Review for the Irish Civil war: Law, Execution, and Atrocity

Irish Civil War: Law, Execution, and Atrocity by Sean Enright, Merrion Press, 2019

4/5

A slightly dry, but fascinating read about the executions that took place during the Irish Civil War. Like his prior book on the Easter Rising Trial, Sean spends the first half of the book providing historical and legal context for the trials, before working through each execution in a linear process. This method can be a dry read, especially since he only provides short glimpses into the lives of those who are being executed, but that doesn’t mean this book isn’t interesting.

I bought this book immediately after I finished the new biography on Richard Mulcahy, since he played a central role in creating the execution rules and ensuring they were enforced. However, since this book is a look at the executions from a legal perspective, we miss some of the context regarding Mulcahy’s role as well as O’Higgin’s. It can also be hard to keep track of the long list of prisoners who were executed and when.

This book excels at discussing how a new state that didn’t have a national army or its own legal system had to create both things over night in the midst of a civil war. Enright does a great job highlighting the tension between the civil legal authority and the military authority (aka Mulcahy). He also does a great job trying to break out how many executions were committed with specific approval from the Irish Government and how many were committed by the soldier’s lack of discipline.

Enright is a fair historian and another one who is unusually favorable to Mulcahy despite his role in the 80 plus executions that took place during the war. Enright is clear when Mulcahy covered up military excesses, but also goes out of his way to point out when Mulcahy resisted Cosgrave’s and O’Higgin’s urgings to end the war quickly, increase executions, and wanting more information on what the national army was doing in general. I wish he had spent a little more time exploring O’Higgin’s motives for being so committed to execution as a useful tactic against the anti-Treatyites.

At the end of the book, Enright makes an interesting argument that Mulcahy supported executions because it was the only way to wrestle control over sanctioned death from the IRA and other non-governmental entities. It provides a new insight into how Mulcahy was handling transforming an insurgency into disciplined army. Enright also provides more evidence that the Squad Collins created during the Anglo-Irish War was a rotting infection inside the Irish Free State and its National Army-an infection that Mulcahy was struggling to control. That seemed to be another reason Mulcahy wanted the government to control execution policy. Better he decided who lived and died than the Squad-who only answered to Collins (who died early during the Civil War).

Overall, a well-written and balanced account on a controversial and painful moment in Irish history.

Pros: Interesting, legal perceptive

Fair and balanced account

Well-researched and exhaustive

Cons: Slightly dry

Missing nuance analysis because Enright doesn’t focus on interpersonal relations within the Cosgrave Administration

Would have liked more time spent on analyzing O’Higgin’s role in crafting the execution policy as well as Liam Lynch’s and Mulcahy’s relationship pre-Civil War and how that affected Mulcahy’s implementation of the executions.

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