In the aftermath of the fall of Cork, the anti-Treaty IRA was left at a crossroads. There were certainly many voices within the faction that thought the war was no longer worth fighting, and it would be better to try and get out with as agreeable a peace as could be arranged. But there were many others who were determined to keep fighting, and believed that the end of the conventional struggle was an opportunity to be grasped. What followed over the the next few weeks and months is something that could be deemed an anti-Treaty offensive, at least of sorts. It certainly marked a period of success for the republicans, when they were able to inflict a huge amount of casualties on a National Army that was unable to pivot to being a counter-insurgency force very quickly. But it was also a loose, barely directed affair, marked by independence of operation all over the country. For that reason I want to take the next few entries to discuss this offensive on a regional scale, and I will begin in the east of the country.
It perhaps should be noted again that this was not a coordinated affair, unless we can count the general direction that the IRA should form into columns as co-ordination. In various places IRA units now stopped defending cities, towns or barracks’ and instead attempted to operate as they had the previous year, as either small platoon-sized entities living “on the run” and targeting the enemy as they saw fit, or just taking pot-shots whenever they could. The results, in the short-term at least, were astounding for the anti-Treaty position, which looked dead and buried following the fall of Cork. But the success of this period is really one for future entries: to a large degree it was not happening in Leinster.
In truth, the IRA position in Leinster was probably weaker than anywhere else in Ireland. The National Army had been able to secure the larger province rapidly after the victory they had achieved in Dublin, and in large swaths of it there was little to no republican military activity. This was not unique to the Irish Civil War: the IRA had often struggled to make an impact in the same region during the War of Independence, with counties like Kildare, Meath, Carlow, Wexford, Offaly and Laois relatively quiet compared to Dublin, large parts of Munster and the west. To a large degree this continued into the conflict between pro and anti-Treaty factions. There were many reasons for this – the nature of the terrain which did not favour guerrilla fighters, the larger-scale support for the Treaty in the region, the proximity to National Army concentrations in Dublin and legacies of poor organisation and leaderships – and it meant that the Irish Civil War’s guerrilla phase was not going to be one whose key events would be remembered as taking place in the east.
Command of the IRA in Leinster, in a roundabout way, had fallen to Ernie O’Malley, but despite his well-earned reputation as a fighter and leader during the War of Independence, there was only so much that he could do in the current situation. Dublin was always going to be a focal point for anti-Treaty operations in the province, but the failure of the Bridges Plot had left the Dublin IRA weaker than ever, short of men, guns and ammunition. The founding and then expansion of the new Criminal Investigation Department, which operated out of Oriel House on Westland Row, was also severely curtailing IRA activities. This specialised counter-insurgent police force, operating more in concert with National Army intelligence than with the Civic Guard (it’s commander, Pay Moynihan, was a transfer from Army intelligence), had close links to the Squad and saw much of its ground-level operations directed by Peter Ennis, brother of Tom, who had led the Republican Police in the capital for the past few years.
The CID, which probably only ever consisted of a few hundred individuals at most, rapidly gained a reputation for being brutally effective, or just brutal if you prefer. Utilising intelligence on IRA identities and locations they they had inherent knowledge of, and the help of a supportive, or at least cowed, civilian population, they were able to initiate a constant series of arrests of republican figures in the capital, from leaders to rank-and-file Volunteers. Subsequent interrogations are often claimed to have crossed the line into torture, and that’s before one considers the many fatal incidents attributed to the organisation, that had more than a hint of informal assassination to them. The CID’s activities made the IRA’s position in the capital even more precarious, as Volunteers struggled to know who to trust and to always be fearful of the door being broken down.
As a result they had to limit themselves to small scale attacks, and every minor success could inevitably be counted against a similar, if not greater, failure. A late July destruction of a train in Inchicore was followed by a mass round-up of IRA effectives the following day as an example, at a time when O’Malley claimed that nearly two-thirds of the men from the South Dublin Brigade were no longer available. Big splashes were planned, but rarely got close to the point of execution. These included attacks on Oriel House, the home of Richard Mulcahy, National Army barracks, or an attempted mass jailbreak from Mountjoy. The Dublin IRA, in the end, lacked the men and guns to carry out such attacks.
A typical example of what they could do were the events in the city of the 12th and 13th September. On the 12th a lorry of National Army troops was ambushed on the South Circular Road by IRA Volunteers, whose use of a grenade only killed two civilians. Chased into nearby Bishop’s Street after the initial engagement, one was killed and another wounded, both allegedly after their surrender. The following day three separate attacks on pro-Treaty targets – one in St Stephen’s Green, another in Mountjoy Square and a third on O’Connell Bridge – took place, with brief exchanges of fire and the use of more grenades. The toll at the conclusion was a handful of wounded soldiers, more wounded civilians and one dead Volunteer. These were not ratios that the IRA could really accept.
O’Malley was ordered to focus less on personnel and building targets and instead to do all that he could to disrupt communication lines from the capital, which was a worthwhile objective in many ways, what with Dublin being the political and military nerve centre of the country. But even here the IRA were hamstrung, by a lack of engineers and explosives. A real denouement of the anti-Treaty effort in the city was the capture of O’Malley himself in 4th November, after a shoot-out at a safe-house on Ailesbury Road. O’Malley had been re-assigned to take command of IRA units in the west of the country, from where he would probably have been more useful to the cause, but would now never get the chance. The republican campaign to fight the war in Dublin did not end with his capture, but was effectively stymied.
The rest of Leinster was going much the same way, only on an even smaller scale. Local IRA units were capable of mounting small attacks and even inflicting some casualties, but they were not set-up to maintain the kind of constant assault that Lynch and others would have wanted. It is a simple truth that throughout Leinster anti-Treaty IRA battalions, companies and columns were of a very small size, operating with limited amounts of ammunition in territory that could be called hostile and not suited for quick escapes to places National Army troops could not easily follow. But they did still have opportunities, and they did contribute to the sense of a republican bounce back that swept the country in the weeks after the conventional war had ended. Some examples will suffice.
Wicklow had seen some fighting in the last few weeks as anti-Treaty forces were removed from the border area around Blessington. Some IRA members remained active in that region for a time, and they were able to launch a brief ambush on a National Army lorry that was travelling through the town on the 20th August. Details are sparse, but we know that in the course of this engagement one soldier, a Private Peadar Kenny, was killed, and four others travelling in the vehicle wounded. The survivors were held up, with guns and ammunition taken. In many ways such a prize was of much greater worth to the republican cause than a dead National Army soldier.
In Wexford a more higher intensity struggle was maintained in the aftermath of the anti-Treaty collapse there. At least two active flying columns were formed out of the remains of the IRA, under Thomas O’Sullivan in New Ross, and Bob Lambert in the general region of Wexford Town. Utilising their knowledge of the local terrain and hidden boltholes, they conducted a resistance that caused the provisional government a great deal of trouble for a large amount of time. Frequent targets included railway lines – forcing the pro-Treaty military onto the roads, which were often mined or otherwise subject to ambush – and isolated examples of pro-Treaty authority, such as post offices. The National Army maintained a sizable garrison in the county, that may have reached as many as a 1’000 men, but were unable to bring O’Sullivan or Lambert to heel before the end of the war.
Arrests of officers did not have the same effect in Wexford as it had elsewhere, with the struggle maintained despite the routine decapitation of units’ leadership. Ambushes were constant: two soldiers killed, seven wounded, in a train ambush at Killurin in late July; one killed at Ferrycarrig in early August; four wounded in an ambush near Enniscorthy later that month; an officer shot dead at the side of the road near Newtownbarry in early October followed shortly by another ambush near Enniscorthy that left two soldiers dead; three killed and four wounded near Ferrycarrig again when their Lancia was the subject of a bomb attack later in the month. The pro-Treaty side would be tied down in the south-east for some time, though it must be stated that the IRA campaign never came close to driving their opponents out of the county.
Just over the border to the west was Kilkenny, which remained comparatively quiet. A major exception occurred on the morning of the 21st August, near Redmonstown, not far from the Tipperary border. The local IRA column, now fully dedicated to guerrilla warfare after the failure of the conventional struggle in the area, received word of a National Army force marching nearby on their way to Clonmel. The Volunteers prepared the road for the ambush by felling trees, and while doing so were surprised by the sudden arrival of a car containing Frank Thornton, one of Michael Collins’ foremost intelligence officers. A brief firefight erupted where the driver of the car, a Private Richard Cantwell, was fatally wounded and Thornton badly injured, though he survived. Despite the surprise, the IRA won the day, but were obliged to disperse rapidly after moving the wounded. Sporadic anti-Treaty activities would continue the county, but this ambush remains one of the stand-out examples of republican military operations in Kilkenny.
Throughout the early months of the guerrilla conflict, Dundalk continued to be a location of violence, in the aftermath of Frank Aiken’s audacious attack there. There were many parts of Leinster where the physical geography did not lend itself to the correct application of this form of warfare, but in Louth the republicans were able to utilise political rather than physical geography to their advantage. Time and again they would carry-out small scale attacks, and then retreat north just over the border, where National Army troops could not pursue. Of course such things carried risks, as the Northern Irish government was certainly hostile to the IRA, but for a time it allowed anti-Treaty fighters in that area a degree of latitude they did not have elsewhere. Snipers killed provisional government troops in Dundalk itself, communications between the town and Dublin were routinely cut and a garrison had to be maintained in the area to ensure that a repeat of Aiken’s attack did not take place.
Meath was a somewhat more active than some of its neighbouring countries, thanks largely to the efforts of a handful of more pro-active officers, but the death toll they were capable of inflicting on the enemy was low enough. One soldier was killed in a barracks attack at Athboy in early September, others wounded in a similar operations in Oldcastle: in both attacks the IRA used explosives to try and breach the walls of the barracks before engaging the enemy in a brief firefight. Other than that there were constant efforts at disrupting transport links and communication, ahead of more spectacular operations later in the year in the county that I will get to in time.
It was a somewhat similar story in Kildare, which shared some officers and units with the Meath area, and perhaps owing to it’s relative quiet during the War of Independence had IRA Volunteers who were desperate to be more involved in the fight on this occasion. A spectacular success resulted late in October when a provisional government tender was ambushed at Graney crossroads, on the road between Castledermot and Baltinglass. The IRA, using cottages near the crossroads for firing positions, blocked the roads with fallen trees and poured fire on the vehicle when it entered the area. The truck was rapidly halted and three of its occupants killed, with most of the others wounded to some degree, one fatally. Their arms and ammo were taken, and the truck burned. The episode demonstrated the dangers that lay in areas that the National Army may not have had reason before to be worried about, and in small patrols of only one vehicle.
In the end though, these incidents amount to pinpricks, and were the exceptions rather than the rule. The IRA in Leinster were more concerned with non-fatal operations, such as the cutting of roads or communications, than they were with ambushes and barracks attacks, and that was borne out not just in this immediate period, but in the rest of the war again. A lack of organisation and effective leadership at all levels, deficiencies in the supply of guns and ammunition, a large National Army presence and geography that did not suit IRA operational protocols all meant that, while Leinster was not entirely pacified and required significant resources to control, it was not the part of Ireland that carried with it the greatest threat to the pro-Treaty cause.
That place remained Munster. The National Army had smashed their opponents there in the conventional war, and now occupied every key-point with soldiers to spare. But the IRA had not been defeated, and before Lynch had even called for it, guerrilla attacks were taking their toll on the provisional government forces. In the next entry we will look at the beginnings of this phase, and the course of the anti-Treaty offensive, in the county that would arguably be the hardest location for the pro-Treaty side to pacify: Kerry.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.