“… a spiraling war of attrition pitching the IRA and a supportive citizenry against the might of the British Empire, resulting in a treaty and the formation of the Irish Free State.”
By David Lawlor
Nearly 2,000 people died as a result – 750 of them civilians. The conflict had its origins in the election of December 1918 when the Irish republican party, Sinn Fein, won a landslide victory and then established a breakaway parliament free of British control. The move precipitated the first attack on Crown forces on Jan. 21, 1919 resulting in the deaths of two policemen. The killings touched off a spiraling war of attrition pitching the IRA and a supportive citizenry against the might of the British Empire, resulting in a treaty and the formation of the Irish Free State almost two years later.
Here are nine things to know about the war:
Black and Tans
The notorious Black and Tans (so named for their mismatching surplus uniforms) were initially a force of temporary British paramilitaries that were intended to beef up the resident Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Many of the volunteers were army veterans from across the United Kingdom – some of whom were psychologically bruised from their time in the trenches during World War One. They soon gained a reputation for brutality and wanton destruction. In September of 1920, Black and Tan troops torched 20 houses in Balbriggan. The soldiers also looted pubs, burned down a factory and beat two men to death during the raid. What’s glossed over about the Tans is the fact that almost 20 percent of the force were actually Irish or of Irish decent.
As bad as the Tans were, it was the Auxiliary Division (made up of former army officers) who were the most destructive and lethal in their dealings with the population. Arson, robbery and murder — nothing seemed to be beneath them. With their black uniforms, bandoliers and low-slung side-arms, Auxies carried themselves like something out of the Wild West. Set up to take the fight to the IRA, the unit became infamous for brutal reprisals such as the burning of Cork (when five acres of the city was torched, 300 homes destroyed as well as 40 businesses, leading to the loss of 2,000 jobs).
The Tans’ ‘Serial Killer’
The Black and Tans’ most notorious member must have been 19-year-old Thomas D. Huckerby from Somerset, England. Over a six-month period, he was responsible for the murder of five men – all of whom were unarmed and none of which were involved in the IRA. In August of 1920, he killed 60-year-old John Hynes at Shanagolden, A month later at Abbeyfeale, he followed two men — named Healy and Hartnett – on their way home from work and shot them dead. In November, a man matching Huckerby’s description was part of a gang which stopped and executed a pair of ex-British soldiers, Michael Blake and James O’Neill, while the two were travelling from Dublin to Limerick. Facing disciplinary charges, Huckerby resigned in December 1920.
As vicious as the fighting was, nothing could match Sunday Nov. 21, 1920, for sheer mayhem. That morning, Irish leader Michael Collins’s gang of assassins, known as “The Squad”, set out to eliminate all the top British intelligence agents in Dublin, by killing 14 and wounding another five. In retaliation, the RIC drove onto the pitch at Croke Park during a Gaelic football match and indiscriminately fired into the crowd of spectators killing 14 people (including one player). As many as 65 others were wounded. Later that same day, three republican prisoners, were shot in Dublin Castle “while trying to escape” — a story which was roundly rejected by most people.
Getting Away With Murder
On Nov. 26, 1920, IRA members Pat and Harry Loughnane were arrested at their family farm by Auxiliary forces. The brothers’ bodies were found burned and mutilated nine days later. They had been tied to the back of a lorry and forced to run behind it until they collapsed and were dragged along the ground. Both of Pat’s wrists, legs and arms were broken. He had a fractured skull and wounds carved into his chest. Harry’s right arm was broken and almost severed from his body, he was also missing two fingers. When he was found all that remained of his face were his chin and lips. Authorities claimed that the brothers had escaped from custody and that the Auxies were not involved in their deaths. That same month, a priest and a pregnant woman were also killed by British forces.
A week after Bloody Sunday in Dublin, an IRA flying column under Tom Barry ambushed a patrol of Auxiliaries at Kilmichael, in Cork, killing 17 members of an 18-man patrol. Controversy has surrounded the attack, with suggestions that Barry’s men killed the troops after they had surrendered. That view is conflicted with testimony that the Auxies actually feigned surrender and then opened fire again, a tactic which resulted in nearly all of them being killed… or so the story goes. Conversely, the ambush conducted by IRA commander Sean MacEoin at Clonfin where, during a two-hour battle, his unit killed four Auxiliaries and wounded eight. MacEoin congratulated his enemies on the fight they had put up and prevented his men from assaulting the captives. He then ordered his men to tend to the wounded. MacEoin’s humane actions delayed the IRA’s getaway and almost led to their capture by 14 lorries filled with British reinforcements.
Nerves of Steel
Michael Collins was Minister for Finance for the republican parliament, as well as Director of Intelligence, Director of Organisation and Adjutant-General. In short, he was a very busy man. Yet Collins conducted his business right under the very noses of his enemy. He often used bicycles to travel around the city dressed as a dapper businessman — always just a whisker from being captured. On one occasion, he was stopped by a military patrol, his socks stuffed with papers with the names of contacts and codes. Collins went straight up to the officer in charge of the roadblock and began chatting with him. He soon had the officer roaring with laughter and was quickly ushered past the checkpoint. On an other occasion, he, Tom Barry and a few others were stopped by Auxies while driving a car. Collins told everyone to act drunk. According to Barry, Collins ‘put up such a fine act, joking and blasting in turn, that he had the whole search party of terrorists in good-humour’. British raids came so close that once he had to flee through a skylight while the enemy searched for him below. On another occasion, he actually slipped inside Dublin Castle itself – the belly of the beast – where, for several hours, he perused British intelligence files about himself and his activities.
The Prison Hulk
Prison ships are usually associated with the 19th century . . . rotting hulls used to hold men when cells on land were unavailable. Conditions aboard were horrendous. But one was actually used to hold republican prisoners during the rebellion. Moored at Belfast Lough, HMS Argenta, a decommissioned cargo ship, housed more than 250 men who’d been interned without trial. Cages containing up to 50 prisoners at a time were used for the purpose. There were no tables; men ate off the floor. The toilets flooded frequently, resulting in illness and disease. By way of protesting their squalid conditions, the detainees launched mass hunger strikes. In one case, 150 men went without food during the winter of 1923 to protest their treatment.
One associates most revolutions with the sound of gunfire and smell of cordite, but the real grease to keep a movement going is money. One of the greatest feats of the fledgling Irish parliament – the Dail – and of Michael Collins was the setting up of a National Loan, a financial drive in which bond certificates were sold off to fund the freedom movement. Dail president Eamon De Valera journeyed to America to find buyers. He returned home with $5 million in investments (equal to about $60 million, €55 million or £40 million in 2015 currency). In Ireland, Collins took on the role of selling bonds to the Irish population. He eventually raised an impressive £355,000 (roughly $18 million, €16 million or £12 million today). And remember, Collins didn’t know from one day to the next where he would sleep, never mind what makeshift office he would work from. In one case he operated out of a room in a sweet shop. Yet he managed to sell hundreds of thousands in bonds while avoiding British raids. We could all do with some of his financial magic now.
David Lawlor is an associate editor with Ireland’s Independent News and Media in Dublin. He is the author of four books including Tan, a new novel about the Irish War of Independence. He lives in Greystones with his wife and four children. Follow him on Twitter or visit his blog History With a Twist.