The moment that the National Army had opened fire on the Four Courts was a starting pistol for the rest of the country, even if it took a while for the news of what was happening in the capital to reach every corner. There had been months of jockeying for position in the run-up to the start of the Civil War, and now that it had come the seizure of buildings, barracks’ and town centres escalated dramatically. Even as the National Army was securing Dublin and then the surrounding area, opposing forces were attempting to determine position of territory to the north of the city, in the strategically vital town of Drogheda, a conflict that would soon escalate to County Louth’s other major urban centre of Dundalk.
Louth may not, at first glance, have seemed like a strategically vital bit of land, being the smallest county in Ireland, having no major (recent) revolutionary heritage, and largely dwarfed by Dublin to the south in terms of major urban areas. But it was exactly because of its proximity to Dublin that it was important. The pro-Treaty side had already made a substantial effort to clear out the territory south of the city, so that the capital’s security could be increased. Making sure that Drogheda and Dundalk were similarly secured was vital for the same reason, so that they could not be used by the IRA as potential jumping off points for another assault on the capital. Moreover, Louth provided a bridge between Dublin and the North, where many pro-Treaty IRA units were yet based. And, if for no other reason, Anti-Treaty IRA units were already in place there and had to be dealt with.
Anti-Treaty forces of the 1st Eastern Division had, in the run-up to the Civil War, occupied several crucial positions in Drogheda, with IRA units in Louth split down the middle. The most important position was probably the Millmount Fort and barracks near the centre of town, a complex whose origins dated back to the 12th century. The fort itself was located on a mound of earth and contained towers built in previous centuries. It provided an excellent field of view over the entire town, but owing to its age was vulnerable to artillery attack. The IRA also held the towns railway station and several other positions. The rest of Drogheda was in the control of the National Army, who had been placing more and more troops there throughout May and June.
When the fighting began in Dublin these forces moved quicker than their opponents. They rapidly surrounded Millmount and demanded its surrender. Fire was exchanged and men on both sides killed, as civilians in the town began to flee in expectation of greater fighting. Things inevitably escalated: scattered firefights broke out throughout the town, with the pro and anti-Treaty forces engaged outside Millmount, and with National Army barracks also attacked. Attempting to take the initiative, the IRA attempted to cut roads and bridges leading into Drogheda to isolate it from the pro-Treaty side, mindful of reinforcements coming from Dublin.
They were to be unsuccessful, able only to delay and not prevent the oncoming assault. Pro-Treaty reinforcements were able to arrive from Dublin in the following days and, while they were not in especially large numbers, they brought with them the vital force of artillery, with big guns that had been used in the shelling of the Four Courts. Republican units were swamped by the new infantry entering the town, and the Millmount complex was soon being hit by artillery rounds. The republican garrison inside lasted only a few hours before they were obliged to withdraw or surrender, with the Mayor of the town one of the casualties in the last part of the fighting, hit in the neck by a stray bullet as he attempted to organise a truce. The fall of Millmount essentially left Drogheda in the hands of the provisional government, and shortly after the IRA garrison in the railway station gave up the fight also. Throughout the engagement the anti-Treaty side had been hamstrung by a lack of arms, with an O/C of the larger division later to claim there had been barely 70 rifles for the entire force after the conventional Civil War was over.
After Drogheda, the events of the conventional Civil War in Louth revolved around the person of Frank Aiken. Upon the outbreak of fighting in Dublin he attempted to walk a line between the pro and anti-Treaty sides, along with his 4th Northern Division, preaching restraint and contacting leading figures on either side to try and organise a ceasefire or truce. Aiken’s proposals to make this a reality were fundamentally impossible for the provisional government to agree to however, as they included the dropping of the Oath of Allegiance from the Free State constitution. Operating from a base in Dundalk’s military barracks, where he had been supplied at least partially by the provisional government in advance of the Northern Offensive, Aiken travelled to Dublin and then Limerick to confer with Richard Mulcahy and Liam Lynch on his proposals, but got nowhere. His refusal to accept a position in the National Army presumably put him on a path to confrontation with the pro-Treaty side, and only a week and a half after Drogheda’s capture that side struck against Aiken.
The instigator was Dan Hogan, encountered already in this series for his part in the Clones shootout, now the O/C of the 5th Northern Division. He and Aiken had been divisional neighbours throughout the truce period, but while Aiken skewed more and more to an anti-Treaty position Hogan, who had served underneath Eoin O’Duffy during the War of Independence, was an out-and-out pro-Treatyite, and the majority of his men went the same way. On the 16th July, he took an opportunity to seize Dundalk and its military barracks, apparently taking advantage of some discontent among Aiken’s ranks. Aiken would later claim that a disgruntled officer who had been demoted for “inefficiency”, along with some other men who had been punished for drunkenness, had opened the gates of the barracks for Hogan and his men that night, and they completed the takeover of the building, and the capture of its occupants, without a shot being fired. Aiken remembers being woken in the early hours of the morning with National Army men pointing Thompsons at his head, and lamented the all-too-easy capture of 300 IRA Volunteers.
It’s telling of the fluid situation that a number of the captured republicans avoided detention by agreeing to join the National Army, but the rest found themselves imprisoned within the Dundalk barracks. It was to be a short enough sojourn: barely a week and a half later some men of Aiken’s unit who had avoided capture were able to blow a hole in the barracks wall, allowing a hundred of those inside to escape, including Aiken. 50 of them would end up re-arrested but Aiken avoided this. A National Army soldier was killed in a subsequent engagement in the town, as the IRA attempted to delay a pursuit. The affair was typical of a recurring problem for the provisional government during the Civil War, in that they had a terrible record effectively detaining political prisoners.
Aiken had been suitably radicalised by his experience in provisional government detention, and wanted to free the rest of his men that were still imprisoned in Dundalk. While the National Army fought, and largely won, the conventional war in the rest of the country, he drew his plans to launch an audacious strike much closer to home. The target was again Dundalk, with Aiken organising what would be a rapid strike into the town under the cover of darkness, to take the military barracks first and then the rest of the town, in what would amount to a flying raid and a brief occupation afterwards. He counted on the inexperience of the soldiers garrisoned in the town, and on catching them by surprise. With the support of Ernie O’Malley, by then in command of IRA forces in the east, he assembled men and explosives, and was in a position to strike at Dundalk by the middle of August.
In the early hours of the 14th of that month, he took a hundred or so men in boats across the Castletown River and into the town. With a “storming” party consisting of a unit of men armed with submachine guns, Aiken crept up to the walls of the Dundalk barracks, placed his explosives, and detonated them. The IRA had complete surprise, and were able to storm the resulting breaches. An extended firefight, perhaps lasting as long as two hours, occured in the interior of the barracks, as the pro-Treaty side attempted to hold out or force the IRA back. Even as that was happening, anti-Treaty fighters were placing further explosives and starting fires, with the intention of reducing the barracks to rubble, an aim they achieved partial success with. Before noon, the National Army soldiers in the barracks, and then by extension in the rest of the town, had surrendered.
The entire affair was a confusing one in many respects. Exploding or collapsing masonry killed or wounded several men on ether side and at least one serious incident of friendly fire cost the life of an anti-Treaty officer, when a mine was detonated under an armoured car that he had captured. Seven total, five pro and 2 anti-Treaty, were killed, and dozens more wounded, along with some civilian casualties. Hundreds of anti-Treaty prisoners were freed, and rapidly replaced by the captured pro-Treaty soldiers. A huge amount of guns and ammunition were captured, probably the really key success for Aiken and his men as the arms allowed them the ability to continue the fight for some time.
It was never Aiken’s intention to hold the town and, after giving speech in its centre where he again called for a truce -a speech that was allegedly booed by the largely pro-Treaty residents – he and his men dispersed. Dan Hogan led a column of men and cars from Dublin to retake Dundalk, but by the time he got there he found the town undefended. At a time when the provisional government was essentially taking all before it in other parts of the country, the entire affair was a serious black eye, taking place so close to Dublin and at the hands of a man who had been in provisional government custody only weeks before.
The raid on Dundalk has to go down as one of the best operations carried out by the anti-Treaty side in the entire Civil War. At a time when the movement was floundering elsewhere, it was an unequivocal success: IRA men had successfully infiltrated an urban location held in force, captured its main strong points with limited loss of life, held the town for a time, and gotten away with badly needed supplies. On the other hand, the pro-Treaty defenders had been badly caught out, taking more casualties than their opponents in a losing battle and, indeed, were shown up as being ineffectual and weak when the situation was right. Aiken’s achievement was somewhat undercut by his and his men’s general lack of activity for the rest of the Civil War, but at the time was a trumpeted beacon for the anti-Treaty faction, riven as it was with military defeat and increasingly reduced options.
But it was just a single moment in time, and the anti-Treaty side did not make the best use of either the success or the guns. Perhaps the most important final result of the war in Louth was that the general area north of Dublin, despite the anti-Treaty successes and demonstrations of power, was not going to be a source of danger for the capital. Anti-Treaty threat from this avenue was largely neutered for the remainder of the war, and the National Army secured the major urban centres, never to give them up again. Where the IRA had an opportunity, if they had been properly supported, to be a serious thorn in the side of the provisional government, they now limited themselves to a largely ineffective guerrilla struggle.
Across the country, similar jostling for position was taking place, but in many cases in a much more lop-sided manner. In the next entry we will go to one such place, in the north-west of the country. Nowhere else would there be as lonely a conflict as there was to be in Donegal, and it was to be a conflict with only one clear victor.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.