Merrion Press (New Edition 2022) ISBN: 978178537253718 (187pp)
Reviewed by Anthony Heaton-Armstrong


This book is the fourth in a series by the same author which focuses on events surrounding the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War dating between 1916 and 1923, with particular emphases on deaths of the participants, their causes and circumstances and relevant legal procedures – or the lack of them. As might be expected from someone who is a well-respected Circuit Judge, the contents are balanced, comprised principally of fact and avoid polemics.

Although hampered by the shortage of reliable contemporary records due to destruction and insufficiency or bias in those that remain available it is clear that the author has researched his subject exceptionally thoroughly. His assertions in the principal text are widely supported through extensive cited references. It is thus a work of commendable scholarship which adds significantly and originally to the body of published works which cover this field.

The immediately ensuing, and continuing, tragedies caused by the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty which created the Irish Free State and allowed the six Northern counties to opt out of this as, inevitably, they did, are perfectly illustrated. Between June 1922, when Dublin’s Four Courts and the Public Record Office were blown up by elements of the anti-Treaty faction, and the eventual cessation of the principal hostilities about ten months later chaos and anarchy reigned. The government was faced with an increasing tide of murderous and destructive activities by those opposed to an officially sanctioned divided country and the consequent prospect of the newly formed State becoming ungovernable and economically bankrupt.

Enright sets out how the events progressed in a carefully and logically constructed chronology which is nonetheless readable in spite of the political and factual complexities involved.

The beleaguered government was forced into acknowledging two awkward truths. First, owing to guerrilla warfare tactics by its opponents and widespread changing of sides amongst members of the national army, led by Richard Mulcahy following the death of Michael Collins, the war could not be won through conventional military victories. Second, the financial cost of the conflict caused typically by sabotage of the country’s infrastructure and the resources used to challenge and imprison the insurgents was edging the country towards financial ruin. The feared consequence of these factors was that Britain would be drawn into the conflict.

In response to the crisis the government, in increasing levels of ferocity commensurate with the extremities of rebel action, authorised legal shortcuts and turned a blind eye to extra-judicial killings by the security forces who were frustrated by what they saw as an insufficiently robust approach to killings of their colleagues. Trials by military committee, in which defendants were deprived of their most basic legal rights, became the norm; deaths in custody were rife; decisions whether execution should follow conviction were apparently taken on a whim. Erskine Childers’ execution occurred within hours of the decision of the Master of the Rolls favouring the government in spite of the fact that his counsel had given notice of appeal against this (but had failed to apply for a stay of execution). Following the killing of a member of the Dail the government abandoned any pretence of complying with the rule of law by authorising the reprisal killing of four prisoners without trial. No-one in authority was ever effectively held to account. A total of 83 mainly very young men were executed. This quasi-anarchistic approach was justified on the basis that terror needed to be met with terror and, in the words of Cicero quoted by ministers, suprema lex salus populi – the safety of the people is the supreme law.

The end was signalled by two factors: depletion in the rebel ranks through capture and imprisonment and the death in action of the indefatigable anti-Treaty army leader Liam Lynch. A form of order was thus restored but at the price of decency and honour and with a legacy of future conflict.

With the exception of a few courageous lawyers, independently minded inquest juries and occasional voices raised in parliamentary opposition to the brutal and unprincipled response to the effects of the insurgency, few challenged the State’s unwritten policy to meet injustice with injustice. Whether, in compliance with its responsibility to ensure public safety and avoid the complete breakdown of society, the Irish Free State had any realistic alternative to its deliberately chosen path is the subject of a debate which the author has wisely chosen to leave well alone.

This book is essential reading on how a political decision on national boundaries, made without realistic and sensible foresight of consequences, can lead to human calamity and dereliction of the rule of law.