The Irish War of Independence and the Truce Gerry OShea
The Irish War of Independence began in Tipperary in January 1919 when two policemen were killed by the local IRA. The war started slowly. Only eighteen people were shot during the whole first year. No wonder that the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, viewed these sporadic attacks by Irish republicans as the actions of “murder gangs” that the police were well-equipped to handle.
The police force known as the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was augmented in 1920 by two groups that were recruited for the job in England. First, the Black and Tans were drawn from the disbanded soldiers who fought in the First World War. About 10,000 of these men arrived around March 1920. They were spoken of disparagingly as the Tans, and they were hated by the people because of their abusive and sometimes murderous behavior in dealing with the local population.
The second group also sent over to help the RIC, the Auxiliaries - Auxies for short – came in July and numbered around 2300. These men who were part of the officer corps during the Great War, were paid the princely sum of one pound per day and they were detested even more than the Tans by the Irish people.
On November 9th, 1920, Lloyd George boasted at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London that his forces in Ireland “have murder by the throat.” On November 21st, Bloody Sunday, fourteen alleged British spies were executed by Michael Collins’ Squad in Dublin. A week later seventeen auxiliaries were killed at Kilmichael by Tom Barry’s famous West Cork Brigade.
These events shook the British establishment and ended all talk from Westminster of imminent victory.
Early in December, Cork city was burned by Auxies, uniformed forces of the Crown, supposedly committed to protecting life and property. The British Government was seriously embarrassed before international leaders of church and state. There were behind-the-scenes talks between Arthur Griffith, president of Sinn Fein, and the Lloyd George Government about a truce.
The negotiations stalled because of the insistence by Hammar Greenwood, the chief secretary for Ireland, that the IRA must surrender their weapons in advance of any formal negotiations – a complete no-no from a republican perspective. Neville Macready, the British Army commander in Ireland, felt that a truce would strengthen what he dubbed the forces of sedition.
True to his military mind frame, he proposed a tougher approach. Martial law was declared for the Munster area on January 5th 1921. This recognized the fact that most of the battles and ambushes, outside of Dublin, took place in Munster, with rebel Cork leading the way.
The British Army had about 56,000 troops in Ireland, but up to this Lloyd George felt they weren’t needed to help the police deal with what he considered skirmishes involving poorly-armed rebels.
That changed after the events of Bloody Sunday and the Kilmichael Ambush and, by early 1921 the army was central to Macready’s plans to defeat the insurrection. He believed in ruling with an iron fist. The Irish needed to learn that they were out of their depth in taking on the forces of the British Empire who had just triumphed in the Great War.
They deployed large numbers of soldiers in the south, using aerial reconnaissance for the first time as these troops swept across rebel areas. The military convoys often brought along republican prisoners as hostages to deter any attacks.
The IRA flying columns were under intense pressure from these frequent well-planned military patrols. The direction from IRA headquarters to their 5000 or so soldiers in the field recognized the vulnerabilities of their active units: “a little action wisely and well done must be our motto at present.”
Martial law executions by the military started on St. Brigid’s Day, the first of February, when Cornelius Murphy from Millstreet in County Cork was shot by a firing squad. The last day of that month saw the execution of six more men, again in County Cork.
On March 19th a 100-strong contingent from Tom Barry’s West Cork Brigade was surrounded in Crossbarry, near the town of Bandon, by over a thousand British troops, and they had to break through a section of the encircling forces to safety, killing ten soldiers while losing two of their own. This was a close call for the republican movement. Only Barry’s mature leadership and the exceptional bravery of his men avoided a massacre by a vastly superior force.
Two days later, the Kerry Number 2 Brigade surprised a group of British soldiers when they disembarked from a train in Headford, near Killarney. Eight soldiers were killed and a dozen was injured in the fierce battle that took place. Two IRA volunteers and three civilians also died in the fighting.
Other major engagements with Crown forces took place around the same time in Millstreet, County Cork and Scramogue in County Roscommon. A Limerick brigade ambushed two patrolling RIC lorries at Dromkeen, resulting in the deaths of fifteen policemen, second only to Kilmichael in terms of losses inflicted.
There were also failed ambushes, serious setbacks for the revolution. In February, Mourneabbey, Upton and Clonmult – all in Cork – saw respectively six, three and twelve IRA fighters killed. The insurgents in Mayo suffered similar losses in Kilmeena while the Leitrim flying column was almost wiped out at Selton Hill.
In Dublin, an Active Service Unit (ASU) was set up in January, 1921. This group comprised about 100 men divided between the city’s four battalions. Their ambitious program involved striking at British forces in the capital at least three times every day. Usually, this involved throwing a grenade or firing a volley of shots followed by a quick getaway.
Before the truce was declared in July, dozens of soldiers and policemen were killed in Dublin by this ASU, but almost 50 civilians also died in collateral damage.
Eamon De Valera, the president of the nascent republic, urged the Dublin brigades to plan a spectacular event that would have a major propaganda benefit in foreign capitals. Michael Collins was reticent about taking on the British forces in direct, extended combat. However, in accordance with the president’s wishes, they decided to burn the Custom House, the center for local government in the country.
The operation, carried out on May 25th, was successful as the Custom House was almost completely destroyed. However, five volunteers were killed and eighty more were taken captive, greatly weakening the IRA in the capital.
The new parliament in Northern Ireland was opened in June, 1921. In Belfast, the police force and the Ulster Special Constabulary, almost all Protestants, engaged regularly in reprisals against areas where there was a strong IRA presence. Sectarian strife was the order of the day with Catholics unable to rely for protection on the security forces.
More than a thousand people, combatants from both sides as well as civilians, were killed in the first six months of 1921. This was 70% of the total deaths during the thirty months of the Irish War of Independence.
Michael Collins and others in the top leadership realized that with nearly 5000 volunteers in jail and the population growing weary after almost three years of war that they needed to adopt different tactics, including taking the war to mainland Britain. Targets and manpower were tentatively identified for strategic strikes in Glasgow and Liverpool.
By the summer of 1921 General Macready reported to his bosses in Westminster that the only door to military victory would involve widespread internment and executions. Lloyd George, already under pressure from America and elsewhere because of the unruly Irish situation, rejected this option and agreed to an unconditional ceasefire with the IRA. The Truce came into effect and was obeyed by both sides in the south from July 12th.
The ceasefire had little impact in Belfast where sectarian killings continued.
Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com