No one felt safe anywhere in Ireland during the first seven months of 1921
Cork suffered most deaths (557), followed by Dublin (360), Antrim (232), Tipperary (158)
July 1921: Catholic Dubliners recite the Angelus for peace in Ireland. Photograph: Walshe/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
The year 1921 saw at least 1,385 deaths arising from Irish political violence, making it by far the most violent phase of the Irish revolution since 1916, when at least 504 people were killed (almost all of them in Dublin in a single week).
Taking the five-year period from 1917 to 1921 as a whole, political violence accounted for at least 2,346 deaths. I write “at least” because my co-author Daithí Ó Corráin and I have already been informed of a number of possible additional deaths, and expect to learn of more.
Civilians accounted for 919, Irish military for 491, police of all kinds for 523, and British military for 413 (43 per cent of which were, incredibly, accidentally or otherwise self-inflicted). Women and girls accounted for only 4 per cent of fatalities, and most of these died accidentally: they were, however, subjected to other forms of violence, terror and loss.
Cork suffered by far the most deaths (557), followed by Dublin (360), Antrim (232), Tipperary (158), Kerry (139) and Limerick (131). When deaths are calculated by reference to county population, a more accurate measure, Cork remains first, followed by Tipperary and Clare; the least violent county, surprisingly given its more recent history, is Tyrone.
Wikipedia and more august authorities maintain that the War of Independence ended with the Truce on July 11th, 1921. It is more accurate to say that the Truce ended the “east-west” dimension of the Anglo-Irish conflict, apart from a few revenge killing, mainly by the IRA.
But deaths arising from intercommunal violence in the newly minted six-county home rule province of Northern Ireland, which formally came into being on May 3rd, 1921, cannot be partitioned off from events elsewhere on the island of Ireland. After the Truce, political violence continued in Antrim (almost entirely in Belfast). There, 87 per cent of all fatalities in the five years from 1917 to 1921 were civilian. In this Antrim (Belfast) was utterly different to other counties, with the exception of Londonderry on a much smaller scale (two-thirds of the 43 recorded deaths were civilian, the majority occurring during a burst of intercommunal violence in June 1920).
In Antrim (Belfast), the 1917-21 period saw 232 deaths, 144 in 1921. That single-year total is greater than that experienced by the great majority of Irish counties over the five years up to December 1921, the only exceptions being Tipperary (155), Dublin (360) and Cork (557). Most of the Antrim (Belfast) civilian fatalities were inflicted during intercommunal violence, or by military fire to quell rioting.
Different levels of disturbance
The county is an imperfect unit of measure and comparison because of wide variations in population. Within counties different areas experienced different levels of disturbance, depending on the organisation and vigour of the contending forces and the strength of local support for or local opposition to the IRA.
In small or quiet counties, a single setback could more or less put an end to sustained IRA activity. Examples in 1921 can be found in Leitrim with the deaths in March of six members of a newly formed ASU (Active Service Unit) at Selton Hill; in Carlow in April after an ASU was caught off-guard while training at Ballymurphy; and in May in Cavan at Lappanduff when an ASU intended to ginger up the local IRA was captured almost intact.
On the other hand, a disaster in Cork such as that in February at Clonmult, where a dozen ASU members were killed, some in cold blood after surrender, was followed by significant IRA successes elsewhere. The Dublin Brigade managed to soldier on effectively despite the calamitous arson attack on the Custom House on May 25th, which saw five Volunteers killed and more than 80 captured.
Fatalities can also be a misleading index of the level of terror experienced by the general population. From early 1920 until the Truce in July 1921, the civilian population in every county in Ireland had reason to be fearful both of the IRA and of Crown forces. The Black and Tans were notoriously undisciplined, and like the Auxiliaries were encouraged to adopt an abrasive attitude towards the general population. The British military were somewhat more restrained, but from the autumn of 1920 they adopted the tried-and-tested colonial counterinsurgency tactic of punishing the general population for IRA violence through the destruction of houses, creameries and public buildings. Crown forces were extraordinarily trigger-happy, particularly in disturbed areas: of 919 civilian deaths recorded between 1917 and 1921, 14 per cent were people shot by police or soldiers allegedly for failing to halt when ordered, or for attempting to escape. About 15 per cent of overall IRA fatalities (491) were also so inflicted.
Well-armed Protestant militia
What changed in 1921 was not the nature but the intensity of fatal violence which, with the exception of Antrim (Belfast), was concentrated into six-and-a-half months of conflict. The IRA was weaker in Ulster than in the other provinces, because of the concentration of unionist and Protestant communities, and also because amongst nationalists loyalty to the Irish Party remained strong, and its muscular adjunct the Ancient Order of Hibernians was very hostile to Sinn Féin and the IRA. From October 1920 the newly formed Ulster Special Constabulary, essentially a well-armed Protestant militia, became a major opponent of the IRA and oppressor of nationalist communities generally. Violence in the new Northern Ireland was not a bilateral struggle between British forces and Irish rebels, but a trilateral one in which the IRA were the weakest participants.
Accusations that killings of Protestant civilians by the IRA in 1921, notably in Cork and Tipperary, were sectarian in nature still strike a nerve. Most such killings were accompanied by claims that the victims had been “spies” or informers who had merely received their just deserts. The elderly Mrs Mary Lindsay and her driver, held for weeks as hostages for the lives of five Volunteers facing execution in Cork, were killed and their remains concealed after those Volunteers were shot. Mrs Lindsay was termed a spy, but she had sent the IRA fair warning through a local priest to disperse after passing preparations for an ambush at Dripsey. The Cork IRA lied about her fate to GHQ, leading the Minister for Defence to order her release at the Truce only to be told she and her driver had been dead for months.
In Monaghan on March 29th, 1921 the Fleming father and son were killed by a large party of Volunteers in revenge for the death of an IRA man six months previously in an ill-judged raid for arms on their farm. One veteran recalled that afterwards the local IRA company “collapsed”.
In June an undisciplined Volunteer in Cavan killed an elderly clergyman, the Reverend John Finlay. The local Catholic clergy were outraged, and three parish priests walked in his funeral cortege. In his home county of Carlow the council, which the previous November had hailed my great uncle Kevin Barry as a “brave and noble patriot”, passed a resolution condemning the “wanton crime”. Finlay’s killing and other incidents worried GHQ’s propaganda specialists, as they indicated “a change of attitude towards [the] loyalist population”. GHQ had earlier refused a request from Liam Lynch in the south for permission, “if the enemy continue to shoot [execute] our Volunteers”, to “shoot one local Loyalist. Prominent Freemason Officers to be the first to suffer!”
The evidence indicates that while GHQ was at pains to forbid sectarian killing, in a handful of incidents religion was at the least one of a number of factors influencing the local IRA. Evidence for sectarian intent in the killing of Protestants is, however, clearer in the post-Treaty period.
By January 1921, peace moves were already in train. A cadre of able officials parachuted into Dublin Castle had developed good lines of communication with the underground Dáil government. President Éamon de Valera was finally back from his lengthy and diplomatically fruitless 18 months in the United States. Despite, or perhaps because of, the horrors of November 1920 – Bloody Sunday and the Kilmichael Ambush – in December a truce had come tantalizingly close. Criticism of British security policy was growing: in February the Archbishop of Canterbury obtained the approval of the King’s private secretary, who “came round to my view” for a strong attack in the Lords.
London had secured its strategic aim of hiving off six Ulster counties from nationalist Ireland; what remained was to thrash out an acceptable dominion home rule settlement with Sinn Féin.
The Dáil government, whatever its ambition for a 32-county republic, was willing to contemplate an interim ceasefire. These back-channel discussions continued, even as the bloodiest phase of the whole conflict unfolded between January and July 1921. They eventually resulted in the Truce of July 11th 1921 which brought an uncertain peace to most of the island. Hundreds of lives, including that of my great uncle Captain Paddy Moloney, killed on May 1st, 1921 with his battalion commander Seán Duffy just outside Tipperary town, might have been saved had politicians in London, Belfast and Dublin displayed a little more dexterity in framing possible ceasefire terms.
To focus solely on the incidence of fatalities in counties is to ignore the wider impact of political violence upon Irish society. Recent scholarship has pointed to what might be termed “soft terror”, often unrecorded in veterans’ accounts which focus on attacks, ambushes and atrocities. In objectively quiet areas as well as in ones where violence was commonplace, civilians lived in fear of Crown forces, of the IRA, and in Ulster of the “Specials”. In Wicklow, two of just 11 deaths between 1917 and 1921, that of a well-to-do Protestant farmer and his killer in February, arose from a robbery by two Black and Tans; again, two of just 11 deaths in Laois were attributable to off-duty Black and Tans breaking into peoples’ homes.
Invasion of the domestic sphere brought particular terror to women and children: my great-grandmother Ellen Moloney (1860-1924) and her housemaid, alone in the house because her TD husband and three sons were on the run, were forced out of the family home and pharmacy in Tipperary town by masked policemen, one of whom she recognised, before they set it on fire. My grandmother Annie Rice (1905-1980) would make only joking references to me about the terrible mess made by raiders in her home, one of only a few republican houses in a predominantly unionist area of Co Down; but to her daughter she described the sexual menace she felt when she and her older sisters were threatened at night in raids by “Specials”, including local young men whom she knew by sight. No one can have felt entirely safe anywhere in Ireland during the first seven months of 1921, and no one in Belfast thereafter.
Professor Eunan O’Halpin is Professor of Contemporary Irish History at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). Material cited here is drawn from Eunan O’Halpin and Daithí Ó Corráin, The Dead of the Irish Revolution (Yale University Press, 2020).