Having looked at the early years of the post-Civil War Free State and the military and political challenges that it faced, we now turn back to the losing side of the 1922/23 conflict. The Irish Republican Army was not an entity that accepted its defeat easily – indeed, in some cases it did not accept defeat at all, merely a cessation of hostilities – and now faced into a critical period. Was it going to be able to survive in an era of peace, with all of the weaknesses that it carried out of the Civil War? And how would it come out of a critical period of reorganisation, both practically and ideologically, as Ireland played out its part in a growing European divide between the left and right of the political spectrum?
By 1924, IRA estimates for their overall numbers were somewhere in the region of 14’000 men, but with only 5’000 or so guns to arm them; two years later the estimates had fallen drastically, with then only 5’000 or so deemed to be active or potentially active Volunteers. The initial post-Civil War years had been hard, owing to the internment of so many, followed by penury when set free and emigration to foreign shores. Some drifted away from the organisation out of a desire to embrace a more peaceful life, others moved to follow de Valera down a constitutional path of resistance to the Free State government. As is often the case with similar entities, the absence of a war to fight stunted the IRA’s ability to maintain itself or to grow, and those years were simply a matter of keeping itself in existence: a simple lack of money caused many officers to leave the IRA, as they were unable to dedicate the required time and effort as a result.
Frank Aiken had been selected to lead the IRA in the dying days of the Civil War, and would remain in the position until late 1925, in which time he did his best to agitate for the release of interned prisoners and foster relationships between the IRA and outside powers. But he had no huge enthusiasm for maintaining the possibility of an armed struggle at that time, and before he gave up his role as Chief-Of-Staff he had already joined de Valera in his new political ventures. His initial replacement was Andrew Cooney, a veteran of Dublin and Kerry units during the War of Independence and Civil War, and one of the leading lights of the post-war prisoners movement. He would depart on fundraising missions to the United States only eight months later, upon which time the leadership of the IRA settled on a more long-term replacement in the form of Moss Twomey.
From Fermoy in County Cork, Twomey was a long-term member of the movement, tracing his first active steps to his joining of the Irish Volunteers in 1914. He had been part of one of the first major ambushes of the War of Independence in Fermoy, and subsequently served in many senior roles of Cork units during that conflict. Captured by the British, he had escaped from confinement on Spike Island in 1921. The next year he opposed the Treaty, but was not terribly impressed with the initial position of the anti-Treaty IRA, and opposed the tactics of the Four Courts garrison ahead of its destruction. Still, he threw in his lot with his close friend Liam Lynch, and would serve as one of his key adjutants throughout the Civil War. Twomey was one of those present when Lynch was shot dead, and was interned later that same month. When released he became heavily involved in what reorganisation efforts the IRA could attempt, and was a natural choice for Chief-Of-Staff after Cooney’s departure.
Critically for the future direction of the IRA, Twomey was very left-wing in his views. During the revolutionary period he had pushed for “the Republic” to be one that was friendly towards the labouring class, and called for a similar entity to be set-up by the anti-Treaty side during the Civil War. Though he was not considered an idealist, most considered him a socialist, and he allowed Volunteers freer rein to join left-wing parties and associations than his predecessors. A marked increase in the number of communist or communist-adjacent members of the IRA can be seen in this period, as the republicans opened themselves up to discussions with those of the left or far-left in and out of the country. The IRA intervened on the side of workers during strikes, and attempted campaigns against the payment of land annuities. In a way this was inevitable consequence of having a right/centre-right government in charge in perpetuity, or so it must have seemed: the IRA naturally moved to an opposing stance in many respects.
Part of this clear ideological shift was a somewhat audacious plan to form an alliance with Soviet Russia, with the IRA sending a deputation there in 1925. This included a meeting with Joseph Stalin and contacts with parts of the Soviet intelligence apparatus. By most accounts Stalin was not hugely impressed by the IRA, but agreed to a monthly payment of £500 – roughly £30’000 in today’s money, or €35’000 – in exchange for which the IRA would pass on information deemed useful to the Soviet cause in Britain and the United States. It was later claimed that the IRA passed on reports from US and British military branches and the plans for various bombers, ships and other military paraphernalia that fell into their hands. Suggestions that IRA Volunteers could actually fight in areas like China on the behalf of the Soviets were mooted, but never executed. Though Twomey identified as a socialist, he was always suspicious of the Soviet agreement, which he had inherited from Aiken and Cooney. For one thing the Soviets never provided arms, despite numerous promises that such things would be forthcoming. Sometimes payments could be missed, which given the IRA was chronically short on funds could be disastrous. The agreement would be maintained into the 1930’s before being quietly dropped.
But what was the point of arranging this influx of finances? What was the IRA under Moss Twomey actually planning to do? The IRA still maintained itself as the legitimate armed force of the Republic, but had difficulty with other claimed representatives of that same Republic, like the remaining deputies of the Second Dail, or Sinn Fein itself, in the midst of a growing split between the more hardcore republicans, like Mary MacSwiney, and those willing to favour a constitutional approach, like de Valera. In 1925 the IRA leadership nullified any allegiance it had previously professed to the loose republican government set-up during the Civil War, in favour of its own Executive body and the leading officers, known as the Army Council.
In line with this, the Volunteers maintained that the Irish Free State was an illegitimate entity ruled by an illegitimate government in Dublin, that was merely an arm of the British Empire. But in terms of active efforts to attack that structure, the IRA did very little, largely because it was incapable of doing much. As discussed, the lack of guns and the inability to obtain more was critical, and the lack of public support for their efforts had not decreased as a factor either. A number of Garda had been killed by republicans in isolated incidents since the end of the Civil War, but it was nothing that could be called a directed campaign.
In this period, one of the standout moments of actual military action by the IRA was a coordinated attack on Garda barracks that took place on the night of the 14th November 1926. A Sunday evening, the day and time were chosen in the expectation that those barracks would be thinly manned, and easy targets for IRA groups seeking arms, other supplies and anything valuable they could lay their hands on. The night saw what many would see as almost a re-run of events in 1919: the targetted barracks saw telegraph wires cut and roads around the blocked to prevent reinforcement, with stolen vehicles from nearby towns and villages used to rapidly transport the assigned Volunteers.
Barracks in six counties were hit, most of them in Cork. Two members of the Guards were killed; James FitzSimons in Cork, shot dead as he investigated the initial break-in at the front door, and Hugh Ward, who died of wounds sustained in an attack on the barracks on Hollyford, Co Tipperary. The attacks were largely bloodless elsewhere, and had a similar pattern: a small number of gunmen with blackened faces forcing an entry with the element of surprise, holding up the occupants and whoever else was there and gunpoint, grabbing whatever they could as quickly as they could, and then vanishing into the night.
The operation provoked widespread condemnation at the time, with the funerals of the two Garda large affairs. The IRA would make official statements deeming the deaths unintentional, but it didn’t matter: Cumann na nGaedheal felt justified in passing a new Emergency Powers Bill, which allowed the police to arrest anyone for whom they had a reasonable suspicion of membership of the IRA. Over a hundred men would be arrested in the time that followed, including two TD’s, but no-one would ever be convicted of the killings. Yet it’s hard to see the affair as anything other than a net negative for the IRA: for negligible gains in whatever they obtained, it allowed the government to paint it as a threat to law and order that needed even more draconian laws to be passed in only to combat.
In the North, the IRA continued to suffer from a position of weakness as was defined by the events of the Civil War. If things were bad in the south, then the shortages of manpower, guns and finances was even more acute north of the border. What few IRA units remained were extremely limited in number, and had little that they could do other than to attempt to protect Catholic communities during bouts of sectarian rioting and other disturbances, not unlike those which had occurred during the War of Independence. This only increased the sense that the IRA was an organisation expressly designed to represent militant Catholic nationalism, something that was not to the liking of some of the IRA’s new leading lights: one, Peader O’Donnell, would declare that “we don’t have an IRA battalion in Belfast, we have a battalion of armed Catholics”.
In summation, the IRA in the 1920’s, after the Civil War, was in a poor position. The weaknesses they had brought out of the Irish revolutionary period remained, and they had only a limited ability to enact military operations. In terms of being an actual threat to the Irish Free State, the IRA could not justifiably claim to embody such a thing. The shift towards being a more outwardly left-wing organisation was an important transformation, as was the turn to looking outward for support: these are the main points of the IRA’s existence for this period really. It was becoming a very different entity to that which existed during the revolutionary period, though the metamorphosis was not set in that one direction.
Of course, members of the IRA were still in a position to have a major impact should they choose to seek such things. The Summer of 1927 was a pivotal time, where the Cumann na Gaedheal government faced its first major electoral challenge from Eamon de Valera’s new political structure. In the aftermath, an assassination in the streets of Dublin would provide the latest flashpoint in the growth of a self-governing Ireland, and prove a bloody epilogue to the revolutionary period.
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