Dick Willis walked up to the Sheehan's farmhouse in Mourneabbey, County Cork, on the pleasant late summer afternoon of Sunday, September 26, 1920. Dick, a member of the Mallow Company of the Cork No. 2 (North) Brigade, could see numerous brigade members from the newly formed brigade flying column nearby. Brigade commander Liam Lynch and Ernie O'Malley, whom GHQ had sent out from Dublin, were training the column in the area.
Willis was not there to train, however. As he got out of church in Mallow earlier that day, Tadg Byrne had told him to report to Sheehan's to speak to Lynch. Willis knew what he was there to talk to Lynch about. He wiped the sweat from the five-mile walk off his brow as he nervously walked through the door.
(Left: Dick Willis in a post-war picture.)
He was immediately ushered into a room where Lynch and O'Malley, along with George Power, Jim Brislane, Paddy O'Brien, Moss Twomey, and Paddy McCarthy, were waiting to hear what he had to say. In addition to being a member of the Volunteers, Willis worked as a painter at Mallow military barracks, which housed a squad from the 17 Lancers regiment. He helped get his friend Jackie Bolster, also a Volunteer, a job there as a carpenter. Together, they studied the routine of the soldiers at the barracks, hoping to find a way to get some of the Lancers' arms, which included two Hotchkiss light machine-gun.
By mid-September, the 21-year-old Willis and 20-year-old Bolster had devised an audacious plan. The sweaty-palmed Willis was tasked with trying to convince Lynch and the other high-ranking officers that this plan could work. Amazingly, this plan aimed to capture the barracks and clean out all the arms there, something no Volunteer unit had yet attempted.
Dick Willis and Jackie Bolster were both Mallow men. Willis was born in 1899, and Jackie Bolster in 1900. Mallow first formed a Volunteer company in 1014. Both of them joined the company in 1917. The men involved in the early organization of the Mallow company were Owen Harold, Dan Hegarty, Ed Waters, Bryan Kelly, Leo Callaghan, and Christopher O'Connell.
The Cork No. 2 Brigade, like the No. 1 and No. 3 Brigades, was very active throughout the war. Under the leadership of men like Liam Lynch, Seán Moylan, and Paddy O'Brien, the men of the brigade were one of the earliest to obtain weapons from the Crown forces and were constantly active throughout the war.
(Right: Jackie Bolster.)
A No. 2 Brigade action pulled off the first capture of a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks in Araglin on April 20, 1919. If Con Leddy, the commander of the Araglin company, had his way, the war may have started there rather than Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary. Leddy had come to Liam Lynch, then C/O of the Fermoy battalion that included Araglin, in late 1918 with a plan to attack the RIC barracks. But, at the time, the political leadership of the Republican movement was discouraging any military action.
By the following spring, with the fighting now underway, Leddy returned to ask for Lynch's permission again. Lynch, by then C/O of the No. 2 Brigade, listened to the plan and approved it. Lynch originally planned to lead the raid, but when the operation was pushed back a week, he sent his friend and now commander of the Fermoy Battalion, Mick Fitzgerald, to help.
(Below: Araglin RIC barracks.)
The day of the assault, April 20, 2019, was Easter Sunday that year. The plan, If it worked correctly, would not require any fighting. Six constables were assigned to the barracks, and five went to church each Sunday, leaving one to hold the building. From many months of observation, they knew that one constable usually went to the river to get a bucket of water. While he was gone, the raiding party entered the building, snatching him up on his return. They had pulled off the first capture of an RIC barracks and left with six rifles, 400 rounds of ammo, a pistol, six hand grenades, and a pair of handcuffs. The handcuffs would soon come in handy during one of the most famous incidents of the war. For some reason, they did not burn the barracks down. The following April, however, the RIC abandoned it, and the Volunteers burned it
Most Volunteer groups began to look for ways to obtain arms first from locals, including the many hunting weapons held by the local Anglo-Irish gentry. But unfortunately, those were primarily shotguns, and the supply quickly dried up. On the other hand, the RIC had many military-grade rifles, and some of their barracks, like Araglin, had small garrisons and were isolated in the country. This made those barracks the most likely targets for the Volunteers.
(Below: An early 20th-century shotgun.)
The British Army units also had large caches of modern weapons but were better trained and usually had greater numbers of troops in their barracks and when they moved around the countryside. Thus most Volunteer units did not attempt to procure weapons from the army. That may have made the army units less cautious, however, and Lynch came up with a plan to take advantage of that.
In September, Lynch planned an ambush to capture arms from a group of soldiers of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, stationed in Fermoy. Every Sunday, they marched, fully armed, to mass at Wesleyan Church. On September 7, 1919, Lynch led an attack to capture their Enfield rifles. Though he had 25 Volunteers, only six were armed with revolvers, while the rest had short clubs they could conceal. It would be the first attack of the war on a British military unit.
(Right: Diagram of the ambush at Fermoy.)
The attack was a success and began to build Lynch's reputation within the Republican movement. Moving in on the 15 soldiers at the signal of Lynch's whistle, only a few of the soldiers were able to offer any resistance. A short gunfight wounded four soldiers, one of whom, Pvt William Jones, died. Jones was the first British soldier killed in the war.
Lynch also took a bullet through the shoulder, but it luckily passed through without hitting any bones or arteries. He didn't realize it until he was in one of the cars they had on the scene to abscond with the rifles. He joked about it with the other men in the car. Stories of that would enhance the admiration of Lynch among the Volunteers.
Dick Willis and Jackie Bolster had a minor part in the Fermoy operation, scouting the roads awaiting the return of the Mallow men who had participated in the raid to see if they needed assistance. A few days later, George. Power entrusted Willis with the vital and dangerous job of returning six pistols used at Fermoy. He brought them safely back to the company captain, Jack Cunningham.
In the spring, Willis and Bolster helped burn the abandoned RIC barracks at Ballyclough and Blackrock. In July, Willis led a group, including Bolster, on an operation to steal the mail bound for Mallow. They successfully intercepted the train it was on and stole it, ironically causing their own paychecks not to reach Mallow Barracks.
(Left: General Lucas (seated), with members of the East Clare Brigade who were guarding him - back row left to right: Paddy Brennan and Micháel Brennan, C/O of the brigade, front row: James Brennan, Joe Keane.)
In July the Brigade pulled off one of the most famous escapades of the war when they captured General Cuthbert Lucas, commander of the 17th Infantry Brigade. Liam Lynch led a group of four Volunteers that included Seán Moylan on this critical mission, utilizing the handcuffs captured at the Araglin RIC barracks. The British launched a huge operation to recapture Lucas, but he was spirited away to West Limerick and kept moving him to avoid their dragnet.
About a month later, Lucas would "escape" (he was possibly allowed to go) after the Republicans were unable to get the British to agree to any sort of prisoner exchange. Still, his capture caused a sensation that made news around the world and boosted the morale of the entire republican movement.
Willis had been working as a painter in Buttevant Barracks since 1917 for a Cork contractor named Kelleher. He was transferred to Mallow Barracks in a similar capacity in June 1920. When there was an opening for a carpenter, Willis helped Bolster get the position. The two of them began to closely watch the activities of the l7th Lancers with a covetous eye on their arms. Known as "The Death or Glory Boys," this company of the 17th had just arrived to occupy the barracks in June as well.
(Right: The emblem of the 17th Lancers.)
After closely watching the companies' routines for a few weeks, they noted that more than half of the 40-man mounted company rode out each morning to exercise their horses. They would ride out more than a mile from town and were usually gone for two to three hours. Even better, they only took a small portion of their rifles. So it seemed like a golden opportunity for a relatively small group of Volunteers to enter the barracks and escape with a great haul of arms and ammunition.
At that point, they took their idea to Jack Cunningham, Mallow company C/O. Unfortunately, when they did not hear back for a time, the young men believed that no one was taking them seriously and began to contemplate circumventing the leadership and attempting the operation with a few other willing Volunteers. Luckily, they had not put that plan into motion before Mallow Battalion C/O Tadg Byrne instructed Willis to report to Lynch on September 26.
(Left: Mallow company CO, Jack Cunningham.)
That meeting, at Sheehan's farmhouse in Mourneabbey, ended with Lynch congratulating Willis and Bolster for their initiative in bringing this plan forward. He was not committing to it yet, however. Instead, he asked Willis to get together with Bolster to do a sketch of the inside of the barracks. Then, they would meet the following night again to decide if the raid was a go.
Monday night, they traveled with Jack Cunningham, and Owen Harold to Tadg Looney's home in Burnfort. There they met again with Lynch, O'Malley, and the others Willis had presented the plan to the night before. Also there was Seán Moylan, soon to command the brigade flying column. Finally, after studying the sketch for a time and discussing the area surrounding the barracks with the Mallow men there, Lynch gave the raid his approval. And he wanted to carry it out the next day.
As they discussed plans for the attack, they decided that one of the Volunteer officers would accompany Willis and Bolster to work, posing as the Clerk of Works. Seán Moylan, a carpenter, wanted to be that man, but Lynch did not want to risk the man he picked to lead the flying column. So instead, he appointed Paddy McCarthy of the Newmarket company to take that critical role. MacCarthy had escaped from Lincoln Jail in England earlier in the year and would die in a gunfight with the Black & Tans in Millstown a few months later. Knowing the water pressure in the barracks was a problem, O'Malley would then arrive, saying he was the Water Inspector. The four, armed with pistols, would disarm the guards, and Lynch would be waiting outside the walls to rush in with a small group of Volunteers.
(Below: The exterior walls of the Mallow barracks.)
The operation must accomplish the operation quickly. The area around Mallow was teeming with Crown forces. Buttevant, with one of the largest military bases on the island, was just 8 miles north. Nearby that was the army training camps of Ballyvonaire and 19 miles northeast was the large military garrison at Fermoy. Cork, packed with Crown forces, was 20 miles southeast. Any delay would have Crown forces moving in from all directions.
The Volunteers moved into town the same night to be ready to move in the morning. They occupied the town hall for the night. It was just a short distance from the barracks and would allow some of them to remain there and cover the nearby RIC station to stop any assistance they might send to the barracks. That morning, not knowing if anyone had seen them the night before, they nervously watched for sign of Crown forces moving in on them. They saw none and so went into action.
One RIC constable would unknowingly come very close to dying at the hands of the Volunteers in the Town Hall that day. Constable Keane left the barracks that morning, walking downhill on William O'Brien Street toward home and his breakfast. As he came down the hill, a Volunteer in an upstairs window of the Town Hall had his rifle sighted on the constable's shiny belt buckle. Lynch's order to the men left in the Town Hall was to let no constables leave their barracks. Slowly he began to depress the trigger, remembering the training to squeeze the trigger, not pull it. Suddenly the constable spun on his heels and reversed course. He had apparently forgotten to do something. Whatever it was that caused him to head back, it saved his life.
In the morning, Willis and Bolster arrived at work around 9 am, with the fake "Clerk of Works," MacCarthy, in tow. They pretended to be measuring the guardhouse for some repairs to remain close to it. Meanwhile, Lynch and a small group of Volunteers approached the gate along the barracks walls.
(Left: Paddy MacCarthy)
Around 9:30, O'Malley arrived at the gate, and when the guard opened it a bit, he pushed his way in and grabbed the guard's rifle. Willis, Bolster, and MacCarthy, immediately pulled their pistols and moved toward the door of the guardhouse, where there would be rifles. Paddy O'Brien pushed in after O'Malley, followed by Liam Lynch and a few more Volunteers.
Sergeant William Gibbs, 22, who was in charge of the remaining troops, was outside the barracks. Gibbs was born in Bedford, England, 46 miles north-northwest of London. He served in WWI, going to France with the 17th Lancers in 1915. He was wounded once in the thumb and one other time disabled by a gas attack but otherwise survived the war unscathed. That he was promoted to sergeant so quickly would indicate that he was a good soldier.
(Below: Ernie O'Malley)
Seeing the commotion at the gate, with O'Malley pressing in and several other men behind him, Gibbs ran for the guardhouse door. Someone near the gate called on Gibbs, who was armed with a pistol, to halt and fired a shot over his head. According to his witness statement, Willis was in the guardhouse doorway and fired and mortally wounded Gibbs when he refused to stop. This even though neither Bolster nor Willis had ever handled a pistol before that day. Lynch, who had hoped to carry out the operation without killing any of the soldiers, was said to regret the death of Gibbs, whom he considered a brave soldier doing his duty.
Meanwhile, MacCarthy and Bolster held the soldiers in the guardhouse at gunpoint. The other Volunteers collected the few unarmed soldiers left in the barracks and locked them and the guardhouse soldiers in one of the stables. One soldier was left out to care for then still living Sgt. Gibbs.
At a signal from Lynch, three cars came through the barracks' gate driven by Leo O'Callaghan, Mallow, Sean, and Paddy Healy of Millstreet. They rapidly loaded the vehicles with the spoils of their victory. The haul of arms was one of the most impressive of the war. In total, they came away with twenty-seven rifles, two Hotchkiss light machine guns, about 4,000 rounds of ammunition, a Verey light pistol, a revolver, and some bayonets. Most of the arms and ammo were driven to Glashbee, where the Ahadillane company took over local protection of the material for the night. Those Volunteers involved in the raid from the flying column each took a rifle and bandolier ammo to help arm the flying column.
(Below: Liam Lynch)
The entire operation lasted about 20 minutes. Before they left, the Volunteers pulled some hay bales into the barracks building, soaked them in gasoline, and lit them on fire, hoping to burn the barracks. Either because so much of the barracks was stone or because the soldier freed themselves and put it out. Thus ended the first, and as it turned out, only capture of a British military barracks during the war.
That night British soldiers took their revenge on the town of Mallow. Troops arrived from Buttefant and Fermoy, burning the Town Hall, a creamery that employed 300 people, and numerous other businesses. In addition, they burned the hotel owned by George Hanover, the shoe store of Thomas Quinn; the tailor's shop of R. M. Quaile; the drapery shop of Mrs. Cronin, and other homes and businesses. Many evacuated the town, going up the hill, seeking the protection of their parish priest, Reverand Canon Corbett. Others hid in the cemetery behind St. Mary's church. There had been some reprisals before this, but RIC constables had mainly carried those out. This time it was the British military running amok.
Not everyone back in Great Britain agreed with these reprisals. A "London Times" editorial stated, "The accounts of arson and destruction by the military at Mallow as revenge for the Sinn Fein raid which caught the 17th Lancers napping, must fill English readers with a sense of shame." They went on to say, "The name of England is being sullied throughout Europe and throughout the world by this savagery, for which the government can no longer escape, however much they may seek to disclaim responsibility."
The following day was Sunday, and Canon Corbett did not mince words in his sermon. Speaking of the mass destruction in the town, he said, "These are amongst the signs of victory, won not by Zulus or Sioux Indians, by Englishmen; the great victory of Mallow."
Now known to the Crown forces, Willis and Bolster would have to go "on the run." Lynch assigned them to the flying column. Matt Flood of Fermoy, who had served as a machine gunner in the British army, trained them to operate the Hotchkiss machine guns. O'Malley also obtained a manual for the machine guns from Dublin. The two Hotchkiss guns would prove extremely useful to the brigade in later ambushes, including those at Ballydrocane, Rathcoole, Tureengarriffe, and Clonbanin.
(Below: A Hotchkiss machine gun.)
In the months after the Mallow raid, six men were arrested and charged with the murder of Sgt. Gibbs as Mallow. Five of them, 0wen Harold of Mallow, John Murphy of Mallow, Denis Barter of Mourneabbey, Mallow, Daniel McCarthy of Mourneabbey, Mallow, and Timothy Breen of Lombardstown, Mallow were Volunteers but had not participated in the raid. The sixth, David Buckley of Mourneabbey, Mallow, was not even a member of the Volunteers.
Despite that, all six were scheduled to be tried by courts-martial in October 1920. Luckily for them, the trial was twice delayed. The second time the delay was caused by some of the 17th Lancers soldiers being wounded in an attack by the Volunteers. The trial finally began on May 23, 1921, at Victoria Barracks in Cork.
Lynch issued this public statement: As the officer in charge of the operation in question I desire to state publicly that none of these men had any part in it. Furthermore, I wish to state that I alone am responsible for all that was done on that occasion. The raid on the barracks was carried out as a military operation on my orders by a body of Republican troops acting under my direction and I acted by virtue of my commission as an officer of the Irish Republican Army under the authority of my superior officer and the government of the Irish Republic, in accordance with the law of regular warfare.
This statement didn’t affect the outcome of the trial. Unsurprisingly, all but Breen were found guilty in a military trial with no lawyers representing them. The five who were found guilty were scheduled to be executed. However, the trial delays may have saved their lives as the July truce stopped all executions. They were released in January 1922.
(Right: The five condemned men on the day of their release.)
That was the final chapter in the story of the Mallow Barracks raid. The raid was one of the most well-planned and successful actions during the War of Independence. It provided critically needed arms and ammo for the Volunteers of the Cork #2 Brigade, including machine guns that were an equalizer in firefights. But the raid also gave the Republican cause a huge morale boost and was an embarrassment for the Crown forces back home in Great Britain.
Dick Willis and Jackie Bolster, who were most responsible for the Republican's success at Mallow, would survive the war. They would return to their work as a painter and carpenter, respectively. Willis would be known as "Gunner" Willis for his Unfortunately, most people in Ireland forgot about their contributions to the cause in the years to come. But whenever anyone asked, "what did you do in the war" in the years to come, what a tale they had to tell.
"No Other Law (the Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923)" by Florence O’Donoghue
“Liam Lynch: The Real Chief” by Meda Ryan
“Our Struggle for Independence: Eye-witness accounts from the pages of An Cosantoir” by Terence O'Reilly
“Who's Who in the Irish War of Independence & Civil War” by Padraic O'Farrell
Sean Moylan: Rebel Leader by Aideen Carroll
“With the IRA in the Fight for Freedom: 1919 to the Truce” by Gabriel Doherty
General Liam Lynch 90th Anniversary Commemoration
The Liam Lynch Memorial. Crohan Mountain, Tipperary, Ireland drone video.
‘Where Did General Lucas Go?’: The Kidnapping Of General Cuthbert Lucas
Landscapes of revolution (Maps of Mallow showing locations of the capture of the barracks.)
Captain Paddy McCarthy – Killed at Mill Lane on November 22nd 1920
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