After the slow and steady process of first ostracising, then attacking, the police force, the Volunteers flying columns that formed by 1920 roamed the countryside looking for enemy targets to ambush. The escalating violence led to heavy-handed reprisals by the British military which served to further worsen the situation. Support for the Volunteers and hatred for the British grew every time a village was shot up and burned in retaliation for an IRA ambush.
In these areas, the position of the R.I.C. had changed from a normally functioning constabulary to a semi-military fighting force largely restricted to their barracks in the larger towns and villages. Many of them lived in constant fear of attack when travelling on country roads. A military stalemate was, nonetheless, the most common situation to evolve. This could follow a tit-for-tat cycle between local IRA units and the Crown Forces. An ambush on a British army patrol by the IRA would result in the local village being shot up by the British. The IRA would in turn attempt to re-engage their enemy to seek revenge for the attack on their village, and the cycle continued.
By the end of 1920, 182 policemen and 50 soldiers had been shot by the IRA. The British government had initially asserted that they were dealing with a civil disorder rather than a war, but by this stage they realised otherwise. The authorities were forced to recruit for the R.I.C. in Britain as Irish members of the police force began to resign. The men who in fact arrived in Ireland were mainly veterans of World War I. They wore khaki coats and black trousers and caps, due to a shortage of traditional R.I.C. uniforms. Their violent behaviour led to them being nicknamed the 'Black and Tans' after a particularly ferocious Co. Tipperary hunt pack. They were paid 50p per day and in July 1920 they were joined in Ireland by a new Auxiliary Division of the R.I.C.- mostly ex-army officers- who became known as the 'Auxies'. They were paid £1 a day. By the end of the War of Independence in July 1921 there would be over ten thousand Black and Tans and 1,500 Auxiliaries in the country. Around the time the Tans first appeared in Ireland they shot the Lord Mayor of Cork in front of his wife and children. The struggle was embittered by such acts, and the reprisals and counter-reprisals which followed.
From the arrival of the Tans both sides stepped up their activity. In September 1920 the Mid Clare Brigade ambushed the R.I.C. at Rineen, killing six policemen and capturing arms and equipment. In October the West Cork IRA killed five British soldiers in an ambush at Toureen, including the leader of the Essex regiment, Captain Dickson, who 'was shot through the head as he was firing his revolver'. In reprisal, the Essex regiment descended on the town of Bandon in Cork and smashed it up. Included in this raid party were men who the IRA had allowed to go free at Toureen. On November 21st, the most successful IRA ambush occurred at Kilmichael in West Cork. A column of thirty-six riflemen under Tom Barry ambushed a party of Auxiliaries, killing sixteen of them. The flying column took a large haul of weapons from their defeated enemy, and according to Barry, were then quite well armed. For three days afterwards the column zig-zagged around the area to avoid attack by the British. Shops and homes were also shot up and destroyed at Kilmichael, Johnstown and Inchigeela in reprisal. The Kilmichael ambush had occurred a week after Bloody Sunday in Dublin, when Michael Collins' Squad had wiped out over a dozen British intelligence officers. In reprisal the Black and Tans entered the national stadium, Croke Park, and opened fire on the crowd. In April 1921 the West Cork IRA attacked and burned down the barracks in Rosscarberry, a very strategic base for the British army in the area. According to Barry, this resulted in the Cork Volunteers having an area of roughly 270 square miles free of the enemy, to use as a base.
Although the IRA had no realistic hope of defeating the British military, and in fact never really attempted to fight them in open battle except on their own terms, they were successful in pinning down large numbers of troops around the country. The IRA brigades in West Cork forced the British to garrison huge numbers of soldiers in the area. Worldwide public pressure, especially from America, prevented the British military flexing its muscle fully. Ireland wasn't bombed, and although civilians were killed in reprisals for IRA ambushes, the British army didn't (or couldn't) specifically target civilians. The Black and Tans did begin to carry civilian hostages in convoys liable to ambush. In the Boer War the British had been able to destroy the Boers' homes aware that they had no equivalent target. But in Ireland, the IRA began to burn down loyalist homes in return for army attacks on their homes. At the end of 1920, the situation in Ireland was a military stalemate.
By January 1921, 1,463 civilians were interned in the country. But the IRA was still active. Its continued survival, and the success of the Dail in being recognised by many as the actual, functioning Irish parliament, was a heavy blow to the British. The fact that they had thousands of troops and pseudo-military policemen in Ireland to prop up their rule, whilst at the same time the Irish had their own parliament and army operating, began to make the British position appear untenable.
Towards a truce
We exhort English as well as Irish to calmly consider… some means of mutual agreement
– Pope Benedict, May 1921
On November 11th 1920 the Government of Ireland Bill had been passed in the British House of Commons, proposing separate home rule parliaments for Southern Ireland and for Northern Ireland. A Council of Ireland was to be set up with members from each parliament in a move to one day remove partition and potentially reunite the two parliaments. Both parliaments would be subject to the Westminster parliament, requiring the Lord Lieutenant to approve bills on behalf of the king, and would not be allowed to make laws relating to peace and war, the armed forces, foreign affairs, or overseas trade. Of course public opinion in southern Ireland no longer wanted such a limited parliament. But it did result in the paritioning of the country, which has remained split ever since.
In the spring of 1921 local IRA commanders began to burn down the homes of British loyalists in reprisal for the Black and Tans burning down Irish homes. In March 1921 Tom Barry's West Cork flying column organised a spectacular ambush at Crossbarry which resulted in the death of about 35 British soldiers. The British were losing the propaganda war badly and there was growing pressure from America to reach some sort of agreement with Sinn Fein. Elections were looming and the Government of Ireland Bill was soon due to come into force. Sinn Fein were bound to win be the majority Irish party and would refuse to take their seats in the new Irish parliament. This would mean Britain would have to rule Ireland by the king (represented by the Lord Lieutenant in Ireland), whose rule would only be backed up by the retention of huge numbers of troops in the country.
Between May and July 1921 more than 160 soldiers and policemen would be killed by the IRA, which was well over a quarter of all British casualties since the start of the war over two years ago. On May 14th the IRA raided the English homes of men who had joined the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries. On May 25th in Dublin the IRA burned down the Customs House, seen as the centre of British administrative rule in Ireland. As a military operation for the IRA it was a disaster, with over a hundred of its best men being captured. As a propaganda feat it was a huge success, demonstrating to the wider world how strong the IRA was and how weak the British position now was in Ireland. Although certain sections of the British parliament wanted to keep fighting, and in fact unleash an all-out military campaign against the IRA, the Liberal government under Lloyd George were coming under heavy public pressure to negotiate. The IRA at the same time was increasingly feeling the strain of the war. Accounts vary as to how long it felt it could hold out, with Volunteer GHQ quite pessimistic, whereas the men in the field around the country, such as Tom Barry in Cork, felt they could last several years. Certainly in the area around Barry's command the IRA were on the front foot. After the British army's last major effort to corner and destroy the Cork IRA Flying Columns in June 1921, they retreated back to their barracks. The West Cork IRA then resumed major attacks against them, in what would be the last month before the truce.-