The Irish Civil War

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14/02/2023 by socialistfight

By Gerry Downing

Main Steet Kenmare. In early September 1922, the IRA rallied to launch a series of attacks on the towns of Kenmare and Killorglin. These actions represented some of the largest Republican offensives of the war.

These days the centenary of the Irish civil war brings gruesome anniversaries thick and fast. Following the death of Michael Collins in August 1922 the ‘National Government’ which defended the capitulationist Treaty with the British empire began its executions and assassinations; they executed twice as many republicans as the British had done in 1916-1921. [1]

The civil war began on April 14, 1922, when 200 republicans, led by Rory O’Connor, occupied the central Dublin Four Courts and other buildings. Liam Lynch, the militant Chief of Staff, was killed on the Knockmealdown mountains on April 10, effectively ending the war. It ended officially on May 24, 1923, when Frank Aiken ordered the IRA volunteers to dump arms; they were not surrendering but recognised they could not win the war then.

The Provisional Government officially executed 81 republican prisoners (to the famous ‘77’ of republican narrative four more must be added). Four young republicans were murdered by firing squad in Dublin on November 17 and Erskine Childers suffered the same fate on November 24. Another three anti-Treaty IRA prisoners were executed six days later at Dublin’s Beggar’s Bush. Republicans claim the 7 rank and file volunteers were shot to cover for the murder of Childers, a central leader of the anti-treaty forces, on the excuse that he had in his house a pistol (which had been given to him by Michael Collins). Before November 17 republicans claim 41 prisoners had been unofficially killed.

Then on December 7 pro Treaty TD (Teachta Dála), Sean Hales from Bandon was shot dead by republicans on his way to Dáil Éireann. His brother Tom fought on the anti-treaty side. On the following day four leading Republicans, Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett were executed. They had been in Mountjoy jail since the fall of the Four Courts on June 30 1922.

This reprisal shooting of men who had no possible part in Hale’s death would be designated as a war crime today and in fact the Provisional Government had no legal basis for it at the time; the new government had not yet been formed.

These executions was dubbed ‘murder’ by then Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil Micheál Martin on June 14, 2022. Previously the Tánaiste (now Taoiseach), Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, had said in the Dáil, on November 24, 2011 that, “people who were murdered or executed without trial by the Cumann na nGaedheal Government were murdered. It was an atrocity and those people killed without a trial by the first government were murdered. That is my view”. All that may be feelers for a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael merger against the rising popularity of Sinn Féin, now ahead in all polls (25 Jan. SF 33, FF 15, FG 21).

O’Higgins, Mulcahy: mass murderers

Minister for Justice Kevin O’Higgins and Defence Minister Dick Mulcahy, under head of government W. T. Cosgrave, are widely held centrally responsible for all the extra judicial executions during the civil war. Rory O’Connor was best man at O’Higgins’ wedding, but he had no hesitation in signing his death warrant. Kevin O’Higgins’ notorious dictum was, “to vindicate the idea of ordered government there should be executions in every county. The psychological effect of executions in Dublin are very slight in places like Wexford, Galway and Waterford … I believe local executions will considerably shorten the struggle”.

O’Higgins said he wanted to “intimidate the active Irregulars and the passive Irregulars who were not paying taxes, rates or debts”. According to the Irish Examiner, who has just done a detailed series on the civil war, “some 69 official executions were carried out in 1923, with 34 in January alone, in locations from Kildare to Dundalk to Roscrea, Carlow, Birr and Portlaoise, Limerick, Tralee, and Athlone”.

In February, an amnesty was called during which republicans could come in and surrender. “But before the end of the war, the firing squads would also be active in Mullingar, Cork, Kerry, Tuam and Ennis.”

O’Higgins was assassinated by three IRA men, Tim Coughlan, Bill Gannon and Archie Doyle, on July 10, 1927. De Valera amnestied Doyle and Gannon in 1932. Coughlan was killed (assassinated?) on January 1928. Gannon, (died 1965) joined the Communist Party of Ireland and sent volunteers to Spain for the International Brigade to fight in that civil war (1936-9). Doyle, who remained proud of his role in the assassination, died in 1980. There were sharp public backlashes and sabotages of all attempts to commemorate O’Higgins. He was the most hated of all the Free State top leaders, with Mulcahy a close second.

The Republicans capture Kenmare

The biggest republican action during the civil war the taking of the town of Kenmare on September 9 1922, very early in the war. The Irish Examiner gives us the following account:

“John Joe Rice, of Kerry No 2 Brigade, believed the fight had to be carried to the last — that one was either “prepared to cut all their throats or leave them alone and go home”. Rice maintained his men “could have held forever” and that it would “have taken the whole Free State Army twenty years to dig us out”.

“Rice had made Kenmare his headquarters before he was obliged to withdraw on the afternoon of August 11 as 200 National Army soldiers under the command of Brigadier Tom O’Connor-Scarteen surprised his garrison by disembarking from two ships that had sailed up the Kenmare River.

 “87 men from units of the Kerry No 2 and West Cork Brigades were assembled. David Robinson, a staff officer with the IRA’s First Southern Division, was sent to assist Rice with the operation. As a prelude to their attack, the IRA tricked O’Connor into believing they were planning to sabotage his family farm outside the town. Therefore, on the night preceding the battle half of Kenmare’s 130-strong garrison was sent out on patrol led by O’Connor and his brother, John. These men only returned at 6.30am and most were asleep when the attack was launched. The IRA thus achieved total surprise.

“Infiltrating the town in three separate columns around 7am, the IRA quickly commandeered houses along the main streets. Fortifying these positions with barricades of mattresses and furniture they began the process of ‘looping’, tunnelling through the walls of adjoining houses, to reach the two main Army outposts in the National Bank and local library…. Cut off from their commanding officers, the resolve of the remaining rank and file began to wilt… By 2pm the town was in IRA hands. [2]

The Free State ‘national army’ retook Kenmare in December 1922. It was by then a proxy army, British funded, armed and largely staffed by former British soldiers— “fulfilling the work of the foe”.

The Ballyseedy monument in near Tralee, Co. Kerry.

The Kerry Atrocities

In March 1923 there began what is known as the Kerry Atrocities. The killing of the O’Connor-Scarteen brothers was used as justification, the centrepiece of Free State propaganda. On March 6 five Free State soldiers were killed by a booby trap bomb while searching a Republican dugout at the village of Knocknagoshel.

In reprisal the following day nine republican prisoners were driven from Tralee to Ballyseedy, tied up around a mine and blown up, covering the trees in guts and limbs. Eight were killed but Stephen Fuller was blown clear and escaped to tell the tale. He later became a Fianna Fáil TD. Free Stater apologists were silent about what the crows then ate in Ballyseedy Wood.

On March 8 five prisoners were blown up at Countess Bridge, Killarney but Tadhg Coffey lived to tell of their murder. Five days later, on March 12, five were blown to pieces on the road outside Baghaghs Workhouse, Cahersiveen. There were no survivors but an appalled Free State officer revealed the terrible crime.

On March 28, five IRA men, captured in an attack on Cahersiveen on 5 March, were officially executed in Tralee. 32 Anti-Treaty fighters died in Kerry in March 1923, of whom only five were killed in combat.

Seven leading IRA men were killed in a horrific manner in the Clashmealcon Caves, which engagement began on April 16 1923. It is recounted in gruesome details by An Phoblacht in 1998. As Aero Lyons neared the clifftop via a rope to negotiate a surrender it was cut and “he fell onto the jagged rocks below. The Free Staters proceeded to riddle the dying republican’s body, only stopping after a local priest, Fr. Cahill, intervened”. [3]

According to Seamus Dubhghaill in his account, The Ballyseedy Massacre, by March 1923, 68 Free State soldiers had already been killed in Kerry and 157 wounded – 85 would die there by the end of the war. [4]. It was a truly fratricidal conflict.


[1] Irish Examiner, John Dorney, January 2, 2023 Irish Civil War: State executed twice as many republicans as the British had done in 1916-1921

[2] Irish Examiner, Dr Richard McElligott, January 19 2023. Irish Civil War: The Battle of Kenmare and the IRA’s ‘September offensive’ in Kerry

[3] An Phoblacht, Aengus O Snodaigh, April 9 1998, Remembering the Past: Clashmealcon Caves,

[4] Seamus Dubhghaill, March 7, 2021, The Ballyseedy Massacre,

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