The Free State’s POWs

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Over 300 died in the first six months of 1922 on the border and in Northern Ireland. It was the most violent time in the entire history of Northern Ireland, but the period is rarely referenced as a ‘war’, a ‘civil war’, or part of ‘the Civil War’.

This was the timeframe immediately after the signing of the Treaty when a portion of the republican movement agreed to accept a compromise settlement. However, some on the Pro-Treaty side secretly continued to support armed actions to overcome partition. Under the guidance of leaders like Eoin O’Duffy, Sean MacEoin, and Michael Collins there was a clandestine and totally ineffective stop-start border offensive from February-June 1922. These actions came to an abrupt end when Pro-Treaty forces shelled the Anti-Treaty garrison in the Four Courts on June 28, 1922. This signalled the start of the southern Civil War and pretty much the end of border violence.

Unlike the War of Independence and the southern Civil War, historians and political scientists have little to work with when analysing the earlier violence in 1922. It was after all a secret war, so official records were not kept, or have since been destroyed. Moreover, in later years, northern-based activists involved were reluctant to give detailed accounts for fear of prosecution by the Northern Ireland authorities.

Nonetheless, there is a largely untapped source that is the focus of this blog post. In total there were 200 Pro-Treaty IRA personnel imprisoned in Northern Ireland in 1922 as a result of the failed campaigns on the border. By 1926, 40 remained in jail, mostly being detained in England and Scotland. There is a fascinating (but incomplete) paper trail on these individuals.

Derry Prisoners

In December 1921, just days before the Treaty was agreed in London, IRA GHQ had given prisoners in Derry Jail permission to plot an escape on condition that no firearms were used in the attempt. The escape, when it happened on December 2, went badly wrong. Two guards were killed after being drugged by the would-be escapists. Three of the republicans involved were subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to death. In response, the IRA engaged in a series of military actions on the border. A Monaghan IRA group, acting under the guise of a football team travelling to Derry for a match, attempted to rescue the condemned men. This failed and led to arrests. Then, Pro-Treaty commander Eoin O’Duffy ordered something of a ‘spectacular.’ In early February, multiple IRA units along the border kidnapped 50-100 prominent unionists taking them to holding locations in the South. These loyalist politicians, Ulster Special Constabulary (USC) members and local grandees were to be held as hostages in the event of something happening to the ‘Derry prisoners.’ Later in February, the death sentences were commuted and the kidnapped loyalists released. But the ‘Derry prisoners’ remained in custody.  In the months ahead, more IRA members would join them.

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Enniskillen Prisoners

The largest single group of Pro-Treaty personnel captured were caught on one of the February kidnapping operations. These were members of the 1st Midland Division (Leitrim & Longford) of the IRA who raided into Fermanagh. Their targets included James Cooper, Unionist MP for the county. The raiders were apprehended by the USC. When subsequently charged, all 11 prisoners refused to recognise the court. The presiding Judge gave stiff sentences of between 6 and 10 years.

The Enniskillen prisoners were all operating within the Pro-Treaty command structure. Indeed, they were paid by the Free State government as serving soldiers during their incarceration up to their eventual release in 1926. The only exception was the group’s leader, Commandant Sean MacCurtain, who we will see was on the payroll for the Free State in another capacity. MacCurtain was a Dublin-based intelligence officer with an impressive revolutionary record. He was ‘out’ on Bloody Sunday in November 1920 as part of Collins’ famous counter-intelligence operation. Given this association with Collins’ squad, it is perhaps unsurprising that MacCurtain took the Pro-Treaty side in the split. MacCurtain’s commitment to this cause was no doubt solidified when his brother, Austin, was killed by Anti-Treaty forces in July 1922. In terms of the Fermanagh operation, details in MacCurtain’s Military Service Pension Collection (MSPC) file are vague. It is explained simply that he was ‘arrested by six county authorities in circumstances known to Lieutenant General Gearoid O’Sullivan.’ There is no mention of the kidnappings or reprisals. Another of the Enniskillen prisoners was Sean Flood. The son of an RIC officer, Flood and his siblings were strongly associated with the Dublin IRA. A brother, Frank, was executed by the British in March 1921. Like MacCurtain, Flood’s MSPC file is scant on details re the Fermanagh attack.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the new state did not want to acknowledge the role of its forces in cross border operations. Presumably, when these pension applications were completed by their superiors, details of the controversial northern action were hidden. This is not to say that the leaders of the new regime attempted to distance themselves from MacCurtain & Co. Remarkably, while a prisoner in Peterhead Jail in Scotland, MacCurtain was elected a TD for the Pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal party at the 1923 general election. He did not actually get the opportunity to take his seat until released in 1926. But on entering the Dáil on March 23, 1926, the Tipperary native received a standing ovation from his fellow representatives.

Cycles of violence

Border violence tended to occur in cycles, with a particular incident prompting retaliation and then in turn a further response. Such was the case when MacCurtain and his colleagues were arrested.  The IRA on the Fermanagh-Cavan border threatened a local man due to give evidence in the case. The USC responded by increasing the size of the protective post near the threatened man’s home in Belcoo. On March 28, the Pro-Treaty IRA raided Belcoo capturing the USC hut, all its weapons and 15 of its personnel. The USC members were held prisoner in Athlone by the Pro-Treaty IRA until July 1922. In this latter raid the IRA only lost one man, Joseph Maguire, who was arrested some months later in connection with the attack.

Many of the Pro-Treaty prisoners were like Maguire, captured individually, usually by the USC. Another such case was Thomas Heuston from Newtownbutler, who like Flood and MacCurtain had a formidable reputation with the pre-Truce IRA. The Fermanagh man had previously been convicted of separate attempts on the lives of RIC members and was released from jail as part of the Treaty settlement. By late 1922, Heuston was a Captain in the Free State Army. Like most of the men in his division, he was active in border raids in early 1922. When the southern Civil War commenced, Heuston stayed with the Free State forces, presumably being involved in actions against the Anti -Treaty side. In November 1922, Heuston was travelling on the Clones-Cavan concession road. This stretch of road has achieved some fame during the Brexit process as it regularly featured in media reports due to the fact that it continually criss-crosses the frontier. Heuston was unfortunate in that he was stopped by USC members on a northern portion of the road while in Free State uniform. Having considered charging him with murder in connection with the Clones Affray, the northern authorities opted instead to prosecute Heuston for an earlier IRA action, possession of firearms during the February 1922 disturbances. Heuston pled guilty and received a sentence of 10 years. Despite diplomatic pressure from Dublin, he remained in custody until 1926.

The three prisoners that the British were most reluctant to release were Thomas McShea, Patrick Leonard, and Patrick Johnson. They were charged with the murder of the warders at Derry Jail mentioned previously. While the bulk of the Pro-Treaty prisoners were freed in January 1926 as part of the Boundary Commission settlement, these latter three prisoners had to wait until July 1926 when they were finally and reluctantly set free after considerable diplomatic pressure from the Free State.

Significance

These accounts are a reminder that at least some on the Pro-Treaty side were willing to use violence against the new polity of Northern Ireland in 1922. But there is another significant element of the story. That the documentary evidence produced in pension applications in the 1920s is so vague is noteworthy. In terms of all these prisoners, we are reliant on incomplete scraps to piece together their stories. There seems to have been a deliberate attempt in the 1920s/30s to keep the content of their MSPC files vague.

Why is this important? Given that the records of the USC too are unavailable, this is a further reminder that there are very significant gaps in our collective knowledge about border-related events in the early years of partition. In particular, this has skewed analysis of the southern Civil War. There is a common perception that violence in the years 1922-23 had nothing to do with partition or Northern Ireland. This is despite 300 being killed north of the border in the first half of 1922.

Those arguing that violence in the southern Civil War was unrelated to Northern Ireland tend to point to Dáil debates on the Treaty, where partition was barely mentioned. Upon release, Sean MacCurtain TD also said nothing in the Dáil about partition. Furthermore, his MSPC file is silent on the issue. The simple point being emphasised is that there are gaps in our archives on the period, particularly when it comes to Northern Ireland. Those writing on the ‘Civil War’ need to be cognisant of this.

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