The Irish Civil War

County Mayo 1921-1924

The Truce

The period between the end of the War of Independence July 1921 and the outbreak of Civil War in June 1922 became known as The Truce characterised by a general peace between the IRA and the forces of the Crown, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the British Army. The period was initially celebrated as one of immense relief due to the end in the conflict. As time wore on the Truce was to become a period of increased tensions between former IRA and political comrades in Sinn Féin over the future Ireland was to achieve through the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

As Treaty negotiations between the Irish and British Governments began in the autumn the mood was one of euphoria. Speeches given by local Teachtaí Dála (TD’s) applauded the IRA for their achievements and condemned the RIC for the atrocities they carried out describing them as ‘war criminals’. IRA Commanders held a more sober and apprehensive view. They warned the people of Mayo that the time for conflict was not yet over and encouraged young men to join their ranks. The IRA concentrated on training and rearming while British and Irish negotiating teams at Downing Street tried to reach an agreement. The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed by the Irish and British negotiation teams on 6th December 1921. The Treaty was accepted by sixty-four votes to fifty-seven votes in Dáil Éireann on 7th January 1922. Those supporting the Treaty claimed it offered peace, security and an opportunity to gain even greater freedom in the years ahead. Those opposing the Treaty found the oath to the British Crown and the partition of the country a betrayal of all they had fought for since 1916. In these opposing positions were sown the seeds of civil war.

Irish political, military and civic society was now split on pro or anti-Treaty lines. Those supporting the Treaty became identified with the Irish Free State and its military forces, the National Army. Those opposing the Treaty remained Republicans with their military forces retained the name, the Irish Republican Army (IRA). A very small minority remained neutral refusing to take either side. The Republicans were referred to in most of the national press at the time as ‘anti-Treatyites’ or ‘Irregulars’. The Republicans referred to those supporting the Treaty as ‘Staters’. The split on the Treaty at National level was reflected in County Mayo also. The IRA in the County was predominantly Republican but there were also a number of prominent IRA officers who supported the Treaty and recruited for what was to become the Army of the Irish Free State, the National Army. Commandant Joe Ring of Westport, who became a Brigadier-General in the National Army, established a special unit of Mayo men called ‘Ring’s Own’. Vice-Brigadier Thomas Ruane of Kiltimagh was also a recruiting officer for the National Army. Towns in County Mayo were predominantly pro-Treaty. People longed for a continuation of the peace they had enjoyed since the end of the War. As William Sears, TD for Mayo South, had said in the Treaty debates, the people wished for ‘no more lorries in the night’. This was a reference to the fear which was induced on the County population by the mere sound of a Crossley Tender filled with Black and Tans travelling through the countryside.

As the disagreement between pro and anti-Treaty factions increased law and order in Mayo began to break down. The Republican IRA raided arms stores of the RIC to obtain weapons and ammunition. A number of bank raids were carried out by the IRA as a response to a withdrawal of funding from Minister for Defence General Richard Mulcahy. The Mayo News Editorial of Saturday 11th February 1922 claimed that bolsheviks and communists were responsible for the anarchy taking place on a national level. A new Irish Civic Guard to replace the RIC was announced in March 1922. It would be over a year before they were to appear in Mayo.

The pro-Treaty movement in Mayo received a big boost in morale with the arrival of General Michael Collins TD and Minister for Finance in the Provisional Government. Collins came to Castlebar to hold an election rally at The Mall on 1st April 1922. It was the first anniversary of the death of Commandant Seán Corcoran, who had been killed in action at Crossard near Ballyhaunis the previous year. Thousands of pro- and anti-Treaty supporters attended the rally. The atmosphere was exciting but tense. Collins addressed the crowd with fiery oratory but was drawn into a heated argument with Anti-Treaty Sinn Fein Counsellor Thomas Campbell from Swinford. Campbell accused Collins of being ‘the faithful subject of King George’. Collins responded to the challenge by calling the Republicans ‘Green and Tans’. The resulting melee and an exchange of gunfire ended the rally with Collins being pulled into The Imperial Hotel for his own safety. That night Commandant Joe Ring was arrested by the Republican IRA on a charge of recruiting for the National Army. He was released after a few days and welcomed as a conquering hero in his native Westport.

After Collins’ visit to Castlebar differences became more bitter between pro and anti-Treaty camps. The pro-Treaty IRA General Headquarters (GHQ), commanded by Minister for Defence General Richard Mulcahy, accused the West Mayo Brigade of the misappropriation of funds. In response Commandant-General Kilroy published a full list of the amount of money distributed to traders to whom they had debts in the County Papers on 22nd April 1922.

The General Election of 10th June 1922 returned a majority in favour of the Treaty at national level with Griffith’s and Collins’ pro-Treaty Sinn Féin winning fifty-eight seats. De Valera’s anti-Treaty Sinn Féin won just thirty-six seats. This was not reflected in Mayo where three quarters of the electorate had supported De Valera in his anti-Treaty position. Unfortunately, events were soon to overwhelm politics and gunpowder was to become the key influential factor in shaping the future of Ireland not merely in terms of the physical damage and destruction but more crucially in terms of gifted lives to be lost.

 1. Republican Mayo

On 29th June 1922 the Republicans in Mayo ordered local anti-Treaty IRA Captain Willie Moran to arrest pro-Treaty Vice-Brigadier Thomas Ruane in Kiltimagh. Both Ruane and Moran were mortally wounded in an exchange of fire which occurred. The following day, the Irish Civil War broke out in Dublin when National Army artillery opened fire on the Republican Headquarters in the Four Courts. This attack was a response to the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson former Chief of the British Imperial General Staff in London by IRA Volunteers Reggie Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan.  This has always been disputed by Republicans who maintain Collins himself had given the orders for Wilson to be shot due to his assistance in training the B-Specials, a sectarian police force in Northern Ireland. In response to Wilson’s assassination the British Government demanded action against the Republican IRA Headquarters in the Four Courts. Dublin was the center of conflict for a week as respective pro- and anti- Treaty forces fought it out in the streets of the Capital. Cathal Brugha, former Minister for Defence in the first Dáil Eireann and one of De Valera’s strongest supporters was one of the last killed as the fighting drew to a close on 7th July 1922. With Dublin in their hands, the Provisional Government under Griffith and Collins turned their attention to the Republican strongholds of the south and the west.

Once the Civil War began Mayo, in Republican hands, was immediately blockaded by the National Army. A number of supply ships continued to run food, livestock and post to and from Glasgow and Liverpool. Castlebar barracks became the Mayo Republican Headquarters. Local papers, ‘The Mayo News’ and ‘The Western People’ took a pro-republican stance. This is unsurprising as the editors were under the control of a Republican censor. The papers offer an interesting insight into Mayo under the Republican troops and also carried reports of the Civil War from a Republican perspective. Michael Kilroy, now a Commandant-General,  controlled mid to north Mayo with the IRA 2nd Western Division of the IRA while Tom Maguire, now also a Commandant-General, took charge of south Mayo and north Galway with the IRA 4th Western Division. Together these officers prevented price fixing among businesses and generally conducted themselves in a disciplined manner. The situation in Mayo was to change radically with the arrival of National Army troops at the end of July 1922.   

 2. National Army Military Campaign

After the defeat of Republican Forces in Dublin, the Provisional Government ordered the National Army to undertake independent campaigns in the south and west of the Country. In spite of superiority in numbers, the Republicans fell back everywhere in the face of the advancing National Army. By Sunday 23rd July 1922 the National Army’s Brigadier-General Anthony Teasdale Lawlor had taken Ballyhaunis and established their Headquarters at Claremorris. For the duration of the Civil War, Claremorris Command was to be the operational HQ for the National Army in Mayo, north Galway and parts of Sligo. Lawlor, at just twenty-four years of age, had considerable experience in the British Army where he had served during the First World War. His National Army troops were outwardly welcomed in Mayo towns as liberators.

 

The Republicans continued to withdraw setting fire to major buildings of any possible use to the advancing National Army. Ballinrobe army barracks was completely destroyed. An attempt to burn Castlebar barracks only partially succeeded and as the Republicans attempted to destroy the post office they were attacked by the towns people and withdrew. Castlebar was then captured by the National Army. This was followed by a seaborne landing in Westport on Monday 24th July 1922 by a force under Brigadier-General Joe Ring. Ballina was in National Army hands by the end of the week. The Republicans were completely overwhelmed at the speed at which the National Army occupied the major towns throughout the County. Commandant-Generals Maguire and Kilroy pulled their respective 2nd and 4th Western Divisions deep into their traditional areas of support and waited. The National Army believed the Civil War was almost over. The conflict was in reality about to increase in intensity, killing and destruction.

3.Guerrilla War 1922-23

On 19th August 1922, Liam Lynch, Commander in Chief of the Republican Forces issued Operation Order Number 9 in which he stated ‘Our troops will now be formed into Active Service Units (ASUs) and operate in the open’. Lynch went on to order Republicans to undertake offensive operations against small National Army outposts or patrols. His forces were also ordered to destroy the National Army Intelligence and Communications network. Three days later, on 22nd August, General Michael Collins was killed in action fighting off a Republican Flying Column in an ambush at Béal na mBláth, County Cork. This came on top of the death of Arthur Griffith nearly two weeks earlier on the 12th of August. The premature deaths of two of the signatories of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 had a profound effect on the course of the Civil War. The Provisional Government soon to be Free State Government felt the loss of the President and Commander-in-Chief very deeply. The Republicans were given one last chance to avail of an amnesty after which the Emergency Powers Act was to be implemented. This Law enabled the National Army to execute any Republicans captured with weapons. Seventy-seven such Republicans were to be executed between November 1922 and April 1923.

 

In Mayo, Republicans organised themselves into Flying Columns of thirty-five men. The Columns were usually named after their Commanders such as Dr John Madden in the West, Frank Carty in the Ox Mountains or Tom Carney in East Mayo. Each Column contained an explosives specialist, machine gunners, signallers, first aiders and riflemen. The field of operations was considerably wide. This caused considerable confusion among National Army Garrisons in the main towns of Mayo. When they eventually reached the sites of ambushes, railways blown up or outposts attacked, the Republican Columns were long gone. The Republicans also undertook large scale operations such as ‘The Storming of Ballina’ which occurred on Tuesday 12th September 1922. The Republicans attacked while the majority of the National Army Garrison was at a funeral Mass. Using a captured armoured car the Republicans fought their way through the town clearing key buildings as they went. A large mine was detonated at the town post office with the resulting shockwave throwing people through the air and shattering windows in the nearby streets. The Republicans celebrated their victory by relieving many of the shops of their goods. The Republicans then divided their forces in two. One Unit under Michael Kilroy headed west out towards Belmullet. The other Unit headed to a Republican HQ and supply dump at Lough Talt.

 

Brigadier-General Lawlor gathered all available National Army Forces in County Mayo for a counter strike against the Republicans. Two separate National Army Columns set out from Ballina. The first, under Brigadier-General Lawlor pursued the Republicans heading for Lough Talt. The Republicans fought a strong rearguard action through the Ox Mountains as they withdrew from Lough Talt. The fighting, which continued throughout the day, saw Lawlor wounded twice and one of Mayo’s own heroes of the War of Independence, Commandant-General Joe Ring killed in action. Meanwhile, Brigadier-General Neary led a second National Army Column after General Kilroy’s retreating Column across north Mayo. Neary’s men ran straight into a classic IRA ambush at Glenamoy. Six National Army troops were killed and many captured along with forty-five to fifty rifles. The National Army troops were in such a dishevelled state Kilroy ordered them fed and released. It was a valuable insight into the morale of the army facing the Republicans. Uniforms including underware, boots and food were in short supply. Many had not been paid for weeks. The Republican operations at Ballina, Lough Talt and Glenamoy boosted their morale but left the National Army Commanders bitter and out for revenge. This bitterness was soon reflected in combat. National Army troops began mixing ground glass with the gunpowder in their rifle rounds (bullets). In response the Republicans began using ‘dum-dum’ or exploding bullets.

 4. Free State 6th Dec. 1922

On 18th October 1922 Commandant-General Tom Maguire was captured near Shrule. He was sentenced to death but it was never carried out. This success did little to improve matters for the National Army in Mayo. General Mulcahy, Minister for Defence, was beginning to grow impatient with General Lawlor at Claremorris Command. The Republicans remained undefeated and a serious threat in the West. In response to this criticism Lawlor decided to move on the Republican stronghold of Newport, General Kilroy’s home town. This operation succeeded in capturing and wounding Michael Kilroy but little else was achieved as the Republicans slipped through the National Army cordon of the area and escaped. Despite the capture of Generals Maguire and Kilroy of the 2nd and 4th Western Divisions, the Republicans continued to fight on. With executions of Republicans growing and the population becoming war weary the Civil War entered its final phase with the appointment of Major-General Hogan to succeed the out-of favour Lawlor. The Irish Free State became a reality on 6th December 1922. It was the first anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

 5. Civil War ends

Major-General Michael Hogan arrived to assume command in Claremorris on 24th January 1923. A Galway man he knew the West well and introduced a new military campaign of systematic searching and raids. This approach involved striking twice in the one day in certain districts where Republicans having had one raid thought it might be safe to emerge from hiding. Hogan made greater use of the darkness in sending out armed cycle patrols at night to be in position by dawn to ambush Republican Units at meetings or coming out from early morning Mass. General Hogan also made extensive use of the Mayo railway network and the big drives used by General Lawlor to bring the fight to the Republican Columns. National Army activity was continuous and relentless and it eventually wore down the Republicans. Many of the Republicans had now been on the run for a number of years and this living rough in damp conditions with little nourishment.

 

Some Republican Columns responded with grim determination such as the ambush at Glore near Kiltimagh in January 1923. This action saw the Column Commander Tom Carney seriously wounded and an innocent girl, Mary Smyth, travelling with the National Army suffer horrific injuries. In February 1923 Moore Hall, the ancestral home of George Moore and his estranged brother Colonel Maurice Moore, was burned to the ground by Republicans to prevent it being used as a National Army post. The same month, Medical Officer Lieutenant McQuaid, brother of the future Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, was mortally wounded in an ambush by Republicans near Shraghmore. McQuaid’s death caused particular outrage as the National Army claimed he was wearing Red Cross armbands and should never have been targeted.

 

By March 1922, General Hogan instilled even greater resolve in his men by improving medical facilities, uniforms, food and pay. With the improvement in morale Hogan was to order his troops to enter the remote mountains and valleys to hunt down and kill or capture the remaining Republican Columns. Joe Baker’s Republican Column was surrounded and captured at Buckagh Mountain near Skerdagh on 8th March 1922 by a National Army Column led by Colonel-Commandant Madden. Republican Captain Jim Moran was shot and killed after refusing to surrender. Baker and his men were taken to Claremorris where they received a severe beating at the hands of their National Army captors.

 

The final acts of the Civil War in the Claremorris Command area were initiated by a Republican Column which attacked Headford, County Galway on 9th April 1923. In response to the attack, six Republican prisoners in Galway gaol were taken out and executed at Tuam on 11th April at 8 a.m. One of the six was Volunteer John Maguire, the youngest brother of Commandant-General Tom Maguire from Cross, County Mayo. The six were buried in the Workhouse Yard which was the site of the executions and also a temporary Barracks for the National Army. The very same day, Liam Lynch, Chief-of-Staff of the Republican Forces was mortally wounded in a running firefight over the Knockmealdown Mountains in County Tipperary. Frank Aiken took over command of the Republican Forces and after a number of failed negotiation attempts with the Free State Government he issued an order for his troops to dump their arms. The Irish Civil War was officially at an end.

 

In Mayo however, the shooting continued. Gone were the days of large scale movements of opposing Flying Columns. The National Army continued raiding the ‘safe houses’ of Republicans occasionally shooting those who sought to take a chance to run for freedom. Republican lone snipers began attacking National Army barracks or outposts at night. Eventually, the violence petered out as the new Garda Síochána became established and took over responsibility for law and order from the National Army. The Republican prisoners still had over a year to endure in Free State prisons. The experience was harsh and saw frequent riots, beatings and finally a hunger strike which was called off by Michael Kilroy. There were many Republicans who were not prepared to remain in prison. Mayo men were considered among the finest miners and it was their expertise which turned Mountjoy Prison, Custume Barracks Athlone and ‘Tin Town’ in the Curragh porous with escape tunnels. Among the many who did escape and who struck out for the freedom of home were Commandant-Generals Maguire and Kilroy. The Mayo population campaigned actively for the release of their men and women. Eventually, the Cosgrave Government bowed to pressure and released the prisoners gradually. With the war now over many settled down to make up for the years they had given in a War for Independence and a Civil War. Others emigrated to America, Britain and Australia in the hope of a better future. Most veterans never spoke openly about their experiences. They confided what they had witnessed in those years to the Bureau of Military History or to Ernie O’Malley as he travelled the Country with his notebooks recording accounts of Ireland’s bid for freedom. The experiences of the veterans are now on record for us to read and try to appreciate what it must have been like to be alive as Ireland won her freedom among the nations of the world.

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