Proud War of Independence revolutionaries left fumbling in the till

The heroes of the War of Independence suffered an inglorious aftermath to their sacrifices as politicians played favourites along Civil War lines, writes Diarmaid Ferriter.

Proud War of Independence revolutionaries left fumbling in the till

IN JUNE 1923, two months after the end of the Civil War, the Dáil agreed to recognise and compensate wounded members and the surviving dependents of deceased members of various groups that had participated in the events of 1916 to 1923 and were deemed and proven to have had “active service” during this time.

Arising out of this initiative, from the 1920s to the 1950s, two streams of legislation, the Army Pensions Acts from 1923 to 1953 and the Military Service Pensions Acts of 1924, 1934, and 1949, were introduced to facilitate recognition of military service, injury, and bereavement, and the legislation generated an enormous administrative archive, including the pension applicants’ files and various supporting material, such as reports of military activities, the nature of military service and family circumstances, information on degrees of dependency, societal circumstances, and where applicable, medical reports, as well as requests for investigations by the military authorities, reports from An Garda Síochána and the issuing of recommendations.

There was also considerable correspondence between the departments of finance and defence, Old IRA Associations, reviews of individual cases, the details of payments of pensions, gratuities and awards and individuals’ proof of service, including references and testimonials.

To assist the Department of Defence, specific bodies were set up to decide on the merit of each applicant’s case, including a board of assessors under the Military Service Pensions Act of 1924 and a Referee and Advisory Committee under the 1934 and 1949 Acts; membership of these bodies included senior civil servants, former senior IRA officers, and members of the judiciary.

In the process of building and sustaining the pensions process, there were numerous difficulties in relation to defining “active service” (around which there was much ambiguity), eligibility, and the application and assessment procedures.

The fact that part of the War of Independence was a guerrilla conflict exacerbated these difficulties; proving membership of an underground movement was fraught, and what constituted sufficient sacrifice was open to a variety of interpretations.

There was a hierarchy of victims, with the immediate families of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, for example, specially catered for with higher annual allowances than were paid to others bereaved.

Crucially, the anti-Treaty IRA was initially excluded from the pensions process and there were allegations of political bias in the award of pensions; in 1929, a member of Fianna Fáil accused the government of using the pensions “for the purposes of political graft”.

But when it came to power from 1932 onwards, Fianna Fáil was more than willing to extend the benefits of pensions to anti-Treaty republicans, which meant its supporters.

The Military Service Pensions Act of 1934 amended and extended the Act of 1924 and included members of Cumann na mBan within the definition of those who constituted the “forces”. It was estimated in the 1930s that the pensions provisions would lead to an annual bill of IR£400,000 (about IR£25m, or €32m, in today’s terms).

Not everyone was happy about this expenditure. In 1945, well-known civil servant PS O’Hegarty, for example, described the clamour for monetary reward as telling “a sorry tale of patriotic degeneration and lack of public spirit”.

But this assertion needs to be balanced with the fact that extensive hardship was experienced by revolutionary veterans and their dependents. This is one of the reasons why the pensions archive reveals so much about the revolution’s afterlife.

Those involved in administering the pension process were keepers of a precious national record but were also arbiters in disputes about survival and status. Some of the recipients led lives of financial ease, became holders of high public office, and had elevated status as a consequence of their revolutionary activities.

Many, however, paid a high price for their involvement, enduring disability, poverty, obscurity, humiliation, and early death. Many women and children were left without any means of support other than the prospect of a dependent’s pension.

There was a huge gulf between the numbers of applications and awards, meaning there was a very large constituency of people who were, at the very least, disappointed at the decisions of the assessors.

A government memorandum in 1957 revealed that 82,000 people applied for pensions under the 1924 and 1934 acts; of these, 15,700 were successful and 66,300 were rejected. The archive is thus a great chronicle of disappointment.

There were those, however, who won their battles over pensions, including Tom Barry, the former British army soldier and IRA activist from Cork, who had been one of the best known and most admired of the flying column leaders during the War of Independence, particularly as a result of the Kilmichael Ambush of 28 November 1920, when he led an attack on a patrol of Auxiliaries, 17 of whom were killed.

Tom Barry

The ambush had a profound impact, resulting in the declaration of martial law for much of Munster the following month, official reprisals, and widescale internment. By the spring of 1921, his flying column, with 104 men, was the largest in Ireland. Barry survived the War of Independence and the Civil War, during which he fought on the republican side.

He remained on the run until 1924, the same year in which he became involved in the Cleeves Milk Company based in Limerick and Clonmel, and from 1927 until his retirement in 1965 he was general superintendent with the Cork Harbour Commissioners.

In the midst of his working life, his book, Guerrilla Days in Ireland, was published and became a bestseller. Barry has been described as autocratic and prickly but also generous and charismatic.

Intelligent yet intolerant, he was quick to take on lawyers and bank managers over matters relating to his IRA column’s activities.

He also had to take on the Military Service Pensions Board over another perceived slight — its decision that his activities during the revolutionary period did not merit the award of the most senior rank and grade for the purposes of payment of a pension (pensions were graded A to E depending on rank and length of service).

In December 1938, Barry wrote to the assessment board to submit his form, which claimed IRA service from July 1919 to the end of September 1923: “I would like to point out that I have not included what I would term the lesser fights, shootings or actions. I have only dealt with the major activities... I claim that I was continuously engaged without a break for the period mentioned. In justice to myself and the officers and men I commanded, I claim Rank A.

“Apart from the post of Liaison officer for the martial law area to which post I was appointed on the day preceding the Truce, by virtue of my rank as deputy divisional O/C [Officer Commanding] prior to that date, I had under my absolute control all the fighting organisation of active service units in Cork, Kerry, Waterford and West Limerick.

“My post was NOT vice O/C but Deputy O/C. The late General [Liam] Lynch handed me over all the Active Service Units about three weeks after his own appointment. My rank and activities also during the Civil War period entitles me to rank A.”

Days later, he wrote another letter to the board, suggesting “it is possible that the Board would be facilitated by a more detailed statement in deciding the issue of my rank” and also to make the point that, at the outset of the Civil War, “the ranks on 1 July 1922 were indeed very vague for any of the GHQ [General Head Quarter] officers”.

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During his sworn statement before the military service pension’s advisory committee, Barry was asked was there a difference between deputy divisional commander and vice divisional O/C.

He replied: “Certainly there was a difference... Deputy Divisional O/C is one which ranks co-jointly with the OC, whereas the Vice O/C is only a staff officer.”

In reply to the question about a later period — “You claim your rank at that period was Rank A?” — his reply was adamant: “Certainly. I would accept no other rank.”

Grave disappointment was to follow for Barry. In January 1940, he received his military service pension award of Rank B, which “I reject... on the grounds of both length of service and of rank”.

He was livid that the board had disallowed him full-time active service on certain key dates, including the periods October 1919 to July 1921 and July to September 1923. “It is sufficient to state that my award was humiliating to a degree,” he said.

As was usual with Barry, such a concise assertion of his grievance was not sufficient; a few lines later in the letter he wrote: “I do ask the Board now to understand that I am feeling ashamed and ridiculous at the award and that I am entitled at least to have this humiliation removed from me.”

He insisted on his appeal being heard in person and maintained he had lined up former IRA officers who were prepared to verbally testify on his behalf. Senior politicians, including Fianna Fáil ministers Éamon de Valera and PJ Ruttledge, had already written statements of evidence on his behalf.

Bill Quirke, who was a member of the Army executive and O/C of the second southern command, and who had also been awarded rank B, wrote the following month to the board in relation to Barry: “I always regarded him as my superior officer and if any man in Ireland is entitled to special consideration for special services, surely he is one man.”

De Valera intervened the following month and suggested to the board “that you avail of rule 4, to step up his rank. Perhaps you could consider this.”

Barry gave further evidence in May 1940 and in August 1940 he was granted the rank of rank A for pension purposes, on the basis of which an annual pension of £149.7s was payable. His perseverance, righteousness, attention to detail, friends in powerful positions, and adamant testimonials on his behalf had paid off.

THE saga surrounding Barry’s application for a pension and his vehement rejection of the Pension Board’s initial decision is a reminder of the longevity of battles over the legacy of the War of Independence in the state that was created at its end.

Significantly, Barry’s struggle in the late 1930s and early 1940s with the Pension Board involved the issue of status rather than money but, for many others, the award of a pension could mean the difference between material survival and destitution.

The bulk of the pensions archive is filled with the experiences of those who were not household names, and includes many voices of desperation and urgent pleas for pensions due to the abject circumstances of a host of War of Independence and Civil War veterans. Undoubtedly, as with Barry, status was a preoccupation for some of them also, but the monetary award could be of more immediate consequence.

Many were not as fortunate as Barry; some were the relatives of republican icons, but such a family connection was not always a guarantee of material comfort.

This was painfully evident in the case of Brigid Treacy, the mother of Seán Treacy, the Tipperary IRA volunteer killed in 1920. Brigid was a claimant under the Army Pensions Act 1923 and also crossed swords with the Pensions Board.

She was living on a small holding of 14 acres in Tipperary and was offered a gratuity of £100 per year which she refused, and responded: “£100 for the life of Sean Treacy?.. A few lines to let you know of the humiliation I have experienced this morning at receiving the enclosed paper offering me the paltry sum of £100, for the loss of my noble son my only child and only help in this wicked world... had I to beg from door to door for the remainder of my life I could not nor would not accept the meagre sum of £100, for the life of my heroic son.”

“The Army Pensions Board must have a goodly mixture of the old hated class in it or I would not be so humiliated by them or E[rnest]. Blythe [the minister for finance]... other men will do justice to my son’s worth and character and protect me from the insults I am receiving.”

The gratuity on offer was later raised to £150, the maximum allowable, due to “special circumstances”. She was described in administrative correspondence as “an old feeble woman and Seán Treacy was her only son”.

Some applicants had to endure years of waiting, frustration, and tortuous correspondence, often with no positive outcome. The tone of many of their letters conveys anger with seemingly endless bureaucratic inertia.

An added insult to many, to their genuine dismay, was that their services and sacrifices were not officially recognised, sometimes because of the verifying the exact level of service or number of military engagements. Poverty formed the backdrop to many cases considered, which gave an added urgency to appeals.

Others who were disappointed with the decisions about their rank expressed their dismay but did not pursue an appeal, being well aware how long the process could take. As John Scollan from Drumcondra in Dublin put it in May 1938: “The question of rank is certainly disappointing. As I am now 62 years of age, it would only delay matters considerably if I were to appeal. This I am not going to do.”

Scollan had been director of organisation, intelligence, and munitions for the Hibernian Rifles and a member of the executive council of Sinn Féin.

He had, at various stages, been a prisoner in Frongoch, Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs, and Reading jails. Although he made his statement in October 1935, he had still heard nothing by November 1936. In May 1938, he was informed his pension would be £20 per annum.

Understandably, at a time of high unemployment, economic stagnation, and very limited prospects for the next generation, the issue of dependency permeates the pension files. In 1946, the 34-year-old daughter of an army pension recipient who had recently died asked the Department of Defence if her father’s last cheque could be made payable to her.

“ I am absolutely dependent for my support on my father’s pension,” she wrote.

“I should also like to point out that I am an invalid for over twelve years and I am not in receipt of any monies from any source whatsoever. I am unable to work, I get no relief or insurance benefits, and I have nothing left out of my death policy as any money received went to pay doctors for my father’s illness and funeral expenses. My brother in law has asked me to live with him for the future.”

The sum was paid to her as requested; it amounted to 13 shillings and nine pence. For those seeking to eke out a bare subsistence in the 1930s and 1940s, every penny generated by War of Independence service was precious.

A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-23 by Diarmaid Ferriter is published by Profile Books.

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