On Monday 11 July 1921 one hundred IRA Volunteers lay in ambush in West Limerick waiting for a convoy of British soldiers. Shortly before noon their commander Paddy O'Brien informed his men that because the Truce was about to come into effect, they were to return to their homes but should stand ready to take up arms again to defend the Irish Republic if necessary.
At 12.15 pm, just fifteen minutes after the ceasefire began the British soldiers drove into the ambush position and approached the IRA. Initially the situation was tense with some of the British soldiers attempting to seize the IRA's guns but IRA Lieutenant Daniel Brown from Meelin, Cork recalled: "Eventually they said they would respect the Truce and asked to exchange souvenirs. They said it was the first time they had ever seen 'the armed Paddies'."
The armistice which brought the War of Independence to an end was popularly known as "The Truce". After two and a half years of guerrilla warfare sections of the British public were growing increasingly opposed to the war in Ireland.
The conflict was also posing significant problems for the British Government. Not only was the war in Ireland costing £20 million per year, the atrocities and reprisal killings committed by the RIC and British Army were also generating negative newspaper headlines worldwide and risked damaging relations with the United States, France and Britain's other wartime allies.
By July 1921 Britain had a garrison of up to 80,000 troops in Ireland including – British Army, Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Royal Irish Constabulary (including Black and Tans and RIC Auxiliary Division and the Ulster Special Constabulary). Yet the morale amongst regular British troops in Ireland was at an all-time low. Suicide rates within both the British Army and the RIC were spiralling and desertion and indiscipline were rife.
Major Bernard Montgomery, who later won fame as the British World War II hero 'Monty', served in Ireland during the conflict and wrote to a fellow British officer:
"To win a war of this sort you need to be ruthless. Oliver Cromwell or the Germans would have settled it in a very short time. Nowadays public opinion precludes such methods. … if we had gone on we could probably have squashed the rebellion as a temporary measure, but it would have broken out again the movement we removed the troops … The only way therefore was to give the Irish some form of self-government.
The conflict was also proving costly for Irish Republicans. Their civilian supporters had borne the brunt of British reprisals and the IRA's military campaign was in danger of stagnating. By the summer of 1921 Republican flying columns in Munster were holding their own militarily and seemed capable of continuing the conflict indefinitely.
IRA units in Connacht and the midlands were becoming increasingly active and there were signs that the conflict was spreading to areas that had previously been 'quiet'. However the IRA's Dublin Brigade was on the brink of collapse.
The disintegration of the Dublin IRA was due to the disastrous attack on the Customs House in June 1921. Although the destruction of the Customs House garnered significant national and international press attention and severely damaged the British Government's local political administration in Ireland, it also inflicted severe damage on the IRA's Dublin Brigade.
Five IRA Volunteers had been killed in the attack and another eighty had been captured. Dozens of IRA guns had been seized in the operation. Furthermore, a number of the captured IRA volunteers had revealed the location of secret IRA arms dumps during their interrogations leading to further losses of war-material.
Running out of ammunition
This loss of munitions could not have come at a worse time for the republicans. The IRA's Scottish Brigade which had been supplying guns, ammunition and explosives had just been broken up by the Glasgow City Police following a failed attempt the free an IRA prisoner.
By July 1921 the shortage of arms and ammunition in Dublin was so chronic that Daniel McDonnell, a member of A Company 1st Battalion, Dublin Brigade, recalled: "Things were so bad with all the units that it was a question of how long could they last, would we last a month, a fortnight? The only reason was we had little left to fight with. We had no ammunition; we had a few guns."
Michael Collins' claim that the IRA only had enough ammunition two last "a few more weeks" was probably more applicable to Dublin than anywhere else in Ireland.
By the summer of 1921 both sides were interested in beginning negotiations for a political settlement – but first there had to be a military truce to allow political negotiations take place. Secret manoeuvres to secure a ceasefire had begun a year earlier, but collapsed in December 1920 when the British refused to agree to an official ceasefire.
Instead, the British insisted on punitive terms including a unilateral republican ceasefire and the surrender of IRA arms. By contrast the Truce agreed in July 1921 was a formal military agreement registered with the League of Nations. The terms of the Truce applied equally to both armies and involved no surrender of arms by the IRA.
The Truce is signed
The Truce was signed at a formal conference in the Mansion House, Dublin at 8pm on Friday 8th July 1921. Even as the talks were in their final stages there was uncertainty as to whether a Truce could be agreed.
General Nevil Macready, the Commander in Chief of British Forces in Ireland, arrived at the conference with a pistol concealed in his pocket. This was spotted by an eagle-eyed reported who accused Macready of a lack of trust. Macready commented, "I learned many things in the years I spent in the Emerald Isle – but confidence in its people was not one of them!"
Both sides agreed to delay the beginning of the Truce until noon on Monday 11th July to allow enough time to distribute ceasefire orders to all areas. A large number of combatants on both sides learned of the imminent ceasefire from press reports the following day rather than through official orders issued by their respective military commands.
British soldiers at Castletownroche, Cork, received news of the Truce by carrier pigeon late on the night of Saturday 9th July. The 4th Battalion of the IRA's Kilkenny Brigade only got word of the Truce at 7:00am on the morning of 11 July - just five hours before the Truce was due to start.
In responding to the announcement of the Truce, IRA Headquarters cancelled a large-scale operation to assassinate dozens of off-duty RIC Auxiliaries and Black and Tans in Dublin city whilst the British cancelled a number of executions of IRA prisoners which had been planned for that weekend.
In the interim military attacks by both sides continued throughout Ireland resulting in at least 60 deaths nationwide. The combatants killed included 12 British soldiers, 3 RIC Constables, 3 Black and Tans, 6 IRA Volunteers and 1 member of Cumann na mBan.
The civilian fatalities included 1 civilian accidentally shot by the IRA and 7 others who were executed by the IRA as alleged British spies. The British forces killed 13 civilians during the same time period and a further 14 civilians were killed in sectarian rioting in Belfast.
In the final days and hours of the conflict a British Army trap-mine exploded at Kilgobnet in Waterford killing 1 IRA Volunteer and 5 civilians. In Cork city British soldiers from the South Staffordshire regiment arrested 19 year old IRA Volunteer Denis Spriggs at his home in Cork city and killed him whilst he was an unarmed and defenceless prisoner.
In retaliation for Sprigg's killing his friend and work colleague, IRA Captain Daniel Hallinan ordered the execution of four unarmed British soldiers who were captured the night before the Truce.
Margaret Keogh, the only member of Cumann na mBan killed during the conflict, was fatally wounded on the eve of the Truce. Keogh was attempting to hide ammunition from British raiding parties active in Ringsend when one of the bullets exploded.
Last battle of the war
The last battle of the war took place in County Tipperary when the IRA launched two coordinated sniping attacks on both the RIC and British Army barracks in Galbally at 11.45am on the morning of Monday 11th July. The British forces responded to the IRA attack with rifle and machinegun fire –but both sides ceased fire at exactly 12 noon when the Truce began.
The very last person killed in the war was Hannah Carey, a maid at the Imperial Hotel in Killarney, County Kerry who was shot dead in the final minutes of the conflict. Earlier that morning the IRA had assonated Sergeant Edward Mears of the Royal Fusiliers. In retaliation an RIC patrol shot dead Hannah Carey as she went about her work beating rugs and carpets clean outside the hotel.
Carey died at exactly 11.55 am - just 5 minutes before the war ended.
Sadly Hannah Carey's death did not end the killing. Although the Truce was supposed to extend to all of Ireland the reality is that the ceasefire was largely ignored in Northern Ireland where sporadic violence continued.
In Belfast, a RIC patrol who had set out to assassinate an IRA officer were themselves attacked at Raglan Street on the night of Saturday 9th July. This incident sparked three days of wide spread rioting dubbed 'Belfast's Bloody Sunday' which saw 22 people killed.
Whilst tar barrels blazed across the south of Ireland in celebration of the Truce, in Belfast a very different atmosphere prevailed, as homes were set alight, businesses were burnt out in arson attacks and the killing continued.
This article is part of the War of Independence 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.