For well over a hundred years before the events to be discussed below, Wexford had held an aura in the eyes of successive generations of Irish republicans and revolutionaries, that arguably outstripped whatever strategic value the area held in terms of military activity. The core of the 1798 Rebellion, and the site of events like the fall of Enniscorthy and the Battle of Vinegar Hill, Wexford maintained this semi-mythical status, as a place where an Irish tree of liberty had been refreshed by the blood of patriots. Despite this, Wexford had been a quiet part of the 19th century, relatively so during the Easter Rising, and the War of Independence, but still attracted attention from those who sought a way to re-enact the glory days of 1798. In the summer of 1922, the anti-Treaty faction of the Civil War divide sought to be those inheritors, but their mission to the south-east would, in the end, be just another in a long-list of IRA failures early in that conflict.
Wexford had more than symbolic value of course. With anti-Treaty IRA units operating to some degree in Wicklow and at their greatest strength in south Munster, Wexford was a key link in any plan, even if it was embryonic at that stage, for the anti-Treaty faction to be in a position to march men against Dublin. Key roads and railways went through the county and its main urban areas of Wexford Town, New Ross and Enniscorthy, and there were ports that were also valuable. The IRA in the south-west was fairly evenly split in terms of units, with the South Brigade skewing anti-Treaty and the North the opposite: local feeling was more pre-dominantly in favour of the provisional government. At the time of the Civil War’s beginning small amounts of both IRA and National Army troops were garrisoning certain towns, or garrisoning them together, so it did not take long for violence to begin. When it did, the focus was largely on the three towns of Enniscorthy, Ferns and New Ross.
For a few days after the firing on the Four Courts, a tenuous peace held in Wexford, as commanders on both sides erred towards caution and restraint, but this broke on the 2nd July. On that day, after a brief offensive by the National Army was beaten back, republicans in Enniscorthy based out of the town courthouse went on the attack against their pro-Treaty opponents. Those opponents held the RIC barracks and, after the start of the shooting in Dublin, had also seized Enniscorthy Castle. The position was not suitable for long-term defence, but with the IRA lacking any artillery or means of breaking its walls, it was a more suitable place of defence than the barracks. The IRA attackers, who had taken buildings around the castle and the still occupied barracks, were obliged to limit themselves mostly to desultory exchanges of fire and a siege of both positions. The commander inside the castle, a Sean Gallagher, knew he was hopelessly surrounded, but perhaps held out in the expectation that reinforcements from Dublin would be able to come to the rescue of he and his men, who numbered only ten. However, he had only limited supplies, and a time limit on how long he could hold out once water was cut off.
The arrival into Enniscorthy of some of the men who had been involved in the Blessington fighting a few days into the siege proved decisive. Among those was Ernie O’Malley, and it was he who led an attack on castle that perhaps provoked the final denouement of the conflict in Enniscorthy. Two anti-Treaty Volunteers, one of them Paddy O’Brien who had been one of the recognised commanders in the Four Courts, were fatally wounded in this attack, which failed to overthrow the castle defenders: they were to be the only men killed in the “Battle of Eniscorthy”. A few hours later both the men in the barracks and Gallagher had enough and threw up white flags, with he and roughly 35 men total under his command going into captivity. O’Malley did not have the means or inclination to hold them and, after allegedly extracting a promise that they would not take up arms against “the Republic” – a promise which, if given, was soon broken – the National Army men were released.
At Ferns, a few km’s north of Enniscorthy, the fighting was more brief. A small pro-Treaty contingent held the castle there, fortifying it as best they could with a machine gun, but like at Enniscorthy they were simply too small in number and too easily contained to be very effective. Anti-Treaty forces in the area, with snipers operating out of the towns church tower, were able to keep the National Army men pinned down and, when a soldier manning the machine gun was fatally wounded by the same (and a priest called to attend to him wounded) it seems to have been the point when the limited provisional government presence had enough. They surrendered shortly afterwards.
A more extraordinary move in Wexford on the part of the anti-Treaty side came from Cork, and represented one of the few offensive operations carried out by that faction of the IRA in the Civil War. Early in July a force of roughly 230 Volunteers under the command of Sean Moylan – last mentioned here in the context of the Clonbanin Ambush – left Cork and headed into Wexford, where they were able to occupy the town of New Ross without the need for any fighting. O’Malley and others were under the impression that Moylan aimed to hook up with other anti-Treaty units in the area and continue his march all the way to Dublin, but Moylan himself appears to have had more of a local focus, communicating his desire to O’Malley to take on and, if possible, defeat, pro-Treaty military forces that were entering Wexford from the north.
That National Army move was about to showcase how the supposed success of the anti-Treaty IRA in Wexford thus far was built on a house of sand. Beggers Bush was already making its countermove, in the form of a mobile column under the command of Commandant Charles McAlister and Joseph Vize, both long-term IRA veterans decidedly on the side of the Treaty, which left Dublin and headed south on the 6th July. It consisted of around the same number of men that Moylan had, but these had more rifles, machine guns and ammunition, along with armoured cars (including two Lancias) and an artillery piece. They didn’t rush, proceeding through Wicklow and into the north of Wexford with caution, dealing with brief exchanges of fire with anti-Treaty Volunteers along the way.
When news of this force reached the various anti-Treaty garrisons, their will to fight evaporated with remarkable speed. Long before the column, going through Arklow and Gorey, had reached Enniscorthy, the majority of the IRA men there had melted away, burning the courthouse and the RIC barracks before they did so. A small rearguard, little more than a dozen men, were left behind to give a little fight, but these dispersed in the face of the overwhelming numbers of pro-Treaty troops who entered the town in the early hours of the 7th July, securing it without meeting any resistance. O’Malley, retreating in the direction of Carlow, despaired with the situation, and lamented that he and his men had ever come to Wexford. It’s not really clear what else he reasonably expected to happen.
The same day, Ferns was also rapidly re-taken by the National Army. The IRA, operating out of the towns post office as its barracks had been burned down, were caught completely by surprise when the armoured car “The Customs House” suddenly sped into the village and opened fire on Volunteers on the street, before a larger force of infantry converged. The IRA inside the post office held out for a brief time, before their commander, a Brigadier named Frank Carty, realised the hopelessness of their position and surrendered. Control of Ferns was re-established without any provisional government casualties, with over 30 IRA men captured.
That left only New Ross, where Moylan’s column was proving to be its own worst enemy. His men had occupied the town without significant resistance, but then acted in a manner that inflamed local opinion, enforcing levies in so harsh a fashion that it bordered on flat-out looting: one officer claimed Moylan’s Volunteers took “anything they could lay their hands on”. Moylan, expecting more support, was disappointed by the lack of local Volunteers to join his force, and by how he was, by result, blind from an operational viewpoint. With no intelligence coming in on enemy strength in the area and conscious of how limited his own supplies were (and, perhaps, how unpopular his men were becoming), Moylan choose to withdraw back in the direction that he had come without ever really engaging the pro-Treaty forces, telling O’Malley they would be better off forming flying columns in the area. By the end of the 8th July, New Ross was back firmly in National Army hands, essentially ending the conventional Civil War in the county.
The anti-Treaty campaign in Wexford, in the early days of the Civil War, was yet another disaster. From a position where they had been able to secure some of the key points in the county, the IRA betrayed their deficiencies in a multitude of ways. In terms of their ability to go toe-to-toe with the National Army, they failed in the medium term in Enniscorthy and in other places, unable to adequately counter the use of armoured cars and artillery. In terms of their ability to foster the kind of community relations that was vital to their ability to wage a conflict against the provisional government, they failed at New Ross. And in terms of a larger strategic initiative, they failed throughout the county, taking towns in a pellmell manner, not linking up with anti-Treaty units elsewhere and generally resorting to a fatally sedentary policy of taking ground and just holding it in the face of National Army attack, with no idea why they were holding that ground, and no thought as to how it served a larger political aim.
The conventional Civil War in Wexford was over, but the war itself continued, and continued quickly. Wexford would become something of a hotbed for anti-Treaty guerrilla activity, as soon as a few weeks after the pro-Treaty side had re-exerted its control over the county. But we will cover that in time. Now, we need to move in a north-westerly direction. In order to have the avenues secured for a planned assault on the republican position in Munster, the provisional government, needed to ensure that they would have a relatively free hand in the midlands. The next entry will discuss how they were able to achieve this.
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