Limerick may not have been on the same level as Cork or Tipperary when it came to IRA activity in the War of Independence, but it was not far behind. Those three Munster counties were at the heart of the republican war effort, with IRA units that were growing in strength and daring all the time. Their activities would continue to escalate, but so would the British response, as seen in the last week of April 1920.
Like the aforementioned counties, Limerick’s IRA was large enough to justify multiple brigades, divided geographically. The focus today is the East Limerick Brigade, whose smaller departments were sometimes known as the Galtee Battalions, who assisted in the rescue at Knocklong. The East Limerick Brigade was the victim of some internal bickering and factionalisation in this time, owing to a dispute over the election of officers and the perceived focus of some IRA men on political activity to the detriment of military. So serious had the dispute become, which was especially centered around the 1st Battalion and was crippling republican activities in that area, that GHQ had intervened to hold an inquiry, which resulted in the suspension of some officers and the appointment of new ones to command positions. Despite these efforts a degree of ill-feeling remained in the battalion and its companies, to the extent that different factions sometimes operated independently while retaining the facade of unity.
In an effort to more pro-actively eliminate such a divide, IRA leadership in the 1st Battalion decided that a large-scale attack could bring the unity that inquiries had failed to, and deliberately choose the RIC barracks in the south-east Limerick village of Ballylanders as the target for this reason. The Ballylanders IRA company was one of the worst effected by the schism, and the situation could not be allowed to continue, even if, as the attack was planned, there were apparent threats of intentional “friendly fire” from both sides.
The attack, which took place on the night of the 27th April, involved a huge number of IRA units from throughout Limerick and Tipperary in ancillary roles, blocking roads and cutting RIC communications, but only around 30 or so in the actual attack, the number that could be reliably armed. Who was in command is uncertain. Some have claimed it was Sean T. O’Riordan, O/C of the 1st Battalion, but others have insisted that the issues affecting the battalion meant that no one really took the reins, though O’Riordan was present in the village that night.
The plan, constructed at a meeting of the battalion command a few days prior, called for the barracks – that usually contained a contingent of six or so RIC – to be pinned down by fire from all sides, while an attack party used homemade bombs and flammable material on the roof. This avenue of attack was a requirement as the barracks otherwise was a tough nut, with thick stone walls, steel doors, shuttered windows and loop holes for pro-active defence.
After assembling at the nearby Ballylanders bridge, the IRA enacted their plan by appropriating surrounding houses, that included a stables, residential homes and a dispensary. One of the homes belonged to a former Fenian, who had no qualms about allowing its use, and whose own son was one of the attackers. The men involved were a varied lot. They included Tomas Malone, Westmeath-born and working in the area on the direct order of Michael Collins, nominally as an organiser for the Dail Loan, but really meant to be part of the effort to end the schism and to encourage units to be more pro-active militarily. While the attack was not sanctioned by GHQ officially, Malone would later claim that Collins had strongly encouraged him to help organise some manner of operation. He used a fake name – Sean Forde – to avoid detection while he was in the area. There was also Donal O’Hannigan, who had commanded Irish Volunteers in Louth in 1916 and was now one of the leading members of the East Limerick IRA. Also notable was Peter Steepe, a rare Protestant member of the IRA, whose family were members of Palatine immigrants who had settled in Limerick two centuries before.
From the dispensary the attack party, in the charge of Malone, clambered onto the roof of the barracks; a short time later O’Riordan gave the order to open fire, and the other IRA present duly opened up, using small arms and grenades to hammer the walls of the barracks. The constables inside responded as best they could, firing back and activating flares to call for assistance, but the real threat to their position was coming from above.
Malone’s detachment used sledgehammers and large stones to break a hole in the roof, the noise of which may have been masked for a time by the gunfire surrounding them. Once a big enough breach had been made, the bombs were chucked in, along with the improvised flammable devices, which were sometimes just paraffin and tar torches. They had the desired effect, and soon the interior of the barracks was engulfed in flames. The attacking party fled, avoiding the rifle fire of the belatedly aware garrison, who fired up and through the roof after initially conversing with them about surrendering.
The RIC held out for as long as they could be expected to, with their position in flames and no way to stop the fire. It was around now that the IRA took their lone casualty, when a Sean Meade was hit in the left lung, as he struggled to clear his jammed rifle, a not uncommon problem for IRA men unused to using rifles in combat. Though his recovery would be long, he survived. A half-hour or so after the opening of fire, the RIC had enough, and raised a white flag on a rifle out of a window.
With the RIC marched out and secured, the IRA now faced the daunting task of entering the burning building and retrieving what spoils they could, which included guns, ammunition, explosives and intelligence material, all of which would go on to be used to great effect by the East Limerick Brigades in the days, weeks, months and years to come. They would be badly needed, as the IRA had all but depleted their ammunition stores in the attack. Though neighbouring barracks of RIC were aware of what was happening, they found the roads held against them, and were unable to comes to Ballylanders’ assistance. The IRA took what they could, arranged for the safe transportation of Meade, and dispersed.
The attack was a daring enough operation, where a strong RIC position was neutralised quickly. Perhaps learning from some of the IRA’s failing efforts earlier in the year, the decision to focus on the roof as opposed to one of the side walls proved a winning one, and once a break was made and a fire created, victory was inevitable. The RIC were under-manned, sedentary and isolated, and in the end easy pickings for the more numerous, more mobile and more flexible IRA.
In the aftermath, the RIC sergeant in charge at Ballylanders, a man named Tuohy, would claim that it was the position of the building, that allowed access to its roof from neighbouring structures, that doomed the Ballylanders barracks. There was probably much truth in this: the IRA would have found it extremely difficult to force a breach in one of the side walls. The attack, at least according to Malone, did have the effect of reducing tensions in the 1st Battalion and in the Ballylanders company, to the extent that the issues that created the factionalisation of those units is little mentioned afterward, though there were claims that one side was given less important assignments that night. However, the success of the Ballylanders attack was undeniable, and it would soon lead to an even bigger operation in County Limerick, of much greater notoriety.
It also produced a response from the British, and the Black and Tans, now establishing themselves as an ill-disciplined force of retaliation. A group of them, possibly under the effects of alcohol, are described as going on “a rampage” in Limerick City the night after the Ballylanders attack, actions that took the form of unprovoked damage being delivered to various homes and businesses, the accosting and assaulting civilians who crossed their paths, and indiscriminate firing of weapons. Things in the city were already tense enough owing to labour strikes, and RIC/Black and Tan harassment of civilians was becoming a daily event. However, the events of the 28th April were exceptional enough to be noted. Though there was no death toll, the events of the night are remembered.
Around the same period, several creameries were attacked and burned by Tans in the Limerick/Tipperary border area, a common response after an ambush or barracks assault: creameries were often a key part of an area’s economics, so hitting them hard was seen as a perfect punitive action to take against what was seen as a hostile community. That such actions were counter-productive to what the British were trying to accomplish did not enter into thinking at the time: the Black and Tans, whether there was official endorsement of their actions at this time or not, were allowed to act like a occupying military force with little in the way of restraint. If members of the RIC or the military were killed in Limerick, Tipperary or Cork, odds were someone or someplace innocent of involvement would take the consequences from paramilitaries of questionable morality.
It is back to the British perspective that we go next. I do not intend to give the impression that the War of Independence had only one side worth considering: the British, in early 1920, did attempt a counter-offensive of sorts, before escalating things even further when the summer began. In the next entry we will discuss Dublin Castle’s policy of mass raids and arrests before welcoming the latest strand of their war effort to the narrative: the Auxiliaries.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.