Meaher on Noonan, 'The IRA in Britain, 1919-1923: "In the Heart of Enemy Lines"'

Gerard Noonan
Augustine Meaher

Gerard Noonan. The IRA in Britain, 1919-1923: "In the Heart of Enemy Lines". Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017. 385 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-78694-013-1.

Reviewed by Augustine Meaher (Air University) Published on H-War (February, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

Taking the War to the Heart of the Enemy: The IRA’s Operations on the Mainland

The centenary of the Irish War of Independence and subsequent Irish Civil War are usually studied as an Irish event; indeed, the activities of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Britain were not even formally recognized by the Dáil Éireann. Gerard Noonan’s in-depth analysis of IRA operations in Britain following the escape of Eamon de Valera and his comrades from Lincoln Prison in February 1919 until the arrest and deportation of over one hundred anti-treatyites to Ireland in March 1923 clearly demonstrates that there were in effect two operational areas, Ireland and the British mainland. Noonan’s ground-breaking analysis conclusively demonstrates that the actions of the IRA in Britain, while of a much smaller scale than those in Ireland, were essential to the success of the IRA in Ireland. The Irish War of Independence is often presented in overly simplistic accounts that focus either on the emerging Irish political elite or on combat activities within Ireland in this decade of commemorations. The IRA in Britain, 1919-1923: “In the Heart of Enemy Lines” thus provides a valuable addition to the historiography and a reminder of the incredibly complex nature of the Irish War of Independence.

Drawing on a rich variety of primary sources, The IRA in Britain explores key aspects of IRA operations—recruitment, logistics, kinetic operations, resupply and recruitment during the truce, and operations during the civil war—and concludes with the response of authorities to their various operations. The book serves to draw together the disparate functions of the IRA in Britain into a comprehensive picture of a multipronged campaign. Noonan’s analytical approach ensures that the reader understands the complexities of each aspect of the IRA campaign while also grasping the interrelationship between the British and Irish theaters of operations. Despite the highly analytical nature of The IRA in Britain, Noonan’s expert biographical sketches of key figures in the IRA’s British organization ensures the element necessary for an interesting and engaging account. The biographical sketches also provide a rich and broad understanding of the IRA elite. The effectiveness of IRA operations is helpfully demonstrated with a variety of charts, although a timeline that would have helped the reader place various incidents and operations within a wider Anglo-Irish context is missing.

Gunrunning, the main logistical activity undertaken by the IRA in Britain, was its most valuable contribution to the war effort, and the second chapter provides an excellent insight into the means used to acquire and supply weapons to a revolutionary movement and the inherent dangers and problems of supplying an irregular fighting force. Noonan conclusively demonstrates that the IRA developed a complex logistical resupply effort that was extremely flexible and adjusted to the changing situation in Ireland and an ever-increasing British interdiction effort. Drawing extensively on letters, memoirs, and recollections of IRA veterans found within Bureau of Military History interviews and files ensures that the reader understands how the IRA campaign was undertaken or rather how those who undertook it remember it. This can be problematic as Noonan’s uncritical presentations of some recollections leads to oversimplifications, such as attributing revenge as the IRA’s goal during kinetic operations within the mainland. Revenge was certainly a motive, but taking the war to the enemy’s home front also greatly increased the pressure on British politicians to end the conflict.

The old saying that the Irish never forget and the British never remember is untrue when it comes to the actions of the IRA in mainland Britain; both the Irish and the British have largely forgotten this vital theater of operations. Fortunately, The IRA in Britain does not read like a PhD thesis despite being derived from one. One can quibble with the use of sources, but one cannot disagree with the conclusions that Noonan draws in his detailed analysis of this largely forgotten aspect of the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Irish Civil War. Every chapter by itself would be excellent for a graduate-level course in Irish history, military history, or the history of counterinsurgency, while the book as a whole is essential for Irish history courses and would also make a valuable addition to courses in modern British history. It is to be hoped that Noonan will serve as a springboard for deeper research into this neglected aspect of Anglo-Irish history.

Citation: Augustine Meaher. Review of Noonan, Gerard, The IRA in Britain, 1919-1923: "In the Heart of Enemy Lines". H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.