Celtic Junction Arts Review

A Literary Truth Commission? Review of The Fourth Northerners and the Irish Revolution by Professor Gregory Knipe

Réamonn Ó Ciaráin.

Fourth Northerners book cover

The Fourth Northerners and the Irish Revolution by Professor Gregory Knipe is a comprehensive and accurate survey of the extent and variety of operations and actions a century ago in the territory allotted to a feared and revered division of the IRA under Frank Aiken. This division consisted of 3627 volunteers subdivided into 3 brigades of North Louth, Newry, and Armagh. At a more local level, the Fourth Northerners were organised into companies and battalions and marshaled to the nth degree by their leaders. In this book, we now have a fascinating and authentic story of what the people of the area in question experienced. It is powerful, sometimes inspirational, often sad, but always compelling. It is a story of ordinary people caught in conflict.

The presentation of Professor Knipe’s material is equally well organised and subdivided forensically for us – amounting to what is an intelligent sifting and synthesis of a huge quantity of material. The content is clear and cogent. Both Litter Press and the author are to be congratulated for their obvious rigour in the production of this handsome and meticulously curated volume.

Included are 58 illustrations of varying forms with hitherto unseen photographs from family collections which lend an extra validity to the overall approach. And maybe it is only when we see the faces in these photographs and read their surnames and their townlands and street names – when those black and white eyes peer back at us – maybe it is only then that we think fully on the human aspect of what happened in Armagh, South Down, and North Louth and ponder a while on the relatives and loved ones affected by events outlined in this book. We realise more completely that this turbulent period left a legacy that endures even a century later. The historical, political, and social context which Knipe has re-assembled for us was multi-layered with many contours and it demands the level of scholarly detail that this work certainly displays.

Author Knipe in Armagh
Author Professor Gregory Knipe

There is a price to be paid for war. It is usually paid most dearly by innocent victims, by loved ones but also by combatants on all sides. We know equally that circumstances do occur when ordinary right-thinking men and women are compelled to make a stand for their beliefs, for liberty, for their country. It is of course an irony not lost on the Irish that the primary reason the English gave for going to war just a few short years before the period under discussion in WWI, to protect the freedom of small nations, is the very antithesis of what they were actually inflicting on the people in Ireland, their first colony. 

The trauma of colonisation by violent conquest is transgenerational and must ultimately be dealt with wherever it has been inflicted. We now know that that which is repressed returns and manifests in bizarre forms such as a sense of shame, self-loathing, hyper-deference to authority, and a dislike of one’s own culture such as the Irish language. This book deals with the wounds of the past, wounds inflicted on and endured by all sides. Knipe handles his material dispassionately and his authoritative volume is in many ways the literary equivalent of a retrospective truth commission for the area and era in question.

The extent of the suffering endured as chronicled is shocking and horrifying. How must Michael Smith of Balleck in South Armagh have felt when he awoke on Christmas Eve 1919 to find those dark shadows of the B Specials in his bedroom? Did he believe that he could outrun the rifles of this rogue regiment? He could not and was gunned down dead like a fox. Did Peter Mackin of Annaduff expect to die that same Christmas Eve night when he raced from the Specials? It was no silent or holy night for him. Of course nationalists or Catholics were not the only people to suffer in this area as we have already indicated. What must the terror have been like for men, women, and children at Altnaveigh near Newry when cruel and murderous revenge paid them a black and bloody visit on the night of 16th bleeding into the 17th of June 1922. It came to them in the form of a thirty-strong group of Irish Volunteers to carry out what became known as the Altnaveigh Massacre. It was a dark and evil episode in our history which must be faced up to if we are to fully heal these wounds. Six innocent Protestants were mercilessly and needlessly killed on that midsummer’s night a century ago. 

Bloodshed is no cleansing or sanctifying thing as Pádraig Pearse, the poet, claimed it was. This claim he made before he had experienced the horror of war himself. We cannot deny his subsequent bravery and fearlessness in the Easter Rising of 1916 or his many other intellectual attributes. And yet, as much as bloodshed and war are to be resisted and avoided if possible at all costs to this very day, so too is the subjugation of native peoples and oppression in its many guises in Ireland and across the globe. For what if not this was the War of Independence and other such strikes against colonial powers in Ireland and elsewhere all about?

Attendees at The Fourth Northerners book launch in Aonach Mhacha on Sept 2, 2021
Frank Aiken in 1944

One of the Fourth Northerners’ most notable successes, from their perspective at least, was the attack on King George the 5th’s army, the 10th Hussars, who were returning to Dublin by train on 24th June 1921, two days after the opening of Stormont Parliament. The ambush occurred at Adavoyle which is situated in the ancient Gap of the North near the southern border. A mine derailed their train causing the death of three soldiers along with 52 horses. A further 30 soldiers were injured. In reprisal, the forces lashed out killing three local men who happened to be in the vicinity we are told.

Elizabeth McParland Carricknagavna, carrier of dispatches and author’s grandmother

The role of key players is also addressed in this book such as Bulmer Hobson, Ernie O’Malley, Michael Collins, and in particular Frank Aiken, who was the main leader of the Fourth Northerners, gunman turned statesman and political luminary, and also as it happens, a former pupil of the Abbey Grammar, Newry, my own old school. He also attended St. Coleman’s College in Newry. A physically imposing man, he went on to be a political colossus; from guerrilla war fighter par excellence, he transformed himself into an architect of global Human Rights. He held many ministerial portfolios even late into life. Ultimately it would be Frank Aiken who ordered Irish volunteers to dump arms and return home, bringing this phase in the struggle for Irish Freedom to a halt. In our own family story, Aiken was said to have stayed with my grandfather’s cousin, Mini Kearney, in Camlough near Newry.

A question arose in my mind when reading this book. What would I have done during this time? Would I have been an active volunteer like my granny’s brothers, Peter and John McParland of Carricknagavnagh who emigrated to New York after the War of Independence?  Or would I have been a carrier of dispatches by bicycle, like my then young granny, Elizabeth McParland, poised to eat her messages if apprehended? Or would I have been like the many others trying to keep bread on the table and a fire in the hearth and hoping it would all end soon and that Ireland would finally be at peace and free from the yoke of Perfidious Albion?

One aspect that is conveyed powerfully in Knipe’s research is the relentless nature of operations and the necessity for volunteers and leaders to multitask on a vast array of covert missions: on land, across rivers, at sea, in mountains, and in both rural and urban settings.  

Réamonn Ó Ciaráin & Gregory Knipe at launch

We are indebted to Professor Knipe for producing an exact and chronological account of this revolutionary period in the area and of the events as they relate to the Fourth Northern Division in particular. What Gregory Knipe treats of in his book is the story of our aunts, uncles, grandads, and grannies, and their neighbors, friends, and relations. To understand ourselves we must understand the story of our forebears for their story is our story too. We should always remember that we are not so much spinning our stories but rather being spun ourselves by those stories.

The Fourth Northerners can be purchased here.