After the week-long Battle of Dublin ended in defeat for the anti-Treaty IRA (hereafter called the IRA) in early July 1922, the republican forces quickly consolidated their hold over Munster and established a defensive line, running from Limerick city in the west to Waterford city in the east. IRA Chief of Staff Liam Lynch formed what can be called the IRA field army, comprised of between one and two thousand relatively experienced and well-armed fighters, supported by tens of thousands of unarmed IRA Volunteers and Cumann na mBan members.
The National Army troops pushed the IRA out of most of Leinster, and from the towns of Connacht in July, but the IRA remained optimistic that its tough guerrilla fighters could hold their defensive line, tie up National Army forces, and use the 'Munster Republic' as a catalyst for the anti-Treaty cause. However, optimism disappeared when the National Army captured the cities of Limerick and Waterford on 21 July. The IRA held back the National Army forces elsewhere, particularly during sustained combat near Kilmallock. National Army generals sought alternative ways to capture County Cork.
The unofficial republican capital of Cork city
The republicans used Cork city to equip and supply their war effort. The IRA utilised the Munster railway network and commercial vehicles to transport columns of IRA fighters. In city workshops they manufactured armoured cars, bombs and mines. Cumann na mBan established basic medical and logistical facilities. Republican propagandists (including Erskine Childers and Mary MacSwiney) ran the Cork Examiner newspaper to challenge the Free State's monopoly of the Irish press.
Perhaps most critically, the republicans started a civil administration to seize Free State revenue. They occupied the Port of Cork and diverted import and export duties to the tune of £2,000 a day. This allowed the IRA to purchase supplies from local merchants rather than seize them, a tactic which had undermined popular support for the republicans. The IRA also issued steep bills to employers who had stopped paying their taxes, further antagonising the business community.
The city's economy ground to a standstill owing to transportation and communication disruptions, and fears that the city would become a battlefield. By early August, there were public peace meetings and plans among trade unionists for a general strike to protest the Civil War.
With the National Army pressing from the North, IRA commanders recognised the threat of sea-borne landings to the south. In mid-July, the republicans occupied coastguard stations along the Munster coast, and prepared port roads, bridges, and military installations for demolition. The IRA also began to destroy landing piers in harbours that might facilitate a ship-borne invasion.
Inside Cork Harbour, they prepared defensive positions at strategic points around Cobh, which was believed to be the most likely landing place. Republican defenders blocked the River Lee shipping channel near Blackrock Castle with two Port of Cork dredge barges, nicknamed by locals 'the dredgenaughts'. The dredges were rigged with mines, ready to be sunk to block the channel and protect the city from enemy vessels.
The IRA manned other key points along the river, including the small harbour of Passage West, located about halfway between the Upper and Lower harbours. However, these measures were inadequate to stop a determined Free State assault. The republicans simply lacked the resources to defend both its collapsing 'Munster line' and its coastal backdoor.
The Cork landings
The Free State planned to launch three simultaneous landings in County Cork, at Youghal, Union Hall, and Cork city. They would be carried out at night, on a bank holiday Monday. The landing forces, carrying hundreds of extra rifles to arm new recruits, would link up with the National Army pressing from the North, capture major towns, and hopefully apprehend much of the IRA field army.
The invasion was led by Major-General Emmet Dalton, arguably the most impressive military leader of the Irish Civil War. He had built an impressive combat record with the British Army during the First World War in both the trenches of Flanders and the desert of the Middle East. Later, Dalton joined the IRA and led a daring (if failed) IRA raid on Mountjoy Prison. He was particularly close to Michael Collins and took personal charge of the force landing in Cork city. He was joined by Major-General Tom Ennis, formerly a senior figure in the Dublin IRA. Indeed, the amphibious assault forces were characterised by a preponderance of experienced Dublin IRA fighters loyal to Collins.
The National Army departed Dublin's North Wall on the afternoon of Monday 7 August and the first two Cork landings occurred simultaneously at about midnight. At Union Hall, 180 soldiers came ashore from the steamer Alexandra and 200 more arrived at Youghal aboard the Helga. The National Army faced brief resistance in Youghal, and had to row ashore in Union Hall owing to the IRA's destruction of the landing pier there. Yet they secured the towns without much difficulty and prepared to link up with the main force targetting Cork city.
Landing at Passage West
Two mail boats, Arvonia and Lady Wicklow, carrying about 450 National Army troops, slipped into Cork's Lower Harbour at midnight, arousing the curiosity of republican sentries but not their gunfire. Arvonia led the way. She was fortunate in her timing – a few hours earlier, Cork's cross-channel mail boat, Classic, had left the harbour on its way to Wales. Her resemblance to Arvonia caused IRA defenders to hold their fire in the belief that the approching vessel was the Classic returning for repairs and full of civilian passengers rather than the Arvonia packed with troops.
Emmet Dalton had intended to steam all the way upriver, land at the Ford Factory pier next to the Cork Customs House, and seize the city centre. However, while entering the Lower Harbour he learned of the republican dredges blocking the river near Blackrock Castle. Acting fast, Dalton chose to disembark downriver at Passage West, even though it was defended by an IRA garrison of forty men (with only eight rifles and a machine gun).
A little after 2 am, Dalton's troops stormed ashore and scattered the IRA defenders, who later sniped at them. Across the river, republicans opened brisk rifle fire from Carrigloe, peppering the Arvonia. However, during the morning the National Army soldiers successfully offloaded their troops, armoured vehicles, and an 18-pounder field artillery gun. They advanced up the river front road to Rochestown, but ran into IRA fighters rushing from Cork city. By nightfall on Tuesday, after a two hour fight, the Free State forces had driven the IRA out of the Rochestown railway station.
The IRA responds
Responding quickly to the landing, the IRA immediately scuttled one of the river dredges blocking shipping access to the city. The other was towed away by the Royal Navy before it could be sunk, but the IRA seized the Gorilla, a steamer docked at the Cork Customs House, and sank her near the first scuttled 'dredgenaught'.
To prevent Free State movement, IRA engineers immediately dropped or blocked nine railway and road bridges around the harbour area, a number that would grow to thirty five by the end of the week. Republicans also set afire local coast guard stations, recently evacuated Royal Navy buildings, former Royal Irish Constabulary barracks, and Victoria (now Collins) Barracks and Ballincollig Barracks. Within 24-hours, the IRA's Cork No. 1 Brigade retrieved its units fighting on the Waterford and Kilmallock fronts, bringing by railroad an estimated 140 republican fighters to Cork to join the battle.
Clashes at Rochestown and Douglas
Wednesday, 9 August, saw heavy combat, mainly in the woods above and around the Capuchin College at Rochestown. It can be estimated that up to 300 National Army troops fought roughly 200 IRA Volunteers in the general area. The Free State 18-pound field artillery gave them a critical advantage, as did the firepower delivered by their armoured vehicles. The National Army managed to secure the critical heights above the village of Douglas, which allowed them access to the Cork city suburbs.
On the third and final day of the battle, Thursday, 10 August, National Army troops pushed the IRA out of Douglas. At this point, the republicans disengaged and fell back through Cork city. This was consistent with the IRA's guerrilla policy of retreating when victory was not certain. Remaining military supplies and installations in Cork, not previously destroyed or carried away, were torched as smoke blanketed the city.
The IRA also damaged Parliament Bridge, Parnell Bridge, and Brian Boru Bridge to deny the National Army easy crossing of the south channel of the River Lee. Hundreds of republicans streamed out of the city along the Western Road in an assortment of vehicles, many to Macroom. A few days later, the IRA field army was dispersed and fighters returned to their home areas.
After the republicans had evacuated Cork city, but before the National Army arrived, civilians looted some shops and the abandoned military installations. Triumphant if wary Free State forces entered the city about 7 pm, greeted by hundreds of cheering Treaty supporters and other civilians grateful that the fighting had not destroyed their city.
The Battle of Cork (also locally called 'The Battle of Rochestown' or 'The Battle of Douglas') was one of the largest and most sustained clashes of the Civil War outside of Dublin. In their digital project, 'The Cork Fatality Register', historians Andy Bielenberg and James Donnelly Jr number the battle fatalities as 14: 9 National Army soldiers, and 5 IRA Volunteers. An even higher number, probably between twenty and thirty, sustained injuries. The area also experienced extensive economic and property damage.
Within the week, Emmet Dalton's National Army had seized all of Cork's major towns. However, Free State units along the northern front moved too slowly during their link up with Dalton, and could not prevent the IRA forces from dispersing and largely evading capture. When Lynch ordered his forces to resume guerrilla tactics in mid-August, he was able to mobilize enough seasoned IRA fighters to make much of the province ungovernable. The conventional phase of the Civil War was over, replaced by a guerrilla war that would last considerably longer.
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.