The Irish War of Independence (Irish: Cogadh na Saoirse, also known as the Anglo-Irish War or Tan War) was a guerrilla war mounted against the British government in Ireland by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). It began in January 1919, following the Irish Republic’s declaration of independence, and ended with a truce in July 1921. The subsequent negotiations led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which ended British rule in most of Ireland and established the Irish Free State. However, six northern counties would remain under British rule.

The IRA that fought in this conflict is often referred to as the Old IRA to distinguish it from later organisations that used the same name.


The Home Rule Crisis

Since the 1880s, Irish nationalists in the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) had been demanding Home Rule, or self-government, from Britain. Fringe organisations, such as Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin instead argued for some form of Irish independence, but they were in a small minority at this time.

The demand for Home Rule was eventually granted by the British Government in 1912, immediately prompting a prolonged crisis within the United Kingdom as Ulster Unionists formed an armed organisation—the Ulster Volunteers — to resist this measure of devolution. In turn, Nationalists formed their own military organisation, the Irish Volunteers.

The British Parliament passed the Third Home Rule Act with an amending Bill for the partition of Ireland introduced by Ulster Unionists, but the Act’s implementation was postponed by the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. The majority of Nationalists followed their IPP leaders and John Redmond’s call to support Britain and the Allied war effort in Irish regiments of the New British Army, the intention being to ensure the commencement of Home Rule after the war. But a significant minority of the Irish Volunteers opposed Ireland’s involvement in the war. The Volunteer movement split, a majority leaving to form the National Volunteers under John Redmond. The remaining Irish Volunteers, under Eoin MacNeill, held that they would maintain their organisation until Home Rule had been granted. Within this Volunteer movement, another faction, led by the separatist Irish Republican Brotherhood, began to prepare for a revolt against British rule.

The Easter Rising

The plan for revolt was realised in the Easter Rising of 1916, in which the Volunteers, now explicitly declaring a republic, launched an insurrection whose aim was to end British rule and to found an Irish Republic. The rising, in which over four hundred people died, was almost exclusively confined to Dublin and was put down within a week, but the British response, executing the leaders of the insurrection and arresting thousands of nationalist activists, galvanized support for the separatist Sinn Féin — the party which the republicans first adopted and then took over. By now, support for the British war effort was on the wane, and Irish public opinion was shocked and outraged by some of the actions committed by British troops, particularly the murder of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and the imposition of wartime martial law.

Secondly, the British, in the face of the crisis caused by the German Spring Offensive in April 1918, attempted to introduce conscription into Ireland combined with Home Rule outlined at the Irish Convention. This further alienated the Irish electorate and produced mass demonstrations during the Conscription Crisis of 1918. By the time of the November 1918 election, alienation from British rule was widespread.

To Irish Republicans, the Irish War of Independence had begun with the Proclamation of the Irish Republic during the Easter Rising of 1916. Republicans argued that the conflict of 1919-21 (and indeed the subsequent Irish Civil War) was the defence of this Republic against attempts to destroy it.

The First Dáil

In the 1918 general election Irish voters showed their disapproval of British policy by giving Sinn Féin 70% (73 seats out of 105) of Irish seats, 25 of these unopposed. Sinn Féin won 91% of the seats outside of Ulster on 46,9% of votes cast, but was in a minority in Ulster, where Unionists were in a majority. Sinn Féin pledged not to sit in the UK Parliament at Westminster, but rather to set up an Irish Parliament. This parliament, known as the First Dáil, and its ministry, called the Aireacht, consisting only of Sinn Féin members, met at the Mansion House on 21 January 1919. The Dáil reaffirmed the 1916 declaration with the Declaration of Independence, and issued a Message to the Free Nations of the World, which stated that there was an “existing state of war, between Ireland and England”. The Irish Volunteers were reconstituted as the ‘Irish Republican Army’ or IRA. The IRA was perceived by some members of Dáil Éireann to have a mandate to wage war on the British administration based at Dublin Castle.

The years between the Easter Rising of 1916 and the beginning of the War of Independence in 1919 were not bloodless. Thomas Ashe, one of the Volunteer leaders imprisoned for his role in the 1916 rebellion died on hunger strike, after attempted force-feeding in 1917. In 1918, during disturbances arising out of the anti-conscription campaign, six civilians died in confrontations with the police and British Army and over 1,000 were arrested. Armistice Day was marked by severe rioting in Dublin, which left over 100 British soldiers injured. There were also raids for arms by the Volunteers, at least one shooting of an Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) policeman and the burning of an RIC barracks in Kerry. However, there was as yet no co-ordinated armed campaign against the British presence in Ireland.


Initial hostilities

While it was not clear in the beginning of 1919 that the Dáil ever intended to gain independence by military means, and war was not explicitly threatened in Sinn Féin’s 1918 manifesto, an incident occurred on 21 January 1919, the same day as the First Dáil convened. Several IRA members acting independently at Soloheadbeg, in County Tipperary, led by Seán Treacy and Dan Breen, attacked and shot two Royal Irish Constabulary officers who were escorting explosives. Breen later recalled:

… we took the action deliberately, having thought over the matter and talked it over between us. Treacy had stated to me that the only way of starting a war was to kill someone, and we wanted to start a war, so we intended to kill some of the police whom we looked upon as the foremost and most important branch of the enemy forces. The only regret that we had following the ambush was that there were only two policemen in it, instead of the six we had expected.

This is widely regarded as the beginning of the War of Independence, and the men acted on their own initiative to try to start a war. The British government declared South Tipperary a Special Military Area under the Defence of the Realm Act two days later. The war was not formally declared by the Dáil until well into the conflict, however. On 10 April 1919 the Dáil was told:

As regards the Republican prisoners, we must always remember that this country is at war with England and so we must in a sense regard them as necessary casualties in the great fight.

In January 1921, two years after the war had started, the Dáil debated “whether it was feasible to accept formally a state of war that was being thrust on them, or not”, and decided not to declare war. Then on 11 March, Dáil Éireann President Éamon de Valera formally ‘accepted’ the existence of a “state of war with England”. The delay allowed a balancing of the military and political realities.

Violence spreads

Volunteers began to attack British government property, carried out raids for arms and funds and targeted and killed prominent members of the British administration. The first was Resident Magistrate John C. Milling, who was shot dead in Westport, County Mayo, for having sent Volunteers to prison for unlawful assembly and drilling. They mimicked the successful tactics of the Boers, fast violent raids without uniform. Although some republican leaders, notably Éamon de Valera, favoured classic conventional warfare in order to legitimise the new republic in the eyes of the world, the more practically experienced Michael Collins and the broader IRA leadership opposed these tactics as they had led to the military débacle of 1916. Others, notably Arthur Griffith, preferred a campaign of civil disobedience rather than armed struggle. The violence used was at first deeply unpopular with the Irish people and it took the heavy-handed British response to popularise it among much of the population.

During the early part of the conflict, roughly from 1919 to the middle of 1920, there was a relatively limited amount of violence. Much of the nationalist campaign involved popular mobilisation and the creation of a republican “state within a state” in opposition to British rule. British journalist Robert Lynd wrote in the Daily News in July 1920 that:

So far as the mass of people are concerned, the policy of the day is not active but a passive policy. Their policy is not so much to attack the Government as to ignore it and to build up a new government by its side.

The IRA’s main target throughout the conflict was the mainly Catholic Irish police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), which were the British government’s eyes and ears in Ireland. Its members and barracks (especially the more isolated ones) were vulnerable, and they were a source of much-needed arms. The RIC numbered 9,700 men stationed in 1,500 barracks throughout Ireland.

A policy of ostracism of RIC men was announced by the Dáil on 11 April 1919. This proved successful in demoralising the force as the war went on, as people turned their faces from a force increasingly compromised by association with British government repression. The rate of resignation went up, and recruitment in Ireland dropped off dramatically. Often the RIC were reduced to buying food at gunpoint as shops and other businesses refused to deal with them. Some RIC men cooperated with the IRA through fear or sympathy, supplying the organisation with valuable information. By contrast with the effectiveness of the widespread public boycott of the police, the military actions carried out by the IRA against the RIC at this time were relatively limited. In 1919, 11 RIC men and 4 Dublin Metropolitan Police were killed and another 20 RIC wounded.

Other aspects of mass participation in the conflict included strikes by organised workers in opposition to the British presence in Ireland. In Limerick in April 1919, a general strike was called by the Limerick Trades and Labour Council, as a protest against the declaration of a “Special Military Area” under the Defence of the Realm Act which covered most of Limerick city and a part of the county. Special permits, to be issued by the RIC, would now be required to enter the city. The Trades Council’s special Strike Committee controlled the city for fourteen days in an episode that was nicknamed the Limerick Soviet.

Similarly, in May 1920, Dublin dockers refused to handle any war matériel, and were soon joined by the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, who banned railway drivers from carrying British forces. Train drivers were brought over from England after drivers refused to carry British troops. The strike badly hampered British troop movements until December 1920 when it was called off. The British government managed to bring the situation to an end when they threatened to withhold grants from the railway companies, which would have meant that workers would no longer have been paid.

Violent attacks by the IRA also steadily increased, however. By early 1920, they were attacking isolated RIC stations in rural areas, causing them to be abandoned as the police retreated to the larger towns.

Collapse of the British administration

In early April 1920, 400 abandoned RIC barracks were burned to the ground to prevent them being used again, along with almost one hundred income tax offices. This had two effects. Firstly the RIC withdrew from much of the countryside, leaving it in the hands of IRA. In June–July 1920, assizes failed all across the south and west of Ireland. Trials by jury could not be held because jurors would not attend. The collapse of the court system demoralised the RIC, and many police resigned and retired. The Irish Republican Police (IRP) was founded between April and June 1920 under the authority of Dáil Éireann and the former IRA Chief of Staff Cathal Brugha to replace the RIC and to enforce the ruling of the Dáil Courts, set up under the Irish Republic. By 1920, the IRP had a presence in 21 of Ireland’s 32 counties. The Dáil Courts were generally socially conservative, despite their revolutionary origins, and halted the attempts of some landless farmers at redistribution of land from wealthier landowners to poorer farmers.

Secondly, the Inland Revenue ceased to operate in most of Ireland. People were instead encouraged to subscribe to Collins’ “National Loan”, set up to raise funds for the young government and its army. By the end of the year the loan had reached £358,000. It eventually reached £380,000. An even larger amount, totalling over $5 million, was raised in the United States by Irish Americans and sent to Ireland to finance the Republic. Rates were still paid to local councils, but nine out of eleven of these were controlled by Sinn Féin, who naturally refused to pass them on to the British government. Thus, by mid 1920, the Irish Republic was a reality in the lives of many people, enforcing its own law, maintaining its own armed forces and collecting its own taxes. The British Liberal journal, The Nation, wrote in August 1920 that “the central fact of the present situation in Ireland is that the Irish Republic exists”.

The British forces, in trying to re-assert their control over the country, often resorted to arbitrary reprisals against republican activists and the civilian population. An unofficial government policy of reprisals began in September 1919 in Fermoy, County Cork, when 200 British soldiers looted and burned the main businesses of the town, after one of their number had been killed in an arms raid by the local IRA.

Arthur Griffith estimated that in the first 18 months of the conflict, British forces carried out 38,720 raids on private homes, arrested 4,982 suspects, committed 1,604 armed assaults, carried out 102 indiscriminate shootings and burning in towns and villages, and killed 77 people including women and children.

In March 1920, Tomás Mac Curtain, the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork, was shot dead, in front of his wife at his home, by men with blackened faces who were later seen returning to the local police barracks. The jury at the inquest into his death returned a verdict of wilful murder against David Lloyd George (the British Prime Minister) and District Inspector Swanzy, among others. Swanzy was later tracked down and killed in Lisburn, in County Antrim. This pattern of killings and reprisals escalated in the second half of 1920 and in 1921.

IRA organisation and operations

Michael Collins was the main driving force behind the independence movement. Nominally the Minister of Finance in the republic’s government, and IRA Director of Intelligence, he was actively involved in providing funds and arms to the IRA units that needed them, and in the selection of officers. Collins’ natural intelligence, organisational capability and sheer drive galvanised many who came in contact with him. He established what proved an effective network of spies among sympathetic members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police’s (DMP) “G division” and other important branches of the British administration. The G division men were a relatively small political division active in subverting the republican movement, and were detested by the IRA as often they were used to identify volunteers who would have been unknown to British soldiers or the later Black and Tans. Collins set up the “Squad”, a group of men whose sole duty was to seek out and kill “G-men” and other British spies and agents. Collins’ Squad began killing RIC intelligence officers from July 1919 onwards. Many G-men were offered a chance to resign or leave Ireland by the IRA, and some chose to leave Ireland.

The Chief of Staff of the IRA was Richard Mulcahy, who was responsible for organising and directing IRA units around the country. In theory, both Collins and Mulcahy were responsible to Cathal Brugha, the Dáil’s Minister of Defence. However, in practice, Brugha had only a supervisory role, recommending or objecting to specific actions. A great deal also depended on IRA leaders in local areas (such as Liam Lynch, Tom Barry, Seán Moylan, Seán Mac Eoin and Ernie O’Malley) who organised guerrilla activity, largely on their own initiative. For most of the conflict, IRA activity was concentrated in Munster and Dublin, with only isolated active IRA units elsewhere, such as in County Roscommon, north County Longford and western County Mayo.

While the paper membership of the IRA, carried over from the Irish Volunteers, was over 100,000 men, Michael Collins estimated that only 15,000 men actively served in the IRA during the course of the war, with about 3,000 on active service at any time. There were also support organisations Cumann na mBan (the IRA women’s group) and Fianna Éireann (youth movement), who carried weapons and intelligence for IRA men and secured food and lodgings for them.

The IRA benefited from the widespread help given to them by the general Irish population, who generally refused to pass information to the RIC and the British military and who often provided “safe houses” and provisions to IRA units “on the run”. Much of the IRA’s popularity arose from the excessive reaction of the British forces to IRA activity.

When Éamon de Valera returned from the United States, he demanded in the Dáil that the IRA desist from the ambushes and assassinations that were allowing the British to successfully portray it as a terrorist group, and to take on the British forces with conventional military methods. The proposal was immediately dismissed.

Martial law


The British responded to the escalating violence in Ireland with increasing use of force. Reluctant to deploy the regular British Army into the country in greater numbers, they set up two paramilitary police units to aid the RIC. The “Black and Tans” were set up to bolster the flagging RIC. Seven thousand strong, they were mainly ex-British soldiers demobilised after World War I. First deployed to Ireland in March 1920, most came from English and Scottish cities. While officially they were part of the RIC, in reality they were a paramilitary force. After their deployment in March 1920, they rapidly gained a reputation for drunkenness and ill discipline that did more harm to the British government’s moral authority in Ireland than any other group. In response to IRA actions, in the summer of 1920, the “Tans” burned and sacked numerous small towns throughout Ireland, including Balbriggan, Trim, Templemore and others.

In July 1920, another quasi-military police body, the Auxiliaries, consisting of 2,215 former British army officers, arrived in Ireland. The Auxiliary Division had a reputation just as bad as the Tans for their mistreatment of the civilian population but tended to be more effective and more willing to take on the IRA. The policy of reprisals, which involved public denunciation or denial and private approval, was famously satirised by Lord Hugh Cecil when he said: “It seems to be agreed that there is no such thing as reprisals, but they are having a good effect.”

On 9 August 1920, the British Parliament passed the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act, which suspended all coroners’ courts, because of the large number of warrants served on members of the British forces. They were replaced with “military courts of enquiry”. In addition, the powers of military court martials were extended to cover the whole population and were empowered to use the death penalty and internment without trial. Finally, government payments to local governments in Sinn Féin hands were suspended. This act has been interpreted by historians as a choice by Prime Minister David Lloyd George to put down the rebellion in Ireland rather than negotiate with the Republican leadership. As a result, violence escalated steadily from that summer, and sharply after November 1920 until July 1921.

It was in this period that a large-scale mutiny broke out among the Irish Connaught Rangers, stationed in India. Two were killed whilst trying to storm an armoury and one was later executed.

A number of events dramatically escalated the conflict in late 1920. First the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison in London in October, while two other IRA prisoners on hunger strike, Joe Murphy and Michael Fitzgerald, died in Cork Jail.

Then, on 21 November 1920, there was a day of dramatic bloodshed in Dublin. In the early morning, Collins’ IRA “Squad” attempted to wipe out the British Intelligence operatives in the capital. The Squad shot 19 people, killing 14 and wounding 5. They consisted of British Army officers, police officers and civilians. The dead included members of the so-called “Cairo Gang” and a Courts-martial officer at different places around Dublin.

The Cairo Gang provided information to the British on the activities of the Irish Republican Army. Most were assassinated on 21 November 1920

The Cairo Gang provided information to the British on the activities of the Irish Republican Army. Most were assassinated on 21 November 1920

Escalation, October-December 1920

In response, Auxiliaries drove in trucks into Croke Park (Dublin’s GAA football and hurling ground) during a football match, shooting into the crowd. Fourteen civilians were killed, including one of the players, Michael Hogan and a further 65 people were wounded. Later that day two republican prisoners, Dick McKee, Peadar Clancy and an unassociated friend, Conor Clune who had been arrested with them, were killed in Dublin Castle. The official account was that the three men were shot “while trying to escape”, which was rejected by Irish nationalists who were certain the men had been tortured then murdered. This day became known as Bloody Sunday.

On 28 November 1920, only a week after Bloody Sunday in Dublin, the west Cork unit of the IRA, under Tom Barry, ambushed a patrol of Auxiliaries at Kilmichael in County Cork, killing all but one of the 18-man patrol.

These actions marked a significant escalation of the conflict. In response, counties Cork, Kerry, Limerick, and Tipperary—all in the province of Munster— were put under martial law on 10 December. Shortly afterwards, in January 1921, “official reprisals” were sanctioned by the British and they began with the burning of seven houses in Midleton in Cork.

On December 11, the centre of Cork was burnt out by British forces, who then shot at firefighters trying to tackle the blaze, in reprisal for an IRA ambush in the city on 11 December 1920 which killed one Auxiliary and wounded eleven.

Peak of violence, December 1920-July 1921

During the following eight months until the Truce of July 1921, there was a spiralling of the death toll in the conflict, with 1,000 people including the RIC police, British military, IRA volunteers and civilians, being killed in the months between January and July 1921 alone. This represents about 70% of the total casualties for the entire three-year conflict. In addition, 4,500 IRA personnel (or suspected sympathisers) were interned in this time. In the middle of this violence, the Dáil formally declared war on Britain in March 1921.

Between 1 November 1920 and 7 June 1921 twenty four men were executed by the British. The first IRA volunteer to be executed was Kevin Barry, one of The Forgotten Ten who were buried in unmarked graves in unconsecrated ground inside Mountjoy Prison until 2001. On 1 February, the first execution under martial law of an IRA man took place. Cornelius Murphy of Millstreet, Cork was shot in Cork city. On 28 February, six more were executed, again in Cork.

On 19 March 1921, Tom Barry’s 100-strong West Cork IRA unit fought a large-scale action against 1,200 British troops – the Crossbarry Ambush. Barry’s men narrowly avoided being trapped by converging British columns and inflicted between ten and thirty killed on the British side. Just two days later, on 21 March, the Kerry IRA attacked a train at the Headford junction near Killarney. Twenty British soldiers were killed or injured, as well as two IRA men and three civilians. Most of the actions in the war were on a smaller scale than this, but the IRA did have other significant victories in ambushes, for example at Millstreet in Cork and at Scramogue in Roscommon, also in March 1921 and at Tourmakeady and Carowkennedy in Mayo in May and June. Equally common, however, were failed ambushes, the worst of which, for example at Upton and Clonmult in Cork in February 1921, saw three and twelve IRA men killed respectively and more captured. The IRA in Mayo suffered a comparable reverse at Kilmeena. Fears of informers after such failed ambushes often led to a spate of IRA shootings of informers, real and imagined.

The biggest single loss for the IRA, however, came in Dublin. On 25 May 1921, several hundred IRA men from the Dublin Brigade occupied and burned the Custom House (the centre of local government in Ireland) in Dublin city centre. Symbolically, this was intended to show that British rule in Ireland was untenable. However, from a military point of view, it was a catastrophe in which five IRA men were killed and over eighty were captured. This showed the IRA was not well enough equipped or trained to take on British forces in a conventional manner. However, it did not, as is sometimes claimed, cripple the IRA in Dublin. The Dublin Brigade carried out 107 attacks in the city in May and 93 in June, showing a falloff in activity, but not a dramatic one. However, by July 1921, most IRA units were chronically short of both weapons and ammunition. Also, for all their effectiveness at guerrilla warfare, they had, as Richard Mulcahy recalled, “as yet not been able to drive the enemy [the British] out of anything but a fairly good sized police barracks”.

Still, many military historians have concluded that the IRA fought a largely successful and lethal guerrilla war, which forced the British government to conclude that the IRA could not be defeated militarily. The failure of the British efforts to put down the guerrillas was illustrated by the events of “Black Whitsun” on 13–15 May 1921. A general election for the parliament of Southern Ireland was held on 13 May. Sinn Féin won 124 of the new parliament’s 128 seats unopposed, but its elected members refused to take their seats. Under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act, the Southern Parliament was dissolved, and Southern Ireland was to be ruled as a crown colony. Over the next two days (14–15 May), the IRA killed fifteen policemen. These events marked the complete failure of the British Coalition Government’s Irish policy—both the failure to enforce a settlement without negotiating with Sinn Féin and a failure to defeat the IRA.

By the time of the truce, however, many Republican leaders, including Michael Collins, were convinced that if the war went on for much longer, there was a chance that the IRA campaign as it was then organised could be brought to a standstill. Because of this, plans were drawn up to “bring the war to England”. The IRA did take the campaign to the streets of Glasgow. It was decided that key economic targets, such as the Liverpool docks, would be bombed. Nineteen warehouses there had been burned to the ground by the IRA the previous November. The units charged with these missions would more easily evade capture because England was not under, and British public opinion was unlikely to accept, martial law. These plans were abandoned because of the truce.

The north-east

In the Government of Ireland Act 1920 (enacted in December 1920), the British government attempted to solve the conflict by creating two Home Rule parliaments in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. While Dáil Éireann ignored this, deeming the Irish Republic to be already in existence, Unionists in the north-east accepted it and prepared to form their own government. In this part of Ireland, which was predominantly Protestant and Unionist, there was, as a result, a very different pattern of violence from the rest of the country. Whereas in the south and west, the conflict was between the IRA and British forces, in the north-east and particularly in Belfast, it often developed into a cycle of sectarian killings between Catholics, who were largely Nationalist, and Protestants, who were mostly Unionist.

Summer 1920

While IRA attacks were less common in the north-east than elsewhere, the unionist community saw itself as being besieged by armed Catholic nationalists who seemed to have taken over the rest of Ireland. As a result, they retaliated against the northern Catholic community as a whole. Such action was largely condoned by the unionist leadership and abetted by state forces. James Craig, for instance, wrote in 1920:

The Loyalist rank and file have determined to take action… they now feel the situation is so desperate that unless the Government will take immediate action, it may be advisable for them to see what steps can be taken towards a system of ‘organised’ reprisals against the rebels.

The first cycle of attacks and reprisals broke out in the summer of 1920. On 19 June a week of inter-sectarian rioting and sniping started in Derry, resulting in 18 deaths. On 17 July 1920, a British Colonel Gerald Smyth was assassinated by the IRA in the County Club in Cork city in response to a speech that was made to police officers of Listowel who had refused orders to move into the more urban areas, in which he stated “you may make mistakes occasionally, and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped. No policeman will get in trouble for shooting any man”. Smyth came from Banbridge, County Down in the north-east and his killing provoked retaliation there against Catholics in Banbridge and Dromore. On 21 July 1920, partly in response to the killing of Smyth and partly because of competition over jobs due to the high unemployment rate, loyalists marched on the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast and forced over 7,000 Catholic and left-wing Protestant workers from their jobs. Sectarian rioting broke out in response in Belfast and Derry, resulting in about 40 deaths and many Catholics and Protestants being expelled from their homes. On 22 August 1920, RIC Detective Swanzy was shot dead by Cork IRA men while leaving church in Lisburn, County Antrim. Swanzy had been blamed by an inquest jury for the killing of Cork Mayor Tomás Mac Curtain. In revenge, local Loyalists burned Catholic residential areas of Lisburn – destroying over 300 homes. While several people were later prosecuted for the burnings, no attempt seems to have been made to halt the attacks at the time. Michael Collins, acting on a suggestion by Seán MacEntee, organised a boycott of Belfast goods in response to the attacks on the Catholic community. The Dail approved a partial boycott on 6 August and a more complete one was implemented by the end of 1920.

Spring 1921

After a lull in violence in the north over the new year, killings there intensified again in the spring of 1921. The northern IRA units came under pressure from the leadership in Dublin to step up attacks in line with the rest of the country. Predictably, this unleashed loyalist reprisals against Catholics. For example, in April 1921, the IRA in Belfast shot dead two Auxiliaries in Donegal Place in Belfast city centre. The same night, two Catholics were killed on the Falls Road. On 10 July 1921 the IRA ambushed British forces in Raglan street in Belfast. In the following week, sixteen Catholics were killed and 216 Catholic homes burned in reprisal. Killings on the loyalist side were largely carried by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), allegedly with the aid of the RIC police and especially the auxiliary police force, the Ulster Special Constabulary or “B-Specials”. The Special Constabulary (set up in September 1920), was largely recruited from Ulster Volunteer Force and Orange Lodges and, in the words of historian Michael Hopkinson, “amounted to an officially approved UVF”. In May James Craig came to Dublin to meet the British Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Fitzalan, and was smuggled by the IRA through Dublin to meet Eamon de Valera. The two leaders discussed the possibility of a truce in Ulster and an amnesty for prisoners. Craig proposed a compromise settlement based on the Government of Ireland Act, with limited independence for the South and autonomy for the North within a Home Rule context. However, the talks came to nothing and violence in the north continued.

The propaganda war, Summer 1921

Another feature of the war was the use of propaganda by both sides. The British tried to portray the IRA as anti-Protestant in order to encourage loyalism in Irish Protestants and win sympathy for their harsh tactics in Britain. For example, in their communiqués they would always mention the religion of spies or collaborators the IRA had killed if the victim was Protestant, but not if they were Catholic (which was more often), trying to give the impression, in Ireland and abroad, that the IRA were slaughtering Protestants. They encouraged newspaper editors, often forcefully, to do the same. In the summer of 1921, a series of articles appeared in a London magazine, entitled “Ireland under the New Terror, Living Under Martial Law”. While purporting to be an impartial account of the situation in Ireland, it portrayed the IRA in a very unfavourable light when compared with the British forces. In reality the author, Ernest Dowdall, was an Auxiliary and the series was one of many articles planted by the Dublin Castle Propaganda Department (established in August 1920) to influence public opinion in a Britain increasingly dismayed at the behaviour of its security forces in Ireland.

The Catholic Church hierarchy was critical of the violence of both sides, but especially that of the IRA, continuing a long tradition of condemning militant republicanism. The Bishop of Kilmore, Dr. Finnegan, said: “Any war… to be just and lawful must be backed by a well grounded hope of success. What hope of success have you against the mighty forces of the British Empire? None… none whatever and if it unlawful as it is, every life taken in pursuance of it is murder.” Thomas Gilmartin, the Archbishop of Tuam, issued a letter saying that IRA men who took part in ambushes “have broken the truce of God, they have incurred the guilt of murder.” However in May 1921, Pope Benedict XV dismayed the British government when he issued a letter that exhorted the “English as well as Irish to calmly consider . . . some means of mutual agreement”, as they had been pushing for a condemnation of the rebellion. They declared that his comments “put HMG (His Majesty’s Government) and the Irish murder gang on a footing of equality”.

Desmond FitzGerald and Erskine Childers were active in producing the Irish Bulletin, which detailed government atrocities which Irish and British newspapers were unwilling or unable to cover. It was printed secretly and distributed throughout Ireland, and to international press agencies and American, European and sympathetic British politicians.

While the military war made most of Ireland ungovernable from early 1920, it did not actually remove British forces from any part. But the success of Sinn Féin’s propaganda campaign did remove the option from the British administration to deepen the conflict. The British cabinet had not sought the war that had developed since 1919. By 1921 one of its members, Winston Churchill, reflected:

What was the alternative? It was to plunge one small corner of the empire into an iron repression, which could not be carried out without an admixture of murder and counter-murder…. Only national self-preservation could have excused such a policy, and no reasonable man could allege that self-preservation was involved.