Local Elections | Attacks on RIC Barracks | January 1920 | The Irish War of Independence

Welcome to the Irish Revolution! Last month we talked about an assassination
attempt on the life of the Viceroy, who narrowly escaped. This month we’re going to talk
about the local council elections of 1920. We’ll also look at the new IRA campaign
against the larger consolidated police barracks. Local Elections There was local municipal elections this month
– elections for rural districts would take place in the summer. In an attempt to weaken
the Sinn Féin vote, the British introduced a new electoral system – Proportional Representation
or PR for short. Ireland still uses this system of the single transferable vote to this day,
one of the few countries in the world to do so. The British hoped that this ranked choice
system would give greater representation to smaller parties and thus dilute the Sinn Féin
vote, as the British system of first past the post greatly rewards larger parties. In
the case of the 1918 general election, the first past the post system granted Sinn Féin
most of the seats in Ireland with a little under half the popular vote. Just as an aside,
the Sinn Féin party almost certainly would have won a larger share of the popular vote
if the nationalist party had contested more seats in 1918. A great campaign of public education took
place, spearheaded by the proportional representation society and supported by the Sinn Féin party.
125,000 leaflets were handed out and they displayed slides in cinemas across the country
– with a spoiled ballot rate of 3%, this public education campaign can be judged a
success. PR-STV is a very complicated electoral system, where you need to vote for candidates
by ranked preference, and many people in Ireland today would struggle to explain how exactly
the quota and redistribution of votes works exactly, and I’m not going to attempt to
do so as that would be exhausting. But by and large it is an extremely fair voting system
and produces broadly representative parliaments. With a turnout of almost 70% of the electorate
in the contested districts, the results showed a much tighter contest than the 1918 election.
Crucially, the Labour party contested these elections on a radical economic programme
as well as being aligned with Sinn Féin on the national question. Sinn Féin came first
with 560 seats nationwide, followed by Labour with 394. The role of left wing politics is
an often overlooked element of the revolution and I covered this in a previous video, ‘the
People’s Republic of Ireland?’. Unionists came third with 368 seats… this may surprise
you but they won only 302 of those seats in Ulster. They got 57 in Leinster, mostly in
Dublin, 7 in Munster and 2 in Connaught. It would be a mistake to overlook the experience
of the southern unionist during this period. The nationalist party, also known as the Irish
parliamentary party, surprised many with 238 seats and outperformed Sinn Féin in Ulster,
where it remained a powerful force. The results for the separatist Sinn Féin
and Labour parties clearly demonstrated an ongoing resilience within Ireland among the
people and an ongoing desire to press forward with the separatist cause. In Ulster, there
was a political earthquake when the city of Derry become nationalist controlled for the
first time and also in Belfast while the Unionists still maintained their majority, it was dramatically
reduced. It’s clear that the policy of ditching first past the post somewhat backfired for
the British in Ulster, where the electoral system had long rewarded Unionist parties
with outsized majorities. The election in rural districts later in June
gave a much stronger mandate to Sinn Féin, and they won 80% of the vote nationwide on
a joint ticket with the Irish Transport and General Worker’s Union. The vast majority of local councils swore
allegiance to the revolutionary parliament, Dáil Éireann, which was a crippling blow
to British authority in Ireland.1 IRA Attacks As we’ve seen before, there were widespread
attacks on RIC policemen across the country leading to the closure of smaller outposts
in the Autumn of 1919 and the consolidation of police into larger more sustainable barracks
in larger towns and villages. There was an attack on police barracks in Carrigtwohill
Co. Cork this month by Cork No. 1 Brigade, led by Mick Leahy. Explosives were used to
tear down a wall and the garrison surrendered and the IRA occupied it briefly. The impetus to attack barracks in general
apparently came from general headquarters in Dublin although there was a general feeling
among Cork rebels that Cork had to ‘make up for’ their failure to rise in 1916 and
Tómas McCurtain, the Lord mayor of Cork and commander of Cork No. 1 brigade, and Terence
MacSwiney, who later became Lord mayor after his friend was murdered, proposed mass attacks
on police barracks nationwide in late 1919, as did others such as Michael Brennan in co.
Clare. In fact there was a general appetite for a ‘second rising’. MacSwiney argued
that they’d be able to hold out for a month or six weeks and then somewhere like Galway
would rise up. This so called ‘travelling rising’ thesis was quickly shot down by
general headquarters, who rightly saw it as impractical and doomed to failure. Richard Mulcahy, chief of staff of the IRA
and General Headquarters rejected the Corkmen’s proposal and instead suggested that they select
three barracks in the brigade area and strike them all on a single night. The attackers
would then blend into normal life the next day as if nothing happened. In the end, one
of the attacks failed and the other was called off at the last moment. Mulcahy was eager
to prevent loss of life from either the attackers or the attacked and ordered the brigade to
take all possible precautions to ensure that nobody died – an extremely odd precondition
for an armed revolutionary movement. When Mulcahy reflected on these events years
later he recognised this as the transition of the conflict to ‘war’. Lord French,
the viceroy, also referred to these attacks as acts of war. But at the time General Headquarters
were still a little muddled and unsure about what direction they wanted to go in. At the
time they preferred the idea of small part time outfits committed to regular actions
such as this as opposed to full time units fighting a guerrilla war, which is what would
happen spontaneously later as the British stepped up their arrests of local rebels who
were forced to go on the run and form full time so-called flying columns.2 Just to wrap up before we go on to biographies,
there was an RIC reprisal in Thurles, Co. Tipperary this month, a dark premonition of
what would come to pass in 1920 and 1921 as the British state began to openly utilise
a policy of state terror against the population. In Dublin, RIC Inspector Redmond, sent from
Ulster to lead the rejuvenation of the crippled G spy division, is assassinated by the Squad
under the direct orders of Michael Collins. Biographies I’ve done biographies on Richard Mulcahy,
Michael Collins and Terence MacSwiney in previous episodes so this month I’m only going to
focus on Tómas MacCurtain Tómas MacCurtain (1884-1920) was the Lord
Mayor of Cork and was elected to that post in the local municipal elections of 1920.
Like many of his generation, he joined na Fianna as a young man and then progressed
to the volunteers which would later become the IRA. MacCurtain led a large contingent
of men in Cork during the Easter Rising but due to the all round confusion and poor organisation
it came to nothing. British forces surrounded the hall where the armed remnant of that original
force remained and the arms were handed over after negotiations without a shot fired. MacCurtain
was arrested and transferred to Frongoch prison in Wales, the Republican university where
he also would have come into contact with Michael Collins among others. After his release
he became a brigade commander and led the organisation of one of the most important
IRA units during the war. In March 1920 he was murdered in his home in front of his wife
and children by plain-clothes RIC men concealed with face-coverings. The nature of the murder
led to huge outrage in Ireland. The subsequent inquest led to charges of wilful murder against
Prime Minister Lloyd George and members of the RIC. In retaliation Michael Collins ordered
his own personal squad of assassins to find and assassinate the RIC men responsible for
the attack. RIC district Inspector Oswald Swanzy was shot by the Squad in Lisburn, Co.
Antrim, in August 1920, which directly led to widespread violence and reprisals against
that towns catholic minority.

  1. The RIC were the true heroes in Ireland’s story.

    The only time Ireland was ever unified was under the crown.
    But most people aren’t aware of this.

  2. Good thing you kept the explanation of the British/Irish electoral system short & sweet, otherwise my head would’ve exploded 🤯 from the overload

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