There were numerous operations throughout 1920 that have escaped our attention, either because they were just too small-scale, or because there were just more important things to focus on. In this entry, just as I did for similar events in 1919, I want to take the time to expand on some of these smaller and lesser-known engagements, one for every month of the year. Together, they will help paint a picture of just how violent the country had become, and how all-encompassing the war was for its participants and for its observers.
On January 6th, one of the first barracks attacks of the year took place in Co Longford, in the small village of Drumlish. Led by Sean MacEoin, who had recently been released from jail, the IRA involved planned to use a substantial amount of gelignite to blast a hole in the barracks wall. The plan was dependent largely on surprise with far few arms to satisfy the assembled Volunteers, who largely had to make do with shotguns, and officers only with revolvers. The plan went awry on the night of the attack when the gelignite mine failed to explode, for reasons that are not clear, but may simply have been that the explosive was not properly kept ahead of the attack. This explanation is given more credence by MacEoin’s report that the detonators did explode, but that the gelignite remained as it was. Speaking much later in his life, MacEoin was honest about his men’s inexperience with the explosive, whose potential for destruction they only realised when they tested a smaller amount later. If the mine at Drumlish had been successfully detonated, the resulting explosion could have killed everyone inside and outside the barracks. Unable to make a breach in the barracks, the attack settled into an exchange of fire for a time, before the IRA admitted defeat and withdrew. Even then it was only a partial setback: valuable lessons were learned, the gelignite would be used to greater effect later and Drumlish barracks was soon evacuated by the RIC anyway.
In Rathdrum, Wicklow, a botched attack on local RIC occurred on the 11th February, with the end result being the death of one IRA Volunteer. The operation appears to have been haphazard enough, just a handful of Volunteers armed with revolvers firing on two members of the local RIC, Constables Mulligan and Doherty, as they passed them on the street. Mulligan was “winged” in the shoulder, and both he and Doherty were able to fire back. Seamus O’Brien, a Volunteer who had been among those to rise in Enniscorthy in 1916, was hit fatally. There have been claims that O’Brien was shot in the back and not in a shoot-out: either way he died at the scene. Wicklow remained a county that did not have a huge surfeit of IRA activity during the war, at least in comparison to other counties.
A similar, but somewhat more successful, attack took place on March 11th in Glanmire, Co Cork, not too far from Cork City. Two versions of the story exist. In one, a patrol of three RIC men were attacked as they made their way back to the barracks with one, a Constable Timothy Scully, hit several times, dying almost instantly. In the other, a group of IRA held-up the RIC men, with the intention of using them to gain access to the barracks so they ransack it for arms. Scully resisted, and so he was shot down. Their plans no longer relevant, the IRA then dispersed. Either story is potentially true: if it is the RIC’s, then the IRA accounts may have concocted the larger operation to excuse firing in cold blood, and if it is the IRA’s, then the RIC may have concocted the ambush to excuse the loss. Either way, the engagement left one RIC Constable dead.
We have already seen that West Clare was a hotbed of revolutionary activity throughout 1920, but it did not start with Rineen. Ambushes and barracks raids occurred throughout that year to varying degrees. There were also reprisals of various sorts, and not just for IRA activity. On April 14th the urban centre of Miltown Malbay saw a celebration of its inhabitants with the release of the local hunger strikers. The local nationalist organisations arranged the party, which included a parade and a large bonfire. Late that night, a group of RIC and regular infantry arrived, with the intent of breaking up the gathering. Subsequent military investigations claim the Crown Forces were fired upon, while civil equivalents state that no such provocation occurred. However it fell out, shots were fired by the police and three civilians were killed, and several others wounded, some in the stampede that naturally followed. Though local government officials issued arrest warrants for the RIC involved, none of them were ever pursued seriously.
On the 19th May two members of the RIC in Limerick City, Sergeants Kyron Dunphy and Patrick Hearty, were in Mallow Street. Hearty had gone to a doctor’s office there as he had recently been off work ill, and the two were ambushed as they left, by men of the city battalion, part of the larger Mid Limerick Brigade. The IRA were led by a Michael Hartney. A large volley of fire rang out, and in seconds Dunphy had been shot dead and Hearty fatally wounded. In the aftermath, at least one civilian was killed during seemingly unordered reprisals. Few details of the ambush survive, but it is an interesting event in the context of other urban environments during the war. In Dublin assassinations of the Squad were relatively common, but ambushes of this type, carried out by “regular” members of the IRA, were much less so. This is not to say that the Limerick IRA were better organised than their Dublin counterparts – this appears to have been a fairly simple operation after all – but may have had greater opportunity for attacks in a city that did not have as big of a Crown Forces presence.
On the 23rd June the attention of the war was back in Clare, where an audacious – and bloodless – ambush occurred in Ennis. It was the brainchild of then Brigade Adjutant Joe Barrett, whom we have encountered before. He personally scouted out a recurring patrol of British soldiers, seven in total, who left the local barracks at the same time every evening to act as guards for supply transport from the nearby market. After observing the patrol and its manner of marching through the streets for a time, Barrett drilled nearly 30 men in nearby woods, with seven of them acting as the enemy, going through the ambush plan in detail. On the 23rd Barrett put his plan into action, and the patrol was held-up without any errors. The men were locked in a nearby shed, and their arms and ammunition taken. At a time when the war was becoming increasingly bloody it’s an example of how it could still be a conflict where the aim of the IRA was not to kill their opponents. Further, it showcased the weaknesses of Crown Force regularity, and the ability of IRA Volunteers to enact a disarming with the requisite scouting and planning. Such things would stand parts of the Clare IRA in good stead with future operations.
In July it was Galway that felt the wrath of Crown Forces reprisals following a successful ambush a few km’s outside of the town of Tuam. A car with four members of the RIC were travelling back from a meeting of the assizes when they found their path blocked by fallen trees. When two of them, Constables Patrick Carey and James Burke, got out to investigate, they were gunned down in a hail of fire, which may have already begun before the car had stopped. The ambushing IRA, concealed behind hedges, withstood some fire from the other RIC, until the police ran out of ammunition. They then relieved both the dead men and the two survivors of their weapons, set the car alight and vanished. RIC, with Black and Tans, ran amuck in Tuam the following day, smashing shop windows, burning buildings and harassing the population for several hours. The town hall, where republican courts had sat, was one of the buildings destroyed. Such actions did the police little good, with their county inspector declaring by the end of the month that life in the area was becoming intolerable for the RIC.
On the 26th August members of the Cork 3rd Brigade under Sean Hales attempted to enact an ambush of a combined RIC and British Army patrol at a place called Brinny, on the road between Crossbarry and Bandon. The site was seemingly a good one, ahead of a bend and a humpback bridge, that would have slowed the Crown Forces immensely. It is claimed by some that the ambushers that their position were betrayed by a loyalist informer, but it is possible that the British discovered the location of the attackers another way: however it fell out, a detachment of regulars came up on the rear of the IRA before they had a chance to enact their ambush. In the resulting firefight one Volunteer, Tim Fitzgerald, was shot dead, but the rest were able to escape. A local civilian, Daniel Lynch, would later be executed by the IRA on a charge of being the informant whose communication with the Crown Forces had led to Fitzgerald’s death. Such matters will form the basis of a future entry, on the controversial topic of Cork’s “disappeared”.
At Rathmacross, County Roscommon, on the 1st September, a bicycle patrol of five RIC members was ambushed as it returned from court sessions in nearby Frenchpark. Taking place at a crossroads, the attacked were badly beset by the 25 or so attackers, with two police killed. The RIC, in this case, hit back as well as they could, exhausting their meagre supply of ammunition. This ambush is interesting in the context of the larger debate of the war’s conduct. The citation of an award given to one of the RIC survivors claims that one of the RIC dead was killed after trying to surrender, but that another, a Constable Hopley, employed the ruse of a false surrender in order to get close enough to a Volunteer, whom he then shot dead before running off. That the Crown Forces were happy to admit to such tactics comes as a bit of a surprise, and you can be assured that such honesty would not last beyond the end of the year. Strangely the main IRA account, that of the commander Jim Hunt, does not mention a false surrender, saying simply that the dead Volunteer, Tom McDonagh, died as a result of a gunshot while engaged with the RIC.
On the 28th of October, between the villages of Thomastown and Kilfeakle in Tipperary, a group of IRA of the South Tipperary Brigade, under Dinny Lacey, ambushed a British military truck, as it carried a group of men from the Northhamptonshire Regiment and Royal Engineers to a firing range. The military constituted an unexpected attack of opportunity for the IRA, whose intelligence had indicated that the target would be RIC. Whether the intelligence was wrong or the military just happened by first, Lacey took his chance. Two soldiers appeared to have been killed in the opening exchanges of fire, with a third fatally wounded later. Several more soldiers were wounded, along with one Volunteer. The British later claimed that they had driven the IRA back through the force of their arms, but Volunteer accounts state that the IRA withdrew upon the approach of another lorry. Reprisals occurred later in Tipperary Town, though no one was killed.
It was less than two weeks before Lacey’s flying column was again in action, this time at Inches Cross, in the Glen of Aherlow. The target was a lorry load of RIC/Black and Tans, a “pay party” that traveled from Tipperary Town to numerous outposts on Saturday’s. The column lay in ambush at the same spot several Saturday’s in a row, and on the 13th of November the target came by. A careful shot took out the driver, and in the engagement that followed four of the RIC were killed and four more wounded before the police surrendered. They were disarmed and their vehicle burnt before the IRA dispersed. It was, in many ways, a textbook ambush, though it relied heavily on the accuracy of that opening shot, as the IRA had not blocked the road otherwise. Homes and businesses were burned in Tipperary Town in the aftermath.
On the 17th of December the Squad assassinated another member of the RIC, a Constable Philip O’Sullivan. He had only joined the police force earlier in the year, but his role in Dublin Castle was enough that he was marked for death. Trailed for a week, he was shot in Sackville Street while walking with his fiancee. The woman actually grappled with one of the shooters and managed to get his gun, but by then O’Sullivan had already been fatally wounded. This, in and of itself, was not that remarkable, but it is in the larger context of the killing that we find its significance. Tentative back channel discussions had been held informally between representatives of “the Republic” and the British government, and for a brief moment it seemed possible that a ceasefire could be arranged whereby raids and arrests would stop and the IRA would stop their own activities. But when British terms suddenly became harsher, demanding IRA disarmament as a prelude to further talks, Michael Collins was seemingly irritated. It has been speculated that the killing of O’Sullivan constituted his own personal reply to such a suggestion, tying the Squad’s military activities in to the larger political goals of the movement.
The last point is one that I must come back to, as we turn the corner and head into the fateful year of 1921, twelve months that will see an acceleration of the bloodshed, an, in many ways, unlikely truce, some false dawns on the political front and a treaty that would come to define much of Ireland’s direction in the 20th century. The road to this state of affairs was already being traveled by both sides, and it is appropriate that we take an entry to consider the early “feelers” for peace, and just what “the Republic” and Westminster actually wanted out of the war at this point.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.