Who from Belfast joined the Free State Army and fought on the Pro-Treaty side in the Civil War?
In numerical terms, at least 216 men from the general Belfast area are listed in the Free State Army census of November 1922 (you can see them here). A total of 366 Belfast men were also recorded as having been supplied with pensions information in 1926 (thus indicating ‘service’ in the Free State Army after July 1922). That would not include those still active in 1926, including many former 3rd Northern Division officers who made careers in the Free State Army. Kieran Glennon’s excellent From Pogrom to Civil War contextualises one such officer, Tom Glennon’s, experience in the complex political environment of post-truce Belfast. Similarly, Jim McDermot’s (equally excellent) Northern Divisions shows that Glennon’s story was, in many ways, typical of the Division’s officers.
Glennon also makes it clear that there was a complicated matrix of motivations that led Belfast men to take the Pro-Treaty side, or at least not be actively anti-Treaty. Loyalty, politics and events influenced individual choices, alongside the prospect of a regular pay packet or relief from the intense violence in Belfast.
In the first half of 1922 alone, around 15% of the total of all fatalities of the War of Independence in Ireland had occurred in Belfast. The IRA had around 800 men in the 3rd Northern Division, 1st (Belfast) Brigade in July 1922, split into the five Battalions (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and Engineering). By the summer, the Divisional staff of the 3rd Northern Division were struggling with the Pro-Treaty GHQ’s attitude towards the north (the background to this is detailed in From Pogrom to Civil War). With confusion over their attitudes towards the Pro-Treaty GHQ and IRA Executive forces, at the end of August 1922 it was agreed that IRA operations would cease in the north and a percentage of officers and volunteers would go to the Curragh for a rest and to train. They were allocated their own barrack in the Curragh to rest and train in anticipation of renewing the campaign in the north. It was also agreed that they would not be asked to participate in activity in the south.
According to Joe Murray by September 1922 this had depleted the Belfast IRA, although this does not seem borne out by the numbers involved (see Military Archives, WS0412). Certainly some went south, but clearly not all (Murray may really mean the Pro-Treaty units were depleted by September). According to Murray, the first groups to go to the Curragh were “…officers and men who were harassed by the enemy and in need of rest.” Joe Murray’s claim that those who left Belfast did so to get relief from the violence is illustrated by where they came from in the city. Based on the geographic focus of the Belfast IRA’s 1st and 2nd Battalions (up to late 1921), the number of men recorded in the 1922 census that were drawn from each unit (centre of district in brackets) was: A Company (Leeson Street), 1st Batt. – 26, B Company (Pound/Cullingtree Road), 1st Batt. – 23, C Company (Carrickhill/Smithfield), 1st Batt. – 26, D Company (Clonard), 1st Batt. – 10, E Company (Upper Falls), 1st Batt. – 7, A Company (Bone/Ardoyne), 2nd Batt. – 12, B Company (Ballymacarrett), 2nd Batt. – 26, C Company (Markets), 2nd Batt. – 22, D Company (North Queen Street/York Street), 2nd Batt. – 44. The units with the highest numbers, C Company, 1st Battalion and B and D Companies, 2nd Battalion are those districts which saw the highest fatalities and most intense violence in 1920-22.
What is also interesting is comparing men identifiable on the census and on the lists for each unit reported by the Brigade Committees in the 1930s. Of these, only 40 can be identified in the 3rd Northern Division, 1st (Belfast) Brigade company lists as prepared for June 1921 and July 1922. Of the 40 listed in the Belfast Brigade, the numbers from each unit were: A Company, 1st Batt. – 6, B Company, 1st Batt. – 4, C Company, 1st Batt. – 17, D Company, 1st Batt. – 1, E Company, 1st Batt. – 2, A Company, 2nd Batt. – 4, B Company, 2nd Batt. – 0, C Company, 2nd Batt. – 3, D Company, 2nd Batt. – 0 and the (5th) Engineering Battalion – 3. This suggests that there was either a significant turnover of personnel in the Belfast IRA units, or that the lists are substantially incomplete. There is also an odd discrepancy here between the high figure for Carrickhill (C/1st) and the lack of volunteers listed in Ballymacarret (B/2nd) and York Street/North Queen Street (D/2nd). Does it just reflect the lists recorded in the 1930s?
This raises questions about the detail and accuracy of the 1921-1922 lists produced by the Brigade Committees in the 1930s (see militaryarchives.ie). The 1st (Belfast) Brigade Committee in the 1930s was largely composed of those who had taken the Pro-Treaty side. The surviving records from the Belfast Brigade Committee claims that the 3rd and 4th Battalions were constituted after July 1921 and non-existent by July 1922. Yet, they list Battalion staffs for the 3rd and 4th Battalions and at least one personnel list survives, from A Company, 4th Battalion. Joe Murray also records that, as Battalion O/C, he supervised the dumping of arms of the 3rd Battalion on 31st October 1922. This suggests that there are considerable problems with the information supplied by the Belfast Brigade Committee.
According to the A Company, 4 Battalion list (see militaryarchives.ie, MA_MSPC_RO_406), the unit had originally been E Company of the 1st Battalion, but was reorganised into the 4th Battalion. It was later re-organised as D Company, 1st Battalion of the Pro-Treaty IRA in Belfast. This last re-organisation must have occurred between July and October 1922 and is largely undocumented. The re-organisation of Pro-Treaty units may reflect the ‘depletion’ mentioned by Joe Murray.
A list of those who had been issued with forms to apply for pensions in 1926, includes 366 from the 1st (Belfast) Brigade area ((Military Archives, ref WM_MSP_10). The RUC estimated that a total of 1,685 men left the six counties to join or train with the Free State Army during 1922 (see PRONI HA/32/1/257). A proportion of these must have been individuals who joined the Free State Army of their own volition, presumably for financial as well as political reasons. It is clear from the witness statements (see bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie) that initially, personal allegiances and trust in individuals such as Michael Collins clearly influenced some 3rd Northern Division officers in supporting (or at least not opposing) the IRA’s Pro-Treaty GHQ. Collins death severed some of those ties, but the circumstances of it strengthened others.
With 3rd Northern men in camps in the south, the Pro-Treaty Belfast officers in the Free State Army wrote to Richard Mulcahy, its Chief of Staff, at the end of September asking what the plans were for the north. The letter was unanswered yet they had to attend meetings in Belfast in early October with those opposed to the Treaty. At a meeting of both sides of the IRA in Belfast on the 4th October, the issue was raised of recognising the northern government (a Mulcahy proposal). The Anti-Treaty officers dismissed the idea and walked out. At a second meeting in the Boys Hall on the Falls Road on the 6th October went even worse. Those present included Dinny McCullough, President of the Supreme Council of the IRB at the time of the Easter Rising and a brother-in-law of Mulcahy. The 3rd Northern Division officers who had moved to the south were slammed by those opposed to the Treaty for taking comfortable paid positions while Belfast was still under pressure. It was an accusation that stubbornly followed many of them around for the rest of their lives.
By October, it is clear that there was also discontent among those in the Curragh. Since it was recognised that continuing the northern campaign was futile, and following instructions from Dublin, the officers on the Divisional Staff in Belfast that still supported GHQ placed some arms in dumps, destroyed files and left for the south. According to Tom Fitzpatrick, those who couldn’t return home were transferred to Dundalk (where 134 are listed in the November 1922 census as part of the 5th Northern Division) or to the 3rd Northern Division reserve in the Curragh (71 were listed in the November census).
In overall terms, there are appear to have been three discrete groups of Belfast men who joined the ProTreaty forces. The first were the units which moved south after August 1922, on instruction from GHQ but likely remained neutral on the treaty itself (and strictly speaking, never really joined the Free State Army). The next group were those who chose to join the Free State Army either for political reasons or purely for the pay. The third group were officers bound by ties to Michael Collins and others. While not necessarily ideologically bound to the treaty, many did not reconcile to their former Belfast colleagues for decades (if ever).
You can view the Free State Army census of November 1922 here.
Some of the Belfast men in that census are listed here.