We have seen how the pro-Treaty side eliminated the centre of the anti-Treaty movement in the Four Courts, before they went on to secure the rest of Dublin. It was a decisive demonstration that the National Army was capable of defeating their opponents in an urban environment, albeit with the anti-Treaty side committing many self-made errors. But before the Battle of Dublin was even over, the larger conflict was starting in the rest of the country, and in so doing the provisional government was faced with their next test, of combating the IRA in a more open space.
That space was a rough triangle of land on the border of Dublin and Wicklow, with key points being in the townland of Brittas to the west, the town of Ballymore-Eustace to the east and, most importantly, the town of Blessington in the middle. Blessington, in some way a gateway to the Dublin/Wicklow Mountains, was a town that became an impromptu rallying point for a wide variety of anti-Treaty units, that began assembling after the opening of hostilities in Dublin. They were answering the call of Oscar Traynor for support, with the Dublin commander initially hopeful that a substantial force of IRA Volunteers would assemble, and then be in a position to relieve their comrades fighting in the city or, later, to retake the city after the IRA had been expelled from it.
But Traynor was to be disappointed. By the time he reached Blessington itself the IRA contingent that had taken over the town consisted of a column of around 100 men from South Tipperary, a few more from the South Dublin Brigade, a smattering from Kildare and men involved in the Dublin fighting who had been able to escape, such as Ernie O’Malley. Talk of “Blessington legions” ready to march on Dublin were a fantasy: by the time Traynor reached the Wicklow town, some of the Tipperary men were already making noise about returning home, being very out of their element, while there remained a paucity of arms and ammunition.
Here, the lack of firm command or higher direction again proved decisive in ruining anti-Treaty hopes of resistance, let alone any kind of offensive operation. Roads leading to the area had not been cut, there were inadequate provisions for the men assembled and it was unclear exactly who was in command. Despite this, and Traynor’s efforts to get the men to disperse, there was to be a degree of fighting in the Triangle, as the provisional government, soon after the securing of Dublin, moved to eliminate this threat to the south-west of the city.
The anti-Treaty side held a strung out set of positions between the three major areas, that extended all the way to the border of County Meath, with the main road leading from Dublin to the Curragh cut in the middle. But it was obvious how weak such a line was, and Ernie O’Malley was not of a mind to make a major fight in the area. He instead a proposed a limited engagement whose design would be to buy time for greater mobilisation elsewhere in the country, stalling any major advance from Dublin. In the towns and villages held by the IRA, roads were blocked or mined, sandbags piled and whatever other preparations could be made were made.
They were needed, as the National Army was wasting little time. By the 2nd of July three distinct columns of men, with a total number of around 500, were operating in the general area. One, under British Army veteran Michael Bishop, had advanced south into the deeper part of Wicklow to secure the county, and now turned back north. A second, coming from the Curragh under a man named McNulty, was advancing down towards the Kildare/Wicklow border. And a third, under a Commandant Joseph Heaslip and consisting mostly of men from the Dublin Guard, was advancing from the north. It was, in many ways, a remarkable state of affairs, with the regular military mobile and the guerrilla IRA forces stuck in place, defending a line they had little real expectation of holding.
After a series of sporadic minor engagements, the first serious clash took place on the morning of the 4th July, as Bishop’s men attacked into Ballymore-Eustace. In unseasonably bad weather they were able, with the support of armoured cars, to drive the IRA from their positions, but were unable to complete an encirclement and prevent the enemies withdrawal to Brittas. Bishop wasted little time and then commenced an advance on Blessington itself, but a cautious one: the pro-Treaty side were still outside of the town two days later, with its commanders wanting to wait for artillery support before they committed to an attack on this larger obstacle.
On the other side of Blessington, Heaslip’s men advanced into Brittas, seizing the small town after a two hour firefight. A series of small engagement in villages and townlands outside of Blessington – Ballytor, Crooksling, Kilbride – took place between the advancing pro-Treaty forces and the consistently retreating anti-Treaty adversary. The pattern was largely the same in each instance: brief resistance, before the IRA turned back to Blessington, overwhelmed by National Army numbers and armoured cars, and hamstrung by their own lack of ammunition and firm leaderships.
By the 7th the IRA presence in the IRA had become firmly concentrated in Blessington, and here a substantial fight could well have been the result, if the anti-Treaty camp wanted it. Initially, O’Malley seems to have preferred this option, and set his men to the task of fortifying the town as much as it could be fortified. But the situation was hopeless: it just needed time for the anti-Treaty leaders to realise it. The capture of two high-ranking anti-Treaty officers, Andrew McDonnell and Gerry Boland, who were caught while trying to inspect an anti-Treaty position they didn’t realise had been taken by the National Army, seems to have been the last straw for O’Malley, when he found out. Realising that there was no point in fighting a losing battle, he designated a rearguard of around 15 men to remain in the town and made plans for the rest to withdraw.
In this they were lucky, in terms of enemy movements and the weather. McNulty’s column was the closest to the town but owing to a paucity of men they were too slow to close the ring, and a fine mist covered the town on the morning of the 8th. Thanks to both of these events the majority of the force under O’Malley’s command was able to slip out of Blessington and then disperse, with the various components heading back to their home areas of Tipperary and Kildare.
The pro-Treaty soldiers pressed the attack later in the day. A firefight of a few hours was the result, as the IRA rearguard expended what ammo they had in an effort to make their numbers seem bigger than they were and delay the inevitable, allowing the other men the opportunity to break out and put room between themselves and the National Army. Before noon they were obligated to lay down their arms, with the pro-Treaty side not forced, in the end, to deploy the artillery that had been brought to Blessington for the much greater fight that had been expected. The surrender brought an end to this particular campaign, which ended in a significant pro-Treaty victory.
The Blessington fighting was another disaster for the anti-Treaty side. They had lost several men killed and many more captured, with the pro-Treaty soldiers taking comparatively few casualties. Only the withdrawn from Blessington ahead of the final fight prevented the battle from being a total pro-Treaty victory. Many of the same flaws and weaknesses that were evident in the Battle of Dublin were also evident in Blessington: ineffective leadership; lack of arms; needlessly sedentary tactics of holding ground; and a general lack of coordinated strategy. Just why the IRA made a fight out of the Blessington area at all seems odd, given the larger situation: the defence of those towns gained the anti-Treaty side very little, other than delaying a larger pro-Treaty advance for a few days. In the end, those few days would amount to not all that much. On the other side, the National Army showed that it could engage and defeat the Executive IRA outside of an urban setting, and for the most part do it without artillery support.
Blessington is essentially an epilogue to the fighting in Dublin, hence why I wanted to consider it here. It happened at the same time as many other significant developments in the rest of the country, in places as far apart as Enniscorthy and Donegal. Everywhere, the two sides of the Civil War were drawing battle lines and preparing for a larger, more sustained combat. In the next entry we will take the chance to evaluate how things stood nationally for both sides, in terms of numbers, military resources, leadership and positions, before discussing larger strategies for how the war was to be prosecuted and the political dimension as well.
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