John O’Callaghan


The Irish Revolution: A dirty war where the cycle of violence was self-perpetuating

Munster was one of the most strategically significant regions during the War of Independence, writes John O’Callaghan

The Irish Revolution: A dirty war where the cycle of violence was self-perpetuating

The Irish Revolution was  a divisive, fascinating and  transformative period of our  history. In the first of  a series of exclusive  extracts from a  major new book  ‘Atlas of a  Revolution’, we  explore how the  war spread in Munster and  why it was home to some of  the most fearsome fighting.

THE War of Independence, like all wars, was by turns heroic and gallant, nasty and brutish. It was also relatively short and small scale.

Munster was the frontline of what Irish Republican Army (IRA) General Headquarters (GHQ) termed the “war zone”.

Along with Dublin, Munster was the war’s most dynamic and strategically significant theatre. Political violence claimed 2,141 lives between January 1917 and December 1921.

Munster accounted for more than half of that total: there were 495 deaths in Cork; 152 in Tipperary; 136 in Kerry; 121 in Limerick; 95 in Clare and 35 in Waterford.

By way of comparison, 309 people were killed in Dublin and 224 in Antrim (the vast majority in rioting in Belfast).

There was a long fuse to the war. As Sinn Féin reached its apogee with the general election victory of December 1918 and the establishment of Dáil Éireann in January 1919, political business took precedence over military concerns.

Increasingly draconian British policy was central to the transformation of the Volunteers into a guerrilla army capable of systematic military resistance. A series of broad phases can be identified in the military campaign.

The first encompassed low-intensity operations against the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) from 1917 until the winter of 1919–20. The police retreat from untenable rural outposts to consolidated urban barracks surrendered territory and moral authority.

There were 37 barracks in Tipperary on 1 January 1919 but only 22 two years later. The 56 RIC barracks in Limerick in early 1919 had reduced to 21 by the time of the Truce in July 1921.

The number in West Cork dropped from 40 to 19. No fewer than 54 barracks closed in Clare.

The decision to maintain or close a barracks was based on physical capacity rather than strategic location, ceding further advantages to the IRA. Attacks on the RIC became increasingly frequent during 1918.

In February, Clare became the first county to be designated a Special Military Area. In April, the first assault on a barracks since 1916 took place at Gortatlea, near Tralee, Co Kerry,

although it was unsuccessful.

Policemen were regularly disarmed and a number were shot but not killed. Some local units canvassed for wider latitude but GHQ was wary of premature escalation, citing arms shortages and a training deficit.


The Soloheadbeg ambush of 21 January 1919, an autonomous enterprise by the South Tipperary Brigade, unauthorised by GHQ, has traditionally been considered the opening action of the War of Independence.

But this designation was ex post facto. Soloheadbeg assumed historical meaning because it had political resonance, coinciding with the first sitting of Dáil Éireann, and because of its deadly outcome: two constables were killed.

The ambush did not herald the general intensification of hostilities anticipated by its abettors, but it did have a direct sequel.

On 13 May 1919, two policemen were killed at Knocklong, Co Limerick during the rescue from Crown custody of Seán Hogan, one of the Soloheadbeg ambush party.

Immediately following Soloheadbeg, the attackers were censured by GHQ, condemned from the pulpit and scorned by the civilian population.

The atmosphere had changed by May, however. Popular resentment had refocused on repressive state measures. The designation of Tipperary South as a Special Military Area after Soloheadbeg, a form of collective punishment, was a prime example of the administration’s ineptitude.

On 23 June, District Inspector Michael Hunt, who had been involved in Hogan’s arrest, lay unaided in a Thurles street mortally wounded after being shot in the middle of a crowd in broad daylight.

Such assassinations of particular individuals were to account for much of the killing in 1920–21. The war’s first major reprisal was the British army’s sacking of Fermoy on 7 September.

The 2nd Cork Brigade, under Liam Lynch, had confronted soldiers attending church in the town that day, killing one of them. These incidents were among the exceptions in 1919, however, punctuating long periods of quiet.

GHQ approved a more aggressive policy from the turn of the year. In the second stage of the war, from early 1920, the IRA destroyed hundreds of evacuated barracks and attacked occupied stations.

On 2 January, Carrigtwohill RIC Barracks in Cork became the first British post seized in Ireland since 1916. The burning of the heavily fortified Kilmallock Barracks in Limerick on 28 May was of great symbolic significance, given the failure of the Fenian attack there in 1867. Over 100 Volunteers, drawn from the three Limerick brigades, as well as Clare, Cork and Tipperary, participated in one of the largest actions of the war.

Dirty war

Boys Brigade group (with Volunteers in background) parade at Cork’s Cornmarket (near City Hall) in about 1914.
Boys Brigade group (with Volunteers in background) parade at Cork’s Cornmarket (near City Hall) in about 1914.

Not all the fighting was of this traditional type, and the dirty-war character of the conflict became increasingly pronounced. On 20 March, shortly after a policeman had been killed in Cork city, masked men broke into the home of IRA brigadier and lord mayor, Tomás MacCurtain, and shot him dead in front of his wife.

Rumours of an ‘Anti-Sinn Féin Society’ floated around Cork thereafter. The group announced itself in the press from late summer and claimed responsibility for various attacks, primarily in Cork, but with cameos elsewhere, including Tipperary, Limerick, Kerry and Clare.

It presented itself as a secret society of loyal, unionist citizens. The reality was that the moniker was employed by Crown forces as a cover for unofficial reprisals. Their members also comprised the so-called ‘Anti-Murder Gang’ that terrorised republican communities with summary killings.

The modus operandi of the death squads was for a group of disguised gunmen to swoop late at night on the residence of separatists, often during ‘curfew’ hours.

Unarmed victims were shot out of hand. Typically, multiple individuals were targeted on the same night, as on 7 March 1921 in Limerick city, when Mayor George Clancy, former Mayor Michael O’Callaghan and Volunteer James O’Donoghue all died in such circumstances.

Brigadier General Frank Percy Crozier, who resigned as head of the Auxiliaries in protest at the latitude afforded by senior British officials to his men to commit atrocities, concluded that the Limerick mayors were ‘murdered by the police acting under orders as part of a plan to “do away with” Sinn Féin leaders and put the blame on to Sinn Féin’. It is likely that extrajudicial killings were unofficial political policy.

Brigadier General Cecil Prescott-Decie, the senior RIC officer in north Munster, favoured the

‘instant retaliation’ inherent in reprisals for the ‘stamping out of terrorism’, rather than the policy of ‘secret murder’ which he had seemingly been informed of by police adviser Major General Sir Henry Tudor.

The September 1920 diary entries of Sir Henry Wilson, army chief of staff, suggest that Tudor acknowledged the involvement of Crown forces in ‘reprisal murders’ and that Lloyd George approved of a ‘counter murder association’.

The third phase of the war played out against the backdrop of the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act, introduced in August 1920.

This legislation placed a whole raft of crimes under the jurisdiction of military courts. An unintended consequence was the emergence of elite IRA active service units, or ‘flying columns’.

As Volunteers were forced to go on the run, they became full-time revolutionaries. The East Limerick Brigade flying column actually came into existence before the introduction of the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act, and was the first to be recognised as such in the IRA.

The innovation of the flying column implied maintaining a standing force in the field. The column was continually under arms and, theoretically at least, prepared to initiate contact and engage the enemy on its own terms.

Guerrilla tactics were designed to compensate for discrepancies in numbers, armaments and technology. Column numbers fluctuated around an experienced core.

In Cork, around 450 men did the bulk of the fighting. Kerry columns could call on 125 or so volunteers, and Waterford on 75.

The mid-Clare and east Clare columns took the war to the enemy with about 85 men. In Limerick, 150 regular column members faced 3,000 Crown forces. In Tipperary, the figures were just over 100 versus 1,000.

Not all Crown forces were considered capable of offensive manoeuvres, however. The Black and Tans were integrated into the structures of the RIC and served alongside regular policemen, although the Auxiliaries, a force apart, were designed explicitly for raiding purposes.

In 1921, less than 15,000 of the 50,000 British troops in Ireland were primed to take the field. In Clare, troop numbers peaked at around 1,500, but only about half were ever combat ready.

Successful IRA attacks grew more destructive between the autumn of 1920 and the spring of 1921, inflicting heavier casualties, though their frequency did not increase dramatically.

While flying-column ambushes bore clear resemblance to conventional combat, most of the killing happened in the six months before the Truce, and civilian deaths, which represented a high proportion of all casualties, increased at a disproportionate rate.

A lot of the time nothing happened. If flying columns were not lying in wait for the enemy, they were studiously avoiding him. The Mid-Clare Brigade attempted 144 ambushes between November 1920 and June 1921; 130 did not even result in sight of the enemy.

Faulty intelligence, flawed technique, weak leadership and internal feuding, as well as bad luck and improving Crown counter-measures, were all factors affecting the success of the brigade.

Cycle of violence

The war descended into a self-perpetuating cycle of violence that could acquire its own logic independent of wider strategic concerns. The sporadic reprisals of the first half of 1920 morphed into an officially sanctioned system before the end of the year.

Retaliation was routinely swift, as Crown forces lashed out in fear and frustration, but it could also be calculated. On 22 September, after six policemen were killed at Rineen in the Mid-Clare Brigade territory, their comrades paused to organise supplies of petrol, extra hand grenades and reinforcements before burning the towns of Ennistymon, Lahinch and Miltown Malbay and killing five civilians and one Volunteer.

If the gratification of reprisal was delayed, it could still be deadly. Crown forces retained the right to revenge if Crown courts did not settle debts for them. On 24 July 1920, a Black and Tan, Walter Oakley, was fatally wounded in Limerick. Civilians James O’Neill and Patrick Blake were arrested in August and acquitted on 19 November, though the judge set the verdict aside.

Hours later O’Neill was shot four times in the head and James Blake was killed by bullets intended for his brother Patrick.

There were more RIC men killed in Kerry than anywhere else outside Dublin and Tipperary.

One was Constable Paddy Foley, a Kerry native. While home on holiday in April 1920, he presented information on the local IRA, including his own brother, to local officers.

However, the district inspector was in league with the Volunteers. On the orders of two of his cousins, Foley was seized and court-martialled. He was shot 26 times.

Ruthlessness, clearly, was not the preserve of either belligerent alone. A spate of IRA attacks in Kerry from late October to early November 1920 (coinciding with the death and funeral after a protracted hunger strike of Terence MacSwiney, who had succeeded MacCurtain as lord mayor of Cork), in which the IRA killed 14 constables, resulted in the ‘siege of Tralee’, a series of reprisals and burnings of public buildings and business premises.

The capture and detention of four more policemen engendered fierce rage. Public notices demanded their return on threat of drastic action.

The town was effectively blockaded for more than a week. Two of the prisoners were set free, but had been mistreated, and one was apparently so traumatised that he killed himself by cutting his throat with a razor. The other two were killed and buried secretly.

At Kilmichael, on 28 November Tom Barry’s west Cork flying column killed 17 Auxiliaries (one survivor was left incapacitated) and lost three Volunteers.

Barry maintained that the Auxiliaries pretended to surrender at one point before resuming the fight, that this deception cost the lives of two of his men who broke cover, and that the treachery prompted him to take no prisoners.

Critics have suggested that Barry concocted the false surrender to justify a premeditated massacre. Whatever happened amidst the fog of war, within a fortnight Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary were under martial law and a significant section of Cork city had been burnt by Auxiliaries.

Martial law

The bodies of three IRA men killed by the British army in West Cork in December 1920.
The bodies of three IRA men killed by the British army in West Cork in December 1920.

The British government had recruited, trained and deployed the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries with indecent haste and confused the roles of policeman and soldier with predictably chaotic results.

It had manipulated the legal system in the hope of circumventing martial law. But the logical conclusion of increasing militarisation was the eventual imposition of martial law.

The British cabinet’s insistence that it was facing a rebellion as opposed to a war hamstrung British forces and led to divisions within the military, a failure to impose unity of command, and an absence of clarity as to where authority lay between martial and civil law.

The first official reprisal occurred at Midleton, east Cork on 29 December, when six houses were destroyed following an ambush.

Martial law was imposed in Clare, Waterford, Wexford and Kilkenny on 4 January 1921. The latter three counties were by far the least active in the ‘war zone’.

Waterford’s Volunteers experienced problems of leadership, organisation, discipline and morale. Their record was patchy. On 1 November 1920, the successful Piltown ambush was staged, but in another engagement at Piltown the following June, the IRA unit surrendered.

The western half of the county had distinguished itself relatively well, but the Waterford IRA had to be amalgamated into one brigade in June 1921.

The final phase of the war began in early 1921 as the augmented British military presence and their cannier tactics, as well as perennial arms shortages, undermined the capacity of the IRA to perform demanding operations.

The focus switched to high-frequency, low-intensity operations requiring fewer weapons and posing less risk to Volunteers. Spectacular IRA victories were rare in 1921, and there were some crushing defeats. Flying columns were far from an unqualified triumph, and amalgamated columns were prioritised for a period.

Higher numbers were a double-edged sword, facilitating extensive operations but increasing exposure to intelligence leaks and counter-ambush. There were a number of narrow escapes when whole units came close to being rounded up or wiped out in one fell swoop.

Few escaped at Clonmult in east Cork on 20 February, however, when the location of a house full of Volunteers was betrayed: twelve were killed.

The Dromkeen ambush of 3 February followed a disastrous two months for the Limerick IRA, during which 12 Volunteers died.

According to the unwritten rules of guerrilla warfare, the scale and brutal nature of their losses demanded a response in kind from the Volunteers. Eleven policemen were killed at Dromkeen. It was second only to Kilmichael in the number of confirmed British fatalities, and no Volunteers were lost. The policy from the outset was to take no prisoners.

One Volunteer, Maurice Meade, probably killed seven men, two of whom he shot after their surrender. Dromkeen was an act of revenge for fallen comrades. It also made a compelling statement: that the Limerick Volunteers had not been defeated and remained a force to be reckoned with.

The psychological effect of successful ambushes or barracks attacks exceeded their military significance, profoundly affecting the public consciousness. The closest approximation to a conventional battle in the whole of the war took place at Crossbarry, between Bandon and Cork city, on 19 March 1921.

The British had reliable intelligence on the location of IRA brigade headquarters and organised an extensive sweep. Tom Barry orchestrated a bold and brilliant fighting retreat, inflicting at least ten fatalities on the enemy, while suffering three.

An unwieldy east, mid- and west Limerick composite suffered one of the IRA’s worst reverses when it was surprised on two successive days in early May and lost eight men.

Incessant enemy pursuit, a scarcity of ammunition and the logistical difficulties inherent in maintaining large units convinced several areas to disband brigade flying columns in favour of battalion columns. East Limerick, for example, demobilised and sub-divided in late May. Battalion columns were fairly limited in what they could hope to achieve.

Intelligence war

The intelligence war was a brutal and murky affair. Munster was at its grisly core.

The Cork IRA was particularly unforgiving. At a minimum, it put 65 civilians to death for allegedly colluding with Crown forces, branding them as ‘spies’ or ‘informers’.

Sixteen people died in this manner in Tipperary, eight in Kerry, seven in Limerick, three in Clare and one in Waterford.

Fewer people suffered this fate in the other 26 counties combined. Probably the most contentious charge laid against the IRA is that accusations of spying frequently served as a mere pretext for the persecution and murder of former British soldiers and Protestants, the real motivation being social or sectarian antagonism.

There were 21 Protestants among those executed in Cork, five in Tipperary and two in Kerry. All of those executed in Limerick, Clare and Waterford were Catholics.

There were many possible offenders but only a fraction were actually executed. Ex-soldiers were a minority among those suspected but a disproportionately high majority of those executed.

They were often isolated figures on the margins of society. It was not uncommon for instances of putative informing to be shrouded in communal spite or personal intrigue, but IRA intelligence capabilities should not be underestimated, and republicans generally garnered ample evidence on which to judge cases.

The threshold of guilt and the criteria for punishment could be capricious, however, and in some exceptional instances, ‘spy’ or ‘informer’ was a label of convenience. IRA justice was not blind and not everyone was equal before IRA law.

There was a military impasse in the months before the Truce. Whole tracts of rural Munster had been rendered ungovernable by the British authorities, but Crown forces maintained their presence in all urban settings and large population centres, and would not be dislodged.

The IRA survived the war living from hand to mouth, from ambush to ambush (although the guerrilla infrastructure in Cork included a munitions factory), and might have continued to do so indefinitely unless the British resorted to a level of warfare unprecedented in Ireland.

Political compromise was a natural end to a war that was neither won nor lost by fighting alone.

IRA attacks on crown forces in Munster

The map is based on the RIC’s ‘Weekly Outrages Against Police’ records, which compiled daily reports of IRA attacks against the RIC and British military from March 1920 to July 11, 1921.

The reports are not a comprehensive accounting of all IRA attacks, as they often under-report fatalities, exclude a number of IRA operations and omit events prior to March 1920. Data has been compiled for 610 IRA attacks on crown forces and include preliminary RIC estimates of British casualties (killed and wounded).

Every circle on the map represents an individual IRA attack on crown forces. Each attack is weighted, with those producing crown forces’ casualties (both killed and/or wounded) being awarded a greater value. (Crown forces’ deaths and woundings are weighted the same.)

For example, an IRA attack where crown forces suffered three dead and one wounded receives a value of four, while an attack where crown forces suffered no casualties receives a value of one, so the map measures both the frequency of events and British casualties.

[Source: National Archives UK, CO 904/148–150]

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