In Review: Michael Ryan’s Border Campaign

Michael Ryan, My Life in the IRA: The Border Campaign, Cork, Mercier Press, 2018; reviewed by Philip Ferguson

Opinions differ in republican circles about Operation Harvest (the ‘border campaign’).  Often it has been suggested that the entire campaign was misconceived and then poorly executed, turning into a disaster for the Movement.

Some more recent interpretations have suggested that it had more going for it.  I certainly find it a bit difficult to see that someone of Sean Cronin’s intelligence and military experience would have put together a plan of campaign that could only ever have been a disaster.  Moreover, things started out well – Sinn Fein had captured two six-county seats on an abstentionist basis in the 1955 British general election, winning over 150,000 votes there and then got four further (abstentionist) candidates elected to Leinster House in 1957, taking over 65,000 first-preference votes.   And, after almost being destroyed in the 1940s, the IRA had been able to substantially re-arm, with a series of arms raids in both the six counties and England.

The degree of optimism was such that Mick Ryan writes how he and other Volunteers felt they’d free the north in three months! (p91)

However, very early into the border campaign, problems arose.  Ryan’s book suggests that these problems were substantial indeed, and that the organisation was neither politically prepared nor sufficiently armed for the kind of campaign necessary to create any significant problems for the Brits.

Ryan begins with an account of his childhood and adolescence in working class East Wall from the late 1930s until the early-mid 1950s.  Like many other local families, life was a hard struggle for the Ryans. with “a permanent shortage of money to buy food, clothes and other essentials. . .” (p14)  His father sought work in England after WW2 broke out and, on his return, began selling turf.  The Ryan children bpought wood, chopped it up and resold it as kindling.  The father had to have a leg amputated, due to gangrene.  The family’s circumstances were made worse when he got indebted to a loan company for the purchase of a faulty truck.  Young Mick went to work in a shipping company office, aged thirteen-and-a-half.  It was poorly paid, and run on “Dickensian lines” by retired British Army officers.  He and a co-worker contacted the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and got some better pay.  His father’s tribulations meanwhile had attracted Mick’s da to socialism.

Ryan joined the IRA following the 1954 raid on Gough Brracks in Armagh.  He began spending weekends doing weapons training and forced marches in Wicklow.  Despite some successful arms raids, he details that a lot of weapons dated back to WW2 and even to the war for independence era.  Assigned to Army intelligence, he soon found his main activity was keeping an eye on Army dissidents – especially Liam Kelly and Joe Christle – who were impatient for action in the north and who saw the central leadership as dithering on going to war.  In those simpler times IRA members’ main means of transport was the bicycle.  Following Christle was difficult and he and some of his co-thinkers were expert racing cyclists!

Having been told that the militants had little support, Ryan was surprised by signs of significant support for Saor Uladh, such as the turnout for the reburial of Connie Green in Monaghan.  Meanwhile the IRA itself had problems maintaining numbers.  In June 1956 new training began to prepare Volunteers for Operation Harvest, scheduled to begin at the end of the year.  It was decided that only those Volunteers prepared to go on active service could stay in the Army.  Many then dropped out.  For instance, of the nine Volunteers in his section, Ryan was the only one who remained.

Moreover, while those who remained and were assigned to active service units were “100 percent fit and highly trained in the weaponry end of things, we were abysmally ignorant of military tactics and politics.  Few if any of us understood the relation ship of force to politics or the effect that particular military activities might have on the people, the state forces, th Protestant and Catholic populations in the North, or indeed the governments of either Irish state.  We left all that to the leadership.  As far as most volunteers were concerned, they were the leaders and we were there to be led” (pp58-59).

But the leaders were woefully lacking in understanding a lot of things.  Ryan records that southerners who went on active servce in the north didn’t even have adequate gear for the winter weather.  There were also an inadequate number of safe houses and the weaponry was often not very good.  Some of it didn’t even work and/or they had ammunition that couldn’t be fired from the weapons it was provided with.  A number of the actions Ryan was involved in were poorly coordinated and/or didn’t eventuate.  Often they had to undertake long night marches in the middle of winter to reach a destination for an attack.  Attacks often had to be aborted after such marches and then ASU members had to march all the way back to safe houses and dugouts.  A march might take 5-6 hours in mid-winter in unfamiliar territory.  Additionally, a great deal of time was spent sitting around in the wet and cold.

Setbacks increased.  Thirty Volunteers were captured by the southern state at a training camp in Glencree and then on July 5, 1957 the southern state introduced interment.  Fianna Fail (‘the republican party’), which had been returned to government in March, turned out to be even more repressive than the previous Fine Gael-led government.  Several hundred republicans , including most of the Sinn Fein leadership were lifted and interned.Ryan says that by late 1957 95% of the Army’s battle-experienced Volunteers were behind bars and 99 percent of the support organisation in the north.

In August 1957 an active service column of 15 Volunteers was assembled on the Leitrim-Fermanagh border; this was “virtually the active service men who had survived the roundups” (p130).  Cronin himself was to take command of this force.  However, things went awry from the start for this column too.

Whole tracts of this memoir remind me a bit of Che’s Bolivian Diary in terms of the increasing sense of a forlorn endeavour.  The rest of the book grimly recounts the complete unravelling of the campaign until finally it was called off and the Army Council issued a public statement in February 1962.  Ryan had the sad task of visiting supporters to discuss the statement with them.

This is actually one of the most moving parts of the book.  The supporters he visited were mainly impoverished rural people.  About one of these people, Ryan writes: “I couldn’t help wondering what motivated this man, this extremely poor man, to share what little had had with us, risking jail to support us, even in defeat.  But I didn’t ask because that kind of question wasn’t asked in those times and because he would have been insulted had I asked.”

This book is a useful reminder of why idealistic working class young Dubliners, like Mick Ryan, continued to join the Irish Republican Army long after its defeat in the civil war, long after the left-right schisms of the 1930s, several decades of repression by the Free State including the repression of the 1940s war period and the near extinction of the Army by the end of World War 2.

It’s also a reminder of the messiness of the Officials/Provisionals split of 1969-70.  My sympathies tend to lie with the Provisionals, however not all the good guys were on that side and all the bad folks on the Officials’ side at the time.

Although the book stops well before the split, author Michael Ryan was a member of the Army Council by the end of Operation Harvest (the border campaign) and subsequently an important figure on the Officials’ side in the 1969/70 split.  I do sometimes wonder whether this affects his characterisations of several people from Operation Harvest who went on to become prominent Provisionals – he’s particularly scathing about Daithi O Conaill, for instance.  It’s hard to believe that O Conaill was incompetent as Ryan portrays him; it seems that this is an unfortunate case of political animus. At the same time, however, he is genuinely positive about Ruairi O Bradaigh, the key figure in the struggle against what became the Officials.

Ryan’s personal story, although unremarkable in the sense that there was a layer of people like him joining the IRA in the decade following World War 2, is fascinating.  The depiction of Irish society at the time likewise.  Rural poverty was incredible.  Many rural houses lacked radios, indoor toilets and even electrification.  A virulently conservative Catholicism prevailed in Irish society and in chunks of the IRA too, making life even more constrained.

Ryan recounts how fear of dying in sin and the belief that male patriots didn’t sully Irish womanhood with sex before marriage had him still a virgin at age 20.  There was also the fear of pregnancy.  “I’d heard of ‘French letters’,” he recounts, “but only ‘dirty sailors and prostitutes in pagan England’ used them, so I never considered procuring them, even if I knew where they could be got” (p107).  Living with sexual frustration, it seems, was part and parcel of being an IRA Volunteer in those times!

Lastly, his interactions with the impoverished rural small farmers and workers who made up the base of support for the IRA indicate the depth of the rebel spirit in Ireland, a spirit that neither the British nor Free State ruling elites have ever been able to destroy.



Posted on June 25, 2019, in 1930s and 1940s, Border Campaign/Operation Harvest, British state repression (general), British strategy, Catholic church/church-state relations, Fianna Fail, Free State in 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, national, Officials, Partition, Political education and theory, Prisoners - past, Repression in 26-county state, Republicanism 1960s, Republicanism post-1900, Revolutionary figures, six counties, Social conditions, twenty-six counties. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. ““I’d heard of ‘French letters’,” he recounts, “but only ‘dirty sailors and prostitutes in pagan England’ used them, so I never considered procuring them, even if I knew where they could be got” (p107).”

    I do have to wonder slightly if that bit entirely true…

    • Why? He’s talking about the early-mid 1950s in Ireland. Condoms were pretty hard to obtain in Britain at that time, especially if you weren’t married.

      In NZ even through the early 70s, about the only way of getting them was at the barber’s. After he’d cut cut your hair, he’d give you a meaningful look, and say in a very pronounced way, “Is there anything else I can get you?” That meant, “Would you like some condoms.” Barbers kept supplies in one of their drawers, next to the hair-cutting equipment, combs etc.

      When I was a school boy I remember a big stink because the students association at the university in the town where I lived had put a vending machine in the male toilets in the student union building. One day we got taken on a school field trip to the uni as as soon as the boys were off the bus we all made a dash for those toilets – not that we were having sex, we just wanted to get our hands on some to see what all the hullabaloo was about and what condoms looked like. Condom water bombs were going off around the school for days afterwards.

  2. I dunno, as the ‘war on drugs’ shows, you can ban something but that doesn’t mean people aren’t going to keep wanting it, and if they want it, ways are going to be obtained…

    Hell, homosexuality was supposed to be completely off the table in ye olde Ireland, but there was a gay scene in Dublin as far back as the late 19th century and quite a thriving one at that if this article is anything to go by:

    As Kinsey showed, there is often a gulf between what people say they do (or don’t) and what they actually do.

  3. “One day we got taken on a school field trip to the uni as as soon as the boys were off the bus we all made a dash for those toilets – not that we were having sex, we just wanted to get our hands on some to see what all the hullabaloo was about.”

    Sounds like stories of people attending the 1960 obscenity trial of ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’ in the hope of catching the racy stuff being read out 😉

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