We have seen in the last few entries the manner in which the pro-Treaty side was able to secure some semblance of control over large parts of Ireland very quickly after the beginning of the Civil War. The north, west and south-east were in their hands, with anti-Treaty resistance in those areas sporadic at best and completely ineffective at worst. But the Civil War was not going to be decided in those areas. The decisive conflict would be in the so-called Munster Republic, but before the provisional government could face that challenge, they needed to clear the way to their forces already on the periphery of the province. That meant gaining control over the midlands region and beyond, something we will look at in this slightly shorter than normal entry today.
The republican presence in the midlands, which we can generally define as the counties of Laois, Offaly, Westmeath, and then further into the north of Tipperary, was strong enough at the start of the war. The hugely divided 2nd Southern Division had carved up the region between either side. Most of Offaly was in anti-Treaty hands, with 300 Volunteers in Birr alone. Towns like Tullamore and Roscrea were also under Executive control, and they also held positions in places like Nenagh: they were in a position to cut vital roads and rail links as a result. But the pro-Treaty side was far from absent either, and held the vital urban centres of Mountmellick, Portarlington, Mullingar and Athlone, the last of which was where Sean Mac Eoin would prosecute the war in the west. The pro-Treaty side in the midlands would find themselves directed, nominally, by a newly formed Curragh Command, though in practise much of the actual direction for what was to follow would come directly from Dublin: on the other side the anti-Treaty units, as was becoming normal, were largely self-commanding, with the people seemingly in charge, like Sean Moylan, absent elsewhere.
The fighting in the midlands erupted on the 3rd of July, in the town of Nenagh, that had obvious implications for the strategic situation throughout North Tipperary. Both pro and anti-Treaty forces held positions in the town, with the IRA holding the RIC barracks. A tense truce between the two sides had been observed, but broke on the 3rd when a pro-Treaty officer was shot dead in a local hotel, in circumstances that remain murky to the present day. The event precipitated a sudden National Army attack on anti-Treaty positions in the town, which rapidly capitulated without much resistance. One anti-Treaty was accidentally killed by his own explosives as he attempted to destroy the RIC barracks, and within a few days National Army control of the town and its surrounding area was secured. This was vital both on its own terms, and as a demonstration to the rest of the region.
The National Army units in the general area were soon going on the attack elsewhere, in a series of minor engagements whereby most of the urban areas in the midlands were secured. Abbeyleix in South Laois fell on the 5th, when pro-Treaty troops attacked the IRA there in the early hours. Only one provisional government was soldier was killed before the town was cleared: the man, a Private Christopher McGlynn, was one of many who had a brother serving in the anti-Treaty IRA at the same time. It was just a limited firefight before the IRA abandoned their positions. Maryborough fell shortly afterwards with a few anti-Treaty soldiers killed, and before too long the IRA was dispersing headlong in Laois and Offaly. National Army columns moving into Offaly from Laois found Birr and Tullamore abandoned without a fight, with only the local barracks buildings burned as a sign of resistance. Further north Mac Eoin was able to secure most of Westmeath fairly quickly, with his main bases in Athlone and Mullingar providing more than enough means to do so.
IRA officers who had been in charge of such garrisons complained that they had very limited guns available, and an equally desperate supply of ammunition, so any attempt to engage the enemy would have been futile. There would also have been legitimate worries that the men under their command would not open fire, not with deadly intent anyway, on the enemy: at least one IRA officer at the time reported being instructed to fire over the heads of National Army soldiers, as part of efforts to facilitate a truce that never happened. In many ways the IRA in those areas were caught between a rock and a hard place: fighting it out in places like Birr would have been a losing prospect, but when they left those towns their perceived lack of fight led rapidly to desertions, leaving the units weaker than ever. And when they went into the countryside, they would find themselves lacking the same support for a guerrilla struggle that they had enjoyed before, from a populace that had grown increasingly wary of IRA activities and the breakdown of law and order.
It was a pattern repeated all over. The anti-Treaty side simply lacked too much, whether it was men, supplies or local support, but in truth the really critical absent factor was leadership. The IRA had lost officers to the National Army and to neutrality throughout the country, but this loss was felt more keenly in the midlands than in many places. Isolated garrisons were operating entirely of their own volition, often under sub-par officers, who were receiving little to no direction from on high. Reinforcements or support were not coming, and the temptation to move to stronger-held republican areas, like deeper into Munster, must have been overwhelming. In such circumstances, it was inevitable that morale, and discipline in some cases, would waver.
When the possibility of having to actually fight it out presented itself, many IRA companies in such circumstances choose to retreat or disperse entirely, and those that did offer resistance typically only did so for a short time. All across, Laois, Offaly and the north of Tipperary, towns and barracks fell rapidly into provisional government hands, in a series of seizures that mirrored what was happening in Donegal or Connacht. The anti-Treaty position, in terms of being an entity that held ground, simply collapsed, and within a few weeks fears that pro-Treaty movements through the area would be difficult or impossible were significantly reduced. If the provisional government did not already hold the towns and villages, they were often able to just walk in and take them. By the end of July, Mac Eoin was able to confidently assert that the entirety of the midlands was in pro-Treaty hands. Such things had a pellmell quality to them, as the National Army units, like their counterparts, did sometimes act more of their own accord than how the national command wanted them to.
The Curragh Command would later be strongly criticised for its lack of control over what was happening, and for the frequent ill-discipline of the troops it controlled. This was part of the reason why the IRA was able to form a more effective guerrilla resistance in the midlands quicker than they were able to do so elsewhere: before the end of July IRA columns in the region were cutting roads and railways and enacting rapid hit-and-run attacks, though not always successfully. A spectacular effort to blow up Birr’s courthouse failed, but there was successes elsewhere: an ambush of a pro-Treaty column near Maryborough on the 28th killed three National Army officers, though much of the attacking force was captured afterwards. O’Malley was to complain of many missed opportunities in the midlands, where he felt the pro-Treaty military was vulnerable: despite those guerrilla successes, the only way to make a bigger impact was with more men, and they simply were not available.
For now things were progressing. The National Army had secured a huge swath of the country, and the anti-Treaty side were counting their successes on one hand. But even while many of the events we have discussed over the last few entries were taking place, the key battles of the conventional Civil War were underway in other parts of Munster. In the next entry we will begin an examination of the offensive that destroyed the Munster Republic, starting with the fight in the city where the handover crisis had nearly ignited the conflict months earlier.
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