The War of Independence ended with the signing of the truce in July 1921 and, in Kerry, it would be the last six months of the conflict that proved to be the most violent.
hile the IRA in Kerry had carried out many successful attacks on Crown forces during 1920, these were typically smaller engagements, usually involving the assassinations or attempted killing of individual RIC officers; and the raids and burning of constabulary barracks and small depots.
Large engagements had not been a feature of the War in Kerry, but that would change in 1921 when IRA Flying Columns in the county would carry out some of the War’s most daring and celebrated attacks on British forces.
The War of Independence in Kerry during the second half of 1920 had been characterised by the actions of the Black and Tans, who had imposed a reign of terror across the county in carrying out a series of brutal raids and reprisal actions on towns, villages and individual homes.
One of the Tans’ most notorious and cruel tactics was the deliberate targeting of communities’ economic hearts with the burning of co-operative creameries across the county.
These attacks – which threatened to starve entire villages – were particularly common in north Kerry, where they inspired a vitriolic hatred of the Tans and inspired hundreds of young men to take up arms and join local IRA battalions.
The Tans’ late-1920 rampage in Kerry culminated, in November, with the 10-day siege of Tralee.
That onslaught – staged in reprisal for the kidnapping of two RIC constables by the IRA – saw a reign of terror imposed on the town, during which businesses were burned to the ground, food supplies were stopped, the populace was brought to near starvation and two local people were shot dead on the streets.
The siege, which was covered widely in the international press, earned international condemnation for the British, and after it was lifted, Kerry enjoyed a brief respite from Tan and Auxiliary brutality as Crown forces were, briefly, reined in and their worst excesses were temporarily halted.
Having done their utmost to terrorise and intimidate the population for the previous six months, the British forces in the county were, in December 1920, relatively confident that they were beginning to gain the upper hand.
They could not have been more mistaken. The IRA in Kerry was emboldened.
Its numbers had been swelled by scores of new volunteers infuriated by Tan atrocities, while its stock of arms had been greatly increased thanks to numerous small but lucrative arms raids all over the county.
Perhaps most importantly, many Irish RIC men, disgusted by shoot-to-kill orders and the actions of the Auxiliary forces, were firmly onside and were actively helping the Kerry IRA.
With more men, more arms and quality intelligence, the Kerry IRA was prepared to bring the fight to the British. From January 1921, that is precisely what they did, and when the British ramped up their campaign against the population, the IRA was ready for them.
Following a relatively quiet month by the standards of the time, the British launched a new campaign in early January 1921 with a series of raids and round-ups in towns and villages across the county.
This began with a mass round-up of men in Tralee, with hundreds arrested during a town-wide search for IRA suspects.
Thanks to the intelligence gathered by Kerry IRA Intelligence Officer Tadhg Kennedy, the IRA knew what was coming. By the time the British began the Tralee round-up, most volunteers had fled the town and only a small number of them were captured.
Thje IRA was quick to respond and, on January 20, RIC District Inspector Tobias O’Sullivan – who had been sent to Kerry to head up the Listowel RIC District following the Lisowel Mutiny of June 1920 – was shot dead in the north Kerry town. O’Sullivan’s assassination was a notable propaganda coup for the Kerry IRA as the RIC Inspector had led the defence of Kilmallock RIC Barracks from a massive IRA attack in May 1920 and had become something of a hero in the RIC.
The British responded as predicted and, a few days later, on January 23, they carried out another mass roundup. This time it was Ballymacelligott, the home parish of IRA Commander Tom McEllistrim, that was targeted, with 240 men arrested and marched to Tralee for questioning.
On January 28, Kerry and Cork IRA battalions joined forces to stage a daring ambush on an RIC column at Toureengarriff near Castleisland, an attack that claimed the life of RIC Munster Divisional Commander Philip Holmes, one of the highest-profile casualties of the entire war.
British reprisals were swift and brutal. The following day, homes and shops were bombed and burned in Ballydesmond, where a 14-year-old boy, Michael Kelleher, was shot dead.
Following attacks on RIC men in Glencar, Tralee and Abbeydorney, the British launched another crackdown, this time primarily targeting west Kerry.
On February 10, having already burned down 11 homes in Abbeydorney, Black and Tan and Auxiliary forces descended on Tralee, where they seized a large number of horses to carry out a cavalry search of the Dingle Peninsula.
The Tan sweep of west Kerry began on February 14 and would last a week, with hundreds of men detained; trains were stopped and searched, businesses were closed, and teams of men were put to work on the roads.
Ultimately, as had been the case in Tralee weeks earlier, it proved largely unsuccessful. The IRA’s network of informers in the RIC was too good, and by the time the British moved into west Kerry, the men they were hunting had long departed.
Soon, many of them would make themselves known to the British in a series of raids and attacks that would culminate with, arguably, the Kerry IRA’s most famous victory at the Headford Ambush in March 1921.