Ireland’s Wars: The Coastal Landings And The Kerry Campaign

The naval dimension of military operations had never been an enormous part of the Irish War of Independence. Sure, the Royal Navy ferried troops between Britain and Ireland, but the service was largely a side player in the events that unfolded on Irish soil. And this was more than just the difficulty of getting sea-based personnel and technology involved in a guerrilla war: the Royal Navy actively declined the chance to be involved, such as with suggestions that they provide the scope for amphibious landings during the sweeps for IRA columns. Its leaders were aware of the disparity of effort that would have to be employed relative to likely results, and further that their many isolated coastguard stations on the Irish coast would be more likely to come under attack if they were to pursue a larger role. The IRA did indeed attack a few of these during the course of the war, but it never became a standard policy. The British side of the War of Independence remained primarily an infantry one. Now, a year after the end of that conflict, the new provisional government in Dublin had the opportunity to institute a more pro-active seaborne element to their military operations, and were determined to do far more than the Royal Navy ever had in the previous few years.

The benefits of using the naval dimension were obvious. Leaving aside only the occasional act of piracy – owing to the war inland there was a boom on merchant shipping during the war, and these were tempting targets – and encounters with anti-Treaty Volunteers moving between western islands in currachs, the pro-Treaty side had nearly complete dominance of the seas. Utilising this advantage, in the same manner that the National Army had utilised its sole ownership of artillery, made perfect sense. But it would require the creation of a Navy from scratch, and then the proper command and utilisation of that Navy. In May 1922 the provisional government paid £4’400 – over €220’000 in modern terms – to purchase four former Royal Navy submarine chasers, dubbed simply M-L-1 through M-L-4 (for “Motor Launch”). The small patrol craft were only 100 feet or so in length and were armed with just a Lewis Gun. On their first journey to Cobh as Irish Naval vessels, one sank after getting into engine trouble, and another caught fire though it was later repaired. It was not an auspicious start.

But the launches were enough to serve their purpose, as a constabulary navy to protect coastlines and the wider river estuaries, like that of the Shannon, and as a protection for the biggest project of the sea-based military plans of the pro-Treaty side. After the war started, it was General Emmet Dalton who first proposed that the National Army should embark troops on boats and then land them at critical points throughout the west and southern coasts. In so doing they would bypass the main anti-Treaty lines of defence, such as that which allegedly signified the boundaries of the “Munster Republic”, and the Shannon, which early on many feared could be used as another line, though the reality quickly asserted itself. Even with National Army advances throughout the country, Dalton pushed hard for the institution of coastal landings, to greater speed victory and to enact yet another trump card that the IRA would be unable to effectively counter.

In order to make Dalton’s vision come true, the provisional government needed more than just motor launches, with those small boats incapable of transporting more than a few people at a time. If an amphibious invasion was to be carried out, several times over, then the pro-Treaty side would need transport vessels that could house at least a few hundred armed men, with guns, vehicles and whatever other material of war they would need. To this end the government requisitioned the use of a number of steam-powered ferries, usually used to transport people and goods back-and-forth across the Irish Sea. These were the Lady Wicklow, the Arvonia, the Margret and the Minerva. The four ships would take part in a number of operations, and were then promptly returned to their original owners.

The first seaborne landing would be at Westport, by late July one of the last major urban centres in Connacht that was still in anti-Treaty hands. In many respects the landings were not needed, as Westport’s garrison was increasingly isolated by National Army advances throughout the province, with Castlebar, only a short distance away, falling a few days beforehand. The Westport operation is thus sometimes described as a likely trial run of the concept, to see if the National Army was capable of pulling it off, with the intention of allowing future operations if they were successful. It wasn’t just a matter of getting to the point of disembarkation after all, but of seizing that point by force and then securing the surrounding area: the closeness of the Castlebar units meant that the Westport operation had less inherent risk, with the town likely to fall to a landward assault of the seaward one did not work out.

The vessel chosen was the Minerva. On the 22nd July 400 men of the National Army, one armoured car and one 18-pounder embarked onto the ship in Dublin, and two days later arrived in the general vicinity of Westport. A delay occurred when the man in charge of the effort, a Commandant Christopher O’Malley, was informed by a local pilot that the Minerva was too big to dock at Westport’s quay. This may well have been misinformation, designed to prevent the landing, and O’Malley, after being unable to get in contact with Dublin to request instructions (a belated message would arrive calling off the landing, after it had taken place) and finding it impossible to transfer to a different ship, went ahead with the operation on the afternoon of the 24th.

Forty of the men aboard landed separately by means of fishing boats in order to attack and take a nearby coastal station, that was being used to house National Army prisoners. The rest went ashore in the town itself, after an unexpectedly uncontested docking. The town had been abandoned by the enemy, whose only resistance was the attempted burning of the local barracks. The National Army force was able to secure the town quickly, and then immediately set-off to join their compatriots at Castlebar, part of the final operations in the area that essentially extinguished the anti-Treaty hopes for further contesting the Civil War in its conventional phase.

The provisional government forces were lucky things had turned out as they had. The Minerva had no armour, and no guns beyond those held by the men it was transporting: if the anti-Treaty Volunteers had decided to fight the landing, it is likely they could have inflicted many casualties. They would have benefited from the fact that the steamer could only discharge its quarry at the Westport dock, therefore they were was only a very limited space that the National Army troops could have been disembarked onto. The provisional government had done only the bare minimum in scouting out the area beforehand, and almost nothing in the way of logistical planning (hence why O’Malley had feared he would be unable to dock). The failure to contest the landing was another in a long list of anti-Treaty failures inspired by lack of firm leadership or commitment to the struggle. More consequentially, the success of the affair would now inspire additional landings, which may have been forestalled if the IRA that had held Westport had made even a small attempt at resistance.

The next landing was the largest, and most important from a strategic perspective, leading into another significant land-based campaign in an anti-Treaty heartland. It aimed to put troops ashore in North Kerry, bypassing the anti-Treaty line nominally held from Limerick to Waterford, essentially undercutting the IRA position. In reality by the time it went ahead the Munster Republic was breached in multiple places, but the chosen landing site, the coastal town of Fenit, 10 km’s from Tralee, still constituted territory behind the lines at the time of the operation.

On this occasion the provisional government, mindful of how important the affair was, were happy to commit some of their best troops. The force that embarked onto the Lady Wicklow were 450 men of the Dublin Guard, commanded by the Squad’s Paddy Daly, last seen in this series commanding pro-Treaty troops in the Battle of Dublin. Like the Westport landing, the force carried with it an armoured car – the re-christened “Ex-Mutineer”, that had been captured by the IRA but was then re-taken by the National Army after the Four Courts assault – and an 18-pounder gun. Travelling from Dublin in late July, the Lady Wicklow steamed into view of Fenit on the 2nd August, with its compliment of infantry hidden below decks to maximise surprise. The small anti-Treaty garrison, used to civilian craft docking in Fenit and not adequately cautious, did not interfere with the pulling up of the vessel. Still, when it was realised what the Lady Wicklow contained, a fight did ensure, but it was too late to make much difference.

Under the cover of Lewis Guns on the deck, and the machine gun of the armoured car, a vanguard made it ashore and engaged in a brief firefight with republican defenders, who were eventually driven off, allowing for a more substantial unloading of troops. The pier had been rigged to blow by the IRA, forewarned to some degree by what had happened in Westport, but the charges had been disconnected by local fishermen fearful for their livelihoods should they go off. It was fortunate for the National Army that such an eventuality occurred, as if the pier was destroyed or disabled the Lady Wicklow would have had no means of disembarking its material. But it was able to, and Fenit was rapidly secured. The opportunity for a rapid counter-attack by men in nearby Tralee was lost owing to the lack of telephone connections from Fenit to warn them.

Daly’s force still had a major job ahead of them operating on their own in enemy country with the nearest allies some distance to the east. But, as stated in the last entry, many of Kerry’s anti-Treaty Volunteers were fighting in the Kilmallock triangle at the time, so Daly had a certain freedom of movement. He and his force advanced rapidly enough out of Fenit, engaging the small enemy garrison in the village of Spa, between Fenit and Tralee: two National Army soldiers were killed and one republican in this engagement, before Daly was able to press on. His target was the two barracks in Tralee, Moyderwell in the town centre and Ballymullen more to the south-east.

The leaders of the IRA in Tralee were resigned to withdrawal even at this point, though they elected to make am fight of it to a certain extent. O’Daly’s men were inside the boundaries of the town by the early afternoon taking its key buildings and barracks in a series of rapid firefights. If they didn’t resist the landing to the required degree, the IRA here certainly put up a much stronger defence. Casualties were high, especially in an extended clash at the junction of Tralee’s Rock and Pembroke Street, where an IRA Lewis Gun position at Shamrock Mills was able to wreck havoc on the pro-Treaty advance. Six Dublin Guardsmen, and one member of the Army Medical Service, are recorded as being killed in the advance on or storming of this position, one of the highest single engagement death tolls in the course of the Civil War. The IRA holding the place were later accused of firing on medical personnel tending to the sounded, with Daly waving a Red Cross flag himself to try and get them to stop.

Daly changed his plan of advance in response to this resistance, choosing to come into the town centre from a more northerly direction down Nelson Street, modern-day Ashe Street. Using this route his column was able to get close enough to rain rifle grenades down on Moyderwell Barracks, securing its evacuation. From there the Guardsmen advanced rapidly on Ballymullen, finding the main IRA position in Tralee abandoned, and only partially burned down. Daly’s major objective had been achieved.

Worse for the IRA, nearly 250 men of the 1st Western Division were now cleared to cross the Shannon from County Clare in fishing boats to land on the northern coast of Kerry and proceed as rapidly as possible to Tralee, adding to the pressure. The anti-Treaty position in that part of the county, such as it was, collapsed rapidly, with most IRA units choosing to abandon towns and villages without a fight: Tarbert, Ballylongford, Listowel, Farranfore (where the IRA fled in the middle of dinner, to the delight of hungry pro-Treaty soldiers) and Castleisland were some of the most important points, with an artillery bombardment securing the last, the site of one of the final engagements of the War of Independence, only two days after the initial landing. Large numbers of prisoners, many of them rounded-up with the help of locals after the fighting, were taken. Despite their isolation – even the Lady Wicklow was gone, carrying the bodies of those killed in the advance on Tralee back to Dublin for a state funeral – the 700 or so men of the National Army were now firmly ensconced

In so doing, most of North Kerry was now in the provisional government’s hands, with the intended ripple effect occurring to the east, where Kerry Volunteers left the Kilmallock area of operations in droves. Daly’s mission had been an extremely dangerous one, undertaken as it was with only a bare amount of planning and a total lack of intelligence operations beforehand, but it had been pulled off. The result was that the anti-Treaty left flank was now completely exposed, and the National Army appeared to be bearing down on Killarney – only 13 km’s away from Farranfore – and South Kerry beyond. However the defeat of the republicans in the county was far from achieved, and indeed the pro-Treaty hold of the north was still somewhat precarious: several of Daly’s soldiers would be killed in the following days by snipers, the beginning of a particularly bitter asymmetric struggle in the area that would continue for sometime.

Having garrisoned these main urban points in the north of the county, Daly now stopped his advance: the next phase of the Kerry campaign would again see its genesis from a coastal landing. The Margret and the Mermaid set sail for the south coast of Kerry from Limerick City on the 10th August, carrying 200 men under General Tom O’Connor Scarteen. The General was one of the few IRA officers from Kerry to take a pro-Treaty position, and his knowledge of the South Kerry countryside would be invaluable in the coming fighting, though most of the soldiers he was commanding were untried recruits, prone to ill-discipline.

The target was Kenmare, a town at the top of Kenmare Bay at the junction of the Iveragh and Beara peninsulas. Roughly 30 km’s by road south of Killarney, Kenmare had been left unguarded, giving the National Army force an easy docking and disembarkation, with the town itself rapidly secured. The only sign that the IRA had even held the place was the burnt out remains of the local RIC barracks and a nearby lifeguard station. The following day Michael Collins, on a brief visit to Tralee to inspect arrangements there (and to put put feelers for a cessation of hostilities through republican prisoners) ordered for the efforts to occupy all major urban areas in the county to continue.

With the Kerry IRA now essentially fighting a war on two fronts, a devolution into guerrilla warfare was only sped up, with an ambush on a National Army column on the 12th near Listowel killing one soldier. Such attacks were a sign of things to come, but could not prevent the expansion of the provisional governments control. On the 13th August, Dublin Guardsmen approached Killarney, the HQ of the Kerry No 2. Brigade, where significat resistance was expected. The town, reportedly under the command of Erskine Childers had had several days to prepare its defences, and was alleged to have 500 Volunteers stationed there. In the end, the advancing National Army discovered only a fraction of that number, with the rest, if they had ever been there at all, retreating rather than fight a hopeless battle. Once again, the main sign of republican occupation was the burned remains of the RIC barracks. The town was taken without loss.

Over the next few days Rathmore, Castlemaine, Milltown, Killorglin and Caheercivan were among the towns/villages that fell without meaningful resistance. Even places like Dingle, which the provisional government had not yet advanced towards, were abandoned by the IRA. They were now moving to a different mindset, and the destruction of railways, cutting of roads and harassment of the enemy by small mobile forces were the order of the day, rather than any effort to hold the county and its key points in a conventional manner. That portion of the Civil War, at least, was over in Kerry.

The Fenit and Kenmare landings came either side of the other major provisional government effort to utilise the sea as a means of attacking the anti-Treaty side. Having taken Tipperary, Limerick, most of Waterford and most of Kerry, the National Army now had only one more major target in the Munster Republic. This was Cork, and more specifically Cork City, regarded by many, even in the absence of hard evidence, as the de-facto capital of the anti-Treaty movement. With the Executives in disarray throughout the province, it was felt that the Civil War could potentially be ended with its capture, and the way to forward that was through a seaborne attack.

But before we get to the final stages of the conventional Civil War, we must break from the military operations in Munster to go back to the east coast. Dublin has been secured in the early days of the Civil War, but anti-Treaty elements has not been entirely expelled from the capital: in the early days of August 1922, these elements attempted to enact a ambitious plan to isolate the city, and the political and military leadership of the pro-Treaty side, from the rest of the country. This audacious scheme would not work exactly as planned, and will be the subject of our next entry.

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

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12 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Coastal Landings And The Kerry Campaign

  1. Paul Curley says:

    “Daly’s force still had a major job ahead of them operating on their own in enemy country with the nearest allies some distance to the west”

    Don’t you mean to the east?

    I don’t mean to be nitpicking, I just really appreciate Ireland’s Wars every Tuesday, and trying to help you keep as accurate as possible.

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