There were two phases to the Civil War. The first is known as the Conventional phase - and it was more dramatic than its name suggests, as Helene O'Keeffe explains.
The Irish Civil War can be broadly divided into two phases: the conventional phase and the guerrilla phase. The seven-week conventional phase, defined by large-scale military engagements between the anti-Treaty IRA and the National Army, can be traced from the bombardment of the Four Courts in Dublin in late June 1922, to mid-August when the government forces had secured most of the major towns and cities in the country.
At the beginning of the conflict, the republicans briefly held the upper hand. The nascent National Army was heavily outnumbered in the early summer of 1922 and concentrated in the capital. The country's most active and experienced IRA units were strongly anti-Treaty and dominant in Ulster, Munster and Connacht.
Only Michael Brennan’s First Western Division in Clare and Seán Mac Eoin’s pro-Treaty command in the midlands separated republican Munster from the republican west. The vacated British army barracks in Listowel, County Kerry and Skibbereen in County Cork were the only ones in Munster occupied by Volunteers loyal to the Provisional Government.
The anti-Treaty IRA was also better equipped than it had been during the War of Independence, with a deep ideological commitment to republicanism. The new recruits to the National Army were mostly untrained and untested in their loyalty to the new regime. These early advantages soon dissipated when the anti-Treaty IRA failed to act decisively in Dublin, maintaining a largely incoherent defensive strategy that would characterise its stance throughout the conventional phase of the Civil War. Even before the attack on the Four Courts, Ernie O’Malley lamented,
'There was no attempt to define a clear-cut policy. Words ran into phrases, sentences followed sentences … A drifting policy discussed endlessly in a shipwrecked way’.
During the summer of 1922, the National Army was augmented by thousands of new recruits and equipped with British artillery and armoured vehicles.
With Michael Collins installed as commander-in-chief after 13 July, the army established communications and supply lines, abandoned the old IRA divisional boundaries in favour of five new regional commands under seasoned leaders, enforced military censorship and benefited from a sophisticated pro-Treaty propaganda machine which cast the anti-Treaty forces as 'Wreckers', ‘Mutineers’ and ‘Irregulars’.
Battle for Munster: July - August 1922
After the National Army’s victory in Dublin in July, IRA units retreated from the city and set about consolidating control of Munster and the west. Liam Lynch issued a statement from Cork affirming that he was, once again, Chief of Staff, and the isolated pro-Treaty units in Listowel and Skibbereen were quickly overwhelmed. In early July 1922 the anti-Treaty IRA held a defensive line across Munster, running from Limerick city in the west to Waterford city in the east. Meanwhile, National Army troops pushed IRA concentrations out of most of Leinster, as well as the urban strongholds of Connaught. In Mayo and Sligo, IRA resistance was determined, but ultimately ineffective as its forces could not be reinforced by the strong republican units in the south.
Limerick city, the site of a tense military stand-off in March, was strategically vital for both sides. Its geographical position, as Commandant-General Michael Brennan observed, meant that ‘whoever held Limerick held the south and the west’. Liam Lynch set up his headquarters in the city in early July and IRA men from Cork and Kerry reinforced the local units. A truce in the early stages allowed time for the arrival of pro-Treaty reinforcements from Dublin, Galway and the midlands and on 19 July, when heavy artillery was delivered to the city, the National Army launched a determined assault on republican garrisons.
Unable to hold their positions, the anti-Treaty forces retreated, burning the Ordnance Barracks, New Barracks and Castle Barracks in their wake. The capture of Limerick on 21 July after ten days of fighting was an important victory for the National Army.
In a message to the troops in a special edition of the army's ‘Limerick War News’, Brennan celebrated their ‘valiant work’ in clearing the city of ‘those irresponsibles’ who ‘acted in defiance of the will of the Irish people’. On the same day, Waterford city on the eastern end of the defensive line fell to Provisional Government forces under the command of Major General John T. Prout.
Over the next two weeks, the National Army pushed back the republicans in counties Tipperary, Limerick and Waterford, taking Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel in the process. The most intensive fighting occurred during the two-week battle of Kilmallock, which extended into the nearby villages of Bruff and Bruree. This triangular zone represented a barrier to a National Army advance southward from Limerick city. As John Borgonovo explains,
‘The combat there varied from artillery and infantry attacks on primitive entrenchments, to fluid counter-attacks carried out by lorry-borne troops supported by armoured cars. Heavily reinforced and with superior firepower, the Free State forces eventually placed the anti-Treaty IRA under intense pressure’.
The republican positions were finally broken after the National Army conducted a series of surprise amphibious landings in Kerry and Cork in early August. Emmet Dalton, GOC of the National Army’s Eastern Command, was the architect of the naval landings as an alternative to advancing overland into the heart of what Liam Lynch called the ‘Munster Republic’.
He secured the support of Michael Collins and Minister for Defence, Richard Mulcahy, arguing that the Cork and Kerry contingents, the most battle-hardened troops on the anti-Treaty side, would be forced to abandon the front line to contest the National Army’s outflanking manoeuvre in their own areas.
Furthermore, the successful landing of 400 National Army troops on the Minerva in Clew Bay in County Mayo, which facilitated the capture of Westport in late July, provided a promising precedent. Even though the anti-Treaty IRA in the south had anticipated a possible sea-borne assault, garrisoning coastal ports and destroying some docking facilities, their weak defences were no match for determined National Army troops.
Taking to the waves
The first detachment of 450 National Army troops under Paddy O’Daly on board the Lady Wicklow landed in Fenit in County Kerry on 2 August and captured Tralee within a matter of hours. A more ambitious assault occurred six days later when Emmet Dalton organised three simultaneous landings in County Cork.
On Monday 7 August at Dublin’s North Wall, over 450 troops, three armoured cars and two 18-pounder guns were loaded onto the Arvonia, a cross-channel steamer commandeered by the National Army, and the Lady Wicklow, returned from the Kerry landing. Arriving off the coast of Cork that evening, Dalton, on board the Arvonia, made for Passage West, the only deep water berth not mined or obstructed by the IRA.
As Dalton’s troops disembarked at Passage West early on the morning of 8 August, 180 men were put ashore from the Alexandra at Union Hall and 200 more arrived at Youghal aboard the Helga, the gunboat, bequeathed by the British to the Provisional Government, which had famously shelled Liberty Hall in 1916.
The Munster Republic
The National Army overcame light resistance at Youghal and Union Hall, but faced much more determined opposition in the approach to Cork city, the capital of the so-called ‘Munster Republic’. Hundreds of troops faced each other during the three-day ‘Battle of Douglas’ a few miles outside the city.
Even though the IRA was reinforced by the battle-weary Cork units who abandoned Kilmallock to defend the city, the National Army’s superior fire power proved decisive. They entered Cork city on the evening of 10 August and the republicans fell back to the mountainous area around Ballyvourney, west of Macroom.
On the following day the anti-Treaty IRA evacuated Fermoy, the last republican stronghold in Cork. ‘This was really, for all of us’, wrote anti-Treaty IRA commander Liam Deasy, ‘the bitter end of the first phase of the Civil War. The solid south, in which we had so much confidence, was completely broken’.
While Emmet Dalton’s forces pushed aggressively inland across County Cork, O’Duffy’s forces moved south from Kilmallock taking the major towns and villages in north Munster. The pro-government press celebrated what appeared to be the complete rout of republican forces and by 15 August the Irish Times was predicting an end to the conflict within three weeks.
This proved both inaccurate and premature. Even though the Free State won a crucial victory in the southern province, it failed to destroy republican resistance. When Liam Lynch ordered his scattered ‘field army’ to resume guerrilla tactics on 19 August, he was able to mobilise enough seasoned IRA fighters to make much of Munster ungovernable. Within a week of the Irish Times’ prediction, the National Army had lost its Commander in Chief in an ambush at Béal na Blá and it was clear to both sides that the Civil War had entered a new phase.
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.