Book Review: The Outrages

The Outrages 1920-1922: IRA & Ulster Special Constabulary
Pearse Lawlor

Book cover

According to the publishers:

The Outrages gives an account of the major incidents, now slipping from local memory, as the War of Independence escalated from attacks on RIC barracks into internecine atrocities. The many lives lost in each northern county are chronicled with factual accounts of attacks and reprisals, the impact these events had in Westminster and how Churchill, Craig and Collins reacted.

Included are the events leading to the creation of the Ulster Special Constabulary and an in-depth account of the shooting of A Specials at Clones railway station, the slaughter of eight unionists in a single night in south Armagh, the cover-up after B Specials left three innocent nationalists dead and two wounded in Cushendall, and the litany of reprisal killings from Camlough to Desertmartin. Details of attacks on the Great Northern Railway and other networks, not previously published, provide a unique insight into the problems faced by railwaymen and by the government during the period.

A must read for anyone interested in this period of Irish history and a treasury for genealogists.

Lawlor’s book is comprised of numerous short chapters, detailing in chronological order the various attacks, arrests, deaths and reprisals that occurred predominantly in the counties along the new border. Mostly these are pieced together from contemporary newspaper and police reports. There is certainly a wealth of detail in the book, which is also its weakness. Despite what the publishers claim, there is far too little context, the narrative being instead mostly a depressing list of men being abducted from their farmhouses and shot nearby, their bodies left where they fell. I would have preferred more contextualisation of how these events were perceived, and affected policy, in Belfast, Dublin and London.

The sections don’t always gel together either, for example the account of the events at Clones Railway Station in 1922, which begins with unnecessary background information any half-awake reader will already have grasped (who the A Specials were). It reads more like a separate article incorporated without change into the book, a shame really given that this is one of the best sections because the author for once really makes an effort to delve into the conflicting accounts and come to a definite conclusion on what happened that day. (Too often, he takes the easy way out with “X claims one thing, although Y says another”.)

A further point of criticism is the use of loaded language that betrays the author’s own political views. The UVF are glossed twice as an illegal paramilitary organisation (42, 53) wielding “illegal weapons” (48); the IRA (more usually referred to here as “the Volunteers”) simply have weapons, although we know from the narrative that these guns were mostly stolen from Unionists or the RIC. The IRA “assassinate” or “execute” individuals, whereas the Specials usually “murder” Catholics. It is probably impossible to write on such a contentious topic without getting somebody’s back up, but a little bit more care could have been taken to chose more neutral language.

Ironically, any bias is unnecessary as the bare facts of the actions of the Specials and their political masters are enough to damn them. The episodes recounted here are reminiscent of those of loyalist terorists during the Troubles: sectarian intimidation and reprisal attacks in order to bring pressure to bear on the IRA. Needless to say, the strategy was as counter-productive then as it was 60 or 70 years later.

That, I think, is the value of this book. Each anecdote serves as a reminder of the human cost of these arguments over nationality and territory in a way that a bald “x hundred died in sectarian violence during this period” doesn’t. The individual accounts remind us that each of these attacks involved a person with a name, a personality, a job, a family (and, given that most victims were men of working age, dependants), friends, interests and hobbies. It’s not an easy read, page after page. As T.S. Eliot wrote (in a completely unrelated context) “Humankind cannot bear very much reality”.

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