The old brigade

Peter Berresford Ellis reviews Northern Divisions: the Old IRA and the Belfast pogroms 1920-22 by Jim McDermott, Beyond the Pale Publications, £12.99 pbk

JIM MCDERMOTT, a Belfast teacher, set out to find out about his grandfather, Jimmy McDermott, who was an IRA officer in Belfast between 1917 and 1922 along with his brother Johnny. The result is 322 pages of lucidly-written and essential history.

McDermott points out a fact that most of us tend to forget: that history of the 1916-1922 republican struggle in Belfast tends to be forgotten because literature from the republican position is so sparse.

Outside the six counties we have some of the great classics of the war of independence. Dan Breen's My Fight for Irish Freedom; Tom Barry's Guerrilla Days in Ireland; Ernie O'Malley's On Another's Man's Wound and Micheal O Suilleabhain's Where Mountain Men Have Sown are just a few of the works I devoured as a youth.

But where were the stories of what happened in the north? One had the impression that nothing happened in the north. Not true. McDermott points out that people were free in the 26 counties to write their stories, to put down the history, but it was a very different situation in north east Ulster.

After partition, not only were the nationalist population suffering savaged repression and physical attack from the unionists but a repressive state had been set up with the existence of the Special Powers Act which simply precluded the writing and publishing of memoirs about the struggle.

Could potential authors not have moved south then? Not unless they took their entire families with them. Had they gone south and published, then any relations they left behind could expect an early morning call from the RUC or B-Specials of any of the loyalist murder squads that operated.

Frank Aitken, commander of the 4th northern division, chief of staff of the anti-Treaty forces, who later became a Fianna Fail government minister, lost members of his family to vengeance attacks. The accounts written by David McGuinness and Sean Montgomery were not discovered until after their deaths.

The book also deals with the feelings caused by the Treaty and partition among the people of the north who felt that they had been 'thrown to the wolves'. Republicans in north east Ulster have always felt bitterness to the Dublin government who had abandoned them to one of the worst repressive regimes in western Europe.

At the vote of the army commands in March 1922, four of the northern divisions of the Volunteers voted against the Treaty. Only the 1st northern division, Commandant Joseph Sweeney's four Donegal brigades, were in favour of the Treaty.

The overall vote of the north's 19 army divisions, was 12 against and 7 in favour of the Treaty. This is an excellent study and one that can only extend our knowledge of an area of Irish history that has been altogether ignored for too long.

December 2001/January 2002

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