‘Difficult and Delicate’
It was not certain if the fighting that broke out near the village of Belleek, Co. Fermanagh, at the end of May 1922 – and which would spread to nearby Pettigo in Co. Donegal – was a last exchange in the past war or the opening of a new one. Actually, many things were unclear, as reports from the ground differed from each other on various points, but enough could be glimpsed through the fog of war for the Irish Times to inform its readers how:
Following the sending of reinforcements to Belleek by the Northern [Irish] Government, there was a conflict between the ‘Specials’ and a large party of civilians on the railway line, near Castlecaldwell [Co. Fermanagh], in Northern territory. Both sides opened fire simultaneously, and an engagement, which lasted for twenty minutes, followed.
The newspaper was being perhaps a bit literal in its terminology as the ‘civilians’ in question were, if not quite professional soldiers, at least combatants from the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Five had been reported killed (with emphasis on ‘reported’ for the total tally of fatalities would fall short of that), with no losses by the ‘Specials’, the armed policemen of the Ulster Special Constabulary who had been sparring with the IRA for the past few months over the newly laid Border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. By itself the violence was nothing new or even unusual, but what made this skirmish dangerously noteworthy was the escalation that followed, when a police convoy of a Lancia car and three Crossley tenders ventured over their side of the Border on the Sunday evening of the 28th May.
Once in Free State territory, the policemen found themselves under attack:
The driver of the Lancia car was shot dead, and his vehicle turned into the ditch. The ‘Specials’ took cover, and, having returned the fire, they managed to escape, but they had to abandon the three motor cars.
Now occupied by IRA forces, the hitherto unremarkable village of Belleek was rapidly becoming a flashpoint for war. But it was the city of Derry – or Londonderry if one prefers – where the danger was most keenly felt, at least by the worthy representatives in the House of Commons who barraged Winston Churchill, as Colonial Secretary, with questions, each seeking to prise a little more sense out of the situation. Did he have any information, asked Major Boyd Carpenter, on the alleged massing of the ‘Sinn Féin forces’ on the Donegal-Fermanagh frontier, and was the Government taking any precautions for the defence of Londonderry, dangerously exposed as it was to this threatened incursion?
If Carpenter was hoping for reassurance, then he was to be disappointed, for Churchill had little to offer save confessed ignorance and bland platitudes:
I have no information beyond what I have seen in the newspapers about the alleged massing of Sinn Fein forces and many motor vehicles on the Donegal borders of Derry, but the Government of Northern Ireland and the Military Commander-in-Chief on the spot may be trusted to take whatever measures are necessary.
This only stirred rather than soothed the gathered Members of Parliament (MPs). Ronald McNeill inquired if these measures included action against those on the Free State side of the Border, after which Colonel Ashley wanted to know if the British Commander-in-Chief of Northern Ireland was instructed to support the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland without first checking with the British Government. Churchill did his best to stonewall these queries by giving the broadest of answers with the minimum of detail: any Border-crossing by His Majesty’s forces would be a matter of consideration by the Cabinet. As for the Commander-in-Chief, General Cameron could indeed act unilaterally, assuming it was on the Northern Irish side of the border.
When pressed by Captain Craig on the likelihood of the Border being crossed by Irish forces, whether IRA or by the Free State, Churchill could only reply, with a touch of exasperation: “I cannot give an exhaustive account of the subjects which the Cabinet has taken into consideration.”
Even Churchill’s promise that the situation would be discussed with Michael Collins and the rest of the Free State leadership scarcely mollified his audience. On the contrary, Captain Charles Craig sounded positively incredulous at the implication of what the other man had just said.
Craig: Are we to understand that these important matters have not been dealt with in the conference with Mr Collins and his colleagues?
Churchill: I am not prepared to say what portion of the difficult and delicate questions of the Irish situation have been discussed between the British representatives and of the Irish Government.
‘A Festering Sore’
In fairness to Churchill, it was too long and strange a tale to easily explain.
Even as Crown and Irish personnel exchanged bullets outside Belleek, the birthday of King George V was being observed elsewhere in the country by a military review in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, the first such event since 1914. While it was almost certain to be the last, given the withdrawal of British forces as per the Treaty, it was still a fine display: cavalry and artillery on the right of the line, with infantry on the left, and the music bands taking up the centre. After an hour of the standard military maneuvers, General Sir Nevil Macready, Commanding-in-Chief of the forces in Ireland, stood by as the various units – the Royal Horse Artillery, the Royal Engineers, the 14th Leicestershire Regiment, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the 24th Infantry Brigade and others – marched past for his inspection, each displaying their regimental colours.
Although a seasoned professional, Macready could not help but be moved by the sight, particularly of the old pensioners from the Royal Hospital, adorned in their medals, and the boys of the Royal Hibernian School, their red tunics adding a dash of colour to the otherwise khaki formations: two time-honoured institutions Macready guessed would not survive the passing of the old order for very long.
But Macready had little time for melancholy. News of the latest trouble did not surprise him overly; for all his disdain of everything Irish, a feeling nurtured from years of trying to untangle the politics of the place, he was perceptive enough to grasp the potential for trouble at the Border, “a festering sore in the relations between the two parts of Ireland,” as he put it.
The area around Pettigo and Belleek in particular:
…is one of the geographical anomalies of the border link between Northern and Southern Ireland. A triangle some sixteen miles at the base, and seven from base to apex, it is cut off on the south by Lough Erne and the River Erne from the rest of County Fermanagh to which it belongs, and in order to enter it either from the North by the railway or main road, or from the direction of Garrison in the South, it is necessary to cross into Donegal for short distances, which in itself will always be sufficient to start trouble.
As if that was not enough, “a few snipers on this hill could effectually prevent any movement in the village.”
From the reports Macready received, “a few armed scallywags on the Pettigoe [alternative spelling] Triangle” were exploiting this small but strategically significant position. Macready assumed that the rascals in question were of the anti-Treaty IRA, which was at least easy to understand; after all, the Anti-Treatyites rejected the new rapprochement between Ireland and Britain, determined as they were to resume the previous war. But what made things trickier was how the Free State authorities, who were supposed to be as opposed to the Anti-Treatyites as the Anti-Treatyites were to the Free State, “were not too happy because they knew that men whom they claimed as their adherents were not entirely unconnected with all the trouble on the border” or so Macready suspected.
Michael Collins, Chairman of the Provisional Government and its de facto decision-maker, exemplified this slipperiness in Macready’s view, being “a thorough Irishman” in having “lots of arguments that the fault was not his,” an effect mollified somewhat by the ironic twinkle in the eye. The British general did give Collins credit for taking “no offence at having things put plainly before him” and the Corkonian had been equally direct with Macready for the past few months.
What he wanted, what he needed, were two things, Collins told Macready repeatedly: barracks and guns. With British forces withdrawing out of the former, Collins wanted his partisans to replace them before the Anti-Treatyites could. Guns were also a critical factor in the unbalanced Irish equitation, of which Republicans currently had the advantage, but Collins believed if he was given more, thousands would be signing up in support of the Free State.
“Eventually Collins received all the arms he asked for. It would be interesting to know the number of rifles, revolvers and machine guns now scattered about Ireland,” Macready later wrote. “The result would, I think, be startling.”
If only Macready had known…
The Army of the North?
One morning, back in April 1922, anti-Treaty IRA men stationed in Birr, Co. Offaly, saw several small vans passing by, their number plates from Tyrone and Derry recognisable even underneath the grime and dust of the road. The vehicles stayed overnight, left early, and returned later that evening. It was clear from how the vans pressed down on their wheels that they now were carrying a considerable load – of weapons, guessed the onlookers, who remained none the wiser as to the bigger picture.
Similarly perplexed was Todd Andrews, one of the garrison members at the anti-Treaty command post in the Four Courts, Dublin. While busying himself with clerical work, Andrews became aware of the lorries swapping weapons between the Four Courts and the Pro-Treatyites’ own base in the Beggar’s Bush barracks. Why, Andrews did not know. He saw no paperwork relating to the oddity and heard only rumours:
It transpired that our arms were intended for an ‘Army of the North’ to be created by combining pro and anti-Treaty forces with the object of mounting an attack on the recently formed Six County regime…Collins and [Liam] Lynch were the originators of the idea of an Army of the North. The exchange of arms was designed to prevent the identification of weapons which had been supplied by the British to the Provisional Government in the event of capture.
Though Andrews had no other first-hand encounters with this clandestine ploy, Seán Lehane and Florence O’Donoghue did. As well as guns, Liam Lynch, as Chief of Staff of the anti-Treaty IRA, would be sending men like Lehane, a Corkman with considerable guerrilla experience, who was appointed O/C of this dispatch force. Andrews told of the ‘Army of the North’ in his 1979 memoir, but Lehane had done so earlier in March 1935, as part of his application to the Military Service Pensions Board. The information Lehane provided would not have been available to the general public at the time of Andrews’ autobiography but what Lehane wrote matched that of Andrews in regard to the need for secrecy on Collins’ part:
Both parties – Republican [anti-Treaty] and Free State forces – were to co-operate in giving us arms and supplies, but General Collins insisted on one thing, that activities were to be in the name of the IRA [as opposed to the Free State], and that we were to get arms – rifles – from Cork No. 1 Brigade and that we would return rifles instead to Cork 1 from those rifles handed over by the British. The reason for these stipulations was to avoid embarrassment for General Collins in dealing with the British Government in case a rifle fell into the hands of the British.
Unlike Lehane, O’Donoghue was not among those selected for this mission. He was, however, a close confidant of Lynch and, as his former commander’s biographer, O’Donoghue would write in detail about the Chief of Staff’s actions at this crucial time. O’Donoghue had considerable respect for Collin as well and, to him, this secret pact between the two leaders represented:
…a clear objective that revived the old bond of brotherhood, a naturally shared desire to strike at the common enemy which was devoid of the heartache attaching to so many of their decisions at the time. They had, each for the other, a regard that went deeper than friendly comradeship.
Which may indeed have been true. But instructions given to Lehane by Lynch hint at how the parties involved were not being entirely forthright with each other, for all the talk of brotherhood bonds and shared desires.
Lehane and the rest of the expedition force were to:
…to get inside the border wherever, whenever. To force the British general to show his real intention that was to occupy Ballyshannon, Sligo and along down [that direction].
In other words: to start the War of Independence all over again. This would suit Lynch and the rest of the Republicans perfectly, wrecking as it would the Treaty beyond repair; the Free Staters, not so much, since they were only intending to fight the British where they still were in Ireland, not encourage them to return to areas already vacated. If Collins was pulling the wool over Macready’s eyes, then Lynch seems to have been intending to do the same to Collins.
‘You Are Our Enemies’
That is, if we take the above sources at face value and assume Collins was entirely committed to the whole ‘Army of the North’ plan. Andrews, Lehane and O’Donoghue were all Anti-Treatyites, while no contributions have been made on the subject by Free State voices. The closest historians have is Joe Sweeney, the O/C of the pro-Treaty Donegal IRA, and his attitude towards the Anti-Treatyites in his territory was notably frigid.
“We thought Joe Sweeny and Co. would support us,” remembered one.
They thought wrong. Sweeney had no problems sending revolvers and drill purpose rifles over the Border to Derry, even if the latter type were of doubtful quality as even he admitted. After all, Derry was out of his jurisdiction and thus someone else’s problem. When “Collins asked me what I thought of the prospect of a fight in the North when I handed over the drill purpose rifles,” Sweeney was not against the idea per se, but told Collins: “I wouldn’t take any joy in it nor would I send in any more.”
At other times, Sweeney’s indifference could curdle to contempt: “I had no use for the North as I thought they were no good.” Contrary to the claim that Collins was working hand in hand, even if under the table, with Republicans, Sweeney “got no encouragement from Collins, or from GHQ about helping the North, nor had I any instructions to back them up.”
In fairness to Sweeney, the Anti-Treatyites who set up base in Donegal did not make for particularly easy roommates; at times, they acted more like an invasion force than allies, as a Free State convoy found when driving through Newtowncunningham on the 4th May 1922. Anti-Treatyites opened fire, inflicting grievous casualties: three killed and five wounded. Writing to the press a week later, Lehane did his best to put his side in the best light, arguing that the whole messy business could have been avoided had Sweeney been more receptive to his earlier overtures at the Free State headquarters in Drumboe Castle:
I pointed out what I feared would be the outcome of the continued aggression of his forces, and made it quite plain that there were sufficient enemies of Ireland in Ulster, and that we ought to be friends.
But Sweeney was having none of what the Corkman was offering:
Sweeney told me he did not recognise me; that my army was an unofficial army, and that anyhow, I did not belong to the county. I replied that an Irishman was not a stranger in any part of his native land. At this stage his adjutant interjected, ‘You are our enemies.’
After the Newtowncunningham debacle, it was hard to see how the two rival IRAs could be anything else. “This clash finished what we set out to do for it finished any hope of our relationship with the Provisional Government improving, for they were getting worse,” recalled Mossy Donegan, another Corkonian. “When we looked for help from the Free State it was refused.”
And yet that was not quite the case.
Fighting alongside the Anti-Treatyites, men who were threatening the peace of his county, was probably the last thing Sweeney either wanted or anticipated at the end of May, but that is more or less what happened in the Pettigo-Belleek Triangle. At the time, though, the picture Sweeney presented was a straightforward one: all aggression had been from the British, with the Free State the sole victim of it. Particularly deplorable was “the British shelling of Pettigo resulting in the deaths of three of my men [emphasis mine].” If there had been “any serious and deliberate invasion of Northern territory” – the closest Sweeney got to admitting the possible presence of Anti-Treatyites in the area – it “was not an act of my men.”
“Absolutely False and Malicious”
Needless to say, the British report on the fracas, released on the 6th June 1922, aimed its finger squarely in the opposite direction:
As a result of the continuous aggression on the part of the so-called Free Stater troops in what is known as the ‘Pettigo Salient,’ which resulted in three casualties (one of them in Pettigo) to the military during the last week, it was decided that the ‘salient’ should be occupied by Imperial [British] troops.
These ‘three casualties’ were not named or identified. Special Constable Dobson, however, received that dubious distinction, being “shot dead when in Ulster territory, half a mile from the border” and definitely not while “taking an active part in the operations.” It had been in response to sniping, aiming down from the high ground around Pettigo (the same vantage point Macready identified), that British forces opposite the village used artillery guns on the 4th June, firing half a dozen shells. After this thunderous prelude, British troops advanced on both flanks, leading to a running battle amidst hedges and ditches that lasted from about 11 o’clock to 4 in the afternoon.
As the Irish Free State issued its own review immediately after, the authors had the opportunity to counter the other’s points. Shelling had not been in response to Dobson’s death, for the Special Constable was killed after the artillery rounds. The claim that British soldiers on their side of the Lough Erne had been fired on from the Free State-owned end was “absolutely false and malicious”, as was the accusation that British soldiers moving towards Pettigo, but still in British-held territory, had been targeted on the morning of the 4th June.
All aggression had been on the part of Crown forces, as an earlier incident on the Wednesday of the 31st May demonstrated:
A scout reported two Crossley tenders and one armoured car on the Kesh road, coming towards the border. Orders were sent out to the post covering the Kesh road not to fire unless they were attacked. Before the order reached the post a person in one of the tenders, dressed in a khaki coat and black trousers, got out of the tender, placed a Lewis gun on the fence, and opened fire on another post of ours, which guarded the left flank of Pettigo, and on our territory. The post covering the Kesh road immediately opened fire on the Lewis gunner. The men in the tenders were all dressed in black, except the one man in the khaki coat. The tenders and armoured car immediately retreated.
Not only was the restraint of the Free State soldiers emphasised but also how “there were no other Irish troops in the district then or now.”
The ‘no other’ were presumably a reference to the anti-Treaty IRA, a distinction Dublin was keen to draw. As we shall see, this was not quite the case, though discerning what else was true and false is not an easy matter. Each army claimed the mantle of ‘defendant’ while pointing to the opposition as ‘attacker’, when, really, the statuses of both sides were what could be diplomatically described as ‘fluid’.
After all, “for a considerable period prior to the British attack, intermittent fighting had been going on between out [sic] forces and the Ulster Specials and Volunteers along the Donegal-Tyrone-Fermanagh Border,” wrote J. Murray, one of the IRA participants, five years later in 1927. He added, in one of the more honest statements from that period: “It would be difficult to relate all the circumstances that led to the fighting.”
‘Anything Could Happen’
By the end of the twelve days of hostilities, from the opening skirmish on the 28th May to the fall of Belleek by the 8th June, three men were dead on the Irish side, although not necessary on that of the Irish Free State, contrary to Sweeney’s insistence: Patrick Flood of Pettigo, and Bernard McCanny and William Kearney of Drumquin, Co. Tyrone. None were initially named in the newspapers and, when two of them were made public, through the British military inquiry in Enniskillen, they were incorrectly identified as ‘McEnweel’ and ‘Connolly’ from Rameltown, Co. Donegal.
The reason for this ignorance was calculated, for when the trio of bodies were taken to Enniskillen, false names and addresses were provided by those claiming them to better fit the narrative that the deceased had been in the service of the Free State. Lieutenant Owen McDonnell, who was sent to Donegal from Dublin to assess the situation post-battle, estimated that of the twenty-five IRA men who had come over the Border to Pettigo, fifteen had “signified their willingness to remain loyal to General Headquarters,” as in the Free State.
Which would presumably mean the other ten were anti-Treaty but, to those involved, such distinctions may not have seemed terribly important. In the case of Nicholas Smyth, although he joined the Republicans when the Civil War came, his priority in May 1922 was more self-preservation than politics, and it was for that reason that he had fled his native Tyrone for Donegal.
Not all his comrades got away in time, with half the officers and rank-and-file fighters in the Tyrone IRA captured by the Northern Irish authorities (Tyrone, lest we forget, fell on the British side of the Border). Smyth himself had been warned by a sympathetic Protestant that he would be shot if caught. Once in Pettigo, Smyth was housed in the old barracks of the village with thirty or forty other IRA ‘refugees’ who busied themselves with patrol duties and plans for when they could return over the Border and renew the war for Irish freedom in their home counties. Whoever was Republican or Free State, anti or pro-Treaty, did not matter, not in that particular place or point in time – for now, all were Volunteers for Ireland, as it had been before.
“Although life was dull, there was an air of expectancy about the place and one felt that anything could happen,” Smyth recalled years later, in his statement to the Bureau of Military History.
As it turned out, something did.
Given the tensions across the Border in recent months, Smyth was hardly surprised when news came, on the Sunday of the 28th May, of that skirmish with the Ulster Special Constabulary, which had resulted in a number of policemen being cut off on an island in Lough Erne. To forestall a breakout, orders were issued for the Volunteers at hand, Smyth among them, to dig a trench across the road at Pettigo Bridge:
While this work was in progress large numbers of enemy forces began to appear on the Fermanagh side of the border. As our working party was in grave danger should the enemy open fire, I was ordered to take a covering party of about 12 or 14 men to protect. These men were armed with rifles. We took up positions overlooking the bridge. The enemy forces doubled and took up positions behind a hedge (?) across from us.
In danger of being caught in a crossfire between their own side and the enemy, the trench-diggers hurriedly pulled back. Smyth told his subordinates to hold their fire but keep in position and await further orders. And there they stayed, on the possible frontline of an impending battle, for a couple of hours. The danger in the air must have spread to the village behind them as Pettigo was deathly quiet – “you could hear a pin drop,” as Smyth put – until the tension snapped with a single gunshot:
This was followed by three or four more single ones. This seemed to be a signal, because the whole place became alive with sound in a few minutes. Bullets were hitting the wall just over our heads and large lumps of lead were dropping on top of us. Our rifles were soon too hot to hold and the air was filled with the smoke and the smell of cordite.
Thankfully, the enemy withdrew before the Volunteers could exhaust their ammunition. Even then there was no respite, with the Irishmen fixed at their posts throughout the night until the Monday morning of the 29th May. Relieved of duty at 7 am, the IRA men trudged through Pettigo in twos and threes – not that the fighting refused to let them be, as Smyth found out almost to his cost:
Danny Gallagher and I were crossing the street when one of the enemy had a shot at us. The bullet hit the road just in front of us. We lay flat on the street and one of our fellows who saw the thing happening got a Thompson gun and let this sniper have a couple of bursts. We didn’t hear from him again.
Some food and a few hours of overdue sleep later, the men gathered at the old barracks, readying themselves for the next round. Monday, however, stayed quiet throughout the day and continued so at night.
At daybreak, British forces attacked again. Smyth led a team along the railway line in order to cover the main road into Pettigo. Resistance was evidently strong, for some of the Crown combatants were retreating down the road, allowing the Volunteers a chance to snipe at them. Smyth saw how one of his comrades had fitted his rifle for hurling grenades; although none hit their target, Smyth was impressed at the innovation.
With the assailants beaten back yet again, Pettigo enjoyed a measure of quiet, save for the odd potshot. Two days later, on the 1st June, the British tried again with a frontal assault by twelve Crossley tenders carrying policemen and soldiers. The Volunteers allowed them to near before opening fire at the sight of the proverbial ‘whites of their eyes.’ IRA outposts elsewhere added their firepower, and Smyth guessed the enemy casualties to be severe, though the Crown force gave as good as it got with its machine-guns.
After half an hour, the police and soldiers fell back:
An amusing sequel to this fight was that one of the policemen, for some reason or another, didn’t leave with the rest and after the main party had moved off he started off down the road, running for all he was worth. None of our fellows fired on him, but gave him a hearty cheer.
Despite these successes, the strain was starting to be felt by the defenders of Pettigo, less than a hundred of whom were available in the village at any given time. The British, in contrast, were growing stronger, with more soldiers to be seen on Boa Island, in Lough Erne, from where two incursions were launched over the water, landing two miles down from Pettigo and forcing the Irish to divert manpower to there, as well as to another point in the Letter district, three miles away.
Smyth barely had an hour in bed before a fresh attack was reported at a narrow isthmus known as Waterfoot. He arrived with the rest, having to crawl the last three hundred yards due to the bullets whizzing through the air. The Volunteers already on the scene, under the command of James Scallon, were in a perilous state, taking fire from two different directions. Smyth suggested to Scallon that they shift between these separate points so that their opponents would catch themselves in a crossfire:
We did this and it worked out as we had anticipated. When we got them properly engaged in the darkness, we returned to the safety of our trench. Their fire at each other continued for some time and eventually both parties of the enemy evacuated their positions and retreated.
The Irishmen did not, sleeping where they were until relieved. The fight was continuing here and there even as Smyth attended morning Mass in Pettigo. It was while he was leaving the church that the British played their trump card: artillery guns, the first time they had been deployed in Ireland since 1916.
Smyth hurried to the building used as their military headquarters, finding it already deserted. Even with this new level of warfare, he did not think the British would go so far as to occupy the village – only to look through a window, a quick cup of tea in hand, to see two armoured cars parked outside.
With nothing else to be done, Smyth grabbed a Thompson gun that had been left on a table – which says much about how quickly the place was abandoned – and went out, into the yard at the back. There he found Danny Gallagher (the man he had been with when narrowly avoiding a sniper’s aim) and twenty others, all huddled behind a hedge. So intense was the enemy fusillade that the one Volunteer with a weapon to match, a Lewis gun, did not dare risk exposing himself to use it (though Smyth gave a few return shots with his newly claimed Thompson). Retreat being the only sane option, the band crawled away, singly or in pairs, along the hedge.
When they judged themselves to be sufficiently far away, the Volunteers quickened their pace, finally breaking cover to dash across a bare patch of land. An artillery shell chose that moment to land beside them, splattering Smyth and the rest with mud but miraculously leaving them unscathed. The fleeing Irishmen were able to continue on and escape, making their way to Donegal town with nothing but the clothes on their backs. About fifty-five or sixty-five others arrived with Smyth, only half the number that had held Pettigo.
At least no pursuit was made, for there was still one more nail for the Crown forces to hammer down. “I understand that the advance will be continued to-morrow towards Belleek,” wrote the journalist on the scene for the Irish Times.
By Thursday, the 8th June, the Fermanagh village in question was too under British control, courtesy of the one hundred and fifty soldiers from the Manchester Regiment and the Lincolnshire Regiment’s three companies, which had advanced on Belleek from the south and north respectively. As with Pettigo, resistance was offered by rifle and Thompson gunshots, some of which came from an old Williamite fort on a hill overlooking Belleek.
And, as with Pettigo, artillery made all the difference:
There was a “boom” of a big gun, and the ground shook. A cloud of dust rose from the back of the fort, and the Republicans were seen scattering in all directions. Three more high explosive shells were fired, and every one of them registered a hit, landing within the walls of the fort.
As the garrison was from anti-Treaty IRA and thus unambiguously hostile, and that Belleek lay on the Northern Irish side of the Border, the village made for a much more straightforward mission than Free State-held Pettigo in Donegal (tellingly, when Collins later complained of the British attack against Pettigo, he ignored the one on Belleek). The exchange of bullets and shells had begun at 12:45; three-quarters of an hour later, the Anti-Treatyites were reported to be in retreat. Save for a slight injury, no casualties among the British were suffered, nor any bodies found in Belleek, making it as close to a bloodless battle as could be hoped.
At 10 Downing Street, London, news of the victory and its swiftness was celebrated by the Prime Minister and his inner circle with a bottle of champagne and the singing of songs until past midnight. Relief rather than triumphalism was the order of the day, for the last thing David Lloyd George had wanted was to be “fighting in the swamps of Lough Erne,” as he told Churchill.
It had been a brave holdout but, in Smyth’s resigned view, “the forces which the British used against our men in the last stages of the fight in Pettigo were so overwhelming that we couldn’t stem the tide.” If nothing could have averted the outcome, then one thing Smyth did regret was the death of Patrick Flood. Flood had stayed behind for some overdue sleep when Smyth left for Waterfoot, being too tired to do anything else. He later died elsewhere at Drumharriff Hill, haunting Smyth for years afterwards with the possibility of Flood surviving had they only stayed together.
Four were reported dead altogether: three of the Pettigo defenders, unnamed and otherwise unremarked, and Special Constable Dobson, whose death had previously been reported. Post-victory, it received more elaboration in the Irish Times: despite being shot in the head, the dying Dobson had managed to apply the brakes of his Lancia car and bring it to a halt by the roadside, rather than getting in the way of the other vehicles and rendering them easy targets.
A contradictory version came from John Travers. Like Smyth, Travers was contributing a statement to the Bureau of Military History, three decades after the event, in July 1952 (four other participants, including Smyth and James Scollan, put their names at the end, indicating that the document was a group effort). According to Travers and company, after Dobson was downed, “the car overturned and blocked the road. Fire from the Volunteers prevented them from clearing the way for some time.”
Travers also contributed the closest account posterity has for the final moments of the three fallen defenders:
The machine gun post of about eight IRA Volunteers which manned Drumharriff Hill covering the approach to the town [Pettigo], held their position until their ammunition was exhausted and then the post was surround [sic] and captured. Three of the gallant defenders, Patrick Flood of Pettigo, Bernard McCanny and William Kearney of Drumquin, were killed at their post.
Neither Travers nor any of his five contributors seem to have been eyewitnesses to this last stand and so little more than the bare facts above can be provided. The Monday after the fight, Father Bernard Hackett was to find Flood’s body in the field where he fell and removed it to the Catholic church in Pettigo. The top of Flood’s head was missing, torn off by what the padre guessed to have been an artillery shell.
And Flood’s condition was not the worst, for he at least was recognisable. Part of why McCanny and Kearney were not immediately identified was “principally owing to their mutilated condition,” according to the report by Lieutenant McDonnell. In addition to the three dead, McDonnell estimated eighteen further casualties to the Free State, these being prisoners who had been removed to Enniskillen.
A fourth name on the memorial to the Irish dead in Pettigo is William Deasley ‘who died of wounds 6-6-1922’. According to historian Liam Ó Duibhir, these injuries were not from the actual battle but afterwards in Donegal town as a result of an accident. And then there had been the blood spilt at the very start, that of the Lancia car driver who had been shot on the 28th May while crossing with a police convoy into the Free State: Special Constable Herbert Thomas Rickerby, a Belfast man (given the similarity between his death and Dobson’s, the driver’s seat in a military vehicle must have been an exceptionally dangerous place to be).
Numbers are a notoriously difficult science for the military researcher, given the tendency of primary sources to inflate them; for example, Michael O’Donoghue believed that fifteen Free State soldiers altogether had been slain by the shelling of Pettigo. But, when all is said and counted, five (six if you count the latecomer Deasley) is the most reasonable tally of the butcher’s bill.
An Army Once Again?
Though not present in either Pettigo or Belleek, Michael O’Donoghue was in Donegal, one of the Corkonians sent to assist the anti-Treaty IRA there, and so can provide a man-on-the-ground view of how the situation was perceived. The initial reaction for O’Donoghue and his comrades in Donegal town was dread: if the British advanced westwards along the Erne River to Ballyshannon, they could cut the Anti-Treatyites off from the rest of ‘Southern’ Ireland.
However, that looming cloud promised a silver lining, in O’Donoghue’s view:
Had they done so, the whole subsequent history of Ireland would assuredly have been changed, for a unified Irish Republican Army would have waged renewed war on the British in Ulster and prevented the setting up of the Six County statelet.
For if the valiant, albeit ill-fated, defence of Pettigo and Belleek had demonstrated anything, it was how:
At last the sundered wings of the IRA – the Free Staters and the Republicans – were fighting side by side as comrades again here in Ulster against the common English enemy. Now the Irish Republican Army had closed its ranks and were re-united once more.
Brian Monaghan, who had been in the battle, thought much the same:
This incident seemed to heal the division in the ranks of the former IRA as both the treaty supporters at Pettigo and the anti-Treaty supporters at Belleek took a hand at actively opposing the advance of the British Forces.
But it was not to be:
Unfortunately this temporary feeling of old-time unity disappeared as soon as the military operations against the British forces came to an end.
Disappointedly, and “strange to say, the British stayed put in Belleek and Pettigo and made no further move,” O’Donoghue lamented. Despite the Pettigo-Belleek clash being exactly the sort of reaction Liam Lynch had hoped to provoke when undertaking the ‘Army of the North’, the Anti-Treatyites in Donegal were caught off-guard as much as anyone. But, when reviewing events years later, O’Donoghue preferred to blame external forces rather than his own side’s failure to capitalise on their gift-wrapped opportunity:
Michael Collins was called to London to explain the warlike activities of the Free State army in Ulster. What transpired between himself and Churchill there will hardly ever be fully revealed.
An Unbridgeable Gulf?
What went on behind closed doors was not quite as cloak-and-dagger as O’Donoghue tried to make out – contrary to his insinuation, we have quite a lot of material about Collins’ interactions with the British state – but the clash of arms on the Donegal-Fermanagh frontier did expose just how far the two governments were at an understanding. Collins and Arthur Griffith were not even aware that the fighting had broken out until informed about it in a meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on the 31st May. Worse, neither Irish Cabinet minister knew if it were the Anti-Treatyites who were involved or their own forces. Collins repudiated any Free State involvement – erroneously, as he later learnt – to Churchill, who was in turn downplaying the whole affair as much as he could to Parliament.
Both men were feeling the strain. Thomas Jones, a civil servant with a front-row to many of the Anglo-Irish deliberations, had had a testy conversation at Chequers with a frazzled Churchill, who wanted to send in the military to the Pettigo-Belleek Triangle without first warning their partners in the Free State. When Jones cautioned him against impulsivity, Churchill threatened to resign and leave the Prime Minister to carry the load (Lloyd George, when he heard, compared his Colonial Secretary to an unstable chauffeur who was liable to drive everyone off a cliff without warning).
Collins likewise yearned to cast off responsibility. The first thing he had told Jones at one encounter in late May was: “This gulf is unbridgeable.” Going back to war, with his comrades at his side once again, did not seem like such a bad thing, he hinted to Jones. But this was more of a case of Collins venting than seriously considering. His immediate demand was for jaw-jaw rather than war-war; when asked by an American journalist if he would insist on an official enquiry into the Pettigo-Belleek affair, Collins was emphatic: “Most certainly.”
He calmed down somewhat after a talk with Sir Laming Worthington-Evans, the Secretary of War, and Lord Cavan, Chief of the General Staff, in mid-June. As he told Richard Mulcahy in a letter:
I am satisfied that there is a very serious conflict of evidence and I am not satisfied that either side can be accepted as being correct.
What Collins had heard was apparently enough to persuade him that enough blame was there to go around: “I was pressing my demand for an enquiry but eased off somewhat after certain passages of the British report had been read out to me.” Any secret deal struck with Liam Lynch belonged to a different age, assuming anything of the sort had really existed. As for Churchill, when asked in Parliament, the Colonial Secretary confirmed that no such enquiry would be necessary as his government accepted “full responsibility for the action which the military authorities took by their express direction.”
Cooler heads, it seemed, were prevailing. It was not the end of the Irish Question for Britain, nor the Border issue for Ireland, but the attentions of both countries did not linger long on either Pettigo or Belleek. British, Free Stater and Republicans turned to bigger priorities, and soon to bigger battles, and the one that had flared up on the Donegal-Fermanagh border so suddenly faded away just as swiftly.
 Ibid, 30/05/1922
 Ibid, 05/06/1922
 Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Live, Vol. 2 (London: Hutchinson and Co. ), p. 649
 Ibid, pp. 631-2, 645, 656
 MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 268-9
 Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 238
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormach K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), pp. 203-4
 O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954), p. 251
 O’Malley, West Cork Interviews, p. 205
 Ibid, p. 63
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam and Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk to Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), pp. 33-5
 Ibid, 12/05/1922
 O’Malley, West Cork Interviews, p. 97
 Downing, Dan. Neighbours in Pettigo: Living with Conflict and Division in a Border Village (Co. Donegal: Pettigo Publishing, 2018), p. 129
 Irish Times, 06/06/1922
 Names and addresses supplied by Travers, John (BMH / WS 711), p. 7 ; Irish Times, 07/06/1922
 Kearney, pp. 3, 11
 Smyth, Nicholas (BMH / WS 721), pp. 24-31
 Irish Times, 05/06/1922
 Ibid, 09/06/1922
 Jones, Thomas (edited by Middlemas, Keith) Whitehall Diary: Volume III, Ireland 1918-1925 (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 211-2
 Smyth, pp. 29, 31
 Irish Times, 05/06/1922
 Travers, p. 6
 Ibid, pp. 6-7
 Kearney, p. 3
 Ó Duibhir, Liam. Donegal and the Civil War: The Untold Story (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011), p. 128 ; Belfast Newsletter, 31/05/1922
 O’Donoghue, Michael V. (BMH / WS 1741, Part II), p. 95
 Ibid, p. 97
 Ibid, p. 95
 Monaghan, Brian (BMH / WS 879), p. 13
 O’Donoghue, p. 97
 Downing, p. 124
 Jones, pp. 210, 212
 Ibid, p. 203 ; Downing, p. 136
 Kinsella, Anthony, ‘The Pettigo-Belleek Triangle Incident. Irish Sword (Dublin: The Military History Society of Ireland, Volume XX, No. 2, Winter 1997), p. 352 ; Irish Times, 15/06/1922
Andrews, C.S., Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001)
Downing, Dan. Neighbours in Pettigo: Living with Conflict and Division in a Border Village (Co. Donegal: Pettigo Publishing, 2018)
Jones, Thomas (edited by Middlemas, Keith) Whitehall Diary: Volume III, Ireland 1918-1925 (London: Oxford University Press, 1971)
MacEoin, Uinseann. Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)
Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Live, Vol. 2 (London: Hutchinson and Co. )
O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954)
Ó Duibhir, Liam. Donegal and the Civil War: The Untold Story (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011)
O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)
O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)
Military Service Pensions Collection
Flood, Patrick, W2D221
Kearney, William, W2/11378
Bureau of Military History Statements
Monaghan, Brian, WS 879
O’Donoghue, Michael V., WS 1741
Smyth, Nicholas, WS 721
Travers, John, WS 711
Kinsella, Anthony, ‘The Pettigo-Belleek Triangle Incident. Irish Sword (Dublin: The Military History Society of Ireland, Volume XX, No. 2, Winter 1997)