Moving Away From the ‘Bandit Country’ Myth

By Patrick Mulroe

In the last eighteen months, the Irish border has been the focus of a great deal of comment but there remains little depth to much of the analysis of the area’s history. During the conflict, the border was a key sphere for IRA operations. Operation Banner, the official British Army account of the troubles, claimed that by the mid-1980s, the IRA was organised into sixteen Active Service Units of which ten were based south of the Border.[1] One border area stood out in terms of importance. South Armagh was a hub of paramilitary activity; indeed, by 1978, of the fifty-eight serious border incidents, forty-one took place in South Armagh.[2]  Even now, this area features in media reports almost always accompanied by the unfortunate “Bandit Country” moniker.

The best-known work on South Armagh is journalist Toby Harnden’s Bandit Country. In this influential and widely read book, it is argued that ‘the modern troubles [in South Armagh] are viewed not as a series of isolated incidents since the 1970s but as part of a continuum with the past’. [3] Indeed, Harnden devotes two chapters to explaining the roots of “bandit country” over the preceding centuries. Upon reading his argument, one is left in no doubt that South Armagh has indeed been the epicentre of political violence for some time. This historic framing of South Armagh is massively important, as the conclusion is that political violence was inevitable in such an environment. This is an interesting but fundamentally flawed analysis.

If we take a look at twentieth-century Ireland, South Armagh does not stand apart until the mid-1970s. In fact, levels of disturbance in the county during earlier periods of turbulence were, if anything, lower than expected.  Starting with the War of Independence, the recollections of one former IRA volunteer are interesting:

‘Up to the Truce in 1921 there was little local activity by the Crossmaglen

Company. No person seemed to have any idea what it was possible to do

or make any effort to do anything. It was not a question of trying and things

not working out as was planned. As far as I know no effort was made even

to make plans to carry out operations’.[4]

There were some local IRA actions including attacks in Camlough and Newtownhamilton. In the Newry/Louth/South Armagh area, there was one conflict related fatality in 1919, 14 in 1920 and 32 up until the truce in 1921.[5] These figures are not insignificant, but by way of perspective, there were 2,141 lives lost nationally.[6] A deeper analysis reveals that between 1917 and 1921 there were 2.33 conflict related deaths per 10,000 of the population in Armagh, 4.08 in Louth, 9.97 in Tipperary and 12.62 in Cork.[7] It also needs to be emphasised that the majority of the local populace also backed constitutional nationalists politically as evidenced by the 1918 by-election victory of the Irish Parliamentary Party candidate in the South Armagh constituency.

Like the rest of Ulster, the more significant IRA attacks took place in South Armagh after the July 1921 truce. There was a sectarian dimension to some of these. Most notoriously, in a series of raids centred on the townland of Altnaveigh in June 1922, six Protestants were killed. Although levels of violence rose, this also should be seen in its’ broader context. The IRA in the region controversially did not partake in the joint (pro- and anti- treaty) IRA offensive on Northern Ireland in May 1922.[8] A significant reason this initiative failed was the lack of activity in South Armagh. Likewise, Police reports claimed that no IRA personnel from Armagh responded to a recruitment drive by the Irregulars (anti-treaty IRA) forces in 1923.[9] Overall, the number killed in violence in County Armagh between 1917- 1923 was 5.6 per 10,000 of the population, compared to Cork where the figure was 39.1 deaths per 10,000.[10]

If we then look at the ‘Border Campaign’ from 1956-62, there were again several serious incidents in South Armagh. On the surface, it is possible to find evidence to support the ‘Bandit Country’ theory. However, the area was on the whole quiet. The IRA’s failed campaign was focused more on the Monaghan-Fermanagh border.  As Ruan O’Donnell noted: “South Armagh fielded comparatively few Volunteers in the 1950s and lagged behind the development achieved by J.B. O’Hagan in the Lurgan district to the north.”[11]

It was during the current troubles therefore that South Armagh’s ‘Bandit Country’ reputation was made. However, when the conflict erupted in 1968/69, South Armagh was notable for the lack of political violence. There was a failed gun attack in 1969, but the first fatal incident, a bomb attack on the RUC in Crossmaglen, did not take place until 1970. After the explosion, former Nationalist MP Eddie Richardson stated that he knew ‘for a fact that everyone in Crossmaglen is very depressed and annoyed about this whole incident’.  The editorial in the local paper, The Dundalk Democrat, reflected this view, stating that ‘their deaths were all the more unfortunate as the occurrence took place in an area where political and sectarian strife have been singularly absent’.[12]

According to Eamonn Mallie’s The Provisional IRA, the first major operation to be carried out by the South Armagh IRA was a gun attack on August 29, 1971, that killed thirty-two year old British Army soldier Ian Armstrong.  The introduction of internment coupled with the killing of a local man, Harry Thornton, in Belfast had left feelings running high. It was reported that there was surprise and disappointment that Taoiseach Jack Lynch’s statement after the British soldier was killed contained ‘no expression of regret for the loss of life involved’.[13] For unionists, the image of a soldier being shot dead at the frontier, while the Irish security forces apparently looked on, was emblematic. The shooting and diplomatic fallout had a legacy that worsened the situation. The Stormont government ‘cratered’ border roads, which had a massive, but largely unrecorded effect on local communities. Areas that had previously been quiet became more militant. Road closure operations brought soldiers to the border. There was a ‘cat-and-mouse’ game going on whereby locals reopened roads at the weekend, and the British Army closed them again during the week. Troops in such close proximity to the border presented easy targets for republicans. At first, there were many more shooting incidents than fatalities but this soon changed.

Before August 1971, there were only four border incidents a month, after internment there were sixteen and after ‘cratering’, thirty-three.[14]  South Armagh became one of three areas where serious cross border violence occurred between 1971 and 1973. By the mid 1970s, South Armagh would eclipse other districts and, become the problem area from a security standpoint. To explain this transformation requires a degree of sophistication that has hitherto been absent from much of the discourse on the border and the ‘Troubles’. The legacy of past republican campaigns certainly had a role in legitimising political violence. Likewise, the experience of generations partaking in the ‘black economy’ was significant. However, there is more to the story of violence in South Armagh than this. Lumping these two factors together and conjuring up a mythical ‘bandit country’ adds nothing to our understanding of the conflict. If nothing else, those studying the period should avoid use of such pejorative and simplistic terms.

[1]Ministry of Defence, Operation Banner: Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland (2006), 28

[2]Patrick Mulroe, Bombs, Bullets and the Border: Policing Ireland’s Frontier: Irish Security Policy 1969-1978 (Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2017), 157.

[3] Toby Harnden, ‘Bandit Country’: The IRA and South Armagh, 2nd ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2000), 95.

[4] Bureau of Military History, National Archives (Dublin) Witness Statement 672, Thomas Luckie.

[5]John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, and Mike Murphy, eds., Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Cork: Cork University Press, 2017), 625.

[6] Ibid., 541.

[7] Ibid., 537.

[8] Robert Lynch, The Northern IRA and the Early Years of Partition (Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2016), 145.

[9] Ibid., 199.

[10] Peter Hart, The IRA at War 1916-1923 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 36.

[11] Ruan O’Donnell, From Vinegar Hill to Edentubber: The Wexford IRA and the Border Campaign (Wexford: Cáirde na Laochra, 2007), 30.

[12] Mulroe, 147.

[13] Ibid., 90.

[14] Ibid., 91.

(Image: Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916 Flickr)

Patrick Mulroe’s research focuses primarily on the Irish border. In 2016, he completed a PhD at the University of Ulster and later released a book based on his thesis, Bombs, Bullets and the Border: Policing Ireland’s Frontier: Irish Security Policy 1969-1978 (Irish Academic Press 2017). Patrick is a school teacher in Monaghan. Follow him on Twitter @PaddyMulroe.


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