardship”. Interestingly, both governments tended to be more sympathetic to small farmers than to landlords or “Big House” owners. Claimants to the British government were incentivised to frame their appeals in terms of an imposed “language of loyalty” that sometimes bore little resemblance to the more nuanced and diverse identities that actually defined their lives. Moreover, the British government required concrete examples of personal acts of political loyalty that provoked political persecution, whereas SILRA and other pressure groups defined victimised loyalists more capaciously as all those whose connection to Britain caused them to suffer hardship.

Chapter Three explores the theme of arson, perhaps the most ubiquitous weapon of everyday violence across all three counties. Eloquently discussing fire’s “tremendous destructive power” and symbolic associations with purification and historical erasure, the chapter features examples of both well-orchestrated incendiary attacks aimed at undermining governmental authority and more impulsive, personalised acts of arson that visited financial hardship on unpopular neighbours and local enemies. Apart from detailed discussion of senators Sir John Keane, John Bagwell, and Bagwell’s cousin Major Perry, whose grand country mansions were reduced to ashes, Clark spotlights the most commonplace targets of arson – crops, hayricks, outhouses, and the humble homes of small and medium farmers. The discussion acknowledges the complexity of motivations behind the epidemic of arson in the Civil War, which ranged from explicitly political and military motives, to socio-economic grievances (especially around land), to the settling of old scores and the venting of anti-British and sectarian passions (though the lands of Catholic/nationalist graziers were targeted more often than the dwindling estates of Protestant notables). However, the fact that most arsonists were never identified renders the question of their motivations a matter of speculation. By way of comparison, Clark briefly considers the prevalence of arson in partition-era Northern Ireland and in other troubled places and times in European history. Such comparative insights, however, would seem to argue against Clark’s essentialist notion of a uniquely Irish “historical propensity for arson”.

Chapter four delves deeper into the micro-dynamics of communal violence by focusing on victims who were deprived of the “right to live in [their] … own country” through campaigns of intimidation, economic boycotts, assault, attacks on property, and the like. Amidst the transition in governing authority, many of those targeted for expulsion were former representatives of the British state, such as ex-RIC, demobbed servicemen and retired magistrates. Arson, animal maiming, and low-level property damage could be easily enough perpetrated by an individual, but sustained boycotts, well-enforced threats against those cooperating with the authorities, and organised “ranch breaking” and “cattle driving” implied a greater degree of communal consent or popular participation. The author historically contextualises traditional agrarian tactics such as houghing (the maiming of livestock), which goes back to the planter-native conflicts of previous centuries, and insightfully analyses the “historic codes of warning and escalation” embedded in quasi-official threatening notices that frequently accompanied agrarian disputes.

The discussion looks beyond physical injuries and property destruction to the psychological effects of violence and intimidation, an aspect of personal suffering that the IGC was enlightened enough to take into consideration. Given the subjective nature of intimidation – that is, variations in victims’ personal thresholds for tolerating harassment – Clark concedes the difficulty of distinguishing between forced expulsions and quasi-voluntary departures. Apropos to Hart’s contested findings on the Protestant experience of revolution in Co Cork, she argues that intimidation was a commonplace weapon deliberately employed by republicans, their supporters, and others to expel vulnerable “out-group[s]” from the community. But how such victimised “out-group(s)” should be defined or categorised is not always clear. In places the author concedes that “outsider” and “traitor” were “not exactly synonymous with ‘Protestant’”, and thus targeted groups also included “Free Staters”, graziers, small farmers, and merchants from the Catholic, nationalist community. Indeed, violence in the context of agrarian disputes invariably “targeted farmers of all denominations”. Yet elsewhere Clark argues less equivocally that members of the Protestant community were disproportionately targeted for expulsion, though many examples discussed in the chapter feature ex-police, servicemen and others with connections to British authority. Thus, ambiguities as to whether some victims were persecuted on the basis of their ethno-religious identity or for their political affiliations and/or work for the state weakens arguments for a purely sectarian or “ethnic” logic to many acts of intimidation.

On the question of agrarian violence, Clark demonstrates that the rash of land seizures, livestock thefts, illegal grazing, and other forms of popular unrest inspired the Free State’s hurried land reform agenda, but the contention that the government “merely looked on” as large farmers and graziers fell under attack is not sustainable when one looks beyond compensation claims to home affairs or justice and army files, especially memoranda relating to the Special Infantry Corps, a specialised force of several thousand troops expressly mobilised to suppress agrarian aggression and other forms of “static outlawry”.

Boycotts and intimidation occurred in urban contexts too, frequently targeting businesses patronised by troops and police during the Tan War or local merchants considered to be “loyalist” in politics and outlook. In Waterford City the Protestant community had a well-established role in local commerce and thus was economically vulnerable to boycotts, though in considering such claims the IGC shared the scepticism evinced by modern scholars as to whether Protestant/loyalist financial losses at the time were the product of persecution or simply reflected the downturn in business precipitated by the departure of the British garrison. Notwithstanding financial losses during the revolution, Waterford’s Protestant commercial elite ultimately proved quite resilient. In contrast, isolated Protestant farmers in rural Munster were more vulnerable to nocturnal attacks, economic victimisation and permanent expulsion. All told, while Clark’s analysis adds texture and detail to the historical picture of southern Protestants’ experience, it neither resolves nor dramatically reframes the current debate over the nature and scale of Protestant demographic decline in the south.

The penultimate chapter examines the most serious forms of violence against civilians: killing, wounding and sexual violence. Acknowledging the ambiguous definition of “civilian” in a guerrilla war, Clark puts aside battlefield deaths and civilian “collateral damage” to focus on the more intimate, deliberate violence inflicted on civilians or unarmed enemies residing “behind the front lines”. The majority of such victims died by gunshots inflicted at close range during abductions or home raids. Former RIC and British army veterans were among the “soft targets” preyed on by gunmen whose exact affiliations are not always clear, though groups of armed men outfitted with some military hardware are generally treated as anti-treaty IRA. Clark draws a qualitative distinction between the IRA’s targeting of active duty soldiers and police during the Tan War and the less strategically justifiable killings of individual ex-soldiers and retired constables during the truce and Civil War. Nonetheless, she concludes that even in such instances, anti-treaty IRA violence was fundamentally connected to the “overarching national conflict” and thus not comparable to the apolitical revenge motives that Stathis Kalyvas associates with micro-level violence in many other civil wars. A final section on sexual violence considers how Civil War conditions created opportunities for armed men to invade domestic spaces and victimise female civilians. Notwithstanding euphemisms like “outrage” and “ordeal” which police, victims’ representatives, and claims administrators typically resorted to when discussing women’s experiences of home invasions and assault, Clark identifies several cases clearly “indicative of sexual assault”. She ultimately concludes that rape was not a common form of violence in the Civil War, but given social taboos and the notorious problem of under-reporting of sexual assault, one wonders if the compensation files are an adequate basis for drawing conclusions about the prevalence of rape in the Civil War or in other phases of the revolution. More to the point, if rapes, homicides, and instances of serious physical harm to civilians were neither “commonplace” nor “routine” during the Civil War, do they deserve to be labelled as “everyday violence” alongside the much more abundantly documented forms of violence featured in the study?

A short concluding chapter recapitulates the study’s primary concern with “distinct violent forms” as opposed to the plight of “specific religious or political victim groups”. Clark nonetheless concludes that the evidence demonstrates an “unavoidable trend” of “minority persecution” – specifically of southern Protestants/loyalists. Although careful to acknowledge the non-lethal character of this persecution and the fundamental absence of an organised “ethnic cleansing” dynamic, Clark squarely situates her findings alongside the “crucial” and “highly valuable” revisionist histories of Peter Hart and Gerard Murphy, both of whom argue for an unambiguous sectarian character to republican revolution in Co Cork. Curiously, aside from passing acknowledgement of Hart’s non-academic detractors like Meda Ryan and the Aubane Historical Society, Clark entirely overlooks peer-reviewed work by John Borgonovo, John Regan, and others challenging Hart’s controversial findings, and seems unaware of highly critical reviews of Murphy’s “amateur” history The Year of Disappearances: Political Killings in Cork 1921-1922, by a number of prominent historians (for example, David Fitzpatrick’s review of Murphy for the drb; Eugenio Biagini’s in Reviews in History; Borgonovo’s in History Ireland; and Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid’s in The Irish Times). But whereas Hart and Murphy directly accuse the Cork IRA of carrying out sectarian killings, disappearances, and expulsions during and after the Tan War, Clark vacillates between describing a diffuse “sectarian atmosphere” created by the daily depredations of republican combatants and civilian perpetrators alike, and the blunter claim that “ethnic conflict” and “a social, cultural, and religious war” were interwoven with the political and military conflict between republicans and the Free State.

Clark’s research clearly demonstrates that an unquantified but sizeable number of the victims of “everyday violence” in the Civil War were Protestants or “loyalists”. Constituting a small minority of the total population in the south, it would thus appear that Protestants/loyalists were especially vulnerable to persecution and “indirect violence” perpetrated variously by roving columns of fighters, freebooters, criminals, disaffected neighbours, and other mercenary elements who took advantage of the unsettled conditions. However, the argument for a full-blown campaign of ethno-religious war is problematic both in terms of the source base and the methods used. As a body of sources, the compensation claims constitute a highly constructed historical archive that inherently prioritises certain classes of victims and dynamics of violence over others. As Clark stresses at the study’s outset, the British government imposed a “language of loyalty” on its claims process, which gave applicants a financial incentive to frame their claims accordingly, while the Free State’s scheme was concerned specifically with compensating victims of alleged IRA and anti-state violence. The violence of the state itself and the experiences of government opponents are thus categorically excluded from the compensation sources. This archive cannot therefore be approached as containing a representative sample of the full range of violent incidents directed against (and/or by) civilians, and thus it is impossible to draw comparative conclusions about whether ethno-religious, sectarian, or anti-loyalist violence was more or less prevalent than other kinds of violence not represented in the data set.

Further ambiguities arise given the lack of confirmed details about the identities of perpetrators or the exact motives and grievances behind many acts of violence. Moreover, as Clark stresses throughout the study, violence is rarely reducible to a single motivating factor, and thus ethno-religious hostilities frequently blur with agrarian, political, and other grievances. In any event, Clark avoids quantifying her findings, so it is unclear what proportion of the two thousand individual claims examined were submitted by victimised Protestants or what percentage of the claims “leave even less room for doubt about the attacker’s sectarian agenda”, such as attacks on Protestant churches, church property , or church personnel. Page ninety specifies four such incidents – arson of one Protestant chapel and two rectories, plus the knocking down of headstones in a graveyard – but surely more systematic quantification is required to support the provocative thesis of an ethno-religious conflict dynamic in the Civil War? (Commenting on one of the uglier sectarian incidents in which a group of armed men raided Sopwell Hall, Cloughjordan in July 1922 and “‘did their best to outrage’” two Protestant servant girls after separating them from a young Catholic maid who “was not molested”, Clark notes that the perpetrators may in fact have been Provisional Government troops, a rather crucial detail that goes uninvestigated.) While generally offering careful explanations that entertain the likely role of multiple motives and agendas behind incidents of violence, Clark is prone to leapfrogging over more immediate contexts and circumstances in favour of locating Irish communal violence in “deep-seated, almost unconscious” hatreds from the “ancient” past, a rather static, deterministic interpretation reminiscent of ATQ Stewart’s quasi-Jungian view of Northern Irish violence (see The Narrow Ground: The Roots of Conflict in Ulster [1977]). But how can a historian prove the existence or relevance of animosities of supposedly “ancient” vintage? Moreover, the notion of subconscious atavisms left over from past centuries seems like irrationality and “madness” by another name and thus appears to contradict the study’s ostensible emphasis on the logical and deliberate nature of Civil War violence.

More attention to the immediately preceding Tan War and pre-revolutionary contexts is surely required to make full sense of many acts and mini-cycles of violence during the Civil War, given the long-assumed role that ongoing local feuds, earlier organisational splits, unsettled scores, and other “unfinished business” from the pre-1921 fighting played in the Treaty conflict. To take but one case in point: at several places in the text Clark discusses the ordeal of wealthy Protestant landowners Ada and Robert Vere-Hunt of Cashel, Co Tipperary who suffered a lengthy campaign of intimidation (including threatening notices claiming the authority of the local IRA), armed raids, and the killing of livestock that culminated in their expulsion from their lands which had been contested since at least 1919. Clark acknowledges the likely “convergence of land hunger, sectarianism, and anti-British sentiment” behind the harassment and expulsion of the Vere-Hunts, whose loyalism had been on display in 1921 when they entertained a column of the Lincolnshire Regiment. However, when one looks beyond the claims files to witness statements in the readily accessible Bureau of Military History, additional details about pre-Civil War contexts emerge. According to the O/C of the IRA’s Second Southern Division, Seamus Robinson (WS 1721), during the Tan War the Vere-Hunts were assumed to be “anti-national” and thus a potential danger to the local IRA, elements of which advocated expelling them and dividing their land. Robinson, however, claims that he forbade such an action as being contrary to “the spirit of the Volunteers who should try to win these people [over] rather than alienate them”. He goes on to credit Ada Vere-Hunt with sharing valuable information with republicans about the movements of a large British military column, which she surreptitiously gleaned by reading over the shoulder of a British officer who visited her home. This intelligence purportedly allowed an IRA flying column to escape a major round up, which the commanding British officer belatedly learned to his chagrin only when his men captured a dispatch rider. The BMH statement of South Tipperary IRA officer Michael Davern (WS 1348) echoes Robinson’s account. While such BMH statements, recorded years after the fact, are not themselves unimpeachable historical evidence, and Robinson’s narrative is clearly concerned to highlight (and probably exaggerate) the IRA’s intelligence successes, they do succeed in complicating assumptions about the Vere-Hunts’ political allegiances and relationship to the IRA. One wonders how many other incidents addressed in the book might be further contextualised, complicated, or contradicted by more systematic engagement with sources beyond the compensation files, alongside deeper attention to pre-Civil War events and contexts. Thus, while Clark’s study succeeds in bringing the valuable concept of “everyday violence” and the neglected experiences of civilian victims to the fore in the study of the Civil War, the answer to the controversial question of whether the anti-treaty IRA’s campaign assumed a sectarian character comparable to what Hart has claimed for the Cork IRA in the Tan War and truce awaits further study based on a broader range of sources (including the abundant IRA and republican sources) that more comprehensively capture the welter of clashing interests and polarised perspectives that fed the chaos of civil war in Ireland.


Gavin Foster is associate professor of Irish history in the School of Irish Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of The Irish Civil War and Society: Politics, Class and Conflict (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).