The conventional Civil War was drawing to a close in August 1922. The anti-Treaty IRA had been defeated or forced to withdraw in every corner of the country. The Munster Republic had been invaded at every point of its frontier, and in a few places behind that frontier as well. Nearly all of the major urban centres initially held by the republicans had fallen to the National Army advance: Cork, city and county, was about as much as was left. As Liam Lynch tried to rally what kind of defence he could from his HQ in Fermoy, the provisional government closed in on Munster’s biggest city.
They could have just maintained the advance that was being undertaken from all directions. National Army troops that had been victorious at Kilmallock were now pushing into North Cork, and other directions – the north-east from Tipperary, the east from Waterford, the west from Kerry – only held more pro-Treaty soldiers all in a position to advance. But the thought of potentially having to fight through a bunch of small towns and villages to finish the job – in essence, to have to fight another Kilmallock, or more – did not appeal to the provisional government. In line with the successful amphibious landing of troops in Westport and Fenit, they were now happy to utilise their seaborne advantages once again, and in the process seize the last great bastion of anti-Treaty feeling in the area in a coup de main.
This is not to say that Cork was an area where the anti-Treaty side was dug in tight and ready to make an enormous final battle out of it. While the county was controlled by the IRA, there was no great enthusiasm for the fight from a significant number of Volunteers in the area, and rhe civilian population was as liable to have little regard for the anti-Treaty side, if not being outwardly pro-Treaty, as anywhere else. By the time of the events being described in this entry demoralisation was rife in the Cork IRA, especially the 1st Brigade, with many officers considering the war already lost and some openly questioning why it had been prosecuted at all after the fall of Dublin. The very best units had already been extensively engaged in Limerick City and then Kilmallock, and many of them were still very far away from their home areas: Cork City’s garrison at the time of the landing nearby was a comparatively less experienced lot, and as such were less dependable. Veterans of the Limerick fighting would filter into the Cork City area as the resulting campaign evolved, but they came exhausted and in little mood to prolong resistance. Before a ship set sail then, the provisional government already had a lot of advantages.
The landings on the Cork coast would be led by Emmett Dalton, the originator of the provisional government naval strategy and arguably one of the best officers the National Army had. Boarding two ships, the Arvonia and the Lady Wicklow, on August 6th in Dublin, Dalton and his 800-strong force were off the coast of Cork the following day. At the same time the Muirchu and the Alexandria also embarked troops for landings elsewhere. Dalton had the decks of the ships augmented with sandbag walls, clearly expecting that he would have to land under fire from shore.
The plan was to overwhelm republican resistance along the Cork coastline in one fell swoop, with three separate landings on the same day. Cork City and its large natural harbour would of course be the main target, but additional National Army troops would land further east at Youghal, and further west at Union Station. To some degree the extent of the operation was unnecessary, as the IRA had proven itself incapable of having different units support others, but the larger focus insured that the battle for Cork City was one where the anti-Treaty side would be unable to project all of its forces in the general area at one spot.
The Cork City force attempted their landing on the 8th, with troops hiding below decks in an effort to maintain surprise for as long as possible. They also had covert assistance from a Royal Navy ship in the area, who advised Dalton of the location of mines that the IRA had laid in the Bay. Initially intending to dock at Ford’s Wharf near the city, Dalton had to make a different call when, after a brief exchange of fire with IRA patrols, he found the way barred by two scuttled ships, that the republicans had deliberately sunk to forestall just such an eventuality. Dalton decided to turn and land his men at the town of Passage West, after which they would have to fight their way to Cork City.
Making their way around another scuttled ship, and with the way to Passage West relatively unmined, Dalton was able to dock his troopships successfully, though allegedly the ship’s captain was so nervous he had to be ordered to do so at gunpoint. The small garrison, initially misidentifying the ships as civilians, that was meant to be defending the position fled without offering much resistance, and Dalton was able to take his time unloading his men, armoured cars and artillery, ahead of an advance on Cork City the following day. The other landings went ahead successfully also: 200 men went ashore at Youghal, and 180 at Union Hall, facing only nominal resistance in both places. The IRA were more interested in burning down their buildings and retreating then making a fight out of it. In all three cases, the National Army could have been significantly hampered if they faced a proper defence, but in all three cases the defence was little more than a minor obstacle.
There was to be a much greater obstacle on the way to Cork City, with the anti-Treaty forces in the area cobbling together an impromptu defence with the men to hand. The best were men recently returned from Limerick or literally coming off a train from the aborted defence of Waterford: these took up defensive positions in the small urban areas between Passage West and Cork City, the most notable being Douglas and Rochestown, both of which are now more suburbs of the larger city. The IRA held hills from which they were able to pour fire on the advancing National Army, and for a time Dalton’s advance was checked.
The provisional government was forced to eke an advance bit-by-bit, changing direction, splitting forces and attempting flanking moves. The fighting got to the point of hand-to-hand in some instances and several National Army troops were killed, and more injured: Michael Collins, a nephew of his namesake, was among these. As night fell, the pro-Treaty military was still unable to make the required headway, and the republicans still held the heights. But the situation was untenable: the republicans were outnumbered, and diversionary attacks in the north of the county made the point that they were under assault from multiple directions, and could not possible hold off such advances. Indeed, before the battles for Rochestown and Douglas had even gotten into full swing, the decision had been made to evacuate Cork City.
The IRA in the city simply did not want to fight it out. They were too disorganised, too hard-pressed and too demoralised to contemplate that kind of operation, even if they could have expected to enact a not inconsiderable defence if they had wanted to. The point was what expectations they could possibly have for such a defence: a month on from a similar fight for Limerick City when the anti-Treaty side at least held far more territory and had a realistic chance of holding, fighting for Cork City would have been hopeless combat designed merely to extend the conventional Civil War by a few days or weeks, and not to win it. Barracks and other key buildings were set alight, and the IRA scattered to the north and west. On the 10th August, opposition in the Douglas and Rochestown heights melted away, and Dalton was able to march unopposed into Cork, where he and his men were greeted by raucous crowds. With that, the last major urban area held by the republicans had fallen into provisional government hands.
The final collapse of what was left of the anti-Treaty position was not long in coming, as the National Army advanced through what was left of the Munster Republic. The day after the capture of Cork City, Liam Lynch issued orders from Fermoy that the IRA units throughout the country still in the fight should cease the strategy of holdings towns and villages, and instead form into columns in order to prosecute a guerrilla struggle. After issuing this decree, he abandoned his own HQ, in Fermoy, burning down the barracks he had used for the purpose before moving to a more mobile form of headquarters in the nearby Glen of Aherlow. Within a short enough time, National Army troops marched into the town, but Lynch was gone.
The end of the conventional Civil War matched the pattern of much of what had come before. The anti-Treaty side could have made a very effective defence in theory. They could have done this by contesting the landings in a more committed manner, by establishing defensive lines on the road to Cork City, by preparing the city itself for urban combat. But this proved to be impossible for the IRA to accomplish. The Volunteers that were based in the Cork City area were largely unreliable and not motivated to fight the conflict to the extent required. The landing areas were sparsely garrisoned. And there was no appetite to turn Cork City into a warzone, especially when it was a war that republican leaders now realised they could not win, at least not in the manner they had been fighting it.
On the other side, the pro-Treaty military achieved their landings despite the initial point of disembarkation having to be changed, made a quick advance on the city and, once they were back on Irish soil, never looked like they were in serious danger of being thrown back into the sea. We should not overegg this analysis: in many ways the National Army was extraordinarily lucky in these operations. Dalton undertook them with little intelligence work beforehand, and if the landing at Passage West had been contested it is questionable if the provisional government would have been able to get into Cork at all. It’s possible that, if the IRA in the area decided to fight a last stand, that Dalton and his men would not have been able to get the job done. But armies can only fight those in front of them: Dalton and his men lucked out in their opponents being demoralised, in many ways inexperienced and unwilling to risk their lives in a doomed defence of a city whose inhabitants were only too happy to see them gone when they did leave.
In line with the capture of other towns and villages throughout the country in those chaotic few days, the fall of Cork and then Fermoy constitutes the end of the conventional Civil War. But it also constitutes the beginning of the next phase of the conflict. In the next entry of the series we will commence our look at the start of guerrilla conflict that was to last far longer than the Civil War had lasted thus far, and become one of the most bitter contests in the history of Ireland.
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