Ireland’s Wars: The Civil War In 1923

When 1923 dawned, the newly born Irish Free State could look forward with increased optimism. They had control over the vast majority of the country, and had the allegiance, given freely or coerced, of the majority of the population. The IRA had become significantly diminished, to the point that an internal National Army report published in January described their status as “complete ineffectiveness from a military standpoint”. Parts of the country were still aflame with republican activity, but more and more the anti-Treaty side were able to only engage in property destruction and minor acts of sabotage, as opposed to a fully fledged war effort. The final denouement of the war was still to come, but it behoves me to take some time to talk about the early months of 1923, and examine how the beginning of the end went.

For all of their dominance, the pro-Treaty side remained concerned. The war was dragging on now, and for every large stretch of land that was suitably pacified, a smaller stretch that remained replete with danger only seemed to grow more alarming. Figures like Kevin O’Higgins continued to insist that the IRA’s war effort could destroy the government within a few months if sterner measures were not taken, with the Minister wanting to flood certain areas with specialised mobile infantry, shoot those found in arms on sight, to introduce officially mandated reprisals for property destruction and to increase even more the scope for official executions. The perception that such tactics would bear a dangerous resemblance to those carried out by Crown Forces during the War of Independence appears to have been less of a concern to him.

Mulcahy was extremely reluctant to implement such policies, and the divide between him and O’Higgins on such matters was evidence of the growing difficulties between the civil and military branches of the Irish Free State. O’Higgins criticised the National Army for its poor performance in the field as a counter-insurgency force, its wastage of funds and the widespread ill-discipline: Mulcahy fired back that the armed forces were under-trained, under-paid and yet still the only thing allowing the Free State to function. In all this there was an element of long-term thinking perhaps: the Civil War would not last forever, and concerns of continuing military dominance of the political sphere would have been acute. There was also criticism of Mulcahy’s resurrection of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in December with himself at its head; a rival, yet still pro-Treaty, organisation, the “Old IRA” or “Irish Republican Organisation”, would be set-up shortly after by ex-IRB men dissatisfied with their position in the National Army. O’Higgins and others were concerned about the impact of secret societies on the running of the country, but Mulcahy argued that to ban them outright would only cause a schism with too many key people within the National Army. In truth the IRB was now a lame duck, and it would never again play a major role in Irish politics or Irish warfare.

Things would reach a head in March with the Free State establishment of a “Supreme War Council”, with O’Higgins intimately involved. This body had the power to launch inquiries of military departments, to recommend the removal of officers from their positions and held a veto over the appointment of new officers. It was an obvious effort to neuter the power of the military next to that of the civil: an outraged Mulcahy attempted to reign, but was persuaded to hold on by others. It was the true beginning of a series of events that would lead to the Irish Free State first real post-war crisis in 1924.

Over on the other side, the early months of 1923 marked a sustained disintegration for the anti-Treaty position. All over, the presence of larger National Army garrisons meant that only small IRA units could operate, and these were reduced to “the Torch and the Can”: burning or blowing up government and military buildings as a means of obstruction. The execution policy was having its effect, with the threat of shooting prisoners from a certain area should “outrages” continue was often enough to see republican activity die down. Hundreds of republicans were being detained every week, with as many as 12’000 in prison or internment camps by the conclusion of the conflict.

Liam Lynch remained, if you’ll pardon the term, the linchpin of everything. Even though he was often disconnected from the different localities of the war, his word remained extremely influential, and he continued to preach on the possibility of military victory if the struggle was maintained. In February, he would insist that the war would continue until full Irish independence was achieved: at least this was a stated strategic goal, but one so unattainable at that point in time as to be described as an illusion. This was not just a public persona: those close to Lynch at the time have insisted that he firmly believed in eventual victory in private too. By now though, Lynch had started to actively clutch at straws: he attempted to move forward with an outrageous scheme to import mountain artillery from Germany for the IRA, talked of moving the conflict to Britain and remained wedded to the curious idea that IRA units in Connacht were the key to winning the war.

All around him, things were falling apart. Republican morale was only getting lower, and dissatisfaction with Lynch’s leadership was steadily on the rise. The arrest of Liam Deasy in January as he travelled through the Galtee Mountains – he had just ended a tour of the 3rd Southern Division, a unit he found in a dire state, during which he contracted scabies – was a critical point. Having already made up his mind that an end to the war was preferable to its continuation, the threat of execution persuaded Deasy to issue a letter to many of his IRA colleagues in which he urged the suspension of the conflict on the grounds of their being zero chance of military victory. The missive produced different reactions: for some in the IRA it only galvanised their opposition to the Free State, for others it was a factor in the laying down of arms and the refusal to maintain military operations. Men like Lynch and Tom Barry claimed the message had a terrible effect on the morale of Volunteers, and they may well have been right: it was certainly true among republican prisoners, many of whom sent similar deputations to their still free colleagues after Deasy’s letter was written. Some would later go so far as to pin the true beginning of the end of the anti-Treaty position to Deasy’s letter, but the truth is that it just helped things along. Many sympathised with Deasy’s position, but he was also viewed by others as a turncoat and a traitor: he would be formally expelled from the IRA in 1924.

In terms of the actual war, the National Army was only going from strength-to-strength. As was inevitable given the passage of time, discipline issues began to be ironed out, though of course they were never fully eliminated. Re-organisation of units and commands – especially the creation of a new Western Command – helped with issues of too much independent mindedness among officers acting essentially as military governors, and mandated training courses in the Curragh helped to better leadership of the army more generally. At the same time the CID in Dublin expanded, becoming more militant with the addition of a “Protective Corps” of demobilised National Army soldiers, and continued its work in intelligence gathering and republican arrests.

Across the country, the war was fizzling out. In Cork the main areas of activity were in the west near the border with Kerry where hundreds of Volunteers remained in the field, but they had little stomach for continued resistance. The huge amount of pro-Treaty soldiers in the county – the National Army would end up holding over 60 individual posts in Cork alone – stymied any efforts to get things going and the loss of officers like Deasy only made things worse. When men like Barry began to push more and more for peace talks, and did so while speaking for units like the 1st Southern Division, the whole affair in the county seemed hopeless. In places like Cork City, republican activity was practically non-existent, with local feeling now almost entirely on the side of the Free State.

In Connacht, the IRA would never again threaten the pro-Treaty side in the manner they had in the Autumn, though large swaths of Mayo and other areas remained awash with republican units. The National Army would maintain a preference for focusing on the south of the country all the way to the end of the war, with the west to come after: in the end a major operation would not be required. Some IRA units continued to be active and occasional raids on towns or the destruction of train stations would cause alarm in Dublin. But the anti-Treaty side, no matter what Lynch though, was in no position to force the issue to a greater extent in Connacht. Continuing sweeps of the countryside in the Spring bore dividends, and by April many of the last key IRA unit leaders in the west had been detained.

In Tipperary, things collapsed after a period when John T. Prout’s National Army troops had been almost stand-offish about engaging with the IRA. More determined sweeps and the capture/killing of key leaders – like Dinney Lacey, shot dead on the 18th February – crippled what was left of the IRA, and familiar retreats like that in the Glen of Aherlow soon became impossible to use in the same manner owing to the continued presence of pro-Treaty troops. The IRA split into smaller and smaller units, and by the end of the war were doing well just to avoid arrest. It was a similar story in Limerick, where what IRA units still in the field were obligated to become smaller and smaller, their pinprick operations of little consequence to a now dominant National Army.

Wexford remained an outlier, where it seemed that IRA operations only increased the longer the war went on. This is a testament to some pro-active local leadership, and also the inability or unwillingness of local National Army commanders to properly attempt to eliminate the IRA. All the way up to the end of the war republicans were able to enact ambushes, sabotage railways, take prisoners (and execute some of them as reprisals for Free State executions) and generally remain active in the field, despite a garrison of nearly a thousand soldiers and repeated efforts to put better people in charge by Dublin. But despite this success, Wexford remained more of an irritant than a critical theatre: most IRA activity was found in the south of the county, and never threatened to enact anything like a takeover of the rest.

In Dublin, the IRA remained limited, its organisation shattered by the word of the CID. Efforts, when they were made, were focused on the disruption of government business, such as in a coordinated attempt to burn tax offices on in February, that had some success. Other than that the anti-Treaty position in Dublin reached the level of farce, with one of its most notable aspects an order that “entertainments” like cinemas and other public amenities, be shut. This was seemingly another effort of disruption, but one that only inflamed public opinion in the area more against the IRA: only a few cinemas complied with the order anyway, and many IRA officers refused to enforce it. One notable event they actively decided not to interfere with at the time was the famous Battling Siki/Mike McTigue Championship boxing match held in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day, an event where the National Army provided an armed guard.

In just about every other part of the country – Donegal, the midlands, the rest of Leinster, Clare – the Civil War had become a non-event, a crisis marked by the occasional trench dug across a road, the cutting of a telegraph wire or the odd sound of a gunshot. Having spent a great many entries covering the different events and aspects of the Civil War in some detail I do not wish to be accused of suddenly rushing the narrative, but the truth is that the time of January, February and March in 1923 was one where the warfare that had engulfed Ireland was in the process of subsiding: whatever Lynch thought, or professed to think, it had become obvious that the pro-Treaty side had won. It was just a matter of how drawn out things would be.

But there is one area that I have not mentioned, where the Civil War, at least in its guerrilla phase, was fought at its hottest, and still continued to be fought at its hottest in 1923. It may have been mostly confined to the south of the county, but Kerry remained the strongest bastion of republican military activity into 1923. As such, it was also the place where the bitterest memories of the conflict would be made, with killings and atrocities that have become synonymous with the larger war. In the next couple of entries we will discuss the later part of the Civil War in Kerry, and then place a singular focus on arguably the Civil War’s most notorious incident.

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

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5 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Civil War In 1923

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

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: 1923 In Kerry | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Ballyseedy And The March Massacres | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Lynch’s Death And The End Of The Irish Civil War | Never Felt Better

  5. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: A Summary Of The Irish Civil War | Never Felt Better

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