On July 19, 1922, Ulster Special Constable (USC) John McKenzie was released by Michael Collins from custody in Athlone. Collins cordially explained to McKenzie that his incarceration was just a ‘misunderstanding.’ McKenzie had been a prisoner for nearly four months, having been captured when the pro-Treaty IRA seized Belcoo Police Barracks on the Fermanagh-Cavan border. His was not an isolated case, as in the months after the signing of the Treaty the IRA engaged in a largely forgotten campaign on the border. There were at least 50 other loyalists held in Free State custody in July 1922.
McKenzie’s story has a threefold significance. Firstly, it is a reminder that in early 1922 there was a civil war-type situation on the border. Secondly, his experience is illustrative of how the official attitude to Northern Ireland changed during the southern Civil War. Finally it also demonstrates that there were those on the pro-Treaty side prepared to use violence to end partition.
Preparations for conflict on the border predated the Treaty. On the loyalist side, security powers were devolved to Northern Ireland on November 22, 1921. By late 1922, some estimate that one in six adult male Protestants in Northern Ireland were members of the USC. Northern republicans too recruited heavily. Seamus Woods of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division claimed that ‘with the signing of the truce the Catholic population believing for the moment that we had been victorious and that the Specials and UVF were beaten, practically all flocked to our standard.’
The Treaty itself received widespread republican support in border counties. Many interpreted the settlement to mean that all areas with a Catholic majority would be transferred to the Free State. Undoubtedly, the presence of leading pro-Treaty IRA figures Seán MacEoin, Eoin O’Duffy and Joe Sweeney helped ‘sell’ the deal. O’Duffy, in particular, continued to posture as a defender of northern nationalists. He wrote in An t-Óglách that ‘our sorely tried people in the North know who stood by them, and who will stand by them again, please God.’ His verbal briefings were not so subtle. According to one account O’Duffy told a group of senior border officers that ‘[the Treaty] had been signed … in order to get arms to continue the fight’. More colourfully, he told Monaghan officers that ‘when we get arms we will blow the shit out of them.’
Cycles of violence
Border violence tended to occur in cycles, with a particular incident prompting retaliation and in turn further responses. One of the early ‘cycles’ can be traced to a botched prison escape. In the days before the Treaty was signed, IRA GHQ had given prisoners in Derry jail permission to escape on condition that no firearms were used in the attempt. The operation, on December 2, went wrong and two guards were killed when the would-be escapists drugged them. Three of those involved were subsequently sentenced to the death. The pro-Treaty faction’s response is revealing. After the failure of diplomatic efforts to secure a reprieve, Collins ordered members of his ‘Squad’ to travel to England and shoot the executioners. This mission failed. Meanwhile, a Monaghan IRA group, acting under the guise of a football team travelling to Derry for a match, tried to rescue the condemned men. This too failed and led to more arrests. Then, O’Duffy ordered something of a ‘spectacular.’ In early February, multiple IRA units along the border kidnapped 50-100 prominent unionists taking them to locations in the South. These men were to be held as hostages in the event of something happening to the Derry prisoners. In the end, the death sentences were commuted and most of the loyalists were released, but the ‘cycle’ had begun and violence continued.
Although Catholic civilians in border counties were vulnerable to loyalist/USC reprisals, the repercussions were most severely felt in Belfast. Ninety per cent of fatalities in Northern Ireland in the years 1920–22 occurred in the city, with 498 deaths there. Sensationalist news stories from the border often exacerbated tensions in Belfast. Indeed, Lieutenant Colonel WM Sutton, a British Army officer tasked with monitoring the frontier, advocated some form of censorship to curtail alarmist and partisan reports. Writing in April 1922, Sutton noted that ‘the Belfast Newsletter is a frequent offender in this respect.’
The ‘Clones Affray’ of February 11, 1922 is illustrative of how violence spread. Four USC members and a (pro-Treaty) IRA officer were killed in a gun battle at Clones train station. The response in Belfast was brutal and in the three days between February 13-15, 31 died violently in the city. Most notoriously, a loyalist bomb was thrown into the Catholic enclave of Weaver Street killing six, including four children.
There were various attempts to stymie the border violence including two failed peace accords, the ‘Craig-Collins’ pacts in January and March 1922. Additionally, a Border Commission was established in February. This body was to monitor events on the boundary and included Republicans, the USC and British personnel. The pro-Treaty attitude to the Commission can be gauged by an incident on the Monaghan border in April. A convoy of Border Commission representatives was held up by parties unknown and their vehicles, weapons and equipment seized. The action was carried out by pro Treaty forces. Indeed, the local leaders involved joined An Garda Síochána later in the year.
It is unclear how much the Provisional Government’s cabinet knew about the various goings on at the border but the main military figures, Richard Mulcahy, Eoin O’Duffy and Michael Collins, were certainly well informed. An Ulster Council within the pro-Treaty command structure had been established in January1922 to plan border actions. It included all divisional commanders along the border. By April this grouping had devised a grand, but totally unrealistic, plan for a large scale ‘rising.’ The weaponry for the campaign was supplied by the Free State. Seasoned anti-Treaty IRA personnel from Cork and elsewhere in the south were sent to the Donegal border under the command of Sean Lehane to augment local units. The intention was that a united IRA would launch a conventional military attack on Northern Ireland. In the end, the offensive was partially cancelled with only the 2nd and 3rd Northern Divisions in Northern Ireland actually ‘rising’. The limited action was easily contained by the USC. There has been speculation as to whether the offensive was just a ruse by Collins and O’Duffy to distract the anti-Treaty faction. If this was the case, it was an incredibly dangerous strategy. The anti-Treaty side gained a lot of weaponry and a foothold in Donegal from the initiative.
Despite the failed offensive, talk of a joint campaign continued. In late May, Rory O’Connor of the Four Courts garrison told the Chicago Tribune that ‘he would attack the northeast counties whenever he was ready.’ Sporadic activity on the border continued in the interim. The Monaghan border area, a stronghold of O’Duffy, did get quieter. But even here a Catholic USC member, Thomas Sheridan, was shot dead as a result of border sniping on June 6. This was almost certainly an action by pro-Treaty forces.
The south Armagh border did become much more disturbed in June. Frank Aiken was in charge of the local 4th Northern Division which was within the pro-Treaty command structure at this point. The notorious Altnaveigh murders of 6 Protestant civilians on the Armagh border took place in June. Altnaveigh was part of a cycle of violence the origins of which predate 1922. Nonetheless, a significant event in that cycle was the killing of a Newry-based judge, James Woulfe Flanagan, on June 4. The IRA’s intention was to kidnap Flanagan as he left Sunday mass, but he was shot dead in a struggle with two gunmen. From Military Service Pension Collection files, it is evident that those involved were within the Beggars Bush (pro-Treaty) command structure at the time. After the attack, the perpetrators hastened to Dundalk to report the killing, but their superiors already knew the full details. The Police in Newry, presumably working on the mistaken assumption that it was anti-Treaty republicans involved, had been in phone contact looking for National Army assistance to apprehend the culprits. This incident is detailed in the BMH witness statement of Edward Fullerton who also recounts moving lorry loads of weaponry from Free State stores in Dublin to Northern Ireland later the same month.
Significant violence also took place on the Donegal border. Here, the plan for a joint offensive created two groupings claiming to be the 1st Northern Division of the IRA. Joe Sweeney commanded the pro-Treaty version, which he claimed included ‘practically every [Donegal] man who fired a shot’ pre truce. Meanwhile, the competing anti-Treaty division was backboned by Sean Lehane’s southerners. Tension grew between the groupings after four National Army soldiers and two civilians were shot dead on May 4. These incidents took place as Lehane’s men raided banks in Newtowncunningham and Buncrana. The exact circumstances are disputed but they ended any hope of a sustained joint offensive in Donegal. Nonetheless, there was one high profile occasion when the two republican factions did fight side-by-side. This occurred during a major clash with the USC at the start of June in the Pettigo-Belleek area. Significantly, the British Army intervened with overwhelming force to support the USC. According to one republican, the ‘Battle of Pettigo’ was ‘the only place where there was a stand-up fight with a defined battle line, and it is the only place in Ireland where artillery was used against the IRA.’ Four republicans and a USC constable were killed. This engagement underlined that significant British military support was available to back up the USC, illustrating further the futility of armed assaults against the massive military power securing the new Northern Ireland.
Given Rory O’Connor’s earlier statement, it is unsurprising that his faction was blamed for the London assassination of Sir Henry Wilson, security advisor to the Northern Ireland government. Wilson’s assassination was not an isolated incident and took place in the context of the ongoing border disturbances which were often (and usually erroneously) blamed on the Four Courts garrison. There was now huge pressure from the British to take action. When the bombardment of the Four Courts did begin on June 28, it pretty much ended the conflict on the border and Northern Ireland was stabilised. This stability had been achieved at a significant price that included the militarisation of society and the resultant further alienation of the nationalist population. Moreover, from December 6 1921 to May 31, 1922, the Police recorded 236 killed in Belfast with 37 more fatalities in the northern border counties. If anything, this is an underestimate and does not include those killed south of the border or in June. The point in relating these figures is to emphasise how problematic it is to date the start of the Civil War to the shelling of the Four Courts.
As its functionaries grew more concerned with internal security, the official Free State attitude to the North changed. In August 1922, Ernest Blythe wrote ‘the offensive against Irregulars put the Government for the first time in a position to decide freely upon its policy in regard to the North-East.’ Blythe advocated a ‘perfectly friendly and pacific’ policy. What resulted was southern disengagement.
There is a final postscript. Forty pro-Treaty prisoners involved in the 1922 incidents remained in British jails until 1926 when they were released as part of the Boundary Commission settlement. One of those freed was Seán McCurtain, who while in prison, was elected a Cumann na nGaedheal TD. Upon release, he took his seat in the Dáil. The southern Civil War can sometimes be framed as a battle between democrats and the ‘wild men screaming through the keyhole.’ If there were indeed ‘wild men’, the experience of early 1922 indicates that they were on all sides.
A version of this article appeared in a special edition of History Ireland
This research is supported by a Royal Irish Academy Decade of Centenaries Bursary.
K. Glennon, From Pogram to Civil War: Tom Glennon and the Belfast IRA (Cork: Mercier, 2013)
R. Lynch, The Northern IRA and the Early Years of Partition 1920-22 (Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2006)
C. Moore, The Birth of the Border: The Impact of Partition in Ireland (Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2019)
E. Phoenix, Northern Nationalism: Nationalist Politics, Partition and the Catholic Minority in Northern Ireland 1890-1940 (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 1994)