How the IRA Intensified its Campaign Against Crown Forces in 1921
In early 1921, British Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George, heading a coalition government, was under both military and Conservative pressure to destroy the IRA. Following military advice, in January 1921, other counties in Ireland were subjected to martial law. Kilkenny and Wexford were included in Leinster. The inclusion of Waterford and Clare ensured that all of Munster was now under the rule of the British Army. The IRA retaliated, but at the end of January Dripsey’s ambush in Cork was a disaster for the organization when information of his plans was passed on to the British military.
A policy of burning the “big houses” of the land aristocracy was pursued by the IRA in revenge for the British policy of burning down local houses in retaliation for IRA ambushes. The IRA suffered a setback when volunteers unintentionally killed a number of civilians in an attack on a train in Upton on February 15, which did little to support public support. However, the actions of the Black and Tans and the auxiliaries continued to offset these setbacks, sparking public horror and outrage.
After Clonmult, IRA men went on a mission to Cork City to shoot as many British soldiers as possible, in revenge for the executions carried out under military courts.
By 1921, the Flying Columns had become the backbone of the IRA campaign, with ambushes on barracks and convoys serving not only to strike the British, but also to seize their coveted weapons. Tom Barry, of West Cork’s Third Flying Column, was one of the most successful flying column leaders and was responsible for the Kilmichael ambush on November 28 which killed 16 auxiliaries. The British nearly captured its entire flying column of over 100 IRA volunteers at Crossbarry.
Weapons have always been a problem for the IRA, which relied heavily on attacks on barracks to seize much needed weapons. The Thompson submachine gun (Tommy pistol), the development of which was funded by the IRA, could have changed the course of the war if the ordered shipment had arrived in time; such an effective weapon would have strengthened the IRA and destroyed the morale of the British forces in Ireland.
On May 25, the IRA Dublin Brigade set fire to one of the economic symbols of British rule in Ireland, the Custom House, where hundreds of thousands of tax records were stored. There was a bitter fight between the IRA and the British, and a large number of IRA men were taken prisoner. Both parties were now being pushed into negotiation. Lloyd George, having concluded that the British military campaign could not continue, decided to drop his pre-condition of surrendering before a negotiation could take place. This allowed the start of the peace talks, and on July 11, 1921, the British offered a truce.
Dripsey, Co Cork
A British convoy traveled the route daily between Macroom and Cork. The Flying Column of the 6th Battalion of Cork’s First IRA Brigade planned to attack them at Dripsey on January 28, 1921. However, Mary Lindsay and James Clarke informed the IRA that morning. Seventy British soldiers and two armored cars descended on Dripsey. The IRA was almost completely surrounded and five volunteers were captured. The IRA later kidnapped the informants to exchange them for the lives of their captured comrades. The five IRA volunteers were executed in Cork on February 28, 1921. The IRA executed Lindsay and Clarke. Their bodies have never been found.
Clonfin, Co Longford
On February 2, 1921, the North Longford Flying Column ambushed two Crossley tenders of auxiliaries to Clonfin at Longford by detonating a mine on the road. After a fierce battle in which four of them were killed and eight wounded, the auxiliaries surrendered and their weapons were captured by the IRA. Rather than retreating, the leader of the Flying Column, Seán Mac Eoin, insisted on treating the wounded British. When a dozen British reinforcement trucks arrived, they attacked Granard, Ballinalee, Ballinamuck and other towns in the region and shot Mick Farrell, a local farmer, in retaliation. Mac Eoin was captured by the British the following month and was ordered to be executed but was pardoned thanks to the intervention of Michael Collins.
Dromkeen, Co Limerick
The Flying Columns Mid-Limerick and East Limerick ambushed two RIC Crossley tenders at Dromkeen, Limerick on February 3, 1921. The first truck slipped into a wall, and the driver and local district inspector were thrown away. The IRA threw a grenade at the back of the truck and killed the occupants. The second truck was the target of intense IRA fire. Two Black and Tans were captured and, following orders from headquarters, were court-martialed and executed by the IRA. Eleven RICs and Black and Tans were killed at Dromkeen. When Black and Tan reinforcements arrived from Pallas barracks, they set fire to 11 houses in the neighborhood.
Clonmult, Co Cork
The Flying Column of the Fourth Battalion of the First Cork Brigade took possession of a disused farmhouse overlooking the village of Clonmult, near Midleton in County Cork. About 20 IRA volunteers were participating in intensive training as an active duty unit and they were due to break camp on Sunday, February 20. At 4:15 p.m. that day, the British Army surrounded their encampment. After about an hour of intense fighting, five IRAs were dead. A company of Black and Tans arrived to reinforce the British army. After their surrender, seven IRA prisoners were lined up and shot and two prisoners from Clonmult were executed by a British firing squad. It was the biggest setback of the IRA war.
Crossbarry, Co Cork
The West Cork Third Flying Column commanded by Tom Barry arrived at Ballyhandle, near Crossbarry, Co Cork, at 1:30 a.m. on March 19, 1921, and retired for accommodation. Soon British trucks were slowly approaching their position, searching every house in the area. Barry decided to ambush the British at Crossbarry. The IRA flying column was in seven positions and opened fire on the British at close range. Four separate fights saw the British repulsed. The IRA lost three men and 10 British soldiers were killed. The last chance to capture Barry’s Flying Column was a big blow to the British.
Tourmakeady, Co Mayo
On May 3, 1921, the South Mayo Flying Column took control of the village of Tourmakeady in Mayo and ambushed an RIC patrol, killing four men. The RIC managed to get to Hewitt’s hotel and the IRA retreated to the mountains of Partry. Hundreds of British soldiers advanced on the flying column. Section Commander Michael O’Brien was killed in a firefight and two IRA men were captured. The British torched a number of houses in the area. When darkness fell, the IRA managed to escape and the British spent the following days in search of the elusive South Mayo Flying Column.
Lorcan Collins is the founder of the 1916 Walking Tour of Dublin. His latest book is The Irish War of Independence 1919-1921 – The IRA Guerrilla Campaign. He is the host of the Revolutionary Ireland podcast