The ancient Irish city of Waterford has survived four major sieges in the last millennium. Each siege left its mark on the city and the course of Irish history. The first siege in 1170 raised by “Strongbow” Earl of Pembroke, hastened the beginning of English rule in Ireland. Two years later King Henry II arrived in Waterford to claim Ireland for the crown and seek obeisance from Irish kings and bishops. The second (and only unsuccessful) siege occurred in 1495 when the Earl of Desmond attempted to foist Perkin Warbeck as the York pretender to the English Tudor throne. Waterford’s resistance earned it the motto “urbs intacta manet” (“remains the untaken city”) from another grateful King Henry, the seventh. The third and longest siege was in Cromwell’s Irish reign of terror. For almost a year, his armies isolated the city and thousands died of starvation and disease before General Ireton accepted its exhausted surrender in August 1650.
The fourth siege came in the warm summer of 1922. While the weather was glorious, it was an ugly time for Ireland cutting itself to pieces in a murderous civil war. The new Free State government besieged Waterford in its campaign to defeat the rebels after the divisive treaty with the British government. The odds were stacked against the rebels. The Free State army had British artillery and the support of the church, the press and the industrial barons. However, the defenders had military expertise as most IRA officers supported anti-Treaty forces. The south of Ireland bore the brunt of the conflict and Waterford’s turn began on 18 July.
A West Waterford man named Pax Whelan led Anti-Treaty forces in the city. They were poorly organised and content to wait for the attack. No attempt was made to secure the heights north of the river at Mount Misery. Anti-Treaty forces were instructed to operate independently in their own areas leading to slipshod communication and there was no overall plan. The Free Staters were much better prepared, led by former American cavalry officer Colonel John T. Prout and assisted by local men Paddy Paul and James McGrath. Paul was a gunnery officer in WW1 and then joined the IRA as brigadier of East Waterford. Paul knew his enemy well. He and Whelan worked together during the War of Independence leading the only attack on British forces in Waterford: the unsuccessful ambush at Pickardstown near Tramore in January 1921.
At the end of that war, the new government in Dublin struggled to enforce its authority and on 22 May 1922 they sent Paul with orders to take command of Waterford and secure the barracks. He was promptly arrested by anti-Treaty forces and suffered injuries. Paul managed to escape from the Infirmary Hospital dressed as a nun. He fled back to Dublin to plot the re-capture of Waterford.
By 18 July he was back on Mount Misery overlooking his native city. The attack would not be easy. All approach roads were mined. The rebels were reinforced by volunteers from Cork and Kerry and had seized the barracks and fortified Ballybricken jail. They set up outposts in shops and hotels along the quay, as well as the post office and Reginald’s Tower. They also opened the spans on the road and rail bridges across the Suir. They outnumbered their opponents with 700 defenders in the city facing 550 Free State troops, many of whom had served in the British army. But the Free Staters had power on their side: two artillery pieces including an 18 pounder placed over the railway station and one lighter calibre piece. The 18 pounder was initially hamstrung as it faced rapid fire from the quays and a sniper on Ballybricken hill but would eventually prove a devastating difference.
All businesses in the city closed down except the Tramore railway which operated continuously through the four days of the siege. Most townsfolk took advantage of the sunny weather to evacuate to the seaside until the fall of the city. At 6:45pm on Tuesday 18 July the attack began in brilliant sunshine. Paul’s first shell landed near his own home in Newgate St. His mother was working in the kitchen and narrowly avoided injury. But the majority of shells found their mark landing in Barrack St or near the jail.
The guns blazed away for five hours on the first night. The eerie silence that followed was shattered again at 6am the following morning as the guns opened up in excellent visibility. There were many direct hits on the barracks and the jail on top of the hill. Whelan moved his sharpshooters to Bilberry cliffs west of the quay and they managed to keep the attackers pinned down. The defenders inflicted heavy casualties from accurate machine gun fire from the post office on the quay under the command of Ballybricken chemist Pierce Power. The shelling continued all day.
During a lull in the fire, Prout moved his major artillery piece onto the bridge but was prevented from using it by persistent gunfire across the river. Prout had to come up with an alternative plan. The following night 150 men led by Captain Ned O’Brien moved east down the Rosslare railway to Giles Quay under the cover of darkness. O’Brien was a journalist for the Waterford News but now he was making the news not reporting it (he would later be killed on patrol in the city). His forces commandeered boats moored at the quay and rowed to the opposite shore where they encountered no resistance. The back door to the city was wide open.
At Newtown school, they ambushed a motorised Anti-Treaty patrol. The attackers captured the car and locked the occupants in the boot. They bypassed a rebel garrison in the park and found a prominent local Unionist known as “Lame” Dobbyn. Dobbyn was anxious to see the Republicans defeated and gave the intruders the key of the Country Club on the strategic corner of the Mall and the Quay opposite Reginald’s Tower. The men entered the back of the building and overpowered a sleeping garrison. They had secured a vital corner of the city without firing a shot.
At 7:45am the next morning, the intruders opened fire on the Tower across the road and also raked the Mall and the Quays with machine gun fire. The surprise allowed Prout to secure the artillery on the bridge. Its gunfire from close range made the Quay untenable. The republicans retreated to Ballybricken. When a direct hit exploded in the magazine of the artillery barracks that evening, the area was evacuated. The end was near.
Whelan gathered Dungarvan, Cork and Kerry units to escape to the west leaving Jerry Cronin in charge of a small band to defend the city. Cronin’s men retreated to Ballybricken Hill to fight the final battle for Waterford. At 11:50am on Friday 21 July 1922, shellfire breached the jail walls. After bitter hand-to-hand fighting, Cronin’s forces surrendered. The fourth siege of Waterford was over.
The rebels were dispatched to Kilkenny and Newbridge jails, none taking up the offer to swear allegiance to the Provisional Government and join the Free State army. Prout spent the weekend in an open car with Paul and McGrath touring the city. The two local men pointed out Republicans who had escaped arrest.
Waterford was secure but the war dragged on for another year in West Munster. On 24 May 1923 anti-Treaty leaders issued unceremonious orders to “dump arms”. The civil war was over. Three thousand people were dead, and 21,000 prisoners were in jails and internment camps. The war left a legacy of bitterness that infected the Irish polity for decades to come.