Cataclysm in Cork: The Battle of Clonmult

On top of roof and window,
Those boys stood up to fight,
‘Til the burning of the cottage
And no escape in sight.

It was around 4 pm on a chilly afternoon on Sunday, February 20th in Garrylaurence, Clonmult, County Cork. Irish Volunteers Michael Desmond (left) and John Joe Joyce talked excitedly as they stood around the farmhouse well filling their comrade’s canteens The two 22 year-olds from Midleton were animated as young men can be in war, because they knew they and the rest of the Active Service Unit (Flying Column) of the 4th Battalion of the Cork No. 1 (East) Brigade were about to head south to set up an ambush at Cobh station on the Cork-Youghal railway line.

Their commanding officer, Diarmuid "The Gaffer" O’Hurley (often called just Hurley), had left by car a few hours earlier with Joseph Aherne and Pat Whelan to scout the ambush location. As the column prepared to pack and travel south to Leamlara, the sentries had been pulled in. It would prove a fatal mistake.

The young men’s excited conversation came to an abrupt halt as they observed movement a short distance away. It was soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, Hampshire Regiment under the command of Lieutenant A. R. Koe, moving to surround the house. Dropping their canteens and drawing their pistols they sprinted back toward the farmhouse, firing as they ran. Their firing alerted the rest of the column to the danger at hand, but as a volley of British Enfields rent the air with their loud reports, both of them fell, riddled with .303 rounds.

From the farmhouse, David Desmond looked out in horror at his brother’s bloodied body lying on the ground. John Joe Joyce went down fatally wounded as well, but remained conscious, crying out that they were surrounded. The Volunteers slammed the door closed as bullets began thumping against the building. Thanks to many successful raids on RIC barracks over the preceding year, the column was well-armed. The Volunteers in the farmhouse had seventeen rifles of various sorts, Lee Enfields and carbines and three shotguns, fifteen revolvers of various types, six grenades, and sufficient ammunition to give about fifty rounds per man. O’Hurley’s group likely only took pistols, which could be easily concealed, so the eighteen now left in the farmhouse had enough arms and ammo to hold out for a long time.

As they returned fire from the windows, Jack “Jacko” O’Connell (right), from Cobh, who had been left in command by O’Hurley, had three options, and none of them were good. They could surrender, but the British had recently instituted a policy that any armed Volunteers they captured could be executed. They could all attempt to break out, surely taking massive casualties with no assurance any would survive. Or a small number of them could try to break through the British cordon to attempt bring back help to drive the British off, which was also a near suicide mission. After discussing it with the other Volunteers, O’Connell decided to attempt the small break out to get help. With the help of covering fire from the house, perhaps some could get through.

O’Connell would not order others to attempt this “forlorn hope” mission without leading it himself. Michael Hallahan of Midleton, Richard Hegarty of Garryvoe, Jeremiah “Sonny” O'Leary of Killeagh and O'Connell's close friend, James Aherne of Cobh, volunteered to follow him out. It was a moment demanding the kind of courage that few humans will ever face. As they started out the door, the rest of the column opened up with every weapon, and began to sing “The Soldiers Song.” The air filled with lead flying in both directions as the five heroes flew out the door. All of them must have thought that these were their last moments on earth. Most of them were right.

Up until February 20, 1921 the men of the 4th Battalion, from the Midleton, Cobh, Youghal area, had been very successful. All over the island, many of the early actions by the poorly armed Volunteers were designed to obtain arms, usually from the RIC. The 1st Brigade Volunteers had a number of very productive arms procuring attacks during 1920. Their first major attack was on the RIC barracks at Carrigtwohill.

(Below: The ruins of the Carrigtwohill RIC barracks after the attack.)

The Midleton men had just 12 pistols and the men from Cobh had a few rifles at the time. It wasn’t much of an arsenal for attacking a highly fortified position like an RIC barracks. They also had a quantity of gelignite, however, which they used to blow a hole in a corner of the barracks. Diarmuid O'Hurley and Joseph Aherne led a charge into the barracks that convinced the constables inside to surrender, turning over a large quantity of bombs, rifles, revolvers, and ammunition. All the constables were released alive. It was the first RIC barracks captured and destroyed by the Irish Volunteers during the War of Independence and boosted the morale of the Republican movement over the entire island.

Just over a month later, on February 9th, O’Hurley led an attack and capture of another RIC barracks at Castlemartyr. On that occasion the fearless O’Hurley forced his way through the front door after attempting to fool the constable at the door into thinking that he was RIC Sgt. O’Brien, whom theVolunteers were holding captive, returning from the Midleton Fair. On May 8th they captured their third RIC barracks of the year at Cloyne.

As the summer rolled around these attacks convinced the British they had to reinforce the RIC in the Midleton area with a regular army unit in hopes of intimidating the local Volunteers. For a short time it was a unit of the Essex Regiment, hated rivals of Tom Barry’s West Cork Brigade, but they were quickly replaced by the Cameron Highlanders. If the Crown Forces thought these reinforcements would intimidate the 4th Battalion of the 1st Brigade, they very quickly disabused them of that notion.

Around 6 pm on June 5, the very day the regiment arrived in Midleton, O’Hurley got word that a bicycle patrol of Highlanders had biked off toward Carrigtwohill. He showed that he had the ability to make tactical plans on the fly by sending out word to collect a force of Volunteers and setting up an ambush on the road back from Carrigtwohill. The Crown Forces would later learn that in guerrilla war one must not be predictable, but they had not learned the lesson yet.

(Right: British army cyclists.)

In a rather brilliant ruse, O’Hurley had some of his men pretend to be road bowlers and the others spectators to lull the soldiers into a false sense of security. They road into the ambush at Milebush Hill totally unaware of what was about to happen, when the “bowlers” and the “spectators” suddenly pulled out pistols and had them captured. They captured all the patrol save one, who ran into the fields, leaving behind his rifle, which was the real target of the ambush. As had been true at the three barracks they captured, the Volunteers released all their prisoners unharmed.

On December 29th they ambushed an RIC / Black & Tan patrol of about a dozen constables in Midleton. One RIC constable and two Black & Tans were killed and several wounded, and a number of rifles, pistols and ammunition were captured. Once again, the captured constables were released unharmed. But that action was followed by one of the first official reprisals by the Crown forces, when several houses were burned in Midleton (below), an ominous indication of direction the war was taking.

Thanks to all those successful operations, the men of the 4th Battalion had the weaponry to arm a flying column by the beginning of 1921. Following the ambush in Midleton, the Active Service Unit (Flying Column) was formed and occupied an abandoned, isolated, and as it would turn out, ill-fated farmhouse in Clonmult. It was a long, mud walled, thatched-roof cottage, with three windows in the front, and one window in the back. It had just one door, which was in the front. There was a low wall around the house and a couple of groves of trees to the south and west.

(Below: The farmhouse after the battle.)

There the Flying Column practiced the tactics they planned to put to use going forward. Many of these young men had fought side by side in the three barracks attacks and the other actions. Now they spent over a month living, eating and training together. Some already had the strong bonds that come from knowing each other since childhood. Many of them probably developed the bonds of brotherhood that come from knowing each of them would die for a cause they believed in, and for comrades whose lives might depend on their courage in battle. Two pair of Volunteers did not need to develop the bonds of brotherhood. Michael and David Desmond and Liam and Joseph Aherne actually were brother. In February they began to formulate a plan to put their training to the test in an ambush at the Cobh railway station.

As strong as support for the cause was among most people in Co. Cork, there were still those among them who were either loyal to the Crown, or to the money they could obtain helping them. Remaining in Clonmult for so long risked being betrayed to the British. Volunteer Daniel Cashman said that O’Hurley objected to brigade command they it was dangerous, but they were collecting the the Dáil Loan from local farmers there. O’Hurley proved to be correct, as their location was betrayed to the Crown forces.

There were various theories about who betrayed the location for many years. Some think that the intelligence officer of the Hampshire Regiment put together bits of information from different sources to trace their location. Others that it was a local who had served in the British army who observed the Volunteers while rabbit hunting and turned informer. The most recent research seems to point at Dan Shields, Volunteer and former British army soldier from the Kanturk company, as the informer. In March he would be exposed as an informer, but he managed to escape to an RIC barracks and eventually is believed to have made his way to Great Britain. However they may have learned of the location of the Flying Column, as O’Hurley, Aherne and Whelan left for Cobh, the Hampshire regiment was approaching the area. They unloaded from the lorries at Rathorgan cross-roads, about a kilometer from the farmhouse, and proceeded on foot to surround the farmhouse.

As “Jacko” O’Connell led his four comrades out the farmhouse door that day in Clonmult, he had no idea how they had gotten into this predicament, but he knew they had little chance of escaping it. And he must have wished that Diarmuid O’Hurley, who always seemed to know the right thing to do, had not left this dreadful decision to him.

With their heads down the five Volunteers sped out toward the only cover available, the low wall. The air around them was buzzing with the sound of .303 Enfield rounds passing close by. Just behind O’Connell, Michael Hallahan was mortally wounded and fell to the ground before he had gone a few feet. Richard Hegarty (right) had nearly made it to the wall when a British bullet found the mark. He went down, but he continue to fire for a while, even as he was bleeding to death, and that may have helped O’Connell. O’Leary saw O’Connell clear the wall, but behind him his good friend Aherne also slumped to the ground as he tried to get over the wall. Thinking all of the others were dead, O’Leary turned and sprinted back to the farmhouse. Bullets were spraying up dirt around him and slamming into the farmhouse wall as he got to the door, but amazingly he got there unharmed. As they opened the door to let him dive back into the house, they were sure the other four were dead or dying and no assistance would be coming.

Miraculously, “Jacko” O’Connell wasn’t dead. As he cleared the wall and headed for the cover of the grove of trees, he looked back over his shoulder to discover his comrade were all gone. A few soldiers pursued him for a short distance, but one man escaping was not as important as the action at the farmhouse, so they went back. O’Connell tried desperately to organize local Volunteers to save the column. He found three members of the Clonmult company and was told that the North-East Cork Flying Column was located somewhere near the village of Ballynoe. One of the local men had a bicycle and set off get them, about 6 miles north. He did manage to locate them later and they did arrive at Clonmult, but not until after the British had left.

(Below: 4th Battalion men during training. Left to right: Michael Desmond (he and his brother were killed on Clonmult); Patrick Higgins (who was in charge at the surrender at Clonmult; James Glavin (killed at Clonmult); Daniel Dennehy (killed at Clonmult); Joseph Aherne; Richard Hegarty (killed at Clonmult); Joseph Morrissey (killed at Clonmult); Michael Hallahan (Killed at Clonmult); D. Stanton; Patrick White.)

Back at the farmhouse, Patrick J. Higgins, from Aghada, was now the senior officer. He had rifleman in each window holding off the Hampshire regiment while they tried to come up with a way out of their predicament. They weren’t sure how many soldiers were surrounding them, but soon the odds grew worse when a group of about twenty-five Black & Tans and Auxiliaries arrived from Midleton. These reinforcements would have horrific consequences for the Volunteers that went beyond the mere increasing of their numerical disadvantage. With their numbers increased, the Crown forces used the extra covering fire to move in close enough to ignite the thatched roof. Escape seemed impossible, and death imminent. The Hampshire regiment officers called on them to surrender, assuring them they would not be harmed. But as the smoke began to fill the cottage, the Volunteers had one last, desperate escape plan.

Since there was no door in the back of the cottage, they thought perhaps there were less Crown forces covering it, so they began use their bayonets and knifes to dig a hole through the back wall. As they managed to open hole large enough for a man to get through, the smoke was becoming overwhelming and burning tufts of thatch were beginning to rain down on them. The indominable “Sonny” O’Leary, who survived the break out attempt, volunteered to be the first one through the hole.

All of them must have known how slim the odds were that one or more British soldiers or constables didn’t have a rifle already sighted on the hole. As soon as O'Leary's head peaked through the hole, that proved true, and he was wounded in the head. His comrades dragged him back in by the ankles, before he could be hit again, no doubt saving his life. O’Leary crawled into the kitchen area and passed out. The wound wouldn’t kill him. In fact, in the end it may well have saved his life.

With the blazing roof surely close to falling in on them, the game was up now. To stay in the cottage meant a certain and very painful death. There were really only two choices now. They could charge out the door with guns blazing into a hailstorm of bullets, likely all dying or being seriously wounded, or they could surrender. Higgins later claimed that he, Liam Aherne of Midleton, and teenager Jimmy Glavin (right) from Cobh, whom he called “the bravest little lad I ever met,” wanted to fight, but the rest voted to surrender.

By February 1921, the war had entered a new phase of brutality. The British government had authorized reprisals against civilians, which would lead to the Volunteers burning large homes belonging to the Anglo-Irish gentry. The British also authorized the death penalty for any Volunteer who was captured while armed, which would lead to some reprisal executions of soldiers and constables by the Volunteers. Many of the men in the farmhouse had participated in some of the 4th Battalions barracks captures and their successful ambushes for arms during 1920. Perhaps they believed they would receive the humane treatment in return for the many soldiers and constables they had captured and released unharmed over the preceding year if they surrendered. They were wrong. Higgin’s called out that they would throw down their arms and come out. 

The Hampshire’s officer may have promised they wouldn’t be harmed, but the Black & Tans were not really under his command. As the Volunteers began to file out the door, the soldiers held their positions, but the Tans moved in. The first man out, more a boy than a man, was seventeen-year-old John Harty. A Tan slammed his rifle butt into the boy’s head, knocking him unconscious, and at the same time unintentionally saving his life. Some of the other Tans had bad intentions that went far beyond beatings.

The Volunteers who walked out after Harty were lined up against the wall of one of the out buildings by the Black & Tans. Pat O’Sullivan of Cobh and Maurice Moore of Tiknock were still inside, picking up the unconscious “Sonny” O’Leary to get him out of the house. As they lifted him they suddenly heard firing again from outside. Their comrades had walked out unarmed, with their hands up. What could be happening?

Outside, the Black & Tans had begun what they apparently planned to be the summary execution of the entire Volunteer force. Pat Higgins, having agreed to surrender, now watched in horror as the Tans began to gun down his unarmed men, including that brave “little lad,” Jimmy Glavin. But when he tried to speak up he suddenly had a Tan’s pistol thrust into his mouth and the trigger pulled. Incredibly, the bullet didn’t kill him. It went through his palate and logged in his jaw as he dropped to the ground.

“I felt as if I was failing through a bottomless pit” Higgins (left) said years later in his witness statement. He was still semi-conscious and heard one of the Tans saying, "This fellow is not dead, we will finish him off". At that moment one of the officers of the Hampshire regiment ran up and ordered a halt to the slaughter, saving the lives of Higgins and the other survivors. 

Lying dead or dying on the bloody farmhouse lawn, in addition to Glavin, were Donal Dennehy of Ballynona South, and Joe Morrissy of Castlemartyr and five volunteers from Midleton: Liam (Willie) Ahern, Jeremiah Ahern (Liam’s cousin), David Desmond, and Timothy “Christy” O’Sullivan (who served in the British army in WWI). Michael Desmond and John Joe Joyce, who had died at the start of fight, and Michael Hallahan, who died in the attempted break out, were also from Midleton. It would be some days before the identity of all the dead were made public, but that day would be one of the saddest ever suffered in that southern Cork town, with eight of their young men sacrificed to the Republican cause in a matter of hours.

Edmund Terry, Robert Walsh of Ballycotton, and William Garde of Ballyedmond, stood shaken but still alive thanks to the intervention of the army officer, with the injured John Harty and Pat Higgins writhing in pain on the ground. Pat O’Sullivan and Maurice Moore now emerged from the burning house carrying the unconscious O’Leary to the appalling sight of seven of their friends who had preceded them out the door lying in pools of their own blood.

The British laid out the dead Volunteers to count them and loaded the prisoners into their lorries and took them to Cork. The Crown forces suffered only two wounded, one constable and one soldier, both hit in the shoulder. While O'Hurley, Aherne and Whelan were still scouting their ambush position they were forced to hide on the side of the road when a large British Army convoy came by headed to Cork. Little did they know at the time that the eight surviving Volunteers from Clonmult were in those lorries.

( Above: The twelve East Cork Brigade men who fell in the fight at Clonmult. (Left to right) (Back Row): Richard Hegarty (Garryroe); Jeremiah Aherne (Midleton); Christopher Sullivan (Midleton); Joseph Morrissey (Athlone); Michael Hallahan (Midleton); (Second Row): James Glavin (Cobh); John Joe Joyce (Midleton); James Aherne (Cobh); Michael Desmond (Midleton); (Front Row): Donal Dennehy (Midleton); Liam Aherne (Midleton); David Desmond (Midleton) )

Shortly after that they met Mick Burke, captain of the Cobb Volunteer company, in Killacloyne. Burke gave them the news that their column had been attacked at Clonmult, and only one man was known to had gotten away. They found O’Connell in Knockraha. He told them what he knew of the disaster, but he was not sure if the help from the other column might have gotten there in time to help or not. O'Hurley (right) was devastated by the news. He insisted they go to the farmhouse, in spite of there being just four of them. “If we cannot save them, we can die with them,” he told them.

They found no living people still there, of course, only a line of twelve dead bodies with a canvas cover over their faces. They were now faced with the excruciating sad task of identifying the dead. Many of them had been their friends for many years, but for Joseph Aherne, it was worse. He had a brother and cousin in the column who might be there, or might be alive and captured. Whelan went down the row, uncovering each face and calling out the name. He noted that several of them had bullet wounds just below the eye, evidence of execution. Aherne must have held his breath in dread as Whelan spoke the name of each newly revealed face.

When Whelan uncovered the faces of Liam and Jeremiah Aherne, he found himself unable to speak for several moments before he could say their names. Years later he recalled that, “Diarmuid, Joseph (left), Jacko and myself sobbed with a terrible grief and sense of loss."

All of the Volunteers captured that day would be sentened to death. The sentences of teenagers Edmund Terry, Robert Walsh of Ballycotton, William Garde of Ballyedmond, and John Harty of Ballyroe were commuted due to their age. The sentences of Pat O’Sullivan of Cobh, Maurice Moore of Tiknock, Patrick Higgins and Diarmuid ‘Sonny’ O’Leary remained in place, but Higgins and O’Leary had their executions delayed by their injuries and Higgins having his appendix taken out, and were eventually saved by the signing of the truce

The 4th Battalion Flying Column’s losses in men and weapons at Clonmult destroyed it. The battle deaths ripped the heart of of the men of that battalion. In terms of battle deaths, it was the worst defeat of the war for the Republicans. Diarmuid O’Hurley, who was so traumatized by the events of that day, would not long survive Clonmult victims. On May 28th he was surprised by a Black & Tan foot patrol in Carrigogna while armed with just a pistol. He cut through a field and had nearly escaped when a .303 Enfield round found it’s mark and "The Gaffer" was gone. For the few remaining veterans of the 4th Battalion, it was one final body blow.

On April 28th, Pat O’Sullivan and Maurice Moore (right) had been executed at Cork Military Detention Barracks, along with two other prisoners, Patrick Ronayne of Greenhill and Thomas Mulcahy of Tooreen North. In retaliation for those executions the Volunteers executed a prisoner they held: Major Compton Smith of the Royal Welsh Fusilers, as the brutality of the war continued to escalate.

The day before his death, Pat O’Sullivan (left) wrote this to his mother:
“If I could choose my own death, I would not ask to die otherwise. In fact, I am delighted to have had such a glorious opportunity of gaining eternal salvation as well as serving my country. My death will help with the others, and remember that those who die for Ireland never die.”

RELATED LINKS:

"Rebel Cork's Fighting Story 1916-21: Told by the Men Who Made It"

"Echoes of their Footsteps: The Quest for Irish Freedom" by Kathleen Hegarty Thorne

"The Battle of Clonmult" by Tom O'Neill

Cork's War of Independence  Fatality Register

Clonmult ambush (Video)

Offical Reprisals in Midleton (Video)

Clonmult Ambush Facebook site

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Tags: Black and Tans, Clonmult, Cobh, County Cork, IRA, Irish Volunteers, Irish War of Independence, Midleton

Comment by The Wild Geese on January 20, 2018 at 2:08pm

An early photo of the memorial to men killed at the farmhouse location in Clonmult. None of the farmhouse can be seen there any more, but in this old photo a portion of it is still up in the background, though covered by vegetation. 

Comment by The Wild Geese on January 20, 2018 at 8:18pm

Pictures from the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Clonmult.


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Comment by Joe Gannon on March 3, 2018 at 3:57pm

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