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Galway and the Truce of 1921

At the end of June 1921, British Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote to Éamon de Valera, President of Dáil Éireann, inviting him to attend a London conference to explore the possibility of a political settlement to the ongoing conflict. De Valera insisted on a “cessation of bloodshed” prior to any formal discussions and a truce was declared, which came into effect from midday on 11 July.

David Lloyd George (1863-1945) and Éamon de Valera (1882-1975) on the cover of the Illustrated London News, 23 July 1921.

At the end of 1920, there were various calls and attempts to bring about peace negotiations between Ireland and Britain. They failed as neither side wanted to seem too eager, in case it might be interpreted as a sign of weakness, and because the British insisted that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) disarm as a precondition to any talks. And so the war raged on into 1921. The first six months of that year – the bloodiest of the conflict – saw the loss of 999 lives as the British, convinced that they had the upper hand, persevered with a policy of coercion in Ireland and the IRA stepped up and expanded its guerrilla campaign.

As unrest continued and fatalities mounted, the British handling of the Irish situation caused unease among government supporters, drew sharp criticism from opposition leaders, and began to damage Britain’s international reputation, particularly in the United States. Reports in the British press of excesses by Crown forces in Ireland – the killings of republicans in custody and indiscriminate reprisals against civilians – were also troubling the British public as it became clear that their forces were acting in a manner not dissimilar to what had been condemned as “German atrocities” during the Great War.

Meanwhile, the British government attempted to settle the ‘Ulster Question’ through the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which provided for the establishment of two new statelets, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, with subsidiary parliaments in Belfast and Dublin. Elections for both parliaments were held in May 1921, and the Belfast parliament was established, appeasing Ulster Unionists. Sinn Féin rejected the Act and instead used the elections to form a second Dáil Éireann.

The British hawks and doves, the warmongers and peacemakers, were divided over how to best deal with the situation in Southern Ireland. There was an increasing realisation that it was not going to be resolved militarily without resorting to extreme, and politically damaging, measures. Though personally opposed to escalating the situation, General Nevil Macready, Commander of British forces in Ireland, stated his belief that IRA could be crushed with twenty more battalions, the widespread imposition of martial law, the seizure of all modes of transportation, mass internments and executions, but he questioned the British Cabinet’s resolve: “Will they begin to howl when they hear of our shooting a hundred men in one week?” From a British standpoint, without the introduction of such unprecedented and unpalatable measures, the IRA would continue to exist and, while it existed, British authority in Ireland could not be restored, so the British were hamstrung. At the same time, the IRA – depleted and poorly armed – were on the defensive as Crown forces conducted large-scale sweeps of the countryside. In an observation relevant to the Irish situation of 1921, US political scientist Henry Kissinger would later note that “one of the cardinal maxims of guerilla war the guerilla wins if he does not lose the conventional army loses if it does not win”.

At the official opening of the Belfast parliament, on 22 June 1921, King George V gave a conciliatory speech calling for or “all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget”. With the ‘Ulster Question’ settled, so far as the British government was concerned, Lloyd George was now free to turn his attention to Southern Ireland. Two days after the king’s speech, he wrote to de Valera “as the chosen leader of the great majority in Southern Ireland’ inviting him to London ‘to explore to the utmost the possibility of a settlement”. With Britain’s post-war economic recovery and pressing military matters elsewhere in the Empire to consider, Lloyd George wanted to settle the ‘Irish Question’ one way or another. Prior to any formal talks taking place, de Valera called for an unconditional truce and, on 8 July, it was agreed to ‘suspend activities’ from midday on 11 July. The advanced date was chosen in order to give the IRA time to notify its scattered forces.

On the evening of 8 July, news of the truce flashed on the screen of Galway’s Empire Theatre, off William Street. The Connacht Tribune reported that “at first people were skeptical. There was a deep breath, a perceptible pause. Then realization dawned. Tumultuous applause broke forth. There was a murmur of relief”. Galwegians snatched up copies of the evening newspapers, which had arrived by train from Dublin, but they contained no mention of any truce. Eager to confirm the news, crowds made their way to the offices of the Connacht Tribune where “lights shone gladly from every window, machines buzzed and rattled in every room. Messages were coming through from Dublin and from London with lightning speed. Yes, the news was true”. Early the following morning, a stop press edition of the newspaper appeared on the streets of Galway confirming the welcome news. As word spread, celebratory bonfires blazed across south Galway.

Douglas V. Duff, an Argentinean-born Black and Tan who was stationed in Galway, learned of the truce on the night of 9 July. He and his comrades had been sent to assist some Royal Marines stationed at Ballyvaughan coastguard station in County Clare, which had been attacked by the IRA. Returning to Galway by boat, one of the wounded marines told Duff that “they had received a wireless message that a truce had been arranged between the Government and Sinn Fein to become operative within forty-eight hours. We could not believe it”.

Messengers were sent across the country to notify IRA leaders of the truce. On 10 July, “a stranger from Dublin” was taken to see Mícheál Ó Droighneáin, Commandant of the East Connemara Brigade, who was on the run. Ó Droighneáin recalled that the stranger gave “a notification to me from Headquarters that a Truce was arranged between ourselves and the British Government”. Treated with suspicion, the messenger was told “If this is a trap, you are in for it!” While in West Connemara, Commandant Petie McDonnell remembered that a “stranger informed me that he was a courier from G.H.Q. and showed his credentials. He then gave me a communication informing me that a Truce was being declared as from 12 o’clock noon, July 11th. I cannot say that we went wild at the news. To say we were stunned would be nearer the mark, until it began to sink in that the British had been forced by men just like us fighting all over the country to agree to a Truce”.

While news of the truce buoyed Irish Republicans, one British commander, Colonel Maxwell Scott, wrote of the deflated feeling among Crown forces: “among the R.I.C. there was much uncertainty as to their future and much suspicion that somehow or other they would be ‘let down’. The British soldier, where his feelings had not been stirred by the murder of some of his officers and comrades, probably did not think very much about the subject Officers could not but feel humiliation and disappointment at the necessity for treating on equal terms with those whom they regarded as callous and treacherous murderers”.

The final action of the War of Independence in County Galway took place at Fishpond, near Kilchreest on 11 July, just hours before the truce came into effect. Around 8am, a party of local IRA volunteers, along with members of the East Clare flying column, ambushed a six-man police patrol, wounding Constable Patrick Callaghan. The

The Connacht Tribune reported that “the occurrence caused a great sensation in the district, particularly in view of the fact that the Truce was to take effect that day”.

The impact of the truce was immediately felt across Galway. Crown forces ceased all operations and returned to their barracks. Sinn Féin leaders and IRA volunteers, many of whom had been on the run, were able to return to their homes and families, without fear of arrest or worse. There were also greater freedoms for the civilian population with the announcement that all orders “regarding the prohibition of fairs, markets and public meetings, restrictions as to the use of pedal bicycles or tricycles, or the imposition of Curfew in the Counties of Mayo and Galway East and West Ridings are here-by cancelled”.

One newspaper reported: “Nothing has been more remarkable than the change brought about in Galway by the operation of the truce. On Wednesday one hundred members of the Crown forces attended Tuam races on leave, unarmed. Salthill, which has been hitherto empty, is filling rapidly with visitors. Armed lorres are absent from the streets, people move about with a new freedom, and many men, who have not been seen for months now come into the town freely”. The celebratory atmosphere at the Galway Races also reflected the mood of the country, the Tuam Herald reporting that “not for many years past – if ever before – was there such a throng seen on the famous old race course of Ballybrit as attended the opening day on Wednesday, It was the first real celebration of the truce in these parts, a regular “rising out,” and from all quarters and from all parts the people wended their way towards Galway to enjoy a “breather” after the years of turmoil and terrors they have gone through”.

Irish in London praying for peace, Downing Street, London, 14 July 1921. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

While people enjoyed the respite, the truce was but a temporary cessation and its longevity depended on the outcome of the negotiations, which were as likely to fail as to succeed. While largely observing the truce, the IRA continued to recruit, train and procure weapons in preparation for a resumption of hostilities. The July talks ultimately failed to bridge the gap between Irish aspirations for an all-island Republic and the British insistence on a settlement within the confines of the Empire, but the truce held.

Fresh negotiations held later in the year led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December 1921, and the establishment of the Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion within the British Empire, along the lines of Canada and South Africa. So, with the benefit of hindsight, the truce on 11 July had ended effectively the War of Independence. Of course, the Treaty would split the Irish republican movement and lead to a bitter civil war.

Overall, there were sixty deaths connected with the War of Independence in Galway between January 1919 and 11 July 1921. There were also twenty-seven Galwaymen killed in other parts of the country, twenty-four of whom were members of the RIC. While the figures are relatively low when compared with the number of deaths from the Spanish flu or the White Plague (tuberculosis) during the same period, such cold statistics convey nothing of the terror, loss and suffering during the conflict.

The Irish Delegation (Arthur Griffith, Robert Barton, Éamon de Valera, Count Plunkett and Laurence O’Neill) on the way to meet Lloyd George in London after the Truce, July 1921. © National Museum of Ireland.
The IRA arrives to take over Renmore Barracks from the British army, Galway, 13 February 1922. Courtesy of Dún Uí Mhaolaíosa

This is the final article in the War of Independence in Galway series researched and written by Brendan McGowan, Education and Outreach Officer at Galway City Museum.

If you would like to learn more about this seminal period in the history of our island visit the “Revolution in Galway, 1921-1923” exhibition at Galway City Museum or preview the exhibition HERE.




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