I was gobsmacked recently when I was asked to contribute some facts on the Irish War of Independence to the superb website, Military History Now. Here it is again, for those interested in the subject.
The Irish War of Independence ran from January 1919 to July 1921. It was a guerrilla campaign pitching 15,000 members of the IRA against a British constabulary and military might totalling 42,000. Nearly 2,000 people died as a result – 750 of them civilians. It had its origins in the election of December 1918 when the republican party, Sinn Fein, won a landslide victory and then established a breakaway parliament free of British control.
That act spurred the first attack on crown forces on January 21, 1919, which resulted in the deaths of two policemen. Those killings would lead to a spiralling 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. It was a turbulent time, to say the least, and it inspired me to write my novel,Tan. Here are nine things to know about the war…
1. BLACK AND TANS: The notorious Black and Tans (so named for their mismatching uniforms) were initially a force of temporary constables intended to beef up the resident Royal Irish Constabulary. Recruits were army veterans – some of them psychologically bruised from their time in the trenches during World War One. They soon gained a reputation for brutality and wanton destruction, such as in Balbriggan, where they torched 20 houses, looted pubs, burned down a factory, and beat two men to death. What’s glossed over about the Tans is the fact that almost 20pc of the force were actually Irish or of Irish descent.
2. THE AUXIES: 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 was beneath them. With their black uniforms, bandoliers and low-slung side-arms, they carried themselves like something out of the Wild West. Set up to take the fight to the IRA, they 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).
3. THE TAN SERIAL KILLER: The Black and Tans’ most notorious member must have been Thomas D Huckerby (19), from Somerset, in England. In 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, he killed 60 year-old John Hynes at Shanagolden, A month later, at Abbeyfeale, he followed two men – 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 two ex-British soldiers – Michael Blake and James O’Neill – while travelling from Dublin to Limerick. Facing disciplinary charges, Huckerby resigned in December 1920.
4. BLOODY SUNDAY: As vicious as the fighting was, nothing could match Sunday 21 November, 1920, for sheer mayhem. That morning, Michael Collins’s gang of assassins, The Squad, made a good attempt at wiping out all the top British intelligence agents in Dublin, by killing 14 and wounding a further five. In response, that afternoon the RIC drove onto the pitch at Croke Park and indiscriminately fired into the crowd killing 14 people (including one player) and wounding 65 others. Later that day three republican prisoners, were shot in Dublin Castle “while trying to escape”, a story which was roundly rejected by most people.
5. GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER: On November 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 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.
6. AMBUSHES: 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 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 countered 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 firefight his unit killed four Auxiliaries and wounded eight. MacEoin congratulated them on the fight they had put up, prevented his men from assaulting the captives and tended to the wounded. Mac Eoin’s humane actions delayed the IRA’s getaway and almost led to their capture by 14 lorries of British reinforcements.
7. NERVES OF STEEL: Michael Collins was Minister for Finance, Director of Intelligence, Director of Organisation, and Adjutant-General. In short, he was a very busy man. Yet he conducted his business right under the noses of his enemy, using bicycles to travel around the city dressed as a dapper businessman, and 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 and started to chat with him, and soon had the officer roaring with laughter. He was quickly ushered past the checkpoint.
Tom Barry tells of a time when he, Collins 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 British searched for him below. On another occasion he actually slipped inside into the Dublin Metropolitan Police’s G Division’s archives in Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street), where, for several hours and just feet away from the enemy, he perused British intelligence files about himself and his activities.
8. THE PRISON HULK: Prison ships are usually associated with the 19th century . . . rotting hulks to hold men in damp squalor. But one was actually used to hold republican prisoners during the War of Independence. Moored at Belfast Lough, the HMS Argenta, a former cargo ship, housed men who’d been interned without trial. Cages containing up to 50 prisoners at a time were used for the purpose. The conditions were appalling. There were no tables, so men ate off the floor. The toilets flooded frequently, resulting in illness and disease. Some 263 men took part in mass hunger strikes – in one case, 150 men went without food during the winter of 1923 in protest at their treatment.
9. THE MONEY MACHINE: One associates most revolutions with the sound of gunfire and smell of cordite, but the real grease to keep a movement functioning 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, in which bond certificates would be sold at various prices to fund the freedom movement. Dail President Eamon De Valera journeyed to America and sold bonds there very successfully (some $5million worth were purchased). In Ireland, Collins took on the role of selling the bonds to the Irish population. 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 over £355,000 worth of bonds while avoiding British raids. We could all do with some of his financial magic now.