The Birth of the Irish Free State, 1921-1923

By Joseph M. Curran | Go to book overview

Chapter 12

Confrontation and Crisis:
March 1922

As the Free State began to take root, the IRA translated vocal opposition into action. In February, Ernie O'Malley's 2d Southern Division repudiated the authority of both GHQ and Dail Eireann and carried out a series of arms raids. A sensational attack on an RIC barracks at Clonmel in South Tipperary on February 26 resulted in the seizure of a sizable quantity of guns, ammunition, and stores. 1 Some police were killed and wounded in these raids; but when Churchill complained about the Clonmel affair, Collins told him the British government had been careless. 2 And so it had. The British army could take care of itself but the demoralized and disgruntled RIC could not. In April, Churchill admitted that 600 rifles had been taken from the RIC since the Treaty. 3

Hard on the heels of O'Malley's open defiance came a dangerous confrontation in Limerick. The British were scheduled to evacuate the city on February 23, and this posed a serious problem. Limerick was in a highly strategic position, commanding the Shannon estuary and vital to control of southwest Ireland. However, the local IRA unit was anti‐ Treaty and its commander had publicly repudiated GHQ's authority. 4 GHQ ordered General Michael Brennan, the pro-Treaty commander of the 1st Western Division, to move from Clare into Limerick and occupy the British posts until loyal elements of the local brigade could be organized to garrison them. O'Malley would have none of this, and anti‐ Treaty troops converged on the city with those of Brennan as the British began to pull out.

Churchill anxiously wired Cope, asking whether the Provisional Government intended to fight or parley, 5 but Cope was unable to give a definite answer. De Valera refrained from public comment but privately urged Mulcahy to do his best to settle the affair peacefully. 6 Mulcahy was doing just that. However, he had to contend not only with the firebrands like O'Malley but also with prominent Free Staters who were equally opposed to compromise. Griffith felt a clash with the Republicans was inevitable and that postponement would only make it worse. During the Limerick crisis, he told his fellow ministers that if they did not act firmly, they would be known as "the greatest poltroons in Irish history." Collins at first supported Griffith, and so did the rest of the Cabinet (except Mulcahy). Mulcahy urged conciliation, contending that the gov

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