On the 90th anniversary of the Beal na Mblath shooting, the usual platitudes and speeches were trotted out in an annual festival that has become largely meaningless due to its regularity. I usually pay the FG historical love-in little mind – I really hate the inappropriate appropriating of historical personalities – but something did catch my eye this time around.
Namely, the Sliabh na mBan, or rather the ARR Sliabh na mBan, one of the armoured Rolls Royce fighting vehicles that saw service in the first two decades of this state’s existence. The Sliabh na mBan is one of only two of the original models used by the Irish armed forces still in existence (the other part of a private English collection) and is an interesting – and important – part of our revolutionary remembrance.
It was while doing more in-depth research on my MA thesis topic – the Battle of Kilmallock during the Irish Civil War – that I first realised just how vital and important the “ARR’s” were. These were, to the men of the provisional government army, later the Free State forces, the highest point of their military technology. Tanks were still to come, airplanes in Ireland were used for reconnaissance only and the sea was not a battlefield. For a conflict like the Irish Civil War, a purely land based affair, machines like the armoured Rolls Royce’s were often the decisive element, the surest sign in a firefight of the technological superiority of the pro-Treaty side.
At least, for the opening months of the conflict, when the Civil War could be classed as a conventional war, where both sides attempted to hold territory and battle lines were a reality. From the opening shots in Dublin to the collapse of the “Irregular” position in Munster a short time later, the Irish Civil War was on a par with standard warfare, only devolving (or evolving if you prefer) into guerrilla warfare afterwards, which is how it largely remained until its ending in 1923. While armoured cars were useful for protection, conveys and exerting a persona of power, they were less useful in a practical way once the Civil War had turned into a fight of ambush and flying columns.
But for those opening months, they were crucial. The anti-Treaty forces had nothing to match them. Crewed by teams of three, armed with a .303 Vickers machine gun on a rotating turret (source of the “Whippet” nickname) and with a max speed of 45 mph, they provided close fire support to pro-Treaty troops, mobile command centres for Generals, and were instrumental in pushes on defended Irregular positions. In combination with the other great pro-Treaty advantage – artillery – they provided one of the key reasons for the total “Regular” victory in the conventional Civil War and it’s relatively quiet engine was vital in the counter-insurgency campaign that occurred later.
For those reasons, and because it’s just something that soldiers tend to do, they were given names. Old soldiers named swords, cannon and guns. Irish soldiers in 1922 named their fighting vehicles. Local landmarks, biting quips at the enemy and fallen friends were honoured.
More than that though, the names filtered through to the command, to an extent. Before the end of 1922, the armoured cars were given an official acronym – the previously mentioned “ARR” – with an attached number. Even the names that they were christened with passed into official registration.
These ARR’S were the ships of the land for the Irish Civil War, the war machines that soldiers clung to as a comfort, as a source for hope and an impetus for victory. Sure they broke down, sure the engine overheated if the radiator was kept covered, sure their usefulness waned as the conflict went on. But these devices were not just another piece of material for the pro-Treaty effort. You don’t give a thing a title if you don’t care about it, don’t put a dead man’s name on its armour if it doesn’t mean anything to you.
There were a total of 14 ARR’s that were used in the service of the provisional government during the Civil War. One was captured by Irregulars and later destroyed before the official designations came into effect – the Ballinalee, known as the Lough Gill to the anti-Treaty side – but the official records still list numbers up to 14. If you need any more convincing as to the attachment people had to these vehicles, the explanation for that discrepancy comes from the fact that there was no ARR 13 for superstitious reasons.
So, who were these vehicles? It is important to note that photographs and even battlefield histories for all of these vehicles are not guaranteed. Most of the following links came from this very useful thread on the Irish military online forum.
ARR 1 started out life as the Danny Boy, before being christened the Tom Keogh, after an officer killed in the fighting in County Limerick. It served its time throughout the Munster campaign, especially in Limerick.
ARR 2 was the aforementioned Sliabh na mBan (or Slievenamon if you prefer), named after the mountain in Tipperary and the fighting that took place there in 1798. It was present at the death of Michael Collins after previous service in Dublin. Later captured by the Irregulars, it fell back into pro-Treaty hands after being, apparently, abandoned due to lack of fuel and expertise in its workings.
ARR 3, The Fighting 2nd, was presumably named after a unit it was attached to and took part extensively in the Dublin fighting. ARR 4 was The Baby, perhaps one of the newer models or just a term of affection. In contrast, ARR 5 was The Manager, presumably a title of strength and authority.
ARR 6 was The Customs House, after the Dublin building that was the target of a massive IRA attack during the War of Independence. It saw service in all parts of the war, most notably when General Seamus Hogan used it to spearhead the relief of Bruree, Limerick, from an Irregular assault in July 1922.
ARR 7 was the Moneygall, after the Offaly town. ARR 8, pictured next to The Fighting 2nd above, was The Big Fella, an affectionate nickname for Michael Collins.
ARR 9 started out life in the hands of the Irregulars, who captured it early in the fighting and dubbed in The Mutineer as they themselves were sometimes called, using it as a stationary defensive point during the Four Courts fighting. Disabled by attacking pro-Treaty troops, it was reappropriated, repaired and bitingly renamed The Ex-Mutineer.
ARR 10 was The Flying Fifty, presumably another unit designation, which saw fighting in Dublin – overturning at one point and killing its gunner, Sgt Tom Walsh. ARR 11 was the Kilmichael, after the (in)famous ambush in County Cork during the War of Independence. ARR 12 was the Knockanana, after a town in Wicklow. ARR 14 was the High Chief, perhaps another reference to Michael Collins.
As stated there was also the Ballinalee/Lough Gill, which was damaged beyond repair by Irregulars preventing its capture. It was actually a very major part of the conventional/early guerrilla war in North Sligo, targeted deliberately by both sides as it switched allegiance.
The Irregulars also had their armoured cars. Aside from their brief use of The Mutineer, they constructed their own vehicles, usually attaching metal plates to trucks and lorries, giving them names in the Free State fashion. One of these was The River Lee, which took part in the Battle of Kilmallock. These ad hoc efforts, while ingenious, were never able to match the actual ARR’s, and operated more as troop carriers.
Once the Civil War was over, those ARR’s that had survived were gradually moved out of military service, scavenged for parts or sold for scraps. Some were brought back into service during “The Emergency” of World War Two, but nearly all of them – bar the Sliabh na mBan, kept and brilliantly restored by the Irish Defence Forces in their Curragh garages and the Tom Keogh in its private home in England – have since vanished into history.
These are important physical links to our past, which can do more than books or documentaries in reaching out to people, in the pursuit of revolutionary remembrance. These are things you can reach out and touch, knowing that they saw military service during one of the nation’s most brutal wars. They are a crucial thing, a bridge to that era, reminding us that once there were army men who saw these machines as something more than just the right combination of metal, rubber and lead, but as something to be respected, praised, even loved.
They make the period that bit more real in our minds. When it comes to genuine remembrance, that is very important.