The most bitter episodes of the Irish Civil War occurred during its guerrilla phase, a nine-month period that ended with the Free State's victory and the IRA's unilateral ceasefire in May 1923. The National Army comprehensively defeated the IRA guerrilla campaign, but its counter-insurgency campaign scarred the country for generations.

In early 1922, the independence movement split over the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which established the Irish Free State governed initially by a provisional government. The Free State's National Army was constructed within Dublin, and initially relied on the pro-Treaty support across most of Leinster, boosted by the vocal enthusiasm of the Catholic hierarchy and nearly every newspaper in the new Free State.

Image - Nearly every newspaper was pro-Treaty - to the frustration of the other side, as reflected in this 1922 handbill attacking media bias. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Nearly every newspaper was pro-Treaty - to the frustration of the other side, as reflected in this 1922 handbill attacking media bias. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Much of the IRA and Cumann na mBan opposed the Treaty and tried to undermine the new government from their anti-Treaty strongholds in Munster and Connaught. Public opinion followed the Provisional Government, as seen in the strong pro-Treaty vote in the General Election of June 1922, which seemed to have encouraged the Provisional Government to confront its republican opponents.

Armed hostilities broke out on the 28th of June in Dublin, when the National Army attacked and captured the Anti-Treaty IRA Executive Headquarters located in the Four Courts complex. Victory over the IRA in Dublin a few days later allowed the Free State government to function without serious hindrance and build up its military strength in the capital for the duration of the war.

National Army snipers on O'Connell Street during the Battle of Dublin. After the government's victory over the anti-Treaty forces in Dublin in early July 1922, the National Army continued to build up military strength to a peak capacity of 55,000 soldiers. Photo © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

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During the next phase of fighting, the National Army pushed into republican territory towards the western and southern coasts. This 'conventional phase' lasted six or seven weeks, as the National Army drove the IRA out of major population centres across the country. As IRA forces retreated from towns and cities, they burned abandoned police and military installations behind them, further antagonising the local population. Now located in the rural hinterlands, the IRA opened a guerrilla campaign against government forces, which lasted from mid-August 1922 to the end of April 1923.

Separate wars

Like the War of Independence, republican resistance during the guerrilla phase was decentralized, with each IRA brigade and county fighting its own separate war. The IRA at this stage was much better armed than it had been in the Anglo-Irish War, possessing more rifles and ammunition, as well as a number of machine guns and newly developed land mines. Their flying columns were more experienced and lethal, as most guerrilla fighters were also veterans of the War of Independence. The republican women's organization Cumann na mBan was better integrated into the IRA's support and logistical network.

Image - Two uniformed Cumann na mBan members stand guard over the body of Cathal Brugha, killed in the Battle of Dublin in 1922. The women played an active part in the subsequent guerrilla phase of the war © RTÉ Photographic Archive

Two uniformed Cumann na mBan members stand guard over the body of Cathal Brugha, killed in the Battle of Dublin in 1922. The women played an active part in the subsequent guerrilla phase of the war © RTÉ Photographic Archive

Fighting the chaos

However, the republicans often lacked popular support within their communities, in part because, in contrast to the Provisional Government, they did not invest in robust propaganda and local government structures. The IRA guerrilla campaign damaged community infrastructure and disrupted ordinary life, which added to popular disenchantment with the IRA. It also fit into Free State propaganda depictions of the republicans as irresponsible delinquents, anarchists, and brigands. This thus set the stage for communities to embrace the new Free State and its National Army, as it introduced governance into areas where chaos had reigned for months.

The National Army expanded rapidly throughout the summer and autumn, and ultimately numbered 55,000 soldiers. Thousands of these troops had previously served with the British Army during the First World War, and their combat experience and technical expertise helped with the professionalization of the army.

Recruits enlisted for patriotic reasons and adventure, but also out of economic necessity. The Civil War took place amid a deep post-war recession in Britain and Ireland, making the lure of a steady income enticing. The National Army had little difficulty filling its ranks; when it entered a town or city, the Army typically carried hundreds of extra rifles to enlist and arm new recruits on the spot.

Image - National Army recruits in the Curragh in 1922. Photo © RTÉ Photographic Archive

National Army recruits in the Curragh in 1922. Photo © RTÉ Photographic Archive

National Army units usually possessed very strong local insight where-ever they were deployed, which differed greatly from British forces dropped into various Irish communities during the War of Independence with little understanding of the place and its people. The Free State forces were also much better armed and supplied than IRA fighters, which helped them endure the eight-month guerrilla campaign. The government stationed National Army soldiers in small parties across the country to challenge IRA guerrilla control.

Disruptors

Historian John Dorney has identified the IRA's strategy as an effort to prevent the Free State government from functioning. It further sought to bankrupt the new state by disrupting the economy, preventing the collection of taxes, and forcing massive public spending on defence.

The IRA cut down telegraph and telephone lines to disrupt communications, and damaged roads, bridges, and railways to slow Free State troop movements. During this campaign against infrastructure, thousands of individual acts of sabotage were carried out across the country, with particular damage done to road, rail, telegraph and phone networks.

Image - July 1922: A bridge in County Leitrim destroyed by anti-Treaty forces. Crowder/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

July 1922: A bridge in County Leitrim destroyed by anti-Treaty forces. Crowder/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Communities also had to contend with IRA guerilla fighters seizing food and equipment from local businesses and farms, which threatened civilian livelihoods. The constant presence of National Army troops in communities of all sizes was yet another element of the lived experience of civil war in provincial Ireland. (Researchers can utilize the Military Archives' National Army Census which identifies the troop dispersion in the late autumn of 1922.)

Republican success - and demoralisation

The republicans enjoyed some success in late 1922, particularly in Sligo, Mayo, Wexford, Tipperary, Cork, and Kerry, where much of the hinterland was undisturbed by the National Army. New IRA columns also operated in areas that had been largely quiet during the War of Independence, such as counties Wicklow, Leitrim, Kildare, Kilkenny, and Carlow. There were a numerous large-scale IRA attacks on towns like Macroom, Sligo, Kenmare, Callan, Clifden, Carrick-on-Suir, Dromahair, Bantry, Ballina, and Millstreet. Republican forces sometimes numbered in the hundreds and captured entire Free State garrisons.

Perhaps nowhere in Ireland was the Civil War fought as bitterly as in County Kerry. This map lists a number of violent encounters between the National Army and the anti-Treaty IRA from June 1922 to May 1923. It omits scores of low-scale IRA ambushes, National Army arrests, and killings committed by both sides. However, it does capture the spread of violence across the county, and also highlights some hotspots in Tralee, Cahersiveen, Rathmore, and Sneem. Source: Atlas of the Irish revolution (CUP, 2017)

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However, the attacks were sometimes defeated, and even when successful, they were rarely followed-up. In areas where the IRA remained formidable, guerrilla resistance was patchy, flaring and disappearing seemingly with little warning.

While historians have generally emphasised the failings of the republican military campaign during this period, the Provisional government in November 1922 took the unprecedented step of executing IRA prisoners captured in possession of arms. The government would not have authorised such a drastic measure unless it believed IRA resistance was formidable and could destabilise the country. The execution of IRA prisoners contributed to a broader republican demoralisation, which became evident in early 1923.

Image - Left to Right: Peter Cassidy, James Fisher, John Gaffney, Richard Twohig. All four young men were executed on 17th of November, 1922 for possession of arms. Image courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum/OPW

Left to Right: Peter Cassidy, James Fisher, John Gaffney, Richard Twohig. All four young men were executed on 17th of November, 1922 for possession of arms. Image courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum/OPW

On the defensive

Guerrilla fighters were hard-pressed, on the defensive, and aware of wide-spread war weariness and hostility among the local population. The expanding National Army developed new tactics to tackle the IRA. They deployed special units to defend the railways and deter agrarian conflict and flooded troubled areas with mobile columns to hound and harass republican flying columns.

Republican arrests and executions mounted. The Free State controlled most of the country by the close of 1922, and for the first time IRA fatalities began to outnumber the National Army's. Unlike the British Army, Free State soldiers understood how guerrilla warfare was organised, and could identify republican leaders and their supporters within the community.

After the National Army captured IRA Deputy-Chief of Staff Liam Deasy on 15 January 1923 and sentenced him to death, Deasy issued a public statement calling the IRA campaign futile and asking republicans to lay down their arms. IRA prisoners in Limerick, Clonmel, and Cork prisons followed with an appeal to the IRA leadership to end the conflict. The demoralised Deasy and the dissenting prisoners were saying out loud what many republican leaders and rank-and-file thought privately – that armed resistance no longer offered republicans a way to defeat the Treaty.

Image - Liam Lynch and Delegates at the IRA Convention on 9 April 1922. Liam Deasy can be seen in the front row, fourth from the left. Image courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum/OPW KMGLM.20PC-1A26-22

Liam Lynch and Delegates at the IRA Convention on 9 April 1922. Liam Deasy can be seen in the front row, fourth from the left. Image courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum/OPW KMGLM.20PC-1A26-22

The end of the armed conflict

The Free State government ruthlessly prosecuted the war and wore down IRA forces in the final months. Despite a republican counter-reprisal campaign in February 1923, government executions continued both officially and unofficially. In March, the National Army in Kerry killed dozens of IRA prisoners in shocking circumstances. In other areas, government executions were carried out as clear reprisals, such as the firing-squad shootings of IRA leader Charlie Daly and three of his comrades in Drumboe Castle in Donegal on 14 March 1923.

By this stage roughly 13,000 IRA Volunteers and 500 Cumann na mBan activists were imprisoned, while thousands of others hid out, dropped out of the movement, or left the country entirely. Many IRA units ceased to function, and most others could no longer effectively resist the National Army. Facing the disintegration of its remaining forces, the IRA Executive called a unilateral ceasefire on 30 April 1923.

The following month, the IRA dumped arms. Opposition to the Treaty would now move to the parliamentary arena, where republicans would ultimately find much more substantial success. Neither combatants nor civilian supporters would easily forget their opponents' excesses during the guerrilla phase, which are still recalled a century later.

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 and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.