The Irish Civil War, in 1923, was drawing to a close. The IRA’s ability to maintain its guerrilla struggle was being suppressed all over the country, and only in a few select areas could it be said that it was still able to wage the kind of campaign that Liam Lynch wanted the entire entity waged. South Wexford, parts of Connacht, a few areas of Cork and Tipperary were among them. But undoubtedly the biggest flashpoint of the war in the early months of 1923, the place where the war still raged with the same intensity as it had in the Autumn of 1922, was County Kerry, and more specifically the south of County Kerry.
W.R.E Murphy ended his oft criticsied time as the GOC for Kerry early in 1923, where he grandiosely claimed that the National Army had broken the back of the IRA there. This was to prove a premature declaration. The theatre proved itself prone to a depressing stalemate, one where the National Army was able to capture columns, key officers and repel attacks, but where the IRA never allowed itself to be eradicated in the manner in which it was in other parts of the country, not before the larger war was brought to an end.
Ambushes, property destruction and sabotage remained common occurrences in Kerry throughout the remainder of the war. There are numerous reasons why this level of intensity was maintained there and not anywhere else. Kerry remained a place well suited for a guerrilla army in geographic terms, with plenty of mountainous or wooded regions to retreat into: government sweeps into such environments were tricky, and not helped by the poor weather that accompanied the winter of 1922/23. The Kerry IRA had the benefit of some pro-active leaders, like Humphrey Murphy of the 1st Brigade, or column leaders like Tim “Aeroplane” Lyon. And they were helped in their struggle by the very enemy, with the multitude of National Army soldiers based in Kerry continuing to be perceived by many as a force of occupiers, as liable to abuse the civilian population they were nominally there to protect as they were to actually combat the enemy.
The last point is especially important. Those elements of the Dublin Guard and other “outsiders” were prone to taking what they wanted from the towns and villages they were garrisoned in, treating captured IRA members, sympathisers, or suspects members or sympathisers, roughly, when they weren’t engaging in extrajudicial killings. This perception had only grown since the Autumn of 1922, as the National Army in Kerry carried out their reprisals for IRA attacks and killings with the civilian population sometimes the target of a punitive measures.
Throughout this period, violence continued to be a part of daily life in Kerry. Pro-Treaty columns of men in lorries were always liable to receive potshots or a burst of submachine gunfire from the top of hills or from behind hedges, roads were routinely mined and the up close and personal style of killing that had marked so much of the War of Independence continued to take place in Kerry’s towns and villages. The pro-Treaty side responded with more patrols, more sweeps, more arrests and an ever-growing intensification of the effort in the area: tensions grew and the inevitable became manifest with more incidents of extrajudicial killing, torture, intimidation and other examples of atrocity. While this resulted, in other parts of the country, in the republican effort faltering, in Kerry for a while it seemed to only result in an increase in dedication.
On a larger level, the IRA attempted attacks into Free State held villages and towns, whether they were just raids for arms or something more substantial. But the early months of 1923 were marked by a string of failures in that regard: republican attacks on Castlemaine, Kenmare and Cahirsiveen were all repulsed, whether it was because the National Army units had enough strength and enough experience to survive the surprise attacks and hold in place, or because the the pro-Treaty side got advanced warning of the operations and were able to attack the attackers first. Over time a number of key columns became inactive due to lack of supplies or were captured, stunting the Kerry Brigades’ ability to wage this same level of war.
The Cahersiveen attack is one that is worthy of closer examination, as the fighting produced a high death toll, even for the time and place. At the outset, it appeared to be the kind of attack that elements of the IRA were well-used to at the time: the town would be attacked from multiple directions at a given time, its National Army garrison subdued with the element of surprise, their barracks burned and their arms taken. But it was not to be on this occasion. As the IRA Volunteers assembled in a farmhouse on the outskirts of the town on the morning of the 5th March, they were suddenly attacked by several different mobile columns of Free State soldiers, tipped off as to what had been planned.
A bloody and sustained firefight ensued, with the 30 or so Volunteers badly outnumbered. The IRA held their ground in the farmhouse for a time before retreating into the countryside, where they fought several different firefights over the course of the day, before the fall of darkness permitted escape: on one occasion a group of pro-Treaty soldiers actually got cut off and surrounded, and had to be rescued by an armoured car. By the end of the fighting most of the IRA had been able to disperse, with two dead and six more captured: the National Army buried three men in response. It was a costly enough bill to pay, but a raid on Cahirsiveen had been prevented, and the IRA could ill-afford such losses.
Another major incident took place at the Dunmore Cave at Clashmealcon in April, not far from Ballybunion. In many ways such geographical features are a dangerous choice for hideouts, as they tend to have just one entrance and can be easily surrounded: this is exactly what happened to the group of Volunteers that were discovered there in mid-April. A brief round of firing at the start of what turned into a multi-day siege left one Dublin Guardsman dead and another man mortally wounded, before the National Army resorted to trying to smoke the republicans out from the top of the cliff that the cave sat at the base of. Two of the IRA men would die trying to climb the cliff at night to escape, and Lyons shot dead by the Army as he attempted to allegedly surrender. The remaining four men eventually gave up, and three of them would be executed just over a week later, to the horror of many who saw little point in such things. The executions, and indeed the entire affair at Clashmealcon, carried with them a terrible irony, as they occurred after what is generally accepted today as the end of the war.
By that point, there were at least 2’000 National Army troops in Kerry, with maybe 400 republicans still in arms to oppose them. This advantage in numbers belies the reality on the ground though, which was that the IRA controlled a substantial part of South Kerry all the way to the final days of the war, with a dominance in certain aspects of the countryside that equalled the IRA’s hold in the same region during the War of Independence. But it is important to note that this really did have very little effect on the larger war. The Civil War was not going to be decided in the mountains of South Kerry, and it is likely that if the conflict had continued the IRA resistance in the region would eventually had been broken, just as it had been broken elsewhere. Increased troop numbers, most sweeps and a gradual increase in Free State presence and solidity would have been inevitable. The anti-Treaty IRA in Kerry could not easily bear the losses of Cahirsiveen or Clashmealcon, and similar incidents would most likely have taken place if the fighting had continued.
Before we move on from the story of the Civil War in Kerry during 1923, we must turn back for a time and focus in on a spate of incidents that were not strictly military events, but which are vital to fully understanding the Civil War. In line with the execution policy and the events of Ben Bulben earlier in the war, they constitute one some of the most infamous moments of the conflict. What occurred near Ballyseedy Cross on the 7th March is something that deserves closer consideration, and we will give it that in the next entry.
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