Having discussed the wider picture of the National Army’s counter-insurgency campaign in the final months of 1922, in this entry I want to take a look at a specific example of what that campaign attempted, and what it was capable of. There are too many small-scale operations in this time for each, or even most, to get individual attention, and many of those amounted to unspectacular arrests or the capture of IRA units. But the focus of this entry, a sweep of an area of north-west Connacht, is a little different.
The National Army officer on the spot was Colonel Tony Lawlor. A veteran of the Royal Air Force during World War One, he had served in various administrative roles of the IRA and GHQ during the War of Independence, and now saw his pro-Treaty leanings awarded with a commission to lead troops in the field. Serving under Sean Mac Eoin, Lawlor had been involved in the National Army campaign in Connacht from July, serving at the taking of Cooloney. Later, when the IRA took Ballina, it was men under Lawlor’s command who retook the town without fighting. In a subsequent push through the countryside Lawlor was caught in an anti-Treaty ambush, where he received some manner of wound, but not enough to impact his ability to command too much. Some of his men were involved in the controversial Ben Bulben killings later that month.
Lawlor gained a mixed reputation, perhaps to be expected from a man who had graduated to his position with very little experience in the field up to that point. In line with some of the larger problems of the area, he was part of a scattered command that contained often demoralised and ill-disciplined troops, who could not be relied upon at certain times: Lawlor himself would attempt to have some of his own men shot for insubordination, though Mac Eoin refused to allow this. On a more personal level Lawlor was seen by many as a man more concerned with buttering up to Mac Eoin than seeing to his own business – he once allegedly attempted to call up artillery to destroy a cottage suspected of hiding IRA Volunteers – and also garnered a reputation of being abusive to prisoners. He certainly killed one Volunteer, a Patrick Mulrennan while he was being held in Athlone, excusing the action on the grounds of trying to quell a prisoner riot.
At the end of November, Lawlor was at the heart of another large-scale sweep attempt of Connacht, this one to focus on the west and south of Mayo, and on into the Connemara region of Galway. Lawlor considered it a desperate task: he commanded little more than 600 men meant to cover a huge expanse of ground, and many of them had not been properly supplied – or more importantly paid – in months. At least one later account insisted that Lawlor was only able to get them to engage in dangerous activity by brandishing his revolver. At that time of the year the roads, never great, were in an especially poor state and Lawlor would have to operate far from support in Athlone: if he got into trouble, he would be on his own.
But Lawlor was pushed into the sweep as much by the pressure being cast by Dublin as by the activity of the enemy. Richard Mulcahy had grown tired of the seemingly desperate state of affairs in the West, and of the negative reports he received of Mac Eoin and Lawlor’s behavior. Mac Eoin was somewhat untouchable owing to his reputation and popularity with the Army, but Lawlor was not. Moreover the activities of guerrilla commander Frank Kilroy, whose taking of Clifden in only a short time before had caused a major panic in the region, needed a response.
The republicans were seemingly well-warned of Lawlor’s intended operation, and many of the units active in the area concerned had gotten out of harms way, some by heading to the islands off the coast, before it could be launched. Lawlor’s men were divided between urban areas, and the larger groups headed off from Castlebar and Crossmolina. The initial target was Newport, long one of Kilroy’s strongholds. Lawlor’s men surprised IRA posts here to the extent, and benefited from an enormous stroke of fortune when one of their earliest targets, a big house ahead of Newport itself, contained Kilroy himself. He and a group of Volunteers resisted for a time and attempted an escape, but the guerrilla leader was wounded and captured, eventually transferred to the relative security of Castlebar.
The National Army moved onto Newport quickly, but were forced to fight a drawn out engagement for the town, thanks to some dogged IRA resistance. But that resistance was really only temporary: Lawlor was advancing with far more men, and an artillery piece, than the republicans could muster in response. Eventually the anti-Treaty fighters were obliged to quit the town, especially after provisional government forces had made their way into the centre by fording the River Newport. The act would presumably have left the men frozen with cold, but their reward was the taking of the town. That taking was not without its cost: five men had been killed on the pro-Treaty side in the fighting outside of Newport.
From there Lawlor was determined to push on, taking care to commandeer alcohol supplies in the areas he entered – he doled it out to troops on his own whim, but was at pains to prevent all-too-common displays of drunkenness on duty – and soon had his force moving south via train lines, then later on foot through the countryside. It was exhausting work for poorly trained soldiers, often proceeding through difficult terrain in bad weather: before too long Lawlor was obliged to split off over two dozen men at risk of dropping dead from illness and exhaustion. Encounters with enemy units tended to be brief, with neither side showing much enthusiasm for firefights: such meetings typically lasted only a few minutes, with a smattering of gunfire before the IRA melted away, sometimes with a few prisoners taken. Exhausted National Army soldiers were not much in the mood for pursuit, even with Lawlor’s haranguing.
By the end of the entire affair, Lawlor would claim with supreme confidence that he had broken the back of the IRA in the area. To a certain extent he was not wrong: IRA activity in the West did decrease sharply afterwards, and it would be naive to suppose that this had nothing to do with the men he and his force had been able to kill or capture. There were other reasons though: the time of year, which was not conducive to guerrilla operations; the growing weakness of the IRA in terms of arms and ammunition; and the paucity of supplies in the increasingly bereft western countryside, where even the most devout anti-Treaty civilians had precious little with which to support the IRA with. If Lawlor had stayed at home, anti-Treaty reports from the area in the new year may still have predicted doom if warm clothing and other supplies were not made available.
Reactions to the sweep were mixed. The IRA insisted they had suffered no major harm, and persisted with efforts to paint Lawlor as an incompetent officer with a penchant for cruelty, something made easier by captured personal letters of Lawlor wherein he insisted that sometimes the shooting of prisoners was a useful tool. Elements of GHQ were similarly unimpressed, and calls for Lawlor’s relief would become unignorable early in the new year. In January 1923, he was taken from his position and would not play much of a major part in the rest of the war.
But the capture of Kilroy and the dispersal of his unit was a significant moment in the area. The most active and engaging of the anti-Treaty leaders in that portion of Connacht was no longer a factor, which was a major propaganda triumph of its own accord, before one even takes into account the damaging effect Kilroy’s detention had on the IRA’s ability to maintain its fight. The National Army had taken losses in the act, but GHQ probably did not mind the rate of exchange in this instance. Connacht remained a wild place where law and order was always at a premium, but the corner had been turned there: never again would the republicans be in a position to take towns seemingly at will, or be able to invoke panic across the province with the same ease as before.
From here, we move back to the bigger picture. Around the same time that Lawlor was undertaking his sweep across the countryside of Connacht, the pro-Treaty side was enacting a policy that would come to be one of the best-remembered aspects of the entire Civil War, synonymous with their counter-insurgency strategy and something that would echo down the rest of the centuries history, political and military. The Public Safety Bill had given the Army the power of life and death in a judicial sense: now it would start to use that power.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.