It is very unlikely that it has escaped anyone’s attention that in about eight weeks’ time there will be massive attention placed on the fact that it has been 100 years since the Easter Rising of 1916.
Simply, the week-long insurrection set in motion a six-year long period of direct conflict between Irish republicans and British forces that would in the end culminate in the partition of Ireland. There is little need to assert that what happened during Easter week 1916 still reverberates in Ireland today, north and south.
By 1920 the War of Independence was in full swing including the counties of Ulster. The man who led the IRA in Derry and Donegal was Peadar O’Donnell. In 1919 O’Donnell was a leading organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and attempted to establish a unit of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) in Derry. When this failed he threw his lot behind the IRA and lead that organisation in Derry in 1920 against attacks on the nationalist population from the Dorset Regiment and the Ulster Volunteer Force. By 1921 he was commander of the 2nd Brigade of the Northern Division of the IRA and was regarded as a headstrong and insubordinate officer who often launched attacks without permission from his IRA superiors. He also baulked against decisions made by the Dail Courts when he felt the interests of landowners were being upheld and often prevented these decisions being enforced in his command area. In the spring of 1921 O’Donnell and his men had to evade a sweep of Derry and Donegal by over 1,000 British troops looking to capture them.
Following the Irish revolution of 1916-23 the first government of the then Irish Free State introduced a variety of compensation schemes for those injured or bereaved and for those who careers were interrupted by taking part in the campaign for independence.
The Army Pensions Act of 1923 provided pensions for soldiers of the new Irish Army who had been wounded or disabled during the Civil War of 1922-23 against the anti-Treaty IRA and for widows and children of soldiers who died in that conflict. Also, members of the ICA and IRA who had been injured between 1916 and 1921 could also apply for pensions.
The Military Service Pensions Act was enacted in 1924 to provide service pensions for those who had served in named revolutionary organisations between 1916-21 and also in the Irish Army during the Civil War. The notion of pensions solely for service in a guerilla conflict of a relatively short duration remains an unusual form of post-conflict compensation. A clear definition of what constituted ‘military service’ was never set out in the original act or in any of the supplementary acts up until 1964. In 1924 it was vaguely defined as ‘active service in any rank’ and in 1934 it was amended to ‘rendering active service’. It was left to the pension adjudication panel which was a Board of Assesors from 1924-34 and a Referee and a four person Advisory Committee after that to decide what these terms translated to in practice, when decisions were being made. The definition was to vary greatly over the 34 years during which claims were made.
In the 1930s for example, one referee expected applicants to have been involved in one major engagement during the War of Independence. But, the failure to define active service from the beginning was a massive stoppage in the awarding of Irish military pensions. It created a situation where varying and often conflicting interpretations of service were applied depending on when an application was made and who was making the decisions at the time. This caused huge resentment amongst veterans who felt their contribution was not being recognised.
Derry and Donegal were no exceptions to this confused state of affairs. Proof of this has been revealed in the records put online by the National Archives of Ireland in relation to the period of conflict in question.
On November 10, 1936 a recorded conversation took place about whether the members of No.1 and No.2 Donegal Brigades of the IRA and the Derry Battalion qualified for the pension scheme. Those involved in making a sworn statement before the Advisory Committee were a N Blaney, S McCann, H Brady and Major-General Sweeney of the Irish Army.
S McCann opened the proceedings by saying: “The No.1 Brigade at one time was overrun with men from the Six Counties - men from the 2nd Northern. We have not the strengths; we have not got over 1,000 men, and we were just wondering how these men will fare if we put them on our records. We had a Brigade column down there and we had roughly 15 men that served under the Brigade officers there.”
The record of the conversation from this point on assumes the format of a question and answer session.
Question: “In what period?”
Answer: “The civil war period.”
Question: On the 1st July 1922?”
Question: “The trouble is the 2nd Northern has these men on their records and if they had active service in your area we cannot accept records from the two areas claiming the same men.”
Answer: “Yes. A large percentage, practically all the active men in the 2nd Northern were around the borders of Donegal during the truce period previous to the outbreak of the civil war.”
Question: “They retreated into your area?”
Answer: “Yes. they were billeted and they were housed around the border; there were thousands and thousands of them from Derry.”
Question: “Did they still keep their ranks?”
Answer: “No. I don’t think that they did. I have a letter here that I got from one of the fellows that was up; a letter from Charles Daly. He was O.C. 2nd Northern Division and it would appear that they were amalgamated.”
Question:”Is there any point on which you are likely to want Maj-Gen Sweeney in connection with the discussion here?”
Answer: “He would not help as far as the second critical date. There was a point, I raised it before, the Derry Battalion - I always understood it to be attached to the No.2 Brigade, 1st Northern Division. I was vice O.C. of the No.1 Brigade and I am from Derry and it was agreed at some particular time with Sean Hegarty from Derry that it was an independent battalion.”
At this point the discussion focuses on whether the Derry IRA in 1922 was regarded as a brigade in its own right. It is asserted that Peadar O’Donnell was appointed as the commander in the area in March 1922 and that before that date it Derry was not attached to any other structure.
S McCann states: I can prove this case. Peadar was appointed Brigade O.C. around March; previous to that it was an independent battalion. There was not any brigade. It was an independent battalion. Peadar was appointed Brigade O.C. and he could go into Derry and pull off a stunt. Peadar left and went to Derry and carried out his first operation in April 1921.”
At this point it is noted that Major General Sweeney entered the Boardroom. When asked about the position of the Derry Battalion of the IRA he stated: “As far as I can remember it was an independent battalion at that time although it was supposed to be a unit of the No.2 Brigade.”
Question (to Major General Sweeney): “Do you remember Peadar O’Donnell giving orders or having any activity in the area as Brigade O.C. or did he simply come in from an outside area?
Answer:”His area was No.2 Brigade”.
S McCann is then asked: “Did he operate in Derry City?”
Answer:”Not very much after the time he left Derry originally. Joe (Maj Gen Sweeney), don’t you remember the 1st April when the two posts were attacked and the Sergeant was killed. Peadar was Brigade O.C. then.
Sweeney replied: “I don’t deny he was Brigade O.C.”
McCann interjects: “Peadar went to Derry and I went with him and he issued an order to P.Shiels for £60 for Brigade funds or something. This shows Peadar must have had some jurisdiction. Paddy Shiels takes the attitude that it was the No.2 Brigade and Sean Hegarty agrees it was No.2 Brigade at that period. But definitely it was independent at the truce.
Sweeney retorts: “Peadar O’Donnell was to take over Derry City as part of No.2 Brigade but on account of whatever differences there existed in the city at the time I don’t think the question was ever made quite clear, but undoubtedly the intention was that the whole area should come in.”
On the question of whether the entire membership of the IRA in Derry City was suspended Sweeney states: “I have no recollection of it being suspended. Charles McWhinney was O.C.”
N Blaney then states: “I am not surprised at him being suspended by instructions of Peadar O’Donnell. I have a hazy recollection of that.”
S McCann then says: “I would say as far as the organisation is concerned the 1st Brigade was alright at that time. I would not pay a terrible lot of attention to what McWhinney says. Sinn Fein organised Derry City. As far as the 1st Brigade was concerned it was well organised.”
The argument about the independence of the Derry Battalion in the Civil War continues on at this point. The position of the IRA in Derry at this time is obviously crucial to whether or not the pro-Treaty establishment would be in favour of awarding pensions or not.
It becomes clear that those in Derry working on the records claim that the city fell under the command of the No.2 Brigade but this was unverifiable as most of the members had moved to Dublin.
When conclusively asked if he believed the Derry part of the IRA was an independent entity at the time of the truce in the Civil War in July, 1922 Major General Sweeney simply replies: “Yes”.