Ireland’s Wars: The Handover And Convention Crises

The board was already set for the Civil War after the passing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, with the entire movement split to varying degrees. Now, in the Spring of 1922, both sides jostled for favourable position on that board, ahead of what was increasingly inevitable hostilities. The anti-Treaty side held an advantage, though temporary, in numbers of IRA personnel they could potentially call upon, but many of their leaders recognised that it was important to have actual physical territory those men could operate from and defend, be it a province, a county, a city or a barracks. With the British military commencing its withdrawal from Ireland, the handover of what they had previously held was the next major step on the road to the Civil War.

One of the very first acts, which initially had a much bigger figurative than practical value, was the the first significant handover in the form of Dublin Castle. For the better part of 700 years, all the way back to the Lordship of Ireland, the castle in its various guises had served as one of, if not the, main administrative centre of the Anglo-Norman, then English, then British presence in Ireland. Along with its housing of governmental, constabulary and military branches of British control, it had an enormous symbolic value: the entire British administration in Ireland has often been described simply as “Dublin Castle”. On the 16th January, the British handed control of the building over to a provisional government delegation headed by Michael Collins. Lord FitzAlan, the last Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, gave Collins control of the building and its various functions after a short ceremony, with a cheering crowd assembled outside. It’s this event that is the inspiration behind the famous, but likely apocryphal, story that upon being told he was seven minutes late for the ceremony, Collins replied “You’ve kept us waiting 700 years, you can have your seven minutes” (another version of the story has Collins being greeted with a polite “We’re pleased to see you” to which he replied “Ye are like hell boy!”). The British were keen to put a conciliatory tone to things, with much talk of congratulations to the new government, but when Collins issued a statement later he pointedly – presumably thinking of military elements – referred to the event as “the surrender of Dublin Castle”.

Taking over Dublin Castle was one thing, but taking over the country was another. That required an army that would be in a position to take over the various military and RIC barracks due to be vacated. Things started small, with the establishment of what became known as the “Dublin Guard”, essentially a collection of men from the Squad and certain reliable Volunteers from the larger Dublin Brigade, who took up residence in the key British barracks at Beggers Bush (the name of which became synonymous with the new army command, in place of “GHQ”). While they maintained the name of the IRA for a time, few were under any illusions that these men were the nucleus of a new armed force, a perception aided by the fact that they were uniformed and armed by the British.

Across the country, the new National Army took shape. It was the same story in most places: a core of established IRA officers and men, surrounded by a larger amount of new recruits, nearly always from outside Munster and the west. Many difficulties were encountered: there was a paucity of officers in many places, and many of those that were there were stuck firmly in guerrilla thinking; making sure that men were regularly paid was a constant problem, that meant that mutiny was never really all that far off; basic supplies and material, like uniforms, were often in short supply; a working intelligence system was non-existent outside of the capital; and the initially territorial nature of the new army meant that the “GOC” – General Officer Commanding – of a certain area had a great deal of leeway in the appointing of officers and the ordering of units, to the point that some described them as chieftains in their own right. Anti-Treaty infiltration of the army was also a recurring problem, as was getting specialist personnel in place in order to use certain weapons – like artillery – or certain vehicles, like the Crossley Tenders or Peerless Armoured Cars the British were willing to give to the provisional government. Ill-discipline, especially from War of Independence veterans who found that adapting to the form of a regular army was not to their taste, was frequent. At the same time a new police force, the Civic Guard, was formed to be the provisional government’s replacement for the RIC and DMP: this too was a direct challenge to the anti-Treaty IRA, who wanted the Republican police to remain as the main constabulary.

There was little time to build things up carefully and deal with all of these problems, because the situation across the country would not wait. Richard Mulcahy’s initial compromise plan was that local IRA units, regardless of their affiliation, would take over their nearest barracks; this might seem like a crazy idea in retrospect, but it was designed to prevent conflict. It couldn’t hold, especially when it became apparent that large swaths of the country were already falling under anti-Treaty control: throughout February and March, efforts were made to get pro-Treaty units into as many barracks as possible, with a very loose plan that the officers then in charge of such positions would hold the surrounding area. That this was the same sedentary strategy that had doomed the RIC in 1919 seems to have not been adequately considered.

Different outcomes resulted. In some places, pro-Treaty forces took barracks and held them, anti-Treaty in others. Anti-Treaty fighters under Ernie O’Malley would raid Clonmel barracks in February, capturing a substantial amount of arms and ammunition, but weren’t in a position to hold it. In Athlone the British would hand over the military barracks to anti-Treaty forces, who would later vacate when a stronger pro-Treaty force arrived: later, a tense stand-off resulted with Griffith went there to make a speech, but fighting was avoided. Anti-Treaty IRA took the majority of barracks in Munster and the west, while pro-Treaty garrisons dominated the midlands and the east. Things were more divided in those parts of the north that the IRA had a right to take barracks in, while chaos continued to reign in larger parts of Northern Ireland (a topic I will cover soon enough). Of course British garrisons remained in place in plenty of barracks, with their government wanting them to delay departure in the event that they were needed to fight back against anti-Treaty elements.

It is Limerick City that was the main site of the handover crisis. The British began to withdraw from the several barracks buildings in the city in late February, at a time when the local IRA was riven with discord. The Mid-Limerick Brigade had openly declared that their allegiance remained with the Republic, and no longer with GHQ, offering the possibility of the city falling entirely into anti-Treaty hands. Limerick’s importance, in its own right and as a linking point between the south and the west, meant that the provisional government was loath to allow this, and so Michael Brennan, commander of the pro-Treaty 1st Western Division, was ordered into the city, backed up by men of the Squad. Ernie O’Malley and his 2nd Southern Division refused to allow this to happen uncontested, and he was soon moving his own forces into the city.

A strange and often tense stand-off was the result. The pro-Treaty troops held most of the barracks’, but their anti-Treaty counterparts were able to seize plenty of other positions, and benefited from a clear numerical superiority. However, the animosity between the two sides had not yet grown to the point where fighting was an inevitability: Brennan recorded having friendly lunches with members of the opposition, and O’Malley would state that pro-Treaty soldiers would happily let him know they had no intention of firing on his men. O’Malley was left frustrated when anti-Treaty commands elsewhere in the country refused to give him support for an assault on pro-Treaty held barracks, with Rory O’Connor not allowing any of his engineers leave to travel to the south-west. Brennan too was in an undercut position, what men he had not adequately armed and not entirely trustworthy anyway: he asked for more men from Sean MacEoin’s Midlands Division, along with armoured cars and tanks.

Griffith, and to a certain extent Collins, saw the Limerick crisis as a serious test of their governments capacity to govern, and wanted the takeover of the evacuated barracks completed. Mulcahy however, saw things differently, recognising, probably correctly, that the new National Army was in no position, mentally or physically, to open hostilities in Limerick. Instead, he decided to play for time, and to open negotiations with the other side. He was aided by the fact that both Eamon de Valera and Liam Lynch were of a similar mindset.

With the involvement of Limerick’s mayor, an agreement was hammered out in Dublin, that saw the Limerick Corporation hold the police barracks and those barracks still held by the British Army at that point, the anti-Treaty IRA hold two of the other military barracks with a small force answering to Lynch, the National Army to do the same for one other police barracks (they under the command of a man named W.R.E. Murphy, a British Army veteran of the western front who had been head-hunted by Collins to join the new pro-Treaty military) and the departure of all “outside” troops. With this, fighting was avoided at the price of Limerick essentially falling into de facto anti-Treaty control. Many pro-Treaty personalities, military and civic, were disgusted at what they saw as a humiliating climbdown, but it is difficult to see what else could have been done: if fighting had broken out, it seems likely that the anti-Treaty side would have prevailed in Limerick at the time. Some anti-Treaty leaders, most notably Tom Barry, were similarly dissatisfied, believing that a fight they should be having then and there was being needlessly deferred. The situation in Limerick would be very different in the summer.

All of this was preamble for the crisis that occurred in late March, when the formerly agreed Army Convention took place in Dublin. In truth it was never likely that Mulcahy would hold to his agreement for the Convention to take place, and that agreement was repudiated by Griffith ten days before it was due to happen. The provisional government knew that nothing good for its position would happen at such a Convention, which was guaranteed to be dominated by anti-Treaty voices, and end with the IRA repudiating the authority of GHQ and the Dail. But of course a huge portion of the IRA was already operating under its own authority and so, despite efforts by Mulcahy and Lynch to craft a larger compromise that would prevent a split, the Convention went ahead on the 26th.

It was preceded by an infamous press conference arranged by Rory O’Connor, wherein he essentially claimed leadership of the militant anti-Treaty faction, dismissed both the Treaty and Document No. 2, stated that the IRA would prevent the holding of any elections and, in a moment startling for its lack of foresight, answered the question as to whether he was planning to establish a military dictatorship with the words “You can take it that way if you like”. The pro-Treaty side would make much hay out of O’Connor’s anti-democratic comments in the weeks and months to come, and they have become the go-to example of how the anti-Treaty sides’ political aspect gravitated heavily to force-based authoritarianism, a not unjust description. That perception was not helped by anti-Treaty attacks on newspapers that supported the provisional government, or the raids of banks and post offices for funds by anti-Treaty units. Before too long, the provisional government would be able to frame the conflict as one of law and order against militant chaos.

Whatever about its proscription, the Convention went ahead a few days later, with Mulcahy uninterested in starting a war by trying to forcefully stop it from happening. As expected, it was dominated by IRA units from the south and west. It agreed that the IRA should re-form its previous Executive to act as its leadership, and no longer recognise the authority of GHQ. That was about as far as it went though. There were divisions over exactly who should sit on the Executive, and on what exactly they should do then: there remained little firm appetite for a full-on military confrontation. Those officers recorded as attending were suspended by GHQ, and then funding was cut off for their units, increasing the amount of raiding and levy-taking going on in the countryside. After another meeting early in April, a 16-man Executive was agreed upon, with Liam Lynch at its head as the new anti-Treaty IRA Chief of Staff; among its other members were Liam Deasy, Liam Mellows, O’Connor, O’Malley and Tom Maguire. However, the Executive membership would fluctuate significantly over the next year-and-a-half and the most important point is that Lynch was now stepping into a recognisable leadership position.

We should also touch on the actions of one Eamon de Valera during this timeframe, though his overall ability to impact on the unfolding events was lessening all the time. While men like Lynch, O’Connor and O’Malley had respect for de Valera, they had no interest in allowing him any control over the movement: for them, the time of politicians leading the IRA was coming to an end, and de Valera spent much of the time between the passing of the Treaty and the proper beginning of the Civil War trying to win back the influence he had previously been able to wield.

This perhaps explains the remarkably militant tone of speeches he made during a tour of the country in March and April, wherein he repeatedly stated that the Treaty and the provisional government would, if necessary, need to be violently opposed. The most infamous of these speeches, given in Kerry, saw de Valera explain that the IRA “would have to wade through Irish blood” to stop the Treaty. The speeches would become another propaganda coup for the pro-Treaty side, able to paint de Valera as a crazed hypocrite who had abandoned his preference for constitutional opposition to the Treaty. The man himself, greatly embarrassed, would later protest that phrases in his speeches were taken out of context, but it is hard to see how. More likely he was attempting to curry favour with the militants now firmly in charge of the anti-Treaty movement: if so, it was a failing attempt.

It behooves me at this point to give a brief note on terminology. For much of the ensuing century it became common to use the term “Irregulars” when referring to the anti-Treaty side of the Civil War. The term is a pro-Treaty invention, something that the provisional government ordered media to use in an attempt to de-legitimise their opponents as the opposite of their own “Regular” forces. Despite the fact that its use became so common that any derogatory meaning has become very diluted, it is not one that I myself will use. Somewhat similarly, I will refrain from dubbing the pro-Treaty side that of the “Free State” or Free Staters”, at least until such time as we reach the point where the Irish Free State actually came into being, in late 1922. In their place, the more appropriate terms are simply “anti-Treaty”, “Republican” or “Executives” for those who opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and “pro-Treaty”, “National Army” or “provisional government” (sometimes capitalised, though I choose not to) for those who supported it. Similarly, from this point onwards I will more and more, though not exclusively, use the term “IRA” in reference purely to the anti-Treaty side, which I think is just a reflection of what the state of affairs had become.

Things in Ireland were becoming chaotic with all that I have described above. Banks and post offices were becoming the subject of constant armed raids, the basis of a counter-state under military rule was forming in Munster, members of the RIC were still being attacked and killed at regular intervals and the sense that the country was being divided into two armed camps was very apparent. In the next entry, we must focus in once again on the worst of the chaos, which was undoubtedly in the north still, now with the added complication of Collins’ attention, and intervention.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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6 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Handover And Convention Crises

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Civil War Deferred In Kilkenny | Never Felt Better

  5. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Conventional Civil War In The Midlands | Never Felt Better

  6. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Battle Of Limerick | Never Felt Better

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