Whatever about its title, the Irish War of Independence was an international conflict. As much as it was fought in the fields of Cork or the streets of Dublin, it was also fought in arenas like the halls of power in America, in diplomatic missions in Russia and in the public opinion of places as varied as Australia, South Africa or continental Europe. But there was at least one place outside of Ireland that married, to some extent, the dimensions of military operations and the propaganda battle. That place was, of course, at the heart of the Crown Forces: the neighbouring island of Great Britain.
Irish nationalist organisations of varying persuasion had always had a foothold in Britain. The Irish diaspora naturally gravitated to Britain first and foremost, and as we have already covered there were numerous tightly-knit Irish communities throughout England, Wales and Scotland from which they were able to recruit. Whether it was social/cultural entitles like the Gaelic League or the GAA, the nominally political organisations like Sinn Fein or the more outright militaristic groups like the IRB or the IRA, they all had branches in Britain, in some cases quite large ones.
One only has to look at the early life of Michael Collins in London to get an idea of the spread of such things, with the future Director of Intelligence moving between the IRB’s British HQ in Barnsbury Hall, the recruitment location for the Irish Volunteers in Pancras Road, Sinn Fein’s London HQ in Chancery Lane or the Geraldines GAA club in Notting Hill. Later, when in London for the negotiations that led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Collins would spend large amounts of time in the London IRA’s HQ in St Annes Road. There was plenty of crossover between these organisations as well, indicative of the radicalisation opportunities: as previously mentioned, Collins had been sworn into the IRB by Sam Maguire, who was head of the London GAA and later one of Collins’ right-hand men in the city.
The main nationalist society in Britain at the time, that attempted to be a broad tent for various strands of the movement, was the Irish Self-Determination League. This entity largely stole the thunder of Home Rule equivalents in 1919, but struggled to make as big of an impact as it potentially could have during the war. It’s de-facto leader, Art O’Briain, was appointed by the Dail as it’s envoy to Great Britain, a position which allowed him to meet and treat with various revolutionary figures from throughout the world who sought Irish support, but the ISDL had issues raising money and influencing public opinion in Britain, and with the all-too-common factionalisation that often occurred in Irish nationalist circles. The League organised protests, attempted to engineer strikes in war-focused industries, campaigned for prisoner release and tried to get in with the British political opposition. But the end result was not all that it could be, given the size of Irish communities in Britain. De Valera would criticise the ISDL later for its lack of impact.
But there was a limit to what the IRA based in Britain could do in the aid of the cause as well. The moments when the forces of militant Irish nationalist had taken practical steps in Britain had never worked out as well as had been hoped, and in popular memory consisted mainly of the 1867 Manchester Martyrs, and then the later Dynamite Campaign. Guerrilla warfare as was practiced in Ireland during the War of Independence was largely impossible in Britain, where Irish communities, despite their large size, tended to be confined mostly to urban areas, and where the popular groundswell of support required to sustain a guerrilla struggle did not exist. There were also divides, that mirrored fractures in Ireland, within IRA units, especially in Glasgow, over participation in, or shirking from, the Easter Rising.
Instead of ambushes, the primary means that the forces of the Republic in Britain had to try and influence the fighting in Ireland was not with direct action, but in a support role. There’s was a war where the raising of cash for the Dail and the IRA was a matter of greater import than targeting police; where purchasing arms and explosives, or raiding for them, was an activity done so said guns and explosives could then be smuggled across the Irish Sea; where the propaganda war was front-and-centre, in every newspaper headline influenced or every politician canvassed into giving either a favourable opinion of the Republic, or at least a critical one of the British government.
It was not for some time that the British-based IRA took a more practical role in the conflict. This side of things is most commonly seen to have begun in November 1920, though the events of that the latter part of that month in Liverpool are understandably overshadowed by those of Bloody Sunday and Kilmichael. The target was the Liverpool docklands, in what was later dubbed by some accounts as the “Liverpool spectacular”. That month police in Dublin had seized papers belonging to Rory O’Connor, IRA Director of Engineering, outlining plans to use a fire in the Liverpool docks as a distraction so that a force could sabotage the dock gates and pumping station. The capture and publication of these plans led the British to think the operation was scuppered, but the Liverpool Volunteers were too eager to be put off, and simply altered their plans by making the distraction the main event. On the night of the 27th, numerous members of the local IRA, supported by the local Cumann na mBan, set fire to a number of warehouses, timber yards and other buildings along the waterfront. It appears that there was no intention to cause fatalities, but one person was killed that night, a watchman who attempted to intervene. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of damage was done, and the blaze provided an eye-catching draw for British journalism which, of course, was exactly what the IRA wanted.
This was to be the start of a series of arson attacks that would take place throughout the rest of the war, in places like Liverpool, Manchester and London. The targets were often industrial, but also extended to other buildings, like farm-houses or the homes of police and military. Throughout the country, but never to the extent that it could be called greatly effective, the IRA set fire to buildings associated with the enemy, occasionally going as far as the use of explosives and, in a small number of cases, assassination. But that last tactic was rarely employed, owing to the shortage of arms, the lack of support from GHQ and, perhaps, not having committed gunman capable of pulling the trigger (and getting away with it).
On the other side of things, British authorities attempted to rein in or halt the activities of the IRA through arrest and internment. They came down hard on the Irish community in Liverpool in the aftermath of the “big fires”, with many Irish arrested who had no connection to the attack, and a few who did. Spells in Belfast camps was the result for some deemed too dangerous to be released, though most were due to lack of evidence. The arrests did their job though, and disrupted the Liverpool IRA enough that they were never able to do anything again on the scale of the “spectacular”.
For the rest of the war, the IRA in Britain carried out various attacks, that the official post-war tally labelled at over 250 but was probably much higher. This may sound impressive, but in truth that number includes a number of things that mostly just a minor nuisance to the British administration, like the cutting of telegraph wires or the sabotage of signal boxes. Members of the British IRA acknowledged after the war that their contribution to it largely amounted to pinpricks that had little in the way of practical effect on the British war effort, though some of them did make quite a stir in the media. There was simply not enough in the way of direction from on-high, leading to the individual actions of smaller units being the primary example of what the British IRA could do.
Other duties including the observation of suspected spies and informants, harassment of the families of known Black and Tans and Auxiliaries and the raiding of emigrant hostels, to try and enforce a ban on leaving the country that the Dail had attempted to implement. Bigger things, like plans for the IRA to torch an entire town as their own reprisal for what had occurred in Balbriggan, was abandoned after GHQ took a dim view. The numbers of dead that resulted from the activities is disputed, but may have been as high as ten, whether they were killed in fires or by other means.
There were plans for something much grander to take place in Britain though. Throughout the war Cathal Brugha never quite let go of a big scheme, wherein explosives or gunmen would find the opportunity to wipe out the British cabinet. Brugha had first come up with the idea during the Conscription Crisis, and even spent time in London laying the groundwork, but was compelled by cooler heads to back away. After doing more reconnaissance in late 1919, in early 1921 Brugha came back to the idea, and even singled out Sean MacEoin as the man to enact it. MacEoin went as far as to travel to Dublin with a team of would-be assassins, but due to his own misgivings sought out Collins before travelling to London. This was evidence of the way the IRB continued to exert control on the movement, with both Collins and MacEoin sitting on its Supreme Council. Collins, ignorant of the plan, arranged for MacEoin to head home, allegedly dumbstruck by Brugha’s scheme and the secretive nature of it. In this, Collins actually broke the nominal chain-of-command: not for the last time, Collins and Brugha demonstrated well the growing chasm within the republican establishments.
In the end, it may have been for the best that this operation did not take place. The assassination of the cabinet, if it could even have been pulled off, would certainly have made for a very de-stabilised British political system in the short-term, but almost certainly would have hardened hearts against any negotiated settlements in the medium and long term: it was a terroristic idea that would have produced little sympathy for the IRA.
The campaign in Britain can thus be considered a rather piecemeal thing, one that was beset by a lack of resources, firm direction from on high and the repression of the British police. It was its own part of the struggle, but cannot really be called a vital one. Many of the key figures there would later have their part to play in the Treaty negotiations, and we will come back to that in time. But for now we must return to Ireland, and to a part of the conflict that remains under-noticed compared to events in Dublin and Munster. This is all the more strange when you look at the death toll that was rising there: the war in Ulster was a vicious one in 1921, where sectarian hatred mixed easily with the political dimension.
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