While Eamon de Valera was continuing his own private war of words in the United States, the more public war of bullets, bombs and blood was continuing in Ireland. Beginning with the Carraigtwohill barracks attack, the IRA had commenced a more concerted effort to eliminate RIC authority in large parts of Ireland, with more barracks attacks, more social ostracisation and intimidation of RIC personnel, and more killings. What began in January, continued into February, and today I feel it is worth looking at another barracks attack, both as an event in itself, and as a means of looking more closely at two important figures of the period we have only briefly mentioned before.
The first is Eoin O’Duffy. We will, in time, get to the activities that O’Duffy is better known for in popular remembrance, but for now he was the OC of the IRA Monaghan Brigade, whom I have mentioned briefly before in the context of his efforts to get that Brigade into existence, formed from the nucleus of a small Clones-based company in 1919. O’Duffy had a reputation for being a good organiser and recruiter, having strong ties to to the Gaelic League, the GAA, local government and, as of 1919, the Irish Republican Brotherhood. His work as a surveyor meant he had keen knowledge of Monaghan’s terrain, and he had proven adept at getting information from sympathetic or easily cowed RIC personnel. He spent time in prison for “illegal assembly” during this period also. Already being considered for bigger things by GHQ, in early 1920 O’Duffy wanted to be doing more in his home county.
The second is Ernie O’Malley. Mayo born to a conservative Irish family, he moved to Dublin at a young age. His family were IPP supporters with good relations with the RIC, while his older brother fought for the British Army in World War One. He was studying medicine in Trinity College at the time of the Easter Rising, and allegedly considered joining the union-minded students who defended the grounds that week, before deciding that he preferred the rebel side, taking potshots at British soldiers with a Mauser he and a friend had borrowed from a Gaelic League branch. Suitably radicalised, he joined the Volunteers in Dublin shortly afterwards. Abandoning his studies, by 1918 O’Malley had become one of the more respected organisers the nascent IRA had, and was recorded as travelling to every corner of the country in this period, engaging in espionage of unionist militias in the north, shoot-outs with RIC in the midlands and training courses for units everywhere in-between, helping to turn barely formed groups of men into formal companies through drill and other instruction. By early 1920, now part of GHQ, O’Malley was tasked with being a trainer for rural units of the IRA, a job that in February took him to Monaghan.
O’Malley was going from company to company in Monaghan when he attended a meeting with O’Duffy and other officers of the Brigade, where an attack on Ballytrain RIC barracks was proposed for the 14th February. According to one source, it was actually Michael Collins who told O’Duffy to target Ballytrain, because an RIC Sergeant there had supplied evidence that had led to convictions against several republicans. The barracks was actually closer to the village of Shantonagh in the southern part of the county, around 7 km’s north of Carrickmacross. By the time O’Malley was clued in, O’Duffy and others had already undertaken a degree of planning, with preparations made for county-wide blocking of roads to prevent any RIC reaction to what was about to occur, along with the cutting of telegraph wires.
The building to be targetted was a two-storey affair, located at a crossroads. On one side was another two-storey building, a storehouse, while a residential home faced the barracks from the other side, O’Duffy’s plan was to keep explosives in the storehouse and to blast a breach into the barracks from this position, while other buildings around the barracks – a local shop, the residential building, the local post office – would be taken and used as firing positions or coordination points. Another unit of men would be situated to the rear of the barracks, to prevent an easy RIC retreat.
The attacking party, that included O’Duffy and O’Malley, came from all parts of the country, travelling to the vicinity of the barracks of bicycle, motorbike and any other way they could. That evening they all assembled: the residential building, the home of a unionist family, was taken with the protesting family kept under guard to the rear. O’Duffy placed himself in the post office, using it was an ad hoc HQ, while O’Malley joined the men to the rear of the barracks.
At the appointed moment, the Monaghan men opened fire on the barracks from all of their taken positions. O’Duffy allegedly used a megaphone to ask the RIC to surrender, which they refused to do: it is popularly remembered that Catholic and Protestant personnel were not interested in giving up in order to not lose face with the other. According to some accounts, the RIC had received information that a barracks in that part of the county would be attacked soon, and personnel had received extra training in firearms. However, the Ballytrain men had a limited response, which included throwing grenades out the windows that had not been activated (the IRA later recovered them from the street). The length of the firefight is disputed, with some saying a half-hour, and others four: regardless, the explosives in the storehouse were lit and the men there retreated: when the explosives went up, it apparently took out so much of the barracks, and the storehouse, that part of the barracks’ second floor collapsed.
The attackers, seeing no response from the RIC, rushed the building, climbing a hill of rubble to get in. They found the few RIC – 6 according to some reports – stationed there huddled on the opposite side of the building, having apparently realised that explosives were about to be set off. They were largely uninjured, other than shock. Now neutralised, the fighting was over and the barracks captured. The guns stored there were taken, and the RIC released to seek medical attention.
The Ballytrain attack was another in a growing list of examples of how capable the IRA were becoming. They had planned adequately for the task, getting enough men, reconnoitering the target and insuring that no reinforcements would be possible for the RIC. They fixed the RIC with small arms fire, and then used their explosives to bring a decisive end to the fighting. On the other hand, the RIC were, yet again, isolated and sedentary, reduced to potshots before an inevitable conclusion. No one, on either side, had been killed, indicating that the war in Monaghan was not yet at the level the fighting would reach later in the year.
The aftermath of the attack saw less in the way of reprisal than O’Duffy had expected, though he and a few others were arrested a month later, to be released in the summer. O’Malley moved on, and would take part in more operations in other parts of the country within a short tine.More importantly for the situation in the north, with Ballytrain being the first RIC barracks taken in that part of the country, the RIC reacted by shutting down several RIC barracks in Monaghan over the following weeks and months, abandoning stations they couldn’t hope to retain. Essentially, as had happened all over, the RIC decided to cede control of large parts of rural Monaghan to the IRA and the Republic, lacking the means of doing anything else.
The British counter-moves were coming, but it would not be the RIC that would execute them. And yet, it is important to realise that in the fight between the IRA and the RIC the IRA did not always have it their own way. In Ballytrain, failure of the explosives would have left O’Duffy with little in the way of options, and this over-reliance on a big bang was a weakness. In the next entry, we will look at a dual barracks attack in County Cork around this time that was not the straightforward republican success that other attacks were.
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