In the run up to the year of centenaries, the focus will naturally be on the high-profile events of the country’s two major conflicts. There will be much said and written about the IRA active service units, the Flying Columns; on the raids on British barracks; on the ambushes, the shootings, the fatalities, the near escapes.
But there is also a subset to our revolutionary history that, though less dramatic, was also of crucial significance: The bread-and-butter support of a largely sympathetic civilian population, people who often at great risk to themselves sheltered the combatants, provided them with food and sustenance, looked out for them.
There is very interesting material in the Circuit Court records of the claims made under the Compensation for Damages Act, set up by the Government in the aftermath of the turmoil. Over four days’ sittings in Mayo, the court heard no less than 180 claims from those who – voluntarily and sometimes not – provided assistance to the IRA forces. The announcement of the act had sparked off an avalanche of claims, some credible, some trivial, and many of the chancing-your-arm variety.
It was 1934 by the time the claims had been sufficiently processed for hearing by the court, under Judge O’Donnell. The instructions to the Mayo State Solicitor, AVG Thornton, were clear; he was to oppose every claim or, at the least, subject each to rigorous examination, to demand chapter and verse and proof of what the claims referred to.
A great number of claimants were merchants or small shopkeepers who had supplied foodstuffs, provisions or clothing to the men on the run. Few were able to provide ledgers or books of account to stand up their claims, and those that were seemed to have been written up long after the events, or compiled from memory in the days before the court hearings.
Many pleaded that to keep books would have endangered the IRA members when, as often happened, the Black and Tans would ransack the premises in search of evidence. The O’Grady and Sweeney families of Newport, who had supplied shop goods to over 100 IRA volunteers in the locality, admitted to not keeping written books of account simply because they themselves were under constant surveillance.
Anthony McDonnell of Louisburgh told the court he had supplied 12 bottles of rum, two sides of bacon and six pounds of tea for ‘men who had been injured in an ambush at Clifden’, on the assurance of the IRA men who came to his door that ‘when Dev gets in you will be paid well’. A man from Gortawarla, Newport, sought compensation for providing supper and breakfast (tea, eggs, butter and rashers) to a dozen irregulars, while in Duffys of Kilmovee, the IRA took away a chest of tea and ninety pounds of tobacco.
Patrick McDonnell of Westport, a merchant tailor, successfully sought compensation for ten riding breeches he supplied to Brigade IRA officers, while the tailoring firm of Howards of Castlebar claimed for a number of high-quality suits for the IRA, among the recipients being Mark Killalea, later to become a TD.
The commandeering of bicycles seemed to have been commonplace, and compensation was generally given, but the judge drew the line when a man from Knockglass, Newport, claimed for ‘other things’ taken from his home. Asked to specify, he itemised a razor, a shaving brush, a bicycle tube and a smoker’s pipe.But he was more sympathetic to the elderly Ballinrobe woman who claimed two pounds sterling a week for the soap, water and turf she used in washing the clothes for the IRA. Judge O’Donnell awarded her ten guineas.