The IRA in Dublin were realistic enough to know that militarily they could not oust the pro-Treaty forces, or indeed the remaining garrison of 6,000 British troops, from the Irish capital, but with a Free State expedition due to attack Cork city from the sea, the Republicans planned to cut communications to and from the Irish capital.
What became known as the ‘Bridges job’ in IRA circles appears to have been an attempt by the anti-Treaty force to isolate Dublin; the centre both of the Provisional government and its National Army. According to the Irish Times, ‘The Republicans had made elaborate preparations to cut the railway lines and block the roads by blowing up bridges on Saturday night. Men fully equipped were sent to the city from the south and from Liverpool’.
The anti-Treaty IRA in Dublin knew they were too weak to take back the city from the Provisional government so intended to isolate it by destroying and blocking the routes in and out of the capital.
Had the plan come off it may or may not have tilted the military balance of the war in the anti-Treatyites’ favour, realistically more depended on how fighting went in Cork, where Free State troops had landed by sea and assaulted the republican ‘capital’. But had it been successful the ‘bridges job’ would certainly have put the Provisional Government in a more vulnerable position – unable to send reinforcements or communications to its units around the country.
The main object of the plan was to blow up and destroy all the canal and railway bridges surrounding Dublin in order to interfere with and interrupt road and railway communications between Dublin and other parts of the country; in other words to hit a fatal blow at the Free State forces in their conduct of military operations against the IRA. It appears that on the night appointed for carrying out of the operation, several hundred men of the IRA had been mobilised.
The Government however, already knew about the ‘bridges job’ due to the capture of Liam Clarke, an IRA Intelligence officer the day before. According to Nugent:
‘The operation was to take place at a given time on a Saturday evening but on Friday evening Liam Clarke, a Headquarters officer, was captured in Rathfarnham with a map showing the bridges to be destroyed, and on Friday the Stanley Street workshop of the Dublin Corporation was raided and picks taken away. Also, the Free State Army authorities had had information that the operation was about to take place’.
There were at this time roughly 4,000 National Army troops in Dublin and another 6,000 British troops who were due to stay in the city until December to ensure the implementation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. In addition there were about 100 CID plain clothed, armed detectives. Though it did not publicise the fact, the pro-Treaty government mobilised both British and Irish troops in large numbers to avail of the opportunity afforded to decapitate the IRA in Dublin.
Roughly speaking there were two separate IRA operations on the night of 5-6th August. One was in the Dublin Mountains south of the city, where perhaps 100 Volunteers turned out to dismantle the roads and bridges that connected the city with the guerrillas’ hideouts in the hills. Another 146 anti-Treaty fighters were mobilised in what were then rural villages north of Dublin to destroy the road and rail infrastructure there.
In any case, no sooner had the IRA parties begun their work of destruction than they were pounced on by pro-government troops. Sean Prendergast remembered with chagrin that at Cabra bridge on the northside:
‘To their (IRA) utter surprise and dismay the Free Staters had complete control of the scene; an armoured car patrolling the area, opening fire right, left and centre at point-blank range. Bob Oman like a number of other men of the “First” battalion was caught while moving along to the scheduled spot. Thus many men were trapped; the men in the fields being pinned down to the point of utter frustration, the men who were making their way thither chased or captured, some quite easily and others after a grim fight, many of them like Oman rather invaluable officers and men.
On both north and south sides of the river Liffey, Free State troops in some cases back up by British forces rounded up dozens of anti-Treaty fighters. Thirty one ‘Irregulars’ were captured in Glencullen, including their officer Noel Lemass, and 15 more taken on the roads back to the city, with another ten picked up further south near Roundwood.
According to Liam Nugent, the IRA officers, ‘in charge of the proposed destruction of the bridges were warned’ that the operation had been compromised, ‘but they insisted on carrying on and, when the various companies arrived at the scenes of action, the Free State soldiers were waiting for them. Some succeeded in escaping but they were nearly all captured. The Republican section of the 3rd Battalion were almost wiped out.
The pro-government Irish Times reported, “The thoroughness of the intelligence, observation and military organisation on the part of the National Army is shown by the fact not only was the destruction prevented so that not even one bridge was destroyed, but the greater bulk of those who were to take part in the irregular operation were made prisoners without any casualties among the troops.’
In the early hours of the morning there were a flurry of retaliatory IRA attacks in the city; Firing broke out at military posts, where ‘heavy fire was returned’, including at Mountjoy Gaol, Phibsborough, Finglas, Drumcondra and Harcourt St (where a bomb was also thrown). The morning saw six civilians admitted to hospitals in Dublin with bullet wounds along with two anti-Treaty fighters and one National Army soldier, but the attacks had been no more than a futile gesture on the IRA’s part after the disaster of earlier in the night.
The ‘Bridges Job’ was a disaster for the anti-Treaty IRA in Dublin and it coincided with the fall of Cork city and the main towns in Co Kerry, a few days later, to pro-Treaty troops.
Photo: Anti-Treaty troops move through Grafton St, Dublin, July 1922, photo credit: 1916 Easter Revolution in Colour