Britain between the Wars, 1918-1940

By Charles Loch Mowat | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Retrenchment, 1920-1922

1. THE WAR IN IRELAND: THE LAST PHASE

IN 1921 the fighting in Ireland became more desperate. Martial law extended across eight southern counties (elsewhere the civil courts continued to function). The possession of arms and the harbouring or aiding of rebels became a capital offence subject to trial in a military court; and in the spring of 1921 the use of drumhead courts martial for men taken red-handed under arms was authorised, though only used on three occasions before the truce. Only fourteen death sentences imposed by military courts were actually carried out during the seven months of martial law preceding the truce. In the matter of reprisals Macready's order following the proclamation of martial law provided that brigade commanders could authorise the destruction, by explosives, of houses of persons who might be implicated in any outrages against Crown forces, provided notice was given to the occupants, and time to move out valuables.1

In these circumstances violence increased on both sides -- murders, kidnappings, the execution of hostages, ambushes, raids incendiarism. The most sensational, and costly, exploit by the I.R.A. was the attack on the Dublin Customs House at noon on May 25, 1921. Some 120 I.R.A. men seized the building, ordered the staff to leave, and set it afire. Auxis rushed to the scene, and in the battle which ensued six of the Irish were killed, twelve wounded, and seventy captured. The building was gutted, and with it, unfortunately for historians as well as for government officials at the time, the records of the Local Government Board, Customs and Inland Revenue, Stationery Office, and certain other offices. Macready lists the events of two typical days, March so and 31: an officer murdered leaving his hotel in Dublin, a bomb explosion in Amiens Street, a military lorry seized, a retired officer shot in County Cork, rioting in Belfast, an R.I.C. patrol ambushed

____________________
1
N. Macready, Annals, II, 515-26, 562, 586-94.

-79-

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