Friday, February 25, 1921, dawned cool and crisp with a crystal clear blue sky near Coolnacahera, County Cork. Seán O’Hegarty, commanding officer of the 1st (East) Cork Brigade, stood on a high hill with numerous limestone outcroppings and peered off into the east, his right hand up to block the bright rising morning sun. As he looked down on the stone walls along the road below, flashes of sunlight reflected off a thin coating of frost. He looked off to the west and saw Daniel “Sandow” Donovan, who technically was the 1st Brigade Flying Column commandant, and saw his wave signifying that the ambush forces were in place.
The 1st Brigade had only formed their Brigade flying column in early January, but O’Hegarty had assembled one of the largest and most well-armed flying columns of the war. He had about 62 men, most of them armed with British .303 Enfield rifles along with two Lewis light machine guns.
(A British convoy in the field in Ireland.)
They were in position, as they had been several times in the previous week, waiting for a convoy of the infamous Auxiliaries from Macroom, which was about six miles to the southwest. Today the road O’Hegarty was looking down on is N-22; the main road from Macroom to Ballyvourney.
O’Hagerty had a great view from his high position, but their information was that when the Auxiliary convoy made this trip to Ballyvourney, they didn’t usually leave Macroom until 9 am. There was no reason to believe they would arrive for some time, but suddenly, around 8 am, the silent countryside began to hum with the sound of combustion engines from the east.
The humming noise was getting louder very slowly, putting everyone was on edge as they continued looking to the east for the convoy. The Volunteers had a rolling roadblock set up at the western end of their ambush to stop the column from speeding through the “killing zone” they had set up, but that would prove to be unnecessary.
At the head of the convoy, a staff car came into view, O’Hegerty saw that it was barely crawling along. Worse still, three Irish hostages (some reports say four) were marching in front of the first lorry. This was not the speed at which the Crown Forces generally traveled around the Irish countryside. Then, a Volunteer who had left his post, no doubt not expecting the enemy this soon, ran from one of the two cottages on the south side of the road across to his post on the northside and was seen by the convoy.
(Below: The Ambush location, looking down from the Volunteers position.)
Auxiliary Commandant Major James Seafield-Grant ordered the convoy to stop and jumped out of the staff car and was followed by several other Auxiliares as they chased the lone Volunteer up the heather-covered hill. Whatever misgiving’s O’Hegarty might have had about firing on the Auxies with hostages in front, the decision was taken out of his hands by quickly evolving events. Grant and his men opened fire on the fleeing Volunteer and his comrades on the hillside responded. The rattling sound of rifles and the Lewis gun filled the still morning air. The Coolnacahera Ambush (sometimes called the Coolavokig Ambush) was on.
The 1st Brigade of Irish Volunteers has been overshadowed since the Irish War of Independence by the reputations of the other two Cork brigades. The fame of Tom Barry from the 3rd Brigade and Liam Lynch and Seán Moylan from the 2nd Brigade left the 1st Brigade as the poor step-sister. The 1st Brigade also had some well-known commanders, but the first two were known more for the way they died than for their connection to the 1st Brigade.
The first commander of the 1st Brigade was Tomás MacCurtain. He was born in Ballyknockane, Mourne Abbey, Co. Cork, on March 20, 1884. As a young man, he was heavily involved in the Gaelic revival and joined the Blackpool, Cork branch of Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League). Later he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and the Irish Volunteers.
(Left: Tomás MacCurtain)
MacCurtain was in command of a thousand Irish Volunteers in the county at the time of the Easter Rising, with his friend Terence MacSwiney 2nd in command. Mac Curtain was arrested along with many other leaders from around the country. He ended up in the Frongoch prison camp in Wales which would become famous as the “University of Revolution” due to its collection of rebel leaders who instructed each other in guerilla tactics while there.
After being released, he was made commandant of the 1st Cork Brigade in 1918, when the county was split into three brigades. In December 1919, he was one of the men brought to Dublin by Michael Collins to participate in the famous but unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Sir John French, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. On January 30, 1920, he was elected Lord Mayor of Cork, making him a very high profile target of the Crown forces.
As 1920 began there were disputes within the Volunteer organization about how active they should be in attacking RIC facilities. MacCurtain was not sure they were yet ready for widespread fighting, but many under him, like future Brigade commander Seán O’Hegarty, bristled at his caution. MacCurtain began to sanction some attacks as January began, however.
On January 3rd, Volunteers from Cobh and Midleton, commanded by Mick Leahy, successfully attacked and captured the RIC barracks at Carrigtwohill without suffering any casualties. That same night there was an unsuccessful attack on Kilmurray RIC barracks. On February 9th, Diarmuid O'Hurley, commanding officer of the Midleton Company, led an attack that captured the Castlemartyr RIC barracks. The two successful attacks captured guns and ammunition that were vital for the Brigade going forward.
(Right: MacCurtain's pistol, now in County Cork’s Kilmurray Independence Museum.)
On March 20, 1920, his birthday, MacCurtain was murdered in his home, in front of his wife and son. The murder was carried out by the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). The coroner's inquest passed a verdict of willful murder against several members of the RIC and also included British Prime Minister Lloyd George, none of whom, of course, were tried for it.
The man who was believed to have ordered the murder, RIC District Inspector Oswald Swanzy, was moved out of the area for his safety. Michael Collins had him tracked down in Co. Antrim. On August 22, 1920, Swanzy was shot and killed outside a Protestant church in Lisburn. The pistol used to kill him had once belonged to MacCurtain.
Terence MacSwiney took command of the 1st Brigade following his friend’s death and was elected Lord Mayor of Cork as well. MacSwiney was born on March 28, 1879, in Cork City. His father, John MacSwiney, fought in Italy in 1868 as a papal guard against Garibaldi. He must have been an adventurous man; perhaps too adventurous, as he later abandoned his family when his tobacco business failed, sailing to Australia.
(Left: Terence MacSwiney)
MacSwiney was rather unusual among Volunteer leaders in that he was involved in many artistic pursuits before the war. He helped found the Celtic Literary Society in 1901 and the Cork Dramatic Society in 1908. He also wrote several plays for that dramatic society. These artistic pursuits did not prevent him also becoming a dedicated republican, who along with his friends, Tomás MacCurtain and Seán O’Hegarty, founded the Irish Volunteer group in Cork. He was also elected President of the Cork branch of Sinn Féin.
Under MacSwiney, the brigade was active in attacking RIC barracks through the late spring and summer of 1920. On May 8th, men from the 4th battalion, under Commandant Leahy, captured the RIC barracks at Cloyne. On May 12, the Brigade burned the Commons Road RIC barracks in Cork city. On June 1st, an attack on the Blarney RIC barracks was unsuccessful but did cause it to be abandoned the next day. On June 11th, an attack on the RIC barracks at Carrigadrohid did not result in a capture, but the building was burned and made uninhabitable. On June 21st and 24th, respectively, Farran RIC barracks and Blackrock barracks were burned. On July 12th, three RIC barracks in Cork were burned: King Street, St. Lukes, and...
(Below: MacSwiney, front-left, and MacCurtain, front-center, in their Volunteer uniforms.)
This increase in Volunteer activity was met with an increase in pressure from the Crown Forces. On August 12, Terence MacSwiney was captured in a raid on the Cork City Hall. The raid should have been a disaster of even larger proportions for the Cork No. 1 Brigade, as nearly the entire upper staff of the brigade was taken into custody with him, including MacSwiney’s 2nd in command, Seán O’Hagerty. Cork No. 2 Brigade commander Liam Lynch was also there and captured as well. Luckily for most of the captured men, the raid had been carried out by the military, not the local RIC, who may have recognized everyone. They had all given fictitious names and all but MacSwiney, who was the target of the raid and a recognized figure to all in the city, were shortly released. The men they released would make the British rue the day they let so many Volunteer leaders slip their fingers.
MacSwiney would refuse to recognize the authority of the British government in Ireland and went on hunger strike. “I have decided the term of my imprisonment. Whatever your government may do, I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month,” he told the court. He lasted an amazing 74 days on his famous hunger strike, which would suggest he must have gotten some small amount of sustenance at some point.
(Below: Seán O'Hegarty)
MacSwiney’s hunger strike got prominent coverage around the world, so dragging out his suffering was a tremendous help to the cause, but it came at a terrible cost in suffering for him. Around the world, and most especially in the United States, his incredible dedication to his cause and his martyrdom increased opposition to the British from many who would have otherwise paid no attention to events in Ireland. However one judges his contributions to the cause of Irish freedom in life, in death he became one of the most important figures of the war.
With the arrest of MacSwiney, Seán O’Hegerty (sometimes called just Hegerty) took command of the brigade. O’Hegarty was born in Cork City on March 21, 1881 The family was strongly nationalist, as might have been fathomed by the name of Seán’s elder brother, Patrick Sarsfield O’Hegertry. Their childhood was a difficult one, as their father, John, died in 1888. One of Patrick’s school friends was Terence MacSwiney. Patrick and Seán both joined the IRB as young men.
Both brothers went into the postal service. Patrick was transferred to the London post office from 1902 to 1913, and while there he met a younger postal clerk who was also from Co. Cork and swore him into the IRB. That young man was Michael Collins. They would remain friends until Collins’ death. Patrick became the editor of the IRB publication,” Irish Freedom” in 1909.
When Patrick returned to Ireland as the postmaster at Cobh in 1913, he joined the Irish Volunteers, which Seán had helped to found. He was transferred back to England in 1915, probably because of his political activities. Following the Easter Rising, the two disagreed about physical force, with Patrick opposing it. Patrick, however, refused to take the British Oath of Allegiance and resigned his post in 1918, and returned to Ireland. He took no part in the War of Independence but did serve in the Irish government after the treaty.
One of Seán O’Hegarty’s first major actions while in, at first, temporary command of the 1st Brigade in August 1920 was to come up with a plan to attempt to free MacSwiney. Breaking him out of a British jail would be extremely unlikely, so O’Hegearty hatched a plan to kidnap General Sir Edward Peter Strickland, commander of the British 6th Division, and exchange him for MacSwiney.
(Right: General Sir Edward Peter Strickland.)
They knew that Strickland traveled to England often by boat. When he did, his route was from Victoria Barracks to Penrose Quay down Patrick's Hill to MacCurtain Street, recently renamed from King Street. O’Hegarty planned to ambush his staff car as they slowed down at the bottom of the hill to enter MacCurtain Street. The other members of the planned ambush were Dan 'Sandow' Donovan, Michael Kenny, and brothers, James and Jeremiah Grey. All of them were armed with pistols.
Kenny knew what the staff looked like and could recognize Strickland, so he was put at the top of the hill to signal the others when the car was coming. When it slowed at the intersection, the Grey brothers were to jump on the running boards on the right while Donovan and O’Hegarty did the same on the left. They would take everyone in the car prisoner then load them in a waiting vehicle and speed them out of the city.
They first set up the ambush on Thursday, September 9th. Unfortunately for O’Hegarty and his men, the general had a longer gap between trips to England at this point. And so they waited and waited, day after day. By the day that the staff car finally arrived, the 24th, near 6 pm, they had been in place for two weeks and were at the end of another long day with nothing happening. So when Kenny spied the staff car coming and recognized Strickland onboard and gave the signal down to the Grey brothers, they were distracted and missed it.
Kenny drew his pistol and started pursuing the car, hoping to jump on the running board alone and get help from the others when they saw what he was doing. One of the officers spotted him, however, and the car accelerated away from him as the officer and Kenny opened fire on each other. This alerted the rest of the ambush party and they all opened fire on the car
(Left: Looking up Patrick's Hill from MacCurtain Street.)
Civilians began screaming in fear and scattered around the road junction. Bullets from the Volunteers smashed the windshield and side windows, but the driver wasn’t hit and continued down McCurtain Street. It was a wild scene as the five men chased the car down the street, firing as they went, with the British sticking pistols out the windows to return fire.
The car cracked against a pole as the driver desperately tried to escape, but it was a glancing blow and the car continued on. Finally, they pulled away and O’Hegarty called on his men to stop. They had shot up the vehicle and put one bullet through Strickland’s shoulder, but he had escaped. The plan had failed. MacSwiney was dead a month later.
O’Hegarty was put in official command of the 1st Brigade after MacSwiney’s death. He was very much more a proponent of physical force than either MacCurtain or MacSwiney and now he was no longer fettered by those more cautious leaders. In the fall, the battalions began training to be more active with attacks on military and RIC convoys and patrols.
(Right: Dillon's Cross.)
On December 11th the 1st Battalion carried out an attack on the Auxiliares at Dillon’s Cross in Cork that would result in one of the most famous incidents of the war. Captain Sean O'Donoghue and Volunteers James O'Mahoney, Michael Baylor, Augustine O'Leary, Sean Healy, and Michael Kenny carried out the attack. Fighting in an urban setting was much different than ambushes in the countryside, calling for smaller numbers and usually just pistols and grenades and a hit and run attacks. That was even more true of this attack, as Dillon’s Cross was just a few hundred yards from the Auxiliares base at Victoria Barracks.
Two lorries full of Auxiliares approached their position around 8 pm. Most of the Volunteers were behind a high wall on the side of the road. Kenny was by the side of the road, dressed to look like a British soldier. He lifted a hand to signal them to stop. So close to their barracks they were not suspicious. As they slowed down he blew twice on a whistle to signal there were two lorries. Grenades came flying over the wall.
(Left: A Webley pistol of the type often used by the Irish Volunteers.)
Michael Baylor and Augustine O'Leary each threw a bomb towards the first lorry while James O'Mahony, Sean Healy, and Sean O'Donoghue each threw a bomb towards the second lorry. As the bombs went off, they all opened fire as Kenny ran from the scene. It was over very quickly with the Volunteers quickly retreating through O'Callaghan's Field behind their position then down through Gouldings Glen.
At least 12 Auxiliares were wounded, one of whom, Spencer Chapman, would die later. The audacity of an attack so close to their barracks, combined with the recent attack on the Auxiliares at Kilmichael, incensed the Auxiliares. That night, they and some British soldiers would run wild through the city, burning 40 businesses, 300 homes, the City Hall, and Carnegie Library. The damage was estimated to be £3 million, equivalent to about €160 million today, but the damage it did to the British cause around the world was incalculable.
(Right: Some of the destruction in Cork City following the Dillon's Cross Ambush.)
This was a period when the British seemed dead set on shooting themselves in the foot in the eyes of the world. On December 29th, the men of the flying column of the 4th Battalion planned and executed an ambush of an RIC patrol in Midleton. It was another audacious attack very close to the RIC barracks, on Bridewell Lane (now Oliver Plunkett Street), in this case. There was also an Auxiliary barrack nearby at The Grange on Cork Road, now the site of the Midleton Park Hotel.
A force of sixteen volunteers commanded by Diarmuid “The Gaffer” Hurley carried out the attack on Main Street. The ten RIC Constables in the patrol, five on each side of Main Street, were taken totally by surprise. Six of the ten constables were wounded, three of them fatally. Constables Mullins, Dray, and Thorpe died of their wounds. Only one Volunteer, Jim McCarthy, was slightly wounded, though Dan Cashman might have been killed if the cigarette case in his vest pocket hadn’t stopped a bullet.
(Left: Diarmuid “The Gaffer” Hurley.)
The reprisals by the British on this occasion were different than all those that preceded it. They didn’t take place until January 1st, and for the first time, Irish homes and businesses were burned down with the official sanction of the British government.
The homes of John O'Shea, Paul McCarthy, Edmond Carey (Urban District Councilor) all of Midleton; Michael Dorgan and Mr. Aherne of Knockgriffin; Rodger Aherne and the Dorgan family of Ballyrichard; Bartholomew Cotter and the Donovan Brothers (John, Myles, and Jim) of Ballyadam were methodically destroyed, along with the Midleton Garage and Engineering Works owned by Patrick Hallinan. When the reprisals were by undisciplined constables or soldiers running wild it looked bad enough for the British, putting the seal of government approval on them was looked on with revulsion by the world.
This did not slow down the activity of the various battalions of the brigade. On January 4th, the first battalion of Cork No. 1 Brigade ambushed ten RIC constables on Parnell Bridge in Cork. Two of them were mortally wounded. On February 3rd, a small flying column, under the command of Mick Walsh, ambushed five constables on Paddy's Bridge, Tulligbeg, mid-way between Five-Mile Bridge and Ballinhassig. Four of the five were wounded, two died there and one possibly died later in the hospital.
(Below: Map of the Coolnacahera Ambush)
As 1921 began, O’Hegerty organized a brigade flying column from the 1st, 2nd battalions from Cork, and 8th battalion from Ballyvourney, which was joined by men of the 7thbattalion from Macroom at this first ambush. The ambushes carried out before this had been by battalion level flying columns. This would be a much larger force. After a period of training at Clountycarty about a mile north of Ballymakeera, Ballyvourney, O’Hegerty was ready to put the brigade column into action.
The plan he and the other leaders of the 1st Brigade put in place was based on intelligence that the Auxiliares from Macroom often sent out a patrol headed west on present-day N-22 at 9 am. They had a great spot to ambush them in Coolnacahera, six miles; from Macroom, with high ground on both sides of the road. There were two cottages on the south side of the road near the beginning of the ambush area owned by the Twomey and Cronin families, who had left, that would figure importantly in the battle.
(Right: A group of well-armed Auxiliaries.)
They first set up this ambush on February 18th (or perhaps a few days earlier, reports vary) but they waited in vain. They continued to wait in vain for several days. After their first long day of waiting, Sean Culhane, the Brigade Intelligence Officer complained that "The bastards. They never come when we want them."
To continue to set up an ambush in the same place for several days was usually a mistake, as each day made it more likely the enemy would discover they were there. While they were waiting they may have gotten the tragic news that 12 Volunteers had killed when surprised and surrounded in a cottage in Clonmult. It was the worst death toll of any Volunteer unit in a single action in the war. Perhaps the desire for revenge influenced them in staying in position so long.
O’Hegerty knew many of his men from Cork City, and were not used to sleeping rough in the country. Morale was flagging, but O’Hegerty insisted, "We came here to do a job, and we will do that job. We all agreed that it is either us or the Auxies. … we will stick it out, tomorrow, the next day, the next, and the next, until we nail those Auxies.”
(Left: A Lewis light machine gun.)
When they arrived on the 25th, a cart was ready at the far western side of the proposed ambush area to prevent the convoy from moving through the “killing zone” they had set up. It would prove unnecessary. The Auxiliaries were moving slowly that day because they knew the ambush was there. The Auxiliary forces, with perhaps a many as 90 men, were just part of a large round-up operation planned for that day which included 600 British Army troops from Cork, Ballincollig, Bandon, Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Bantry, Dunmanway, Millstreet, Macroom, and Killarney.
The ambushers were no longer the hunters, they were the prey, but the British would find on this day, and the following month at Crossbarry, coordinating such a force in days before wireless communication was not easy. And perhaps the Auxiliares arrogantly believed they could drive right into the ambush of these farm boys and Cork City clerks and rout them with no help, gaining the glory of the “victory” for themselves, and left Macroom early. If so, they were mistaken.
If Major Grant made the decision, he would not live to regret it. He was killed almost immediately. The Irish hostages managed to find cover behind the southside wall and escape. The Auxiliaries in the first lorries slowly moved into the shelter of the two cottages as the Volunteers from the west swung around to extend the Volunteers positions to the north and south.
(Right: Major James Seafield-Grant)
The Volunteers' best counter to the Auxiliaries in the eastern part of the ambush was their Lewis light machine gun there. It was manned by Patrick “Cruxy” O’Connor, a WWI veteran. Unfortunately it “jammed” after firing only a few rounds, though some Volunteers later said they found it was not jammed. In March O’Connor was captured by the RIC with a pistol and claimed to be a “double agent” spying on the Volunteers. (More on this in the comments section.)
There were perhaps as many as 90 Auxiliaries in the convoy under attack at Coolnacahera. As those in the back end of the convoy deployed, it prevented the Volunteers from enveloping those in the cottages. The firefight evolved into a stalemate and went on for about four hours, which was far longer than most firefights during the war. All this time Crown forces were moving in from many directions but slowed down by roadblocks set up by other Volunteer units.
Luckily for the Volunteers, an RIC group was detected coming from the west arrived, causing them to retreat to the northwest before they could be surrounded. They had one brief firefight in Coomaclohy with the part of the attempted enveloping force coming from Killarney before making good on their escape. As was often the case, the sides disagree on casualties. The Auxiliares admitted to having three men killed while the Volunteers estimated the Auxies lost 14 or more. The Volunteers had no one killed.
(Below: "T O’D Whitechurch" is scratched into the wooden butt of this Enfield rifle, indicating the rifle belonged to a member of the Whitechurch and Carrignavar area battalion of the 1st Cork Brigade.)
The goal of most Volunteer ambushes was to overwhelm the enemy and capture arms and ammunition. By that standard, the action at Coolnacahera had been a total failure. But they had taken on a huge force of the dreaded Auxiliares and fought them to a standstill and they in the end had thwarted a huge operation designed to surround and destroy them. It was one of the largest battles of the war. The fact that the Crown forces stopped sending any small patrols or convoys into the area west of Macroom following this battle allows the Volunteers to claim it as a victory.
Seán O’Hegarty later took the anti-treaty side in the lead up to the Civil War, but then resigned from the Army’s Executive Council in April 1922, when they voted to physically oppose the results of the elections. He worked unsuccessfully to negotiate an agreement to avoid the Civil war after that.
Before resigning O’Hegarty was involved in one of the more interesting incidents of the period between the truce and the Civil War. Getting intelligence in March that a British cargo ship full of arms, the “Upnor,” was going to depart from Cobh, he conceived a plan to hijack it on the seas and seize the arms. He put Michael Burke, commandant of the Cobh Volunteers, in command of the operation. They hijacked the tugboat “Warrior,” and seized the “Upnor” at sea on its way to Portsmouth. It could be called the first action of the Irish Navy. The British called It piracy.
According to the British, the Irish captured 266 cases of rifles and machine gun parts, 1,440 cases of small-bore ammunition, 222 cases of 4-inch and 12-pounder cartridges, 1,300 cases of shells, 750 cases of fuses and fireworks, and 600 cases of small arms. It would make up much of the arms of the southern Republicans in the coming Civil War.
Though the Cork 1st Brigade did not receive the same post-war recognition as the 2nd and 3rd Cork Brigades and Seán O’Hegarty is not as well known as Liam Lynch or Seán Moylan of the 2nd Brigade or Tom Barry of the 3rd, the Brigade was extremely active. And on a day in February 1921, they held off one of the largest forces of the dreaded Auxiliares that ever went into action in the war, and made them think twice about venturing west out of Macroom again.
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