It is late March in 1924, and a dim sun is setting over the city of Cork in the southeast of Ireland. Spring is coming, and in the patchwork of fields that surrounds this busy coastal town, green shoots are already poking up through rich, damp earth.
To the east, through the double-stomach of twinned harbours, the British destroyer Scythe lies tethered at anchor, a dull-grey line of glowering steel. Here, the smaller village of Queenstown is a treaty port, one of three deepwater harbours that remain under English rule as party of the bitterly contested Anglo-Irish Treaty. Signed three years ago, it divided Ireland in more ways than one, creating an Irish Free state at the expense of a partitioned Ulster and a subsequent bloody civil war.
Down at the pierhead, troops are landing from Spike Island, a former penal colony and current fortification that houses the British presence. The launch bringing the soldiers across has only just tied up to the jetty, when the thrum of a racing six-cylinder engine can be heard approaching.
Skittering through the narrow cobblestone streets at breakneck pace, a primrose-yellow Rolls-Royce open-topped tourer slews round a corner and races out onto the beach opposite the pier. Its four occupants are grim-faced and composed; the gaping air-cooled maw of a mounted .303 calibre Lewis gun swings towards the clustered troops.
It opens fire.
For many people, the Irish Republican Army is associated with the black balaclavas and bombing campaigns of the capital-t Troubles in Northern Ireland. However, these are more properly the Provisional IRA, a breakaway group, and the initial organization is nearly a century older.
Early origins can be traced to America, and the support of various ex-patriate Irishmen in efforts to disrupt British rule of Ireland by military force. The earliest IRA insignia can be found in an 19th century invasion of Canada, of all places, wherein the ragtag forces of the Fenian Brotherhood attempted to occupy and ransom parts of Ontario.
The first appearance on Irish soil was at the start of the Irish War of Independence. Fought between 1919 and 1921, it was a fierce, brutal conflict of guerrilla tactics, ambush, assassination, mob violence by both Catholics and Protestants, and reprisals against civilian targets.
Driven from rural areas by the flying columns of the IRA, who would strike and then melt back into the countryside, the British government eventually declared martial law and recruited hundreds of ex-soldiers to bolster the police forces – the infamous Black and Tans and the paramilitary Auxiliaries. Often poorly trained and lacking discipline, the additional troops found themselves targets in a strange land and developed a reputation for striking back against the population in frustration – in one notable example, Auxiliaries looted and burnt the centre of Cork in 1920 as retaliation for the killing of one of their members.
The IRA lacked the men and materiel to meet the British army in open battle, but could consider their campaign a partial success in forcing a stalemate. Public opinion in England wearied of the violence on both sides, and a truce was struck, to be followed by treaty negotiations.
The Anglo-Irish treaty was signed on December Sixth, 1921, and was thought either a hard-fought compromise or a total betrayal. Instead of a united independent Ireland, it allowed for the creation of a Free State still under British dominion, and it also made provision for the largely protestant, pro-British unionist movement of north-eastern Ireland to opt out, which they did. The troubled country of Northern Ireland was created and would itself roil with sectarian violence for decades.
In what would become the Irish Republic, the IRA found itself divided into pro- and anti-treaty forces. The battle-lines were drawn haphazardly based on personal loyalties as well as ideology, and initially at least, the anti-treaty republicans outnumbered the Free State forces by two-to-one. The Republicans were also better equipped, and their troops more experienced. The two sides circled each other warily, as the British pushed for the Free State Army to act against the mutinous IRA.
To support the fledgling Irish Free State, a shipment of firearms and artillery were provided by the British. Here, at long last, do we come around to the question of the titular Rolls-Royces: among the weapons the Free State received were fourteen armoured Silver Ghosts.
The Armoured Rolls-Royce is one of the most fascinating pieces of weaponry produced in the early twentieth century. It is at once a modern killing machine, and at the same time a sort of iron-clad warhorse for a last generation of knights.
The very earliest example of a Rolls-Royce at war can be found during early skirmishes in the Great War. Having brought over a number of personal vehicles to assist in rescue operations of Royal Navy pilots downed while battling German Zeppelins, Wing Commander Charles Rumney Samson mounted a Maxim machine-gun on the back of his open tourer and went to engage the enemy.
After strafing a German staff car, the impromptu British armoured column swept into Lille, where a few gaps in the armour were seen. Namely, Samson was hit in the face when someone threw a bottle through his windshield.
Even so, news of these exploits combined with armoured-car successes by Belgian troops convinced the British war office that an armed and armoured Rolls-Royce would be an effective tool. Over the next three decades, they would fight at Gallipoli, in the desert under Lawrence of Arabia, on protection detail in Shanghai during battles between communist and nationalist Chinese forces, and as shore patrol against a looming German invasion in WWII – essentially, in any war-torn corner of the fading British Empire, you could find an Armoured Rolls-Royce.
Weighing nearly five tonnes, most were powered by a tough, durable 7-7.5L straight-six engine. It only made between 50-80hp, depending on the year of production, but the engines had prodigious torque and even the heavily armoured version was capable of 70mph. Thick, boilerplate steel protected the engine and occupants, and the most-common armament was a Vickers water-cooled machine-gun mounted in an enclosed turret.
While the glutinous mud and stagnant trench warfare of WWI would soon limit the usefulness of the Armoured Rolls-Royce on the Western front, these fast, powerful juggernauts would have great success in desert warfare. In one famous exploit, the swashbuckling Duke of Westminister used a squadron of nine armoured cars to utterly destroy an enemy encampment in Northern Africa – munitions-laden camels are described exploding under machine-gun fire – and then dashed 120 miles across enemy terrain to rescue hostages from two torpedoed British ships.
The Armoured Rolls provided to the Irish Free State were viewed with almost totemic status. All fourteen were named, among them: The Flying Fifty, The Custom House, The Baby, Tom Keogh, The High Chief. The Irish called the ironclad Rollers “whippets”, for they were faster and quieter than any other of the makeshift armoured vehicles used in the Civil War.
Imagine, if you can, being a raw recruit fresh in from the countryside, holed up in a barricaded pub South of the Liffey. You and your friends are armed with little more than Mausers and Lee-Enfield rifles and carbines, and information is filtering in that the major concentration of anti-treaty IRA forces have surrendered at the Four Courts in Dublin, their defeat punctuated by a massive explosion that destroyed the central records office in a spiraling mushroom cloud.
Suddenly, a rolling steel monstrosity emerges from an alleyway between the buildings, its armoured plates shut to protect the radiator from fire. Its turret turns ponderously, training the water-cooled Vickers machine-gun on your building. A sniper’s bullet pings harmlessly off its boilerplate skin, and it responds with a roar, vomiting a hail of .303 calibre lead at the rate of 450 rounds a minute. The sustained fire shatters the building, the column is forced to flee.
There is little honour to be found in any civil war, and less glory. Possibly one of the better pieces of short fiction written about the Irish Civil war is, “The Sniper,” by Liam O’Flagherty; in it, the eponymous sniper is grievously wounded in a gun battle across the roofs of Dublin, killing his dimly-seen opponent only to discover, in the end, that he has murdered his own brother. During the three decades of the Troubles, 3000 people would die. The Irish Civil war claimed approximately as many lives in eleven months.
The Rolls-Royces of the Free State were present at every major battle, and while the decisive weapon of the conflict was probably light artillery, they were used with great effect. Unlike the actions of WWI commanders, and unlike the guerrilla tactics of the Irish War of Independence, mobile conventional warfare was a key factor in the civil conflict. In many ways, it presaged the motorized assaults and raids of the second world war.
Of course, while tough, the Armoured Rolls were not infallible. One, the Ballinalee, was cornered by IRA forces in 1922, and captured. It then went on numerous sorties for Republican forces, renamed as The Wild Rose of Lough Gill.
Another, known as Sliabh no mBan (Slievenamon) after a Tipperary mountain featured in an early rebel song, was present at the death-by-ambush of former IRA general and leader of the Free State Forces Michael Collins. Its water-cooled Vickers jammed, and in the ensuing firefight, the charismatic Collins was shot in the head.
Sliabh no mBan was stolen by the Republicans almost immediately afterwards, with the complicity of its machine-gunner, and was used in raids in the Macroom district, west of Cork. As the initial conventional warfare of the Civil War devolved into guerrilla raids and atrocities, some of the last IRA holdouts continued to operate from this area, and Macroom was originally the home base of the yellow Rolls-Royce that opened this story.
A large number of Anglo-Irish families were settled to the West of Cork, and the IRA’s guerrilla campaign included not just fighting the British army and police forces, but harassing these civilians. Eventually, most of the large estate houses were burned out, and it was during one such raid that the primose-yellow Silver Ghost tourer was stolen. It was armoured with primitive boilerplate and armed with twin Lewis machine-guns; involved almost exclusively in night-time attacks, it was dubbed “The Moon Car.”
The attack on the unarmed soldiers in Queenstown pier occurred a year after the anti-treaty IRA had signed a ceasefire and largely disarmed. One British soldier was killed and over twenty others wounded, including three civilians; public outrage included the posting of a £10,000 reward for information relating to the capture of the attackers. They were never identified: the Moon Car was driven to a deserted farm, burned, and buried in the bog to rot.
It was discovered in 1981 by a local historian, Liam O’Callaghan, and during the recovery process the frame was twisted and “some thievin’ little divil” made off with the radiator for scrap metal. Partially dissolved by the acidity of the bog, the Moon Car was nonetheless fully restored last year by James Black Restorations, a Rolls-Royce specialist based in Ulster, not far from Belfast.
Sliabh no mBan survives too, incredibly, having been recovered from the Republican forces and eventually preserved by the foreman of the Irish cavalry workshops (who listed it as scrap on the books). It starred in the 1959 James Cagney movie, Shake Hands With the Devil, and has recreated Collins’ fateful trip in at least two documentaries.
In the daylight of 2014, both machines are innocuous enough, impressive for their engineering and indeed beautiful despite a brutal, murderous past. Like hammer and anvil, the Mountain and the Moon – and once between them lay Ireland.