The Truce of 1921: A report by member Nick Folley

Report on talk given by Pádraig Óg Ó’Ruairc at the River Lee Hotel, Cork on the 90th anniversary of the July 1921 Truce.

Friday the 8th of July was the 90th anniversary of the Truce of 1921 which preceeded the final round of talks that led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty later that year. While most people know that the Truce came into effect on Monday 11th July at noon, it had actually been agreed several days before. The time lag was to ensure that the various combatants all over the country received the news in time before hostilities actually ceased.

It was a major milestone in our history, particularly the War of Independence. With so much interest in this period still evident one may wonder why the only event held to mark this anniversary was a talk given by Pádraig Óg Ó’Ruairc, author of ‘Blood on the Banner’ and other titles, on behalf of the Irish Volunteers Commemorative Organisation.

Pádraig opened the talk by noting that a number of commentators in recent years have claimed the IRA, aware of the impending Truce, did everything it could to ‘increase the body count’ as it were, in the final days of the Tan War, quoting Kevin Myers, Peter Hart and Gerrard Murphy among others by way of example. Such seems to imply an IRA as more of a bloodthirsty gang than a politically or ideologically driven army of the new Irish state created out of the result of the 1918 general election and subsequent 1st Dail. Pádraig argued that the facts do not bear this view out.

To begin with, Truce negotiations in some form or another had been conducted since as far back as September 1920. The sum effect of these early Truce talks only served to convince the British Military Command that the ‘Shinners’ and IRA must be on their last legs, in short as a sign of weakness or desperation. The British believed they would have the rebellion crushed in a matter of months or less. However, events were to prove they had made the mistake of underestimating their enemy. Firstly, in a single day Michael Collins’ squad assassinated the crème-de-la-crème of the British spies in what was to be known as Bloody Sunday, while at Kilmichael Tom Barry’s Flying Column demonstrated to the British that the IRA had real military capability (prior to that the Tan War had been viewed as a series of assassinations). Furthermore the Auxiliaries killed at Kilmichael were officer class whose deaths would have created more waves back in the UK than mere rank and file soldiers. To add to these events, the Liverpool IRA carried out large-scale arson on factories, warehouses and docks bringing the war to the UK mainland and convincing an alarmed British opinion that the war might spread to the UK and they could no longer afford to ignore it. Further talks occurred in December which again came to nothing as Llyod George kept shifting position and in essence wanted to wind the war down quietly with no official notice, which was unacceptable to the Irish delegation. For much the same reason, talks in January 1921 also failed. The British had made a number of demands – such as that the IRA hand over their weapons, there be no amnesty for major leaders like Dan Breen, Tom Barry and Michael Collins, Ireland would not be allowed to have an army or navy and while Ireland would have financial independence, it was expected to use it to contribute to Britain’s debts from World War One. Obviously the Irish delegation found these conditions unacceptable.

So various Truce talks had been underway for almost a year before the July Truce was eventually agreed on. The situation for the IRA across the country was very varied in the period leading up to the Truce. A number of hoped-for imports of IRA arms failed, for example the 400-plus Thompson submachine guns that were impounded in New York and the break up of the Glasgow branch of the IRA who had been smuggling weapons to Ireland, by the British authorities. The Dublin IRA had suffered a serious setback in May 1921 when it lost over 80 men and a large number of arms on an ill-advised attack on the Customs House. For the remainder of the period up to the Truce it struggled to mount ambushes or carry out its other activities and numerous operations were cancelled. In Cork and Mayo the IRA were relatively strong and well-armed by comparison. Equally for the British, the Irish war was a minor one compared to the other wars in which it was simultaneously involved around the globe – fighting for White Russia against the Bolsheviks, fighting the Turks in Asia Minor and so on. Its military was already stretched and a decisive military victory in Ireland, which was already costing some £20 million a year could only be achieved by doubling the number of troops to around 180,000 in the opinion of British military strategists. Apart from the strain this would put on Britain’s resources, British public opinion was very much against this kind of intervention here. The previously hawkish British military were beginning to realize they would need to conduct some form of negotiation with ‘the Shinners’.

It was in this maelstrom of political and military activity that the Truce was finally set for July 11th, 1921. With the country in such a state of turmoil, it was not surprising that news of the Truce, actually agreed on Friday 8th July, did not reach some combatant parties for hours or even days. Padraig gave examples of units of Black & Tans in Galway not learning of the Truce until that Sunday, while Tom Barry found out about it by reading the newspaper on Saturday 9th. The enactment of the Truce was set for the 11th July precisely because it was feared that news would not reach all parties in time, perhaps resulting in numerous unwitting breaches of its terms. Adding confusion were two conflicting orders – one issued by Richard Mulcahy requesting the IRA to wind down operations as the Truce approached while another issued by the 1st Eastern Division asked the IRA to step up its attacks. It may be this latter order that has given some historians and commentators the view that the IRA attempted to ‘increase the body count’ in the final days before the Truce came into effect.

Firstly this order would have to be taken in context with that by Mulcahy ordering a winding down of operations. Secondly, Pádraig demonstrated that the facts on the ground do not bear out the ‘bloodthirsty IRA’ view. He began by noting the number of RIC men killed by the IRA over the Truce weekend (5) was actually less than that killed the previous weekend (7) and suggested thus that in the normal course of events these RIC men would have been ambushed and killed anyway – in other words, their deaths did not buck the overall pattern for the time and the impending Truce did not contribute to them. Pádraig noted that many IRA operations over the course of the weekend were either aborted or cancelled. The Dublin IRA had planned several attacks and ambushes despite their depleted conditon, the one at Crumlin was to involve both mines and some of the few Thompson submachine guns that had found their way to Ireland. These were cancelled by order of Eamon deValera, perhaps mindful of the fact the Truce was imminent. The Barna ambush, had it gone ahead, would have been one of the largest operations of the war, where Cork and Limerick IRA brigades joined forces to ambush a large British patrol. It was to have involved the use of some 18 mines (Crossbarry had only used three) and 120 men. In the event a small patrol just prior to the Truce was allowed to pass unhindered. When the large patrol did arrive the IRA did not attack it as the Truce had just come into effect. IRA attacks on RIC barracks across the country mostly consisted of sniping (rather than bombing or burning, which would have been required to force the occupants to evacuate) or attacks on empty barracks. This seems to indicate an IRA ‘letting off steam’ rather than any serious attempt to kill as many people as possible, as the attacks would have been carried out differently had that been the case.

British forces were not inactive over the weekend and killed a number of people; for example in Cork, Denis Spriggs shot by the Staffordshire Regiment at Kilgobnet and John Foley shot in Coachford. The Buffs Regiment booby-trapped a trenched road and when IRA commander Frank Fahey had his men retrench it, the mine exploded, killing several of them. But the bulk of the deaths over the Truce weekend occurred as a result of loyalist rioting in Belfast, which started after the IRA there shot RIC constable Conlon. A total of 19 people were killed in the riots, a number of the deaths sectarian.

So – apart from the Belfast rioting – the death toll for the Truce weekend was not out of place with what had been occuring up to the time. Had there been a real attempt by the IRA to ‘up the ante’ before the Truce came into effect, we would expect to see many more deaths than actually occurred. The other main issue commentators such as Myers, Murphy & Hart rely on to paint a picture of an increased ferocity in the IRA over the Truce weekend is the shooting of spies and informers. It has also been suggested these spies were all, or nearly all protestant, suggesting the IRA was sectarian. Pádriag noted that Maria Vilianius refers to ‘11 spies’ shot over the Truce weekend’ whereas in fact the Collins’ papers this figure comes from shows that this was the number of spies shot for the two weeks of July up to the Truce, with five of these eleven shot over the weekend of the Truce. While it does seem a larger number, once again Pádraig examined the evidence and accounts as given by Murphy and Hart and found not all was as they present it. He looked at five cases –

David Cummins (protestant), Eric Steadman (no known religion), Maj. GB O’Connor (protestant and ex-British soldier), John Poynton (catholic) and John Begley (catholic). Some were found shot with the label “Spies and Informers – Beware” attached to their bodies, a practice I was surprised to learn, that had not originated with the IRA but with the British army as far back at least as World War One.

Looking into the details of their cases, we learned that Steadman had already been captured and tried as a spy but escaped and returned to the area from where he was captured. Likewise, John Poynton had been warned to leave the area by the IRA as he was known to socialize with the RIC (which was understood to imply passing tidbits of information to them) and had been seen regularly leaving his house under curfew to join RIC patrols (which both suggested he had special protection in order to flout the curfew and was perhaps acting as a ‘spotter’ for the RIC). He threw caution to the wind, ignored the exile order and was shot in consequence. John Begley, a catholic, was a known associate of William Shiels (also catholic) and was presumed to be supporting him in his activities. Shiels had infiltrated the Mallow and Kanturk IRA with disastrous consequences for both. Begley was tracked up Patrick St by Sean O’Connell and members of Cork’s G-Coy IRA before being abducted shortly before the Truce came into effect. He was shot the day after, breaching its terms. Pádraig noted that Hart suggsted that the final example, Maj. GB O’Connor was shot simply because he fitted the description of ‘an Outsider’ – a criteria Hart ascribes to IRA motives for shooting people. In Hart’s order of things, being ‘an Outsider’ means something like simply being different to what the IRA regarded as ‘normal’, though Hart does not define what the IRA regarded as ‘normal’, simply we come to it by a process of elimination – it was not whatever the IRA’s victims were! Pádraig noted that Hart fails to give any evidence for this ‘Outsider’ status other than his opinion, and the fact that O’Connor was a JP. Hart also fails to explain why out of 26 JPs in Cork only two were shot while several others were captured and released. In his memoirs, IRA member Connie Neenan suggstested the operation to kill Maj GB O’Connor was planned well in advance and therefore was not mere opportunism based on an impending Truce.

Overall, as many spies were released unharmed as killed over the weekend of the Truce – hardly the actions of an IRA bent on killing as many people as possible.

Following the talk Pádraig took some questions from members of the audience. One concerned the burning of ‘the Big Houses’ with one speaker suggesting that in at least three cases he knew of (though no specifics were forthcoming) the occupants had no known connection with the British regime “they weren’t involved in anything’ as he put it. Pádraig obviously could not answer this question fully without at least knowing which houses were in question, but suggested that as well as burning the houses of collaborators, some houses may have been burned because the IRA felt they were about to be turned into RIC / Black & Tan outposts which would then be used to command the surrounding area. I know from reading Tom Barry’s Guerilla Days that this was precisely Barry’s stated motivation for going back to burn Burgatia House. Originally the owner had been accused by the IRA of being an informer but after an aborted attack by the British on the IRA forces within the house, Barry returned later that night to burn the house otherwise it would have been fortified against them, having been attacked once.

Another speaker who gave neither his own name nor that of his grandfather, had it ‘on authority’ from the same anonymous grandfather that Frank Busteed did not shoot Mrs.Lindsey and that someone else had, though he declined to say who. Pádraig, not knowing the identity of any of the participants in this anecdote was of course in no position to comment on the veractity or otherwise of these claims, though I have no doubt they came as a surprise to the descendant of Frank Busteed who was in the audience, a few seats away from the speaker in question! One interesting point was raised from this discussion however, why the Dripsey IRA had not shot Fr.Shinnick, who was probably as culpabale as Mrs.Lindsey in betraying the ambush to the British authorities. Pádraig replied that as far as he was aware, the IRA had a general policy of trying not to shoot clergy of both denominations (RC or COI) or women, though Mrs.Lindesy was an obvious exception. The two clergymen who may have fallen foul of them were Rev Lord (Bandon) and Dean Findley. Rev.Lord was not killed and Rev.Findley was struck with a blunt object – his death may have been accidental. Both were Protestant. My own opinion here is that many of the IRA were also devout catholics – again, we find Tom Barry referring to this in relation to the crisis Bishop Coughlan’s excommunication edict of 1920 threw his own Flying Column. For such men killing a clergyman would have probably been an insurmountable taboo, tantamount to an attack on Christ Himself. Others, such as Frank Busteed, were of no strong religious persuasion, or avowed atheists. However, shooting clergy – especially catholic clergy may also have been avoided due to the very adverse publicity it would create. Support for the IRA might have fallen dramataically had they shot a number of priests in 1920s Ireland. The shooting of Canon Magner by the Black and Tans in Cork did nothing to improve their already low-standing in the community.

Nick Folley, July 2011.