Book Review of Harnden's 'Bandit Country: The IRA and South Armagh'

Updated on September 14, 2019
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The author is a QUB Political Science honours graduate, a political analyst and has written on a variety of related issues.

The Fewes: A Place Apart

The Daily Telegraph's Irish correspondent Toby Harnden's book, Bandit Country, introduces readers to a brief history of the ancient area known as the Fewes, encompassing South Armagh, the outlying areas of North Louth and North Monaghan. He tries to make the case that, even pre-partition, that the Fewes area, which includes South Armagh, was quite a bellicose proposition for the British colonial invaders to conquer.

Harnden cites the geography of the area, which historically includes the Gap of the North, as being an unwelcoming feature for the Colonial marauders to manage. The term 'Bandit Country' was a mainstream British media construct, specifically used to describe the de facto 'Liberated Zones', created by the ferocity of the Provisional IRA's campaign in South Armagh, during the 40+ year conflict with the British Army, commonly referred to as 'the Troubles.'

The author cites successive examples of the area being an extremely dangerous place for the Royal Irish Constabulary, the pre-partition British police force, and of course, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), post-partition. Harnden constructs a picture of the area as being particularly lawless, prone to violence and a 'place apart'. It is an impression of South Armagh that Bandit Country attempts to confirm throughout its chapters, but is it a fair reflection in reality? I would rate his hypothesis as understandable, but fairly typical of the British Colonial mentality when dealing with Irish Republican areas. Many commentators and authors, (although in fairness, probably not Harnden) fail to really comprehend why the 'Queen's Writ' is not warmly received, in much of Ireland, for very real historical reasons.

Slab and Mortar

Harnden's book begins, with a scenario of a diesel mix homemade bomb being assembled, in a farm outbuilding in South Armagh. He mentions names, as well as pseudonyms of people he thinks, were involved, which may have been gleaned from court papers and security force contacts, which he may have consulted when researching the book, or perhaps, allegedly from the girl from the area, he was cynically dating for 'research' purposes. He is basically constructing a likely scenario here, fleshing it out with minutiae, to add authenticity and presenting it as fact, which I suppose we have to put down to artistic licence, with a liberal sprinkling of British 'security services' based opinion.

Harnden appears as obsessed with the alleged main player in South Armagh, Thomas 'Slab' Murphy, as his security force contacts. Bandit Country devotes a whole chapter to Thomas 'Slab' Murphy and his farm complex that happens to straddle the border, much to the consternation of every British imperialist sent to the area. As far as Harnden, the 'Brits' and the RUC/PSNI are concerned, Slab and his farm complex are basically the epicenters of all Provisional IRA activity, in at least 4 counties, if not the whole of Ireland!

IRA active service unit
IRA active service unit

The author, throughout the book, chronicles Provisional IRA operations mounted against the British, which allegedly had their origins in South Armagh, including the cripplingly, massive London Docklands bomb and the innovative nature of those actions. He goes on to understate the fairly obvious: that South Armagh was not exactly a cushy posting for the British security forces:

"The very mention of South Armagh can send a shiver down the spine of any one of the tens of thousands of soldiers who have served there since the 'Troubles' began. Branded 'Bandit Country' in 1975 by Merlin Rees, then NI secretary, no other part of the world has been as dangerous for someone wearing the uniform of the British army. Some 123 soldiers have been killed in the S/Armagh area since August 1971, around a fifth of all military casualties in NI, along with 42 RUC officers & 75 civilians. According to RUC statistics, the area within a 10-mile radius of the heart of S/Armagh has seen 1255 bomb attacks and 1158 shooting incidents since the 'troubles' began."

Which is a fair enough scorecard for any national liberation organization, combined with the media-generated, notoriety of South Armagh. The sources Harnden has used, have included past serving British Army soldiers, RUC personnel, ex-Spook turned decommissioning Czar, John Grieve, and the late, ex-PIRA supergrass, Eamonn Collins. A motley crew indeed.

Former Provisional IRA 'intelligence officer' and retracted-Supergrass, Eamonn Collins, was allegedly murdered on the orders of the South Armagh IRA in 1999. Collins, had at one time, been the chief Provisional IRA 'intelligence officer' in the nearby city of Newry, but had agreed to turn Queen's Evidence, aka Supergrass against his former comrades. He had been arrested following an IRA mortar attack on the RUC barracks in Newry, which spectacularly wiped out 9 of the paramilitary police force's members. Eamon Collins ''broke" after days of intense questioning and psychological torture, in Gough Barracks interrogation center, in Armagh City.

Collins eventually retracted from his deal with the prosecution and was later acquitted of all charges, after the Diplock (no jury) trial judge, Higgins, accepted that Collins had been mistreated. He became an outspoken, quite unhinged critic of Republicanism, in general, and was courted by the British media, for his scathing critique of the Provisionals, in particular. Collins, fool-hardily, as it turned out, appeared as a witness, giving testimony against alleged PIRA commander, Thomas 'Slab' Murphy, during a libel action against a British newspaper, shortly before his brutal murder. (Collin's book 'Killing Rage' is a graphic account of his personal involvement in Provisional IRA military activities and his later disillusionment.)

IRA in South Armagh awaiting a target with heavy machine guns
IRA in South Armagh awaiting a target with heavy machine guns

Even Harnden's sources, within the British security forces, admit they feared, yet grudgingly respected, the South Armagh IRA's ingenuity and ruthless determination. This seems to be a major theme throughout the book, if not indeed its general conclusion. The author provides numerous accounts from former serving members of the British Army and RUC, confirming that due to the level of threat from the Provisional IRA, in South Armagh, they only left the likes of the heavily fortified Crossmaglen barracks by helicopter and even the garbage bins had to be emptied by the same method.

There seems to be no doubt from reading Bandit Country that the average squaddie, in the British army or RUC, viewed a posting to South Armagh, with at least the same trepidation that current British troops view a posting to Helmand Province, in Afghanistan. Many readers may even think that Harnden is sympathetic, but in my opinion, any praise of the local Republican insurgents is based on a grudging type of respect. One of the liberally served portions of backhanded compliments, that one of the British Army interviewees, in Bandit Country, gives to the local Provisional IRA volunteers, is that many of the local operators would have made excellent Army NCO's.

PIRA volunteer with UZI SMG
PIRA volunteer with UZI SMG

An operation, by the Provisional IRA's South Armagh Brigade, cited in Bandit Country, that aptly testifies to their ingenuity and resourcefulness, was an operation that involved a converted vehicle, containing a large bomb, being sent running on railway lines towards a British Army base. The author tells of a once regular Ford Transit van, which had then been fitted with railway carriage wheels; lifted onto the railway tracks, near Kilnasaggart Bridge, by a mechanical digger; then fitted with a red railway engine light, to give it an authentic appearance by night, on the railway lines, and of course, a large bomb loaded in the back of the hybrid-Transit/Train. The 'Transit Van-come-train' was then set trundling along the tracks towards the target.

Harnden's Bandit Country, is a very readable account, considering that many English journalists in the past, such as Gerald Seymour, have chosen to write Irish conflict-related material in the more profitable, though dubious sub-genre, known as 'Troubles Fiction' (See 'Gangsters or Guerrillas' by Dr. Patrick Magee). It is my understanding, that Harnden's book is used frequently by journalists covering Irish affairs, both domestically and from overseas.

In conclusion, Bandit Country has become a bookcase essential, for anyone with an interest in the centuries-old, Anglo-Irish conflict, or even those who have an interest in counter-insurgency matters, in general. Harnden's work is well researched and at 400+ pages in the hardback edition, it should keep the reader well interested for a day or two. The softback edition, published by Hodder and Stoughton, retails at under £10, so there really is plenty of bang for your buck. Bandit Country would definitely make my notional Top 100 of Irish conflict-related literature.

Bandit Country: The IRA & South Armagh

© 2019 Liam A Ryan


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    • Seven Stars Media profile imageAUTHOR

      Liam A Ryan 

      11 months ago from Ireland

      Many thanks, Leila. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • profile image

      Leila Luxemburg 

      11 months ago

      A fantastic article Liam. I had not came across this particular book before, but you intrigued me so much, I purchased a copy last night via the Amazon link in your article. So I must thank you for adding the Amazon link, it was so convenient for me. I picked up used copy. Very reasonably priced too. They have Kindle version also, but I am getting tired of it. Keep the articles coming, my dear friend. I cannot wait to receive my book!


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