Ireland’s Wars: The Conventional Civil War In The West

In describing the conventional Civil War as it was fought in Donegal, we get a flavour for what the same period was like in the farthest west of Ireland. Connacht had never been the most active area of Ireland throughout the revolutionary period, perhaps a natural result of its limited population, uniqueness of terrain and lack of strategic importance. All of this would hold true in the Irish Civil War as well. In those early weeks the province would see a sudden spike in military action but it would not be all that long before the same pro-Treaty dominance that had become apparent in Donegal would become apparent there too.

Outside of Munster, Connacht was the main area for anti-Treaty IRA units to declare themselves. The vast majority of the divisions there had opposed the Treaty, with the strongest sections of pro-Treaty sentiment to be found in the south of Roscommon and the west of Galway. The pro-Treaty side held numerous garrisons in urban areas, but were largely surrounded by a countryside that was at best no-mans-land, or at worst hostile in terms of IRA Volunteers stationed there.

The provisional government was lucky then, in the choice of commander for the area. Sean Mac Eoin, based in a regional command centre in Athlone, had the task of bringing the entire province under provisional government sway, and from the outset this seemed like a Herculean mission. But he was a pro-active, engaging and charismatic leader, which was exactly what the moment called for. More importantly, he was the single point of command for National Army units in that region, with a clear mandate and objective, while on the other side chaos reigned in the aftermath of the Four Courts attack. The anti-Treaty side in Connacht had no clear single leader, just a succession of divisional, battalion and company commands all acting on their own initiative, if at all: they were divided between those who wanted to refrain from any fighting, those who wanted to continue the build-up for and execution of attacks into the North, and those who wanted to target the pro-Treaty side aggressively. Just as in Donegal, things were critically hamstrung in the early days by the absence of key officers, who were slowly making their way back to their home areas from Dublin, and also by pre-existing rivalries and enmities between officers.

Given the size of the area in question, it will not come as a surprise that the fighting in Connacht was of a scattered nature. One of the first major flash-points was Boyle in County Roscommon, a town regarded as strategically vital owing to its status as a sort of gateway into the rest of the province. Before fighting broke out, it had been garrisoned in different sports by elements of either side, but on the 2nd July anti-Treaty forces, operating of their own volition it would seem, attacked their pro-Treaty counterparts. The result was three days of scattered firefights, with the isolated National Army troops holding on, despite the death of their O/C. In this they were helped by the use of an armoured car, the Ballinalee, and when the man who was responsible for that name arrived, with an 18 pounder gun and reinforcements, the IRA backed down and retreated, with their forces forming into columns in the Roscommon countryside. Mac Eoin had ended his badly timed honeymoon to take charge of the fighting, and his presence would be an invaluable aspect of the National Army’s campaign in the area.

Galway City, garrisoned by both sides during the Truce period, was secured relatively quickly by National Army troops, who attacked anti-Treaty positions in the area on the 7th July. The IRA was quickly overwhelmed and retreated, though not before setting fire to a number of buildings. One IRA officer and two pro-Treaty soldiers were killed in the process. It was a situation that was being repeated throughout the province, with many IRA units choosing to put up only slight resistance inside urban areas, and in many cases withdrawing from them, after attempting to destroy the buildings they had previously held. Despite this happening all over the province, this was not a coordinated strategy and, in the aftermath, IRA units were often left spinning their wheels with no clear direction. In Galway this apathetic response would led to pro-Treaty advances across the county by the end of July, as the bigger towns, like Gort or Oughterard, fell with little or no resistance.

A similar situation took place to the north in Sligo Town. To the surprise of the limited numbers of National Army soldiers there, some of whom feared being driven out, the IRA garrison had voluntarily withdrawn in the early days of the conflict, though they burned the barracks they had occupied before they left. Afterwards a strange stalemate emerged, with the pro-Treaty side too small in number to adequately hold the town or to expand their control outward, and with IRA Volunteers based in the countryside lacking a firm command to tell them what to do. On a few occasions republican soldiers re-entered the town to occupy buildings, only to leave them again. At one point in July a somewhat more enterprising officer, Frank Carty of Tubbercurry IRA, ordered the provisional government in the town to surrender, but when they refused to do so Carty did nothing in response, making his pronouncement seem like a badly misjudged bluff.

The IRA were more pro-active in the countryside of Sligo, where some of the most bloody fighting of the province would take place. On the 13th July, the anti-Treaty IRA achieved one of their first major successes of the war when they ambushed a pro-Treaty convoy traveling from Sligo Town to Balymote. The convoy, consisting of 28 troops split among three Crossly Tenders and including the Ballinalee, was travelling through the townland of Rockwood that evening when its path was barred by a fallen tree. Fire erupted from either side of the road. In an hour long engagement five of the pro-Treaty soldiers, including their commander were killed, and many more wounded, before they were able to make their escape. Worse, at least from the perspective of the larger situation, the Ballinalee was captured and pressed into anti-Treaty service. It would rove the countryside for a time, under the name Lough Gill, being an impediment to National Army operations, before the hard-pressed IRA, unable to make further effective use of it, burnt it out.

In the aftermath the IRA column, under Carty, occupied the nearby town of Cooloney. Mac Eoin was furious at the news of what had happened, and took personal command of 400 troops to deal with the situation. The next day, they attacked into the town. An elongated firefight, that lasted somewhere between four and six hours, was the result, but remarkably there were no deaths recorded, evidence, perhaps, of the hesitation some on either side still had to fire on the other with fatal intentions. Cooloney was eventually cleared, and, according to Mac Eoin, over 70 members of the anti-Treaty IRA were captured. Others were able to escape however, and it was one of the last examples of conventional combat in Sligo: Carty’s men moved to bases in the nearby Ox mountains in the aftermath, where they maintained a low intensity guerrilla struggle.

Outside of this area, anti-Treaty ability to resist was extremely fragile. When, mid-month, Mac Eoin’s second-in-command Tony Lawler embarked from Athlone with a column of men, he was able to take a succession of major urban centres without much in the way of resistance. In the course of a week places like Castlerea, Ballyhaunis, Claremorris and finally Castlebar were all captured, to the general cheer of local inhabitants who had grown weary of anti-Treaty interference in day-to-day business, and carried the fear of future violence. In combination with the sea-based capture of the coastal town of Westport around the same time – the naval strategy of the National Army is something I will give greater time to in a later entry – the soldiers of which soon moved to join with their compatriots in Castlebar before a joint capture of Ballina, this succession of town seizures broke the back of the anti-Treaty in Connacht, at least in terms of the conventional Civil War. They retained control of some of the more isolated towns for a time, but when Clifden in West Galway fell in mid-Autumn, it was one of the last fixed positions the anti-Treaty side had to give up, which they did largely without a fight.

Despite these successes, the pro-Treaty position in Connacht remained somewhat perilous. The majority of the National Army was commited elsewhere, and a more firm pacification of the west had to wait. Collins, before he died, would order various outposts of the National Army in Connacht to be abandoned, those that were the most isolated and the most thinly held, in favour of larger garrisons in the bigger towns. In so doing, he was essentially making the same choice that the British had made in 1919 when they abandoned wholesale huge parts of the Irish countryside to the IRA, but the National Army commander had to deal with reality: they simply did not have enough men to hold Connacht in the manner that Mac Eoin wanted, and the regional O/C would actually be rebuked by Mulcahy for continuing to try and place troops in parts of the countryside where they were easy targets. In the end, Mac Eoin had barely 2’000 men to hold the entire province, and many of them were untrained and ill-disciplined.

Of course the IRA was not in a position, due to lack of support from the locals if nothing else, to fight the same kind of conflict they had fought a few years previously, and perhaps Collins realised that. So, for a time at least, the provisional government had to be satisfied with maintaining control over the key urban centres of the province, as the war there turned decisively from the conventional to the guerrilla. The IRA continued to function in the hills, forests and mountains of Connacht: having decisively lost the early weeks and months of the war there, they would not try and maintain an asymmetric conflict to greater effect.

The provisional government was thus able to maintain a loose control in Connacht, holding the key points and facing a ragged, badly-led enemy. But the IRA had the opportunity there at least to institute something akin to the War of Independence struggle, and only a fool would have said that the National Army’s victory in the west complete. We move from there now to go across to the other side of the country. I want to leave the war in the midlands for later as the pro-Treaty advances there tie directly into the following assault on the “Munster Republic”. Instead, next week we will go to the south-east and to Wexford. In the aftermath of the Dublin fighting the Model county became the next serious flashpoint, but it was to be yet another false dawn for the anti-Treaty side.

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

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11 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Conventional Civil War In The West

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