The Brigade on RTÉ tomorrow gives people a glimpse of what life was like for fighters in the War of Independence, writes
The Brigade is a two-part documentary series in which 12 volunteers re-enact what life was like on the run in Co Cork with Tom Barry’s Flying Column a century ago.
What really brings the show to life is the direct links several of the show’s participants had to the men and women who made history during the War of Independence.
One volunteer on the TV series is a great grandson of IRA man Patrick Sexton. Diarmuid Begley, who is interviewed in the programme, is the son of another Flying Column veteran, Flor Begley.
His stories and recollections about General AE Percival – Barry’s nemesis and the commanding officer of the British forces in the region – are chilling.
Begley describes a man who was “a monster, a thundering scut”.
Percival was known to challenge his company to shoot innocent people working in the fields. He burnt the houses of IRA sympathisers.
Begley remembers as a child in the 1940s looking on at his aunt who was still a nervous wreck – like “a little rabbit … if a pin dropped it would frighten her” – from the terror Percival’s men had wreaked decades earlier.
A striking aspect about the series is that it makes clear the men in Barry’s Flying Column were amateur combatants facing a well-armed professional army. Barry handpicked his men.
He wasn’t always looking for the fastest or the fittest. He liked men who were mentally tough, motivated and resourceful – they had to be because they often operated with the scantest of resources.
“They were absolute amateurs,” says Pierce Boyce, the show’s producer.
A lot of these guys would have been sons of farmers or farm hands. Strong, fit young fellas. If you look at the litany of the dead — they were 19, 20, 22. They also might only have had about 15 or 20 bullets between 10 guys during an ambush.
"They didn’t have combat experience.
“The thing we were trying to get across to our recruits is that when you’re in a killing environment and there’s shooting going off everywhere it’s very disorientating.
"You’d get lost in that haze of battle. Even though some of them were farmers that would have hunted, it would have been hunting rabbits, which is very different to taking pot shots at a human being, and rabbits don’t shoot back at you.”
The terrain of West Cork was a decisive factor in the success of Barry’s guerrilla warfare tactics. It provided the perfect shelter for Barry’s men on the run.
The recruits in The Brigade were trained to look for high ground to launch ambushes, as it’s easier to evade being shot at.
“I’m from Dundalk. I live in Galway,” says Boyce.
“I didn’t realise how big West Cork is. How intricate the roadways are. How you can get lost even with SatNav.
"It was a hostile ground that the British had come into. It would have been different to the First World War in France where it was standing armies facing each other.
West Cork must have been a nightmare for them. The guys had all the local knowledge — they knew all its fields and rivers and byways.
The role local women played in the struggle looms large in the series. They nursed the wounded. They hid guns.
They provided safe houses. Two O’Sullivan brothers interviewed in the programme recall their aunt cooking meals for 60 people one day before an ambush.
A postmistress in Bandon, May Twomey, was a remarkable woman. She used to steam open the military’s mail and pass its information onto the IRA. They embodied the resilience of the local community.
“Ordinary people do extraordinary things under extraordinary circumstances,” says Boyce.
“These guys down in West Cork weren’t rampant militants. It wasn’t bred into them, but they had a fierce passion for freedom.”
The first episode of The Brigade will be broadcast on RTÉ One, 10.15pm, tomorrow, Thursday, June 13.