A little bit earlier, I talked about an instance in the War of Independence when men from separate brigade areas came together to form a better fighting force than they could ever have hoped to have formed separately. The lesson of Clonbanin was at least partially learned by the larger IRA, which subsequently made some moves to encourage similar behavior in other parts of the country, such as with the move to a divisional structure. The benefits were obvious: more men for engagements, a pooling of often limited resources, and the creation of a perception that the IRA was a serious professional armed force, even if it was still going to stick to guerrilla warfare. But the combining of men from different units did not always work out in the IRA’s favour, as such things came with their downsides too: a larger unit of men that had to be supplied and housed while “on the run”, and frequently divisions at a command level between rival officers. In early May 1921, in the rural countryside of Limerick, one such amalgamation ran into disaster not once, but twice, within the space of a few days. The inquest would reveal deep-seeded unhappiness from high-ranking members of GHQ with how the war in some of the localities was progressing.
The units in question were columns created from the brigades of West, Mid and East Limerick. If one is to look into the accounts of the Limerick IRA at the time, the signs were there that a disaster could easily occur when the forces combined. The IRA generally in the county had been under severe pressure from British counter-moves, raids and round-ups, with many losses taken in the recent weeks and months. Many units were operating with a paucity of arms and ammunition, and there was recriminations from men in the East Brigade towards the others, who were seen as being less active, to the point that some East Volunteers advocated raiding their sister brigades for arms. There was incidents of low morale and ill-discipline among Volunteers, and stinging comments made on officers and between officers. The situation was not absolutely critical just yet, but eventually bad enough that GHQ had felt it necessary to send Ernie O’Malley to the area to investigate on the problems. The events of early May would be a serious part of O’Malley’s report.
The operation was to enact an ambush in the vicinity of Shraharla, a townland near the border of Cork. The target was intended to be a patrolling cycle detachment of the Yorkshire Regiment, better known by their then nickname and future official designation of the “Green Howards”, owing to special facings on their uniforms and a well-honoured commander of the unit from the War of the Austrian Succession (they fought at Fontenoy and in the ’45: “Irish papists” were specifically singled out as undesirable recruits). The Howards, accused of atrocities in the local area, had been a highly-valued target for a while. The IRA unit aimed to take up positions on a roadside between the Sharharla church and schoolhouse, and await their quarry, being in the area on the night of the 30th April, with the intention of being in place on 1st of May.
The East Brigade, under Donnacha O’Hannigan, had called in men from the Mid Brigade, under the command of a Liam Forde, and then also men from the West. It had been decided that every brigade in Limerick would have to contribute to ongoing column operations, if they were to stand a chance of success anyway. What exactly happened next is the first of many things to be disputed about the entire affair, making the events of Shraharla and later Lackelly ones that a require a degree of historical detective work. Depending on who you believe, the IRA, that is men of the Mid Brigade, were either in their ambush positions or marching towards them through the countryside on the morning of the 1st, when the enemy suddenly arrived.
The enemy was the British military, but it happened to be a lot more than the IRA had been expecting. Whether it was a failure of pre-ambush planning or scouting on the day, the IRA were suddenly faced with a much larger convoy of British military – how large exactly is in dispute, but several lorry loads at least – on the road than they had been expecting, and may have been caught out in the relative open. What happened to instigate the actual engagement is also unclear: it is variously stated that the IRA opened fire on the target despite its unexpected size, but also that a Volunteer fired accidentally, precipitating a larger volley afterwards. Complicating matters still further are other accounts who claim the ambush party failed to attack the original target, who subsequently called up the reinforcements that were then engaged, meaning the convoy was arriving with the express intent of attacking the IRA. However exactly it began, it began too quick: the British convoy was well outside the “kill” zone, if the IRA were even in a position to ambush, when firing began, so was able to halt and discharge its troops without being in the most dangerous spot. These troops were able to engage the IRA from the front and the flanks.
In the firefight that followed, the Volunteers quickly found themselves outgunned and outmaneuvered. The British had plenty of rifles and at least one machine gun, and even more mobility than they usually had in such circumstances: the IRA in contrast had rifles with limited ammunition, and were apparently too strung out on the approach to the ambush site to really be effective. Still, they traded fire with the British for a time, though it was costly: three Volunteers, including two officers, were killed outright, and a fourth captured, who was executed after a drumhead court-martial the following day. The fighting appears to have been carried out entirely by men of the Mid Brigade, but this must be taken with a degree of salt: Forde’s account claims that nearby men of the East Brigade retreated from the area without engaging the enemy, but, as we will see, his account received little shrift from superiors. Other accounts claim men of the other Brigades did engage the enemy, but were merely the first to withdraw from what was an unwinnable fight.
However it fell out exactly, the IRA did retreat through the countryside, heading in a general northern direction. According to some accounts (again, others disagree) they were pursued during daylight hours in what amounted to a strung-out battle, where a rearguard unit kept the British regulars at bay long enough for the other men to get to safety, until night fell and the British broke off the pursuit. The IRA billeted for the night in the area in and around the village of Lackelly, this time not far from the border of Tipperary.
The following morning, a portion of the IRA were notified of a potential target of opportunity: a cycling patrol of Black and Tans that had been spotted travelling towards nearby Emly, and were expected to make a return journey along the same route. The Volunteers were prepared to enact an ambush when scouts, members of the local Cumann na mBan, gave a sudden warning that enemy units were almost on top of them. This enemy were either Black and Tans, or a unit of the Sherwood Foresters depending on whose account you believe, who had apparently tracked the Cumann na mBan members back to the IRA.
A firefight broke out, with the surprised Volunteers defending themselves as best as they could. It must be remembered that the IRA was spread out, and it took time for the various men earmarked for the larger column to come together into one mass: some of them were miles away, and had to march unexpectedly with only the sound of gunfire to guide them. In the meantime, four of the men initially engaged were killed. When more of the column moved to engage the enemy, a larger, more substantial, firefight began, that lasted for a few hours. Eventually the Crown Forces backed off, when they found themselves at risk of being overwhelmed, though they apparently took no casualties. A few vehicles and their stored ammunition were captured, before being set alight. After this, the IRA men dispersed back to their original brigade areas, carrying their dead and wounded, some of whom it is claimed were bayoneted after the initial exchange of fire. The fighting was over, but the recriminations were only just beginning.
It’s hard to really offer much of an opinion on what happened at Shraharla and Lackelly, since just about every part of the two engagements is disputed in some fashion. Were the IRA caught in the open at Shraharla, or did they fire first? Was the enlarged British presence there a coincidence or planned? Did an armoured car support the Crown Forces in that engagement? How big was the convoy exactly? Did elements of the column retreat too quickly, leaving others to do the majority of the fighting? Who exactly attacked the IRA at Lackelly? Who was in overall command of these various engagements? Even details that should be concrete, like the number of Volunteers killed, sometimes vary between accounts. The reality of those few days, with units placed all over a wide area of the countryside, seems tailor made to produce vastly different interpretations of what happened. It is enough to say perhaps that the scattered nature of the IRA and lack of clear command structure hampered their ability to effectively engage the enemy, yet it also appears that they were able to both hold their own and even push the Crown Forces back when they had the numbers to do so.
Undoubtedly the most controversial account was that of Forde, who, as stated, accused men of the East Brigade of retreating from Shraharla without adequately engaging the enemy. Such thoughts could only aggravate the situation in Limerick, and accusations were flung back and forth between the brigades and their officers over who exactly was at fault. Forde’s account was thought little of, with O’Malley, sent to investigate the entire affair, deeming the man “not a good officer” and “not fit for command”. Richard Mulcahy in GHQ largely agreed. The losses incurred at Shralarla and Lackelly inflamed the situation with the Limerick Brigades, and dealt a serious blown to any suggestion that they were better off with one large column made up of a mix of men from all three, as opposed to their own separate ones, something that does not appear to have re-occured in Limerick in the rest of the war. Tensions between the brigades were not resolved, and the eight men killed were hard losses to bear.
It is good to remind ourselves of such things. Contrary to some efforts to portray the IRA of the War of Independence as one happy united band of brothers, the reality was often very different. Splits were evident long before the spring of 1922, and perhaps only the existence of a common enemy prevented that split from being more manifest in areas like Limerick. Little more than a year after Shraharla/Lackelly, men who had been engaged there on the side of the IRA, would find themselves on either side of the Civil War divide. Obviously the situation in Limerick was not the sole reason that men picked either the pro-Treaty or anti-Treaty sides of that conflict, but it must be accepted that it played at least some part in many men’s thinking. We will discuss it more in time, when Liam Forde chooses to oppose the treaty, and O’Hannigan chooses to endorse it, but the large tent of militant Irish republicanism was already, by the summer of 1921, beginning to show more outward signs of fraying.
The pressure being exerted by the Crown Forces must also be acknowledged. It is fair to say that in parts of Ireland where the war was at its hottest – Dublin, Munster (especially Cork and Limerick), parts of Ulster – the IRA was becoming harder pressed than ever, and at times struggling to keep up with the level of conflict they were now being asked to implement. And yet, that struggle was still paying obvious dividends from a national perspective, as Britain’s chosen political solution to the Irish question ended up solving very little. In the next entry, we will discuss the elections to the newly established parliaments of Northern and Southern Ireland, and some of the military activity that occurred on and around the days of those elections, as the war took a further step towards a political resolution.
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