The Irish Civil War was progressing apace in Munster, where the anti-Treaty position was nearing its final end, at least in the conventional sense. The pro-Treaty military was proving itself victorious on just about every front. But while that was going on, a sudden danger became manifest far from the main area of operations. Dublin had been secured by the provisional government in the early days of the conflict, with its IRA occupiers expelled or neutralised. But the IRA was far from finished in the capital, and on the 5th August, they instituted an audacious scheme to turn things to their advantage nationally with a targetted strike at key positions in Ireland’s biggest city.
The bulk of the National Army was in Munster, most of what was left either that placed in scattered garrisons throughout Leinster, Connacht and southern Ulster. But it’s command, and a few select garrisons, were still in Dublin, based primarily in the Beggars Bush Barracks. On the political side, the provisional government’s cabinet was based in Dublin, with all of its Ministries and facilities of administration and organisation. The various commands of the National Army were, to a large degree, entitles unto themselves and could (and did) operate with a degree of independence, but the real leadership of the pro-Treaty cause was in Dublin, and issued their orders and directives from Dublin.
A strike at Dublin thus had obvious targets, but the anti-Treaty IRA knew it was in no way strong enough in the capital to launch any kind of operation to seize control of the city, or even to enact a doomed 1916-style rising if they had the mind. But what they could do was try and isolate the capital. There were only so may roads, all of which had to cross focal points at rivers and canals, that led in and out of Dublin, and only so many rail-lines with similar routes. If those critical transportation hubs could be captured or destroyed, then Dublin could suddenly be a very isolated place. More than that, it wouldn’t be in the best position to relay information and orders to the pro-Treaty military in the field. Such a situation could breed chaos in Munster, or even a halt to National Army operations.
Moreover, it was as much as the Dublin IRA could reasonably expect to accomplish. Ernie O’Malley, after the debacle in Wexford, had returned to the capital and was now leading its anti-Treaty Volunteers whilst in hiding, as well as nominally the rest of the IRA in the east. It was a poisoned chalice of a command: the Dublin IRA were in bits after the fighting had ended there, their structures torn to pieces, arms in short supply and provisional government forces arresting more people all the time, knowledgeable as they were about safehouses and other likely haunts. Getting a column formed out of what was left was hard enough, and when this was accomplished it did little more than just exist. O’Malley would complain time and again of how Liam Lynch seemed to ignore Dublin, where what little strength the IRA still had was placed next to opponents they could not hope to engage conventionally.
The plan to try and change this was fairly simple. On the appointed day various units of the IRA would assemble at the designated points, bridges like that at Glencullen to the south for example, and occupy them long enough to ensure their destruction, either through the use of explosives or other means. Railway lines and roads would be targetted in a similar manner. The whole thing depended hugely on the element of surprise, with the IRA not existing in enough force to enact their plan in the face of any kind of determined opposition. Dublin still had substantial amounts of pro-Treaty soldiers, and the nascent Irish police force, and that was more than the IRA could be expected to handle. Lynch, by then based in Fermoy, approved the plan, and the anti-Treaty military in Munster even perhaps even arranged for some engineers to be moved from Cork to Dublin, by way of Liverpool, to aid in the whole affair, though this is disputed.
But everything went wrong when Liam Clarke, an intelligence officer for the Dublin IRA, was captured two days before the plan was meant to go into effect. Clarke was unfortunate enough to be carrying documents with him at the time of his arrest that went into great detail about the operation, its targets and the men who were assigned to carry it out. An IRA storehouse was also raided around that time, with a stash of picks commandeered, and the provisional government may have been in receipt of other intelligence about the entire affair anyway. The bottom line was that the IRA was rumbled, which meant that the bridges plot was defeated before it had even started. The real problem for the IRA was that the men meant to enact it were unaware of this reality.
What forces the provisional government had to hand in the city were rapidly mobilised, consisting of at least a few thousand soldiers, though their usefulness would have been severely in question. British regulars, still holding a few positions ahead of a final withdrawal later in the year, were also on notice, though of course did not get directly involved. They didn’t need to: the National Army, forewarned and forearmed, had more than enough men to deal with the IRA plot, now that they knew exactly when and where it wold be enacted. The IRA men, split loosely into two forces, one for the north and one for the south of the city, were walking into traps.
Things happened quickly. IRA units either made it to their targets and were then surrounded, or found those targets already held in force by the National Army, who had arrived at the sites in force hours before hand: the element of surprise thus lay with the pro-Treaty side, while the IRA was let down by a lack of reconnaissance. The unprepared republicans were easy prey, with scores arrested, such as 30 taken at Glencullen near the Wicklow border, among them Noel Lemass, brother of future Taoiseach Sean. In Enniskerry, Finglas, Cabra, Blanchardstown, Fairview and Donneycarney, among others, the trap was sprung. In some cases there were firefights as the IRA attempted to shoot their way out of cordons, or even attempt to maintain their original mission, but in all such cases they were either rapidly overwhelmed or forced to disperse. The anti-Treaty military had precious little in the way of ammunition to fight such engagements, a weakness that their opponents did not share. In some instances armoured cars only tipped the scales further. Numerous officers of the IRA went into captivity as a result of the debacle. No bridges were destroyed, no roads were cut, no railways were damaged and the National Army took no casualties.
Those members of the IRA not involved directly, or able to escape, soon raised the alarm with their comrades, and their followed several hours of confused and chaotic engagements throughout the city. Republicans were attempting a manner of counter-attack, but it lacked anything resembling direction and soon petered out. A number of National Army posts were the subject of fire, and an effort to spring anti-Treaty prisoners from Mountjoy Jail was also attempted at this time, but every attack came to nothing: no casualties were sustained by the pro-Treaty side, no buildings were even temporarily captured and the IRA was eventually forced to melt away.
Hundreds of Volunteers had been captured to no result for the anti-Treaty side. The outcome was an enormous blow to any pretensions that the IRA had to being an effective fighting force in the capital, now down to their lowest ever numbers and shorter than ever on guns and ammunition. Those officers still at liberty despaired of the situation in Dublin, where the republicans had essentially put most of their eggs in one basket, for an operation whose success was always unlikely, and whose intended effect in the event of success was more unlikely still. The truth is that even if the bridges plot had been carried out to perfection, it would hardly have been the game changer that some in the IRA thought it would be: bridges could be repaired, roads could be uncleared and railway lines could be put back together. The anti-Treaty side couldn’t hold those positions to prevent repairs and, besides, it isn’t as if the military commands operating in Munster at the time were in any serious danger from a major counter-attack: the Munster Republic has about to imminently collapse. The best the IRA could have hoped for would have been to sow some short-term confusion in the pro-Treaty movement, and make them look weak in their own capital.
It was not the only plan to use Dublin’s status as the nerve centre of the pro-Treaty movement against that movement. Patrick Mullaney, a leading light of the anti-Treaty IRA in Kildare and Meath, is generally credited as the brainchild of a fanciful scheme to enact a rapid takeover of Baldonnell Aerodrome to the south-west of the city, and then use the captured military aircraft located there to bomb either Beggars Bush or Leinster House (then the seat of the provisional government, which would become a permanent arrangement within a few years) or both depending on who you believe. Such ideas reflect the desperation that members of the anti-Treaty faction must have been feeling in the late Summer of 1922: if Mullaney had been able to take over the Aerodrome, and if he has somehow been able to get planes in the air with munitions, and if he had been able to hit the planned targets, the damage he would have been able to inflict would have been unlikely to be much in the grand scheme of things (he would have been more likely to hit civilian targets anyway). Mullaney, who had been captured soon after the Four Courts attack but later escaped from National Army custody, was a strong believer in the idea though, and his apparent enthusiasm swept along others. He was able to cobble together enough support for the idea to twice get men from the Kildare IRA in position to attempt it, only for the plan to collapse both times owing to the lack of expected support from the Dublin IRA, something that embittered Mullaney hugely. He and his men would continue the fight with their own column in Kildare.
The bridges plot represented how dire things had become for the IRA, now facing defeat in the conventional struggle and willing to try anything to reverse the situation. The end of the first phase of the Irish Civil War would now not be long in the coming. There remained one last major urban centre to account for: the National Army was coming to Cork.
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