The War of Independence was fought in a thousand places, in attacks, raids ambushes and blindsides, many of which were of a scale so small that they are not popularly remembered. In this series, I, of course, have erred on the side of the bigger, more important moment of the conflict, either in my own eyes or by general understanding. But there is still some scope to look at some of the lesser-known and smaller events of the War of Independence, something I plan to do on a yearly basis for my “coverage” of the conflict. The following are just some examples of events I found interesting, that I did not otherwise have time to expand on.
On the 20th March 1919, the Dublin Brigade undertook an audacious plan to secure arms and ammunition for the growing fight. Their target was Collinstown Aerodrome, then a British military installation, today the site of Dublin Airport. The Aerodrome contained a substantial stock of British armaments, that were not, at that time, adequately guarded. In a night-time operation, approved by Dick McKee at GHQ, 25 members of the IRA, in khaki and wearing masks, broke into the aerodrome, subdued the guards bloodlessly and made off with a huge store of guns, revolvers and ammunition, smashing up any vehicle they found to prevent pursuit. The only casualties were two guard dogs that had been poisoned earlier in the day. The robbery was aided by intelligence provided by civilian employees at the Aerodrome, and constituted the biggest single loss of weaponry that the British suffered during the entire conflict. The reaction was harsh, with hundreds of civilian employees relieved of their positions under the guise of increasing security, an act that only fuelled resentment towards Britsh authority. The spectacular nature of the raid made many headlines, and proved embarrassing for the British military.
On the 29th of March, John Charles Milling, a Resident Magistrate, in Westport, Co Mayo, was assassinated. Milling had been noted for his imprisonment of IRA servicemen for unlawful assembly and drilling, and for stormy scenes in courtrooms he presided over, when republican defenders loudly refused to recognise the authority he represented. Fearful because of the increasing breakdown of law and order in the area, Milling had requested a transfer when he was killed, on a snowy night where his assailants shot him through a window. The killing was condemned by many at the time, and remains a shadowy affair, not sanctioned by GHQ and with the identity of those who did it unknown to this day. It must have been IRA members though, who had plenty of reason to dislike Milling. His death, in the wake of Soloheadbeg, was among the most potent signs that Ireland was then in the grip of an armed conflict, where any person representing the crown was liable to be targetted.
On the 20th April, members of the 1st Battalion No 2. Cork Brigade, primarily those identified as the Araglin Company, launched a riad against their local RIC barracks. Approved by Liam Lynch, the raid saw several masked IRA men entering the barracks early on a Sunday morning, when a single constable was occupying the building. This constable was subdued and what guns the barracks had were liberated, along with any files deemed valuable. In an act that signified where things were headed with the RIC, the constable put up little resistance, requested that his captors fire a few shots into the building to make it seem like a fight had taken place, and later made no effort to identify them. Police responses made no headway. The raid resulted in much media coverage and produced a personal congratulations from Michel Collins; later, many of those involved also took part in the Fermoy Ambush.
In June there was violence on the streets of Dublin that called back to the events of the 1913 Lockout and St Stephen’s Green in 1916. Since the Easter Rising the Irish Citizen Army had been reorganised and existed in the form of 300 or so volunteers in the capital still dedicated to the cause of labour and protecting workers rights, violently if necessary. In line with the ITGWU, they treated James Connolly as a revered figure, and carried out commemorations on his birthday, the 5th June. On this date in 1919 the ITGWU, including several men of the ICA, attempted to march down Dawson Street in South Dublin, to hold this commemoration for Connolly at the Mansion House, but were impeded by members of the DMP. The commemoration was not officially proscribed, but it is clear that the authorities did not want it to take place. An argument broke out, then a scuffle, and then shots were fired. It is claimed variously that the ICA were the only ones to shoot, and that both sides did. Several police were wounded, along with one civilian bystander, but no-one was killed. The incident is evidence of the continuing struggles in the capital between armed socialist labour and the police, as well as a sign of the continuing diminishment of official authority.
On June 23rd RIC District Inspector Michael Hunt had been present at the Thurles races in a professional capacity, and later returned to the town proper when the meeting was over. While on Thurles’ Main Street, with hundreds of people similarly leaving the races around, he was shot several times by Jim Stapleton, one of several IRA men present. Hunt died in the street a few minutes later. He was targetted specifically because of his well-known efforts at investigating militant nationalist groups and their activities; he had been involved in the arrests of several prominent figures, including higher ranking IRA officers and TD’s. What is remarkable about the assassination is the reports, though they may have been exaggerated, that as Hunt lay dying no one in the crowd came to his assistance, to the extent that he was practically ignored. Such a state of affairs made serious waves as far away as Dublin and London, as it showed clearly that either the civilian population was firmly on the side of the IRA, or so intimidated by them that they didn’t dare oppose their actions. Even the local clergy, while condemning the killing, got in on the act, stating publically that the violence was a reaction to government policy, and would only stop when Ireland was an independent nation.
On the 2nd September, the Tipperary IRA struck again, though on a smaller scale to Soloheadbeg and Knocklong. That night they launched a successfull ambush on an RIC bicycle patrol in the village of Lorrha in the northern part of the country. Though the Volunteers who undertook this ambush were part of the Offaly brigades, they were subsequently moved into the 1st Tipperary equivalent, and so this can be considered an extension of the war in that county. One RIC Sergeant was killed and another wounded, with the IRA taking no casualties. Lorrha became increasingly difficult for the RIC to operate in afterwards. This attack is noticeable for the way it which it was authorised by Dan Breen and Sean Treacey while they were still, nominally, “on the run”, in contravention of GHQ. Higher ups were annoyed at this flagrant breach of the chain of command, though little was done in terms of punitive response. It was yet another example of the divide between command in Dublin, and the actions in rural areas.
On the 31st October, the 2nd Battalion of the Meath Brigade attacked the RIC barracks at Ballivor, a village not from the border with Westmeath. The Volunteers, armed with shotguns and revolvers, simply walked up to the front door at night, knocked, and rushed the building when the door was opened. In the subsequent firing and brawling, one RIC constable was killed before the rest surrendered. A haul of weapons was taken. A few nights later a similar attempt was made to raid the RIC barracks at nearby Dillon’s Bridge on the part of the 6th Battalion. This time the RIC didn’t open the door, but they did open fire from their position. After a half-hour’s worth of a firefight, the IRA withdrew, thwarted. While it was not the first time that RIC buildings were targetted, this coordinated attempt to attack multiple barracks in the same general area was a sign of things to come from the IRA in the new year. The success of the Ballivor attack, and the near success of that at Dillon’s Bridge, drew attention to the isolation of the standard RIC barracks, and how easily it could be captured or neutralised.
Between the 9th and 10th of November, there was violence on the streets of Cork City, that served as a portent for what was to occur in the same place just over a year a later. Tensions were high in the county because of events like the Fermoy Ambush, and when elements of the same British regiment involved in that incident, the Shropshire Light Infantry, were stationed in the city, they very quickly came into conflict with nationalists. According to reports, the first blows came after “Sinn Fein” members cut the hair of women deemed to be “fraternising” with British soldiers on a night out from barracks. Insults were thrown between these nominal “Sinn Feiners” and the British military, then fists, then sticks and anything else to hand. Over the two nights, there was something in the region of a repeating large-scale brawl or small-scale riot in Cork City centre between soldiers and civilians, that was aggrandised from some accounts into an all-out sack. The violence probably would have continued, but the soldiers were confined to barracks on the 11th – Armistice Day, something that also may have contributed to ill-feeling – and things dissipated. This event is mostly forgotten in the shadow of what would occur 13 months later in the same place, but shows that indiscriminate soldier-on-civilian violence was becoming a recurring problem in late 1919.
Some day between the 16th and 19th November (sources differ) elements of the Bantry Company of the Cork No 3 Brigade launched a raid of a British Navy motor launch that was docked at Bantry pier. Motor launch’s were small boats designed for harbour defence and anti-submarine warfare. This one, No 171, was supposed to have been anchored away from the dock at night for safety reasons, but the captain ignored warnings from the local RIC, and remained ignorant of observation from the local IRA. On the appointed night a group of ten Volunteers, armed with only a few revolvers, boarded the ship, held the crew up and removed all of the guns that they could, using a sledgehammer to break open the motor launch’s small magazine. They were hidden in a nearby church. The guns dramatically increased the capacity of the IRA in the area, and made it possible for them to plan and attempt much more ambitious operations in the future.
These are just some examples, but they give an idea of the kind of war that was being fought in 1919. Next time, and before we go on to the more fateful year of 1920, I wanted to take on entry to focus on British reactions to the violence on a strategic and operational scale, focusing in particular on how Lloyd George and his cabinet treated what was happening in Ireland, before things really began to escalate.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.