It has almost become a tired cliche on this site, but I will say it at least one more time: the Irish War of Independence in Ulster is an under-researched and under-noticed thing. In many of the history books and accounts that I rely on, the war in the northern counties is often dismissed as a mixture of sectarian rioting, piecemeal reprisal attacks and the odd somewhat active IRA commander, who tried to do more than most of the others in the province. This might well be true, but Ulster deserves more consideration, even if it is hard to focus on the individual events of the war in Ulster as they were often very small-scale even by the standards of that conflict. But we must, before we enter the home straight of the War of Independence, give some focus back Ulster’s way, and discuss the political and sectarian violence that engulfed parts of it in 1921.
The IRA were never going to be able to implement a campaign in Ulster to the same degree that they were able to in Munster, Dublin and a few other isolated areas. The popular support for such a campaign was lacking, and numerous other deficiencies followed on from that key weakness: a lack of arms and safe hiding places, a strongly supported enemy and a dearth of enthusiastic Volunteers willing to be pro-active, especially in terms of setting up anything resembling a flying column. Any attacks or operations that the IRA carried out in larger parts of Ulster were liable to be extremely small-scale, and to then be followed by a disproportionate response from unionists, and the heavily-unionist constabulary forces in the provinces, in the way of targeting nationalist and Catholic areas for reprisals, whether it was property destruction or worse. The reality of this, and British government’s almost pro-active efforts to look away from the sectarian work of the B Specials, meant that the IRA was hamstrung: mostly incapable of a big impact, and reluctant to even try and make a small one given what would happen after. As a result, much of the killing in the north would still follow the pattern of the 1920 explosion in violence: that of riots, and scatter-gun attacks in urban areas.
The response of the south to all of this was somewhat lacking. The political side of things had a limit on what it could effectively do, with the Dail boycott on the north piecemeal and not really amounting to much in the end. It was a simple reality that much of the north’s political apparatus was in the hands of those who wanted nothing to do with Sinn Fein or the Dail, so de Valera and other politicians’ influence was negligible or non-existent. Efforts to establish republican courts and republican police were all but impossible in some areas, so “the Republic” did not exist in the north as it did in the south.
From the military side of things, a limited amount of hardware and instructors would make their way north during the course of the war, but with no spectacular end result: GHQ may have worried about throwing material into a hopeless situation when it could be of a greater use in Dublin or in Cork. There were also problems when officers from outside Ulster struggled to command men from inside the province: some of the better known operations that took place in the northern province were propelled or carried out by visiting Volunteers. The Ulster IRA could, perhaps, be forgiven for skepticism when it came to blow-in leaders: some of the pronouncements from higher-ups on the north bordered on the farcical, with Richard Mulcahy, who referred to the heavily unionist sections of the north as “Carsonia”, at one time seemingly advocating for IRA units in Donegal and elsewhere to prepare for a major regular offensive into what would become Northern Ireland, something that said IRA units had, of course, neither the means nor the inclination to do. The disregard was sometimes two-way, with GHQ caught referring to the northern divisions established in 1921 as “Ulster Divisions”: the Munster, Connacht and Leinster equivalents were never dubbed as such.
Still, southern control, or at least direction, over northern Volunteers paid some dividends. When the new divisional structure was implemented in 1921, IRA activity in Belfast, Derry and Newry jumped dramatically: 25 members of the Crown Forces were killed in the last four months of the war, in comparison to 13 throughout the rest. The death toll from violent action in Ulster continued to rise, though it can be debated if those deaths should be included as part of the War of Independence, so wrapped up as they were in a sectarian struggle that had no equal in the rest of Ireland. These were deaths that came as a result of street fighting between rival groups of civilians, between expelled workers and those expelling them, in pograms and efforts at ethnic cleansing, that often had little in the way or organisation and direction. There was also assassination and extra-judicial killings, yet often the IRA was not involved at all, as instigator or as victim.
A quick review of IRA activity in different parts of Ulster in this period may be instructive. Belfast remained a central site of conflict during this period after the violence of the previous year, with ambushes and barracks attacks in border counties often leading to reprisals in the city. The Belfast IRA remained a small unit, one that, when it was engaged, was mostly in the line of defending Catholic areas from attacks, and not being an offensive force of its own, though an arson campaign directed at unionist buildings, and Catholic ones that associated with unionism did cause a great deal of damage. Efforts by GHQ to encourage the Belfast IRA to go on the attack more had decidedly mixed success: when they were ordered to send a company to participate in an operation with a unit of the Cavan IRA, in order to gain some vital experience, the result was a calamity. When the Volunteer camp was surrounded by Crown Forces, the Belfast men got away before the Cavan men, having lost one Volunteer killed in the firefight, surrendered.
In Tyrone, efforts to increase IRA activity fell to Eoin O’Duffy, still a rising star in the eyes of GHQ. In March, in line with a wider re-organisation, he graduated from Monaghan command to that of a larger division, to include Tyrone units. A few deaths had occurred in Tyrone, but the county was hit hard by an influx of USC Specials. O’Duffy tried to get more attacks happening, but ran into resistance, on account of fears of reprisal and, if we’re being honest, his own lack of popularity. Still, more attacks did start happening from April.
A series of killings in Tyrone in the early part of that month makes the point at how tit-for-tat the situation could be in Ulster. On the night of the 6th, an RIC constable was killed and four others wounded in an ambush at Dromore. The next day, in an apparent reprisal, an RIC sergeant shot a local Catholic girl in the legs. The girls brother, a Volunteer, later shot the offending sergeant dead, and in response to this a unit of the USC in the area arrested and then shot out-of-hand three other Volunteers, dumping their bodies a bit aways from the town, which they had previously ransacked. The series of events made some Volunteers shy away from O’Duffy’s desire to press on with offensive tactics, but more ambushes did take place between the latter part of April and on into May. Increased USC and RIC pressure allowed for the creation of some columns, but their resultant impact was limited,.
In Derry, where the war in Ulster had really gotten going, there was also a degree of co-ordinated republican activity. On the 1st of April, an units of the IRA, managed by officers visiting from elsewhere, attacked an RIC barracks on Lecky Road in the city, and also targetted RIC patrols: two constables were killed and a few others wounded, with the IRA making a clean getaway all the way to Donegal. It was to be one of the stand-out moments of the remainder of the war in Derry.
A pro-active IRA commander named Frank Aiken was able to make a bit of an impact in the Newry area of Armagh, though even then it was only in the final months of the conflict. Aiken, a close friend of de Valera, was able to harass local police, engage in barracks attacks and ambushes, and generally make that portion of Armagh a more dangerous place to be for the RIC than larger parts of surrounding Ulster, though of course such attacks were not especially large by the standards being set further south. Still, Aiken established a firm reputation as a reliable hand in an area where such men were few and fair between: he was destined for a much greater role in the future of the IRA than he may have imagined at the time.
The political dimension of things in the north continued apace at the same time. Partition, despite the denials of the Dail in terms of ever agreeing to such a possibility, was becoming more and more apparent. Unionists controlled more and more of the north’s political apparatus without the input of Westminster, and already had their own police force to back them up. David Lloyd George remained committed to excluding the north from any larger settlement for Ireland, and meetings between de Valera and James Craig in May of 1921 made little to no headway in finding any reconciliation opportunity. Such things were becoming more and more important however, as the conflict hurdled towards a truce. The next step on that road was the elections to the newly established states of Northern and Southern Ireland, to take place in May 1921: those elections would be another demonstration of the radicalised political will in Ireland, but would not be the panacea some in the British administration hoped they would be: many would die on the day of the elections, and in the days around them.
But before we reach that point, I want to turn away from the larger picture of provincial campaigns and national elections, to focus back in on another small moment of the war, but one that showed clearly the weaknesses of the IRA, and the sometime strength of the British counter-insurgency movement. Over the course of several terrible days in rural Limerick, many Volunteers were killed in a series of botched ambushes: the recriminations that followed would be explosive.
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