By Liz Gillis
Published by: Mercier Press, 2016
The Hales Brothers and the Irish Revolution, by Liz Gillis, examines the lives of Seán and Tom Hales from Cork. She follows their lives through the years leading up to the Easter Rising, and then through the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War. Her work not only provides an examination of the Hales Brothers, but also provides a unique perspective on the War of Independence and Civil War in County Cork, while showing the sacrifices that many families like the Hales’ made in the fight for Independence.
Gillis argues that the story of the Hales family “epitomises the whole revolutionary period,” in that they sacrificed much for the cause, yet they have received little attention for the role they played in the Irish Revolution. While the Hales brothers are mentioned in other autobiographies and historical examinations of the period, no work prior to Gillis’ book has been devoted entirely to studying their role in the Revolution. Gillis brings them out from the shadows, and sheds light on their roles in the Irish Revolution.
Liz Gillis is a well known Irish Historian who has written numerous books on topics dealing with the Irish Revolution. Her book Women of the Irish Revolution, broke new ground by examining the largely under appreciated role of women during the Revolution. An earlier work The Fall of Dublin, tells the history of the battle for Dublin during the Civil War, another topic that has been largely neglected by historians. Her new book May 25: Burning of the Custom House 1921, published in May 2017, explores the IRA burning of the Custom House in Dublin. This event has been under researched, and underappreciated by many historians of the period.
The strength of the The Hales Brothers is that it approaches the Irish Revolution from a new perspective, that of a family’s role in the struggle. Gillis makes it a point to use this work to illustrate the sacrifices and turmoil that revolutionary families endured. From summer 1918 onward, the Royal Irish Constabulary constantly raided the Hales family home in search of Seán and Tom. The RIC eventually burned down the Hales family home, along with all of their personal belongings and farm equipment, in March 1921. This resulted in a huge financial loss and burden on the family. Tom Hales was also captured and brutally tortured by Captain Kelly of the Essex Regiment, British Army.
Gillis also uses the Hales family to illustrate how divisive the Civil War was. It often split up families as allegiances fell on opposing sides. Seán Hales joined the Free State army and sided with the pro-treaty group aligned with Michael Collins, while Tom opposed the treaty and chose to side with Anti-Treaty IRA to fight against the Free State government. Both brothers showed a reluctance to fight in the Civil War and kill former friends and comrades, often firing over the heads of men they knew to keep up appearances while avoiding bloodshed.
Finally, Gillis explores the death of Michael Collins and the role that Tom and men under his command may have played in killing Collins, and Seán’s search for the ultimate truth in the matter. She does an excellent job of assessing the event and its aftermath from all angles and provides readers with various possibilities and conspiracy theories. She ultimately leaves it up to the reader to determine what s/he thinks happened on the day that Collins was killed.
Tom Hales was arrested on 22 November 1922. His brother feared for his safety and did everything in his power to ensure that he would be safe in prison. However, a member of the Anti-Treaty IRA assassinated Seán Hales on 7 December 1922. Conspiracy theories concerning his assassination are also abundant, and Gillis again does an outstanding job of presenting the evidence and letting readers come to their own conclusion. She concludes the book by examining how the remaining Hales family members tried to rebuild their lives after the war. However, she does leave readers with the question of whether or not the gain of the Irish Free State was worth the sacrifices that the Hales family had made and the struggle they suffered through. Were they better off at the end of the conflict and were they happy with what had been achieved?
If the book has any weakness, it is that readers are left wanting to know more about the Hales brothers. Gillis does such a superb job of telling their story that during the sections of the books that diverge from the Hales brothers to discuss an event in broader context readers are left wondering what role the brothers played in these events, or how they felt about them. These omissions were likely no fault of Gillis’, but simply due to a lack of available sources that provided definitive evidence. The book is well researched, and it simply seems that there may have been no material evidence available that defined what role the brothers played in some events, or their thoughts on them. If any additional evidence should become known, readers can only hope that Gillis would be willing to release a revised edition of the book to include it.
This is a first-rate book, and a must read for anyone studying the Irish Revolution. It would be of particular interest to those studying County Cork’s role in the revolution, or the effects of the conflict on individuals and families. In addition, those examining the death of Michael Collins would enjoy the later chapters that discuss this family’s part in the event. We can only hope that more historians will follow Gillis example and continue to research the individuals and families that participated in the Irish Revolution because only through the study of these people can we begin to fully understand the conflict.