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The End of the Irish War of Independence

 The End of the Irish War of Independence 100 Years Ago     Gerry OShea

The Irish War of Independence started in January 1919 when two policemen were killed in County Tipperary, and it ended with an agreed ceasefire between the British Government and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on July 12th a hundred years ago.

Only eighteen people died during the first year of the insurrection. 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 November 1918 Westminster election was a major turning point in Irish history. The heroes of the Great War, (1914-1918), could not be excluded from casting a ballot in the general election, so the franchise was extended to all males over 21 and to most women past 30.

 The new electorate in Ireland moved away from the traditional support for the Irish Parliamentary Party which had agitated for Home Rule, a parliament in Dublin but still subject to Westminster, to the more radical Sinn Fein Party, which swept to victory on a policy of complete independence from England. They won 72 seats and refused to attend the London Parliament, instead setting up their own illegal provisional government in Dublin.

 The inevitable war with the British establishment followed. Sinn Fein and its armed wing, the IRA, sought a seat at the Paris Peace Conference that ended the Great War to make their case for Irish independence, but predictably, the victorious British ruled that out. Appeals to U.S. President Wilson for support fell on deaf ears.

The armed insurgency placed the police in Ireland, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in a really invidious situation. In previous times, the police were generally viewed as fair arbiters, mostly enjoying a good standing in the community.

While the high command of the police was English or came from the Protestant community, most ordinary constables followed the Catholic tradition and were respected members of the burgeoning Irish church at that time.

With the growth of the IRA revolution, the RIC found themselves on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, they were paid agents of the British Crown, committed to enforcing the law against the rebels. However, many had a latent sympathy with the nationalist cause, which was led by Sinn Fein and enjoyed widespread support among Catholics.

The British Government, responding to low morale that led to many resignations and early retirements from the force, almost doubled the policemen’s salary and introduced two groups from England to enhance the size and effectiveness of the RIC.

Around March 1920, about 10,000 soldiers, disbanded after the Great War ended, were recruited mostly in England and sent for some rudimentary police training in the Curragh in County Kildare. They were known as the Black and Tans because of the unusual uniforms they wore. The Irish people called them the Tans and they feared and hated them because of their abusive and sometimes murderous behavior in dealing with the local population.

The second group, around 2300 in number, were called the Auxiliaries. These men were part of the British officer corps during the World War which had just ended. Known as the Auxies, they too were trained in the Curragh before starting their work of restoring the peace throughout the country. The Auxiliaries were even more detested by the people than the Tans.

The British Army had around 56,000 men stationed in Ireland, but the military command refused to deal with the Irish rebellion as a war, so the enhanced police force was expected to take care of the insurrection. That view changed before the end of 1920.

The war can be appropriately viewed as a David and Goliath conflict. The British were far superior in numbers and military equipment and even had aerial support for the last six months of the conflict in 1921. On the other hand, the IRA fighters, certainly comparable to the biblical David, had little military training and were always scrounging for arms and ammunition. However, they were highly-motivated and they knew the local terrain much better than their opponents.

For the last year of the war they developed Flying Columns in most areas. The volunteers selected for these elite groups were nearly always unmarried and good marksmen. They received extra training in guerilla tactics where the element of surprise was always paramount in their choice of engagements.

In the last six months of the war over 1000 people, combatants from both sides and civilians, were killed, but neither side could claim victory. This was by far the most savage time with ambushes and reprisals accounting for 70% of all the deaths during the revolution.

A number of major military events give a clear idea of the gruesome  happenings towards the end of the war.

Michael Collins, the main leader of the insurgency, arranged for the execution of fourteen senior men, alleged spies, on November 21st 1920, Bloody Sunday. That afternoon a contingent of Tans and Auxies shot indiscriminately into a crowd of spectators at a local sporting event, killing fourteen and injuring four times that number.

On November 28th, a week later, the West Cork Brigade ambushed and killed seventeen Auxiliaries in Kilmichael near Macroom in County Cork. This event ended up with man-to-man combat and the defeat shocked the military and political establishment.

Partly in response to Kilmichael, Auxies burned a large part of the center of Cork city. Lloyd George was seriously embarrassed trying to explain how British policemen engaged in such despicable behavior.

In February, a brigade in County Limerick ambushed two patrolling RIC lorries, resulting in the deaths of fifteen policemen, second only to Kilmichael in terms of losses inflicted.

On March 19th a 100-strong contingent of the famous 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 because they knew that they narrowly avoided a massacre.

Ten days later, the Kerry Number Two Brigade surprised a group of British soldiers when they disembarked from a train at Headford, near Killarney. Eight soldiers were killed and a dozen were injured in the fierce battle that took place. Two IRA volunteers and three civilians also died in the fighting.

There were also failed ambushes, serious setbacks for the revolution. In County Cork alone in February, three failed encounters resulted in the deaths of twenty-one volunteers.

Dublin was a hive of rebel activity. On May 25th, they burned the Custom House, the home of the Department of Local Government. This was a spectacular achievement with film of the event shown throughout the world. However, five IRA men were killed and eighty were interned, greatly weakening the effectiveness of the rebels in the capital.

In the summer of 1921 General Neville Macready, the British Army Commander in Ireland, who a year earlier had confidently predicted that poorly-equipped rebels would never match the power of the British Empire, reported to his government in Westminster that to defeat the rebels 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 of the country on July 12th, 1921.

The dynamics in the Belfast area were different and the sectarian killings continued there


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