The sun was getting low in the western sky on a sweltering hot Thursday, June 16, 1921, near Rathcoole, County Cork. The Irish Volunteers of what had been the 2nd Cork Brigade, but was now the 4th Cork Brigade, listened and watched intently to their east. “Paddy” O’Brien, who was appointed commander of the new 4th Brigade in April after recovering from a serious wound he suffered in November, was very nervous about the plan they had in place. They were going to attack a four-vehicle Auxiliary convoy just west of Rathcoole, along what is the L1120 road today, as they returned to their Millstreet barracks with supplies they collected in Banteer.
The ambush O’Brien and his men had planned involved one of the most complex uses of mines ever attempted by the Irish Volunteers during the war. Six mines had been dug into the dusty dirt road. The plan called for them to allow the first three vehicles to pass over the easternmost mine and then explode it under the last vehicle. The hope was that at that point the other three vehicles would either be over one of the other five mines or approaching one, allowing them to detonate a mine under every vehicle. Given the spotty, at best, history of mine use by the Volunteers, a plan this dependent on mines was quite aspirational.
Some time near 6:30 pm, a dust cloud was seen in the east on the dusty, drought-afflicted road. Scouts passed down the word, the convoy was coming. About 120 members of the Irish Volunteers felt their hearts racing as the Auxiliary column came into view. Between the heat and the tension, sweat trickled down many a brow, and wet palms were wiped along thighs as the sound of the lorries engines got louder.
The nerve-wracking wait began as one lorry passed over the first mine, then two, then three. As the fourth one neared the mine every Volunteer felt the blood pounding in their veins as they raised their weapons and sighted on the nearest lorry. They waited, hoping to hear an explosion as the mine went off under lorry #4; knowing how often their mines failed. As the front wheels of the last lorry passed the first mine, the detonator was pushed, sending the charge of electricity down the wire to the mine.
Patrick “Paddy” O’Brien was born at Knockardbane, Liscarroll, in August 1896. Liscarroll was not a hotbed of Republican activity. In 1916, O’Brien said that “news of the Rising of Easter Week, was received more in silent wonder as to what it all meant.” However, as was the case in many parts of the island, he said that “the executions which followed bad the effect of awakening the whisperings of nationality in the minds of many of the younger people in the parish.”
(Right: "Paddy" O'Brien in his later years.)
O’Brien was one of those who had nationalist feelings awakened. In October 1917, he was one organizers of the first branch of the Gaelic League in Liscarroll. Two months later, James Brislane from Charleville, a native of Liscarroll who was the commander of the Irish Volunteer battalion in the area, came to town and helped organize a Volunteer company. O’Brien was one of his recruits.
Brislane appointed Thomas Kelleher temporary captain of the local company until they could run their own election of officers. In January 1918 they had that election, which confirmed Tom Kelleher as captain, and “Paddy” O'Brien was elected the 1st Lieutenant. In early 1918, opposition to the British possibly instituting conscription in Ireland swelled the ranks of the Volunteers all over the island. When they first organized in late 1917 they had less than 30 members, but by April the Liscarroll company had more than 100.
Like every other new Volunteer group, the Liscarroll company was woefully short of any sort of arms. All over the island, other companies were forming up. This collection of farmers, laborers, and shop clerks, with a small sprinkling of WWI veterans, were, like the LIscarroll company, were for the most part “armed” with a handful of shotguns and very little ammunition for them with the seemingly impossible goal of defeating the army of the world’s greatest empire; one equipped with the most modern firearms, tanks, transport vehicles, and now even aircraft. Any military expert would have called it a “forlorn hope,” but there were no military experts among the ranks of Irish Volunteers. If there had been, they probably would have never made the attempt. They were like poker players drawing two cards hoping to fill an inside straight, but they soldiered on, oblivious of the odds.
(Below: A shotgun from the era of the Irish War of Independence.)
The company managed to bring in more shotguns from area farmers and big landowners, some voluntarily and some by coercion but the company remained pitifully armed. In June 1918 the British dropped their plan to conscript Irishmen and the ardor of the “sunshine patriots” among the Volunteers quickly dissipated. By the beginning of 1919, the company had been reduced to a mere 35 men. They also got a new commander in January 1919.
Captain Kelleher, who had been forced to go “on the run” in March after the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) raided his home attempting to arrest him, got sick and passed away on December 16, 1918. In January a new election was held and “Paddy” O’Brien was elected captain of the company.
The Liscarroll company, along with those of Charleville, Effin, Ballyhea, Newtownshandrum, Milford Dromina, Churchtown, and Buttevant, were organized into the Charleville (3rd) Batallion under James Brislane. Their battalion was part of the 2nd (Northern) Cork Brigade, commanded by Liam Lynch.
(Left: A Webley revolver.)
Later that month, O’Brien was able to obtain the company’s first modern rifle when he purchased a Lee-Enfield and three Webley revolver from an Irishmen in the British army. There were a handful of other Irish soldiers around the island who sold modern arms to the Volunteers, but, barring a large purchase of arms from some foreign source, the only way they were ever going to obtain enough arms and ammunition to become a viable fighting force was taking them from the RIC or the British Army. When 1919 ended, the entire Charleville Battalion had only three modern rifles.
That summer, Seán O’Sullivan, Commandant of the Cork 2nd Battalion, came to help train the Charlevile Battalion. Although he had no formal military experience in the British Army, as did many of the Volunteers trainers, O’Sullivan, a native of Kealkil, Co. Cork, had been in the Volunteers since before the Easter Rising. O’Brien later noted that this training period was important because it, “gave the Officers of the different Companies a chance to get acquainted with each other and a great spirit of comradeship soon grew up between them, and which tended to grow stronger as time went on.”
(Right: Seán O'Sullivan)
O’Brien was sworn in as a member of the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood some time in 1919. The exact functions of the organization after the forming of the Irish Volunteers is rather hazy, but Michael Collins and most of the leaders of the Volunteers were members, so membership could not hurt when it came to promotion. Late in 1919, O’Brien was promoted to Vice Commandant of the Battalion when Denis O'Driscoll, of Newtownshandrum left the position.
As 1920 began, the entire armament of the Charleville Battalion was three Lee Enfield rifles, about 200 rounds of .303 for them, and about 18 revolvers of various make, with little ammunition, and a number of shotguns, good only for short-range situations. They were in desperate need of increasing those armaments if they were to have any chance to be an offensive force against the Crown forces. And it got worse on April 27th, when they lent their three Enfields to an East Limerick battalion for an attack on the RIC barracks at Kilmalock, County Limerick, and did not get them back.
On May 28th, despite having virtually no modern firearms, eight members of the battalion, including O’Brien, took part in the assault on. Because they were so short of ammunition, few groups were able to have live ammo target practice, so rifles would be given to men who had fired rifles before. O’Brien had experience with rifles and was given one to use during the attack by one of the other groups.
(Below: The Bank of Ireland building in Kilmallock, formerly the RIC barracks.)
Kilmallock RIC barracks was famous among republicans because it had been unsuccessfully attacked during the Fenian rising in 1867. Though they did not capture the barracks and the vital arms within it, the barracks was destroyed and abandoned.
That same night, Charles Winter, from the Churchtown Company, obtained another Enfield from an Irishmen in the British Army. So the 400 man Charleville Battalion managed to have one modern rifle as the calendar flipped to June 1, 1920. That Enfield would see service in the ambushes at Clonbanin, Churchtown, and Rathcoole and is now held by the Cork Museum.
By early August, O’Brien, seldom slept at home anymore, but one day he was lying down at home, suffering from stomach pain, and was captured in an RIC raid. He soon found himself in Cork Jail, where he joined in a hunger strike. Shortly, he was shocked to see 2nd Brigade commander Liam Lynch, 1st Brigade commander Terence MacSwiney, in the prison. Lynch had given a fake name when he was arrested with MacSwiney at the Cork City Hall and would amazingly soon be released, but MacSwiney would go on to famously die on hunger strike.
(Right: Terence MacSwiney)
Lynch had not been thoroughly searched, perhaps because along with the fake name he had made up a story of being at the Hall for business. He had a map of the Brigade area, showing information about all the battalions that he was afraid they would find if they discovered his true identity. He passed it to O’Brien, who tore it into small pieces and dumped it in a bathroom.
O’Brien go sick in prison and feigned it being worse than it was. He and several other sick hunger strikers were released later in August. He was back in Liscarroll in time for the organizing of the first brigade Active Service Unit, i.e. Flying Column. It was commanded by Lynch, whose alias had also gotten him released from Cork Jail. O’Brien, with the RIC now raiding his home day and night, joined the column along with other “on the run” men.
(Below: Ernie O'Malley, photographed by the British in Kilmainham Jail.)
On September 15th the column met for training at Badgers Hill, Glenville, for men of the 1st and 2nd Cork Brigades. George Lennon of Waterford, who was later one of the youngest flying column leaders was also there. Ernie O’Malley was sent by GHQ in Dublin to help train them. And stayed with the men of the 2nd Brigade column for a time after the training.
On September 28th, while O’Malley was still with them, they pulled off one of the most famous and successful operations of war; one that improved the circumstances of the 2nd Brigade overnight. Two Mallow Volunteers were employed at the barracks of the 17th Lancers in Mallow, Richard Willis, as a painter, and John Bolster, as a carpenter. This was not by luck, as Lynch had instructed them to find employment there. They were thus able to tell Lynch when most of the garrison would be out training and give them the layout of the building. The barracks was a treasure trove of the thing the 2nd Brigade so desperately needed, modern armaments.
(Below: Liam Lynch)
The operation, the first attack on a military barracks by the Volunteers during the war, was pulled off like clockwork, with no casualties for the Volunteers, who were armed only with pistols, and just one soldier, Sgt. Gibbs, killed.
The haul of arms was one of the most impressive of the war. In all 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. The two Hotchkiss guns would prove extremely useful to the brigade in later ambushes. The 2nd Brigade was now ready to become “offensive.”
That night British soldiers took their revenge on the town of Mallow, burning the Town Hall, a creamery that employed 300 people, and numerous other businesses. Not everyone back in Great Britain agreed with these reprisals. A “London Times” editorial stated that, “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.”
In October they also began manufacturing mines at a workshop and factory established in the farmhouse of Michael O'Leary, Knocknadulane according to James Riordan of Knockavorheen, Kiskeam. The mines held 6-8lbs of Irish War Flour, an explosive invented by Séamas O’Donovan, the IRA’s primary chemist. Warflour was a nitrated resin, using the ingredients of resin, flour, acid, and potassium chlorate. It was named after the flour sacks in which it was smuggled into Dublin aboard ships. Their main problem was that they could only obtain the principal ingredient, chlorate of potash, in very small quantities at the time, although most of the chemists in the area were friendly to the Volunteers and anxious to help.
(Below: A Lee-Enfield rifle, 27 of which were obtained from Mallow barrocks.)
During the 2nd half of October, O’Malley returned to Dublin and the brigade flying column dispersed. The various battalions were told to form their own flying columns out of the men who were “on the run” and carry out attacks in their areas. The Charleville Battalion had 10 officers “on the run,” who formed it, including O’Brien who commanded it. This was possible because the Mallow barracks raid allowed them to distribute a good number of Enfields around the battalions. They had also gotten some sent to them from Dublin.
In early November, O’Brien led what he thought would be a fairly uneventful mission to burn the Milford RIC barracks after it was abandoned. Sending most of the battalion column off to collect hay and other material to set the fire, he entered the barracks to look around. While he was inside, walking around with a candle, two Black & Tans from an adjoining Post at Dromcollogher came to the door. O’Brien was near the top of the stairs when he heard them at the door. He had just come down the stairs when one of them peeked in, yelled “put ‘em up!” and fired a shot at the candle.
(Below: Two Black & Tans.)
O’Brien was hit in the cheekbone under his left eye with a round from a .38 pistol as he approached the door. Despite his serious wound, he managed to push the door closed and latch it; with blood flowing from his face he held them out of the building. The firing soon brought in the rest of the column. The two Tans ran off at that point. O’Brien came staggering out of the building with blood all over his face and chest, looking like a walking dead man.
O’Brien was rushed to a local doctor who said he could not do the needed operation. He was moved to Mrs. Hickey's of Badgers Hill until a doctor from Cork city came out and arranged to remove the bullet the next day at Glenvera Nursing Home in Cork City. Remarkably, just six weeks later he would return to the battalion.
On March 5, 1921, O’Brien commanded the Charleville contingent of the 2nd Brigade flying column under Seán Moylan at the Clonbanin ambush. They were joined by men from the Kerry No. 2 Brigade, commanded by Tom McEllistrim. This was probably O’Brien’s first experience with the use of mines, and that aspect of the attack did not go well. Neither mine worked, but the action was famous for the fact that Brigadier General Hanway Robert Warren Cumming, who commanded the British troops in Kerry, was killed that day. Not long after the Clonbanin Ambush, O’Brien’s home in Liscarroll was blown up by the British.
The main reason that ambush didn’t succeed in capturing arms was the presence of an armored car. The machine gun in it could not be put out of commission, and it commanded the road. The only weapon the Volunteers had that might disable an armored car was a mine if detonated directly under one. Around this time the British began to armor up their lorries as well.
On May 9th several members of Charleville column were in Aughrim, about two miles North of Liscarroll when a British raid nearly captured all of them. O’Brien barely escaped after a harrowing run through the fields and countryside
He later recalled, “I had a few shots left in my automatic and we had an exchange of shots and I just happened to be lucky enough to give him a slight wound in the arm preventing him from coming any further. I had now reached fences which afforded me good cover from view, and the enemy made no other attempt to follow me up.“ John O'Regan of Liscarroll and Paddy’s brother, Danel O’Brien, were not so lucky, both were captured, with O’Regan also being seriously wounded.
In reality, O’Regan was the luckier of the two. Both of them were condemned to death by the British. Because he was wounded, O’Regan’s execution was held up until he recovered. The truce would save his life. Daniel O’Brien was not so lucky. On May 16th, just a week after his capture, Paddy’s brother, Daniel, who had already been tried and convicted in less than a week, was hanged. The Charleville Battalion then decide that soldiers, armed or unarmed, from thence forward would be shot whenever possible. Four soldiers were shot dead in Charleville within the following two weeks.
On that same day, Seán Moylan, who had recently been promoted to command of the Cork No. 2 Brigade, was captured in a raid by the Gloucester Regiment at Boherbue. Moylan would spend the rest of the war in the military prison on Spike Island. George Power was appointed the new C/O of the 2nd Brigade and Paddy O’Brien as the Vice C/O. Not long after that, O’Brien was appointed the C/O of the newly formed 4th Brigade, as part of the forming of divisions and reorganizing of the Volunteer organization.
O’Brien’s new 4th Brigade was made up of the Mallow, Kanturk, Millstreet, Newmarket, and Charleville battalions. The crown forces had blown up his house, shot him in the face, and hanged his brother; now he commanded an instrument with which he could exact some revenge.
(Below: Mount Leader House, which housed the Company L Auxilliares in 1921.
Company L of the hated Auxiliaries had established a base in Millstreet at Mount Leader House. Intelligence reached O’Brien that they had to travel two or three times a week to pick up supplies in Banteer because the rail line to Millstreet been rendered impassable by the destruction by fire of the bridge over the river Finnow. The reports said that there were four to six armor-plated lorries in the convoys. O’Brien immediately began planning to use mines to try to neutralize this new innovation by the crown forces.
The brigade mine factory had six mines ready to deploy. These were iron casings containing about seven or eight pounds of “war flour.” As O’Brien later said, “none of the Column had had any previous experience of mines,” but he was determined to use them, though he had seen them fail at Clonbanin.
A spot just west of Rathcoole, near Rathcoole Wood, was selected for the ambush. They were now a formidable force. O’Brien had 120 men from his brigade collected in Rathcoole Wood on the morning of June 16th. Eighty of them were armed with rifles, something thing that would have seemed impossible a year earlier. They also had a Hotchkiss machine gun, operated by Leo O'Callaghan of the Mallow Battalion. The rest of the attack force had shotguns.
The six mines were laid out by Captain Dan Vaughan of the Newmarket Battalion, spread out over 1200 yards, with the hope that one could be detonated under each lorry. The summer of 1921 was one of the warmest and driest in many years in Ireland. The dusty, unpaved road made it easy to hide the wires coming from the mines. O’Brien placed nearly all his men to the south of the road, divided into eight sections, a section to cover each mine position plus one at each flank, along with a few men north of the road.
Their preparations were complete by 7 am. At 10:30 the Auxiliary convoy came through traveling east from Millstreet to Banteer. Knowing that on days that they traveled that early there were usually two trips, O’Brien decided to spring the ambush on their last trip of the day, back to Millstreet. That would give the Volunteers the advantage of darkness approaching after the ambush. Thus the convoy was allowed to make the return trip to Millstreet and another trip to Banteer, that coming at about 3 pm, unmolested. As they disappeared toward Banteer, O’Brien got his troops ready for the attack.
(Below: An armored Lancia lorry)
As the convoy drove into the ambush, it consisted of 2 open Crossley tenders, 1 armored Crossley, and 1 armored Lancia, with the Lancia in the lead. As the detonator was squeezed on the easternmost mine, as that last vehicle passed over it, it did explode. That probably shocked O’Brien and every other Volunteer as much as it did the Auxiliares in the convoy, given the Volunteers history of failure with such devices. Shocked or not, the Volunteers immediately opened fire, including the Hotchkiss machine gun in the section opposite that last lorry. The mine disabled that armored Crossley Tender.
The 2nd and 3rd lorries stropped short of the next mines before them. The 1st lorry, the armored Lancia, stopped short of the westernmost mine and turned around to head back, that put it over the next mine back to the east, however, and as they went over it, that mine was also successfully detonated. The Lancia was heavily damaged and disabled, with a wheel blown off. Like the trailing Crossley Tender, however, it was not destroyed, though several Auxiliares had been wounded. The mines had worked but probably needed to have more “war flour” packed in it The commander of Auxilary convoy, District-Inspector William Crossey, was in the Lancia and was now isolated from the rest of his men and wounded.
(Below: A Hotchkiss machine gun)
As the Volunteers poured fire into the convoy, the Auxiliares were in a precarious position. With a disabled vehicle on each end of their convoy, there were trapped there The Volunteers Hotchkiss machine gun suffered numerous jams, however, and then totally failed. The Lewis machine guns mounted on the lorries continued to function and stopped any move by the Volunteers to move in and overpower the surviving Auxiliares. For their part, the Auxiliares made attempts to move around and flank the Volunteers, but O’Brien had anticipated that with the skillful deployment of his troops and all attempts failed.
The firefight went on for about an hour, but just as had happened at Clonbanin, the Lewis machine guns of the crown forces dominated the area of the road, making compete victory impossible. O’Brien finally realized they were wasting valuable ammunition with no chance of overwhelming the Auxiliares and capturing their weapons and ordered a withdrawal.
Still, it was an impressible performance by the flying column. They had put the British on notice that mines were now a viable threat to their convoys. Crossey admitted in his after-action report that, “I may say that these mines were timed and fired with the utmost precision.”
(A Lewis machine gun)
The action was certainly an Irish victory in many respects. They had bloodied the nose of the arrogant Auxililiares, who had been bragging about having the local Volunteers intimidated. In addition to that, at least two Auxiliares had been killed and ten wounded, based on later claims for compensation while no Volunteers had been killed.
(Below: Small monument at the site of the Rathcoole Ambush.)
They had also demonstrated that the Volunteers could, at long last, build and successfully use mines. The British had already been adding armor to many of their lorries, and this would only cause them to have to do even more. And though they captured no arms during the ambush, two members of the column came back the following day and collected nearly 1,200 rounds of .303 ammo which had been discarded by the Auxies the previous evening. Now that the Volunteers had obtained a substantial number of arms, ammunition was becoming their biggest problem. They were also able to dig up and recover the unexploded mines.
Though the high-ranking officers of the British Army and the RIC would later say they believed they were about to gain the upper hand on the Irish, actions like the Rathcoole Ambush were convincing the politicians in Westminister that there was no end in sight. Less than a month later the ceasefire would end the war.
“With the IRA in the Fight for Freedom: 1919 to the Truce” by Gabriel Doherty (Book)
“Who's Who in the Irish War of Independence and Civil War: 1619-1923” by Padraic O’Farrell
“Our Struggle for Independence: Eye-witness accounts from the pages of An Cosantoir” by Terence O'Reilly
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