Historians often have understandably mixed feelings about historical drama on television. On the one hand, it’s great to see wider public attention drawn to aspects of the past about which we are intimately familiar. On the other, however, it can be hard to watch complex historical phenomena simplified, sensationalised or air-brushed in the name of entertainment. And yet an engaging period drama can shed valuable light on fascinating but hitherto obscure fragments of history and enrich public knowledge of the past for a bigger, more diverse audience than that commanded by most popular or academic historians. The depiction of IRA gun-running during the Irish War of Independence in BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders provides a good case in point.
In April 1920 James Delaney, an Irish immigrant living and working in London, observed nightly protests outside Wormwood Scrubs prison in support of a hunger-strike by republican prisoners, one of whom, Tom Treacy, was from Delaney’s home county of Kilkenny. During the protests there were a number of clashes between between local IRA members and ‘rowdies’ who tried to disrupt the rosaries recited each night by female republicans. Delaney, a tailor’s cutter, resolved to become involved and, after the strike ended, visited Tom Treacy, who was recovering in a hospital in Highgate. Delaney had served in the British Army during the Great War and now offered his services to the IRA. Treacy suggested that if he provided funding, Delaney might be able to procure arms and have them sent to Kilkenny (local republican units, frustrated by a lack of arms, often utilised their own resources rather than those of IRA Headquarters). Delaney then approached two former London policemen, Lynch and Cooley, (both Irishmen) who had been dismissed as a result of the recent police strikes. They agreed to put him in touch with a London Irishman named Conroy, a bookmaker with criminal connections. Conroy introduced Delaney to two men, Ginger Barnett (described by Delaney as a ‘Jewman’) and a mixed-race gang leader known as ‘Darby the Coon’.
Using £100 supplied by Treacy, Delaney began purchasing weapons through these criminal contacts. Every week he bought handguns from sailors (paying usually between £2-£4) who stayed at lodging houses in Petticoat Lane (where Barnett was based), Limehouse Causeway, Pennyfields (the Chinese Quarter) or the ‘negro lodging houses’ in Cable Street in the East End. He was usually accompanied by either Darby or Barnett when he visited the lodging houses. Delaney himself operated from a boarding house near Victoria Station but never brought weapons there. Instead he handed them over to another Kilkenny emigrant named Annie O’Gorman who he would meet at Marble Arch. At her residence they would wrap the guns in tailor’s wadding and post them to a fake address at Kilkenny’s town hall where the town clerk knew to bring these parcels to a local republican. This scheme worked until November 1920, when in the course of a plan to buy a large amount of weapons, Delaney was betrayed to the police. Though questioned at Scotland Yard, the police failed to find any incriminating evidence and Delaney was released and returned to Ireland, managing to bring three revolvers on his person.
Here we have at a micro-level an illustration of how sections of the IRA sought to arm themselves using their personal contacts among the Irish diaspora. We also have interaction between an emigrant radicalised by clashes in his adopted city, brought into contact with disgruntled former employees of the Crown, themselves radicalised by post-war unrest. The would-be republican gunrunner was in turn introduced to an underworld with an immigrant and multi-ethnic dimension in a city at the heart of a global empire. And Delaney’s story was by no means unique. In the same period Irish revolutionaries in Britain also dealt with gangs such as the Sabinis in north London and others like them in Birmingham. They also made contact with the disaffected migrants from Britain’s imperial possessions. Irish revolutionaries’ pursuit of a steady supply of arms would bring them not only to Boston and New York but also to Gabriel D’Annunzio’s Adriatic state at Fiume and the giant arms bazaar that was post-Versailles Germany. Politically promiscuous, they would scheme with Italian fascists and German communists, Freikorps freebooters and Russian Bolsheviks. Indeed, IRA operatives established front shipping companies to transport arms from ports such as Hamburg to Ireland and substantial amounts of their cash would go missing on the continent. Recriminations about who was responsible for the failure of certain operations would last for decades. Among those attempting to purchase material in Germany during 1921 were Roddy Connolly, son of the executed 1916 leader James, who had recently been to Moscow and met Lenin; Robert Briscoe, a Jewish Dubliner who would later help arm Zionists in Palestine; and Charles McGuinness, a sailor and adventurer who would side with Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Many of their escapades read like plotlines from the BBC’s hugely popular Peaky Blinders.
The first series of that show revolved around an attempt by Birmingham gangsters, the Shelby family (the ‘Peaky Blinders’ of the title), composed largely of veterans of the Great War, to successfully offload a large consignment of arms. Unfortunately for the Shelbys the IRA, communists and the British security services were all equally invested in locating these weapons. It’s probably fair to say the success of that show lies less in its depiction of the politics of post-war Britain than in its stylised violence, explicit sex, deliberately anachronistic Nick Cave soundtrack and excellent performances from Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory, Sam Neill, Tom Hardy, Sophie Rundle and Paddy Considine among others. The haircuts and clothes worn by the male characters also correspond neatly with aspects of ‘hipster’ fashion (even inspiring a line by former Kerry GAA star turned designer Paul Galvin). Subsequent series have introduced Italian and Jewish mobsters, the Bolsheviks, White Russian émigrés and right-wing employers organizations, all against a backdrop of industrial unrest and contemporary political change.
Again, Historians can often be quite precious about how ‘their’ subject is presented on screen. But though Peaky Blinders makes little claim to historical accuracy (the original Peaky Blinders gang for instance, operated during the late 19th century not after the Great War) its depiction of a post-war world turned upside is strikingly similar to the evidence contained in IRA pension statements dealing with gunrunning (a storyline which also featured in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire). Indeed, it might be the case that ensuring audiences are entertained makes Peaky Blinders more believable than shows that see themselves as self-consciously based on historical truths.
In 2016 Rebellion was marketed as Irish broadcaster RTE’s flagship contribution to the Centenary year of the Easter Rising. Indeed, for the 50th anniversary in 1966 the station’s drama Insurrection had been an original and innovative production. Unfortunately, Rebellion, a substantial budget notwithstanding, was anything but. Despite being based on a wide reading of the sources concerning Ireland in the pre-Rising era it fell flat as a drama. While it was laudable that women were central to the story, the attempt to address almost every aspect of contemporary Irish opinion was laboured. The depiction of Padraig Pearse was very clichéd and owed much to the psychological critiques of the man that were in vogue thirty years ago. The contrast between the Volunteers (Catholic nationalists reciting the Rosary) and the Citizen Army (quoting Lenin) was also hackneyed. Finally, the streets of Dublin depicted in the TV show seemed devoid of people and little of the sense of drama mentioned in numerous contemporary accounts of the Rising was conveyed. While some critics saw the series as implicitly anti-republican, the greatest problem with it was that it was just not entertaining. Rebellion looks set to return, however, this time looking at the War of Independence. Its writers might take a leaf from Peaky Blinders and not take themselves so seriously (the emergence of Frances as an assassin in the final episode of the last series might suggest they realise that); they might also attempt to convey how people caught up in extraordinary times can be inspired to act by a variety of motives, some of them quite contradictory. Most of all, they need to entertain.
Brian Hanley is a Research Fellow at the School of Classics, History and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, where he is currently working on the AHRC funded project ‘A Global History of the Irish Revolution, 1916-1923’. He has published widely on 20th Century Irish republicanism; his books include The IRA: A Documentary History and, with Scott Millar, The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party.