Eoin Kinsella’s history of the Irish Defence Forces is sumptuous. It is richly illustrated – extraordinarily so – with military photographs, archival documents, recruitment posters, all sorts of militaria and works of art on almost every page. This book is clearly a labour of love on Kinsella’s part. It will be very popular among serving and retired members of Óglaigh na hÉireann along with all military enthusiasts – particularly in this decade of commemorations.
In the first chapters of the book, Kinsella charts the evolution of the Defence Forces from the Irish Volunteers and Citizens Army of 1913-1916, to the IRA of the War of Independence 1919-2022, to the National Army of the Civil War. The revolutionary roots of what has become our present day Defence Forces is writ large in these pages. The military challenges were significant for the emerging Free State and eventual Republic. In January 1922, there were 57,000 British troops in Ireland. By December, they were replaced by a National Army of 55,000 troops engaged in a brutal Civil War.
Kinsella does not shy away from the indiscriminate and savage use of force by the National Army in suppressing their former IRA comrades in the “Irregulars” and “Anti Treaty” forces during this period. He charts the use of executions, extrajudicial killings, beatings and torture that were a feature of the Irish Army’s field operations following the “Army Emergency Resolution” also known as the Public Safety Bill of 1922.
What is also striking from these pages is the way in which this new standing army evolved from an irregular force of IRA guerilla fighters to a formally established conventional military entity. Simply put, when the crown forces withdrew from Ireland in 1922 – with the exception of their presence in the Treaty Ports and Northern Ireland – the IRA inherited all of the physical infrastructure abandoned by the British military.
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Extraordinarily, the National Army also adopted the cultural infrastructure of the British army of the 1920s. In common with many other post-colonial forces, Óglaigh na hÉireann and the present day Defence Forces, model themselves on the rank structure and artificial class system of our erstwhile occupier. This decision was formally copper-fastened by the newly formed government which directed the army in 1925 be “so organised, trained and equipped as to render it capable, should the necessity arise, of full and complete co-ordination with the forces of the British government in the defence of Saorstat territory”.
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The officers of the new National Army prosecuted a brutal war of suppression and were sometimes referred to as the “Green and Tans” – a telling reference to the terror tactics employed by their colonial predecessors. Kinsella also details the manner in which National Army officers weaponised sexual violence during the Civil War. On page 50, he describes an incident on May 27th, 1923, when Margaret Doherty of Foxford, Co Mayo, was assaulted and raped in her home by three National Army officers. In a pattern, oft-repeated in the contemporary international military, “the officers accused of raping Doherty faced a General Court Martial in July 1923 and were given an honourable acquittal”.
Following the Civil War, the formal, corporate culture of the Defence Forces was further informed by the Prussian model of status and hierarchy observed by Irish officers on military missions to the United States in 1926. Officers were also repeatedly sent to England on career courses and the general staff were instructed to “adhere closely to British doctrine” in all matters. The close modelling of the Irish Defence Forces on the British army – in terms of rank structure, terms of address, uniform, insignia, tactical doctrine and ceremonial – certainly enhanced the potential for “interoperability” with Churchill’s forces during the second World War, when Ireland briefly contemplated the remote prospect of invasion from Germany.
The latter chapters of Kinsella’s work address the “coming of age” of the contemporary Defence Forces in participation in UN peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions worldwide since 1958. In relation to the siege of Jadotville however, Kinsella inadvertently assigns the stigmatisation of returning veterans by the derogatory term “Jadotville Jacks” as “misunderstandings of the nature of the fighting at Jadotville”. The general staff were well aware of the exact nature of the fighting. As has been pointed out in other works, Cmdt Quinlan and his men were targeted in a smear campaign by the military authorities in order to conceal their own command failures in allowing this company of troops to be isolated and surrounded by hostile forces – effectively abandoned with no relief or reinforcement. This is a scandal that is ongoing. All of the extraordinary Jadotville heroes and surviving veterans and families deserve full recognition and medals for their extraordinary valour.
For me, a regrettable shortcoming of the work is the insufficient attention paid to the status and roles assigned to Irish women in the Irish Defence Forces. In a history of 360 pages, barely five address the manner in which the recruitment and integration of female personnel were politically imposed on the Irish military authorities in the 1980s – against the will and considerable opposition of senior officers.
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The book fails to sufficiently address the challenges faced by female personnel in Óglaigh na hÉireann in the 1980s and 1990s. On page 238, the work states, “the elevation of women soldiers to equal status was slow, mirroring broader societal trends”. This statement is, sadly, a major understatement. In 1990, when Mary Robinson was president of Ireland and commander in chief, Irish female soldiers were subjected to a very comprehensive, explicitly discriminatory – and unlawful – set of policies promulgated by the general staff. In addition to this gender-based discrimination, female personnel also endured shockingly high levels of sexual violence, sexual assault and rape.
In the concluding sections of the work, in relation to female personnel, it states at page 259, “Challenges remain, however, including the necessity to tackle the legacy of previous institutional failures as highlighted by the RTÉ radio documentary, Women of Honour broadcast on September 11th, 2021″. The whole point of the Women of Honour documentary was to point out that sexual violence is not a legacy issue for the DF and that Óglaigh na hÉireann remains a hostile environment for women. While this reality has been acknowledged by the current chief of staff, this extraordinary state of affairs is insufficiently dealt with in this history.
For the Defence Forces to survive and meet the challenges of the 21st century – it needs to be thoroughly transformed, decolonised and transitioned to an evidence-based, functional and modern force, consistent with best practice in the international military. The imminent publication of the judge-led Independent Review Group report on the workplace culture of the Defence Forces will be a watershed moment for the organisation.
In time, I hope that an edited and updated version of this otherwise excellent and accomplished history might address these deficiencies.
The Military Archives, located in Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines is a jewel in the crown of Ireland’s heritage institutions. Its history goes back to the foundation of the State in 1922, when Cmdt Gen Piaras Béaslaí sowed the seeds of the present-day military archive when he acquired and managed the National Army Records during the Civil War period.
Curated, managed and catalogued by generations of army officers, what started out as a repository of paper documents – many written in quill and ink – is now a state-of-the-art national archive with a 21st century online digital interface.
Cmdt Daniel Ayiotis is the current officer in command of the military archive and is the author of this meticulously researched and detailed history of this important “Place of Deposit” as it is designated under the National Archives of Ireland Act.
Ayiotis is a professional soldier and an infantry officer at heart. This shows throughout a work that is considerably enriched by his insight into military service and his understanding of the nuances and context underpinning the very survival and development of this extraordinary archive.
As a retired army officer, I particularly enjoyed his references to the archive as “a strong military asset” – and an invaluable source of “military intelligence”. For, as he puts it himself, the Defence Forces need to “own” their history, not to “shy away” from it. As military officers, Ayiotis and his predecessors have played a unique role in protecting and developing the corporate memory of Óglaigh na h’Éireann.
This has included from time to time a process of jealously controlling “the official narrative” of the organisation and Ayiotis paints a compelling picture of the tensions in doing so during the Civil War and its aftermath.
[ A history of Ireland’s Military Archives ]
The author is very generous to his military predecessors and praises the recent work of Cmdts Peter Young and Victor Laing in securing the legacy of the archive. I had the pleasure of working with both officers – particularly in relation to my own doctoral research on the experiences of women in the Irish Defence Forces.
In those researches, I found in the archives a treasure trove of documents relating to the service of female personnel – many authored by female personnel themselves – that fearlessly and impartially set out the challenges contained in Ireland’s military workplace. The archives – like Ayiotis’s work here – make a significant contribution to knowledge of Ireland’s history.
Tom Clonan is a member of the Seanad, security analyst, author and retired Irish Army captain
For fans of military history, the Daily Telegraph Books of Military Obituaries are a riveting and fascinating anthology of adventures – and misadventures – in uniform. The individual accounts of heroism, sacrifice and loss vividly evoke conflict in a uniquely personal manner. Collectively, they speak of the futility of war.
The Oxford History of the British Army is a concise, one-volume account of Britain’s armed forces. A great starting point for students of military history, its great strength lies in the fact that its contributors are a mix of historians, politicians and military veterans. A lively and powerful account of the evolution of combat from sword-fighting to precision munitions.
Dark Times, Decent Men: Stories of Irishmen in World War 2 is an excellent work by Neil Richardson, a serving officer in Ireland’s Reserve Forces. Richardson’s book provides a riveting insight into the unique contribution of Irish soldiers – many of very senior rank – who defeated Nazi Germany in the second World War. A great companion to his work, A Coward if I Return, A Hero if I Fall on Irishmen in the first World War.