The border of the Munster Republic had been breached at either end: at Limerick City in the west, with forces under Eoin Duffy and Michael Brennan expelling the IRA and now moving into the countryside to finish them off, and at Waterford in the east, where troops under John Prout had enjoyed a remarkably easy takeover of the city. Now, thoughts turned to the centre of the line, namely the county of Tipperary. The provisional government already had a foothold in the north of the county, especially around the town of Nenagh, but now the squeeze was going to be put on, with advances from the north and the south. The aim was for nothing less than the capture of all major towns, and for IRA units in them to be put to flight.
This was not going to be an easy thing to accomplish, at least on the surface. The National Army had men, armoured cars and artillery, but they were stretched in Munster, fighting battles in Limerick and Waterford. The IRA had substantial garrisons in places like Golden, Tipperary Town, Cashel, Carrick-On-Suir and Clonmel, with South Tipperary being the heartland of the 2nd Southern Division. The latter was where Liam Lynch had chosen to place his provisional HQ, and many of them looked to be hard nuts to crack, depending on heights, fortifications or river crossings held by the republicans. More than that, there was a fear that the IRA could take the offensive, and threaten pro-Treaty positions in neighbouring Kilkenny.
But the same old weaknesses that were dogging the IRA all over the country were present too: a lack of arms, a lack of commitment from certain units and a dangerous lack of direction from a higher command that seemed incapable of taking any kind of initiative. One officer would later describe the 3rd Brigade, based in the south of the county, as “a republic all of its own”, whose commander, Dinney Lacey, was not on speaking terms with Seamus Robinson, O/C of the division, with neither paying much attention to the orders of Lynch. The local presence of Eamon de Valera, working as an organiser for the IRA, may also have complicated matters. Men like Dan Breen, mentioned last week in the context of his failing effort to impact on the taking of Waterford, operated columns largely of their own volition. Discipline was an issue, and little effort was made to rally the opinion of the local population: “levies”, looting and the seizure of vehicles was accompanied by the burning of co-operative creameries, which would surely have raised unpleasant comparisons with the Black and Tans.
By mid-July, the National Army was as far as the middle of the county, where a garrison had been in place in Thurles for some time, but in so doing they had stretched themselves somewhat. Partially in response to this, a section of the IRA forces in the province decided to launch a strike in the direction of the midlands in an attempt to go on the offensive, and to secure their centre. The objectives of this assault, carried out by anti-Treaty men of the 1st and 2nd Southern Divisions concentrated in the village of Littleton, was the capture of Thurles and the surrounding area, but it was stillborn before it could get started when a third of the attacking force was captured without a shot, allegedly hoodwinked by the sudden arrival of National Army soldiers in the area who were not uniformed. Owing to this sudden loss the anti-Treaty strike force melted away, and the chance to hit back at the provisional government was lost. The pro-Treaty side continued a hopping advance, taking villages and towns as they could, as the situation in the rest of the province continued to disintegrate for the anti-Treaty side.
Two weeks later National Army troops under a Commandant Jerry Ryan were able occupy the small town of Golden, near Cashel. They included among their number elements of the Dublin Guards, and as such should not have been under-estimated. Anti-Treaty Volunteers in Cashel, to the east, decided to take their chance regardless and attempted to organise a three-pronged assault on Golden by multiple columns coming from different directions. It was not a bad plan, but required careful coordination to succeed, which did not come. The three prongs attacked at different times and were repulsed in detail by the National Army defenders, with the opening attack stalled when an improvised armoured car used by the IRA broke down at the outskirts of the village. A number of anti-Treaty soldiers were killed or captured as a result of the botched engagement, which lasted only a short time in the early hours of the 28th July.
Ryan decided to press the advantage he had gained by unexpectedly neutralising so much of the local IRA effectives, and launched an impromptu attack towards Tipperary Town the following day. Around 500 troops attacked the town from two roads, and there followed an extended firefight with anti-Treaty defenders that lasted the better part of two days. The delay was partly due to pro-Treaty officers being unwilling to use available artillery, for fear of civilian casualties. Patrick Dalton, commanding around 100 IRA Volunteers, had thrown up barricades in the street, laid down mines, scouted out firing lines and sandbagged buildings: as a result the attackers were forced to fight a number of small, drawn out engagements, sometimes to the point of hand-to-hand, as they took house after house and squeezed the Executives into the town centre. On he 31st, when Ryan made a move to cut off access to the town from the west, the defenders withdrew into the Glen of Aherlow.
Dalton’s defence, considering the lack of men and impossibility of reinforcements, was actually fairly exemplary, with the ad-hoc fortifications and prepared fields of fire. But it was always more of a delay than anything. With Tipperary Town’s capture the anti-Treaty line in the province was punctured in the centre, with another route into Cork now presented to the provisional government and the right flank of the anti-Treaty side fighting in County Limerick also threatened. More immediately, anti-Treaty positions in the rest of County Tipperary, most especially Cashel, were now made much more isolated and endangered.
With the fall of Waterford on the 21st, the IRA was pushed to the limit defending its territory in Tipperary from attacks north and south. Dan Breen was trying to defend the area between Waterford City and Carrick-On-Suir, where Dinney Lacey had based himself, with about 500 men from Tipperary and Cork. Coming against him were 600 men under Prout, with artillery and armoured cars, and additional reinforcements coming from the direction of Kilkenny. Lacey attempted to organise defensive lines to the south, but was hamstrung by a lack of enthusiasm from many of the men he commanded, the absence of local Volunteers from Waterford, and an increasingly unhappy civilian population, who responded to anti-Treaty destruction of roads and bridges, and the hated levies, by assisting the advancing National Army at every turn.
Prout’s advance, like it had been against Waterford, was cautious and calculated. His men took a string of towns and villages between Waterford and Carrick-On-Suir – Mullinavat, Rochestown, Piltown, Castletown – meeting only limited resistance. Closer to Carrick, which they approached from the east, they met more serious opposition, with anti-Treaty fighters using the barrier of the Suir and the cover of local woods to their advantage and temporarily holding off the provisional government advance with small arms and machine gun fire. But the situation could not hold, especially when Prout brought up his artillery to blast at the farmhouses that were the home of IRA machine gun posts. With the addition of troops coming from the direction of Kilkenny, the anti-Treaty line, such as it was, was quickly swamped and eventually disintegrated, the men retreating west and south. Prout marched into Carrick on the 3rd August to find that the town had been abandoned the previous night, Lacey thinking better of an engagement in its streets. As in many towns, most even, the National Army received a heroes welcome from the locals.
The anti-Treaty position in Tipperary was falling apart everywhere now, and it was really more a case of how much longer the IRA would continue to fight a conventional war than if they could somehow turn the tide. The day after the provisional government took Carrick, Cashel, hopelessly isolated with the fall of Tipperary Town, was also evacuated, leaving Clonmel as the only serious point of conventional resistance in the county, with Lynch now moving his HQ to Fermoy. Prout was tasked with the taking of Clonmel, moving out from Carrick, with a substantial amount of new recruits from the local area (that he was able to arm, but not uniform), on the 8th August. Avoiding the main roads, which had been mined, Prout travelled north through the countryside near Slievenamon. His men engaged in a number of haphazard firefights with the enemy in small towns and villages in the vicinity, that amounted to little more than brief holding actions. Pro-Treaty numbers, and artillery, always won the day eventually. The most serious resistance was at Redmonstown but, on the night of the 9th August, provisional government troops were able to break through and enter Clonmel. Most of what was left of the towns defenders had already evacuated, and after only a brief engagement with a rearguard it was secured. IRA units scattered south and west. With that, the conventional Civil War in Tipperary was over.
It may seem as if I am repeating myself a great deal in my analysis of the conventional Civil War, but it is simply the way that the conflict was panning out. The manner in which the pro-Treaty side was able to clear South Tipperary of anti-Treaty forces spoke to the now firmly established advantages that the National Army had, and the weaknesses that the IRA was forced to deal with. The provisional government had increasingly more men, had the ability to arm them, had more pro-active leadership, had armoured cars, artillery when required, and the support of most of the civilian population. The IRA had badly coordinated units operating independently, too many units who lacked the commitment to engage the National Army with lethal intent, a total absence of clear strategic or operational direction from those at the head of the movement, seemingly no understanding about, or willingness to engage positively with, the civilian population and, in the end, proved far too easy to isolate and then drive from their urban strongholds. There were moments in the South Tipperary fighting when the IRA showcased an ability to stand and fight that, if replicated to a larger degree across the country, could well have resulted in a much more even conflict. But this was not to be.
The Munster Republic was in pieces, with National Army troops bearing down on its interior from all directions. There remained one more decisive major confrontation to be fought. It was a fight that, to some degree would also be the largest battle of the Civil War, and depending on your view, could also be described as the last conventional battle to be fought on Irish soul to the present date. The location was the south of County Limerick, and the focal point would be the town of Kilmallock.
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