The Lingering Guerilla War
I'll hardly be shot in my own county-
Michael Collins, August 192217
He is a big man and if things fall into the hands of lesser men anything might happen-
Eamon DeValera speaking on the death of Michael Collins, August 192218
By early August it became clear the that although the Provisional Government now controlled most of the towns in Munster, it did not have any real control over the large areas surrounding the towns. The Republicans in Cork and Kerry remained intact, and having retreated into the countryside, resorted to guerilla warfare. This proved much harder to defeat than taking back towns from the Republicans. Emmet Dalton wrote-
They [the Republicans] have now adopted a type of warfare, of which they have years of experience. They now operate over territory which they know. They are now better armed and better trained than they were against the British. In short, they have placed me and my Troops in the same position as the British were a little over a year ago.19
Although the Republicans had reasonable success with these tactics, over time their moral sunk lower and lower, and public opinion increasingly turned against them. They knew that they had no real hope of defeating the government troops.
On August 12th 1922 Arthur Griffith died of a brain haemorrhage. Ten days later Michael Collins, aged just 31, was killed in an ambush at Beal na mBlath in West Cork, not far from where he was born. They were replaced by W.T. Cosgrave and Kevin O'Higgins who adopted a more hard line, less sympathetic approach when dealing with the Irregular forces. Cosgrave chillingly stated-
I am not going to hesitate and if the country is going to live and if we have to exterminate ten thousand Republicans, the three million of our people are bigger than this ten thousand.20
Collins had always advocated peace with the Irregulars, men with whom he had fought and admired greatly. He had reluctantly declared war on these men, but was not prepared to absolutely annihalate them to achieve victory. It is a matter of speculation what he would have done in the months ahead had he lived, but his death certainly resulted in a more bloodthirsty approach being taken by the Free State. One of Cosgrave's first moves as President was to merge the Dail and Provisional Governments. The third Dail, elected in June 1922, was not recognised by Eamon DeValera and the anti-Treaty TDs. Regardless, in September it passed an Emergency Powers Act, which allowed the Irish army to hold military courts and impose the death penalty for a wide range of offences, including the unauthorised possession of arms. The harshness of this policy can be demonstrated by the case of the anti-Treaty Erskine Childers. He was given the death sentence for possession of an ornamental gun given to him by Michael Collins, and died before a firing squad on November 24th.
In October the anti-Treaty TDs set up a republican government with DeValera as President. In practice the IRA paid little heed to the politicians. On December 6th 1922 the Irish Free State officially came into existence. The following day a Dail deputy was killed and another wounded by the Irregulars, who had began a campaign against Dail and Senate members. In response four major offence prisoners, one from each of the provinces, were executed without trial or legal process of any kind by the Free State government. Rory O'Connor, who had been best man at Kevin O'Higgins' wedding the previous summer, was one of the four executed. The Irregulars had increasingly resorted to guerilla warfare, but this didn't prove as successful as in the War of Independence. Both sides knew the countryside, and the Irregulars had fewer safe houses to go to. The Irish Catholic bishops heavily supported the government, which was an important fact in a country so dominated by religion like Ireland. Public opinion overall supported the Free State and longed for peace.
The guerilla phase of the war was most bitterly fought in Kerry, the extreme southwest county in Ireland. Pro-Treaty forces occupied the towns, but numerous Republican columns roamed the countryside. There were frequent skirmishes between the sides, and rumours of prisoners beatings and tortures by the Provisional troops in particular. In early March nine Republican prisoners were tied together, several having broken limbs due to their 'interrogation' with hammers by the government troops earlier in Tralee barracks. The prisoners were placed in a ring around a landmine, which was then exploded by the government army officer. Several more Black and Tan-like incidents perpetrated by Free State soldiers occurred in Kerry around this time. Guerilla fighting continued intermittently in the southwest into the spring and early summer of 1923. By April 1923, 77 Republicans had been executed under the emergency powers resolution, with about twice as many killed in unofficial reprisals. Large numbers of Republicans had also been captured and imprisoned. Liam Lynch, the Irregulars leader, was shot dead in the Knockmealdown Mountains. One of the men with him at this ambush describes what happened-
'The 'Staters' appeared over a rise and our first shots were exchanged… When we reached the end of the river bed we had to retreat up a bare, coverless shoulder of the mountain. This was the chance for the 'Staters'. About fifty of them had a clear view of us between 300 and 400 yards range and they rattled away with their rifles as fast as they could work their bolts.'21
Lynch had been the personification of continued military resistance to the Free State. His death demoralised the Republicans who had been fighting on with little public support and in harsh war-like conditions for months. He was replaced by Frank Aiken, a more liberal man who realised the practicality of the situation. Aiken and Eamon DeValera helped bring about a ceasefire in May 1923. It was not accompanied by any formal talks or peace treaty, and the Republicans didn't surrender their arms. For many the ceasefire was simply a pause in hostilities, and the struggle for an Irish Republic would begin another day.
War with the foreigner brings to the fore all that is best and noblest in a nation- civil war all that is mean and base-
Frank Aiken, IRA leader22
The Irish Civil War left a cloud of bitterness that hung over the country for decades. IRA men who had previously fought side by side to achieve independence from the British Empire had turned the gun on each other. Brutal reprisals by both sides would not be easily forgotten. Several thousand people were killed in the war, including some of the key political figures of the day- Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, Cathal Brugha, Rory O'Connor and Liam Lynch. Estimates of the cost of the Civil War put it at £50 million (the sum of the property damage and the cost of financing the war), a huge sum in those days (equivalent to over €2 billion today). Employment was huge, the State had an enormous army that could not be sustained in peace-time, antagonism between pro and anti-Treatyites would linger on for decades, and to the world at large the Irish Free State was a tarnished mess. New political parties would have to emerge from the crumbling of Sinn Fein, split down the middle by the war. In the years ahead, the pro-Treaty party Fine Gael (originally Cummann na nGaedhal), headed by W.T. Cosgrave, and the anti-Treaty party Fianna Fail, led by Eamon DeValera, would become the main political parties in Ireland. But to this day they have never formed a coalition government together, such is the remaining tension between them.
The Irish Civil War is one of the least talked about chapters in the country's history. IRA commanders like Tom Barry and Dan Breen both wrote books on their experiences in the War of Independence: both concluded their novels upon the signing of the Treaty. The majority of IRA men, like Barry and Breen, whose fighting had helped to achieve the Irish Free State, were against it. The people who brought about the Free State were generally ex-British soldiers and men who hadn't originally fought for the IRA. The men that they had to overcome where generally those who had brought about the military stalemate with Britain in the first place. A lot of anti-Treatyite IRA men were forced to emigrate, left to spend their last days abroad brooding over what might have been.
Michael Collins argument that the Anglo-Irish Treaty was a 'stepping-stone' to achieve further freedom was ironically proven by Eamon DeValera's later governments, which slowly loosened any remaining ties to the British Empire. A Republic of Ireland was finally declared in 1949, excluding the six northern counties (when DeValera was briefly out of power), and this passed with little fuss.
1Pg. 157 of 1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy by Tom Garvin (Dublin, 1996)
2Pg. 66 of The Civil War: 1922-1923 by Eoin Neeson (Dublin, 1966)
3Pg. 7 of Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War by Michael Hopkinson (Dublin, 1988)
4Ibid, pg. 8
5Ibid, pg. 36
6Pg. 263 of Revolution In Ireland: 1906-1923 by W. Allison Phillips (Dublin, 1923)
7Pg. 46 of Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War by Michael Hopkinson (Dublin, 1988)
8Pg. 92 of 1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy by Tom Garvin (Dublin, 1996)
9Pg. 40 of Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War by Michael Hopkinson (Dublin, 1988)
10Pg. 91 of The Civil War: 1922-1923 by Eoin Neeson (Dublin, 1966)
11Pg. 112 of The Civil War: 1922-1923 by Eoin Neeson (Dublin, 1966)
12Pg. 117 of The Civil War: 1922-1923 by Eoin Neeson (Dublin, 1966)
13UCD AD, Hugh Kennedy Papers, P4/390
14Pg. 59 of Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War by Michael Hopkinson (Dublin, 1988)
15Pg. 131 of The Civil War: 1922-1923 by Eoin Neeson (Dublin, 1966)
16Pg. 150 of Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War by Michael Hopkinson (Dublin, 1988)
Pg. 234 of The Civil War: 1922-1923 by Eoin Neeson (Dublin, 1966)
18Pg. 251 of The Civil War: 1922-1923 by Eoin Neeson (Dublin, 1966)
19Pg. 174 of Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War by Michael Hopkinson (Dublin, 1988)
Pg. 163 of 1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy by Tom Garvin (Dublin, 1966)
21Pg. 289-290 of The Civil War: 1922-1923 by Eoin Neeson (Dublin, 1966)
22Pg. 273 of Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War by Michael Hopkinson (Dublin, 1988)
Tags: Irish history