I hope that I may be forgiven for the length of the below entry in this series. This particular subject is one that is close to my heart in many ways, not just as I am a native of Limerick, but because a battlestudy of this clash was the core of my MA thesis when I studied in NUIM.
With Limerick City taken, the pro-Treaty side had achieved an enormous victory, one that, in many ways, heralded the larger successes that followed across Munster. Through the rest of July and into early August, the National Army advanced into Waterford and Tipperary, making a mockery of any pretensions that the “Munster Republic” could be defended in arms in a conventional manner. And they were also advancing into County Limerick, and it was there that the last major battle of the Civil War, and in many respects the last real “battle”, as we understand the term, in Irish history, was fought. Both sides held recognisable lines for the period that they were engaged, and both acted in the form of conventional armies, holding ground or trying to seize it. The arena was a rough triangle of territory not too far from the border with Cork, with the points in the villages and towns of Bruff, Bruree and Kilmallock.
In many ways the area that the fighting would take place in was rather unexceptional, just agrarian land split up by a few villages and towns. Kilmallock was close to the border, with Bruree roughly 7 km’s to the north-west and Bruff around ten to the north-east, both along narrow country roads. Geographically the only thing to really mark the terrain out were a few hills to the north of Kilmallock itself, from which the anti-Treaty side would later attempt to enact a defence. It was there that the IRA choose to make their stand after the retreat from Limerick City. Major roads and railways were nearby, and Kilmallock was a town large enough that it was worth defending, and the symbolic but not unimportant border with Cork just south of it was something the Executives would not want to be forced beyond. Bruff and Bruree provided a screen for Kilmallock, as did republican held areas nearby like Patrickswell and Newcastle West.
In command of those anti-Treaty forces was Liam Deasy, with Sean Moylan as his chief subordinate, with a reported number of around 500 Volunteers in the immediate area of Kilmallock, and twice that just over the Cork border, though this can be considered somewhat speculative: even if such numbers existed, not all of them would have been armed. There was a mixture of local, Cork and Kerry Volunteers, and the usual difficulties in communication and co-ordination would have been evident: on more than one occasion opposing units nearly came to blows, or close to mutiny, if they felt Volunteers from one county were getting preferential treatment over another. Kilmallock and Bruree, and a few other places besides, were held in force, with the largest section in Kilmallock itself, where the IRA headquartered themselves in Ash Hill House. Deasy also had the use of a few improvised armoured cars. This force can probably be considered one of, if not the, largest concentration of republican military power in the course of the Civil War. As in other places, there was a struggle with the local population, who did not like the republican levies or the disruption to their farms and workplaces that the fighting brought. The last thing worth nothing for the IRA was the issue of morale: the retreat from the City undoubtedly damaged republican fighting spirit, and future setbacks would only damage it more.
On the other side were the incoming troops of the provisional government. Eoin O’Duffy was the overall commander, but operational direction would often fall to some of the officers involved in the Limerick City fighting, most notably W.R.E Murphy, a recently recruited British Army veteran whose experience of trench warfare on the Western Front influenced his slow and steady philosophy of advance. The National Army had guns, actual armoured cars and artillery, but for at least the first part of the battle were actually outnumbered by the enemy: Murphy may have had roughly 800 troops to hand to start off with. Worse perhaps, their lack of training and problems with the quality of junior officers meant that many of them were simply not reliable in a pinch. This was one of the reasons for the slow advance, as Murphy preferred to attempt flanking maneuvers rather than head-on assaults, fearful the soldiers would not be compelled to perform the latter: on at least one occasion during the fighting Murphy is recorded as having to threaten to shoot soldiers who would not follow orders.
The early stages of the battle revolved largely around Bruff. The small town was actually held by the provisional government at the outset of the fighting, with a small National Army garrison ensconced in its commandeered RIC barracks. The group were very isolated and a prime target for the IRA, who had picked off similar small garrisons elsewhere in the county in the previous few weeks: Kilmallock itself had fallen a short time before when its pro-Treaty garrison, surrounded in their barracks, surrendered after a two day siege. Senior National Army commanders were frustrated with this local policy of attempting to man too many barracks and attempted to put a stop too it, but this came too late for the Bruff men,
It should be noted that separate accounts and studies of this section of the fighting differ in terms of dates and the exact sequence of events, but I have tried to connect the dots as best I can. On the 20th July, the IRA launched an attack on the village from the direction of Kilmallock. The attack was aided by a number of deserters from the pro-Treaty garrison, who are recorded as joining in with the anti-Treaty fighters while still in uniform. It had been hoped that the village and its barracks could be taken bloodlessly by capturing National Army troops as they went about the countryside on routine patrols, but an attempted ambush failed allowing the same troops – minus the deserters – to flee back to the not inconsiderable barracks, which had been as prepared as possible for a defence.
For the better part of two days the IRA engaged heavily with the beleaguered National Army garrison, with use of rifle grenades and Thompson submachine guns, while other units engaged the National Army in different parts of the countryside to prevent even the slightest chance of reinforcements. The rest of the towns’ larger buildings, like the banks, were occupied in force. But the barracks could not be taken, and by the the end of the 21st the attack was broken off. This coincided with the final retreat from Limerick City, which temporarily put anti-Treaty cohesion in the rest of the county in serious jeopardy. But within a few days the IRA had proved itself capable of re-asserting itself, and the attack was renewed. The National Army should have evacuated the post, given the swell of IRA numbers in the area after the fall of Limerick City, but once again efforts to project power in as many places as possible overruled good strategic sense. On the 23rd, the garrison, running out of ammunition, had enough and surrendered, thus completing anti-Treaty control of the Kilmallock triangle.
However, within a few days a general flood of National Army troops, with armoured cars and machine guns, was starting to arrive in the area, the advance of the force that had taken Limerick City and was now following the retreating enemy. They were in enough numbers that the IRA choose to withdraw from Bruff again, leaving it securely in the hands of the provisional government by at least the 25th July. The fighting for the town was thus largely a waste for the IRA in many ways, when the forces employed could have been used elsewhere. There have been suggestions that Bruff had been attacked with the eventual aim of using it as a jumping off-point for a renewed attack in the direction of Limerick City, but this seems fanciful.
The fighting in Bruff occurred during a confusing couple of days of engagements as the advancing National Army often strayed farther then was wise to do so. On the same day as Bruff’s initial capture, they faced a number of other setbacks in the general area, as patrols and small columns made speculative advances on Kilmallock from multiple directions, or just blundered into the general area and paid for it. One such advance was turned back by a party of IRA travelling in an improvised armoured car coming from the general direction of Bruff, before doing the same to another patrol coming from the general direction of Brure. It is a measure of how confused the situation in the area could be that the pro-Treaty military had been able to get so far, but success was impossible for them.
The IRA took many prisoners, and then recorded one of their biggest achievements of the entire war to that point that same evening. A party of National Army was discovered near Thomastown, between Kilmallock and Charleville. Under the command of a Commandant Cronin, they were disobeying orders in being where they were, as O’Duffy had forbidden such advances until the rest of the county was cleared. A rapid movement of Executives had their forward column pinned down inside a farm house, from which they were forced to surrender before nightfall. The exact number of captured troops is in dispute, but was high for one days worth of fighting maybe as many as 78, and they came with plenty of guns and ammunition.
Worse still was to come when, on the following day (the 24th), a section of the advancing pro-Treaty military came under attack in Ballingarry, beyond Bruree to the north-west. Led by Tom Flood, this unit is often described as elements of the Dublin Guard, but seems more likely to have been general infantry of the National Army that may have included some members of that more elite unit. They group ran into an anti-Treaty position near a bridge outside the town, whereupon they were engaged in a drawn out firefight. Three of them were killed before the rest were able to retreat. The entire affair, in combination with the disasters of the previous day, painted a picture of a haphazard National Army advance that was allowing itself to be defeated in detail. O’Duffy called a temporary halt to offensive operations as he tried to find order in the chaos, and to get reinforcements into the area. He firmly believed that he was facing the very best of the anti-Treaty side and in many ways he was correct. But the pro-Treaty side, through this sloppy movements and uncoordinated advances, were making life easier for the republicans than it had to be. A rough frontline now existed, stretched from just south of Bruff in the east, to north of Bruree in the west, and the two sides exchanged potshots along this front for the next few days.
It was not lost on men like Deasy that the IRA was having its biggest successes when operating as either a mobile force – one of their roving armoured cars, dubbed “The River Lee”, was cursed by pro-Treaty officers as roving machine gun nest – or as a guerrilla one, waiting in ambush to pick off individual units of the enemy. Even at this point, as it seemed that the IRA had the advantage in the fighting, messages were sent to IRA HQ urging a reversion to all-out guerrilla warfare and an abandonment of the conventional stance, but Liam Lynch was not to be dissuaded just yet. The refusal to accept such advice, or to advance against the enemy, effectively stymied republican mentalities in the area, which wasn’t helped when it was learned that many of the prisoners taken in the previous few days had simply been released after being disarmed, with the anti-Treaty side having no ability to house them.
A few days passed as O’Duffy and Murphy built up their forces, decisively swinging the advantage of the conflict in the area to the pro-Treaty side, an advantage that would not be relinquished. The first on the list of targets was Bruree, with Murphy planning a large assault from the north-east with plenty of infantry, armoured cars and artillery. At the same time, a unit of the Dublin Guards under Tom Flood would by-pass the town and attack into from the opposite direction. As part of this operation there would be diversionary attacks up and down the line between the opposing army. An engagement around Ballygibba, between Bruree and Kilmallock, where several National Army soldiers were killed – arguably after they were taken prisoner, though this is not a definitive conclusion – may well have been part of these diversionary operations, though it is sometimes linked to different engagements in the same general battle.
The attack, carried out most likely on the 28th July, proved a complete success. The anti-Treaty defenders held out from the dual assault for roughly five hours, with a position at the towns railway bridge particularly important. But the weight of numbers was too much to deal with, and the IRA had little they could do against the threat of armoured cars like the “Danny Boy” that were employed by their opponents. When the National Army seized the hillocks that surrounded the town – and cleared off a herd of cattle that lay in their path – they had unobstructed access for their artillery. Some sources claim only two shells were fired before the IRA withdrew in the direction of Kilmallock, conscious that Bruree, surrounded on all sides by heights, was untenable once National Army 18-pounders were capable of raining down fire. A small vanguard held the railway bridge for a time, but before the day was out Bruree was captured. The victory put O’Duffy in a fine mood, and he was soon insisting that the fall of Kilmallock was only a short time away, now covered as it was on three sides.
O’Duffy’s confidence was to prove somewhat misplaced. A few isolated engagements took place over the following few days as the IRA expanded their control of the area around Kilmallock and the National Army continued to move forces into the region. The battle for Tipperary Town around this time, and its final capture on the 31st, had an impact on the Kilmallock fighting, with a threat to the republican right flank now becoming clear: it was only 30 km’s or so to the east. But Deasy was not contemplating withdrawal just yet. Instead, he decided to strike back, and attempt to disrupt National Army plans by aiming a counter-attack in the direction of Bruree. The wisdom of such a move was questionable, especially in light of the collapse of the conventional anti-Treaty position all around, but it showed that the IRA in Kilmallock were more committed to fighting it out than many other units of the same ideology around the country.
Deasy’s plan called for a major diversionary strike at Patrickswell, just south of Limerick City, with the intention of cutting off any possibility of reinforcements coming to Bruree from that direction. This would take place before a major assault on Bruree itself, to be carried out by as many Volunteers as possible, with the support of at least two improvised armoured cars and a trench mortar: the closest thing that the IRA had to artillery. The hope was that the pro-Treaty garrison, overconfident of victory and thinking the republicans incapable of such an attack, would be caught off guard and expelled, before they had the chance to enact a defence or get reinforcements to aid them.
The first part of the mission went nearly perfectly, with Patrickswell falling into anti-Treaty hands in the early hours of the 2nd August. A force of men under Henry Meaney, a well-know and popular IRA officer from Limerick, had been able to steal that far north under the dead of night and stunned the few National Army defenders, some of whom may have been drunk. A series of short firefights resulted in one wounded pro-Treaty soldier and the surrender of the town, with 25 members of the National Army going into a temporary captivity. A unit of the Dublin Guard would rapidly force out the IRA from Patrickswell the following day, with Meaney killed in the process, but that night the attack accomplished its objective.
With Partrickswell temporarily secured, Deasy went ahead with his assault on Bruree, which exploded into the town from the west around 6.30 in the morning, though missing one of the armoured cars, The River Lee, which broke down on the way. The pro-Treaty soldiers there were under the command of Tom Flood, based in the Railway Hotel on the east side of the town: they also held the town schoolhouse to the west and the Bruree Lodge to the south. The schoolhouse was the first major point of attack, its front door rammed by the leading armoured car and its defenders subjected to sudden fire from a near point-blank range. After a two-hour firefight, it was captured. At the same time other anti-Treaty fighters advanced further into the town, and began a siege of the Lodge, where most of the mortar fire they were able to direct was aimed: however the defenders were able to keep up a fire consistent enough to prevent the mortar from being placed close enough to do decisive damage. An armoured car drove up close to the Lodge on several occasions, but it and its occupants were beaten back every time.
Flood was also beleaguered in the Hotel – it was a sign of the numbers the IRA employed here that they were able to carry on three separate attacks in this manner – and moved most of his men to an adjacent building that was deemed more secure, doing so successfully under fire. By now the fighting in the town had lasted into the afternoon, and in so doing had largely sealed the fate of the anti-Treaty attack. A relief column, under General Seamus Hogan, now arrived, coming from the direction of Limerick City, having taken the time to by-pass Patrickswell. It included copious amounts of troops but, more importantly, the ARR “The Customs House”, with Hogan himself inside the vehicle. The arrival of this force caused the IRA to retreat back in the direction of Kilmallock, it being pointless to stand and fight in such circumstances. “The Customs House” pursued its IRA counterparts for some time down the Kilmallock road, but broke off the pursuit when its machine gun jammed.
The failure of this attack on Bruree largely determined the final outcome of the battle, though even if the IRA had been able to secure the town it is likely that a final National Army victory would only have been delayed, not prevented. The IRA plan had not been a bad one, but was very reliant on the speedy takeover of the town: when the National Army put up more resistance than was expected, it was only a matter of time before the republicans would be obligated to withdraw. The technological difference between the two armies was also very apparent here, with the single Whippet employed by the National Army making a larger impact than any of the improvised cars used by the IRA. Anti-Treaty morale, hanging by a thread in many instances, was irrevocably damaged, while on the opposite side the provisional government now firmly believed that it was impossible for their opponents to hold Kilmallock for much longer.
Not that it was considered that the effort to take the town would be all that easy. O’Duffy firmly believed that the IRA would fight it out for Kilmallock, and that there were hundreds of Volunteers waiting. The hills to the north of the town would have to be secured before any final advance, and even with their advantages in numbers, guns and morale, the bulk of the National Army troops were still either untested or not especially trustworthy. They struggled to follow operational orders, like Murphy’s instruction to dig trenches at certain points, or to be suitably ready for coordinated forward movements. Deasy made his preparations as best he could, cutting roads, felling trees, placing men on the heights around the town and preparing sniper positions, while the local population, now badly beset from the elongated fighting, huddled in their homes.
The plan of attack, instituted after many delays in the early hours of the 4th August, called for a general advance along the entire length of the frontline. The initial aim would be the clear the many hills that were on the perimeter of Kilmallock – Knocknasouna Hill to the west, Ash Hill to the south-west, Kilmallock Hill to the north, Quarry Hill to the north-east, among others. With these heights taken, and with suitable placing of artillery, a more general advance into the town would then occur from opposite directions. Other IRA outposts in the area, like at Ballygibba, would be assaulted at the same time. Armoured cars would be employed, and more distant artillery would support the initial advances. Murphy was considered in his approach, making little in the way of risky choices, but he did want a pursuit of a routing enemy to be undertaken if they were forced to flee from Kilmallock in disorder: in many ways, the National Army expected that they could crush the entire areas garrison of republicans then and there. This was ambitious however, not least because by most accounts the IRA actually outnumbered the pro-Treaty military at this stage of the fighting, with somewhere in the region of a thousand Volunteers still in or around Kilmallock. But additional reinforcements from Limerick City coming into the area would even the odds somewhat as the attack progressed.
The first serious fighting of the advance occurred at Kilmallock Hill, where artillery rained down on anti-Treaty machine gun posts, but the IRA held their ground for a time. The attackers were forced to break off the more focused attack and then come at the hill from two different directions with armoured car support. This more inventive assault succeeded in taking the objective. Quarry Hill was harder to take, owing to, as the name suggests, the man-made excavations that republicans used for cover, but additional artillery fire eventually forced their retreat. As in other parts of the country, the IRA has no answer for the big guns. Knocknasouna also fell rapidly, taken by Dublin Guardsmen under Tom Flood advancing from Bruree, and the position at Ballybigga, captured after an hour long firefight.
By the mid-afternoon, the heights surrounding Kilmallock had been cleared by the enemy. The men were exhausted by the effort however, and it was determined that an immediate advance into the town should be put off until the following morning. It was a critical delay in many ways, but perhaps not an unwise one: getting an army of the like that the pro-Treaty fielded to attack and seize heights was an impressive feat, but pushing unreliable men too hard was a recipe for disaster. Through the night small groups of anti-Treaty fighters would briefly engage with pro-Treaty positions on the hills, but these were more nuisance attacks than serious operations: the pro-Treaty side had at least learned something from the near setback at Bruree, and prepared for counter-attacks accordingly.
The following morning, the final advance into Kilmallock took place but, against expectations, there was to be no last battle. The National Army entered the town, to a raucous reception by the overjoyed locals if you believe certain accounts, to find that it had been abandoned by the anti-Treaty side. Deasy had ordered a withdrawal, which had been carried out before the start of the attack on the Kilmallock hills, continued through the late evening and night of the 4th August, and the early hours of the 5th. The force that had held the hills was only a portion of Deasy’s overall available men, fighting a rearguard action. With their defeat, and this final advance into the undefended town, the battle was over.
But it had not been, at least not primarily, Murphy’s assault that had proved the knock-out blow. As stated, Deasy and others were hugely concerned at the possibility that their right flank was enormously exposed by the capture of Tipperary Town, and this threat doubled owing to the landing of National Army troops to the west, at Fenit, Co Kerry. As stated before, I will devote a separate entry to the provisional government’s naval landing operations, but it suffices to say for now that the landing of this troops again altered the larger strategic picture, even if Fenit was a 100 km’s or more away from Kilmallock. There was little standing in the way of a National Army advance from that direction, and Deasy would have been rightly fearful of a possible encirclement of the men he had in Kilmallock and nearby Charleville if he didn’t get them moving. Moreover, with the news that the pro-Treaty side had now invaded Kerry, it became impossible for Deasy to hold onto the men he nominally commanded from that county, who headed home in rapid fashion. These may have numbered as many as 300, and their presence in Kilmallock was one of the reasons that the Fenit landing was able to take place as it did.
This is not to state that the National Army troops bearing down on Kilmallock from the north had no part in Deasy’s decision. Kilmallock would have fallen eventually, owing to pro-Treaty weight in numbers, weapons, big guns, armoured cars, etc, and Deasy was no fool, and certainly not the type to enact a doomed last stand. But the factors away from the Kilmallock triangle were a huge part of the final decision. The anti-Treaty retreat was a mixture of controlled and chaotic, as Deasy kept some parts of his overall force together, but other elements broke off and largely went their own way, reflective of the disorganised manner in which the IRA was operating at the time.
It is hard to determine exact casualty rates for the battle, owing to its scattered nature and the fog of propaganda, with newspapers in Limerick City routinely claiming massive IRA fatalities for every engagement. On the other hand, neither side was good at keeping track of their dead or wounded for official purposes. At least seven National Army soldiers were killed in the fighting, and at least eight IRA Volunteers, but there were more than likely more on both sides who could be added to the rolls of the dead, either listed as killed elsewhere or not listed at all. The higher estimates go as far as twenty on each side, with many more wounded.
Though the largest battle of the Civil War, Kilmallock was in many ways a confused, messy affair, with one amateur army facing another that was barely out of its embryonic phase. As such any analysis of the procedure of it, and its outcome, must keep in mind the general haplessness that both sides displayed at different moments. That being said, there are a number of instructive points that can be gleaned from what happened in the south of Limerick at the end of July and the first week of August.
On the pro-Treaty side, they once again showcased the possibilities that came with having a much better and more steady supply of men, even if many of those men were barely trained. Though the anti-Treaty military outnumbered the provisional government at many points in the battle they were never able to do much with that advantage, but they did suffer under the weight of numbers when the roles were reversed. The National Army also made enormous use of their material advantages, most especially in armoured cars, whose intervention was critical at Bruree, and in artillery, that remained an unstoppable force when properly employed. The IRA struggled to make the same kind of impact with their improvised armoured cars, and the best they could do against artillery was to try and use small arms fire to delay its use.
In a higher strategic sense, the Battle of Kilmallock did huge credit to the provisional government. They made a slow, cautious advance, perhaps too slow at times, but their reward was the gradual pushback of the enemy and total victory at the conclusion. Kilmallock was isolated bit-by-bit, and advances made by the pro-Treaty movement outside of Limerick fed into the eventual triumph there. Murphy may have tried to employ World War One-era tactics a bit too literally at times, but the manner in which he and O’Duffy were able to sweep the enemy from Limerick spoke for itself, even if they hit plenty of speed bumps along the way. On the other side it was the same old story for the IRA in the conventional phase of the Civil War: hopelessly immobile in villages and towns they couldn’t hold under sustained assault, unwilling to move to all out guerrilla warfare, racked by bad communications and hamstrung by the insidiousness of parochial rivalries between different units. The IRA in Kilmallock were at their best when they operated as a mobile force engaging in rapid ambushes and strikes of isolated enemy positions, and when they played that role it was often only the employment of game changers like armoured cars and artillery that prevented their victory.
More than anything perhaps though, the provisional government has momentum, morale and esprit de corps on their side. However you want to put it, they were able to set the tone for the engagements and follow through eventually, maintaining a steady forward advance that buoyed the spirits of their own troops and dampened that of the enemy. The Executives were already a beaten army in many respects before the Battle of Kilmallock even started, retreating as they were from Limerick City, and their inability to counter-attack in force only fed into this feeling. It would have been hard to argue at most points of the battle that the IRA was fighting only to delay the pro-Treaty advance, not defeat it outright, and once the rest of the republican line in Munster was breached or outflanked, it was only a matter of time before the will to fight it out in the Kilmallock triangle vanished completely.
In the days after the fall of Kilmallock, the final collapse of the IRA position in Limerick took place. Up to then they had still held a number of towns and villages in the west of the county, but these now changed hands in rapid fashion, most with with little in the way of resistance. The anti-Treay units could only delay the tide now rolling over them, and if things ever got too difficult for the advancing soldiers, armoured cars or artillery could be brought up to dislodge the defenders, with rapid withdrawals or surrenders afterwards. In two instances was their fighting that could be described as more serious: at Adare, on the evening of the 4th, where determined resistance from machine gun positions in the town had to be quelled by an 18-pounder, and at Newcastle West on the 7th, when troops advancing from Rathkeale were forced to drive republicans out in an extended gunfight, with both Whippets and artillery employed before the job was completed. The shelling of the IRA HQ in the town, at Devon Castle, precipitated the final withdrawal. Within a few days, all of West Limerick could have said to be cleared. The conventional war in the county was over.
But it was still not over in the rest of Munster, though the day was not far off. Throughout the war the pro-Treaty side utlised advantages that their anti-Treaty opponents could not replicate. In the next entry, I want to finally take the time to look at the provisional government strategy of utilising another one of these, namely the naval dimension: in the transporting of troops and the landing of them on enemy-held territory, operations that undoubtedly contributed in a significant manner to the rapid collapse of the IRA in this phase of the conflict.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.