Historian John Dorney and New Island Books have very kindly shared a short extract from John’s new book, Peace After the Final Battle.
The book is available to buy *here*
By the winter of 1920, following the deployment of British reinforcements in the form ‘Black and Tan’ recruits to the RIC and the Auxiliary Division and the IRA response in setting up fulltime its of its own, the conflict in Ireland had been transformed into something much more vicious than before. It was developing a dynamic of its own, a bitter cycle of assassination, execution and reprisal. November 1920 gave three chilling examples of what this would mean.
On 1 November, Kevin Barry, an 18-year-old IRA member, was hanged for his role in an arms raid in Dublin that had left three British soldiers dead. IRA GHQ issued orders to units around the country to hit back at anyone in the uniform of the Crown. In some places, County Kildare, for instance, the IRA received the orders but simply refused to carry them out. In any case, the orders were rescinded when tempers in Dublin had cooled.
Word of this, however, never reached Kerry, where ten people would lose their lives within 24 hours. Eight of them were RIC men, two of whom were abducted and ‘disappeared’; their bodies were never found. Two more were local civilians killed by the police in reprisals. The RIC and Black and Tans occupied the town of Tralee for over a week, preventing all food entering until the missing RIC men were found. They also burned the homes and businesses of Sinn Féin activists and over the next few days shot dead three more people, two of them IRA men. The ‘siege’ was finally lifted after a storm was raised in the British and international press.
No sooner was this cycle of atrocities over than another broke out in Dublin. Michael Collins had been alarmed by the growth of British intelligence networks in the city, and with hair-raising ruthlessness, drew up a list to wipe it out. Early on the morning of Sunday, 21 November 1920, teams of killers from Collins’ own ‘Squad’ and the IRA Dublin Brigade visited over a dozen private addresses, mainly in the south of the city. By the time the city had woken up, fourteen people were dead, eight of them British officers, of whom six were confirmed intelligence agents, two Auxiliaries, and the rest either bystanders or alleged cases of mistaken identity.
There was nothing heroic about this action. The victims had been helpless, in many cases sleeping beside their wives, when they were shot. But as an act of terror – that is, to frighten the British administration and those who collaborated with it, it had no equal. Agents could be seen over the following days under military escort, moving into Dublin Castle, away from hostile eyes and hidden revolvers.
At the time, the British memory of the day was of Irish ‘savagery’. The dead officers were given state funerals in Westminster and barricades were placed around the Prime Minister’s residence.
Had this been the end of the day’s events, Irish memory of the day might be tinged with some regret. But the British forces’ reaction ensured that ‘Bloody Sunday’ would be remembered not as a cold-blooded assassination but as a British atrocity. A mixed force of RIC and Auxiliaries raided a Gaelic football match at Croke Park – only a couple of miles across the city from the morning’s killings – looking for suspects. For some reason, once inside the ground, they opened fire and killed another fourteen people, one of them a player. That evening the Auxiliaries in Dublin Castle murdered three prisoners, Dick McKee the head of the IRA Dublin Brigade, Peadar Clancy, his second in command and their civilian friend Conor Clune, who was unlucky enough to have been arrested with them.
Only a week later at Kilmichael in Cork, an IRA flying column under Tom Barry, a former British soldier, wiped out a patrol of eighteen Auxiliaries. The Auxiliary company based at Macroom had dominated the area since their arrival in September, raiding the countryside, arresting suspects and shooting at least one civilian. Barry planned the ambush not to capture, or seize arms, but to kill. In a carefully planned attack, the two Auxiliary lorries were swept with fire at close range.
In recent years, a controversy has dogged the action – did Barry kill prisoners and finish off wounded Auxiliaries? Was there a false surrender on the part of the Auxiliaries? Regardless, taken together with the previous events of November, the course the conflict was taking was clear. The new militarised police forces had tried to terrorise the guerrillas and their supporters. The IRA, in those areas where it had strong and determined units, fought back with a terror of its own. Barry later wrote that he had ‘gone down into the mire’ to fight British forces. In the absence of a political solution, both sides could only up the violence by an ever-widening targeting of enemies. The distinction between armed and unarmed, on-duty and off-duty, civilian or combatant, were all to become much hazier in the months ahead.
Within the same months, Terence MacSwiney, Mayor of Cork, the man who had been so determined to wipe out the shame of having surrendered his Volunteers in Cork in 1916 without firing a shot, died on hunger strike. British forces in Galway abducted and murdered a priest, Michael Griffin, suspected of Republican sympathies. On 11 December, the Auxiliaries burned out the centre of Cork city in reprisal for an ambush in the city, and for good measure assassinated two IRA suspects in their beds.
NOTE: For the purposes of posting the extract here, all references have been removed, with the author’s permission.
To access the references, Peace After the Final Battle is available *here*