When Cork City fell to advancing pro-Treaty forces on the 10th August, hopes would have been high that the Civil War was essentially over. In that strictly conventional sense, the anti-Treaty side had suffered total defeat, their armies repulsed in the field and their territory captured speedily. But if the Munster Republic had been unable to defend itself in a regular fashion, then its defenders were unwilling to simply lay down their arms when the opportunity for a less conventional resistance was present. Even before Lynch’s order that the IRA should begin guerrilla operations was sent from Fermoy, republicans around Munster were already engaging in such a struggle, commencing what was arguably the most successful period for the anti-Treaty faction in the entire Civil War. There were few places were they were able to garner more success than in the county of Kerry.
The reasons for this were clear, especially from a geographical perspective. The mountainous regions of Kerry were productive ground for any guerrilla force to operate out of, providing bases of supply and avenues of retreat that were not easily found out. The pro-Treaty side held towns and villages with relative ease, but found any venture into the countryside a dangerous prospect, as a variety of republican columns began their operations, striking at will against isolated patrols and then melting into the hills and peaks. Despite the larger number of National Army soldiers in the region, who had swept away resistance with only occasional delays a few weeks earlier, the IRA found themselves able to not only survive in Kerry, but thrive.
For the most part, this was to be a conflict marked by numerous small-scale engagements, involving just a handful of men. Sometimes there would be ambushes of convoys or patrols, sometimes it would just be a potshot taken at an identified member of the provisional government forces. Snipers, what we would call IED’s today, road cutting, communications sabotage and targetted assassination were all commonplace very quickly, with incidents on a daily basis throughout the rest of 1922. Most of these operations bear little deep examination, though this is not to downplay their significance: the IRA aimed to kill the National Army with a thousand cuts in Kerry, and started very quickly after the end of the conventional war. But they did still have the ability to make much bigger splashes.
One of the very first of these took place on the 18th August. That day a motorised column set out from Tralee for Rathmore, with Paddy Daly himself in command. The column aimed to greater establish the National Army’s control and essentially act as a reconnaissance in force of the larger East Kerry area and traveled with an armoured car and an artillery piece. An IRA group that may have been as strong as 70 men determined to attack the convoy, hoping that a strong enough show might ward off additional provisional government incursions into the area around the Clydagh Valley, a place of strong republican control. An ambush was planned for the Droum Bridge, but the National Army convoy came upon the site sooner than anticipated, interrupting trench digging and precipitating a confused engagement, as Volunteers were forced to hold their fire until comrades on the road were out of the way. Four National Army soldiers, including a Colonel of the Dublin Guard, were wounded before the armoured cars’ machine gun and the artillery piece set the IRA to flight. It was one of the few times in the guerrilla struggle that artillery was used in an engagement: what had once been a pro-Treaty trump card now held little advantage.
Just over a week later a large convoy of National Army troops, members of the 1st Western Division departed Tralee to travel to Killorglan. Consisting of maybe a hundred men, they were engaged repeatedly along the way. The first ambush, undertaken by a handful of Volunteers with a Lewis Gun, was rapidly neutralised, before a more sustained engagement with a larger number of IRA men down the line. In nearly three hours of fire, the commander of the pro-Treaty force was killed before the Westerns were able to push on. Three more times before the column got to outskirts of Tralee they would be attacked, forced to stop and then defend themselves long enough for the attackers to expend ammunition and disperse or be forced back by the weight of National Army fire. The death toll was comparatively light – one more soldier was killed to join the officer in charge- but the extent of the attacks along what was just a 20 km route is extremely telling regards the depth of republican opposition in the area, and their ability to move men, pick their targets and go on the offensive.
These are just some examples of the kind of ambushes that the National Army in Kerry was now routinely being hit by. The IRA had such a stranglehold on the countryside that it became increasingly impossible for the provisional government to maintain a transport or communications network. Roads were dangerous, canals were cut and railways were inoperable. Trains especially were becoming a constant target, whether it was the engines themselves or the rails they traveled on: an effort by the the IRA to direct a captured train at full speed into Tralee station was scuppered by fast-thinking employees, who re-directed the train down another line, where it derailed and exploded without hurting anyone. Eoin O’Duffy was obliged to rely on sea-based transports for communicating with garrisons. Certain roads, especially that between Tralee and Castleisland, were so infested with Volunteers that ambushes on convoys using the route became almost routine. Food convoys, designed to support outlying villages, were also frequent targets, though this republican tactic drew much criticism and provoked internal dissent.
Initial efforts to combat the growing insurgency proved largely ineffective. O’Duffy attempted to organise sweeps of the countryside in the manner that Crown Forces had done in the final months of the War of Independence, but his men lacked the experience and the gumption to pull off such advanced operations properly, and most of the active IRA slipped through the net. On one occasion a large sweep meant to encompass East Kerry and West Cork came to nothing when the orders were intercepted by the anti-Treaty faction before the operation began, meaning Lynch was able to direct his units out of harms way. Before too long a repetition of what had been done in Connacht was occurring, with the National Army withdrawing soldiers from isolated positions in outlying villages and townlands, unable to guarantee their safety. In certain areas, especially on the border of Cork, something akin to a regular occupation of land took place, with the IRA holding positions on a permanent basis, and able to move soldiers from point-to-point openly.
The provisional government also got itself into trouble with the nature of the soldiers it maintained in Kerry. They came from a number of different units and from different parts of the country – more than a few of them were from Kerry itself, recruited in a hurry during the initial subjugation of the county in August – but the ones making the biggest impression were the Dublin Guard. It would be somewhat churlish to call attention to the Dublin/Kerry divide in the context of the Civil War, but it is fair to say that they are often placed against one another when one wishes to speak on the urban/rural divide in Ireland on a county basis. If there was unit of the National Army that was most likely to appear as a foreign occupier to residents of Kerry, then the Dublin Guard was it. This was more important than it may seem, as a counter-insurgency struggle thrives on the co-operation of the local population with the COIN power. The Dublin Guards would have been viewed with mistrust by many, but then inflamed the situation by rapidly attracting a reputation for brutality in their dealings, whether it was with members of the IRA, suspected members, or civilians. The worst of it would come in 1923, but it was a factor much earlier than that, with extra judicial killings attributed to members of the unit as early as September 1922.
Not that the IRA was without blemish in terms of ill-discipline and brutality. Insubordination and lack of reliability remained rife in IRA units, with officers often obliged to retain Volunteers susceptible to looting or to vanishing for lengthy periods of time – for other work, or to help at harvest time – simply because they didn’t have anyone else to hand. A localised insurgency conflict where both sides had cases of their soldiers not adhering to orders, or having little regard for the safety of civilians or prisoners, was a recipe for a particularly vicious kind of war. largest part of Kerry’s population was caught in the middle.
Perhaps buoyed by the success of their earlier attacks, when September came the IRA was willing to try something bigger. A major incident of the period occurred in the town of Kenmare, in the south of the county, on the 9th September. That night, a force of roughly 80 anti-Treaty fighters stole into the town, and attacked the pro-Treaty garrison. The engagement was later trumpeted as an enormous republican success, and it is impossible to argue with the stash of arms and ammunition that was captured there, which kept local units in the fight for some time afterward. But the Kenmare battle was a chaotic one at best, that did not indicate that the IRA was truly at the level required to win the insurgency war long-term. There had been a total lack of intelligence gathering beforehand, so the IRA spent valuable time boring into buildings that turned out not to be National Army posts, the pro-Treaty commander of the town was shot dead while he was unarmed and the republicans lucked out in choosing their moment to attack when the garrison was reduced owing to men being out on sweeps (which was not done intentionally). But the psychological impact of the affair, not to mention the baldy needed guns and ammunition, could not be under-estimated. In line with the temporary capture, and burning, of Tarbert’s pro-Treaty barracks the following night, it showed that the IRA could triumph against the National Army.
Another attack later that month was of a similar nature, but had a very different result. On the 27th Sean Hyde led a large force of republicans against the National Army position at Killorglin, which consisted of roughly 60 men largely from Clare. Despite being hugely outnumbered – some have estimated that Hyde was leading 500 men, though it is unlikely all of them were adequately armed for sustained combat – the garrison held out, helped by a lack of coordination from different sections of the attacking force, and, again, a lack of intelligence about what exactly they were facing. The IRA was ignorant of enemy troop billets and locations when they attacked, were unable to take advantage of the lengthy amount of time they were given – nearly a full day elapsed between the start of the attack and its end – and took significant casualties from pro-Treaty fire: British intelligence would later estimate 23 of them were killed, but republican sources state there were far more wounded than killed. National Army reinforcements from Tralee dispersed the anti-Treaty fighters on her 28th. While Killorglin was undoubtedly a victory for the provisional government, the fact that one of its garrison had been forced to fight off an attack unsupported for a full day was evidence of how stretched things were in Kerry.
It should be noted that not every part of the county was aflame with resistance to the provisional government. The northern section, under the less than eager 3rd Brigade, was comparatively quiet against the middle and southern portions, much to the frustration of Lynch. Closer to Limerick and with more prosperous farmland that had little interest in aiding the IRA cause, the provisional government found it easier to exert their authority there. But that would have been scant comfort when leaders in Dublin were looking at the casualty figures coming in from the rest of the county, where it would very much have seemed that they were losing control.
Lynch would declare himself very satisfied by the way that things were going in Kerry as early as mid-September, writing that the county could be viewed as an example for the rest of the country. In terms of what would we call an anti-Treaty offensive in this portion of the Civil War, I would deem what was happening in Kerry to be a republican high-water mark, an area of territory where they were coming close to replicating the state of affairs that had existed in large parts of Munster during the War of Independence: with the regular faction confined to urban areas, local government impossible to maintain and the possibility of guerrilla units maintaining themselves as the IRA previously had. Lynch would have badly wanted to be able to replicate that status in other parts of Ireland, not least neighbouring Cork, which had so often been the hotbed for IRA resistance in the previous few years. But the National Army perhaps had a firmer foothold in that part of the country, and we will examine the opening months of the guerrilla war there next.
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