IRELAND was an armed camp when I returned in July, 1920. Curfew laws were enforced in all the cities, and there was sporadic sniping from doorways and windows.
The guerrilla warfare among the neighbors of the Northern cities represented mostly a religious argument: an expression of the intense hatred between the Protestants and Catholics of Belfast, Derry, and the smaller cities of Ulster. Citizens who went out after curfew invited assassination, and many a private grudge was satisfied under the guise of loyalty to Britain or love of Irish freedom.
In the South it was Catholic against Catholic, though the most active supporters of revolt were sometimes Protestants. The Royal Irish Constabulary, ninety per cent Catholic, bore the full brunt of the Republican attacks. Classed as renegades, they were as much despised by the British Tommy as they were by us, members of the Irish Republican Army.
There was, and still is, a distinct cleavage in the social and economic existence of the Catholics and Protestants of Ulster. In cities like Belfast and Derry they live at separate ends of the town. The name of the home-city of Derry is mapped as “Londonderry” and called such by the Orangemen. The Catholics, however, stick to the ancient Gaelic name. And so the antipathies that time had veneered broke out in feudal virulence when the I. R. A. campaign began in 1920.
Intermarriage meant ostracism, and employers of labor in Belfast boycotted the Catholic if a Protestant applicant could be found. There were general exceptions to this bigoted policy, of course, but the shipyards of Belfast were notorious for their favoritism. The reprisals of the Papists, as we are called, were sometimes very effective. There is no cure for intolerance so searching as boycott. Hundreds of Orange business men felt the power of the economic thrust. It touched their pockets.
The Catholics in Derry, slightly outnumbering the Protestants, were unwilling to accept the Church’s “turn the other cheek” policy. There were as many hoodlums on one side as the other to start a fight or finish one; and any weapon would do—fists, stones, or hurlies.
During the Derry rioting, in which I was a participant, the British, acting as referees, brought machine-guns and rifles to clear the streets at what might be called “half” and “full time.” The soldiers took some pleasure in raking the thoroughfares, and shot without scruple at any head that appeared from a window or door. The Catholics—or at least the sympathizers of the Republic—were not blameless, but, due to the pogrom policy of the British Orangemen in the North, they were easily the worst sufferers. Families were murdered under pretext of a search, and the poor, as usual, had no recourse to justice. Of the sectarian rioting of Derry I write as a combatant and eyewitness. In July, 1920, the city was like a town on the Western Front. Business was suspended and the shops barricaded against looting. Bodies lay inthe streets for days because no man dared to risk a dash into the line of fire to drag them away.
Most of the action took place in the Catholic quarter, where I was attached to a small company of men whose task was the protection of Republican families. Eventually we took the open, and entrenched ourselves at a point on Bishop Street facing the Orange sector commanding the Catholic quarter. Frequent sorties took place, with heavy casualties, for we were seriously handicapped by the lack of medical attention. For five days no one dared venture out of doors save the active combatants.
One incident in Bishop Street is unforgettable. A Catholic laborer, with whom I was acquainted, tried to cross the street during a lull. Immediately he was picked off by an Orange sniper. His body lay in the middle of the roadway, a stream of blood running from the hole in his chest.
Generally speaking, women-folk were spared from the fire, although some suffered injuries trying to defend their men from murder.
One old hag, who lived close by, repeatedly walked out of her house screaming vile and blasphemous epithets at the Pope and Catholics in general. We paid no attention to her at first—until she hobbled over to the body of the murdered workman. But, dipping handkerchiefs into the pool of blood which surrounded him, she shrieked with ghoulish glee. Three times she returned for more blood, kicking and abusing the corpse and reviling the Pope. At last we trained our rifles on her, warning her off; but she misjudged her immunity and, cursing the mothers who bore us, insisted that we were the brood of whores and bitches.
“Let’s draw lots and shoot her. That isn’t a woman— it’s a devil!” I said to my companions.
We drew, and the task fell to me. As a warning to her, I fired several rounds of random shot. My companions did likewise. Then, during a lull, she once more strode into the thoroughfare carrying white strips which, apparently, she was distributing amongst her neighbors as souvenirs of papist blood.
Just as she bent down to dip her rags in the red pool I fired—so did the others, forgetting the lottery in their anger. The hag spun round and fell beside the body she was desecrating.
Under a white flag, her friends ventured forth and pulled the corpse out of the street. When the siege ended, however, the walls of the city were plastered with filthy epithets concerning Catholics. Some of these were printed in the blood of the victims.
As I have mentioned, the military attempted to referee the sectarian “scrap,” supplying the Orange foeman with ammunition even while they protested a pious neutrality —a lie which was proved by the guns we captured. Within a few weeks it was common knowledge that the soldiers and police were openly abetting the enemy.
Then the British Army formally took over Derry, peppering the city from barricades. Patrols of tanks and armored cars rumbled up and down the streets, until the fighting subsided into an occasional sniper’s shot. Eventually a sullen calm—by no means peace—fell over the city. Our little band of volunteers, no match for the two full English regiments quartered within our midst, contented itself in desultory raids.
In command of a flying column, I took to the hills when we lost forty men in the siege, against a total of sixty among the enemy forces. But it was an unconscionable business—neighbor shooting neighbor because of a hazy religious difference and political bias.
Ireland’s fight for freedom is seven centuries old. It is a story of ceaseless treachery, murder and rapine, culminating in stalemate when, outwitted by the wily Welshman, Lloyd George, Mick Collins, Griffith, and others accepted a less measure of independence than that for which we fought. The fruits of victory won by the soldiers were spoiled by the politicians.
The Irish soldier, gambling against long odds, is an idealist. The Irish politician is an opportunist, lacking the scruples of the warrior. I have little respect for the Irish politician at home, in America, or elsewhere. The souls of Pearse, MacDonough, Plunkett, Mellowes, Connelly, and McBride will never rest in peace until the goal of the poet and soldier is achieved.
Poor Mick Collins! He was my friend, and a brainy fighter who made a fool of the men in Dublin Castle. But he was out of his depths when he pitted his strength against the whirlpools of political trickery.
The Home Rule Bill was passed in 1914, but on account of the warlike bluff of Carson it was never enforced. Then the young Irish, who might have accepted a bone, now demanded the whole carcass. It was their answer to the double-dealing and faulty diplomacy of Britain before the Orangemen of Ulster.
Two years later the Ulster Volunteers of Carson and the Irish Volunteers of Redmond were rotting in the shell-holes of France and Flanders. Some of the survivors of Ypres, Neuve Chapelle, and Gallipoli came back to join the Irish Republican Army, and were gallant aides. In the glens and valleys of Ireland young men drilled—a pitiable few for such a large undertaking—but once their daring had captured the admiration of the people hundreds rushed to the colors, afterwards paying for their loyalty in bullets and hemp.
I have seen nothing in the whole of my military experience to approach the intelligence system of the I. R. A. Radio messages were trapped and decoded, mails were rifled, dispatches read and copied without detection, telephones tapped, and hardly an order ever issued in Britain that was not in the hands of the I. R. A. leaders within a few hours. The staff included newsboys, charwomen, farmers, girls still in their teens. Many a dapper British spy, with a Cambridge or Trinity education, met sudden grief when confronted by a squad of the I. R. A. These “dons” were gentlemen doing a dirty job for the Army, but they died without complaint. What amazed the British leaders was the speed with which a “Castle man” was located and dispatched. The fate of local informers was equally swift, and without that respect due to the viewpoint of a gallant foe.
The I. R. A. soon ran foul of the Church, particularly the purple-cassocked dignitaries. When a Sinn Feiner was killed, it was for treason with the high right of the State. When a “Peeler” was executed, however, or a Castle spy trapped it was murder! Some bishops went so far as to rule that no I. R. A. soldier killed in armed encounter could receive the last rites of the Church, and those young priests who chose to obey Christ and ignore the bishop were promptly unfrocked for breach of clerical discipline.
An Irish Catholic cherishes his faith above his life, and missionaries of Ireland have carried the torch of Christ across the entire globe. The attitude of the bishops
was a boomerang. Thousands of young men were weaned away from the Church’s influence, and the memory of the gratuitous insult lingers like a raw wound. The old priests, seeing their power waning, when we were on the run treated us like rascals, but the young curates made up for their lack of hospitality. Some of our most daring followers were recruited from the seminaries.
Our first problem was to make the British declare a state of war. So far their policy was to treat us as traitors, shoot the leaders, and condemn the others to penal servitude. When, however, we commenced reprisals, captured their men, and returned the compliment, a tacit declaration of war was inevitable. That meant, henceforth, the treatment of captured men as prisoners of war, not criminals and traitors. But the measure was not enforced until late in the campaign, and many men were shot without benefit of investigation or trial.
My initial appointment with the I. R. A. was the command of a group in my own city of Derry. Later I was captain of a flying column operating in the mountainous districts of the northwest. It was a fascinating task with plenty of hazards. We raided banks, harassed the police and coast guard barracks, and ambushed the military who searched for us. Our guerrilla attacks became so successful that the outlying posts which were untenable with small forces had to be abandoned. After that all the troops were concentrated in barracks in the cities and large towns, and their punitive expeditions into the hills demanded large companies of men to achieve any progress.
Our operations were in the vicinity of Glenties, Ardara, Glendoran, and the Poisoned Glen.
The first major engagement of my column was concerned with such an expedition. I had received information that nearly a thousand troops were approaching our district for a round-up. I made hasty preparation to meet the enemy, moving my force to a hillside surrounded by bog. This spongy turf and swamp is difficult terrain for friend or foe, the eye being unable to determine its depths or passable trails.
That night, covered with blankets and light rugs, we slept on the heather, rising before dawn to search the horizon for signs of the enemy. The Tommies were not in evidence, however, until seven o’clock.
Equipped with field-glasses, I picked up the first movement of British troops as they advanced towards the headquarters of our divisional general, who, I believed, would be on the alert for attack. The road meandered around the base of the hill where my men were entrenched, the bog intervening.
It was here that my South African experiences proved valuable. I estimated the distance at a thousand yards, and accordingly ordered the gun-sights fixed at that range. The boys were equipped with Lee-Enfields and Mausers, but I was afraid that an itching finger might press a trigger before the proper moment. Our retreat was well covered on the other side of the hill, and, moreover, no pursuers could catch us before we gained a havenin the glens.
The foe were advancing in “column of route,” marching at ease, with rifles at the trail.
Not until the rear sections were abreast, however, did I give the order to fire. Then twenty rifles barked together, and through my glasses I registered twelve hits. Not bad marksmanship for the Irish Army!
The British column halted, and I assumed the officers gave the command, “Take cover. Return fire.” The soldiers tumbled into the bogs, opening out in extended order. I knew it was impossible to take up a firing position anywhere save in the drain on the opposite side of the road, so I felt thoroughly at ease.
“Hold fire till they leave the bog,” I ordered.
The engagement lasted four hours, and we picked off the foe until their casualties must have been considerable. We lost two only, with one wounded. But ammunition was running low.
“Cease fire and retreat,” I commanded.
We buried our fallen comrades in a mountain patch of bog, there being no time to dig graves. The spot was marked and later the lads were given a decent interment by the mountain people.
A large force of the British was now advancing from the south and east, and I was certain that all roads would be picketed. We retreated into the hills until night came, and then determined to elude the foe by an unexpected dash for liberty. I impressed the boys that the remaining ammunition was precious, and that it must be saved for a final encounter should we be trapped.
Several lads were natives of the district, and these I appointed as guides.
“You’re going to lead us across the bog to-night,” I told them. “It’s our only chance.”
“Ye can’t make it,” said a big fellow, shaking his head. “Ye’ll sink in the muck. It’s never been done before, captain.”
“That’s no reason for not trying it,” I replied, and without further comment they agreed to pilot the company across the bog.
One little fellow, by the name of O’Donnell, took the lead and remarked with a grin, “Well, only one of us can make a mistake.”
O’Donnell did the job without a misstep, and led us out of the bog near the roadside where we had fired on the British column. I could discern the white sheen of the outpost’s bivouac tent, but the rest of the enemy camp was in darkness, shielded by a clump of bushes.
Taking three men with me, we advanced on all fours to a spot where small trees and bushes threw a dense shadow on the road. Gaining this shelter, we awaited the approach of the sentry. None of us was armed, having left all accoutrements behind with the men, but as the soldier passed, we leaped at him as one man, and snatched his rifle.
” If you squeak,” I whispered in his ear, ” your carcass will go back to Whitechapel in pieces.”
He offered no resistance, however, and in the shadow of the bush we stripped the shivering fellow of his side-arms and webbing equipment, which contained much-needed ammunition. Then we marched him back to the edge of the bog where the rest of my column waited. The poor chap was dazed and worried, expecting no doubt to be shot without chance of defence.
“Don’t be scared, Tommy; you’re among friends,” I told him. “This assault was necessary, and we won’t harm you if you keep quiet.” The kindly tone put him at ease. Tommy Atkins isn’t a bad fellow. I fought alongside of him for years in Africa. Then, suddenly, his face clouded again. ” Blimey, ‘ow will I explain being stripped like this, and not a shot fired? They’ll shoot me for treason.”
“Don’t let that worry you, Tommy. I’ll make that all right with the lieutenant.”
I wrote out a note explaining in detail how we had surprised Private Aldrich, and only subdued him after a terrible struggle, in which he had rendered one of my men a hospital case. The note pleased Tommy immensely, and we mauled his clothing, rubbed some mud on his face, and tore off a few buttons to help the alibi.
I asked him, as a favor, to delay a little while before returning to the tent, in order to help our chance of getting through the line in safety. He agreed, lying low in the ditch until we were well on our way behind their lines. After three nights’ travel the column reached Derry, where we scattered, taking refuge among friends until the scent was cold.
We were chagrined to hear, a little later, that our divisional commander and his staff had been captured during the day without firing a shot. Under the cover of darkness, a torpedo-destroyer had crept into the small western village, sent a landing party ashore, and caught the whole gang abed in the large hotel in which they were quartered. A destroyer took them to Lough Foyle for incarceration.
Our own route to safety lay in an all night tramp through the bogs and glens of Donegal, but the news of the coup which had bagged our leaders threw a cold sponge on the report of our triumphant attack and retreat.
However, their casualty list at headquarters alarmed the enemy, and chilled whatever pride they had in the capture of our staff officers. It resulted in the withdrawal of several isolated posts in north and west Donegal.