Private Peter Swift of the National Army was taking a break in the canteen of Callan Barracks, Co. Kilkenny, on the 14th December 1922 when Captain Edward Somers entered in a jovial mood. Somers announced that there was a truce now on, which would make a nice change from the internecine conflict that had been disrupting the country for the past seven months. To celebrate, Somers left a pound on the counter and told the server to give every man in the garrison a drink.
Which was all very well but Swift still had guard duty to perform. He went outside, the time being 6:30 pm, and told the sentry by the bridge about the truce. As he was crossing the bridge, a man ran up to him with a revolver in hand and told him put his hands up. Meanwhile, more newcomers were rushing the canteen inside, taking the startled soldiers captive. After being deprived of any ammunition on them, the prisoners were marched to the guardroom in the barracks where they spent the night before being released in the morning.
The Men on the Hills
It would transpire that no less than three National Army officers had facilitated the coup. Lieutenant Kerwick had been talking with Sergeant William O’Neill the evening before in the canteen in Callan Barracks where they were both based. As O’Neill later described in his report, when he asked which side was in the right, Kerwick, who had had a fair amount to drink, replied “the men on the hills.”
O’Neill did not need to ask who he meant by that. Despite the unsettling topic of conversation – tellingly, he felt the need to add in his report how he had told Kerwick he would never betray his comrades, as if to ensure his own name was clear – O’Neill had no idea at that point what Kerwick had planned.
The next day, O’Neill took over as Sergeant of the Guard at noon. Somers dropped by to ask him for loan of his revolver, saying that he was bound for nearby Kilkenny town. The captain drove away in a motorcar with Kerwick, the pair returning later that day at 6 pm. Somers pulled out a sheet of paper and said that a truce was now in effect, warning O’Neill not to fire any shots that would break the newly formed peace.
Half an hour later, Kerwick came to talk to the sentry on duty. When asked by the lieutenant to give up his rifle, the sentry refused. Not one to take ‘no’ for an answer, Kerwick pulled out his revolver and ordered the hapless sentry to comply. Upon witnessing this, O’Neill drew his own rifle but found he was missing its magazine. He later blamed Lieutenant Doyle, the third traitorous officer in the garrison, for surreptitiously removing it beforehand.
Meanwhile, Somers and his new friends were disarming the remaining garrison in the building. All the Free Staters were given the chance of joining their captors in the canteen – in others words, to switch sides – but, according to O’Neill, only one of them accepted. O’Neill told in his report how he had been offered money to defect but, as nobody else was made such an offer, it seems doubtful that this happened.
Corporal T. Sullivan, a native of Tipperary, told a slightly different account to Swift’s and O’Neill’s. He was leaving the canteen at 6:45 (the times more-or-less corresponding in all three versions) when he came across Bill Quirke, a notable Anti-Treayite leader, with a revolver in each hand. Quirke shouted ‘hands up’ but Sullivan assumed he was playacting. Otherwise, why would Lieutenant Doyle be with Quirke? And hadn’t Captain Somers announced some sort of truce just now?
Sullivan walked back into the canteen, followed by Quirke and Doyle, who told the dozen men present to put their hands up. Finally realising that the situation was serious, Sullivan and the others obeyed. As they were walked to the guard room, they saw that the place was swarming with unfamiliar men, one of whom took the opportunity to rob Sullivan of his bootstraps at gunpoint while the prisoners waited in the guardroom.
Quirke then told Sullivan to get another man and load all the equipment in the barracks onto the vehicles outside. When Sullivan went out to do so, one of the Anti-Treatyites, Tom Sadlier, took the chance to ask his name, and then inquired if he was the brother of someone he knew from Tipperary. Showing how small a place Ireland could be, Sullivan confirmed that he was and said: “Is it here you are instead of being out helping us?” Sadlier responded by inviting Sullivan to come with them but he declined.
Sullivan helped to load the vehicles, of which he saw one big lorry and a bus stolen from the town of Callan. When done, they were taken back to the guard room, where the turncoat Doyle told them to give up their boots. Sadlier intervened, telling them to keep their footwear on and that he would not be leaving anyone barefooted. A chivalrous foe, he went so far as to retrieve the boots already taken and return them to their owners.
After the raiders had departed with their plunder, Sullivan left the barracks for town with some of his comrades. He stayed at a convenient house for a couple of hours before returning to the barracks with two companions. On their way back, they were held up by three more Anti-Treatyites who searched them but were considerate enough to warn them to stay off the streets in case a fight broke out between them and any Free State reinforcements.
Sullivan stayed in the barracks for half an hour before leaving again, and was yet again held up by three men, one of whom had been in the party that had waylaid him before, and – in an awkward reunion – two of which he knew already, one from Tipperary. After denying he had any ammunition on him to take, Sullivan was allowed to go to town, where he spent the night with some friends.
The Three Barracks
All three men eventually made their way to Kilkenny Barracks. That at least was still in the hands of the National Army but the same could not be said for the ones in Mullinavat and Thomastown. They too had been seized in surprise attacks with their garrisons disarmed and turned loose, making it a humiliating total of three outposts defeated within less than twenty-four hours, all without a shot needing to be fired.
After Callan Barracks, the one at Thomastown had been the next to fall. Led by Denis Lacey, about eighty Anti-Treatyites, most in stolen uniforms from the National Army, drove through the night in Crossley Tenders and motorcars. They swiftly overwhelmed the surprised garrison upon arrival before searching door-to-door through Thomastown for any leftover Free Staters.
The only holdouts were the Civic Guards, the nascent police force of the new state, who had barricaded themselves in the courthouse. Undeterred, the Anti-Treatyites broke a window in the building and gave the occupants ten minutes to clear out before they would set it on fire.
The policemen capitulated at that, and all that was left for the victors to do was steal their bicycles and set the courthouse ablaze as promised. Within a few hours, there was nothing left of the building but its four smouldering walls.
The Anti-Treatyites had already left by then in the early hours of the morning, having blocked the roads out of town with felled trees, cut all telegraph wires and torn up the railway line between Thomastown and Kilkenny. Nobody could accuse them of not being thorough. They followed through to Mullinavat Barracks which fell just as effortlessly as the previous two.
While reviewing the causes for the debacle, the top brass of the National Army quickly identified Captain Somers as their prime Judas. An intelligence report on the 16th December, two days afterwards, told of how the “procedure for betrayal was the same in all cases. He entered the three Garrisons, shaking hands with the Officer in Charge, having a party of Irregulars with him in full National Army uniform.”
Up to then, Somers had been regarded as a responsible officer.
Another report on the same day, from General John T. Prout to his superior, Richard Mulcahy, gave some background information. Prior to the debacle, a column of Anti-Treatyites (or ‘Irregulars’, as the Free State authorities preferred in an attempt to deny their enemies any legitimacy) had been located at Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary.
After an engagement between them and the National Army (for which Prout gives no details), the former split into two columns, each heading in a different direction. In addition to Denis Lacey, the group responsible for the triple coups was led by a number of prominent Irregulars: Séumas Robinson, Tom Barry and Bill Quirk. With the exception of Barry, all were members in the Tipperary Irish Republican Army (IRA).
As for the turncoats: “No efforts will be spared in arresting and punishing the guilty officers,” Prout assured his commanding officer.
A meeting between President W.T. Cosgrave and Denis J. Gorey, the TD for Kilkenny, gave some further insight into the treachery. For one, there had already been a disturbing level of complacency, if not collusion, amongst the local Free State authorities. Edward Aylward, the O/C of the anti-Treaty Kilkenny IRA, was known to have been at home indulging in bird-shooting but no efforts had been made to arrest him. Instead, Captain Somers and Lieutenant Kerwick had been happily drinking with Aylward in the week before their perfidy was revealed.
A man who kept his ears to the ground, Gorey was able to provide further details on what had happened at Thomastown Barracks. It was Kerwick who had led the Irregulars there and had gone as far as to be the one to cry ‘hands up’ as the garrison paused for tea. As in Callan, the defeated men were given the choice of defecting as well. Only nine out of the eighty-five Free Staters accepted, the rest refusing to go anywhere with their captors except as prisoners, showing that however slack in discipline, they were not completely faithless.
Nonetheless, there had been much to be desired with the garrisons. According to Gorey, the local people in the county, particularly the clergy, had been passing information to the barracks, only to have it neglected, if not outright ignored. In one such case, the National Army was warned of the presence of seventy-five Irregulars in Kilmanagh, Co. Kilkenny, who could all have been rounded up had the Army acted promptly. By the time it finally did so, two days later, its soldiers arrived to find that the enemy had already moved on.
That the Free State garrisons in Co. Kilkenny were in the habit of squandering such tips was corroborated by an internal military report, written on the 11th December, three days before the humiliation of the triple coups. “The people gave information in the beginning,” the report said, “but no action was taken, with the result that the people got fed up and ceased to give information.”
Discipline in the Army outposts in general was terrible, conditions filthy and the officers in charge seemed to regard the whole business as none of theirs. Drink was also a problem, particularly on payday when the garrisons would be so inebriated and quarrelsome amongst themselves – so fumed the report – that the barracks could be taken with rotten eggs.
If the author of the report was exaggerating, then – as it turned out – it was not by much.
So bad were the Kilkenny soldiers that they were starting to have a detrimental effect while posted in other counties. Those in the Waterford Command were dismissed by their peers as unreliable, an example being a sergeant who deserted with two of the anti-Treaty prisoners in his charge. He was captured a fortnight later while operating with the same men he had been entrusted with guarding. The tendency of Kilkenny officers towards treachery was evidently not limited to within Kilkenny itself.
But when a fish rots, it starts at its head. General Prout was very much aware of the deficiencies of the men under his command but, continued the report, he had done nothing about it. Instead, his behaviour only encouraged the worst elements.
Captain Timmons, the former O/C of Waterford Prison, was sent to Kilkenny on charges of carelessness, having allowed two of his prisoners to escape. Not only was no action taken against Timmons but he was promoted to the rank of assistant adjutant. No wonder, said the report, that the competent officers in Kilkenny were discouraged when they saw their bad apples rewarded.
Dáil Deputy Gorey would have agreed with the report’s findings. According to the TD, some officers had been sent from Clonmel to Kilkenny for trial, only to be let off by Prout who merely told them to be more careful next time. At least there was one good Kilkenny officer in Gorey’s estimation but he was not popular with his peers, which limited what he could accomplish.
The relationships between senior officers were poor for the most part. Prout was well-liked but probably because he demanded so little from those around him, preferring to lie low and take things easy.
“There is general agreement,” Gorey concluded, “that Prout ought to be removed.” It was a blunt assessment, but there were others who were starting to wonder.
If he did not already, General Mulcahy would soon have reason to blame Prout and his easy-going manner as much as the treachery of others for the military failings in Kilkenny.
On the 17th December, three days after the triple fiasco, a wireless message was sent from the Kilkenny Command to Portobello Barracks, Dublin. The Anti-Treatyites responsible had crossed the River Suir and were now in Rathcormack, Co Waterford. Their leaders were requesting a conference with the Officer Commanding (O/C) in Carrick-on-Suir Barracks, possibly to discuss a ceasefire of sorts. Such a thing was not unprecedented; Captain Kelly, the Free State O/C of Mooncoin, Co. Kilkenny, had recently agreed to a truce with the Republican enemy.
The reply came from Portobello Barracks on the same day, first to complain that the name of the original sender had not been stated, the patience of the National Army HQ with the slovenly ways of its Kilkenny division evidently wearing thin. Carrick Barracks were to be placed on heightened alert and the Anti-Treatyites in Rathcormack to be attacked. As for Captain Kelly, he was to be placed under arrest for his presumptuous brokering.
The next message came directly from Prout. First he sought to make amends for the earlier slipup by naming Captain Walpole as the sender of the original dispatch. Rathcormack was being scouted and any Irregulars found there would be engaged. The Carrick O/C would be told not to accept any further invitations: “Personal interferences with them will in future be regarded as treachery and punishable as such. Capt. Kelly being placed under arrest.”
Gratified by the change in attitude from Kilkenny, the next reply from Portobello was an encouraging one: “Hope you get the Rathcormack bunch. Tell Walpole to prepare case against Kelly. It would be well perhaps to let us have copy of evidence against him.” The National Army seemed at last willing to operate in a professional manner where Kilkenny was concerned.
The following day, Prout reported some peace feelers that had been made in his own direction. Through a local contact in the Club House Hotel in Kilkenny, Prout had been contacted by Séumas Robinson, he of the Soloheadbeg ambush fame and one of the anti-Treaty leaders involved in the triple barracks coup.
Robinson, according to Prout in his message to his superiors, desired to meet with his Free State counterpart in order to discuss the possible surrender of his men’s weapons. Robinson had stated to Prout that he was “quite satisfied to let arms come in, in small numbers provided the men who hand them in will not be further molested by National Troops.”
Furthermore: “The interview is also to arrange the best way and to arrange about men who wish to join the National Army.” After the heavy fighting in the Civil War so far and the recent success of the Anti-Treatyites in Kilkenny, this volte-face is hard to credit. Prout, however, seemed willing to take it in good faith.
Robinson appeared confident that he could deliver his end of any bargain. He stressed that as the officer in charge of the Republicans in the area, the others such as Denis Lacey and Bill Quirke would have no choice but defer to him (a questionable claim, what with Robinson’s increasing isolation as a leader and the tendency of strong-minded subordinates like Lacey to go their own way).
The day after, Prout forwarded to Mulcahy the details of another outreach he had received. An unnamed individual had called on the general that evening as an intermediary from the enemy, asking if Prout could get in touch with Major Tom Ennis – another officer in the National Army – and meet Robinson at any place they chose to discuss terms of settlement.
Ennis had previously met Republican representatives earlier that year in October. While that attempt at a ceasefire had gone nowhere, Ennis was evidently a man the Anti-Treatyites liked and trusted.
Prout proudly informed Mulcahy how he had told the intermediary that he had no authority to discuss such terms. He also related how he had been approached by another go-between before, likewise in the name of peace, but he would have none of it: “I told him that the laying down of arms and recognition of the People’s Government was the only means to a settlement, and that to this there was no compromise.”
Having fallen short of a complete agreement, Robinson’s intermediary pressed on, asking if he thought the anti-Treaty combatants would be allowed their freedom at least if they handed in their weapons. Feeling more generous, Prout answered that he thought they would.
Overall, Prout believed the meeting had gone well for both representatives:
It is the opinion of the persons who have just called that they were rather pleased with my attitude at the first discussion with the result that they wish to meet myself and Ennis. This person says that they are considering giving up arms in some way that will save their faces, by surrendering them a few days at a time, or leaving them where they could be picked up by us and let the fighting gradually die down.
Prout’s visitor continued to press his luck and asked for a four-day truce for the Anti-Treatyites to discuss the matter. Even the lenient Prout thought this a step too far and told the other that this also was not in his power to discuss.
Four days later, on the 23rd December, Prout kept Mulcahy abreast of yet another personal peace-feeler, again through another an third party, this one sent by the famed Dan Breen. Prout’s report was markedly different in tone to his last, lacking the confidence of before and replaced instead by an almost cringing desire to please.
This third party had passed on another request to meet for peace terms. Prout had replied that he had no power to do such a thing. Changing his tack, the other man said that Breen would be willing to meet with anyone in authority, either here in Kilkenny or in Dublin if he was granted a free pass.
Prout was no more obliging there. He stressed to Mulcahy that he was making his report reluctantly lest his actions be seen as weakness on his part, which he assured was not the case. Prout had met with the enemy emissary purely for the sake of information and promised not to do so again if ordered. Prout’s competence may have been a growing matter of concern but he was at least perceptive enough to pick up on the growing apathy towards him and did his best, in his own clumsy, clueless way, to make amends.
Prout’s willingness to improve only went so far, however. A fact-finding mission by Commandant-General Eamon Price to Kilkenny in January 1923 found the general distinctly cool. While not unfriendly, he did display a lack of cordiality that did not indicate an eagerness to cooperate (though Price generously put it down to Prout being Prout).
After inspecting the area, Price reported a state of “extreme lassitude” among the soldiers there. This he attributed to a number of factors:
- The undermining of morale by the peace efforts of Robinson and Breen. Clearly, Price did not consider them to have been sincere as Prout did. Price repeated Prout’s insistence that he had not met Breen in person but Price had his doubts there.
- The apparent inactivity by the Irregulars, which in turn led to…
- …inactivity by the National Army soldiers.
- The reaction to the shocking surrenders of the Callan-Thomastown-Mullinvat bases. While this had had the beneficial effect of making the men more determined to fight, it had also made then overcautious and – unsurprisingly – distrustful of their officers.
- The lack of initiative on the part of the Kilkenny HQ.
Price attributed Point E as the chief cause of the lethargy. The command staff in Kilkenny had become a dumping ground for cowardly, useless and otherwise “buckshee” officers. This was in no small part Prout’s fault, lacking as he did the strength and decisiveness to control his subordinates, but the optimistic Price was sure that the addition of a good adjutant would improve matters.
Mulcahy must have been mulling over these conclusions when he made his own report on the Kilkenny situation to his superior, President W.T. Cosgrave, two days later.
It did not have a happy start. Captain Kelly, whose arrest Mulcahy had ordered for brokering with the enemy, had turned his coat in full and defected, taking with him confidential reports that Mulcahy, as the general candidly admitted, had been “fool enough to supply him with.” The National Army had yet to solve the problem of its Kilkenny officers being spectacularly unreliable.
The southern-western corner of Kilkenny, from Callan to Waterford, remained the troubled zone. There were the occasional raids from neighbouring Tipperary by Irregular columns like the ones that had overwhelmed the three barracks in the month before, but the main threat, according to Mulcahy, were the local Anti-Treatyites. These ones stayed closer to home, spying for and working with the columns when they passed through from Tipperary.
Mulcahy suggested that eight to ten such individuals in the hotspot of Mooncoln should be arrested, along with four or five from four other parishes. This, the general reckoned, should be enough to pacify the area.
As for the pitiable performance of the National Army in Kilkenny, Mulcahy listed the reasons as to why:
- The treachery of certain officers and the ineptitude of the loyal ones.
- The insufficient number of troops in Kilkenny and the isolation of posts in Callan, Thomastown and Mullinavat which left them vulnerable, as had already been shown.
- The man who was supposed to be in charge, General Prout, was too weak and guileless to handle “traitorous or semi-mutinous incompetents” in an area too large to handle without loyal or competent officers.
As for possible solutions:
- For there to be more soldiers stationed in Kilkenny, “preferably outsiders.” Showing the close affinity between the Free State and the Church, the bishops and other clergy could be privately asked to organize a recruitment drive for the Army.
- The Kilkenny officers to be transferred to other counties and replace them with – again – outsiders.
- Prout also to be transferred out of Kilkenny but – with an eye to Army discipline – not reduced in rank or otherwise humiliated.
- Until more men could be spared for Kilkenny, the weak posts at Thomastown, Mullinavat and Callan should be discontinued in favour of three or four columns, each consisting of twenty to twenty-five men.
- The organising of an efficient intelligence system.
On the last point, Mulcahy could no longer contain himself:
The present methods are most saddening. Nothing that could be dignified with the name of a system can be said to exist. The local clergy and local leaders would in most cases be only too delighted to help, but they seem completely ignored, and are abandoning in despair the virtual forcing of information down Rip-Van-Winkle throats.
Mulcahy elaborated on the proposed columns in his fourth point. These units would stay mobile by changing accommodation constantly, as the Irregular columns were already doing. This way, they could avoid being rushed, as had happened at Callan-Thomastown-Mullinvat, and gradually trap the local Anti-Treatyites.
In short, flexibility, initiative and good information gathering would win the day. Showing off his knowledge of history, Mulcahy summarised thusly: “Boer, rather than Flanders tactics are required in South West Kilkenny.”
‘Boer’ against ‘Flanders’
The start of the year saw the National Army willing at long last to put an end to its ‘Rip Van Winkle’ performance. Breen noted the extra precautions taken by the Free Staters to prevent a repeat of the humiliations at Thomastown, Mullinavat and Callan. Guards were doubled in their barracks, patrols became more frequent and, overall, the soldiers grew more alert. Following Mulcahy’s advice to adopt ‘Boer’ tactics over ‘Flanders’ ones, the Army sent out large scouting parties to hunt down the guerrillas in the countryside.
By January 1923, the National Army was able to take the fight to the enemy. A number of guerrilla dugouts were discovered in Tipperary, along with large quantities of arms and ammunitions, confidential reports and even a printing press. Several Anti-Treatyites were rounded up, one of whom, Dan Breen’s brother Martin, was shot dead while resisting.
The Free State military had done its best in Kilkenny to prove the maxim that wars are lost by one side as much as won by the other. Its dismal performance in December 1922 was overwhelmingly the fault of abysmal leadership, from the weak and vacillating example set by General Prout to the treachery of officers willing to hand over their own men. Internal documents reveal the considerable frustration of senior Army staff as they faced an uncomfortable discovery: you can trust your enemies to attack but you do not necessarily know what your allies are planning.
 Richard Mulcahy Papers, University College Dublin Archives, P7/B/64
 Kilkenny People, 23/12/1922
 Hopkinson, Michael, Green Against Green: A History of the Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988), pp. 208-9
 Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/64
 Ernie O’Malley Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 10,973/15/4
 Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/64
 Breen, Dan (BMH / WS 1763) pp. 133, 135
Hopkinson, Michael, Green Against Green: A History of the Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988)
Bureau of Military History Statement
Breen, Dan, WS 1763
Richard Mulcahy Papers, University College Dublin
Ernie O’Malley Papers, National Library of Ireland