Ireland’s Wars: The Anti-Treaty Offensive In Cork

For the anti-Treaty side that was embarking on the continuation of the Civil War that the guerrilla phase represented, many hopes would have rested on Cork. It was a county that had seen arguably the highest concentration of anti-Treaty Volunteers, and had provided some of the most experienced fighting men to the cause in the battles for Limerick City and Kilmallock. Beaten down by the National Army advances on land and from the sea, the IRA had been defeated in Cork in the conventional struggle, allowing its major urban areas to fall without as much resistance as might have been expected, but the county that had seen the most spectacular successes of the War of Independence was still expected to be at the forefront of this new asymmetrical struggle. The reality would turn out to be a little different, as we shall see from this look at the later part of August 1922 and beyond.

Emmett Dalton, in command of a significant part of the county after his army took Cork City, was initially quite optimistic, reasoning that the IRA in the region would find little succor in a poor and war exhausted countryside, with the pro-Treaty military controlling the main urban areas, roads and railways. But he was soon to be disillusioned. Before one even takes into account the partial resurgence of the IRA in the county, there were problems at a command level, with Dalton and Eoin O’Duffy failing to work well together (Dalton thought O’Duffy too timid in using his troops to the north and west in combined sweeps, O’Duffy thought Dalton’s issues were down to his own poor leadership) and as in Kerry National Army soldiers soon made themselves unpopular through their accents, ill-discipline and rough treatment of IRA prisoners and suspects, being seen more as foreign invaders than as liberators. Before the end of 1922, Dalton had gone from acting as if republican Cork had been crushed to predicting the provisional government was about to lose the county.

The reason for that thought was because of more than just the National Army’s internal problems. The death of Collins in the Cork countryside was really just the starting off-point, though it remained the most spectacular example of what the Cork IRA was capable of. Other attacks took place throughout the county in the following few weeks, whether they were flat-out ambushes, assassinations or just random potshots at National Army personnel. There were a number of more high-profile operations that are worth further consideration also in this time.

On the 30th August, a large collection of IRA Volunteers under Gibbs Ross, a somewhat untested officer from the War of Independence, attacked Bantry, where a number of buildings were held by a National Army garrison. The IRA had been undertaking smaller-scale operations in the town for a while – one witness describes this in terms of going into the town at night “to upset the Free State” – but Ross’ attack was a concerted effort to neutralise the provisional government position there and possibly hold the town for a period of time, not unlike Frank Aiken’s efforts at Dundalk around the same period. Attacking at daybreak from the east, the IRA achieved surprise and were able to capture a number of National Army billet buildings without serious resistance, but ran into more determined opposition as they pressed into the middle of the town. Ross was killed by a stray bullet, and within a short time three other IRA men were killed, as the pro-Treaty forces got their act together. On account of the losses the republicans withdrew soon after, with a lack of ammunition to maintain the attack possibly a factor also. The IRA would claim to have killed several of the enemy at the same time, but I can find no evidence for this. The attack showcased IRA ability to surprise, but the Civil War was a conflict where they could ill-afford such casualties in exchange for some captured guns.

Only a few days later the IRA would try a similar attack, this time at Macroom. On this occasion the attack went forward with the help of The River Lee, the improvised armoured car that had previously been used during the Bruree fighting of the Battle of Kilmallock. But what should have been another daring assault on a fixed National Army position was unable to make much headway, perhaps due to the attack not being able to carry the same element of surprise that the Bantry operation had enjoyed. The provisional government forces were able to hold off the initial probes from their positions, and what followed was little more than several hours of fire exchanged at a distance. No casualties were taken by either side, and the IRA were eventually compelled to withdraw.

A much more deadly example of IRA effectiveness occurred a few weeks later, at Carrigaphooca just west of Macroom. No guns or ambushes were needed here, just well-placed explosives and the right target. On the 16th September a provisional government patrol passed through the area, not far from the ruins of an old castle, their exact purpose unknown: it was either a patrol, a reinforcement effort heading to Kerry or had the exact objective of dealing with a known mine that had been noticed on the road. The last theory holds some weight as the truck carrying the men stopped to deal with such an explosive. Whatever happened exactly the effort was unsuccessful, possibly due to a rigged grenade hidden under the main explosive, or perhaps an unnoticed second detonator. Either way, the explosive went off, and killed seven members of the National Army in the process. It was no routine patrol either, with one high profile victim: Tom Keogh (Kehoe) a veteran of the Easter Rising and the Squad, who died later that day of wounds sustained. His death struck many in GHQ hard: the ARR Danny Boy would shortly after be renamed in his honour. Of course this bombing had a degree of good luck for the IRA, in that the bomb was unintentionally detonated after an attempted disarmament, but it points to the potential effectiveness of such IED tactics. But it was not something that the IRA could readily rely on in that day and age, where materials for bomb-making were in short supply, and too prone to failure when put into the field.

Despite these successes, the weaknesses in the anti-Treaty position were still evident, as can be seen when one examines the region in a more general context. The majority of the civilian population were simply not interested in supporting the IRA as they had done in previous years, whether this manifested as a studied non-belligerence, an unwillingness to risk the punitive actions that might follow from the National Army if they were to offer support, or just outright support for the pro-Treaty cause. Above everything else, the civilian population of Cork wanted peace, and supporting the anti-Treaty struggle did not aid this objective. Despite the level of control the republicans were able to showcase throughout the Cork countryside in this period, they now had less safehouses, fewer places to conceal arms and less boltholes to flee to in times of crisis. Moreover, they had to keep constantly on the move to a degree even greater than they had been during the War of Independence, with one eye constantly on the door of whatever home they were staying in on any particular night, should the inhabitants tip off local pro-Treaty garrisons: something that happened with alarming frequency.

The realities of fighting an unpopular guerrilla war may also have been a factor in instances of low morale and desertion, that perhaps disproportionately affected the IRA in Cork. Units that had swelled in size with the joining up of “Truceileers” now saw many of those same men return to their homes when faced with the prospect of life on the run fighting a war that their friends, neighbours and families had no interest in supporting. Where membership of the IRA in Cork had been a badge of honour only a year previously, it was now increasingly as a dishonour, something the media and clergy were only too happy to encourage as a perception.

The independent nature of the IRA in Cork could be a benefit, but also a detriment. Different units operated as they pleased, and obeyed the higher orders of Lynch and his HQ as they pleased. This meant that IRA activity vacillated wildly throughout the county, non-existent in parts, extremely active in others, and limited enough in the rest. A lack of guns, ammo, finances and effective leadership were problems that reared their heads again and again. At times their campaign would descend to the level of farce, such as an aborted attack on Inchigeelagh later in the same period, cancelled when a large proportion of the men failed to turn up. They were apparently infuriated by the tactics of commander David Robinson, which included using children to surprise National Army garrisons and dressing his men as tramps to bluff enemy guardposts. In a guerrilla war, strong charismatic leadership is badly required, and this was lacking in too many places for the IRA, Cork not least of all. Figures like Tom Barry, when he escaped from pro-Treaty imprisonment, would provide some of that needed leadership in Cork later, but that will be a subject for another entry.

It is enough to say that the anti-Treaty effort in Cork was capable of some significant victories, but that when viewed from a distance, the situation in the county continued to favour the provisional government, just about. For now we must move beyond Cork, and indeed beyond Munster: there was IRA activity aplenty in Limerick, Waterford and Tipperary, though these areas perhaps lacked the stand-out military events of Kerry and Cork in this specific period. Instead, we will move further north, to examine this phase of the conflict, and the anti-Treaty bounce back, in the isolated environs of Connacht. The provisional government had eased to victory, relatively speaking, in the west during the conventional Civil War, but were now finding that a guerrilla war in the same surrounds was a very different prospect indeed.

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

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1 Response to Ireland’s Wars: The Anti-Treaty Offensive In Cork

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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