Having taken a few entries to look at the bounce back of the IRA in the aftermath of the conventional Civil War, today I wanted to spend some time discussing the manner in which the pro-Treaty side began to absorb those blows and form a response designed at defeating the republicans for good. This was to be an immensely difficult task, with the provisional government working as it was with an armed force that, at best, could be described as riddled with inefficiency, ill-discipline and amateurish organisation. To not only fight a counter-insurgency campaign with such an army, but to fight a successful one, must have seemed to many an impossibility in the Autumn of 1922. But the National Army was able to pull itself together to the degree where it became possible and there are many reasons, both internal and due to the actions of the enemy, for why this happened. I find this aspect of the Irish Civil War to be a little understudied – at times it seems like some histories want to pretend nothing of consequence happened in Ireland from the death of Collins to the beginning of executions – but it is a vital aspect for determining just why the war ended in the way it did.
Starting more so in the last weeks and months of 1922, the National Army was able to utilise its advantages in manpower well enough, or at least well enough for the purpose of taking on the IRA. That Army could be a shambolic thing sometimes: men with barely any training, operating sometimes without uniforms, with frequently slack discipline. The latter could manifest itself as insubordination, desertion, looting, prisoner abuse and other things, and there are countless examples from the period. But there were more of them than the IRA, and that was critical.
The provisional government was in a position to place relatively high concentrations of troops in really key areas, which in time severely impacted the ability of the IRA to undertake operations. “In time” is the important part of the last sentence: the longer National Army soldiers stayed in areas like Kerry, the West or parts of Cork, the better suited they became to the hard reality of a counter-insurgent war, turning from target to targeter. That meant sweeps of the countryside, that meant arrests, that meant establishing an aura of pro-Treaty legitimacy.
More than anything else, the thing that really hamstrung the anti-Treaty side, and proved the biggest boon to provisional government counter-insurgency, was “the people”. In certain stretches of the country, especially Kerry and parts of Connacht, popular sympathy could be said to lean towards the IRA, but just about everywhere else the opposite was the case. As stated before, the majority of Ireland’s civilian population were either enthusiastic for what the pro-Treaty side was offering – be it on a political level, be it in terms of stability, or both – so exhausted by the years of fighting that they preferred a pro-Treaty peace to anything else, or suitably intimidated by the National Army that support for the republicans was deemed too dangerous to contemplate. It is arguably the provisional government’s biggest success that they were able to garner this kind of support, and points to the immense effort of their propaganda campaign to extol the virtues of what Dublin was offering against the breakdown in law and order seemingly represented by an uncaring IRA.
This is critical for an insurgency war. Guerrilla’s operating in the countryside had no means to legitimately get access to needed food, clothes, shelter and other necessaries to keep them going, and needed to get them from civilians. In the War of Independence this was usually, though not always, provided willingly by sympathetic locals, who provided food, shelter, hideouts and whatever else could be given. They often paid for it in terms of punitive reactions from Crown Forces, but maintained the effort for the duration of the war. In huge swaths of the country, this was not present for the IRA in the Civil War. Food was not provided, shelter was not made available; the republican units in the fight thus had to either go without, making themselves weak and vulnerable, or take it by force, which hurt their popularity.
Worse, the civilian population was more and more inclined to inform the National Army on IRA locations and movements, meaning that even a supposed safehouse might well be anything but. Arrests skyrocketed, key anti-Treaty leaders were detained and with every following blow the anti-Treaty sides’ ability to maintain its resistance took another blow. A guerrilla war without the support of the people is impossible for the guerrilla side: Lynch’s IRA was able to maintain the pressure for a time, but entering the winter months of 1922 it was clear that a loss of effectiveness connected to lack of support from the civilian population was proving crippling.
The effects of such things were obvious and only grew as the conflict continued. No matter what Liam Lynch and those in the “war” faction thought, more and more of the IRA as a whole began to think that the war was pointless. Morale plummeted throughout the organisation, which in turn led to lack of activity, desertion and an inability to properly engage with the enemy when the chance arose. It is difficult to convince young men to join a guerrilla band at the best of times, and it becomes much more difficult when those young men do not seriously believe that the guerrilla band in question has a chance of succeeding. It’s hard enough to keep the already existent members of the guerrilla band from leaving.
And the knock-on effect was that the IRA became incapable of launching anything you could call a major offensive. I have previously discussed an anti-Treaty guerrilla offensive in the aftermath of the conventional Civil War coming to an end, but even that was a scattered, localised affair, that undertook itself in a multitude of different ways and without a great deal of direction from the HQ of Lynch. Operating as it did on such a local level, the IRA was already in a poor position to be enacting such grand operational plans, and this only became more acute the longer the war went on, the more the National Army increased the strength of its position and the more that the IRA’s weaknesses were already to set-in and get bigger. From the end of 1922 onwards, the momentum of the conflict, absolutely crucial when it comes to the battles of morale, propaganda and courting public opinion, had been wrested back into the hands of the National Army.
The really crucial point is, in a single word, “normality”. In huge portions of the country the provisional government was getting ready to become the Irish Free State, the IRA either defeated or non-existent. Normal life, where civilians could operate their businesses, go to work, send their children to school or farm their fields, was becoming possible, and even regular. The places where it wasn’t were increasingly isolated, and not seen as the kinds of areas where most people would want to be. The pro-Treaty side, by the end of 1922, was able to project an image of being the side of the conflict offering peace, stability and the chance to move beyond six long years of strife. The anti-Treaty side, whose political wing was so nebulous and whose leadership had openly expressed something approaching contempt for the civilian population at times, could seemingly only offer more struggle, grief, intimidation and the continued standstill of normal life.
Gradually, IRA activity began to die off across the country. There were notable exceptions – Kerry, parts of Cork, parts of Connacht – and even in the most controlled parts of Ireland the provisional government was never able to completely eradicate the republican military by the end of 1922. But through the use of soldiers as a means of projecting power if nothing else, the institution of local government, the control of the press, the arrests of key anti-Treaty leaders, and the support of the public, the war had now turned firmly back in the National Army’s favour. It would never not be for the remainder of the conflict.
Mulcahy, noted as being distinctly “less sentimental” than his predecessor when it came to fighting former colleagues, was determined to grind the IRA down. The Emergency Powers Act helped, giving the Army as it did a wide swath of authority to arrest, detain and try people on a wide variety of offence without recourse to a civilian justice system: when this was expanded early in the New Year the pro-Treaty military would gain the ability to shoot those found guilty of something as relatively innocuous as carrying messages for the enemy.
And that is very much the point. Of all the aspects of the provisional government’s counter-insurgency campaign, it was officially mandated executions that are the best remembered. Controversial from the moment it was proposed, and leaving a lasting black mark on the reputations of so many of the state’s early politicians, the execution policy was the zenith of the National Army’s power in many ways. A discussion of this policy, why it was enacted and how it proceeded, will form the basis of an entry shortly. But first, I want to take the chance to discuss instead a singular example of the National Army’s counter-insurgency strategy in the dying months of 1922. This will take us back to north-west Connacht, where a major sweep of the countryside would create some surprising results.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.