Irish Civil War: The Battle of Kenmare and the IRA’s 'September offensive' in Kerry

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With the success of the National Army’s seaborne landings across Kerry in early August 1922, victory for the Provisional Government in this bastion of Republican resistance looked imminent. Within a fortnight the anti-Treaty IRA had unceremoniously abandoned every town in the county, retreating to the hills to wage a guerrilla campaign. 

Yet, in early September, the IRA rallied to launch a series of attacks on the towns of Kenmare and Killorglin. These actions represented some of the largest Republican offences of the war and the IRA’s victory in Kenmare was one of their greatest tactical triumphs nationally which helped to keep their forces in Kerry fighting to the bitter end. Nonetheless, many aspects of these battles would foreshadow the depraved depths the conflict would soon descend into in Kerry.

Despite the speed of their opponent’s advance across the county, senior Kerry IRA commanders remained defiant. In a public warning days before the amphibious landings of Pro-Treaty troops, Humphrey Murphy, the commander of the Kerry No 1 Brigade, articulated an apocalyptic vision: “You will have towns in ruins and famine finishing those who have escaped the bullet … We will stop at nothing … and we are going to win even if it takes years.” 

Likewise, John Joe Rice, of Kerry No 2 Brigade, believed the fight had to be carried to the last — that one was either “prepared to cut all their throats or leave them alone and go home”. Rice maintained his men “could have held forever” and that it would “have taken the whole Free State Army twenty years to dig us out”. 

Rice had made Kenmare his headquarters before he was obliged to withdraw on the afternoon of August 11 as 200 National Army soldiers under the command of Brigadier Tom O’Connor-Scarteen surprised his garrison by disembarking from two ships that had sailed up the Kenmare River. Reports from the pro-Government press described Rice’s men as being “thunderstruck” and forced into a chaotic retreat. In response it was claimed the townspeople “went crazy with delight”, surrounding their “liberators”, “cheering, shaking hands, laughing and crying” as celebrations went long into the night. An Irish Times correspondent mused that the “irregulars’ moral would seem to be at a very low ebb” considering they gave the town up without resistance.

In reality, Rice, now occupying the surrounding countryside, had every intention of regaining the main urban centre in south Kerry and it offered a tantalising first target for a new offensive. 

John Joe Rice, of Kerry No 2 Brigade, who was on the Anti-Treaty side. 

© Provided by Irish Examiner
John Joe Rice, of Kerry No 2 Brigade, who was on the Anti-Treaty side. 

John Joe Rice, of Kerry No 2 Brigade, who was on the Anti-Treaty side. 

O’Connor, a native of Kenmare, was the most high-profile Kerry IRA officer to take the Pro-Treaty side. Yet the men under his command were mostly raw recruits who were now being spread thinly in garrisons all across the region. Moreover, the devastating efficiency of the IRA’s attacks on the county’s rail network and communications quickly saw Kenmare being effectively cut off. 

Already in late August an attempt to reinforce the town from Killarney under Kerry TD and Army General Fionán Lynch had been driven back by a major IRA ambush. As his men scattered for cover a fellow officer quipped: “Now then, Fionán, get out there and talk to your constituents. They seem anxious to meet you!” 

Surprise attack

The Republican assault on Kenmare began at dawn on Saturday, September 9. In preparation, 87 men from units of the Kerry No 2 and West Cork Brigades were assembled. David Robinson, a staff officer with the IRA’s First Southern Division, was sent to assist Rice with the operation. As a prelude to their attack, the IRA tricked O’Connor into believing they were planning to sabotage his family farm outside the town. Therefore, on the night preceding the battle half of Kenmare’s 130-strong garrison was sent out on patrol led by O’Connor and his brother, John. These men only returned at 6.30am and most were asleep when the attack was launched. The IRA thus achieved total surprise.

Infiltrating the town in three separate columns around 7am, the IRA quickly commandeered houses along the main streets. Fortifying these positions with barricades of mattresses and furniture they began the process of ‘looping’, tunnelling through the walls of adjoining houses, to reach the two main Army outposts in the National Bank and local library. Rice recalled “we were in before we knew it” and breaching the bank’s walls, they threw incendiary bombs to force its garrison to surrender. Cut off from their commanding officers, the resolve of the remaining rank and file began to wilt. Thirty deserted during the battle and finally, in the early afternoon, those manning the library emerged onto the street carrying a white flag. By 2pm the town was in IRA hands.

Tom O'Connor was the most high-profile Kerry IRA officer to take the Pro-Treaty side.

© Provided by Irish Examiner
Tom O’Connor was the most high-profile Kerry IRA officer to take the Pro-Treaty side.

Tom O’Connor was the most high-profile Kerry IRA officer to take the Pro-Treaty side.

Victory saw the Republicans, in Rice’s words, gain “a power of stuff out of Kenmare”. Some 110 rifles, two Lewis machine guns, 20,000 rounds of ammunition, and scores of other equipment fell into their hands. A docked ship’s cargo of food and whiskey was also commandeered with the IRA indulging in so much of the latter that an eyewitness for the Cork Examiner, recounted how the town could have been retaken with ease if their enemy had been able to organise a swift counterattack. 

In addition, around 120 National Army personnel were taken prisoner, including the younger brother of Justice Minister Kevin O’Higgins. However, the IRA had no facilities to detain these men and so they were simply stripped of their weapons and marched several miles outside Kenmare where they were set free. Such chivalry was in stark contrast to the fate that befell the O’Connor brothers. Remarkably they would be the only fatalities of the entire battle.

Just before their main attack a squad of IRA, some apparently disguised in National Army uniforms, broke into the rear of the O’Connor’s family home on the main street, which was doubling as his military headquarters. Over 40 years later Nora O’Sullivan, the brothers’ twelve-year-old cousin and housemaid, vividly recalled what followed. 

Startled from their sleep, the brothers were dragged naked from their upstairs bedroom. As John was put against the wall of the landing and shot, O’Sullivan saw Tom being flung down the stairs. 

His pleas of “would you not give a man a chance?” were meet with a bullet between the eyebrows that blew out the back of his head. 

The killings had all the characteristics of a vendetta-style execution carried out by former comrades in punishment for going over to the other side. But many were appalled by what took place and chose to subsequently attend the brothers’ funeral as a pointed expression of their disgust.

Nevertheless, the capitulation at Kenmare was both a tactical and propaganda disaster for the Army’s Kerry Command. 

Press coverage

The remains of Tom and John O'Connor. Picture: Patrick O'Connor Scarteen

© Provided by Irish Examiner
The remains of Tom and John O’Connor. Picture: Patrick O’Connor Scarteen

The remains of Tom and John O’Connor. Picture: Patrick O’Connor Scarteen

In the aftermath, press coverage of the war in Kerry became noticeably more downbeat. One report bemoaned the fact that the circa 1,200 troops in Kerry were now mostly bolted up in their outposts and could do little as “enemy columns several hundred strong move along the hills … with complete impunity”. It suggested only a substantially increased force of 8,000 men could now hope to bring Kerry under Government control. 

In the aftermath of Kenmare, the pro-Government media shifted the focus away from this humiliating defeat and onto the brutal killings of the O’Connors. Their deaths only further convinced Army commanders that they were dealing with a ruthless, unscrupulous enemy. The months that followed would horrifyingly highlight how adept the National Army were at exceeding their adversary’s brutality.

Killorglin attack

For now, the capture of Kenmare was a morale and material windfall. Rice believed “Kenmare kept us going”, allowing his units to be resupplied with badly needed arms, ammunition, and most of all confidence. Yet their momentum was abruptly dissipated only two weeks later on September 27 when an even more ambitious attack on Killorglin failed. A force of several hundred Republicans converged on the town and given they faced only a small garrison of around seventy soldiers, the IRA was highly confident. But crucially, unlike Kenmare, the town’s defenders suspected an attack and were not taken by surprise. 

This time the IRA’s looping tactics to try and reach their opponents’ strong points were ineffective and a machine gun nest placed in the spire of the local Church was able to protect the main Army positions from direct attack. After eighteen hours the IRA was forced to retreat when significant Army reinforcements under Colonel Michael Hogan of the 1st Western Division arrived from Tralee. They left behind two dead, including Con Looney of Kenmare who was implicated in the O’Connor murders.

Eighteen other IRA volunteers were captured. One of those, John ‘Jack’ Galvin, was recognised as being responsible for the killing of Captain James Burke (a close friend of Hogan) in an ambush a month earlier. Hogan, a man described by his enemies as “a terrible murderer” and “devil”, had Galvin’s arm broken as he was tortured into confessing. Galvin was then placed in a lorry with the other prisoners and driven to Tralee. 

However, at Ballyseedy Wood the convoy was forced to stop to remove a number of deliberately felled trees on the road. As the other prisoners were brought from the lorry to assist, Galvin was kept behind and, out of sight of the group, Hogan exacted his revenge. Galvin was “riddled with bullets” and his body was dumped into a nearby ditch. He became just one of the more than 50 IRA prisoners in Kerry that died in either arranged massacres or extra-judicial killings by the Civil War’s end. 

Disgusted by this act one senior Kerry Army officer, Eamon Horan, resigned his commission while his colleague, Lieutenant Niall Harrington, recounted in his memoir that “chivalry and humanity were early causalities on both sides of the Civil War”.

Turning point

The IRA’s failure to follow up its Kenmare victory with the capture of Killorglin was a turning point in the conflict in Kerry. An experienced veteran of the First World War, Robinson despaired about this failure and criticised Rice’s men’s “growing disinclination to take chances, essential in fighting of this kind”. Rice retorted that Robinson’s tactics were “based on the fact you could always afford to lose thirty or forty men”. 

Kenmare indeed represented the high-water mark of the local IRA’s campaign. Though Republican forces also managed to recapture several other towns across Ireland in the weeks surrounding the battle, notably Dundalk, Ballina and Clifden, all of these were subsequently abandoned within hours once the IRA secured whatever provisions they could. Kenmare therefore remained the only major urban centre not under Government control as the winter of 1922 approached.

In late October, several hundred Army troops, supported by two armoured cars, were dispatched from Killarney to retake the town but were forced to abandon their advance after suffering ten casualties when they were ambushed by an IRA machine gun unit on a narrow stretch of the road near Headford Junction.

With the Irish Free State due to be officially inaugurated on December 6,  1922, renewed pressure was put on the Kerry Command by their political masters to ensure Kenmare was regained. Taking no chances, on the evening of December 5, three large columns set off in a carefully coordinated envelopment of the town. The troops were commanded by Hogan and Brigadier-General Paddy O’Daly whose name would become forever intertwined with the atrocities that played out in Kerry the following spring.

 The armed forces of the new Free State entered Kenmare unopposed at 1:15am on December 6 to find that the Kerry IRA had already abandoned their last urban stronghold, evidently feeling its continued occupation was now military untenable. National headlines like ‘Kerry Triumph’ celebrated the Army’s success and erroneously reported how the town was retaken only after stiff resistance which resulted in significant numbers of IRA prisoners. The following day an Army communique was sent to Dublin which proclaimed: ‘The capture of Kenmare will dispose of [the Irregulars] last rallying ground … you can mark off Kerry as finished’.

Subsequent events would brutally expose the hopeless optimism of that assessment.

Dr Richard McElligott is a lecturer in Modern and Irish History in the Department of Business and Humanities, Dundalk Institute of Technology. A native of Kilflynn, North Kerry, he has taught and published extensively on the history of the Irish Revolutionary era.

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