Ireland’s Wars: Tom Barry’s Anti-Treaty Days

I mentioned in the last entry that the anti-Treaty side was one with a surfeit of badly needed personalities. This may seem like a tawdry thing to say, but it is a fact that guerrilla struggles, perhaps more than any other form of warfare, tend to revolve around specific people of great charisma, leadership and capability. They are required to keep bands of men in the field, trained, disciplined and motivated, for any length of time, they are required to maintain a clandestine intelligence or counter-intelligence war and they are required to make their movement seem bigger or more effective than it is. Michael Collins I would deem such a man, as were Liam Lynch and Ernie O’Malley. Another was Tom Barry.

I feel it is really difficult to underestimate Barry’s impact on he Irish revolutionary period. His exploits as a guerrilla commander from his early days, through to Kilmichael and on to Crossbarry were both lethally effective and successfully legendary, at a time when both axis of success were critical for the survival and thriving of the IRA. It was only natural that, when the split came, he would become a very significant figure in the anti-Treaty IRA. It was to the detriment of that faction then that his role in the early months of the conflict were largely negated by his capture in the Four Courts, long before he could have had a chance to have an impact on the conventional struggle, whether it would have been as a commander of men in the field, or as somebody who could have had a say on the strategic direction of the republicans. Barry, of all the anti-Treaty leaders one of the most experienced when it came to successful guerrilla operations, would not necessarily have been a major force in the fight for the Munster Republic, but his presence may have ended earlier the self-inflicted wound that was the IRA insistence on holding cities and towns.

But he was not going to stay imprisoned for ever. Barry attempted escape more than once between his initial capture and the end of September. Escape and escape attempts were common enough for captured republicans during the Civil War, a consequence of lax security in jails and other places where prisoners were kept. Barry failed to get free a few times before he was moved to a specially constructed internment camp in Gormanston, County Meath. Once a depot and training base for the Black and Tans, over a thousand men were housed there, as the provisional government struggled to deal with the amount of prisoners they were being forced to care for. Barry joined republican luminaries like Oscar Traynor, Sean T. O’Kelly and Sean McEntee.

On the night of the 28th September, Barry was able to break free in circumstances for which we have little detail. It seems that the camp, rapidly constructed, did not have enough barbed wire to cover its full perimeter, and on one night Barry and a group of others took their chance and were able to simply walk out. Sympathetic guards may also have played a part. Either way, in October Barry was free and back in the south of the country. Such escapes were a routine embarrassment for the provisional government, but this specific case was worse for who exactly had been able to walk out.

Barry was quickly given the practical command of the anti-Treaty 2nd Southern Division (his official title may have been Director of Operations). This was a scattered unit in something of a crisis: Lynch complained bitterly of its inactivity, while Liam Deasy, after an inspection tour, came to understand just how small National Army garrisons in Cork and Tipperary were able to exist: the 2nd Southern seemed to lack the will or the leadership to root them out, despite relatively stable manpower and arms. With muddled command structures, rivalries between officers and too many columns seemingly happy to see out the fighting from hideouts in the countryside, the 2nd Southern needed new leadership. It got Tom Barry, who began directing its operations in October.

His primary role for the next few months was as the leader of a flying column that, at its height, would have included the command of roughly 200 men, though not all of them in arms. Many noted almost immediately Barry’s ability: here was a man who was able to, put as simply as possible, get things moving. His mix of practical experience and reputation meant that he was able to direct men and get results, whether it was just maintaining a unit in a particular area, or get a larger entity to actually attack the pro-Treaty forces. In obtaining guns, finding safehouses and earning the trust of his men, Barry remained one of the key commanders of the entire period. The units that he directed were a scourge just in being: for a time they made travel to and from Cork City quite dicey, and severely limited the ability of the provisional government to operate throughout the county safely. Soon enough, Barry’s presence began to show in more practical terms.

Barry had in mind more than just the breaking of communications and the odd ambush of a National Army patrol, and signified the real beginning of these ambitions on the 4th November. On that day Barry led a small column of men into the southwest Cork village of Ballineen, around 8 km’s west of Bandon, that contained a small National Army garrison in a barracks building. Working with the element of surprise, Barry and his men were able to launch an attack and force most of the limited number of provisional government soldiers to flight, with those that remained eventually compelled to surrender. Barry had been hoping to capture an armoured car he knew was in the area, but a quick-thinking soldier drove it away before this could happen. Almost immediately Barry moved on to neighbouring Enniskean, and did the same.

These kinds of operations showcased the kind of strengths that Barry had, even if it was as simple as getting the men under his command to undertake them. Capturing towns and defeating pro-Treaty garrisons were the exact kind of things that the anti-Treaty side needed to be doing more of, if they were to arrest the decline that was occurring after the post-conventional war offensive had petered out. But lasting gains were not to be found: Barry wasn’t in a position to hold the villages that he had captured, and to his frustration had no choice but to release the National Army men that he had captured. But it was still a step above what the IRA in the area had been doing up to that point.

At this time Barry, whatever doubts he may have privately held about the struggle, appears to have still firmly believed in the necessity of the fighting, though he was unsatisfied with the manner in which it was being carried out. Aside from the general listlessness of the IRA throughout the country, Barry disagreed strongly with the idea of shooting unarmed men or the assassination of provisional government figures: the killing of Sean Hales angered Barry, who saw little point in such things. He held to his viewpoints at meetings of the IRA Executive in November, but I would deem it likely that even at this time he may have already been turning the possibility of an end to hostilities over in his mind. Around the same moment Barry was involved in what was rapidly becoming an anti-Treaty IRA pipe dream, of initiating offensive operations in Northern Ireland for the purposes of goading Crown Forces into an attack into Ireland, but this was, as always, largely stillborn.

Barry did more for the cause with his own “spectacular” on the night of the 8th/9th December. Then, with a hundred men gathered from a range of Munster units, he led an attack against the Tipperary town of Carrick-On-Suir. He had spent a week prepping the operation, planning out the routes of attack, dividing his men into sections and drilling them on just what he wanted done. As always, Barry led the attack personally “with a Mills bomb in one hand and a revolver in the other”. The town’s garrison, later to be bitterly criticised by Dublin for their inaction, were caught completely by surprise by the sudden influx of republicans from multiple directions on what was a cold night. Over a hundred soldiers were captured with hardly a shot being fired, along with large amounts of guns, ammunition, clothes and other supplies. One National Army officer was killed.

Coming a few days after the official birth of the Irish Free State – a descriptor I will use from now on in place of the former “provisional government” sobriquet – the capture of Carrick-On-Suir was an unwelcome reminder that for all of the pro-Treaty sides successes, the IRA was still more than capable of nasty surprises. But it must also be recognised that the capture of the town was just a temporary thing: Barry withdrew his forces quickly enough and released all the prisoners he had taken, which given that four of the most notable anti-Treaty men were officially executed on the same day seems remarkably magnanimous in the environment. Barry knew his own limitations, indeed was painfully aware: he could take towns and show up the National Army in these circumstances, but lasting gains were impossible in the environment.

Barry and his column would go on to take several more towns and villages in the following few days, all in County Kilkenny: Thomastown, Callan and Mullinavat were all systemically captured within a week, with their small Free State garrisons overwhelmed. Much like what occurred in Connacht, these seizures caused a panic in the region, and brought much criticism down on General Prout, whom some in GHQ thought too quick to complain about a shortage of rifles and too slow to actually try and do anything to stop Barry. But in all cases the outcomes was the same: the IRA took the towns, but were in no position to try and hold them from the inevitable onrush of pro-Treaty reinforcements.

Barry switched theaters in the aftermath, and moved he and what men he could retain to the west of Cork, for another audacious attempt at town seizure. The target this time was Millstreet, not far from the Kerry border, and Barry gathered together men from Cork and Kerry units for the attempt. The exact number is open to question, with pro-Treaty sources later claiming as many as 300 Volunteers were involved, which seems implausible: others think the force was more in the region of 65. Barry began his attack by taking a wireless station on the outskirts of the town, in order to forestall calls for help for as long as possible. One soldier was killed there. The IRA rapidly attacked two additional National Army posts, one of which was the old RIC barracks: a firefight there lasted for several hours, until the Free State forces surrendered after running out of ammunition. Then Barry moved on to the pro-Treaty HQ in the town, a building called Carnegie Hall.

By all accounts the Hall underwent something of a siege, subjected to fire from rifles, Thompson submachine guns, Lewis guns and grenades. The IRA advanced under cover of fire to set the door to the building ablaze: it was later claimed that the second fatality of the night, a National Army sergeant, was killed in the process of putting this fire out. The 20 or so men inside the Hall were able to hold out, perhaps because of the size of the building. It’s likely that IRA ammunition supplies after the opening engagements of the attack were reduced significantly as well. Having captured some guns and ammo already, Barry was eventually compelled to call off the attack and withdraw, with his men dispersing in multiple directions. Carnegie Hall held, and in this instacne the IRA were unable to claim to have fully taken another Free State held town.

In the aftermath both sides were able to claim victory. The Free State, whose propaganda claimed Liam Lynch himself had shot the sentry at the wireless station, while masquerading as a priest, insisted that the IRA had been dealt a crushing blow, sent spinning back into the countryside by the soldiers at Carnegie Hall, and subject to at least six dead. The IRA trumpeted the captured guns and the limited amount of casualties: three wounded, one seriously. It seems likely that the anti-Treaty account of the butchers bill is more honest, but their failure to secure the town was notable. Barry had almost been taking them for fun in other parts of Munster, but at Millstreet the National Army showed that he was not all-conquering.

By now, Barry’s opinions on the conduct of the war were changing rapidly. He was increasingly disillusioned by the fighting: it seemed to him that military victory was essentially impossible for the anti-Treaty side, and if this was the case then continuing the war was pointless. Barry was pragmatic: he believed the anti-Treaty cause was worth fighting for, but not if the fighting was an end in itself. He was unhappy with IRA leadership and its inability to maintain a consistent level of engagement throughout the country, and with the fact that even the very best IRA units were only able to temporarily capture towns before they were handed back without a fight to the Free State.

For these reasons and more, Barry began to urge for the fighting to be brought to a conclusion, on as favourable of terms as the IRA could procure at that point. He became one of the leading voices, perhaps the leading voice, of what we can call the “peace” faction of the IRA, a faction that was only growing in number as more time passed. In the weeks and months to come, Barry and Lynch would clash about the war’s direction and the possibility of peace, but a final resolution of that question was some time off yet.

It was now 1923, with Ireland still engulfed in conflict for a fifth straight year, and closer to a decade if one includes the First World War. The situation could not continue, and the course of the rest of the Civil War was really more of one of the anti-Treaty side being reduced to less and less effectiveness. But there were still many different moments, operations and fights of note. In the next entry we will look at the war in the early months of 1923 from a general perspective, before zeroing in later at some of the few high-intensity areas left.

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: Tom Barry’s Anti-Treaty Days

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

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