Cork city observed a very quiet St Patrick's Day on 17 March 1921. The Kerryman described a subdued city in which 'armoured cars and lorries and military on foot patrolled the streets'. Pedestrians were held up and searched after High Mass and shots were fired in Grand Parade and near Patrick's Bridge in the afternoon. Since 10 December 1920, Cork had been a city under martial law.
From the early stages of the War of Independence, Irish Military Command advocated general martial law throughout the country. In the face of IRA insurgency, they argued, martial law would unify military and police control and increase efficiency by trying suspects by court martial. The difficulty for Lloyd George was that to proclaim martial law would be to admit that something more than a rebellion was happening in Ireland.
From the beginning, the British government refused to recognise the Irish Republic or to admit that a state of war existed between that republic and the United Kingdom. The violence was described as 'disorder' and the IRA was a 'murder gang' of terrorists and assassins.
Consequently, it was the job of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) rather than the British army garrison in Ireland to deal with the challenge to the authority of the British administration.
The IRA campaign became increasingly violent during the second half of 1920, resulting in the deaths of 177 members of the RIC. The Crown Forces responded by supplementing the police force and carrying out unofficial reprisals and collective punishments in affected areas.
In August 1920, Lloyd George's coalition government passed the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act which re-applied many of the World War I Defence of the Realm regulations to Ireland. Its provisions failed to frustrate IRA violence, which continued to mount in the last months of 1920.
Staggered by the events of Bloody Sunday and the Kilmichael Ambush on successive weekends in November, the government could no longer convincingly portray the conflict as a police action. This was a war and a new more stringent policy was required to deal with the IRA.
The most immediate government response on 22 November was to sanction the widespread arrest and internment of 'all known officers' of the IRA. Within a week of Bloody Sunday, over five hundred arrests had been made across the country, facilitated greatly by the capture of Richard Mulcahy's papers during a raid on his office on 19 November.
As the Better Government for Ireland Act entered its final stage in parliament in December, the government was aware of the pressing need to restore law and order in Ireland to facilitate elections to the newly created parliaments of Northern and Southern Ireland. Added to this was the mounting national international criticism of an Irish policy which allowed brutal unofficial reprisals by undisciplined RIC auxiliaries.
Despite the misgivings of some members of Lloyd George's cabinet, the voices in favour of sterner action prevailed and it was agreed in December 1920 to introduce martial law, in at least some parts of Ireland.
Offering what the Meath Chronicle dubbed a 'bedraggled olive branch', the Prime Minister announced his new 'twofold' policy for Ireland in a statement to the House of Commons on 10 December:
'On the one hand [the government] feel they have no option but to continue and indeed to intensify their campaign against that small but highly organised and desperate minority who are using murder and outrage in order to obtain the impossible … but, on the other hand, they are anxious to open and encourage every channel whereby the forces in Ireland which are really anxious for an honourable settlement can find expression … First of all there will be a proclamation of martial law and then, under that, a proclamation will be issued. The effect will be to demand the surrender of all arms and uniforms by a certain date within that area.
Martial law is declared
A proclamation was issued from Dublin Castle by Lord-Lieutenant French that afternoon, declaring Martial Law in Counties Cork, Kerry, Tipperary and Limerick and appointing the General Neville Macready, commander of the British Forces in Ireland, as Military Governor-General.
Two days later, Macready approved a two-week weapons amnesty, after which anyone caught bearing arms or wearing the stolen uniforms of the Crown forces in the proclaimed areas would be executed. A state of armed insurrection was declared to exist and any person taking part in, or aiding and abetting this, was 'liable to suffer death, after trial by a military court'. Additional proclamations sanctioned 'official' reprisals and the use of hostages in military convoys.
The application of marital law to only four counties was controversial. The military leadership in Ireland argued the absurdity of Dublin being exempt from military law.
They also predicted that rebels could avoid the penalties for carrying arms in the martial law areas by crossing into neighbouring counties. The Army had neither the manpower nor the resources to police the boundaries.
As anticipated, the proclamation ordering the surrender of arms by 27 December had no effect and by the end of the month, the Government had decided to extend martial law. In a proclamation issued on the 5th January 1921, Counties Clare, Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford were proclaimed – a jurisdiction which largely corresponded with the 6th Divisional Area.
In June 1921, the British Army fielded roughly 51,000 troops in Ireland. The garrison was organised into four divisions comprising several brigades which, in turn, were made up of different battalions.
Geographically, the 6th Division covered Clare, Kerry, Cork , Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford, Kilkenny, Carlow and Wexford. With headquarters at Victoria Barracks (now Collins Barracks) in Cork City, the 6th Division consisted of three infantry brigades.
The 16th Infantry Brigade based in Fermoy and tasked with controlling the counties of Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny and South Tipperary. The 17th was responsible for Cork and Kerry and the 18th, headquartered in New Barracks in Limerick (now Sarsfield Barracks) covered Limerick, Clare and parts of Tipperary.
Whatever means necessary
Major General Peter Strickland, General Officer Commanding 6th Division, was effectively the military governor of the proclaimed counties and, as such, had wide-ranging powers to impose whatever regulations deemed necessary for the restoration and maintenance of order.
In the first of a series of proclamations, Strickland made all crimes into offences punishable under martial law. The owners of occupied buildings were required to 'keep a list of inmates posted on the door' and the proprietors of hotels and boarding houses were ordered to supply a register of guests to the police.
Subsequent proclamations prohibited loitering, sending telegrams in code and 'the possession of wireless instruments or carrier pigeons'.
Martial Law Areas: During the first half of 1920 the IRA carried out a sustained attack on the criminal justice system, targeting the RIC, the courts and magistracy. This campaign became increasingly violent during the second half of the year, with 177 RIC members killed between October and December 1920.
The Crown forces responded by strengthening the police force and carrying out unofficial reprisals and collective punishments in affected areas. However, during November, Bloody Sunday in Dublin and the Kilmichael ambush (in which seventeen members of the RIC's Auxiliary Division were killed) staggered the British administration, and proved a turning point against those in cabinet who portrayed the conflict as a police action rather than a military conflict.
Martial law was subsequently proclaimed in counties Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary on 10 December, and four more counties – Clare, Waterford, Kilkenny and Wexford – were added on 29 and 30 December. Map by Mike Murphy from the Atlas of the Irish Revolution
In a lecture delivered some years later, Lieutenant General A.E. Percival of the 6th Division outlined some of the other aspects of life under martial law in Cork:
[There were] penalties for harbouring rebels, failing to report ambushes or giving a wrong name. A restriction was put on holding of fairs and markets in the more disturbed areas as these provided opportunities for the IRA leaders to meet together and discuss plans.
To hamper the communication of the IRA, the use of motor cars, except by specially authorised persons, e.g. doctors, was forbidden. The use of bicycles was similarly prohibited. A curfew was declared in certain bad areas.
This was later extended to cover the whole of the Martial Law Area and was of great assistance to the military as it meant that nobody out after the curfew was automatically a law breaker.
When walking with your hands in your pockets became a crime
Further proclamations were issued between January and July 1921. On 28 April, for example, a public notice warned the people of Tipperary that 'a civilian with his hands in his pockets is necessarily an object of suspicion … and renders him liable to arrest and, in an emergency, runs the risk of coming under fire.'
In the same month, General Macready proclaimed that compensation claims against the Crown Forces in martial law areas were prohibited.
A two-tier military court was created to try those contravening the provisions of martial law. The summary court dealt with less serious infractions, trying 2,296 people and imposing 549 sentences of imprisonment.
On 18 January, for example, The Kerryman reported that a baker from Killorglin was convicted by summary court for the illegal possession of the eclectic collection of 'a kaki tunic, a Nationalist Volunteer bandolier and a police baton'. Three days later, fellow Kerryman William Breen was sentenced to two months hard labour for unlawful assembly.
On 30 January, Madge Daly, sister of Ned Daly, one of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising, was fined £10 for failure to display list of the names of the inhabitants of her house on Ennis Road in Limerick. At the same hearing, her sister Una was fined £40 for removing a military proclamation posted in the window of the family bakery on Sarsfield Street.
Executed under martial law
The upper tier of the military court was responsible for major offences against martial law. Military court trials were held at Victoria Barracks in Cork, New Barracks in Limerick and Waterford Barracks. As historian Sean Enright has shown, it tried just 128 people between late December 1920 and the advent of the Truce in July 1921, sentencing thirty-seven men to death.
Cornelius Murphy from Rathmore in County Kerry was the first of fourteen prisoners to be executed under martial law during the War of Independence. Tried by a military court in Victoria Barracks in Cork on 17 January, Murphy was found guilty of being in possession of a loaded revolver.
By the end of February six more men had been executed in Cork. John Allen was sentenced to death for carrying a revolver and 'a document prejudicial to the restoration of order in Ireland'. He and four other men arrested after an ambush near Dripsey in January were executed on 28 February in Cork Barracks.
Military censors in the martial law counties severely restricted the information published in the local press. Newspaper proofs were submitted to the military authorities who liberally applied the 'blue pencil rule' to articles dealing with everything from parliamentary statements to the names of persons arrested in the district. According to a post-Truce edition of the Freeman's Journal, 'for several weeks in sequence one local paper [in Wexford] came out without a leading article, a blank space intimating its fate'.
In April 1921, military authorities ordered Tipperary newspapers to publish a list of the properties destroyed in official reprisals. In the same month, Kilkenny newspapers were officially forbidden to publish any reference to the movement of troops, civilian prisoners or internees in the martial law area.
A second notice issued, 'with a view to preventing their insertion of lying, malicious or dangerous matter in the Press', required that all advertisements and reports submitted for publication must be accompanied by full particulars of the writer.
Any breach of these orders, they were told, would constitute an offence under martial law and render the editor liable for trial before a military court.
When martial law was first announced in December 1920, the Irish Independent speculated about the range of measures that might be applied, warning readers that 'the potentialities placed in the hands of military authorities have practically no limitation.'
In practice, however, the powers of the Military Governor were limited, the RIC continued to be independent of the army in disciplinary matters and judgements dispensed at military courts could be appealed in civil court.
Martial law regulations did little to stymie the activities of the IRA. In fact, all officers in the martial law areas were ordered to 'go on the run', which bolstered the flying columns and sparked new levels of activity in areas that had been relatively quiet before 1921.
According to the unpublished account of the 'Irish Rebellion on the 6th Divisional' compiled by the General Staff, 6th Division:
'Martial law, in the fully accepted sense, never existed at all, and, although it caused a considerable amount of alarm amongst the rebels when it was first imposed, they soon found that its "bark was worse than its bite" … it cannot be argued too strongly that the half-hearted measure used in the 6th Divisional Area was absolutely no test of what martial law could, or could not, achieve.'
By the summer of 1921 it was clear that neither side was going to win a clear victory. The changing nature of the conflict and the long list of casualties convinced the leaders on both sides to seeks a negotiated peace. The Truce came into effect on 11 July 1921.
This article is based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo and its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.