In the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), Irish republicans were vastly outnumbered and outgunned by British forces—yet they won, fighting to an eventual truce and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. How did they do it?
In his autobiography and memoir, Guerilla Days in Ireland (1949), IRA commander Tom Barry enumerates the strength of British forces in County Cork seven weeks before the truce:
The 1st Battalion, The Buffs Regiment ; The 1st Battalion, The King’s Regiment ; The 2nd Battalion, The Hampshires ; The 2nd Battalion, The King’s Own Scottish Borderers ; The 2nd Battalion, The South Stafford Regiment ; The 1st Battalion, Essex Regiment ; The ist Battalion, The Manchester Regiment ; The 2nd Battalion, The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders ; The 2nd Battalion, The East Lancashire Regiment ; The 1st Battalion, The West Surrey Regiment ; The 1st Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment.
These forces comprised 8,800 first line infantry troops. In addition to this were Black and Tans (members of the occupying British police force), machine gun corps, artillery units, and others—totaling in all over 12,500 men. In contrast:
Standing against this field force was that of the Irish Republican Army, never at any time exceeding three hundred and ten riflemen in the whole of the County of Cork, for the very excellent reason that this was the total of rifles held by the combined three Cork Brigades.
Why were the British unable to beat back this small group of rebels? The answer, according to Barry, is simple:
In the last analysis the struggle was never one between the British Army and a small Irish force of Flying Columns and Active Service Units. Had this been so, the few Flying Columns operating would not have existed for a month, no matter how bravely and skilfully they fought. This was a war between the British Army and the Irish people, and the problem before the British from mid-1920 was not how to smash the Flying Columns, but how to destroy the resistance of a people, for, as sure as day follows night, if a Flying Column were wiped out in any area, another would arise to continue the attacks on, and the resistance to the alien rulers. The Irish people had many weapons which the British lacked: their belief in the righteousness of their cause, their determination to be free, their political structure as declared in the General Election of December, 1918, and a strong, militant body of youth, who, though as yet unarmed, were a potential army of great possibilities.
The Cumann na mBan, the women’s auxiliary organisation, ranks high in this estimate of values. The members, organised in companies and districts corresponding to I.R.A. units, were not in any sense women politicians, holding debating classes or propounding political theories. They were groups of women and girls from town and countryside, sisters, relatives or friends of the Volunteers, enrolled in their own organisation, far the sole purpose of helping the Irish Republican Army.