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 1st 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.
They were indispensable to the Army, nursing the wounded and sick, carrying dispatches, scouting, acting as Intelligence agents, arranging billets, raising funds, knitting, washing, cooking for the active service men and burying our dead. Many sick and wounded Volunteers owe their lives to those girls, who cared and nursed them under great difficulties. On bicycles, those members of Cumann na mBan carried dispatches long distances, day or night, and on occasions the quick delivery of those saved the lives of Volunteers. Their work, particularly in Government concerns, as Intelligence agents, was vital to the well-being of the I.R.A. From Post Offices they abstracted copies of cipher messages passing from enemy Headquarters to Garrison Commanders which the I.R.A. quickly broke and acted on. At times, members of the Cumann na mBan scouted “wanted ” men on their journeys and ran many risks to ensure their safety. They raised large sums of money for the Army, and without their hard work, amounting to drudgery, members of the I.R.A. would often have lacked clean clothes or have gone hungry. They were a splendid body of young women and their value to the I.R.A. was well appreciated by the enemy, who banned the Cumann na mBan as an illegal organisation.
As well as having to meet the organised opposition of the I.R.A. and the Cumann na mBan, the British had also to contend with a hostile populace. By the end of 1920, except for a small minority of less than ten per cent, the people had boycotted or ostracised enemy garrisons, and the hate and contempt shown by our people must have had a very serious effect on the morale of the isolated British forces. Except for a very few no one would speak to them, old men spat as they passed, old women looked through them with contemptuous stares, children jeered at them, no girl, except the unfortunates, would meet them and some publicans and shopkeepers refused to serve them. Those British troops were enemies and were made to feel it by those sturdy people. It is true that the British did not take all this lying down and they made our people pay. The shops and publichouses where service had been refused were looted, broken up and sometimes burned, old men felt the butts of rifles, and old women, girls and children were assaulted and insulted. But those reprisals did not stop the expressions of hate and contempt, and the isolation of the British grew as the boycott intensified. This was only part of the people’s contribution to the fight for Freedom. Nearing the Truce, unasked and unorganised, nine out of every ten of the adult civilian population were watching and reporting to us on the movements of the British troops or on the activities of any suspected British agent. A farmer ploughing up a field would stop in the middle of a furrow, abandon his horses and plough and run perhaps a mile to warn I.R.A. men of an enemy approach. A woman driving to market in her donkey cart, detecting British troops in ambush, would pass through it, and at the next house rout out a messenger to send back with the information. Schoolboys of twelve peeped over ditches and scanned the countryside with their sharp young eyes, looking for the khaki or dark-blue uniforms. A publican or barmaid hearing some half-drunken officer tell of a raid, arranged for early the following morning, would have the information to the threatened district that night. Railway employees carried dispatches, facilitated wanted men when passengers and obligingly delayed trains, so that I.R.A. squads could seize and carry off the mails. Middle-aged men dropped their business and work to drive members of the I.R.A. ; wives and daughters scrubbed and cleaned their homes so that visiting Column men would eat of their best in spotless surroundings. Men would leave their beds to watch all night while tired I.R.A. men rested. Doctors travelled surreptitiously to treat our sick and wounded, and teachers warned children against mentioning the movements of the I.R.A. while urging them to report those of the enemy.
All those contributions were important, but to me the greatest of all were the examples of courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice given to us in the I.R.A. by some of the civilian population. We, the Irish, are not a master race, for there is no such breed in this scattered world, but neither are we of the material of a subject one. Like all peoples, we have our weaknesses and failings, our blackguards as well as good people, our cowards as well as our brave men, our mean souls as well as generous ones, but, surely, our proportion of men and women of high courage and great generosity is amongst the highest in the whole world.
Image: The Proclamation of the Republic (Irish: Forógra na Poblachta)—also known as the Easter Proclamation, which declared independence from Great Britain as part of the 1916 Easter Rebellion.