ABOVE Recruited into the Royal Irish Constabulary as reinforcements, the heavy-handed ‘Black and Tans’ became known for indiscipline.

Born in blood: the Irish Free State

After years of unrest and escalating violence, the Irish Free State came into being on 6 December 1922. To mark its centenary, Patrick Mercer looks at the grisly events that led to its creation.


Dip into almost any part of modern British history and the issue of Ireland will probably bob to the surface. So it is appropriate to mark the centenary of the establishment of the Irish Free State on 6 December 1922 with a closer look at the uproar into which Dublin – then the second most important capital of the Empire – and the counties that surround it were plunged. Right on England’s doorstep, a cultural and economic jewel – and the birthplace of so many of the King-Emperor’s generals, admirals and air marshals – bloodily wrenched most of herself away from the Union.

Rather than attempt a wide-ranging examination of the events leading up to December 1922 (for more on the Irish War of Independence, see MHM 67), this article will focus on a handful of grisly, attention-grabbing incidents that had a disproportionate effect on opinions and outcomes. In Dublin, the seat of power, a clutch of determined men instigated a series of actions, which, in this writer’s view, fatally dented the Crown’s determination to carry on governing most of Ireland: this is a snapshot of those bloody months.

ABOVE Recruited into the Royal Irish Constabulary as reinforcements, the heavy-handed ‘Black and Tans’ became known for indiscipline.
Recruited into the Royal Irish Constabulary as reinforcements, the heavy-handed ‘Black and Tans’ became known for indiscipline.

Covert operations

The term ‘covert operations’ would not have been used in the 1920s, but its present-day meaning is well suited to the labyrinth of spies, informers, plain-clothes policemen and soldiers, double agents, and assassins that sprang into existence at the time as part of the Crown’s attempt to counteract the burgeoning threat of Irish republicanism. Moreover, the techniques it describes would have been every bit as familiar to the men who worked in Dublin under General Lake, the British commander during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, as they were to the host of ‘dark’ agencies that tried to foil the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) at the height of the ‘Troubles’ nearly two centuries later.

Between those two eras lay the Crown’s attempts in the early 1920s to counter an increasingly confident and aggressive Irish republican movement, which had the advantage of moving and operating amongst its own people. In the Irish capital, these intelligence operations were centred on Dublin Castle – known simply as ‘The Castle’ – though there were also several out-stations in the provinces.

The most mature organisation operating at the time was ‘G Division’, the plain-clothes branch of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP). Its successes in the past had included the clearing up of the brutal 1882 ‘Phoenix Park Murders’ of the newly appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland and his Permanent Under-Secretary by a radical Irish republican group known as ‘The Invincibles’. The ‘G Men’, as they were known, were rightly dreaded by their enemies.

above A rare photograph of what is thought to be an IRA ‘flying column’ walking through the streets of Dublin during 1922.
A rare photograph of what is thought to be an IRA ‘flying column’ walking through the streets of Dublin during 1922.

Additionally, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) ran its own intelligence operations with the rather unconventional help of the RIC Special Reserve and the Auxiliaries. Often confused with the regular RIC – and better-known as the ‘Black and Tans’ – this heavy-handed set of adventurers was deployed to Ireland from 25 March 1920, and soon set about the local people with casual brutality. The RIC also provided some covert officers for military and police intelligence, who found their most famous incarnation in the ‘Cairo Gang’ – more properly, the Dublin District Special Branch, or ‘D Branch’, established in January 1920.

Much has been written about the shady fusion of soldiers, civilian spies and police officers known as the Cairo Gang, but the full story is unlikely ever to be fully known. Even the group’s nickname is disputed by historians – with some suggesting that its members met at the Cairo Cafe in Dublin’s Grafton Street; others that most had seen service in the Middle East; and yet others that no such name existed until after the gang’s demise. Whatever the truth, D Branch was pitiless, effective, and ruthlessly targeted by its enemies in the republicans’ own intelligence branch.

The Squad

On 10 April 1919, the First Dáil (the breakaway government formed by the Irish republican party Sinn Fein following its landslide victory in Ireland at the British general election of 1918) ordered that all members of the RIC should be ostracised. A young man by the name of Michael Collins had other ideas, however.

Collins – the twentysomething Director of Intelligence for the original revolutionary paramilitary organisation known as the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as well as a First Dáil minister – had already taken countermeasures a lot further by authorising his first assassination, in which Detective Sergeant Patrick ‘the Dog’ Smith was shot near to his home in the Dublin suburb of Drumcondra in July 1919.

The following year, Collins ordered a small assassination group to be formed – aimed, primarily, at plainclothes policemen and soldiers, at members of G Division of the DMP, and occasionally even at civil servants who got in the way. ‘The Squad’ was born, and among its first operations were the murders of the G Division Inspector William Redmond on 21 January 1920, and the British double-agent John Byrnes on 2 March.

A photograph believed by some to show the covert group of British intelligence agents known as the Cairo Gang, although others maintain that it depicts another group known as the Igoe Gang.

As with so much of the murky business happening during this period, it is often difficult to separate theory from fact. There is little doubt, however, that the events of September to November 1920 were so bitter and so bloody, and received so much publicity, that they put unendurable pressure on British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s coalition government. Those 12 weeks were marked by a series of violent incidents, starting with the murders that led to the execution on 1 November 1920 of the young IRA soldier Kevin Barry, and culminating in the carnage of the first Bloody Sunday and the Croke Park shootings. Together, they tipped the political seesaw.

The autumn of 1920 not only provides a perfect illustration of the tempo of the War of Independence in Dublin, it also demonstrates how a series of relatively minor military clashes can build into a political crescendo. Furthermore, to this author’s mind, it also shows how, without the moving hand and ruthless drive of Michael Collins, and without his skill as a coordinator of guerrilla fighters and his ability to exploit media coverage, there would have been no Anglo-Irish Treaty 12 months later, and no declaration of the Irish Free State a year after that.

The death of Kevin Barry

One of the most celebrated martyrs of the period was the 18-year-old medical student Kevin Barry – yet his leap to fame came not in a blaze of gunfire, but in a botched raid that was typical of the conflict.

Three years earlier, as a 15-year-old in 1917, Barry had joined Company C, 1st Battalion of the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers. At the time of Barry’s arrival, this Irish nationalist military organisation had recently taken part in the Easter Rising, the landmark insurrection against British rule in Ireland, which began on Easter Monday 1916, but was suppressed just days later by the British army. The Volunteers had been hit hard by casualties and arrests during the Rising, and needed to reorganise and rearm to add pressure to the glimpsed departure of the British.

below Members of the IRA unit known as the Squad, or the 12 Apostles, established in 1920 as a counter-intelligence and assassination gang.
Members of the IRA unit known as the Squad, or the 12 Apostles, established in 1920 as a counter-intelligence and assassination gang. IMAGE: National Museum of Ireland

Barry transferred to H Company, where his early guerrilla career was typical of his comrades. He was part of a handful of operations seeking to seize weapons and ammunition bound for the RIC. Then, on 1 June 1920, he was part of a more daring raid on a military outpost at King’s Inn, on Dublin’s Constitution Hill. A platoon of soldiers was held at gunpoint by the Volunteers, who took Lee Enfield .303 rifles, ammunition, and two lethal and highly prized automatic Lewis guns. The operation was over in six minutes without a single casualty.

But perhaps the Volunteers lacked the sangfroid of their more hardened comrades in the Squad, for Barry’s next major operation was a disaster.

Troops from 2nd Battalion Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, based at Collinstown Barracks (the site of Dublin Airport today), were in the habit of sending a small working party to collect bread from Monk’s Bakery in the centre of Dublin. The building is no longer a bakery, but the layout of the roads and nearby shops is largely unchanged, and it is easily possible to imagine this routine fatigue – so routine, in fact, that few of the soldiers were even armed.

On 1 September, four Volunteers had taken over the bakery’s office and disconnected the phone, while another 16 lay in ambush, waiting for the soldiers. At about 11.30am, the truck arrived, commanded by a sergeant with six privates: when he and a couple of others went into the office, Barry – now a section commander – ran towards the lorry and demanded that the soldiers surrender what weapons they had.

The next few minutes were confused. A soldier fired a shot; the Volunteers replied, hitting and instantly killing 15-year-old Private Harold Washington, and wounding two more soldiers, who later died of their wounds. Into this scrimmage then came a patrol of 1st Battalion The Lancashire Fusiliers, based at the nearby North Dublin Union Workhouse.

below The Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins addresses a crowd in Dublin in 1922.
The Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins addresses a crowd in Dublin in 1922.

Barry was armed with a .38 Mauser pistol, which had misfired before he cleared it. He fired a round just as the Fusiliers closed in. The counter-attack was aggressive; lead was flying. The Volunteers scattered, and Barry took cover under the soldiers’ truck; as the vehicle started its engine, an onlooker warned the troops not to hurt whoever was underneath.

It is a tribute to the Fusiliers’ discipline that an armed Volunteer, who had been directly involved in the death or injury of their comrades just a few minutes earlier, was arrested rather than shot or bayoneted. In any event, Barry soon found himself in Dublin’s Mountjoy Gaol awaiting trial for murder.

The teenage Barry would not talk, and the fact that he had been carrying a .38 weapon rather than the .45 pistol that had killed Private Washington and his mates was of no avail. The Judge Advocate General found that the court-martial had only to prove that Barry was one of the group that killed three men, and every member of the party was technically guilty of murder.

The republican publicity machine meanwhile went into overdrive at the prospect of the first execution of a Volunteer since 1916 – and not just any Volunteer, but ‘Just a lad of eighteen summers…’ as he was to be immortalised in song.

The press showed little interest in the extreme youth of the first victim, but perhaps Private Washington’s own 15 years drove the court-martial away from leniency, despite the outrage caused four years earlier by the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising and the febrile atmosphere of Dublin that autumn. In any event:

In Mountjoy jail one Monday morning,
High upon the gallows tree,
Kevin Barry gave his young life,
For the cause of liberty.
Barry’s execution on 1 November was to pour petrol on the fire in a way that no one had foreseen.

Bloody Sunday

None of the above events directly involved Collins or the Squad, although there were suggestions that planning was started to ‘spring’ Barry from prison. Once public outrage swelled after the youngster’s execution, however, a perfect platform developed for an insurgents’ coup.

As the clamour following the execution continued, a number of leading IRA men were almost captured in raids by Crown forces. Then, on 10 November, the names and addresses of more than 200 rebels were seized, leaving Collins convinced that the Castle’s intelligence operation had to be stopped: the best way of doing that was by targeted, coordinated assassinations.

ABOVE The teenage medical student and Irish republican activist Kevin Barry was hanged at Dublin’s Mountjoy Gaol on 1 November 1920.
The teenage medical student and Irish republican activist Kevin Barry was hanged at Dublin’s Mountjoy Gaol on 1 November 1920. IMAGE: Alamy

The morning of Sunday 21 November was chosen because it was thought that most of the potential victims would be in bed in the lodgings or hotels in which most lived, and because Dublin would be thronged by crowds who had come to watch the Gaelic football final between Dublin and Tipperary at Croke Park. Also influencing the decision-making was a series of brutal incidents across Ireland that followed the hanging, which Collins believed would tip public and political opinion in his favour whilst spurring British forces on to further, self-defeating outrages.

On the night of 20 November, the Squad and trusted members of the IRA’s Dublin Brigade were briefed on 20 targets. Two of the assassins, Dick McKee and Paeder Clancy, were arrested a few hours later – and Collins himself narrowly avoided being ‘lifted’ – but, in the early morning, the Volunteer teams went for their victims. Some target intelligence was accurate, some was not; but, in a brutal, merciless assault, 15 men were slaughtered, some in front of their wives and of the staff of the hotels where they were staying.

Not all went smoothly from the Volunteers’ point of view: three civilians who were probably not involved were mown down; and Volunteer Frank Teeling was shot and captured at 22 Lower Mount Street, in central Dublin, when RIC Auxiliaries surrounded the building following the killing of Lieutenant Henry Angliss, a British officer who used the alias Patrick Mahon as a cover.

At Teeling’s later trial, the statement of another British officer, Lieutenant Charles Ratsch Peel, who survived the attack after putting up stout resistance, gave a taste of the onslaught:

The maid opened the door, twenty men rushed in (the IRA say 11 men), and demanded to know the bedrooms of Mr. Mahon and Mr. Peel. Mr. Mahon’s room was pointed out. They entered, and five shots were fired immediately at a few inches’ range. Mr. Mahon was killed. At the same time others attempted to enter Mr. Peel’s room. The door was locked. Seventeen shots were fired through the panels. Mr. Peel escaped uninjured. Meanwhile another servant, hearing the shots, shouted from an upper window to a party of officers of the Auxiliary Division who had left Beggars Bush Barracks to catch an early train southward for duty.

Fifteen dead was just the start, however.

Croke Park

It is tempting to say that Collins could never have expected such a dreadfully miscalculated riposte from the Crown forces as that which followed – except that to dignify it with the term ‘riposte’ is wrong. Instead, the bloody rampage was a visceral, callous, thoughtless act of revenge inspired not only by the assassinations, but also by the murder of two Auxiliaries, Temporary Cadets Garniss and Morris, who were isolated and shot on Mount Street Bridge as they responded to the Squad’s assassinations.

below An artist’s impression from the Illustrated London News depicts the shooting of a British officer in his hotel room on Bloody Sunday, 21 November 1920.
An artist’s impression from the Illustrated London News depicts the shooting of a British officer in his hotel room on Bloody Sunday, 21 November 1920. IMAGE: Alamy

Despite the violence, however, the Gaelic football final continued, with about 5,000 fans converging on Croke Park, the Dublin stadium that is the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association. The fans were in complete ignorance of a hastily planned operation designed to filter the crowd for gunmen, who were thought to be sheltering among them after the earlier killings.

A column of troops in trucks and three armoured cars approached from the north, while 12 lorries full of RIC Special Reserve (‘Tans’) led from the south-west, with another six vehicles containing Auxiliaries and some plain-clothes officers behind.

It has never been properly established why the police opened fire almost as soon as they arrived at the Royal Canal end of the ground at about 3.25pm. The officers claimed that they had come under fire first; but that afternoon, 14 people, including one player (Michael Hogan from Tipperary), were killed, and another 60-100 people injured.

Later that night, Clancy and McKee, the two men who had earlier been arrested, were killed along with another man named Conor Clune ‘whilst trying to escape’ from custody in Dublin Castle. Undoubtedly, they were murdered – just the latest casualties on this monstrous day.

Westminster at bay

Even as tears were shed over the coffins of Bloody Sunday, matters escalated still further. On 28 November, just a week after the grim events in Dublin, the 3rd Cork Brigade, commanded by the prominent IRA guerrilla leader Tom Barry, mounted an attack that killed 16 Auxiliaries at Kilmichael, a village in County Cork. It was an engagement that marked a shift to almost open warfare. Suddenly, Lloyd George’s government, which had looked so confident just weeks before, was shaken not just by mistakes of its own making, but by tactical defeats too.

ABOVE America’s Boston Post newspaper reports the death of Michael Collins in an ambush in County Cork on 22 August 1922.
America’s Boston Post newspaper reports the death of Michael Collins in an ambush in County Cork on 22 August 1922.

Rural areas in Ireland became ungovernable as IRA ‘flying columns’ ambushed, bombed, and sniped, forcing the RIC out of endless isolated barracks. Soldiers and policemen – both exhausted by the different types of war they had been fighting over the past years – withdrew to the larger towns, while the Black and Tans only made matters worse with reprisals and wholesale indiscipline.

Political and military miscalculations, along with the growing bloodshed, showed Westminster just how deep and widespread resentment was towards continuing British rule. Then, hard on the heels of the autumn’s slaughter, a British Labour Commission report in January 1921 on the situation in Ireland condemned the Government’s handling of the situation – especially the recruitment, deployment and conduct of the Black and Tans – with the future Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, rejecting force and urging the British government to make an offer to the Irish ‘conceived on the most generous lines’.

The game was up, and in July 1921 Westminster offered a truce, despite the fact that neither the Dáil nor the IRA asked for one. Some claim that the IRA was on the point of military collapse when the truce came into effect; others say that a series of major operations was about to be initiated against the Crown forces.

Whatever the truth, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed on 6 December 1921, with the declaration of the Irish Free State following a year later. But that wasn’t to put a stop to the bloodshed. The political vacuum created by the end of British power was already being filled by Irishmen fighting Irishmen: the pro-treaty Provisional Government versus the anti-treaty IRA, who had exchanged shots as early as June 1922. The vicious civil war that then followed turned another bloody page in Irish history.

It is ironic, though, that the callous genius of Michael Collins was itself extinguished in an anti-treaty ambush in County Cork on 22 August 1922. The commander was probably Denis ‘Sonny’ O’Neill, a former Royal Irish Constable turned IRA officer, whose bullets made sure that one of the main architects of the Free State never saw it. But then, neither did Volunteer Kevin Barry nor Private Harold Washington.

The Irish Regiments

By the time the Irish Free State came into existence on 6 December 1922, countless Irishmen were serving in all sorts of units of the Crown in every part of the British Empire. Among the Regular Army, there were four cavalry, eight infantry and one Guards regiments who were recruited directly or indirectly from Ireland. Some had the word ‘Irish’ in their title, while others, such as the Leinster Regiment, were named after provinces in what was now the Free State – a situation which would cause friction if they continued to serve the King. All of these formations had interesting – even exotic – histories, and few would say that any of them had behaved with anything but the greatest gallantry in battle. That would not save them, however.

With endearing loyalty, some voices (largely Anglo-Irish voices, one suspects) suggested that the regiments recruited in the South might serve on in the Free State Army, but that idea was stillborn.

There were fewer difficulties for the cavalry regiments, as none of their names had specific connections with the South. So, 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars, and 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons were untouched, although there’s an interesting footnote about the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers.

The 5th Lancers had amalgamated with the 16th Lancers earlier in 1922, but because the 5th had been disbanded for 60 years after ‘disloyalty’ during the 1798 Rebellion, an odd title was devised on amalgamation – ‘16th/5th Queen’s Royal Lancers’. Purists and Old Comrades yelped with displeasure but, helpfully, the new Regiment’s links with Ireland were overtaken by events.

King George V receives the colours of the disbanded Irish regiments at a special ceremony at St George’s Hall, Windsor Castle, on 12 June 1922. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, the Irish Guards had been raised in 1900 as a tribute to the prowess of the Irish Regiments in the South African War, and their title posed no difficulties. Similarly, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Rifles and the Royal Irish Fusiliers – all with depots north of the border – were less controversial (although, as a nod to the new reality, the title ‘Ulster’ was substituted for ‘Irish’ for the last two).

The Special Reserve battalions of ‘Ulster’ Regiments remained unchanged, while the gallant oddities of the London Irish Rifles and the Liverpool Irish had already joined the London Regiment and the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment respectively. Sadly, though, there was no escape for the only reserve cavalry regiment based in what was now the Free State: the South Irish Horse was disbanded.

But the future of the five remaining infantry regiments and their reserve battalions, whose depots were all south of the border, still had to be resolved. There was some talk in Whitehall of clumsy amalgamations with the Ulster-based regiments, but that foundered, and disbandment followed in its wake. This was their fate:

The Royal Irish Regiment

The former 18th Foot had been raised in 1684 as Hamilton’s Regiment and, in the 19th century, served as the county regiment of Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford and Kilkenny, with a depot established at Clonmel. It had seen countless campaigns, and won four VCs from the Crimea via New Zealand to South Africa. Following disbandment in 1922, however, the title leapt back to life in 1992, adorning the amalgamation of the Royal Irish Rangers and the Ulster Defence Regiment as a new Royal Irish Regiment.

The Connaught Rangers

This famous old regiment, ‘the Devil’s Own’, was itself a curious amalgamation of the 88th Foot and the 94th Scotch Brigade. With their depot in Renmore Barracks, Galway, the Connaughts fought with great distinction in all the major campaigns, winning a total of three VCs and spawning a number of rollicking songs in the best Irish tradition.

In June 1920, however, there was an ugly incident when 88 men of C Company, 1st Battalion mutinied in Jullundur in India. They were protesting at the treatment being meted out by the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Auxiliaries (or ‘Black and Tans’) during the Irish War of Independence (1919-22) to their families back home. Seventy-seven men had prison sentences handed down, but Private James Daly, the ringleader, was executed due to the deaths of two men during an attempted storming of an armoury: he remains the last British Army soldier to be shot for mutiny.

Daly’s body and those of the two others killed in the incident were repatriated to Ireland in 1970. In 1968, though, when the three Ulster regiments were amalgamated, the memory of the old Connaughts was saluted in appropriate fashion by the new regiment being dubbed the Royal Irish Rangers.

The Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians)

The former 100th and 109th Regiments had a complicated history, but it is enough to say that the 100th Foot were given the title ‘Royal Canadians’ after much of their early service had been spent there. Their depot was in Birr, in County Offaly, but after hard service in the South African and First World Wars and four VCs, they were disbanded: they chose to present their regimental silver to the Canadian government in recognition of their heritage.

The Royal Munster Fusiliers

Springing from the 101st and 104th Foot, the Munsters’ depot was in Tralee, and they recruited from Cork, Clare, Limerick and Kerry.

Winning three VCs in the First World War, the men of the 1st Battalion chose to inter their cap badges in an impromptu grave as a gesture of defiance and sadness after their disbandment parade.

The Royal Dublin Fusiliers

Originally the 102nd and 103rd Foot, the Dublins fought long and hard in South Africa and the Great War, but had a tricky time during the Easter Rising of 1916, when many of their men at the depot became involved in its suppression. A fine arch was erected as a regimental memorial at a corner of St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, but it was unfairly dubbed ‘Traitors’ Gate’ by some who sympathised with the rebel cause. Their three VCs – all won by sergeants – speaks to the contrary.

Nothing was simple about the history of the younger Irish regiments, however. Since the 18th century, the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) had recruited ‘European’ regiments, and when the Company was wound up in 1859, they were transferred to the British establishment. The HEIC’s ‘European’ cavalry regiments had already been absorbed, but in 1881 the Leinsters, Munsters and Dublins all came into existence, bestowing Irish names on regiments that had originally been raised in Bengal, Madras and Bombay.

Yet there was to be a further turn. With the outbreak of the Irish Civil War on 26 June 1922, and after the disbandment the following month of the Irish Regiments, many redundant officers and soldiers re-enlisted in the Free State’s Army – with the result that by May 1923, more than half of its 53,000 men had previously served under King George’s colours.

Patrick Mercer is a former soldier, journalist, and MP. He is interested in any action of the British Army or Royal Navy, but has made special studies of the Peninsular War, the Crimean War, and the Italian Campaign of the Second World War.
IMAGES: Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise stated.