As stated at the conclusion of the last entry, it would often have seemed that the Irish War of Independence was a conflict wherein the republican side, through the IRA, held all of the initiative. It was the IRA that enacted ambushes. It was the IRA that assassinated, or attempted to assassinate, targets throughout the country. It was the Dail that was setting up a revolutionary state. On the other side, everything that the British seemed to do was a re-action, whether it was mass arrests or reprisals after suffering an attack. The new forces in Ireland, like the Auxiliaries or the Black and Tans, were entities created as a direct result of the IRA’s victory over the RIC. If the British were going to crush the IRA and this current breed of militant republicanism, they were going to need to change the trend. The best avenue to do this was with the regular military.
It must be remembered that the British Army in 1920 may well have been at its best in terms of containing personnel who were battle-hardened and experienced. After the demobilisation had been completed, the majority of those left had served in some capacity during the First World War, and as such were a force to be respected for their martial skill. Thus far, we have discussed many examples of incidents where the “Crown Forces” did not rightly realise the manner of foe they faced or the war they had to fight, something that occurred with a tremendous loss of life. We have also seen incidents where the British military was able to withstand the kind of attacks that defeated their constabulary comrades. In today’s entry, we will go one step further, and look at a moment when the British military took the initiative, and inflicted a terrible defeat on a local IRA unit.
That unit was the 1st battalion of the South Roscommon Brigade. Much like the already discussed Mayo, Roscommon was a county that had a relatively quiet war, owing to its small population, a lack of targets as the war progressed, large parts of the county being unsuited to guerrilla warfare and a less elaborate IRA structure than existed in other parts of the country. The South Brigade took in a sprawling area that curved in an arc around the northern part of Galway, with the 1st battalion active in the west, centered on the town of Castlerea, close to the border with Mayo. At its peak, the 1st could muster around nine companies of Volunteers.
By the late Summer/early Autumn of 1920, the British forces throughout the more rural parts of Ireland had largely withdrawn from the more isolated positions that they had previously held. We have already discussed the large-scale abandonment of the smaller breed of RIC barracks, and this process continued even in quieter areas, where the maintaining of a barracks was both costly financially and pointless strategically. Only a certain number of men could be placed in such buildings, and they were easy sedentary prey for the more mobile IRA. So they were withdrawn, and placed into larger barracks in bigger towns. In this section of Roscommon, that larger town was Castlerea, with numerous RIC barracks of a small size all around abandoned. They were then typically burnt by the IRA, both as a practical military neccesity, so they could not be reused, and as defiant gesture that demonstrated IRA control of a district. But some elements of the British war machine were catching on to the advantages of the situation, namely that in an insurgency war where it was difficult to know where the enemy was until they were attacking you, there was a way of pinning them down to one specific spot at one specific time.
Before the incident we will discuss today, they had already tried out the plan. Just north of Castlerea, in the townland of Loughglynn, the RIC and a group of the 9th Queens Royal Lancers had withdrawn from a barracks in August. The local IRA duly moved in to burn the barracks, only to be warned by an outlying scout that the military and police were returning in force. The IRA scattered and hid, avoiding a disaster: the Loughglynn barracks was duly burned later when the coast was clear.
The lesson should have been learned, but perhaps the IRA felt that such actions could be successfully warded against with a screen of scouts. A month later, the situation repeated itself at Ballinlough, west of Castlerea. Again, it was a small barracks that could not be maintained, again its compliment was a mixture of RIC and Lancers, and again the local IRA was tasked with burning the building after the British forces had left. The evacuation went ahead on the 14th September, with IRA battalion commandant Pat Glynn given the job of destroying the building.
Glynn arrived with a force of men that night in Ballinlough, to be informed that the barracks was now empty and that the burning could go ahead. But the British had not gone far. Only two miles or so to the east, the trucks carrying the RIC and Lancers to Castlerea had pulled over, discharged their occupants into some nearby woods, and then continued on. The IRA was none the wiser of the ruse, as the Lancers returned back the way they had come under cover of night.
The burning of the barracks had just begun when the first shots rang out. Indeed, the fire only served to make the IRA men surrounding the building more obvious targets. Whether they had not be adequately set up or were non-existent, scouts and look-outs did not spot the enemy coming over the countryside. The engagement was quick, perhaps lasting no more than a few seconds. The IRA, caught completely by surprise, fled in all directions when they realised what was happening. Glynn, in the process of climbing a ladder to the roof of the building so he could bore a hole, was one of those hit and killed, alongside a Lieutenant Michael Glavey and Volunteer Michael Keane. The rest of those present were able to get to safety.
The affair was a true disaster for the IRA, that up to that point had typically measured their casualties from engagements in ones and twos, and rarely dead. Now, not only had they been definitively outsmarted by the British military, they had lost three men in a matter of seconds. The nature of the setback shows that rigidity and a lack of caution were not traits that were the domain of the RIC alone: in parts of the Ireland, the IRA could be similarly inflexible, and similarly too late in learning the lessons of previous engagements. In Ballinlough, this failure cost three men their lives. The ambush showcased the difference between an experienced military unit and an inexperienced one. The entire affair forms part of what some would call the British autumn counter-offensive, that I may discuss more in time, a period when British forces attempted to take the initiative in the war and crush the IRA in rapid fashion, with mixed results.
The funerals of the dead men were huge events for the time and place, attended by thousands of mourners, many of them Volunteers, but this belied how things now stood. The death of Glynn in particular was a calamity, with his battalion leaderless for an extended period, and IRA activity in that area, and neighbouring ones, negatively effected. Efforts to rebuild the organisation and rally morale took time and effort: Michael Collins himself would later complain that Roscommon was full of good men that had nobody to lead them. A botched attack on Frenchpark RIC barracks to the north-east the following month was partly meant as a revenge for the killing of Glynn, Carney and Keane, but had to be called off when the attackers were discovered before they could enact their plan. South Roscommon would remain relatively quiet for the rest of the war, with one very notable exception in the later stages.
From the wilds of Roscommon we must swing back, for the first time in a while, to Dublin. The war there had never gone away, and in mid-September it was made very apparent that the capital was involved in conflict in a major sense. In the next entry we will discuss two major events that occurred in the capital on the same September day, both of them beginning with ambushes that would have some unforeseen consequences, both immediate and long-term.
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