How the Civil War was fought

Clear by second week of July 1922 that Civil War could not be confined to Dublin

Initially the Provisional Government hoped that fighting would be limited to the operation to take the Four Courts and then to clearing the “Irregulars” from Dublin city.

Liam Lynch, the IRA chief of staff, was detained during the Dublin fighting but released in the mistaken view that he was a moderate and would limit conflict around the country. This hope was quashed when anti-Treaty units around the country, under Lynch's leadership, reacted to the attack on their comrades in the Four Courts by expelling pro-Treaty garrisons from their territory.

It was clear by the second week of July 1922 that the Civil War could not be confined to Dublin, but Collins and his lieutenants still hoped to wrap it up in short order. Gearóid O’Sullivan, the Army Adjt Gen told Cabinet that, “the Irregulars all over the country could be disposed of in a week or a fortnight”.

Initially this appeared to be true. Drogheda, which fell into republican hands during the fighting in Dublin, was retaken within a week. Forces from the main National Headquarters outside Dublin, Athlone, under Sean MacEoin, occupied Galway city with minimal loss of life and landed by sea in County Mayo, ousting the anti-Treatyites from the main towns there. An expedition to Donegal similarly dispersed anti-Treaty columns there, in part composed of men from Cork and Kerry, who had been sent there in early 1922 purportedly for an offensive on Northern Ireland.


A shaky truce in Limerick city between rival pro-and anti-Treaty garrisons lasted until July 11th when firing broke out in the city. On the 17th, after Eoin O’Duffy had arrived from Dublin with reinforcements including armoured cars and artillery, the anti-Treaty IRA abandoned Limerick and retreated south, though they – Cork and Kerry as well as Limerick Brigades – put up some heavy resistance in the countryside around Killmallock and Newcastlewest, momentarily stalling the pro-Treaty forces’ advance.

In the east Waterford city was taken by pro-Treaty troops in two days of fighting (July 18th-20th, 1922). Again the Free State forces possession of artillery effectively decided matters, as the Republican garrison – after a brief stand – burned their barracks and retreated south west.

Pro-Treaty casualties were relatively light in the initial Free State offensive considering the extent of the territory secured; in the region of 100 killed and several hundred more wounded, though pro-Treaty troops were still held up fighting in south County Limerick and Tipperary. By the end of July with the important exception of Cork city, all the important urban centres in the prospective Free State were in pro-Treaty hands.

By July 26th Collins was able to write to his colleagues, “we may congratulate ourselves that everything has turned out so well ... we have taught the rebels lessons ... which appeals to reason or patriotism failed to teach them”. It remained to dislodge the “Irregulars” in their stronghold of Cork and Kerry, and Collins hoped to do so by a swift knock down blow that would “save the good fighting men of Cork from barrenness of their leaders”.

To this end, he and Emmet Dalton planned two seaborne expeditions to Cork and Kerry in the first week of August 1922, landing on the southern coast outflanking the fighting line in counties Limerick and Tipperary.

The event that decided the opening phase of the Irish Civil War, was the National Army seaborne landings in the south – first at Fenit in Kerry on August 3rd and then at three points near Cork city on August 8th.

Occupying the anti-Treatyites' southern heartland and restoring civil government proved a lot more problematic

By this time the National Army had already swollen to 14,000 men, and it would reach nearly 40,000 by the end of 1922. Recruitment would also drastically change its character. Though pro-Treaty IRA veterans would remain in most of the leadership positions, the rank and file came increasingly from veterans of the British Army and many thousands more who were recruited without any prior military experience at all.

Several thousand troops were landed on the southern coast and though there was some hard fighting, within a week Cork city and most of the important towns in south Munster were in government hands. Many of the Cork and Kerry IRA units had been fighting elsewhere when the landings occurred and although many came back to try to hold off the pro-Treaty landings, they were too late.

Anti-Treaty IRA commander Liam Deasy declined to defend Cork city in the streets, undoubtedly sparing that city the inevitable destruction and civilian casualties that would have resulted, as they had in Dublin. Liam Lynch cancelled orders to destroy the Cork Custom House. Humane such orders may have been but from a military point of view they were disastrous, handing the Free State back its second city and surrendering the anti-Treaty IRA's main base and source of income.

The anti-Treaty IRA burned the military barracks in Cork in early 1922 and dispersed in some disorder into the countryside.

At least twenty pro-Treaty soldiers were killed in Cork and around Tralee; but from a purely military point of view the landings had been remarkably successful. However, occupying the anti-Treatyites’ southern heartland and restoring civil government and what the government called “ordered conditions” proved a lot more problematic.

Anti-Treaty forces had been dispersed but not destroyed. After the fall of Cork Liam Lynch, who had always envisioned a return to guerrilla warfare, issued General Orders for the formation of Active Service Units in each area, not to exceed 35 men and for the systematic destruction of road and rail infrastructure.

The weeks after the fall of Cork, rather than an end to the war, saw a succession of disasters for the pro-Treaty side.

First, Arthur Griffith Chairman of the Provisional Government died of a stroke on August 12th. Two days later, Frank Aiken – who had tried to stay neutral but had taken the anti-Treaty side after being arrested by Dan Hogan – retook Dundalk from the National Army garrison, taking 300 prisoners and large stock of weaponry, prompting fears that he might march south on Dublin.

We are fighting against very superior forces in a very hostile country

Eight days later on August 22nd came the greatest shock of all, the death of National Army Commander-in-Chief Michael Collins in an ambush in West Cork. W T Cosgrave took over Griffith's position as President while Richard Mulcahy succeeded Collins as Commander-in-Chief

The death of Collins and upsurge in guerrilla attacks around the country in late August and September 1922, made all sides in the conflict think that the Free State was on the ropes.

A British military intelligence officer in Dublin reported: “having crushed the massed resistance of the Republicans, [Free State] troops now find themselves faced with a guerrilla campaign which every day becomes more effective.”

The National Army had lost relatively few casualties in the "line fighting" of July and early August 1922 but as the conflict morphed into a guerrilla affair, their losses soon spiralled. Collins death was only one of many Free State soldiers, especially in counties Cork, Tipperary and Kerry. Significant concentrations of guerrillas also operated in mountainous areas of Sligo and Mayo as well as urban insurgencies in Dublin and Cork cities, and in previously "quiet" areas such as Kildare and south Wexford.

While not all areas were as "disturbed" as these, the National Army actually lost control of several mid-sized towns such as Dundalk, Kenmare and Clifden in this period, as well as failing to establish control over much of the countryside.

In Kerry, pro-Treaty commander WRE Murphy told his commanders , “we are fighting against very superior forces in a very hostile country” and urgently asked for at least 500 more men.

Similarly in Cork on September 3rd, 1922, Emmet Dalton reported that there about 1,000 (of the) “enemy” in West Cork and that the situation was “very bad” with “a large concentration of irregulars”. He urged the government to send more men and rifles as well as to allow the execution of captured anti-Treatyites.

It was in part in response to these setbacks that the Government passed legislation allowing for executions in late September and began carrying them out in mid November. Eight anti-Treatyites were executed in Dublin, including one time secretary to the Treaty negotiating team Erskine Childers.

This led to the darkest phase of the Civil War as Liam Lynch in reprisal ordered IRA units to kill TDs who had voted for the “murder bill” and to embark on wholesale burning of the houses of Free State supporters.

This led to a wave of arson attacks across the country, including some on the "Big Houses" of those that had become Free State senators, and to the assassination in Dublin of Cork TD Sean Hales. This in turn led to the government's summary execution of four senior anti-Treaty leaders Liam Mellows, Rory O'Connor, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barret, who had been captured at the Four Courts and who had been held since in Mountjoy Gaol.

Massive recruitment into the National Army and their deployment to trouble spots had by late 1922, limited to the anti-Treaty campaign both geographically and its terms of effectiveness. But as 1922 passed into 1923 no end was in sight to the conflict, which increasingly took on all the vicious and self-sustaining character of a vendetta.

John Dorney is an independent historian and chief editor and writer of the Irish Story website. His books include Peace After the Final Battle, the Story of the Irish Revolution and The Irish Civil War in Dublin, the fight for the Irish capital 1922-1924