Ireland’s Wars: The Irish Republican Army

Before we move onto the momentous events of 1919, we need to skip back a bit, and spend some time on the resurrection and reorganisation of the Irish Volunteers.

In the immediate aftermath of the Easter Rising, the Volunteers were gutted, with much of its leadership in prison, its arms confiscated and its activities proscribed. Only in the more isolated of locations did drilling continue, and even then with a greatly reduced number attending. In some areas where they had been controversy over the Volunteers’ action, or lack of it, in Easter Week, entirely new units had to be created from scratch. However, in a somewhat ironic sense, it was this apparent position of weakness that would influence the future, more militarily successful, direction of the Volunteers, as they turned from the idea of being a regular uniformed force, and increasingly turned to asymmetric guerrilla warfare as their basis.

Much of the initial reorganisation was directed by Cathal Brugha, still suffering from wounds incurred during the Rising. By December of 1916 he had helped to form a provisional executive that existed mostly to lay the groundwork for a more formal structure later: it did little more than order Volunteer units across the country to resume recruitment and drilling, but also determined not to expel those officers who had followed Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order, including MacNeill himself, preventing a split that could have destroyed the Volunteers at that time. Brugha himself had actually wanted MacNeill expelled, but did not get his way: the split was only deferred, not prevented forever.

The Volunteer executive was formally re-established in a Dublin meeting in March 1917. In line with de Valera’s accession to the leadership of Sinn Fein, the Presidency of the Volunteers was also given to him, providing a clearer link between the political and military aspects of the movement. It was required, as very often the Volunteers members and leadership displayed a contempt for the idea of civil authority over their movements and actions, even though in many local areas the Volunteer company and Sinn Fein branch had the same members, a topic I will return to in time. Driven largely by Collins, the Volunteers released a new manifesto, one that stated bluntly that only orders from the executive should be carried out going forward, and that the organisation would not “take the field” against Britain until there was a “reasonable hope of success”.

In March 1918, national command was reorganised under a Dublin based General Headquarters (GHQ), with Richard Mulcahy as Chief of Staff, Cathal Brugha as Chairman and Michael Collins as the no less important Director of Organisation. For now GHQ had little ability to order, direct or otherwise control the provincial units, but gradually began to exert authority in the form of training courses (Mulcahy especially important with this) and facilitating inter-unit communication. In a way this lack of centralised control could have both positives and negatives: the independent nature of many Volunteer commands, cell-like as some described it, lacked definitive direction, but did aid the secrecy of the movement’s clandestine plans, making it difficult for the British to counter. As much as anything else, it was important that the Volunteers had at least the look of a proper army, even if they had no intention of acting like one.

In 1917 and 1918, the Volunteers reorganised themselves largely on a local basis, with centralisation coming later. They were modeled on the British military in terms of units, just with a very parochial bent. Companies of anywhere between 20 and 150 men were the most important unit really, based around parishes, towns and villages, with groupings of companies into battalions in larger areas, then into  brigades in county’s. While this formal structure indicates a certain level of organisation, it was often more informal in practice. Brigade level was mostly a facade, a way of carving up the country into operational areas that would be the purview of the units in them and no more.

In the absence of arms and supplies, they were forced to adapt their training and methods to confront the reality that they could not hope to win a straight-up battle with the British. The aim for most places was to start small and grow at a steady rate. In the war to come, it would be the local company that would do the most fighting, utilising strengths of maneuverability, knowledge of local terrain and cohesiveness.

The units that reformed elected their own officers, often a notable person in the locality. The company’s Officer Commanding (OC) would, with others of that level, elect the OC of the battalion, who would then elect an OC of the brigade. Sometimes they were effective, hard-working men who knew how to seek out like-minded people and recruit effectively, sometimes they were not. Those officers were not paid, and the smaller units were mostly self-financing, which led to a degree of imbalance across the country. Those areas, like Cork and Limerick, that had not actively participated in the Easter Rising, tended to be stronger a few years later. Fianna Eireann also still existed, and provided a pathway to recruitment. The support of Cumann na mBan was also important, with that organisation also experiencing a sharp rise in membership.

The case of the Volunteers in County Monaghan may be instructive. In 1917 there was only a single company of less than twenty Volunteers there, based in Clones, but this began to change when 26-year-old Eoin O’Duffy, a local stalwart of the GAA and Gaelic League, was recruited into the Volunteers by Michael Collins himself. Soon elected Captain, O’Duffy spearheaded successful efforts to increase the size of the Clones company and to found other units in the county, eventually becoming OC of a newly formed Monaghan Brigade. It helped that O’Duffy maintained close communications with Collins, which would lead him up the ladder of positions in time to come.

As the internees in Frongach and elsewhere were released, the Volunteers strengthened. Men returned to Ireland with new ideas and new friendships, having lived in military-style discipline for some time. Figureheads inspired many: when Thomas Ashe died on hunger strike, the Dublin Brigade’s resurrection was given a boost owing to the necessity of organising a funeral procession to honour him. Dublin Castle attempted to stymie the resurgence of the Volunteers by banning public marching in military uniforms, and with arrests of those deemed to be engaged in seditious behavior: the Volunteers responded by becoming more secretive, refusing to recognise the authority of British courts, and engaging in mass marches around the country at select times, that the government could not possibly have stopped without resort to bloodshed,

The by-elections that Sinn Fein fought also provided a focal point for Volunteer organisation and recruitment. Volunteers, naturally attached to the newly outright republican ideology of Sinn Fein, served as campaigners, bodyguards or candidates, speakers and de facto election observes, guarding and transporting ballot boxes, as well as engaging in occasional intimidation tactics of their own. The by-elections were great opportunities to raise profiles, as marching columns of men demonstrated a spirit of strength, co-operation and possibility.

The Conscription Crisis naturally was also a boon, as the Volunteer ranks swelled in a manner they hadn’t experienced since their founding in 1913. Some who joined thought that service with the Volunteers would exclude them from conscription, obviously untrue, but it can not be denied that British policy as much as anything else was driving people back into the arms of nationalist militancy. Every county recorded a surge in recruitment, and though it fell off when the threat of conscription passed, it was clear that the Volunteers now represented a popular opposition to British authority.

Some Volunteer companies began to take more concrete action, including getting involved in farm seizures and cattle-driving disputes, to the point of engaging in violent activity with RIC. Everywhere they drilled, reconnoitered local areas for places of tactical significance, and trained. Guns were not in great supply: wherever they could, Volunteer units bought or stole them (sometimes both, in the case of British soldiers on leave arranging to be “held up” by Volunteers), and there was a concerted effort during the crisis to round-up all guns in a particular district, from farms and “big houses”, even if they usually amounted to fowling pieces and revolvers.

In this, the Volunteers were copying the organisation of the IRB, the members of which formed a sort-of elite within the larger organisation, with GHQ staff almost entirely sworn-in. If there had been a power vacuum generally in Irish nationalism after the Easter Rising, in the IRB it had been acute: another reason that men like Michael Collins were able to accumulate influence and power, something all the more true with his personal connections, his drive for arms obtainment and intelligence network. He established an excellent working relationship with Mulcahy, and was widely perceived as directing things. He soon clashed with the likes of Brugha, who had quit the IRB, deeming it obsolete. Brugha, closer to de Valera than Collins, favoured conventional means of military action; Collins had been disabused of such notions in the GPO.

What the actual plan was is a different question. For much of this period, there was no common goal of launching a new rebellion against the British. When the Volunteers were small and re-forming they were incapable of it; later, when Brigades were being made and GHQ was established, there was talk and rumours of large-scale action being arranged for a pre-appointed time, a sort of Easter Rising writ large where a general nationwide rising would happen. In the end, this did not come to pass, and the methods of the coming war came to reflect the company level strengths of the Volunteers.

While there is no set moment when the Irish Volunteers changed their name, it became common in 1919 to refer to them by a new and much more symbolic moniker: the Irish Republican Army, or IRA. The name did not originate in 1919, but was first thought up in the context of militant Irish nationalism with the American based Fenian Brotherhood, whose military wings used it during the period of the Canadian raids. The Easter Rising forces were sometimes referred to as “the Army of the Irish Republic”, so the new designation was just a slight adjustment. The term carries a great deal of meaning and weight for differing reasons nowadays, the reasons for which I hope to delve into in time. For now, it suffices to say that what we know as the Irish Volunteers, the regular, uniformed, openly existing military force initially founded to defend Home Rule, was dead. In its place was something akin, but altogether new: irregular, uninformed, operating in secret, and now increasingly dedicated to the holy grail of a 32-country Irish republic.

Many of its members were becoming ever more restless due to the emphasis on the political side of the movement, which reached its zenith in this period with the 1918 election, in which the Volunteers/IRA were intimately involved. As 1919 dawned, some of them were ready to take matters regarding war with Britain into their own hands.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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