Late Spring 1922 was a chaotic time in Ireland. Throughout the country different military forces were taking over and enforcing their own authority, or engaging in standoffs with the other side. Armed raiders were becoming more and more common. Sectarian violence was engulfing the North. Civil War seemed inevitable, despite the efforts to stop it. In the middle of all this, open warfare between elements of the new National Army and the anti-Treaty forces erupted in Kilkenny and lasted for two days, and yet astonishingly did not lead to the beginning of nationwide hostilities. It is one of the most surprisingly little known events from the Irish revolutionary period, and deserves some consideration all of its own.
Author note: I’m going to use the local custom and refer to the urban area concerned as a “City”, even though it really should be just a “Town” by comparable standards in Ireland. Let’s hear it for historical legacies!
Kilkenny City’s value was obvious for a lot of reasons. It had plenty of barracks and strongpoints, and had a long-standing status as a significant military supply depot. It was one of the major urban centres of the south-east, and was a point on roads leading in one direction to Dublin and in the other to Munster. It lay not too far from the borders of what would soon come to be known as the “Munster Republic”, and thus could be considered one of the most significant places between the most fervently anti-Treaty areas and the provisional government’s capital in Dublin. For all these reasons and more, Kilkenny City was an attractive prize for both sides, as they jostled for position and influence in the pre-war days, weeks and months.
Like most of Ireland’s IRA units, militant republicans in Kilkenny were divided. At a convention of the Kilkenny Brigade held in mid-March to discuss the Treaty no vote was taken, so high were tensions, but it was clear a split could not be avoided. As the situation fragmented nationally, so it did in Kilkenny. Most officers there would side with the provisional government, but those that went the other way were among the most battle-tested, like Ned Aylward, who having led Kilkenny’s flying column during the War of Independence now assumed command of the anti-Treaty Kilkenny IRA overall.
On the 25th April, Aylward’s men, a few dozen of them, took the initiative, and seized a number of buildings in Kilkenny City. They included the city jail and its RIC barracks buildings. The takeovers were relatively easy, with the buildings previous occupants usually amounting to only a few men or civilians. Within days, anti-Treaty IRA personnel from neighboring areas were flocking to Kilkenny to join their comrades, in a situation that eerily mirrored that which had occurred in Limerick earlier in the year. There was no shooting yet, despite the presence of National Army forces in the city, who had taken over the military barracks sometime before: an uneasy truce was agreed that would last a few days. The provisional government now took the opportunity to seize a few additional buildings in and around the city, before the anti-Treaty side could take them first. But, conscious of any attempted enlargement of the anti-Treaty heartland in Munster into Leinster more substantially and Kilkenny’s importance as a transport hub and supply depot, the provisional government, this time, were not going to be satisfied with a stand-off.
The government forces in the area were under the command of Colonel-Commandant John T. Prout. Born in Tipperary 42 years before, he had emigrated to New York in 1904, and there had joined the 69th Regiment of the US Army after America joined World War One. He had fought on the western front where he had reached the rank of Captain, but after the Armistice in 1918 he had returned to Ireland. There, he quickly became involved in nationalist movements, joined the IRA and served as an intelligence officer in Tipperary. Now, he had been appointed to overall command of pro-Treaty forces in the south-east, and showcased in those few days why it would be a wise decision.
The trouble really started on the 28th when anti-Treaty men operating out of the jail confiscated a consignment of whiskey from a warehouse in the, as it turned out mistaken, belief that it was from Belfast, a city they were still intent on boycotting. Prout took a group of men, marched to the jail and demanded both the whiskey’s return and the evacuation of the building. He wasn’t kidding around either, with the Army men he had taking up positions all about the jail, including in the tower of nearby St Canice’s Cathedral, where a machine gun post was set-up. The anti-Treaty personnel in the jail acquiesced to Prout’s demands at the last moment, and moved to the RIC barracks, allowing the provisional government forces to takeover the jail.
The climbdown at the jail must have provided some encouragement to Prout, but was to the great dissatisfaction of Aylward, who did not want any return of building to the other side. On the 2nd May, he ordered a dramatic escalation of affairs in the city, with anti-Treaty Volunteers seizing additional buildings, such as the Workhouse Hospital, the Imperial Hotel, St Canice’s and, most notably perhaps, Kilkenny Castle, the building that had been at the heart of so much Irish military history already. It was a spectacular enough moment, carried out in the early morning, and soon the IRA were busy fortifying their positions and erecting barricades on the streets. But Aylward was sowing the seeds for his own defeat in the process: he only had around 100 men to hand, so each of the positions taken was held by only a dozen or so at the most, and they were spread out. Rather like the Four Courts garrison, Aylward was making the mistake of choosing a sedentary strategy of taking positions and holding them, perhaps in the mistaken belief that the provisional government would not try and eject him (and perhaps trying to demonstrate the legitimacy of the anti-Treaty IRA as a military force at the same time).
Prout, when he was woken with the news, contacted Beggars Bush. There was agreement that the IRA’s actions could not be allowed to stand without a response, and reinforcements were soon on their way from Dublin. Unlike other commanders in the National Army, Prout was not of a mind to engage in negotiations over a truce, or to beg off from confronting the anti-Treatyites directly. Within hours of that mornings takeovers, the pro-Treaty forces were moving out from their own barracks and seeking to engage the enemy.
The pattern for what was to come was set fairly quickly. Prout took men to the nearest anti-Treaty position, not from from the military barracks, surrounded it with armed men, and demanded the occupants surrender. They refused, opening fire. Prout fired back, but with the advantage of the aforementioned machine gun crews. After twenty or so minutes, the anti-Treaty Volunteers had enough, and went into captivity. No casualties were taken by either side, but it appears that the anti-Treaty defenders, unused to fighting in an urban environment or being fired upon by machine guns, were unwilling to maintain their resistance for too long.
Prout moved on rapidly, and began taking out the other anti-Treaty strongholds, sometimes engaging with his own weapon alongside his men: often seen near him throughout was his twelve-year-old son, Jack, who allegedly carried a pair of Webleys. St Canice’s was the next major position to fall, the snipers in its tower overwhelmed by suppressing fire from all directions, and the men in the larger cathedral rapidly overwhelmed. Gun fire could by now be hard across the city as sharpshooters from both sides took their shots, and provisional government men converged on more anti-Treaty positions. Civilians hunkered down as best they could.
The RIC barracks on John Street was the next significant encounter, perhaps the first time that the provisional government used an armoured car, supplied by the British, in combat. The car, armed with a machine gun, raked the front of the barracks with fire while riflemen plugged up the rear. Owing to its advanced defences, built to aid the RIC during the War of Independence, the barracks was able to protect its anti-Treaty garrison for a longer time, but eventually the twelve men inside threw up their hands. It was a bizarre sight, given it was only 10 or so months since the end of the previous war: IRA Volunteers defending an RIC barracks from attack by Irish Army forces armed by Britain.
As night fell some of the anti-Treaty garrisons, realising that it was hopeless to maintain their positions in the face of being defeated in detail, merged into the Parliament Street RIC barracks. The last major engagement of the day was an attack on the Imperial Hotel. It was a mark of how strange the situation was that, when the IRA took over the building that morning, guests staying there were allowed to stay along enough for breakfast before being turned out. Prout, operating from the nearby Bank Of Ireland, personally lead the party that burst into the building, after the provisional government forces has utilised Thompson submachine guns to pin down the garrison inside. Despite supporting fire from the nearby Castle, the IRA inside the hotel were forced to surrender, with a few able to flee out the rear of the building. As night fell the firing died down.
The following morning the gunfire re-started, as the focus came on forcing the anti-Treaty soldiers inside the castle to surrender. The castle was a harder but to crack than the other positions, owing to its size and walls, which were thick enough that bullets could not easily penetrate them. A party of Army soldiers that beat an entrance through the main wooden door were forced back by Lewis gun fire; a second such attack in the afternoon, this one with the aid of an armoured car, was again beaten back. As night began to fall, the provisional government made one last rush with the armoured car, and this time succeeded. Having penetrated the castle’s outer defences, they were able to make the anti-Treaty Volunteers realise the hopelessness of their position, and after another 15 minutes of fire exchanged, the Executives threw down their arms, having nearly run out of ammunition anyway. The occupants of the castle at the time, the Lord Ossory and his wife, had been permitted to stay by the IRA, and expressed admiration of their conduct in the aftermath, though less after the extent of the damage to the castle became clear.
The Parliament Street garrison surrendered shortly after that of the castle, which brought an end to the fighting. 108 anti-Treaty men went into captivity in the military barracks. Incredibly, there had been no fatalities in the two days of fighting: the provisional government listed 12 men injured, the IRA four, and two civilians also received wounds. This remarkable lack of bloodshed is probably a result of the inexperience of either side with this manner of fighting or the environment, along with the limited nature of each engagement. That and, even now, there was still an effort to hold back from all-out warfare.
There was still some fighting to be done in the following days, as groups of anti-Treaty soldiers were dispersed or arrested in nearby Gowran and Callan. On the 4th May Kilkenny was included in the larger national truce that was agreed in Dublin: the prisoners held in the military barracks were released and permitted to occupy a single RIC barracks, while Prout and Aylward operated a loose arrangement of having to co-sign any proclamations made affecting the city. Peace returned, and stuck, for the time being.
This “Battle” of Kilkenny is a good indicator of some of the patterns that were going to emerge when the Civil War got started properly. Leaving aside the almost curious lack of fatalities, the fighting demonstrated pro-Treaty strengths in numbers, guns, ammunition availability and ability to move quicker than their opponents from point to point, all things that were vital in urban fighting. It also demonstrated, in this case at least, their effective leadership at an operational level, with Prout a pro-active gung-ho commander. His willingness to make himself part of the fray had its pros and cons, but marked him out as the exact kind of leader the provisional government would need come the summer.
On the other side, the IRA showcased their weaknesses when it came to this sort of static territory focused warfare: spread too thin across multiple positions, under-resourced in terms of guns, ammunition and transport, and unable to hold out for too long in the face of a sustained attack. There were mistakes in anti-Treaty tactics and strategy in Kilkenny that the larger movement would make again, and the pro-Treaty side would take advantage. Much was made of how 15 or so men held off many times that number for a significant period in Kilkenny Castle, but it must be remembered that Prout was probably of a mind to reduce the risk of casualties, and the provisional government had not had the inclination or time to employ their last trump card: artillery. Later, in another city with a famous castle, they would have no such limitations.
The situation in Ireland was thus extremely fraught, though the efforts to maintain any kind of peaceful equilibrium were ongoing. But while this quasi-war and quasi-peace efforts were being carried out, the eyes of many men, pro and anti-Treaty, were turning back to Northern Ireland. It was there that Michael Collins planned to launch his great unifying stroke at the Craig government, but the effort was not going to go entirely to plan.
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