We are now on the verge of the War of Independence’s conclusion. The events we discuss today took place literally hours before the truce, that I will discuss next week, came into effect. It is evidence of the ferocity of the war in certain parts of the country, that even though that truce was about to become manifest, that fighting between the IRA and the Crown Forces continued. In some ways this came from a practical standpoint: a truce was not inherently an actual end to the war, just a pause, and many people in the various levels of the republican movement fully believed that it was only going to be a temporary thing. Thus, it made perfect sense to keep fighting the enemy until the figurative eleventh hour, since you were only going to end up fighting him again. But there were other reasons too, like the desire to get one last hit in on a despised enemy before you were no longer allowed to. Practicality or emotion: it would have to be a substantial motivation to get young men to risk dying just as the guns were about to be lowered.
This particular ambush, or “shootout” as it has been colourfully described, takes us back to County Kerry, to the small town of Castleisland, around ten km’s east of Tralee. The town was in the region of the Kerry No. 2 Brigade, and had seen its fair share of military activity during the war already, but was of a fairly mixed reputation: GHQ had sent organisers to the region who encountered problems related to the spread of IRB influence, with membership of the local brotherhood practically a requirement if you wanted to have any chance of creating real change. A flying column for the larger brigade had been created though.
Castleisland itself had a degree of strategic importance, straddling the main road that connected the county to the nearest major urban centre of Limerick and on to Dublin. As such, it was manned by both RIC and a detachment of the British military. In the dying days of the conflict the town had already seen violence, with one RIC men killed on the 9th May after being shot while he was returning home from mass, with a colleague wounded; later in the month a Volunteer was killed near the the town when Crown Forces discovered an ambush before it could be properly enacted. In June, the IRA took the somewhat unique step of burning down Castleisland’s local library, on account of it potentially being used as a makeshift barracks/position for Crown Forces.
So, the area around Castleialand was an active one in the summer of 1921, though it is still questionable why operations were taking place as late as they were. Regardless the local IRA leadership, with Brigade OC Humphrey Murphy the leading light, decided to press ahead with multiple attacks on the 10th July, in the full knowledge that they would have to adhere to a ceasefire on the 11th. Some of these attacks, on barracks’ in the area, had been in the works for weeks, but the Castleisland ambush appears to have been more of a thrown together affair. As it was, it was the only attack that night that would have fatal consequences, for the Irish or the British.
The target was a routine patrol of British military, that was known to march from the Castleisland barracks at the western end of the town in a so-called “curfew patrol” at the end of the day, going up to the top of the Main Street and then back again. The patrol consisted of around 15 to 20 men, and had become far too regular in its operation: as noted before, repeatedly, this was a consistent flaw in British counter-insurgency. The IRA planned to take up positions at several points along Main Street, in laneways leading off of it, and in the charred ruins of the previously torched library: Murphy himself was there.
That evening, the British – a patrol of the 2nd North Lancashire Regiment – left the barracks at the usual time and maintained the same basic route as they had been taking. They were past the ruins of the library, up at the east end of town, when the IRA opened fire from their positions. The town was not large and so it became immediately apparent to other soldiers in the barracks what was happening, and they had soon mobilised to support their comrades. The IRA in other positions were thus focusing fire on the initial target, while also trying to keep a relief force at bay. From the off then, the Volunteer position was difficult.
The British military were able to fight their way through the ambush positions and make it back to the barracks, though they took casualties in doing so. The IRA would probably have been better off withdrawing at that point, but choose to instead maintain fire on the barracks, with a section of the military returning fire from that position. Unbeknownst to the IRA, the British Army were not just going to hunker down in the barracks, choosing instead to leave it by the back door, and then advance up the either side of the town to attack the IRA in position near St Stephen’s Church and on the other side of the town from the rear.
From being in a position where they were enacting an ambush, the IRA now found itself fighting a desperate rearguard action. For a time they held their own: the positions west of Main Street were able to withdraw to the north under fire, and then attempted to cover their comrades to the east. But the eastern positions were more hard-pressed, with the British attackers bringing machine guns into the fight on their side: in the process of withdrawing the IRA took several casualties. The British were aided by the effective leadership of a Lt John Sheridan, who had half of his relief party pinning down the Volunteers who had positioned themselves in the churchyard, and the other half waiting to attack further when the IRA moved to withdraw. When the IRA were able to extricate themselves from the situation, they dispersed into the night. Five of the ambushing party had been killed, most of them in the churchyard in the dying moments of the affair. In exchange, for British soldiers had been killed.
From a purely tactical perspective, the ambush can only be viewed as a disaster for the IRA. They had failed to adequately account for the likelihood of additional forces coming from the barracks, or of the possibility of the same forces coming at them from behind. When the initial section of the ambush had come to an end the decision should have been taken to withdraw, but instead the IRA stayed where they were, and thus became vulnerable to counter-attack. For their part, the British should have been more cautious when it came to their curfew patrols, but performed admirably once the shooting started, with the patrol able to withdraw under fire, and the soldiers then able to decisively turn the tables on their opponents. From a larger perspective, the point of the ambush seems questionable especially in relation to the casualties incurred: the IRA were not fighting a war where four enemy dead was worth five Volunteers dead, especially with a truce about to come into being.
The entire affair provoked a mixture of unease and outrage from both sides of the divide. Local members of the IRA questioned both the need for the attack and elements of execution, which were sloppy: giving one final pre-truce blow to the British in such a manner must have seemed an inadequate goal given the loss of Volunteers that it involved. One Volunteer, whose brother was killed at Castleisland, dubbed the affair “a complete fiasco”, and much specific criticism was leveled at Humphrey Murphy. The British were aghast at the size of the ambush and the vigour in which it was pursued, at least in terms of casualties, given the imminence of the truce, but perhaps should have saved some of their criticism for their own soldiers, who may have relaxed their guard a bit too much in the hours before the truce.
One year to the day after the Castleisland attack, the anniversary was marked by a major military gathering, consisting of potentially up to a thousand Volunteers, Fianna and Cumann na mBan, who marched to the graves of the fallen. There, they heard incendiary speeches on the topic of fighting to the east, that was soon to be on their own doorstep. The Irish Civil War had already begun at that stage, and the example of Castleisland was used by anti-Treaty elements in Kerry as a recruiting tool. It was a far cry from the apparent unity that has been in place twelve months previously. The road to that Civil War began with the truce, and it is that truce that I will cover next week.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.
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