Long before the conventional Civil War was brought to a successful conclusion for the pro-Treaty side in the south of the country, a conflict with a more guerrilla flavour was being fought in the west. The National Army, on the back of the irresistible advances of land-based forces being directed by Sean Mac Eoin and the coastal landings being directed by Emmett Dalton, had effectively destroyed the capacity of their republican opponents to engage in a conventional resistance, with the IRA more often than not refusing to fight inside the urban environments they had initially occupied. Within a very short time the provisional government held every town or village of consequence, but almost immediately found themselves dangerously over-stretched and vulnerable to attack from units operating with relative impunity in the vast Connacht countryside.
Vast stretches, but not the entirety. The highest concentrations of anti-Treaty influence and operation were to be found in the north and north-west of the province: in Michael Kilroy’s units that roamed the area between Westport, New Port and Castlebar, and in Frank Kilroy’s command around Tobercurry. Kilroy’s activities were enough that Lynch felt compelled to appoint him the O/C of the entire western area for the IRA in September. These two men and the Volunteers they led were some of the most consistent threats to the provisional government throughout this phase of the Civil War.
But why were they able to be as successful as they were? Republicans perhaps found more bountiful ground in Connacht to operate in because of the additional land reform issues that were not as existent elsewhere. Connacht, as it ever was, was a place that had some of the worst arable land in Ireland, and possession, and potential redistribution, of what workable soil that there was remained a contentious issue. People who had supported the cause of “the Republic” for several years wanted results on that issue, and they were not immediately forthcoming from the provisional government. In combination with the usual National Army deficiencies – ill-discipline, a lack of counter-insurgency nuance and an inability to protect the functions of local government – it meant the IRA had opportunities in the west to exploit in terms of local feeling.
The pro-Treaty side also suffered from command problems in the west. Mac Eoin’s HQ in Athlone was out of touch with the rest of the province, that even with the Dublin-mandated contraction of garrisons was still a dangerous place where the stretched National Army was frequently vulnerable. Efforts to coordinate the simultaneous movement of troops, for the purpose of sweeps and other things, proved extremely difficult, before one considers the frequent lack of support for such endevours from the local population. Far too often the individual garrisons of the provisional government in Connacht were left to fight their own war, with lengthy supply lines crippling their effectiveness. The killing of prisoners in captivity and what was essentially looting by National Army soldiers in the towns they garrisoned only made the situation worse. IRA commanders stepped in to take advantage.
Frank Kilroy especially was a canny enough operator. His expert knowledge of the local terrain married to his ability to be sensitive to civilian opinion – he wouldn’t approve bank raids for example, and seems to have been at pains to allow the “normal” running of business in his areas of operations – made him a very dangerous insurgency leader. If in any way pressed his men could vanish into the countryside, or take a short trip to one of the many islands that dotted the coast. At times his units would be re-supplied by sea while they were on the move, and he was able to keep a sophisticated bomb-making factory going for some time without serious impediment. Kilroy was even able to make improvised armoured cars using spare metal he was able to scrounge, though their effectiveness in the war that he was fighting was debatable to say the least.
Because of Kilroy’s leadership his section of the western IRA was able to plan and pull off one of the most audacious attacks of this portion of the Civil War, in Ballina on the 12th September. The date and time of the attack was well-chosen, with much of the pro-Treaty garrison attending a specially convened mass in the Imperial Hotel when Kilroy’s men, backed by the armoured car the Ballinalee, entered the town in force. The Hotel and the men inside were rapidly neutralised, and then used as hostages to force the other garrisons in Ballina to surrender: Kilroy excused such tactics as a response to the recent death of IRA officers at National Army hands. The town fell into republican control with very little fighting. Pro-Treaty reinforcements from nearby were dispatched as soon as was possible, but entered Ballina to find that Kilroy had already left. The IRA made of with hundreds of rifles, copious amounts of ammunition and a large amount of goods requisitioned from the town.
Lynch was to trumpet the Ballina operation as one of the high points of the IRA campaign during the Civil War, and it was an undoubted success: Kilroy’s men had seized an isolated position with little fighting, had embarrassed the local pro-Trreaty garrison and gained vital supplies. Within a short time, Mac Eoin was obliged to contract the pro-Treaty position in the area by abandoning Newport. But Kilroy himself was unsatisfied. He was angered at the behavior of some of his men once the town had been seized, who looted with abandon or partook of alcohol as soon as they could. His initial plan had been to use the capture of Ballina as a starting-off point, to launch attacks on other towns nearby and to essentially clear this portion of Mayo of any pro-Treaty presence – he even concocted a scheme of using a captured train to travel all the way to Athlone, but this never came close to being implemented – but the condition of his men and the faster-than-expected oncoming of National Army reinforcements forced him to alter his ambitions. In the following days and weeks Kilroy came back to the idea of launching such attacks, but he found himself thwarted by provisional government movements, the paucity of men under his own command and getting stuck with his captured vehicles in bogland. He would go so far as to describe the situation as a “humiliation”: he literally stuck in the mud outside, while the men he had just defeated slept in a hotel he had left without a fight.
He would next have the chance to make a major contribution to the war effort in late October, this time in the more distant area of West Galway. The target was Clifden, one of the last towns in Connacht to fall to the provisional government, and also one of the most isolated. On the 29th October, Kilroy attacked the garrison there, again with the help of an improvised armoured car. A lengthy gun battle resulted, that lasted in the region of ten hours: it is a sign of Clifden’s remoteness that such a thing could occur with no sight of pro-Treaty reinforcements. One person on either side was killed before the National Army was forced to surrender. Kilroy, unable and unwilling to hold the town, took their arms and burned their barracks before retreating. Again, it was a potent example of what well-led Volunteers could do to isolated pro-Treaty soldiers. The incident caused something of a panic throughout the province, as rumours sped around of Kilroy, allegedly at the head of an army of 700 well-armed men, taking towns as he pleased. But the truth was that, like Ballina, the taking of Clifden did not lead immediately to any other major operations or any lasting anti-Treaty success.
As mentioned, the other major guerrilla leader of note at the time was Frank Carty, who drew in Volunteers from throughout North Connacht and parts of Ulster to operative effectively throughout Sligo. Frequent attacks around the area of Sligo Town and Tobercurry resulted in several significant success for his columns, including the capture and burning of National Army barracks, and the lifting of rifles from surrendered patrols. His operation was large enough to attract a lot of attention, and Mac Eoin had made it a priority to real Carty in as soon as he was in a position to do so.
The first big effort to accomplish this took place in mid-September, when the pro-Treaty military attempted to organise a large scale sweep of the area, with troops moving from the direction of Athlone, Sligo Town, and from Donegal in the north. The effort was enough to dislodge republicans from positions they had taken in the town of Rahelly, and in the desperate retreat that followed a group of them, forced from the protection of the wrecked Ballinalee armoured car, were cornered on the slopes of Ben Bulben. Nine Volunteers were killed, with at least four of the deaths worth considering suspicious, the wounds inflicted happening at close range. Republican accounts, backed up by at least one pro-Treaty witness later, insisted the men had been shot out of hand after they had surrendered. The fact that one of the four was Brian MacNeill, son of Eoin, only magnified attention on the incident. Regardless of the circumstances though, the operation could be deemed a success (just from a purely military perspective anyway): it was rare in the Civil War that the provisional government could claim to have killed so many of the enemy in one movement. Carty’s columns would never be as active or as successful again.
Still, Mac Eoin came in for some fierce criticism from military and political circles in Dublin for how difficult things got in Connacht, but was not incorrect when he fired back that he had too few men and not enough supplies to get the job done. Several barracks were abandoned or handed over to republicans in Connacht when they were not paid in a timely manner, and some garrisons would go months between deliveries of ammunition, uniforms and other material. There was potential in that for the anti-Treaty side to make real headway, but in most respects this opportunity was squandered. Despite Kilroy’s success and his position as a nominal commander of the whole province, he was unable to really direct things on that sort of scale, and much like the rest of the country western IRA units acted in large part independently. They did little to follow up on successes, or attempt to create some kind of unified provincial movement. Just as with the National Army, it was the same old story for the IRA: colloquial rivalries, ineffective leadership, a lack of guns and a collapse in numbers once the “Truceileers” departed.
Things were thus finely balanced in Connacht as the winter months approached. In time, the pro-Treaty leadership would attempt a stronger effort to root out the IRA insurgency in the province, but up to that point it could be said to be an area of the country where provisional government control was restricted at best. Even with the many problems the republicans suffered from, Lynch was perhaps not incorrect when he tried to use Kilroy and Carty as examples that the rest of his movement could learn from. Because his movement needed those examples. Despite the manner in which the IRA had been seen to bounce back in August, September and October, inflicting large casualties and many reverses to their pro-Treaty enemy, the larger war effort was still in a precarious state. In the next entry, I want to discuss an inevitable consequence of this, namely the efforts by people on both sides, and outside of both, to bring the conflict to a conclusion.
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