Peter Berresford Ellis reviews Spies, Informers and the 'Anti-Sinn Féin Society': the intelligence war in Cork City 1920-1921 by John Borgonovo, foreword by Eunan O'Halpin, Irish Academic Press, ISBN 0 7165 2833 9 £19.95 pbk
AFTER THE terrible piece of neo-colonial revisionist propaganda about Cork during the War of Independence, Peter Harts' The IRA and its Enemies, it is good to see a book that deals with the realities of the conflict.
John Borgonovo has already produced an excellent work in his editorship of Florence and Josephine O'Donoghue's War of Independence. Now he has decided to update and expand a master's thesis written at University College, Cork, in 1997. Thankfully it places in print a necessary corrective to the Hart effort and, of course, directly contradicts Heart's conclusions.
I had heard about the activities of the 'Anti-Sinn Féin Society' in Cork from my father who, as a reporter on the Cork Examiner during this period. He believed it was a label for a British unit working in the city run by military intelligence.
While the author points out that such a conclusion cannot be positively stated, he admits the evidence does point in that direction. The British commander, General Strickland, did appeal to some of Cork's unionist population to help his men with intelligence and so there is a possibility that it contained a local civilian membership.
What is important about this book is that it shows just how successful and organised Cork No. 1 brigade intelligence was. The brigade gained access to sensitive British intelligence material in the army headquarters in Victoria Barracks, especially intelligence on British informers in Cork.
Indeed, Hart claimed that the IRA shot unionists (he introduces sectarianism into it by claiming it was Protestants who were targeted) at random. Even some more serious historians have argued that the Cork IRA shot informers on suspicion only. Cork intelligence officer, Florrie O'Donoghue, pointed out from the first that the greatest care was taken in every case to have the accusations proved beyond all doubt before executions were carried out.
This is an essential book. It corrects the outrageous claims of Hart and shows what really happened in Cork during the War of Independence. It shows the realities behind the shooting of suspected civilian informers, the British reprisal campaign and the guerrilla struggle.
Filled with original research, Borgonovo has produced one of the most important studies of the period.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2007 Peter Berresford Ellis