Before we move on finally from the Irish War of Independence, it is apropos that, as I did for 1919 and 1920, we take an entry to cast an eye on some of the other, smaller, operations and events that occurred in the first seven months of 1921. It was a time when the conflict reached its most bloody, and it is not feasible to look at every individual ambush, reprisal or assassination. But there were a few that are worthy of further discussion, and I will look at one from every month.
In the early hours of the 12th of January, the IRA in Donegal enacted an ambush of a train at Meenbanad, in the west of the county. This was a diverse operation in many ways, taking in Volunteers from Donegal and Derry ASU’s, as well as support from rank-and-file members of the local IRA. It was a somewhat off-the-cuff operation, with members of the column driven to the ambush site after information was garnered that a train carrying British troops would be taking the line, under the cover of being a train dedicated to transporting fish. The IRA lay in ambush on either side of the track around 150 yards from Meenbanad train station, blocking the line with rocks. The train, when it came, was forced to stop, and a firefight broke out that lasted some time. The IRA attempted to use homemade bombs on the train, but were unable to penetrate its exterior, and the British military made good use of a Lewis Gun they had been able to situate on the top of the train. Eventually the IRA withdrew, taking no casualties. What the British suffered is unclear: the IRA would later claim 50 of them were injured, which seems extreme, but certainly none appear to have been killed. Given the danger they put themselves in with the sudden ambush and the expense of ammunition and explosives, it seems a poor outcome for the IRA, but is evidence of their boldness in isolated areas at the time.
We have mentioned it in passing already, but a few extra words on the Clonmult ambush on the 20th February are necessary. On that night 20 Volunteers of the Cork No 1 Brigade’s 4th battalion had taken up quarters in a disused farmhouse near the village of Clonmult, ahead of a planned ambush of a train at Cobh Junction two days later. Whether it was because they simply stayed there too long ahead of time or because of sterling work in British military intelligence, their presence was discovered. A force of regulars surrounded the farmhouse, killing two sentries in the process. A hours-long siege resulted, with the IRA attempting a break-out where more were killed. Additional Crown Forces reinforcements, in the form of RIC and Auxiliaries, ensured there was no chance of further escape and, after the roof of the a farmhouse was set alight, the IRA attempted to surrender. What happened then is disputed: the British allege that Volunteers still in the house opened fire when they tried to take the surrender, and that unarmed IRA men were caught in the middle of the resulting resumption of combat. IRA survivors claim that those who surrendered were simply shot out of hand. It is also possible that there was a misunderstanding – one argument suggests that IRA ammunition discarded when they moved to surrender may have gone off in the fire, and this was misinterpreted by the British – but either way, by the end of affair 12 Volunteers were dead, with two of the four prisoners taken later executed. Suspicions that an informer had led the British to the farmhouse resulted in a spat of killings in the aftermath as the local IRA targetted alleged spies. Clonmult was one of the IRA’s worst setback in the war.
On the 6th of March, a series of murders took place in Limerick City, with the sitting Mayor George Clancy, former Mayor/sitting Councillor Michael O’Callaghan and an city clerk/IRA Volunteer named Joseph O’Donoghue all victims. In the case of the Mayors, men in plain clothes knocked at their doors in the night, claiming to be a search party: once inside the homes, guns were pulled and the men were killed. O’Donoghue’s body was found on a street the same night, riddled with bullet wounds. The shooters have never been positively identified, and of course there was little-to-no effort by the authorities at the time to bring them to justice. Clancy’s wife, who was wounded in the attack that killed her husband, insisted that one of the killers was George Nathan, a section leader of the local Auxiliaries, and this identification has been backed up by others; men as high ranking as General Frank Crozier believed that the killings were extra-judicial executions targeting high-visibility Sinn Fein members, perhaps in the misguided hope that Sinn Fein itself would be blamed (something that was actively attempted in other cases). Nathan would later be killed fighting for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War where, ironically, he was briefly in command of former IRA Volunteers.
On the 2nd April, a boy taking walk on the golf course in Ashford, Middlesex, discovered the body of a man named Vincent Fovargue. He has been shot in the chest, and a note near the body proclaimed “Let spies and traitors beware – IRA”. Fovargue had been an officer in the Dublin IRA, who had been turned by the British into a mole, after an arrest and the threat of torture and a long prison sentence. Suspicions were raised after he was temporarily promoted to the role of being the 4th battalion intelligence officer, and began asking questions about the whereabouts of Michael Collins and GHQ that were considered a bit too pointed. After information was shared with him about meeting places for intelligence staff, these locations were raided by the British. He was arrested again in the aftermath, presumably for his own protection, and then “escaped” in what appears to have been a fabricated ambush of a vehicle he was being transported in. When undercover IRA agents in the DMP raised questions about the validity of Fovargue’s escape, the man himself fled, transferred to Britain where he was allegedly tapped to attempt an infiltration of the IRA there. He never got the chance, tracked down by the IRA and assassinated for his treachery, yet another example of the efficiency of Collins’ intelligence network when it worked properly.
On the 31st May a group of British soldiers, members of the Hampshire Regiment, were marching towards a range for rifle practice while stationed in Youghal, Cork when a mine placed in the road was detonated, followed by a quick exchange of gunfire before the perpetrators escaped. Three of the soldiers were killed outright and four men died of wounds received, all of them members of the regimental band that were accompanying others on the march; another 20 were wounded but survived, while the local priest was an unfortunate victim of crossfire. The mine was a recovered shell casing filled with explosives hidden under a loose arrangement of stones at the side of the road, before being electrically activated by the waiting IRA, of whom there were only a handful. The incident gives a glimpse of a possible path that the war could have gone if it had continued for much longer, one where bombs would become a more common weapon than guns for the IRA.
On the 3rd of June, a cycling/motorised patrol of RIC/Black and Tans were the targets in an ambush undertaken on the road between Borrisokane and Cloughjordan in Co Tipperary. The attackers were the flying column of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade, under the command of a Sean Gaynor and numbered around 17 men. The RIC had been journeying to a court session that day, and were very much dancing to an IRA tune in doing so: Volunteers had damaged the Borrisokane courthouse in an earlier attack, which had necessitated the move to Cloughjordan. Three sections were set-up at different points of the road, and took on an ambitious attack on over 40 of the enemy. But the nature of the position and the element of surprise proved decisive, and in the course of an extended firefight, the IRA were able to kill four of the enemy and inflict three times as many injuries, taking no casualties themselves. They did so despite the fact that one of the sections retired early, to the consternation of Gaynor. The IRA took no casualties. The ambush shows the benefits of indirectly influencing the movements of the enemy, a well-prepared attacking position and the utilisation of scouts. The Crown Forces on the other hand were, even at this late stage in the conflict, showcasing their frequent inability to handle insurgency warfare the way that it needed to be handled.
On the night of the 9th July, after the truce terms had become public knowledge but still roughly 36 hours before they were to come into effect, a group of four British soldiers, two from the South Staffordshire regiment and two from the Royal Engineers, were granted leave from Cork City’s Victoria Barracks. They were undoubtedly in a more relaxed mood than usual owing to the truce announcement. After entering a shop that night on Bandon Street, apparently to buy sweets, the four were surprised by a unit of armed IRA patrolling the area. Despite the apparent criticism they received from members of the public who witnessed what was happening, the Volunteers took the soldiers away to the Lough district, where they were executed. The event caused a great deal of disquiet, even among members of the same IRA unit, who failed to see the sense in the killings so close to the truce. At the same time, the narrative that young Volunteers acted purely on their own initiative to get one last stab at a hated enemy has been challenged, with the suggestion made that they would never have done such a thing without some approval from higher-ups, and that the killings were a direct reprisal for a very recent “shot while trying to escape” death suffered by a Volunteer at the hands of British military.
These are just seven examples of the sort of things that marked the intensity of the War of Independence in the last months of the conflict. The diversity of them is notable, and the death toll: in just these seven instances, 33 men were killed, and plenty wounded besides. The last is indicative of the tragedy that was the final hours of the war when so many were killed who might still have been alive of the truce had come in earlier, yet we should also not forget that people on both sides continued to die after the truce, especially in Ulster. The overall impression is one of constant, tit-for-tat warfare, that showed no sign of abating before the political side of things took over.
As is my custom at the conclusion of conflicts, I will offer a summary post next week, where I hope to offer some final thoughts on the Irish War of Independence. Until then.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.