7 THE ANGLO-IRISH WAR
THE ANGLO-IRISH WAR
On 14th December 1918 a general election was held in Ireland and Sinn Fein put before the Irish people a four-point policy: withdrawal from the Westminster Parliament, making use of every means to render impotent the power of England in Ireland; the establishment of an assembly as the supreme national authority and finally, an appeal to the Peace Conference at Versailles, Paris, for the recognition of Ireland as an independent nation.
On the eve of the dissolution of the outgoing Parliament, the Irish Parliamentary Party held sixty-eight seats, Sinn Fein seven, Unionists eighteen and other parties ten. After the election, the Unionists had increased to twenty-six seats, Independents were wiped out and Sinn Fein with seventy three seats had a majority in all but four counties, Derry, Antrim, Down and Armagh. The Irish Parliamentary party was reduced to six seats. It was a massive victory for Sinn Fein. Collins’ election address to the voters of South Cork which contributed to this success read:
“You are requested by your votes to assert before the nations of the world that Ireland’s claim is to the status of an independent nation, and that we will be satisfied with nothing less than our full claim – that in fact any scheme of government which does not confer upon the people of Ireland the supreme, absolute and final control of all the affairs of the country, external as well as internal, is a mockery and will not be accepted..”
He was one of twenty-five Sinn Fein candidates returned unopposed.
On 21st January 1919, twenty-eight of the elected Sinn Fein members convened as Dail Eireann for the first time. Thirty six were in prison, four were out of the country and five were otherwise unable to attend. The Unionists and the Irish Parliamentary Party ignored the summons to the Dail. Three major statements were read to the Dail. The first and most important was a Declaration of Independence which in part read:
“Now therefore, we , the elected representatives of the ancient Irish people in National Parliament assembled, do, in the name of the Irish nation, ratify the establishment of the Irish Republic and pledge ourselves and our people to make this declaration effective by every means at our command”.
It went on to declare foreign government in Ireland to be an invasion of national rights and to demand the evacuation of the English garrison.
The second was a call to every free nation to support the Irish Republic by recognising Ireland’s national status and her right to vindication at the Peace Conference.
The third outlined a Democratic Programme declaring inter alia the desire of the Dail that the country be ruled in accordance with the principles of Liberty, Equality and Justice for all. The declaration ratifying the establishment of the Republic proclaimed in 1916 by Patrick Pearse would in time put both de Valera and the I.R.B. into the “strait jacket” of the Republic……In a private session of the Dail, on the following day, a temporary ministry consisting of Brugha (President), Collins (Home Affairs), Mac Neill (Finance), Plunkett (Foreign Affairs) and Mulcahy (Defence) was appointed.
After the sitting of the First Dail, the general public began to refer to the Volunteers as the Irish Republican Army which, shortened, became the I.R.A… Early in February, Michael Collins, Harry Boland and Frank Kelly engineered the escape of de Valera, Sean McGarry and Sean Mulroy from Lincoln Gaol. It was a great propaganda coup and, while de Valera remained in hiding for some weeks, the British Government’s amnesty for political prisoners in March allowed him to return to Dublin and to be elected President of Dail Eireann in April. At this session the Dail appointed eight ministers: Griffith (Home Affairs) and deputy to the President, Brugha (Defence), Plunkett (Foreign Affairs), Countess Markiewicz (Labour), Cosgrave (Local Government) McNeill (Industries), Barton (Agriculture) and Collins (Finance).
The British purported to suppress the Dail in September, 1919. However, in the period up to 1921, it had held twelve sessions. In this period each minister operated in secrecy and there were no parliamentary offices. Michael Collins was a conspicuous success as Minister for Finance, raising a National Loan of four hundred thousand pounds and succeeding in giving an official Dail Eireann receipt for each of the subscriptions received. Cosgrave built up close contacts with local councils. Barton set up a Land Bank. Griffith successfully developed local courts which by-passed the established British legal system. The cabinet was enlarged when Austin Stack was appointed Minster for Home Affairs in November. Brugha and Stack were not very effective ministers. Collins interfered in their departments when he felt it necessary and Stack felt the lash of his tongue when he said , “Austin, your department is only a bloody joke”.
On 21st January 1919 coinciding with the first meeting of Dail Eireann, the first shots were fired in the Anglo-Irish War. A group, from the 3rd Tipperary Brigade of the I.R.A., without the approval of G.H.Q., ambushed two policemen and seized a quantity of explosives at Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary. Initially incidents were on a small scale but by 1920 they had assumed large proportions. The Irish copied and developed the guerilla tactics adopted by the Boers in South Africa – the tactics of ambush and the exploitation of the Flying Columns. The British replied with a terror campaign of night raids, widespread searches, random arrest and shootings.
De Valera, before his departure for America in June 1919 to seek support and funds proposed to the Dail that a policy of social ostracism be carried out against the R.I.C. “whose history”, he said “is a continuity of brutal treason against their own people”. The R.I.C. were seen as the eyes and ears of the British administration. They numbered about 9,700 men located in about 1,500 barracks throughout the country. They were badly paid, basic rates of pay had not increased since 1872 and the resignation rate was very high. Social ostracising of the R.I.C. was defined by the Clerk of the Dail as follows:
“that the police force must receive no social recognition from the people; that no intercourse except such as is absolutely necessary on business is permitted with them; that they should not be saluted nor spoken to in the streets or elsewhere nor their salutes returned; that they should not be invited to nor received in private houses as friends ………. etc”
The ostracisation of the R.I.C. was most effective, destroyed moral and to large extent separated the police from the people. Resignations increased and recruitment dropped off immediately. There was little public outcry when, later, police barracks were attacked and burned and policemen shot.
The political detectives – the “G” divisions – were detested. It was they who had been active in identifying the leaders among the prisoners after the Easter Week rising. They had also identified those imprisoned for the mythical German plot of 1918. Some nationally minded “G” men such as Kavanagh, Broy, Neligan and MacNamara, however, provided valuable, reliable, up-to-date information on British Government plans, and were of vital importance to Collins as counter-intelligence officers.
In mid-1919, Collins was Minster for Finance, Director of Intelligence, Director of Organisation and President of the Supreme Council of the I.R.B. What sort of man was he? The police issued the following description in “Hue and Cry” (the police gazette) at the time:-
“Clean shaven, boyish appearance, dressed well, dark brown eyes, regular nose, fresh complexion, oval face, active male, 5 feet eleven inches high about 30 years of age, dark hair, generally wears trilby hat and fawn overcoat.”
Others describe him as having an expressive, boyish face which could change quickly from a scowl of anger to a broad laughing grin of enjoyment and his laugh as a high-pitched prolonged chuckle. He had immense energy, total concentration and a gift for command, was quick at figures and was a very tidy, ordered person who could not tolerate inefficiency. He was quick tempered and when making an assertion which he expected to be contradicted, he usually thrust he chin out in a fighting stance.
He was a leader of intuitive genius, was generous to those who worked for him, generated intense loyalty from his friends and would go to any length or take any risk for a friend. He was the complete revolutionary, quick-minded, decisive, calm under pressure, a man of action. He was confident, strong, self-assured with a pride and belief in the Irish people. I.R.A. officers who came to Dublin to see him returned to their own areas with renewed determination and a will to win. The efficient Collins was wont to publicly criticise less able colleagues and take over their work to further the national cause.
Right through the troubles, he continued to meet his friends in Vaughans’ Hotel in Central Dublin, did business over a drink in bars, went to race meetings and attended G.A.A. matches. He cycled from office to office and his very ordinary business appearance helped him to mingle with Dublin citizens and escape capture. He had extraordinary personal courage and seldom carried a gun. He became the Irish version of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Collins seemed to have different personalities and separate compartments in his brain. he was very secretive and would remark on occasions to his colleagues “never let one side of your mind know what the other is doing.”. This personality change helped him to travel without a disguise and to act the part of an ordinary citizen at a street checkpoint or as a man under the influence of drink in a “round-up”. The efficient revolutionary face was what most people saw, but those who worked close to him sometimes saw the grief and the tears that were shed when one of his friends was shot by British forces.
The organisation of the I.R.B. was designed to protect members from informers or traitors, who were detested and spoken of as rats. From Collins’ earliest years as a farmer’s son, he would have actively hated the rat, the animal which not alone eats or damages the farmer’s grain and potatoes but also carries the deadly Wiell’s disease. The instinct of a countryman is to kill every rat – a rat, in his eyes, has no right to life.
The I.R.B. considered informers, traitors, and detectives of the “G” division to be a like danger to Irish national existence and they had to be ruthlessly dealt with. The Republicans had not the gaols or elaborate court rituals by which the British would sentence a patriotic Irishman to death by shooting or hanging. The Republicans selected their offenders and shot them. The British press and parliamentarians thundered – ‘Murder’!. The self-righteous British public thought that the Irish people should condemn the shootings and were surprised that they did not.
In August 1919, the Dail, on a motion of Cathal Brugha, agreed that Volunteers should take an Oath of Allegiance to the Republic and to the Dail and, from that date onwards, the Volunteers were officially referred to as the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.). The oath was taken by most local units during 1920.
On Sunday the 7th September, 1919 Liam Lynch and a column of Cork No. 2 Brigade I.R.A. ambushed a group of fourteen British soldiers on their way to Church in Fermoy. One soldier was killed, three were wounded and fourteen rifles plus ammunition captured. In retaliation, two hundred British soldiers rushed from their barracks and did thousands of pounds worth of damage in Fermoy town. No effort was made by the police or army officers to restrain the soldiers. It was a pattern that was to be followed from then to the Truce. In November, a group from Cork No. 3 Brigade boarded a British Naval Sloop in Bantry Bay and captured arms and a quantity of ammunition. In December, Collins organised an attack on Lord French – the Viceroy – at Ashtown, Co. Dublin. The attack failed, one of the attackers was killed, but Lord French had a narrow escape from death.
It was also on September, 1919 that Collins established a small group of elite I.R.A. men later known as the “Squad”. This group whose first leader was Mick McDonnell, included Paddy Daly, Tom Kehoe, Bill Stapleton, Jimmy Conroy, Frank Bolster, Paddy Griffin, Ben Byrne, Johnny Dunne, Jimmy Slattery, Mick Kennedy, Eddie Byrne, Vinny Byrne, Mick Kelly and Pat McCrea. They reported directly to Collins and were ordered not to discuss their movements or actions with any other individual. They were paid £4.50 per week and their usual day-place of assembly was a builder’s yard near Dublin Castle. At night-time they also remained in groups in individual houses. In this manner Collins could always call on members of the Squad for any emergency.
The Squad were largely responsible for eliminating the threat from the “G” Division of the likes of Detective Sergeant Smith, Sergeant Hoey (who had been most active in identifying the 1916 men), and Detective Wharton. Several of those shot had earlier been advised to leave the country but they ignored the warning and suffered the consequences. Lord French offered a reward of £5,000 for evidence leading to the conviction of any persons who committed the recent murder of policemen but the reward remained unclaimed.
Collins realised that without her spies the British forces were blind. By the end of 1919 he had eliminated the British intelligence network, and developed his own counter-intelligence organisation, knew the telegraph codes of both the British Army and Navy and fully organised the small professional full time “Squad” under his Frongoch colleague, Mick McDonald.
Lord French set up a three-man committee to consider what should be done about the deteriorating British intelligence network. They concluded that the shooting of a few assassins would have an excellent effect and should be tried as soon as possible. Detective Inspector Forbes Redmond and some colleagues from Belfast were brought in to reorganise “G” division. They organised a number of raids on some of Collins’ offices and narrowly missed capturing him. Collins, realising that Inspector Redmond was very dangerous, said “If we don’t get that man he’ll get us and soon”. As Redmond, who wore a bullet-proof waistcoat, was returning from the Castle to the Standard Hotel he was shot in the head.
Following Redmond’s death, his colleagues returned to Belfast. The “Squad” operated under instructions that no man was to be shot except under orders or in self-defence. In the following months it frustrated the best efforts of the British intelligence service by shooting a number of spies and detectives and cutting off the supply of information to the authorities. At the same time Collins built up contacts with sympathetic staff in government departments, the Army, R.I.C., Telegraph Offices, Customs etc and even went himself into the headquarters of British power, Dublin Castle, at night to inspect police files.
Military action outside Dublin had only been on a limited scale. Cork Brigade leaders, arguing against the static warfare ideas of Brugha and Mulcahy, sought permission to attack military targets in their area. With backing from Collins this was agreed and on the night of 3rd January, 1920 three R.I.C. barracks including Kilmurry, responsible for the Beal na mBlath district in County Cork, were attacked. Collins was the driving force behind this new phase of the struggle and he became the recognised military leader of the fight for freedom. It was to him that Brigade officers from the country areas reported. In turn, Collins knew the strength of every I.R.A. unit and the location of almost every rifle in the country. He was loud in the praise of officers from the active areas and would abuse those who had only excuses for inaction.
There were frequent meetings of the I.R.B. Supreme Council and of the Executive of the I.R.B.. Liam Deasy of the Cork No. 3 Brigade described his visit to Dublin at Easter 1921 for discussions between Brigade officers and headquarters staff: “They met first”, he wrote, “in their I.R.B. capacity with Collins in the chair before reassembling later as I.R.A. men”. This shows not only the continuance of parallel organisations, but also the extent to which the I.R.B. dominated the officer ranks of the Brigades.
Collins ran tremendous risks and laughed at his many close calls. He seemed to bear a charmed life. His output and capacity for work were extraordinary and he had amazing ability to get things done. He appeared to dominate the whole movement and virtually nothing seemed impossible to him.
In 1920, during the hunger-strike of Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, G.H.Q. requested a number of Volunteers from Cork No. 1 Brigade to go to London for the purpose of shooting a member of the British Cabinet if MacSwiney should die. Collins visited London twice on this matter, but eventually the idea was abandoned and the men returned to Cork.
The British were convinced that a programme of force and coercion would be successful in combating the I.R.A. and, in the absence of Irish recruits for the R.I.C., enlisted 7,000 of mainly ex-British Army soldiers, at ten shillings a day, for service in Ireland. They had been selected, as Churchill said, from a great press of applicants on account of their intelligence, their characters and their records in the war. Their officers included one who would become well-known in World War II – General Montgomery. They were named the ‘Black and Tans’ after a famous Limerick pack of foxhounds; their uniform was khaki with the black-green caps of the police. The Black and Tans were a ruthless, undisciplined, hard-drinking, brutalised group of men with a contempt for life and property and caused a Protestant Limerick landowner to exclaim: “Those blackguards should never have been let loose in this country, They are not gentlemen”.
A second group, numbering 1,400, of specially recruited ex-officers with good war records appeared in Ireland in the summer of 1920. These were known officially as the “Auxiliary Police Force” but, locally, as the Auxiliaries or Auxies. They were paid the then astronomical sum of a pound a day and wore a dark blue uniform with Glengarry cap. They were a tough,ruthless, brave group, formidable fighters and a law unto themselves. They and the Black and Tans were the blunt instruments that Lloyd George thought would subdue the country. They too substituted for the R.I.C. but lacked local knowledge and information. They were a rough, hard-drinking bunch, whose commanding officer, Brigadier Crozier, eventually resigned rather than go on leading what he described as a drunken and insubordinate body of men.
The authorities became responsible for ever-increasing raids, searches, swoops, shootings and “round-ups” The military set up road-blocks, cordoned off streets and carried out widespread searches. Between January 1919 and March 1920 there were some twenty thousand raids on houses by Crown Forces. In March 1920, Thomas McCurtain, Lord Mayor of Cork, was shot dead in his own house, in front of his wife, by a gang with blackened faces. Soon afterwards, a group of men whose leader was identified were seen to enter the R.I.C. barracks in what was then called King Street and now McCurtain Street. Sir Hamar Greenwood, the Chief Secretary for Ireland accused McCurtain’s friends of the crime. People in England as well in Ireland were shocked by this callous murder.
The assassination of McCurtain was intended to intimidate but a jury, composed of Cork citizens, after an inquiry lasting sixteen days, returned a verdict of wilful murder against David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of England, District Inspector Swanzy and some unknown members of the R.I.C.
Shortly afterwards the R.I.C. barrack in King Street was blown up. District Inspector Swanzy, the officer identified as being in charge of the assassination squad was transferred to Lisburn. He was traced there and on 22nd August was shot as he was coming out of church by an I.R.A. man who used McCurtain’s own revolver
In the Spring, a “hard-liner”, General Sir Neville Macready, took over as Commander-in-Chief of British Forces and prepared for trouble in Dublin and other cities where Easter week anniversary celebrations were expected. Trains were searched and British troops patrolled the streets. On Easter Sunday night, the I.R.A. burned down the Income Tax offices in Dublin and in the provinces and also burned 350 deserted R.I.C. stations throughout the country.
After Easter Lloyd George installed a new administration in Dublin Castle prior to putting the country under Martial Law and putting his military policy in place. Hamar Greenwood was appointed Chief Secretary. The combined British forces in Ireland were increased to some fifty thousand men. The new military policy was to rule the country with a rod of iron and intended to break the I.R.A.
The policy was explained at Listowel R.I.C. barracks on 19th June 1920 when the new Commissioner for Munster, Lt. Colonel Smyth D.S.O., an Ulsterman and a one-armed veteran of the Great War, addressed the assembled R.I.C. men as follows “Sinn Fein has had all the sport up to the present but we are going to have the sport now” and continued “the more you shoot the better I will like it and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man.” A young Galway R.I.C. man, Jeremiah Mee, said to Smyth that he was a murderer. The others refused Smyth’s orders to arrest the young constable. Subsequently the Commissioner had to leave the barracks in a hurry and all seven constables resigned. The story later got into the press and was debated in the House of Commons. The sequel to the event occurred a few weeks later. Two armed I.R.A. entered the County Club in Cork where Smyth was, marched up to him and said “your orders were to shoot at sight”. They immediately shot him and made their escape.
The most active and dangerous member of the British Forces and their Chief Intelligence Officer in West Cork was a Catholic. He attended mass in Bandon on a regular basis and it was noted that his bodyguards only went as far as the church door. He was shot in the church porch in Bandon on 25th July. This shooting in the environs of the Church upset many people and the Catholic Bishop of Cork excommunicated the culprits but the event showed to everyone the power and effectiveness as well as the ruthlessness of the I.R.A. in dealing with the enemy. The shooting war was accompanied by an effective propaganda war. The I.R.A. published a daily Bulletin, edited by Erskine Childers, which truthfully described the atrocities committed by Government forces. These were taken up by journalists and published in British and American newspapers. Herbert Asquith, a former Liberal Prime Minster, expressed his horrow as follows: “I say deliberately that never in the lifetime of the oldest among us has Britain sunk so low in the moral scale of nations…… things are being done in Ireland which would disgrace the blackest annals of the lowest despotism in Europe”. Decent, liberal, fair-minded British people in large numbers were ashamed of the deeds committed in their name and Irish-American opinion was outraged.
R.I.C. barracks in the towns were reinforced b y the establishment of new military posts in close proximity. Stations were equipped with wireless for quick communications. The Restoration of Order in Ireland Act in force for the second half of 1920, gave exceptional powers to General Macready. He was given authority to arrest and imprison, without trial, anyone suspected of Sinn Fein associations, to try prisoners by courts-martial and to institute military inquiries rather than coroner’s inquests into violent deaths. This gave a free hand to the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries. They roamed the country during the day and terrorised the people with night-time search-parties. Shootings became common, pubs were looted, creameries and houses burned down, and several town shot up including Fermoy, Kilmallock and Bantry.
Local I.R. A. leaders like MacSwiney and MacCurtain had been pressing Brugha and Mulcahy for permission to undertake local action against Crown Forces. Brugha, an extraordinarily brave man, disapproved of ambushes and his instructions were that members of the Crown Forces should not be shot without first affording them an opportunity to surrender. Collins supported the viewpoint of the local leaders and thought that the official policy put the badly-armed I.R.A. men at a disadvantage. Nevertheless, local leaders in West Cork had considerable freedom and from late 1919 and in the first half of 1920 had acquired a number of rifles by surprise attacks on naval vessels and Coast-guard stations.
In July Tom Hales, O.C. 3rd Brigade and Pat Harte of Clonakilty were arrested and tortured in Bandon Barracks – the Torture Squad beat up the prisoners and pulled out their nails with pincers. Tom Harte became insane but Hales survived and was held in Pentonville Jail until after the Treaty was signed.
On 22nd August, 1920 a Cork No.1 Brigade group under Q.M. M. Galvin ambushed a lorry load of police returning to Bandon at a wooded defile near Lissarda. A cart was pushed across the road and Galvin, in accordance with Brugha’s orders, called three times – Surrender! The lorry shot for the shelter of the road wall, the police jumped out and from their sheltered position fired at the spot from which the surrender call came. Galvin received a fatal wound to the head and the badly-armed ambushers withdrew with their mortally wounded comrade. In all ambushes thereafter an essential tactic was to first shoot the driver of the military vehicle and put it out of control. A number of those engaged in the Lissarda ambush also participated in the Beal-na-mBlath engagement two years later.
In the Summer of 1920 British pressure increased. Some two thousand extra troops disembarked at Bantry, were distributed throughout West Cork and patrolled the area at will. The brutal torture of Hales and his comrade and the callous shooting of many innocent people changed the feeling of the I.R.A. and the people from resentment to deep hatred.
The military authorities heard that a man was shot at Lissarda and in an endeavour to identify him and possibly desecrate his grave inspected local graveyards. Galvins comrades arranged a temporary burial in a lead-lined coffin at night. As a further precaution his three brothers and a cousin, Commandant John Lordan, removed the body to a different place the following night and, with police scouring the area, final burial did not take place for a further six weeks.
About this time G.H.Q. sent a communication to all Brigades that a Flying Column should be started in each Brigade. A collective training camp under Tom Barry was held in Kilbrittain in September for one week, other were held in Ballymurphy and Kealkiee. These camps allowed for the expansion of the Flying Column to an eventual size of about one hundred and ten men and about twice as large as the next biggest Flying Column in Ireland. Most of the men in the column were in their early twenties and several were G.A.A. players. They selected their own officers and all were physically fit men with a deep committment to their cause. The Flying Columns were Collins’ effective answer to the British reign of terror and were particulary active in Counties Cork, Tipperary, Limerick, Longford and Mayo.
Meanwhile, the war in Dublin intensified with the British seeking to re-establish their Intelligence Organisation. Collins and the Squad frustrated their efforts by executing spies and informers. At the same time he successfully established his own counter-intelligence network.
On 9th November, 1920 Lloyd George announced that he had “murder by the throat”. It was presumed that he was expecting results from the reorganised British intelligence organisation. A number of intelligence officers were drafted in from the Middle East. They adopted new names, lived in private homes or in hotels and did not mix with the other British military. Energetically they set about the work of tracking down Collins and the other leaders and were getting close. They became known to Collins and his informants in “G” Division as the “Cairo gang”. Collins assembled a dossier of evidence on each member of the gang and clearance was obtained from a joint meeting of the Dail Cabinet and army council for the execution of every individual considered to be an accredited Secret Service agent of the British Government.
In the early morning of Sunday, 21st November, two days after Sir Hamar Greenwood had told the House of Commons that things ” are much better in Ireland”, members of Collins’ Squad gained entrance to the hotel rooms and private houses where members of the Cairo gang slept. Eleven officers were killed, some shot in front of their wives, and four were wounded. That afternoon, Black and Tan units surrounded Croke Park where a Gaelic footbal match was in progress and fired indiscriminately on players and civilians. Twelve people died and sixty people were wounded. Later that same day, Peadar Clancy and Dick McKee, two officers of the Dublin I.R.A. Brigade captured the previous night in a raid, were shot while “attempting to escape”. The bodies of the Republican officers were a mass of bruises and bayonet wounds and McKee had broken ribs. The authorities explained to some newspaper correspondents that they had been left in a room where they had seized some bombs and attempted to fight their way out.
The loss of McKee and Clancy was deeply felt by Collins – they had been his right-hand men. Stories circulated about how the dead Volunteers had been tortured in the guard room of the Castle by a group of Auxiliary officers. The bodies were handed over to the relatives and brought to the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. Collins insisted that he and some colleagues should dress the dead men in their officer’s uniforms. Ignoring all the danger, they cycled through the detectives, opened the coffins in the mortuary chapel and saw the swollen and blackened faces of their friends. The bodies were dressed in their uniforms and the coffins closed. Collins and the other cycled away only to return again with a tiny group of twenty mourners at the Requiem Mass on the following morning.
The Sunday of the Croke Park shooting became known as “Bloody Sunday”. The dangerous “Cairo Gang” had been eliminated and dozens of other spies and their wives ran to the shelter of Dublin Castle. The intelligence battle had been won, for a while at least, but at a terrible cost. The shootings and deaths of that day had a terrible emotional effect on Collins and his comrades. Everyone was in intense gloom and it did not lift until a week later when they heard that a West Cork Flying Column under Tom Barry after lying in wait in the rain for eight hours had ambushed two Crossley tenders of eighteen Auxiliaries at Kilmichael. Men from the second lorry shouted “we surrender”.
The inexperience I.R.A. men stood up, three of them including the sixteen year old Pat Deasy, brother of Liam were shot. Barry shouted “keep firing until I whistle” sixteen auxiliaries were killed outright, one man escaped and was shot later that night, another was left for dead but survived to take a malicious injury claim for which he was awarded £10,000 against Cork County Council. Court documentation shows that the British believed that hundreds of rebels were involved – the actual number was thirty-six. Eighteen rifles and 1800 rounds of ammuniation, thirty revolvers and ammunittion, and a quantity of Mills bombs were captured. The column then marched eleven miles out of encirclement. In late November, Griffith who was acting President in de Valera’s absence in America, was arrested. Collins became acting President and assumed effective control of the Dail and the direction of operations.
The British Government responded to he fighting in County Tipperary and to the ambush in County Cork, by declaring martial-law in the South on 10th December. Two days later, following an ambush in which one of their men was killed, Auxiliaries and Black and Tans poured petrol into buildings in Patrick Street, in Cork city, burning a large part of the shopping area. Damage then estimated to exceed three million pounds was caused to property. The hoses of the Cork fire brigades were actually cut by the drunken Auxiliaries when the firemen tried to deal with the fires. Sir Hamar Greenwood later claimed in the House of Commons that the Crown Forces had “saved Cork from destruction”. Lloyd George finally agreed to a military inquiry and promised to publish the report but a subsequent Cabinet meeting decided that “the effect of publishing the report would be disastrous to the government’s whole policy in Ireland.
The burning of Cork city showed the British that the Crown Forces in Ireland were out of control. In early December, Lloyd George asked the Catholic Archbishop of Perth, Australia, Dr. Clune to take peace proposals to Griffith in Mountjoy prison. The Archbishop, accompanied by Dr. Fogarty of Killaloe, met Griffith and Eoin MacNeill in Mountjoy and, in the discussion, Griffith was told that Lloyd George wanted peace but was afraid of his militarists. Lloyd George’s proposals included a truce for one month, the surrender of arms and the cessation of all violence.
Dr. Clune was told that the Irish side was anxious for peace but would not consider surrendering arms during the truce period. The Conservative and military elements in the Cabinet insisted on the surrendering of arms. The British Army staff argued that four months would be enough to break the I.R.A provided Martial Law was extended to Counties Kilkenny, Clare, Waterford and Wexford. The Prime Minister announced in the House of Commons that Government policy for Ireland was that before any peace arrangements could be considered, the extremists “must first be broken up”. Immediately afterwards, he extended the area under Martial Law and Sir Henry Wilson wrote on his diary on the 7th December “that the thing to do was to clap on Martial Law at once, as it was evident that the murderers were getting rattled”.
The feeling in the British Cabinet is shown in a letter of 28th December, 1920 which Sir Henry Willson wrote to H. Rawlinson, Commander-in-Chief, India: “we spent three hours yesterday discussing whether or not we would have a truce with the Irish murderers. Although my opinion was not asked, I felt so strongly on the matter that I ‘barged in’ with some very strong acid comments, and a thing happened that I have never heard before at a Cabinet meeting – my statement was greeted with loud cheers by some of the members.” The end of the year saw Britain committed to an extension of terror. A policy of carrying civilians and suspected I.R.A. men as hostages in military lorries was inaugurated.
By this time, Collins was acknowledged, even by the British press, as the leader of the I.R.A.. He controlled the resources of the fledging government, kept meticulous records, sent thousand of directives to I.R.A. units throughout the country, organised a supply of arms and ammunition through friendly sailors and dockers, had an intelligence ring which penetrated every facet of British power in Ireland and used members of the “Squad” to carry out executions of the Republic’s enemies.
When de Valera had reurned to Ireland after his mission to the U.S.A. the British government had decided that he should not be arrested. They saw him as a potential leader with no blood on his hands and one with whom they could negotiate in due course.
After his long absence, de Valera was not over-keen on the tactics that had developed while he was away. He was, however aware that the tactics of Easter Week could not possibly succeed but that the tactics developed by the Boers were showing results as shown by the recent British peace initiative…….He suggested that Collins could go to America but the latter was not favourable to the idea and de Valera did not press the point when it was evident at a meeting of the Dail on 25th January that the twenty-four deputies present were opposed to any easing-off of the military campaign.
The Dail members agreed that while the campaign of terror continued there was nothing for it but to give back “blow for blow” to the Black and Tans. Collins pointed out that “it was not in the strong place the deepest terror was, but in the weak place. Where the fight was carried on hardest, except in Cork, these were the safest areas. It would be better to give the Volunteers the necessary moral support than to be finding fault with the men carrying on fighting against odds never before known”
De Valera seemed satisfied but continued to believe that hit-and-run tactics should give place to pitched battles. The subsequent attack on the Custom Houses, in Dublin, which was a military disaster but a publicity success, was de Valera’s idea.
The British intensified their campaign of terror in Dublin. The Dublin Brigade reacted by forming a fifty-man, paid, full-time, “Active-Service Unit” and attacks on the military became daily affairs. The military authories proclaimed “curfew” from nine p.m. and night-raids became more common.
In early January, 1921 the I.R.B. man Sean MacEoin, Commandant of the Longford Brigade, who had won renown for his defeat of a large number of Auxiliaries at Ballinalee and whose treatment of the wounded Auxiliaries had been publicly recognised as chivalrous, was summoned to Dublin by Cathal Brugha. He was recognised in Dublin, shadowed, and , on his return to Longford, arrested. Although handcuffed, he tried unsuccessfully to escape. He was lodged in Mountjoy Prison and condemned to death.
On 7th March during curfew hours, George Clancy, Mayor of Limerick Michael O’Callaghan a former Mayor and Joseph O’Donogue, an I.R.A. man, were murdered in their homes, the first two in the presence of their wives. Lloyd George in the House of Commons suggested that they may have been murdered by their own people but it became public knowledge that the Auxiliaries committed the murders
On 17th March, Bonar Law, the Conservative Leader, who had been blamed for delaying Lloyd George’s Irish peace proposal, resigned from the Cabinet. Tory extremists were urging full-scale war and Lloyd George was very conscious of the danger to his Coalition Government. One in nine of the British labour force was unemployed and the railway men, transport workers and mineres had banded together to resist wage cuts. The second great coal strike began in Britain. Tanks were moved into South Wales. Four battalions of British troops were withdrawn from Ireland and stationed, as a protective measure, in Lancashire. Such were Lloyd George’s difficulties at home that he was unsure whether he should coerce or conciliate Ireland. There was a world-wide recession and the imperialists in England were fearful that any concession to Ireland would give further encouragement to India and Egypt which were on the brink of rebellion. The fearful spectacle of the empire breaking up was a vista which appalled Tories and Liberals alike.
In mid-March, 1921, a mobile 1,000 strong British force of Army and Auxiliaries sought to surround and destroy a Cork No. 3 column of one hundred and two men under General Tom Barry near the village of Crossbarry. An ambush was laid and the encircling forces put to flight. The I.R.A. captured a Lewis machine-gun, rifles and a large quantity of much-needed ammunition. Three of the I.R.A. column, including ‘Peter Monaghan’, the unknown ex-British soldier who had joined the column three months earlilers, were killed and five wounded. No official list of British casualties was published, but it was estimated that up to a hundred were killed or injured. Crossbarry was the biggest engagement of the Anglo-Irish war, and it was there that the outstanding skill as a marksman of Tom Kelleher, O.C. Fifth Battalion, was confirmed. He was credited with shooting as many as 38 British soldiers who sought to rush his position. After a rearguard action, the I.R.A. column, anticipating pursuit by mobile British reinforcements, withdrew and in eight hours, mainly in their bare feet with boots and captured riifles on their shoulders, marched the twenty miles through Beal-na-mBlath out of encirclement. They avoided the British columns and arrived at Joe O’Sullivans house in Gurranereagh in the 1st Brigade area where they had a meal and rested for two days. Eleven of the column would again be in Beal-na-mBlath on the fatal day in August 1922.
On 30th March, the huge R.I.C. barracks at Rosscarbery with its garrison of twenty-two was attacked, captured and burned. Some days later, the Collins’ home at Sam’s Cross was one of those burned (only the children’s clothes could be moved out of the house) as a reprisal and Collins’ brother, Johnny, was imprisoned in Spike Island. The ballad celebrating the event reads:
“Rosscarbery barracks, tall and grim, fell before our fire;
Of Black and Tans and R.I.C. we made a funeral pyre;
The echo of that fierce attack was heard over glen and vale;
In gallant Cork, in brave old Cork, by the Third West Cork Brigade.”
The politically-astute Lloyd George – a man of humble origin – realised that the Great War had changed a lot of attitudes. New states had emerged all over Europe and the loss of over three millions of the King’s subjects on the battlefields had caused imperial enthusiasm to dwindle among the British working classes. He realised that many British people longed for peace and less responsibilty in other nations’ affairs. He was resisting the advice of the Chief of the Imperial Staff given in Sir Henry Wilson’s letter of 18th May, 1921 to the Commander-in-Chief, India – “I want permission to send over between 20 and 30 battalions from here, some more cavalry, guns, aeroplanes, wireless, tanks, armoured cars etc. to place the whole of Ireland under martial law and hand it all over to Macready”.
In an attempt to hold the tide of Irish Nationalism, a Cabinet committee produced a formula which was compatible with British interests. It recommended that there would be no concession to the demand for an Irish Republic and no coercion of Ulster Unionists. The proposal differed from the previous Home Rule bills principally by offering two Home Rule parliaments but made provisions for ultimate Irish unity. Only local powers were to be conceded with major areas of legislation specifically retained at Westminister.
The Government of Ireland Act which gave effect to these recommendations became law on 23rd December, 1920. The Northern Unionists gave a lukewarm receiption on the Act but saw it as a potential bulwark against Nationalists. The South spurned the Act and said it did not accord with Irish aspirations. De Valera gave an outright rejection of the Act to Lord Derby when the matter was discussed. Nevertheless, Lloyd George decided to implement it and sent instructions to Dublin Castle to prepare for two elections.
Two separate elections were subsequently announced, that for the Twenty-Six counties on 19th May 1921 and for the Six Counties on 24th May. The worry for Sinn Fein was the status of those to be elected. De. Valera proposed that they should be recognised as the second Dail but the disadvantage of the proposal was that the Northern Ireland Parliament would, in the process, get recognition.
On Thursday 19th May, the General Election, later known as the Partition election in the Twenty-Six counties passed off without incident. No other candidate opposed the 124 nominated Republican candidates. Four members were also returned to represent Trinity College, Dublin. The election in the Six Counties, which was marked by intimidation and impersonation, was held under the proportional representation system of voting. Six Sinn Fein candidates, six old-style Nationalists and forty Unionists were returned by the Northern constituencies. Five of the successful Sinn Fein candidates were non-residents of the Six Counties and included de Valera, Collins and Griffith. None of the Sinn Fein or Nationalist representatives attended the parliament which opened in Belfast City Hall on 7th June, 1921.
The important result of this election was that the British Government now had in place a de facto Northern Assembly. On the day it was opened , an elected member suggested that now was the time to “drive Sinn Fein, bag and baggage out of the Six Counties”. Three days later, the Falls Road area of Belfast was invaded by armed men in uniform. In six days of pograms, Orange mobs caused the death of seventeen people and some 150 Catholic families were driven from their homes. No one was ever brought before a Court for these events. De Valera immediately recognised the new political situation and let it be known that the Six Counties would be allowed local autonomy within an Irish Republic. Meanwhile, violence continued unabated.
The day following the election, the I.R.A. mounted a huge attack on the headquarters of the British Civil Service in Ireland – the Customs House. About 120 men were involved in the action. They went systematically through the building and sprinkled paraffin everywhere. The giant building went up in flames but the I.R.A. in turn were surrounded, six of their members were killed, twelve wounded and about eighty captured. It was a gigantic gesture of defiance,the building burned for ten days but with such heavy losses in men it was a very costly operation for the I.R.A.
The Irish situation was again reviewed by the British Cabinet shortly before the ministers were due to assemble for a Colonial Conference. Experts gave as their opinion that most of the troops stationed in Ireland needed to be replaced and that at least 80,000 fresh troops would be needed for operations, similar to those that had been successful in the Boer War, to finally overcome Irish resistance. The Cabinet reluctantly decided on a peace move, although an independent Irish Republic was still unacceptable to them.
The King of Great Britain for a long time had been at odds with the Government on the handling of the Irish situation. It was decided that the opening of the Parliament of Northern Ireland on 22nd June by King George V was a suitable opportunity to offer a message of peace to the whole of Ireland.
The King asked General Smuts of South Africa to draft a speech which was approved by the Cabinet.In the speech the King made an appeal to all Irishmen “to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment and good will”.
The speech, which seemed to approve of partition, did not impress the I.R.A., but it allowed Lloyd George to issue an invitation to de Valera, and to any colleagues he should choose, to meet him and Sir James Craig in London. De Valera sent a rather uncompromising reply in which he stated that lasting peace between the peoples of these islands would “not be reached if you deny Ireland’s essential unity, and set aside the principle of national self-determination”.
The year 1921 was paradoxically an exceptional year for sustained sunshine and little rainfall. The raiding Black and Tans lorries gave notice of their approach in country areas by the clouds of dust they raised from the dirt roads and this often helped I.R.A. men to evade capture. That year in West Cork, went into folk memory and good weather in subsequent years was compared to that “in the year of the Tans”.
The Mulcahy papers show that the total armament of the I.R.A. in June, 1921 consisted of 3,295 rifles, 49 Thompson sub machine-guns, 12 machine-guns, about 6,000 pistols and 15,000 shotguns. At that time there were about 5,500 active fighting men. An official memorandum of November 1921 give the I.R.A. strength as 72,363 officers and men.
General Tom Barry of the 3rd Brigade and the most successful Flying Column Commander in his book, Guerilla Days in Ireland, states, that at the time of the truce the “field force of the Irish Republican Army, never at any time exceeded three hundred and ten rifle men in the whole county of Cork, for the excellent reason that this was the total number of rifles held by the combined three Cork Brigades. The only other I.R.A. arms within the County were five machine guns and some three hundred and fifty revolvers. Its ammunition did not exceed fifty rounds a rifle, two fills per a revolver and a few drums for each machine-gun”. Many years later a young man from another country inquired from a 3rd Brigade Veteran “How were ye so successful in West Cork with the small amounts of arms ye had?” and got the reply “Barry knew when to run”.
Crown Forces in County Cork at the time numbered about twelve thousand, six hundred armed mobile, British Troops auxiliaries and Black and Tans without including the naval forces. The numbers of enrolled volunteers was about ten thousand. By any standard it was an unequal military conflict. Collins had paralysed the British Intelligence network and developed the tactics of the Flying Columns. By highlighting the atrocities of the Crown Forces he had secured the support of the civilian population. An effective I.R.A. propaganda machine exposed the true nature of the Irish struggle and prevented Britain from using its full military might. These facts changed the rules of the game and caused Lloyd George to try to solve the Irish question by negotiation.
On 30th June, Arthur Griffith and Professor Mac Neill were released from prison and the British Cabinet suspended executions. President de Valera established that there must be an actual truce before he would go to London and that, when he did go, he would negotiate with Lloyd George without the necessity of having Sir James Craig present at the discussions. With these conditions agreed in July 1921, the scene for a Truce was set and the curfew was called off at the same time. On that beautiful Summer evening of 11th July Republicans in Dublin and in the south generally rejoiced. In contrast, the Northern loyalists looked on in distrust and resentment of London’s actions. In a week of violence in Belfast, before the Truce came into force, twenty-three people died, sixteen Catholics and seven Protestants. More than 1,000 Catholics were left homeless, 216 houses having been burned. Irish casualties between January 1919 and the Truce on July 11, 1921 have been calculated at 752 killed and 866 wounded.