Ireland’s Wars: July 1920

By the time that June came to an end in 1920, it was fair to say that the situation in Ireland was chaotic. The forces representing “the Republic” had de facto control over a significant part of the country, the British police force had never been in a weaker position and the IRA was proving itself a potent force in many different areas. The final outcome of the war remained very much in doubt, with the only certainty being the ever increasing escalation in violence.

The month of July in 1920 is notable not so much for any events of extreme notoriety, but for the sheer volume of killings, raids, ambushes and reprisals, a month where on nearly every day something else of some note happened. In this entry, I wanted to take the opportunity to outline the details behind a few of them, to make clear why July was in some ways, a watershed month in the war. And I also wanted to show how, though so many of them were small in scale, the amount of minor actions all added up to create an atmosphere of tension and unrest in the country.

It began on the very first of the month, when elements of the Skibbereen Battalion of the Cork No. 3 Brigade launched an ambush on a group of patrolling RIC, travelling between Skibbereen and Leap. The ambush was a failure owing to equipment problems, with the IRA of that area depending entirely on shotguns, that in this instance either failed to fire or proved ineffective, as they often did. The IRA withdrew once it became clear they did not have the means of inflicting casualties. This unsuccessful ambush showed how IRA units without access to adequate arms could struggle to be as effective as their brethren elsewhere.

On the 2nd of July, there were two recorded ambushes. The first, carried out between the villages of Dualla and Ballinure in Tipperary, saw an RIC patrol of four ambushed, with one killed and another wounded. The RIC had been observed by a member of the local Cumann na mBan travelling to Cashel to get pay on the 2nd of every month, and their adherence to routine proved fatal. The second ambush was in Howes Strand on the coast of County Cork, when Charlie Hurley led a sizable detachment against a coastguard station populated by RIC. They were no casualties on either side, with the RIC surrendering after a brief firefight, and the IRA getting away with badly needed rifles and ammunition. Hurley was a busy man at the time: only the first very day he was involved in another ambush not far away, at the Downdaniel Railway Bridge. An RIC patrol was stopped, subdued and disarmed, with one man wounded. Within a week the British had put more military resources in County Cork, and within two Hurley has been appointed the brigade O/C.

On the 4th the British authorities in Dublin were engaged in a conference to improve communications between the military and the police: some of the increasingly militarised police force meanwhile was spending the same day randomly shooting out of the back of a van in rural Tipperary, hitting and killing a local farmer. On the 6th the RIC leadership attempted to issue edicts against anyone who attempted to take on the role of law enforcement by themselves – ie, the Republican Police, but the edict had little effect: when RIC attempted to enforce it a few days later at the Bettystown Races, they were only capable of confiscating some caps and armbands, and made no arrests. By the 9th of the month the Listowel mutiny was becoming common knowledge across the country, further undermining the confidence of the RIC.

On July 11th the RIC barracks in Rathmore, South Kerry, was attacked by the Kerry No. 2 Brigade, led by a man named Manus Moynihan. Owing to a premature detonation of explosives, the barracks occupants were forewarned, and the resulting firefight lasted the better part of the night. The IRA were able to do a fair amount of damage to the building, by aiming an explosive through a breach made in the roof, but withdrew when they were unable to make further headway, rightfully fearful of reinforcements from nearby turning the tables. One of the barracks occupants, a Constable Alexander Will, was killed as a result of the bomb, and is considered the first Black and Tan to die in the conflict: his comrades from the reserves sacked the town in the aftermath. On the same night, a joint operation of the East Limerick, North Tipperary and South Tipperary brigades saw the Rearcross RIC barracks attacked by a party that included Ernie O’Malley, Dan Breen and Sean Treacy, but like in Rathmore its occupants were able to withstand the guns and the bombs, with the IRA dispersing before daylight. One RIC man was killed, and several IRA wounded, including O’Malley, who took a temporary pause in his various wanderings to recover in Dublin. The attack caused some controversy, as it was undertaken without authorisation from superior officers: GHQ came down hard on such activities within the same month.

On the 13th of July, there were two more ambushes. A flying column made up of men from the Kerry No 1. Brigade, in the north of the county, attacked a RIC patrol, killing two and wounding two others near Dingle. Not too far away, the East Limerick brigade, under Sean Finn, ambushed a RIC cycle patrol, killing one man. The following day, RIC travelling to the Assizes in Roscommon were attacked near Lanesborough in County Longford, with one killed and one wounded, allegedly after being offered the chance to surrender, part of a coordinated local campaign to interfere with government business, that included raids on tax offices. This ambush is interesting for its aftermath, when the local IRA took more steps than was usual to post guards in nearby villages and towns to ward against the possibility of reprisal, which appears not to have occurred: typically the IRA was either not in a position to stop reprisals, or begrudgingly allowed them to go ahead, knowledgeable that such tactics actually aided their cause.

On the 17th, an RIC constable was killed in an ambush in Newcastle, County Limerick, in a somewhat unique attack given that said constable was driving a car at the time. The village suffered cruelly from reprisals in the aftermath, with the local library and creamery destroyed, and plenty of homes and other businesses damaged. Other Limerick towns would receive similar treatment in the coming days, like Kilmallock and Ballylanders, that had become associated with IRA activity and thus saw Black and Tans indiscriminately assaulting their populace, firing their buildings and blowing up others, often in a state that is described from accounts as drunk. Similar scenes would be reported in the towns of Thurles and Nenagh in July.

On the 19th, the Crown Forces got a bit of their own back, killing a man later identified as a member of the Republican Police in Cork. On the same day, four RIC men travelling by car were ambushed near Tuam, with two killed and the others subdued after expending all of their ammunition firing back. Tuam was wrecked in the aftermath, with the town hall burned and reports of explosives being thrown into private homes. On the 21st, another member of the Republican Police was killed, in Co Meath, ambushed by RIC as he escorted a cattle thief to a republican court. Meanwhile, two RIC men were targetted outside of a hotel in Ballina, Co Mayo, with one shot dead and the other wounded.

Throughout all of this, there was trouble in the north. On the 12th of July Edward Carson had given a belligerent sounding speech to a group of Orangemen, essentially insisting that no toleration could be allowed towards Sinn Fein in the province of Ulster. A few days later Lt-Colonel Smyth had been shot in Cork, leading to acrimony over his funeral arrangements. On the 19th, there were riots in the Derry bogside, as previously noted. This was all preamble for a much greater conflagration of sectarian rioting and violence that engulfed Belfast, starting from the 21st, that will be the subject of its own entry in the future. For the purposes of looking at the larger month, it is enough to note for now that as many as twenty people may have been killed, and many more wounded.

On the 24th July, one RIC man was wounded fatally in an ambush in Newenham, Limerick, carried out by the Mid-Limerick Brigade. One man arrested in the aftermath would be acquitted due to lack of evidence. The next day two more coastguard stations, this time on Ballycrovane on the Beara peninsula and Castletownbere, were attacked by the Cork IRA. Two Marines were killed in the first attack before the garrison surrendered, but the second attack ended with operational failure and four IRA wounded. Clearly coastguard stations were a mixed bag in terms of being opportunistic targets. That same morning an RIC sergeant named William Mulherin, noted as having a history of abusing prisoners, was shot dead as he walked into mass in Bandon. The killing allegedly infuriated Cathal Brugha and Michael Collins, not so much for the target, but for the exact location of his death, which was a bad look for the IRA in propaganda terms. The next day, a Lance Corporal Maddox of the Essex Regiment was killed by a shotgun blast while preparing a raid on a suspect in the killing of Mulherin. That same day an RIC cycle patrol was ambushed in Sligo, but with no casualties incurred.

On the 27th an RIC man was shot dead in broad daylight while entering a greengrocers in Clonakilty, Co Cork. The same day, the British were able to capture two senior members of the Cork No. 3 Brigade, O/C Tom Hales and Quartermaster Pat Harte, just outside of Bandon. Both men were abused and tortured while in custody, though neither betrayed their organisation. Hales survived, but Harte, suffering brain damage from the beatings he received, would die in hospital later.

On the 30th the unexpected ending to the General Lucas affair took place, with tew soldiers killed in an ambush at Oola. On the same day two members of “the Squad” walked into the office of Frank Brooke, Director of the Great Southern and Eastern railway, and shot him dead. Brooke has been on the special advisory council to John French and advocated harsh measures against republicans, with some news reports after his death claiming he had been the de-facto head of the Irish government when French was abroad.

Excluding the events in Derry and Belfast, at least 25 people were killed in the course of the month of July, with a further 17 wounded. These may not seem like huge numbers, even in the context of the larger War of Independence, but it is the consistency of the attacks, the regularity that they now carried, which is the truly notable part. While most of the above mentioned actions were limited to Cork and Limerick, they still showed how out of control huge sections of the country were, while London and Dublin dithered over appropriate responses. And they do not cover the entirety: there was the agrarian unrest, the union stoppages, the ongoing activities of the Dail courts and the constant propaganda struggle. It was now very much wartime in Ireland, with the violence passing into normality where it was once exceptional.

Another major event of the month was a conference between the leaders of the loyalist Irish government and David Lloyd George’s Cabinet. Using that meeting as a focal point provides us with an opportunity to examine just what the British were aiming to accomplish in Ireland, and how the diverging answers to that question were paralyzing their war effort.

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

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1 Response to Ireland’s Wars: July 1920

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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