Ó Duibhir, Liam J  

Donegal and the Civil War


An in-depth look at the Irish Civil War in Donegal.

ISBN: 9781856357203 Categories: ,


Donegal was one of the counties used to launch this offensive against the newly established government in the six counties. The bulk of the anti-Treaty IRA men who took part were from the southern counties including Cork and Kerry. 

Donegal became the scene of the last standup fight between the IRA and British military with the latter using heavy artillery for the first time in Ireland since 1916. Following the outbreak of the Civil War these men were inadvertently caught up in the hostilities that followed in County Donegal. Four of these men were subsequently executed: the only four executions to take place in the county.


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  1. Acknowledgements   
  2. Introduction   
  3. A Brief Review of the War of Independence in Donegal   
  4. 1921 - The Truce and Breathing Space   
  5. Eithne Coyle and the Mountjoy Escape   
  6. The IRA Civic Police   
  7. The Treaty Signed, but not Sealed   
  8. Donegal Debates the Treaty   
  9. 1922 - The Treaty Debates and Vote   
  10. 1922 - The Released Prisoners and the Condemned Prisoners
  11. The Special Powers Bill and the Six-County Policy   
  12. The IRA Convention and Split   
  13. Changing of the Guard and the Belfast Boycott   
  14. The Northern Offensive and the Newtowncunningham Tragedy
  15. The Battles at Pettigo and Belleek
  16. The Constitution of Saorstát Éireann and the 1922 Election
  17. The Wilson Assassination - A Catalyst for Civil War   
  18. An Cogadh na gCarad - The War between Friends   
  19. Another Effort to Avert Civil War in Donegal   
  20. The Battles at Skeog   
  21. The Drumkeen Ambush   
  22. The Fall of Inch Fort   
  23. Republican Column - On the Run   
  24. Raids, Arrests and Escapes   
  25. Eithne Coyle's War Ends   
  26. Emergency Powers   
  27. Newbridge Internment Camp and the Escape   
  28. Arrests and Executions   
  29. 1923 - Ò Pettigo Reclaimed   
  30. Courts Martial and Executions in Donegal
  31. Peadar O'Donnell - Held to Ransom   
  32. Conclusion   
  33. Internment Records of Donegal Internees   
  34. Glossary   
  35. Notes   
  36. Bibliography   
  37. Index   


The Irish Civil War officially commenced on 28 June 1922 and lasted for less than twelve months, ending on 24 May 1923 following the IRA's announcement of a ceasefire and an order to dump arms. This short chapter of Irish history was for many years a forbidden subject with many participants reluctant to speak of their involvement or of the events that occurred because civil war by its very nature first divides and then destroys the bond between family, friends and eventually a nation. Despite its short duration, the Irish Civil War created bitter divisions that reverberated for many years after the hostilities had ceased. This book traces the course of the Irish Civil War as it occurred in County Donegal with reference to other related episodes, particularly those from the War of Independence, which provide an important insight into the men and women of Donegal who were also involved in the Civil War.

Ireland was elevated onto the international stage, attracting the attention of influential nations, when the founding of an indigenous government - Dáil Éireann - was closely followed, in January 1919, with the beginning of the War of Independence. It has been suggested that this was the second phase of the War of Independence and that the first phase began with the Easter Rising of 1916.

After almost three years of conflict, the British government realised that there was no possibility of defeating the IRA and a truce was called between Irish and British political leaders on Monday 11 July 1921. However, unknown to them, the IRA campaign was all but exhausted through the wholesale arrests and internment of volunteers from both Ó'glaigh na hÉireann and Cumann na mBan. The lack of adequate supplies of weapons and ammunition was another worrying factor for the IRA leaders. During this period the British used every means at their disposal - informers, the Black and Tans, the Auxiliaries, internment camps, etc. - to defeat their Irish opponents, but by 1921 were resigned to the fact that the only opportunity for the resolution of the war was to engage in talks with the Irish political leaders.
The British insistence on holding the talks in London gave them the upper hand by forcing the Irish into an alien environment. This created friction between the delegation in London and the political leaders at home, mostly due to problems with communication. The British used their experience from previous negotiations to outmanoeuvre the inexperienced Irish negotiators and warned of a return to war 'within three days', threatening a more intensive and ruthless campaign. The Treaty that resulted from the talks failed to meet the expectations of many people in Ireland with the result that the country was thrust into a period of great uncertainty and tension that led to the outbreak of the Civil War. Some people believed the Treaty was effectively the abandonment of republican principles that had been widely supported and fought for in previous years ‰ÛÒ this was the primary reason for the divisions that developed between the IRA, Sinn Féin and the general public.
These divisions led Ireland into a vicious conflict: vicious in the sense that families, friends and communities were divided into two different factions - those opposed to and those in support of the Treaty and Articles of Agreement signed by the Irish and British delegations. One example of the divisions that occurred between families and friends was that of the Cunningham family. Edward Cunningham was an anti-Treaty prisoner who was held at Drumboe Castle following his arrest by Free State forces. From Carrick in south Donegal, he was a schoolteacher at Ballyconnell School, Ray, near Rathmullan, at the time, while his first cousin Joseph Cunningham was a member of the Free State Army and Edward's guard at Drumboe. Edward Cunningham had five brothers who were members of the IRA during the War of Independence, but at the outbreak of the Civil War the family was divided with three brothers opposing the Treaty and three supporting it. Various terms were used to distinguish between the two factions including Dáil forces, Free State forces and regulars for the pro-Treaty faction, and irregulars, republican forces or the IRA for the anti-Treaty side.
The Treaty that divided the island was first put to the elected representatives of Dáil Éireann, where it was ratified on 7 January 1922, and then to the people in the election of June that year. However, it could be argued that the will of the people was not fairly ascertained from this election due to the use of inaccurate electoral registers, the absence of a plebiscite in seven constituencies where the elected representatives were returned unopposed, and the promise of a republican constitution that ultimately failed to materialise.
In the weeks following the ratification of the Treaty, the Donegal IRA began occupying various barracks and other buildings that had been evacuated by the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the British military. After the split of the IRA into pro- and anti-Treaty groups, the different factions established these premises as headquarters and billets. In Donegal, in terms of equipment and numbers, the section of the IRA supporting the Treaty was much superior to that opposed to it, which was largely made up of men from other counties. The pro-Treaty faction in Donegal was also bolstered by the overwhelming support of the local Sinn Féin organisation. Before the outbreak of the Civil War the IRA's Executive anti-Treaty forces in the county were chiefly made up of men from other counties whose primary objective was to continue the war against the forces of the Belfast government (who still occupied the Six Counties of Northern Ireland which had split from Ireland after the Government of Ireland Act 1920): the Special Constabulary (a paramilitary quasi-police force), the British military, and later the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The Special Constabulary was founded following major outbreaks of sectarian violence in Banbridge, Lisburn, Belfast and other areas in the north-eastern counties during the summer of 1920. The membership of the Special Constabulary consisted chiefly of Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) members who, with others, had perpetrated acts of vicious sectarian violence and murder. The Constabulary was established in the paranoid belief that the IRA would avenge these horrors and therefore, paradoxically, it was essentially a body tasked with protecting the perpetrators of violence.
The continuation of the war in the Six Counties against the forces of the newly established Belfast government received guarantees of support from leaders of the divided republican army including Liam Lynch, Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy. Initially the pro-Treaty forces under the control of the Provisional Government did not impede the IRA in what became known as the northern offensive. This was adhered to for the first few months of 1922, and throughout this period, Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy were operating behind the scenes with, among others, IRA Chief of Staff Liam Lynch, to organise an assault on the Six Counties. Plans were put in place from early March 1922 for a united force to attack and undermine the authority of the Belfast government. However, pressure from other quarters, namely the Belfast and British governments, soon forced the Provisional Government to suppress the actions of republican forces, which contributed to further friction between the two sides.
In June 1922 Field Marshal Henry Wilson was assassinated in London, an event which served as the catalyst for setting Ireland on another collision course, but this time it was the Irish against the Irish in a bitter and vicious Civil War which began following a now infamous attack on the Four Courts in Dublin on 28 June 1922. The British government blamed the Wilson assassination on the IRA Executive forces based at the Four Courts, when in fact the plan and execution originated with Michael Collins. The subsequent Civil War reintroduced familiar scenes to the Irish countryside and urban areas with ambushes, round-ups, internments and executions. The ramifications of this short chapter of Irish history resonated through Irish society for many years.
The Civil War in Donegal was unique in that over 90 per cent of the Irish Volunteers joined the newly established Provisional Government forces or Free State Army while the majority of those fighting on the republican side were from the southern counties of Cork and Kerry with many others coming from the border counties of Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Monaghan. Many were reluctant participants as a large proportion had relocated to County Donegal at the behest of Michael Collins and Liam Lynch to be part of the northern offensive.
When the hostilities began the republican forces based in County Donegal were greatly outnumbered and struggled to even exist as the Civil War dragged on possibly longer than it should have. As with every episode in history different versions of events and incidents have been recounted by opposing sides. It has always been said that the victor or the hangman will usually be best placed to present a version or an analysis, but there are always two sides to the story and the truth lies somewhere in between.

Chapter 1: A Brief Review of the War of Independence in Donegal:

The Irish War of Independence began in theory with the Easter Rising of 1916, which followed several years of planning and organisation throughout the country. The Rising itself did not deliver the decisive strike against the British that the leaders had anticipated and ended in failure and confusion due to a series of unforeseen events, including efforts by senior figures to cancel it. The general population was by no means enamoured by the actions of the men and women who took part in the Rising and they subsequently became the target of anger at the devastation and deaths that resulted from the fighting. However, the Easter Rising served as the launch-pad for the next phase of the conflict against the British establishment in Ireland. When the leaders of the Easter Rising were executed, people‰Ûªs attitudes changed from one of disdain to one of respect and support for the revolutionaries.
The next phase of the revolutionaries' plan to win independence was to become organised along military and political lines with a view to taking over the governance of the country and launching a full-scale war on the British in Ireland. The leaders who were imprisoned at the internment camp at Frongoch in North Wales for their involvement in the Easter Rising used their time there to such good effect that it later became known as the 'University of Revolution'. It was there they set about organising and training men from the various counties in Ireland so that on their release they would be able to establish fighting units, intelligence departments and political branches of the Sinn Féin party. When many prisoners and internees were released in late 1916 and early 1917, the Irish Volunteers and the Sinn Féin party established military and political branches throughout the country as planned, including County Donegal.
The political and military organisations worked independently of each other. Sinn Féin operated in the political arena, with the Irish Volunteers (later known as the Army of the Irish Republic, the Irish Republican Army or the IRA) being a physical resistance movement that challenged the Royal Irish Constabulary and British military in open warfare. However, the two organisations were interlinked, with some Volunteers being elected as TDs in the election of December 1918 and later on, in 1920, some being elected to the local councils. The two groups also had a similar objective, which, in the early stages, was primarily to spread the principles of the Republic and prepare for the elections of 1918. As the Sinn Féin party grew in popularity, the British sought to stem this development with a miscalculated propaganda stunt. In May 1918 they declared that they had uncovered evidence that the leaders of Sinn Féin were involved in the importation of arms from Germany. In what became known as the 'German Plot', seventy-three leaders and activists of the Sinn Féin party were arrested and transported to jails in England. Despite the arrests, the party secured seventy-three seats in the election of December 1918 with three Teachtaí Dála (TDs) being returned to the Donegal constituencies: Joseph O'Doherty for North Donegal, Joe Sweeney for West Donegal and P. J. Ward for South Donegal. This election also witnessed the demise of the political domination enjoyed by the Irish Parliamentary Party and unionist politicians.
Those newly elected TDs who had not been jailed or were not on the run met at the Mansion House, Dublin, on 21 January 1919 as Dáil Éireann. While the First Dáil was in progress, reports were received in Dublin of an ambush in County Tipperary. The No. 3 Tipperary Brigade, led by Seamus Robinson and including Dan Breen, Seán Treacy, Tadhg Crowe, Patrick McCormack and Paddy Dwyer, had carried out a surprise attack. A two-man RIC party was escorting a cart of gelignite when the Volunteers ambushed them at Soloheadbeg, resulting in the deaths of the two policemen. The news of this incident was met with trepidation in Dublin and was condemned by a number of the Sinn Féin leaders, but to the Irish Volunteers this was the start of the next phase in the fight for Irish independence and the event that marked the start of the War of Independence.




About the Author

Liam Ó Duibhir is from Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. He worked in the youth sector from 2005 to 2007 as a youth information officer and as a policy officer. Since December 2007 he has been writing full time. The Donegal Awakening is the first fruit of those efforts and he is currently completing a follow up running from the Truce period that tells the story of Donegal during the Civil War.


'Seo leabhar gur fiúa léamh' (this book is worth reading)

- Feast

'...good local history on an episode of our history which is often forgotten'

- Books Ireland


'A comprehensive look at the conflict in Donegal'

- Irish Times


'...goes a long way to explain this most shameful part of our past'


- Sunday World