After losing the battle for Limerick city, the anti-Treaty IRA retreated south. The market town of Kilmallock became a warzone. John O'Callaghan explains why it happened and how both sides engaged in the conflict

The Anglo-Irish Treaty, negotiated between republicans and the British government after the War of Independence, offered Ireland limited self-government within the British Empire. Opponents of the Treaty rejected it as a betrayal of the republican ideal. A slim majority in Dáil Éireann supported the Treaty but the IRA split into pro- and anti-Treaty sides, with the pro-Treatyites becoming the National Army.

The heartland of anti-Treaty IRA resistance to the National Army during the Civil War was the so-called 'Munster Republic’ of Cork and Kerry. Liam Lynch, anti-Treaty Chief-of-Staff, established a very patchy defensive line, protecting the ‘Munster Republic’, from Limerick city in the west, bordered on the north by the River Shannon, through the towns of Tipperary, to Waterford city in the east, flanked by the River Suir. But anti-Treatyites were soon dislodged in Tipperary while Limerick and Waterford both fell to the National Army on 21 July 1922. Lynch’s defensive line vanished amidst plumes of artillery smoke.

Controlling Territory

After losing the battle for Limerick city, the anti-Treaty IRA retreated south. The south Limerick market town of Kilmallock and its hinterland now became the location of a large-scale, lengthy military engagement. Kilmallock was the first big town between Limerick city and the Cork border. Along with the villages of Bruff and Bruree, it formed a rough triangle, with Bruff at the apex, about fifteen miles south of Limerick. Bruff is about six miles north-east of Kilmallock and Bruree is about four miles north-west. The location of Charleville, a major town in north Cork, only a few miles south of Bruree and Kilmallock, raised the stakes.

Battle of Kilmallock map
A map showing the battleground of the Battle of Kilmallock. Click on the map to zoom in. Map from The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo

There was no specific prize on offer, no particular strategic or economic target beyond physical control of territory. The anti-Treaty IRA chose to make a determined stand in the Bruff-Bruree-Kilmallock triangle because it presented a strong barrier to a National Army advance from Limerick city on Cork. It would also act as a threat to the flank of a National Army advance westwards to the Kerry border.

The geography of Kilmallock lent itself to a stubborn defence. A series of small hills surround and dominate the approaches to the town, which sits in a hollow on the banks of the River Loobagh. If the anti-Treaty forces could maintain a hold on these heights, then driving them from Kilmallock would be extremely challenging.

National Army advantages

Such a high concentration of anti-Treaty fighters in Limerick during the early stages of the Civil War led to shortages. Food and shelter were most readily available in towns, which explains why most of the preliminary clashes took place in and around larger population centres.

The National Army was thus able to bring to bear its superiority in heavy equipment, particularly artillery, which could be deployed against fortified positions. The anti-Treaty had no artillery and no anti-artillery defences. Their expertise lay in conducting guerrilla warfare in the form of brief ambushes rather than staging traditional pitched battles.

The level of civilian support that had allowed the IRA to compensate for deficiencies in transport, supplies and communications during the War of Independence was no longer forthcoming. The anti-Treaty IRA had only limited supplies of food and money and no means of obtaining credit. Commandeering and levies caused friction with civilians.

A distinct advantage that the National Army enjoyed over the anti-Treaty IRA, especially when it came to dealing with civilians, was the fact that they were funded by the Provisional Government, thanks to credit from the Bank of Ireland, and could purchase supplies. And while the anti-Treaty IRA had the upper hand in manpower and experience before the war, National Army weaknesses were gradually compensated for by the recruitment of 30,000 paid soldiers and a steady stream of British guns.

From left to right Sean Mac Eoin Sean Moylan Eoin O Duffy Liam Lynch Gearoid O Sullivan and Liam Mellowes
From friends to enemies (left to right): Sean Mac Eoin, Sean Moylan, Eoin O Duffy, Liam Lynch, Gearóid O Sullivan and Liam Mellows, seen here in the early 1920s before the Civil War. Photo © RTÉ Photographic Archive

Liam Deasy, Officer Commanding 1st Southern Division, and Sean Moylan, Officer Commanding North Cork Brigade, led the anti-Treaty IRA during the battle for Kilmallock. They pitted their wits and resources against their former comrade, General Eoin O'Duffy, now of the National Army. O’Duffy’s second-in-command was Major-General W.R.E. Murphy, a highly-decorated former British officer. The partnership of O’Duffy with Murphy as his adjutant provided an ideal combination of IRA guerrilla and conventional military force command experience.

Internal rivalries and low morale

The anti-Treaty IRA initially outnumbered the National Army, with 1,500 well-armed, high calibre troops within a few miles of Kilmallock, among them some of the most proven campaigners from the War of Independence, including Deasy and Moylan. But their morale was low after the loss of Limerick city, and there were also internal rivalries, with factions from different counties refusing to cooperate with each other. Murphy had 2,000 men at his disposal by early August, although many were raw recruits, inexperienced and unreliable.

O’Duffy was scathing in his assessment of the quality of his troops and officers. He considered many of the recruits to be only ‘semi-disciplined’ and regarded some as ‘undesirables’. Supplies were scarce all round. Deasy admitted that he had to demobilise some men who could not be fed; O’Duffy complained that the government-backed National Army also had to ‘scrounge on the countryside.’

Eoin O'Duffy saluting free state soldiers
General Tom Ennis, General Eoin O'Duffy (saluting) and General Emmet Dalton at Portobello Barracks, Dublin, in July 1922. O'Duffy was not impressed by the calibre of his men. Photo © RTÉ Photographic Archive.

Desertion and transfer of allegiance were not uncommon on either side. At times, coordinated action on any large scale proved beyond the capabilities of both parties, particularly the anti-Treatyites.

Conventional Warfare

In the only line fighting of the Civil War, the opponents squared off in a type of cross-country warfare with a well-defined front line, each side maintaining a string of outposts at crossroads and on hilltops, with a ‘No-Man’s Land’ varying in width between 100 yards and a mile. This fairly conventional style of warfare played into the hands of the better-equipped National Army.

Bruff and Bruree repeatedly changed hands until the National Army finally secured the villages in the last days of July. They opened up a second front to the rear of the ‘Munster Republic’ when troops landed from the sea near Tralee on 2 August. This played on local loyalties and the Kerry anti-Treatyites in south Limerick prioritised the defence of the ‘Kingdom’ over the ‘Munster Republic’.

Troops arriving in Cork in 1922
National Army troops arriving in Cork after the sea landings there, summer 1922. The anti-Treaty Cork contingent in Kilmallock slipped away in anticipation of this possibility. Photo courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The Cork contingent around Kilmallock anticipated the southern coastal attack that would come the following week and also slipped away. The remaining republicans evacuated in the face of Free State artillery. The National Army marched into Kilmallock, unopposed, on 5 August. There was a simultaneous pro-Treaty thrust westwards and the towns of Adare, Rathkeale and Newcastle West were all taken in the following days.

The battle for Kilmallock marked a juncture in the war, between the decisive fixed-position fare of June, July and early August, and the drawn-out guerrilla phase. Within two weeks of the fall of Kilmallock, the National Army held every significant population centre in north Munster, along with Cork city, and the scales of military advantage were tipped almost completely in their favour. As the ‘Munster Republic’ shrank, the anti-Treaty IRA reverted to exclusively guerrilla tactics. The war ended in National Army victory when the anti-Treaty IRA dumped arms in May 1923.

This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.