|Irish War of Independence|
|Hogan's Flying Column.gif|
Seán Hogan's flying column of the IRA's 3rd Tipperary Brigade during the war
|Irish Republic||United Kingdom|
|Commanders and leaders|
Éamon de Valera
Henry Hugh Tudor
|Irish Republican Army ~15,000
Irish Citizen Army ~250 (auxiliary)
|British Army ~20,000|
Royal Irish Constabulary 9,700
-Black and Tans 7,000
-Auxiliary Division 1,400
Ulster Special Constabulary 4,000
|Casualties and losses|
|~550 dead||714 dead, comprising:|
410 RIC dead
261 British Army dead
43 USC dead
|~750 civilians dead|
Total dead: ~2,014
The Irish War of Independence (Irish: Cogadh na Saoirse) or Anglo-Irish War was a guerrilla war fought from 1919 to 1921 between the Irish Republican Army (IRA, the army of the Irish Republic) and the British security forces in Ireland. It was an escalation of the Irish revolutionary period into warfare.
In April 1916, Irish republicans launched an armed uprising against British rule and proclaimed an Irish Republic. Although it was crushed after a week of fighting, the rising and the British response led to greater popular support for Irish independence. In the December 1918 election, the republican party Sinn Féin won a landslide victory in Ireland. On 21 January 1919 they formed a breakaway government (Dáil Éireann) and declared independence from Britain. Later that day, two members of the British-organised armed police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), were shot dead in County Tipperary by IRA members acting on their own initiative. This is often seen as the beginning of the conflict. For much of 1919, IRA activity involved capturing weapons and freeing republican prisoners. In September, the British government outlawed the Dáil and Sinn Féin and the conflict intensified. The IRA began ambushing RIC and British Army patrols, attacking their barracks and forcing isolated barracks to be abandoned. The British government bolstered the RIC with recruits from Britain—the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries—who became notorious for ill-discipline and reprisal attacks on civilians. The conflict as a result is often referred to as the "Black and Tan War" or simply the "Tan War".
While around 300 people had been killed in the conflict up to late 1920, there was an escalation of violence in November. On Bloody Sunday, 21 November 1920, fourteen British intelligence operatives were assassinated in Dublin in the morning; then in the afternoon the RIC opened fire on a crowd at a Gaelic football match in the city, killing fourteen civilians and wounding 65. A week later, seventeen Auxiliaries were killed by the IRA in the Kilmichael Ambush in County Cork. The British government declared martial law in much of southern Ireland. The centre of Cork city was burnt out by British forces in December 1920. Violence continued to escalate over the next seven months, when 1,000 people were killed and 4,500 republicans were interned. Much of the fighting took place in Munster (particularly County Cork), Dublin and Belfast, which together saw over 75 percent of the conflict deaths. Violence in Ulster, especially Belfast, was notable for its sectarian character and its high number of Catholic civilian victims.
Both sides agreed to a ceasefire (or 'truce') on 11 July 1921. In May, Ireland was partitioned under British law by the Government of Ireland Act, which created Northern Ireland. The post-ceasefire talks led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December 1921. This ended British rule in most of Ireland and, after a ten-month transitional period overseen by a provisional government, the Irish Free State was created as a self-governing dominion on 6 December 1922. Northern Ireland remained within the United Kingdom. After the ceasefire, political and sectarian violence between republicans (usually Catholics) and loyalists (usually Protestants) continued in Northern Ireland for many months. In June 1922, disagreement among republicans over the Anglo-Irish Treaty led to the Irish Civil War which lasted for eleven months. The Irish Free State awarded 62,868 medals for service during the War of Independence, of which 15,224 were issued to IRA fighters of the flying columns.
- 1 Origins of the conflict
- 2 Course of the war
- 3 Truce: July–December 1921
- 4 Treaty
- 5 North-east
Origins of the conflict[edit | edit source]
Home Rule Crisis[edit | edit source]
Since the 1880s, Irish nationalists in the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) had been demanding Home Rule, or self-government, from Britain. Fringe organisations, such as Arthur Griffith's Sinn Féin, instead argued for some form of Irish independence, but they were in a small minority.
The demand for Home Rule was eventually granted by the British Government in 1912, immediately prompting a prolonged crisis within the United Kingdom as Ulster unionists formed an armed organisation – the Ulster Volunteers (UVF) – to resist this measure of devolution, at least in territory they could control. In turn, nationalists formed their own paramilitary organisation, the Irish Volunteers.
The British Parliament passed the Third Home Rule Act on 18 September 1914 with an amending Bill for the partition of Ireland introduced by Ulster Unionist MPs, but the Act's implementation was immediately postponed by the Suspensory Act 1914 due to the outbreak of the World War in the previous month. The majority of nationalists followed their IPP leaders and John Redmond's call to support Britain and the Entente war effort in Irish regiments of the New British Army, the intention being to ensure the commencement of Home Rule after the war. But a significant minority of the Irish Volunteers opposed Ireland's involvement in the war. The Volunteer movement split, a majority leaving to form the National Volunteers under Redmond. The remaining Irish Volunteers, under Eoin MacNeill, held that they would maintain their organisation until Home Rule had been granted. Within this Volunteer movement, another faction, led by the separatist Irish Republican Brotherhood, began to prepare for a revolt against British rule in Ireland.
Easter Rising[edit | edit source]
The plan for revolt was realised in the Easter Rising of 1916, in which the Volunteers launched an insurrection whose aim was to end British rule. The insurgents issued the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, proclaiming Ireland's independence as a republic. The Rising, in which over four hundred people died, was almost exclusively confined to Dublin and was put down within a week, but the British response, executing the leaders of the insurrection and arresting thousands of nationalist activists, galvanised support for the separatist Sinn Féin – the party which the republicans first adopted and then took over as well as followers from Countess Markievicz, the female lead of the Easter Rising. By now, support for the British war effort was on the wane, and Irish public opinion was shocked and outraged by some of the actions committed by British troops, particularly the murder of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and the imposition of wartime martial law.
First Dáil[edit | edit source]
In April 1918, the British Cabinet, in the face of the crisis caused by the German Spring Offensive, attempted with a dual policy to simultaneously link the enactment of conscription into Ireland with the implementation of Home Rule, as outlined in the report of the Irish Convention of 8 April 1918. This further alienated Irish nationalists and produced mass demonstrations during the Conscription Crisis of 1918. In the 1918 general election Irish voters showed their disapproval of British policy by giving Sinn Féin 70% (73 seats out of 105,) of Irish seats, 25 of these uncontested. Sinn Féin won 91% of the seats outside of Ulster on 46.9% of votes cast, but was in a minority in Ulster, where unionists were in a majority. Sinn Féin pledged not to sit in the UK Parliament at Westminster, but rather to set up an Irish Parliament. This parliament, known as the First Dáil, and its ministry, called the Aireacht, consisting only of Sinn Féin members, met at the Mansion House on 21 January 1919. The Dáil reaffirmed the 1916 Proclamation with the Irish Declaration of Independence, and issued a Message to the Free Nations of the World, which stated that there was an "existing state of war, between Ireland and England". The Irish Volunteers were reconstituted as the "Irish Republican Army" or IRA. The IRA was perceived by some members of Dáil Éireann to have a mandate to wage war on the British Dublin Castle administration.
Course of the war[edit | edit source]
Pre-war violence[edit | edit source]
The years between the Easter Rising of 1916 and the beginning of the War of Independence in 1919 were not bloodless. Thomas Ashe, one of the Volunteer leaders imprisoned for his role in the 1916 rebellion, died on hunger strike, after attempted force-feeding in 1917. In 1918, during disturbances arising out of the anti-conscription campaign, six civilians died in confrontations with the police and British Army and over 1,000 were arrested. The Armistice announcement was marked by severe rioting in Dublin, which left over 100 British soldiers injured. There were also raids for arms by the Volunteers, at least one shooting of a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) policeman and the burning of an RIC barracks in Kerry. In Co. Cork, four rifles were seized from the Eyeries barracks in March 1918 and men from the barracks were beaten that August. In early July 1918, Volunteers ambushed two RIC men who had been stationed to stop a feis being held on the road between Ballingeary and Ballyvourney in the first armed attack on the RIC since the Easter Rising – one was shot in the neck, the other beaten, and police carbines and ammunition was seized. Patrols in Bantry and Ballyvourney were badly beaten in September and October. The attacks brought a British military presence from the summer of 1918, which only briefly quelled the violence, and an increase in police raids. However, there was as yet no co-ordinated armed campaign against British forces or RIC.
Initial hostilities[edit | edit source]
While it was not clear in the beginning of 1919 that the Dáil ever intended to gain independence by military means, and war was not explicitly threatened in Sinn Féin's 1918 manifesto, an incident occurred on 21 January 1919, the same day as the First Dáil convened. The Soloheadbeg Ambush, in County Tipperary, was led by Seán Treacy, Séamus Robinson, Seán Hogan and Dan Breen acting on their own initiative. The IRA attacked and shot two RIC officers, Constables James McDonnell and Patrick O'Connell, who were escorting explosives. Breen later recalled:
...we took the action deliberately, having thought over the matter and talked it over between us. Treacy had stated to me that the only way of starting a war was to kill someone, and we wanted to start a war, so we intended to kill some of the police whom we looked upon as the foremost and most important branch of the enemy forces. The only regret that we had following the ambush was that there were only two policemen in it, instead of the six we had expected.
This is widely regarded as the beginning of the War of Independence. The British government declared South Tipperary a Special Military Area under the Defence of the Realm Act two days later. The war was not formally declared by the Dáil until well into the conflict, however. On 10 April 1919 the Dáil was told:
As regards the Republican prisoners, we must always remember that this country is at war with England and so we must in a sense regard them as necessary casualties in the great fight.
In January 1921, two years after the war had started, the Dáil debated "whether it was feasible to accept formally a state of war that was being thrust on them, or not", and decided not to declare war. Then on 11 March, Dáil Éireann President Éamon de Valera formally 'accepted' the existence of a "state of war with England". The delay allowed a balancing of the military and political realities.
Violence spreads[edit | edit source]
Volunteers began to attack British government property, carry out raids for arms and funds and target and kill prominent members of the British administration. The first was Resident Magistrate John C. Milling, who was shot dead in Westport, County Mayo, for having sent Volunteers to prison for unlawful assembly and drilling. They mimicked the successful tactics of the Boers' fast violent raids without uniform. Although some republican leaders, notably Éamon de Valera, favoured classic conventional warfare to legitimise the new republic in the eyes of the world, the more practically experienced Michael Collins and the broader IRA leadership opposed these tactics as they had led to the military débacle of 1916. Others, notably Arthur Griffith, preferred a campaign of civil disobedience rather than armed struggle. The violence used was at first deeply unpopular with Irish people and it took the heavy-handed British response to popularise it among much of the population.
During the early part of the conflict, roughly from 1919 to the middle of 1920, there was a relatively limited amount of violence. Much of the nationalist campaign involved popular mobilisation and the creation of a republican "state within a state" in opposition to British rule. British journalist Robert Lynd wrote in The Daily News in July 1920 that:
So far as the mass of people are concerned, the policy of the day is not active but a passive policy. Their policy is not so much to attack the Government as to ignore it and to build up a new government by its side.
Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) as special target[edit | edit source]
The IRA's main target throughout the conflict was the mainly Irish Catholic Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the British government's police in Ireland, outside Dublin. Its members and barracks (especially the more isolated ones) were vulnerable, and they were a source of much-needed arms. The RIC numbered 9,700 men stationed in 1,500 barracks throughout Ireland.
A policy of ostracism of RIC men was announced by the Dáil on 11 April 1919. This proved successful in demoralising the force as the war went on, as people turned their faces from a force increasingly compromised by association with British government repression. The rate of resignation went up and recruitment in Ireland dropped off dramatically. Often, the RIC were reduced to buying food at gunpoint, as shops and other businesses refused to deal with them. Some RIC men co-operated with the IRA through fear or sympathy, supplying the organisation with valuable information. By contrast with the effectiveness of the widespread public boycott of the police, the military actions carried out by the IRA against the RIC at this time were relatively limited. In 1919, 11 RIC men and 4 Dublin Metropolitan Police G Division detectives were killed and another 20 RIC wounded.
Other aspects of mass participation in the conflict included strikes by organised workers, in opposition to the British presence in Ireland. In Limerick in April 1919, a general strike was called by the Limerick Trades and Labour Council, as a protest against the declaration of a "Special Military Area" under the Defence of the Realm Act, which covered most of Limerick city and a part of the county. Special permits, to be issued by the RIC, would now be required to enter the city. The Trades Council's special Strike Committee controlled the city for fourteen days in an episode that is known as the Limerick Soviet.
Similarly, in May 1920, Dublin dockers refused to handle any war matériel and were soon joined by the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, who banned railway drivers from carrying members of the British forces. Blackleg train drivers were brought over from England, after drivers refused to carry British troops. The strike badly hampered British troop movements until December 1920, when it was called off. The British government managed to bring the situation to an end, when they threatened to withhold grants from the railway companies, which would have meant that workers would no longer have been paid. Attacks by the IRA also steadily increased, and by early 1920, they were attacking isolated RIC stations in rural areas, causing them to be abandoned as the police retreated to the larger towns.
Collapse of the British administration[edit | edit source]
In early April 1920, 400 abandoned RIC barracks were burned to the ground to prevent them being used again, along with almost one hundred income tax offices. The RIC withdrew from much of the countryside, leaving it in the hands of the IRA. In June–July 1920, assizes failed all across the south and west of Ireland; trials by jury could not be held because jurors would not attend. The collapse of the court system demoralised the RIC and many police resigned or retired. The Irish Republican Police (IRP) was founded between April and June 1920, under the authority of Dáil Éireann and the former IRA Chief of Staff Cathal Brugha to replace the RIC and to enforce the ruling of the Dáil Courts, set up under the Irish Republic. By 1920, the IRP had a presence in 21 of Ireland's 32 counties. The Dáil Courts were generally socially conservative, despite their revolutionary origins, and halted the attempts of some landless farmers at redistribution of land from wealthier landowners to poorer farmers.
The Inland Revenue ceased to operate in most of Ireland. People were instead encouraged to subscribe to Collins' "National Loan", set up to raise funds for the young government and its army. By the end of the year the loan had reached £358,000. It eventually reached £380,000. An even larger amount, totalling over $5 million, was raised in the United States by Irish Americans and sent to Ireland to finance the Republic. Rates were still paid to local councils but nine out of eleven of these were controlled by Sinn Féin, who naturally refused to pass them on to the British government. By mid-1920, the Irish Republic was a reality in the lives of many people, enforcing its own law, maintaining its own armed forces and collecting its own taxes. The British Liberal journal, The Nation, wrote in August 1920 that "the central fact of the present situation in Ireland is that the Irish Republic exists".
The British forces, in trying to re-assert their control over the country, often resorted to arbitrary reprisals against republican activists and the civilian population. An unofficial government policy of reprisals began in September 1919 in Fermoy, County Cork, when 200 British soldiers looted and burned the main businesses of the town, after one of their number – a soldier of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry who was the first British Army death in the campaign – had been killed in an armed raid by the local IRA on a church parade the day before (7 September). The ambushers were a unit of the No 2 Cork Brigade, under command of Liam Lynch, who wounded four of the other soldiers and disarmed the rest before fleeing in their cars. The local coroner's inquest refused to return a murder verdict over the soldier and local businessmen who had sat on the jury were targeted in the reprisal.
Arthur Griffith estimated that in the first 18 months of the conflict, British forces carried out 38,720 raids on private homes, arrested 4,982 suspects, committed 1,604 armed assaults, carried out 102 indiscriminate shootings and burnings in towns and villages, and killed 77 people including women and children. In March 1920, Tomás Mac Curtain, the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork, was shot dead in front of his wife at his home, by men with blackened faces who were seen returning to the local police barracks. The jury at the inquest into his death returned a verdict of wilful murder against Arthur Balfour (the British Prime Minister) and District Inspector Swanzy, among others. Swanzy was later tracked down and killed in Lisburn, County Antrim. This pattern of killings and reprisals escalated in the second half of 1920 and in 1921.
IRA organisation and operations[edit | edit source]
Michael Collins was a driving force behind the independence movement. Nominally the Minister of Finance in the republic's government and IRA Director of Intelligence, he was involved in providing funds and arms to the IRA units and in the selection of officers. Collins' charisma and organisational capability galvanised many who came in contact with him. He established what proved an effective network of spies among sympathetic members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police's (DMP) G Division and other important branches of the British administration. The G Division men were a relatively small political division active in subverting the republican movement and were detested by the IRA as often they were used to identify volunteers, who would have been unknown to British soldiers or the later Black and Tans. Collins set up the "Squad", a group of men whose sole duty was to seek out and kill "G-men" and other British spies and agents. Collins' Squad began killing RIC intelligence officers in July 1919. Many G-men were offered a chance to resign or leave Ireland by the IRA. One spy who escaped with his life was F. Digby Hardy, who was exposed by Arthur Griffith before an "IRA" meeting, which in fact consisted of Irish and foreign journalists, and then advised to take the next boat out of Dublin.
The Chief of Staff of the IRA was Richard Mulcahy, who was responsible for organising and directing IRA units around the country. In theory, both Collins and Mulcahy were responsible to Cathal Brugha, the Dáil's Minister of Defence, but, in practice, Brugha had only a supervisory role, recommending or objecting to specific actions. A great deal also depended on IRA leaders in local areas (such as Liam Lynch, Tom Barry, Seán Moylan, Seán Mac Eoin and Ernie O'Malley) who organised guerrilla activity, largely on their own initiative. For most of the conflict, IRA activity was concentrated in Munster and Dublin, with only isolated active IRA units elsewhere, such as in County Roscommon, north County Longford and western County Mayo.
While the paper membership of the IRA, carried over from the Irish Volunteers, was over 100,000 men, Michael Collins estimated that only 15,000 were active in the IRA during the course of the war, with about 3,000 on active service at any time. There were also support organisations Cumann na mBan (the IRA women's group) and Fianna Éireann (youth movement), who carried weapons and intelligence for IRA men and secured food and lodgings for them. The IRA benefitted from the widespread help given to them by the general Irish population, who generally refused to pass information to the RIC and the British military and who often provided "safe houses" and provisions to IRA units "on the run". Much of the IRA's popularity arose from the excessive reaction of the British forces to IRA activity. When Éamon de Valera returned from the United States, he demanded in the Dáil that the IRA desist from the ambushes and assassinations, which were allowing the British to portray it as a terrorist group and to take on the British forces with conventional military methods. The proposal was immediately dismissed.
Martial law[edit | edit source]
The British increased the use of force; reluctant to deploy the regular British Army into the country in greater numbers, they set up two paramilitary police units to aid the RIC. The Black and Tans were seven thousand strong, mainly ex-British soldiers demobilised after the World War. Deployed to Ireland in March 1920, most came from English and Scottish cities. While officially they were part of the RIC, in reality they were a paramilitary force. After their deployment in March 1920, they rapidly gained a reputation for drunkenness and ill discipline, that did more harm to the British government's moral authority in Ireland than any other group. In response to IRA actions, in the summer of 1920, the Tans burned and sacked numerous small towns throughout Ireland, including Balbriggan, Trim, Templemore and others.
In July 1920, another quasi-military police body, the Auxiliaries, consisting of 2,215 former British army officers, arrived in Ireland. The Auxiliary Division had a reputation just as bad as the Tans for their mistreatment of the civilian population but tended to be more effective and more willing to take on the IRA. The policy of reprisals, which involved public denunciation or denial and private approval, was famously satirised by Lord Hugh Cecil when he said: "It seems to be agreed that there is no such thing as reprisals but they are having a good effect."
On 9 August 1920, the British Parliament passed the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act. It replaced the trial by jury by courts-martial by regulation for those areas where IRA activity was prevalent. On 10 December 1920, martial law was proclaimed in Counties Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary in Munster; in January 1921 martial law was extended to the rest of Munster in Counties Clare and Waterford, as well as Counties Kilkenny and Wexford in Leinster. It also suspended all coroners' courts because of the large number of warrants served on members of the British forces and replaced them with "military courts of enquiry". The powers of military courts-martial were extended to cover the whole population and were empowered to use the death penalty and internment without trial; Government payments to local governments in Sinn Féin hands were suspended. This act has been interpreted by historians as a choice by Prime Minister Arthur Balfour to put down the rebellion in Ireland rather than negotiate with the republican leadership. As a result, violence escalated steadily from that summer and sharply after November 1920 until July 1921. (It was in this period that a large-scale mutiny broke out among the Connaught Rangers, stationed in India. Two were killed whilst trying to storm an armoury and one was later executed.)
Escalation: October–December 1920[edit | edit source]
A number of events dramatically escalated the conflict in late 1920. First the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison in London in October, while two other IRA prisoners on hunger strike, Joe Murphy and Michael Fitzgerald, died in Cork Jail.
Then, on 21 November 1920, there was a day of dramatic bloodshed in Dublin. In the early morning, Collins' Squad attempted to wipe out the leading British intelligence operatives in the capital. The Squad shot 19 people, killing 14 and wounding 5. These consisted of British Army officers, police officers and civilians. The dead included members of the Cairo Gang and a courts-martial officer, and were killed at different places around Dublin.
In response, RIC men drove in trucks into Croke Park (Dublin's GAA football and hurling ground) during a football match, shooting into the crowd. Fourteen civilians were killed, including one of the players, Michael Hogan, and a further 65 people were wounded. Later that day two republican prisoners, Dick McKee, Peadar Clancy and an unassociated friend, Conor Clune who had been arrested with them, were killed in Dublin Castle. The official account was that the three men were shot "while trying to escape", which was rejected by Irish nationalists, who were certain the men had been tortured then murdered. This day became known as Bloody Sunday.
On 28 November 1920, only a week after Bloody Sunday in Dublin, the west Cork unit of the IRA, under Tom Barry, ambushed a patrol of Auxiliaries at Kilmichael in County Cork, killing all but one of the 18-man patrol.
These actions marked a significant escalation of the conflict. In response, Counties Cork, Kerry, Limerick, and Tipperary – all in the province of Munster – were put under martial law on 10 December under the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act; this was followed on 5 January in the rest of Munster and in Counties Kilkenny and Wexford in the province of Leinster. Shortly afterwards, in January 1921, "official reprisals" were sanctioned by the British and they began with the burning of seven houses in Midleton in Cork.
On 11 December, the centre of Cork City was burnt out by the Black and Tans, who then shot at firefighters trying to tackle the blaze, in reprisal for an IRA ambush in the city on 11 December 1920 which killed one Auxiliary and wounded eleven.
Attempts at a truce in December 1920 were scuppered by Hamar Greenwood, who insisted on a surrender of IRA weapons first.
Peak of violence: December 1920 – July 1921[edit | edit source]
During the following eight months until the Truce of July 1921, there was a spiralling of the death toll in the conflict, with 1,000 people including the RIC police, army, IRA volunteers and civilians, being killed in the months between January and July 1921 alone. This represents about 70% of the total casualties for the entire three-year conflict. In addition, 4,500 IRA personnel (or suspected sympathisers) were interned in this time. In the middle of this violence, the Dáil formally declared war on Britain in March 1921.
Between 1 November 1920 and 7 June 1921 twenty-four men were executed by the British. The first IRA volunteer to be executed was Kevin Barry, one of The Forgotten Ten who were buried in unmarked graves in unconsecrated ground inside Mountjoy Prison until 2001. On 1 February, the first execution under martial law of an IRA man took place. Cornelius Murphy of Millstreet, Cork was shot in Cork city. On 28 February, six more were executed, again in Cork.
On 19 March 1921, Tom Barry's 100-strong West Cork IRA unit fought a large-scale action against 1,200 British troops – the Crossbarry Ambush. Barry's men narrowly avoided being trapped by converging British columns and inflicted between ten and thirty killed on the British side. Just two days later, on 21 March, the Kerry IRA attacked a train at the Headford junction near Killarney. Twenty British soldiers were killed or injured, as well as two IRA men and three civilians. Most of the actions in the war were on a smaller scale than this, but the IRA did have other significant victories in ambushes, for example at Millstreet in Cork and at Scramogue in Roscommon, also in March 1921 and at Tourmakeady and Carowkennedy in Mayo in May and June. Equally common, however, were failed ambushes, the worst of which, for example at Upton and Clonmult in Cork in February 1921, saw three and twelve IRA men killed respectively and more captured. The IRA in Mayo suffered a comparable reverse at Kilmeena, while the Leitrim flying column was almost wiped out at Selton Hill. Fears of informers after such failed ambushes often led to a spate of IRA shootings of informers, real and imagined.
The biggest single loss for the IRA, however, came in Dublin. On 25 May 1921, several hundred IRA men from the Dublin Brigade occupied and burned the Custom House (the centre of local government in Ireland) in Dublin city centre. Symbolically, this was intended to show that British rule in Ireland was untenable. However, from a military point of view, it was a catastrophe in which five IRA men were killed and over eighty were captured. This showed the IRA was not well enough equipped or trained to take on British forces in a conventional manner. However, it did not, as is sometimes claimed, cripple the IRA in Dublin. The Dublin Brigade carried out 107 attacks in the city in May and 93 in June, showing a falloff in activity, but not a dramatic one. However, by July 1921, most IRA units were chronically short of both weapons and ammunition, with over 3,000 prisoners interned. Also, for all their effectiveness at guerrilla warfare, they had, as Richard Mulcahy recalled, "as yet not been able to drive the enemy out of anything but a fairly good sized police barracks".
Still, many military historians have concluded that the IRA fought a largely successful and lethal guerrilla war, which forced the British government to conclude that the IRA could not be defeated militarily. The failure of the British efforts to put down the guerrillas was illustrated by the events of "Black Whitsun" on 13–15 May 1921. A general election for the Parliament of Southern Ireland was held on 13 May. Sinn Féin won 124 of the new parliament's 128 seats unopposed, but its elected members refused to take their seats. Under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act 1920, the Parliament of Southern Ireland was therefore dissolved, and executive and legislative authority over Southern Ireland was effectively transferred to the Lord Lieutenant (assisted by Crown appointees). Over the next two days (14–15 May), the IRA killed fifteen policemen. These events marked the complete failure of the British Coalition Government's Irish policy—both the failure to enforce a settlement without negotiating with Sinn Féin and a failure to defeat the IRA.
By the time of the truce, however, many republican leaders, including Michael Collins, were convinced that if the war went on for much longer, there was a chance that the IRA campaign as it was then organised could be brought to a standstill. Because of this, plans were drawn up to "bring the war to England". The IRA did take the campaign to the streets of Glasgow. It was decided that key economic targets, such as the Liverpool docks, would be bombed. The units charged with these missions would more easily evade capture because England was not under, and British public opinion was unlikely to accept, martial law. These plans were abandoned because of the truce.
Truce: July–December 1921[edit | edit source]
The war of independence in Ireland ended with a truce on 11 July 1921. The conflict had reached a stalemate. Talks that had looked promising the previous year had petered out in December when Arthur Balfour insisted that the IRA first surrender their arms. Fresh talks, after the Prime Minister had come under pressure from Herbert Henry Asquith and the Liberal opposition, the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress, resumed in the spring and resulted in the Truce. From the point of view of the British government, it appeared as if the IRA's guerrilla campaign would continue indefinitely, with spiralling costs in British casualties and in money. More importantly, the British government was facing severe criticism at home and abroad for the actions of British forces in Ireland. On 6 June 1921, the British made their first conciliatory gesture, calling off the policy of house burnings as reprisals. On the other side, IRA leaders and in particular Michael Collins, felt that the IRA as it was then organised could not continue indefinitely. It had been hard pressed by the deployment of more regular British soldiers to Ireland and by the lack of arms and ammunition.
The initial breakthrough that led to the truce was credited to three people: King George V, Prime Minister of South Africa General Jan Smuts and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Arthur Balfour. The King, who had made his unhappiness at the behaviour of the Black and Tans in Ireland well known to his government, was dissatisfied with the official speech prepared for him for the opening of the new Parliament of Northern Ireland, created as a result of the partition of Ireland. Smuts, a close friend of the King, suggested to him that the opportunity should be used to make an appeal for conciliation in Ireland. The King asked him to draft his ideas on paper. Smuts prepared this draft and gave copies to the King and to Balfour. Balfour then invited Smuts to attend a British cabinet meeting consultations on the "interesting" proposals Balfour had received, without either man informing the Cabinet that Smuts had been their author. Faced with the endorsement of them by Smuts, the King and the Prime Minister, ministers reluctantly agreed to the King's planned 'reconciliation in Ireland' speech.
The speech, when delivered in Belfast on 22 June, was universally well received. It called on "all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment, and good will."
On 24 June 1921, the British Cabinet decided to propose talks with the leader of Sinn Féin. Coalition Liberals and Unionists agreed that an offer to negotiate would strengthen the Government's position if Sinn Féin refused. Austen Chamberlain, the new leader of the Unionist Party, said that "the King's Speech ought to be followed up as a last attempt at peace before we go the full lengths of martial law". Seizing the momentum, Balfour wrote to Éamon de Valera as "the chosen leader of the great majority in Southern Ireland" on 24 June, suggesting a conference. Sinn Féin responded by agreeing to talks. De Valera and Balfour ultimately agreed to a truce that was intended to end the fighting and lay the ground for detailed negotiations. Its terms were signed on 9 July and came into effect on 11 July. Negotiations on a settlement, however, were delayed for some months as the British government insisted that the IRA first decommission its weapons, but this demand was eventually dropped. It was agreed that British troops would remain confined to their barracks.
Most IRA officers on the ground interpreted the Truce merely as a temporary respite and continued recruiting and training volunteers. Nor did attacks on the RIC or British Army cease altogether. Between December 1921 and February of the next year, there were 80 recorded attacks by the IRA on the soon to be disbanded RIC, leaving 12 dead. On 18 February 1922, Ernie O'Malley's IRA unit raided the RIC barracks at Clonmel, taking 40 policemen prisoner and seizing over 600 weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. In April 1922, in the Dunmanway killings, an IRA party in Cork killed 10 local suspected Protestant informers in retaliation for the shooting of one of their men. Those killed were named in captured British files as informers before the Truce signed the previous July. Over 100 Protestant families fled the area after the killings.
The continuing resistance of many IRA leaders was one of the main factors in the outbreak of the Irish Civil War as they refused to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty that Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith had negotiated with the British.