They sought to wipe the column out,
From east to west, from north to south,
“Till at Crossbarry’s bloody rout
They woke from their day dreaming
Though ten to one they were that day
Our boys were victors in the fray,
And over the hills we marched away
With bagpipes merrily screaming.*
* From: The Men of Barry’s Column
Tom Barry’s legend as a great flying column commander during the Irish War of Independence (January 21, 1919 – July 11, 1921) is mainly built on the memory of the famous ambush at Kilmichael, but it shouldn’t be. His greatest victory in the fight against the British occupation on the battlefield was, arguably, at much less widely known the Battle of Crossbarry on March 19, 1921.
(Above: Tom Barry wtih members of the West Cork Brigade behind him.)
By that March, Barry had been working on perfecting the flying column guerrilla fighting methods for months. At Crossbarry he would demonstrate to the British just how far the Irish Republican Army had advanced since the beginning of hostilities.
(Left: A burned Crosley Tender at Kilmichael.)
That month Barry put together the largest flying column he had ever put in the field, with 104 officer and men in the force. He did so reluctantly, because his paramount goal was to never risk the total destruction of his volunteer force. But the British had begun to move in ever-larger units, and he saw no alternative to the gamble of “putting all our eggs in one basket” if they were going to successfully resist them. The larger the group, the harder it was to move through the countryside undetected by informers, and to find food and billeting for his men. Barry had faith in the absolutely essential cooperation of the vast majority of the Irish people, whose assistance had actually become greater as the British reprisals against civilians escalated, but he knew that support would never be 100 percent.
It was certainly a gamble, as Barry only had about 40 rounds of ammunition per man. In any fight of their choosing, they would hit hard and fast, and be able to quickly move away and, if necessary, scatter, and that would be enough ammunition for such a fight. The great danger lay in the British discovering the column’s position and surrounding them before the column was aware of the danger and was able escape the area.
One of Barry’s 104 volunteers was a piper, Flor Begley, and Barry had him bring along his pipes. “I had formed an opinion that the best soldiers would fight even better to the strains of their traditional war songs,” Barry said later. And so, as they had centuries earlier, Irish warriors marched off with a piper in their ranks to brace them up to face a foe they knew would outnumber them in men and outclass them in equipment.
(Right: Barry left front and Flor Begley, right rear, decades after the battle at the Crossbarry monument.)
They first attempted an ambush on the Kinsale-Bandon road, but the Cumann na mBan reported that the column of British soldiers headed north from Kinsale had halted and returned to their base. It was an ominous sign, indicating they had been warned by someone. On the 18th, the column made its way back to the Crossbarry area, where several roads connect about 12 miles southwest of Cork city, hoping to ambush the British on the Bandon-Cork City road.
The 3rd Cork Brigade’s (usually known as the West Cork Brigade) headquarters was in Denis Forde’s farm just north of the town in the Ballymurphy area. The commander of the brigade, Barry’s good friend Charlie Hurley, was there recuperating from a wounded suffered at the Upton train ambush on February 15th. What Barry didn’t know was that a Volunteer who had been captured during the Upton ambush had recently revealed the location of that headquarters.
As Barry and his men settled into Crossbarry on the night of the 18th, the British had set in motion a plan to surround the brigade headquarters. Their informer had no information about the location of the flying column, but they clearly had some idea it was nearby. Barry believed a British reconnaissance plane had spotted the column on the 17th. Whether they were sure the column was there or not, they would expect the headquarters area to have a high-ranking officer at or nearby it. There were approximately 400 British soldiers headed there from Cork, 200 from Ballincollig, 300 from Kinsale, 350 from Bandon, and 120 Auxiliaries from Macroom. Over 1,000 British were headed directly to the area of Barry’s 100-man flying column.
Fight or Flight
Around 2:30 a.m. March 19th Barry was awaked by scouts coming in to warn that British lorries were approaching from Bandon, west of Crossbarry. Soon reports were coming in of more British approaching from the south, and Barry correctly assumed there were likely more coming from the north and east.
(Left: From left to right: J McCarthy, Jack Harte, Stephen Holland (Capt.), J Hurley, Willie Kelly, W White of the 4th Battalion, 3rd West Cork Brigade. All from the Skibbereen area. Thanks to TWG member Ger O'Regan and his mother, the grandson and daughter of Capt. Holland, for the ID of the men in the photo.)
This was a crisis moment, not just for Barry and his men, but possibly for the entire cause. If Barry was killed or captured and the now-renowned West Cork Brigade destroyed, it would have been a huge victory for the British and tremendously demoralizing for the Republican cause, which was why the British had committed so many resources to the trap. Every minute the noose was tightening. Barry had little time to make a decision, and if he was wrong the result could be catastrophic. He had two things in his favor if he decided to fight: one was that he was fairly sure the British from Bandon would arrive first, so he might be able to overwhelm them before any of the others arrived, and the other was that he would have the interior lines and could shift men quickly from one side to the other to support any point on ground of his choosing.
If they ran, he was afraid that they could be caught in the open with troops closing in all around and they didn’t have enough ammunition to sustain a long fight. If the stayed, they would at least fight on ground of their own choosing. He was surely feeling the loneliness of command that so many soldiers have spoken of through history. Men would live or die based on his decision. He decided to stand and fight.
Also influencing his decision was the fact that Barry felt that the British had become overconfident, raiding homes and capturing Volunteers and arms and harassing civilians in the West Cork area recently -- the time had come to bloody their noses. Gathering his men together, he told them that they “would first smash one side of the encirclement on the Crossbarry road, and then deal with the others; above all no man or section was to retire from their position, and all were assured that they would be quickly reinforced if and when attacked.” It was the sort of confidence a commander needs to convey to him men, but it's likely he was far less confident in his own mind.
(Right: A photo of Barry after the burning of the Rosscarbery RIC barracks, just 11 days after Crossbarry .)
Barry quickly formulated his battle plan. He would set up sections A, B, C, D and E, under Sean Hales, John Lordan, Mick Crowley, Pete Kearney and Denis Lordan, respectively, in that order from west to east on the high ground along the north side of Bandon road, west of Crossbarry. E section was near the town, guarding the bridge over a small stream in the middle of the town. Section G, under Christy O’Connell was set up north of the road, guarding the western flank, with F section, under Tom Kellerher doing the same on the eastern flank and the rear of the column.
They got into position in dark at 4:30 a.m., planting two mines in the road at each end of their positions as well. Tom Kelleher said it was a bitterly cold night, as the cold March wind chilled them. They’d had very little sleep and nothing to eat. In the distance, they could hear the drone of the lorries and barking of dogs, heralding the approach of the enemy. The British were moving slowly because they were raiding various homes along the way. Barry later said, “if I was not exactly pale with fear, I was a worried man,” as well he should have been and no doubt every man in the column shared his apprehension.
The plan was to ambush the lorries coming from Bandon, which would hopefully arrive before the other British troops, and if luck was with them, rout them quickly. They would be soldiers of the Essex Regiment, who were especially despised by Barry and the men of the West Cork Brigade for their brutal treatment of a number of Volunteers in the past. Sections A, B, C, and D were ordered to allow the lorries to pass before opening fire, so the entire force would be within the ambush area. Piper Flor Begley was placed near B section, with orders to begin playing as soon as the firing began.
(Left: A map of the Crossbarry Ambush. Click on it for a larger view.)
One can only imagine how the tension rose as the Volunteers watched the sky brighten in the east as night turned into day, while the droning of the slow-moving lorries and the irritated yapping of numerous dogs grew ever closer. There must have been many sweaty hands fingering the triggers of their rifles as they crouched in their ambush positions.
Around 6:30, shots were ominously heard from the northeast, the direction of Forde’s farm. Barry would later learn that those shots were sounds of his friend and Brigade commander Charlie Hurley, fighting against and being killed by British soldiers who raided the farm. He managed to kill one of them and wound another before a shot pierced his brain as he attempted to escape out the back door. Barry would later write an article commemorating his friend Hurley’s contributions to the cause, but at the moment he heard the shots, with the sound of lorries from Bandon getting ever closer, he didn’t have time to worry about the possible fate of his comrade.
It’s sometimes said of a boxing match that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” and a similar sort of dynamic is often at work on the battlefield. Barry’s plan to let the lorries from Bandon move into the middle of the ambush was foiled when one of the Volunteers from Section B was seen by the British as they arrived and John Lordan ordered his men to open fire. Barry said it was about 8 a.m., while Tom Kelleher says 7:30.
When the firing began, Begley’s pipe began to wail out “The Men of the West” from the yard of Harold’s farm (modern photo, right), It must have been the first time in at least a couple of centuries that they had been heard in battle in Ireland, and perhaps, and hopefully, it will be the last time ever. Kelleher later said, "that man's music was more effective than 20 rifles.” For the rest of his life, Begley would be known as "The Piper Of Crossbarry". He was also immortalized with a song.
While grass is green on Ireland’s scene, while the heath grows on the moor,
So long we’ll talk of those who fought that Ireland might endure,
We will speak with pride of Barry’s men who bled for liberty,
And the Piper of Crossbarry, boys, who piped old Ireland free.
Sections A, B, and C opened a withering fire on the soldiers of the Essex Regiment, who piled off their lorries. The British put up a momentary resistance, but Sections D and E moved out across the road and flanked them on their right, and the distinctive sound of Barry’s “Peter the Painter” C96 Mauser automatic pistol (an example of one, below) let the men know their commander had joined the fight. The British then quickly broke and ran off to the south. Barry ordered a pursuit, but the soldiers continued to run, never stopping until they were back in Bandon. One man who didn’t run was an Irishman named White whom the column liberated. The British had taken to putting Irish hostages in their convoys, violating all rules of war, and White was not even a member of the Volunteers. He was unharmed and stayed with the column until the fight was over.
This opening skirmish of the battle was over in less than 15 minutes. The plan’s execution had been faulty at the start, but had ended better than they could have hoped. Better yet, among the British dead, they found several rifles, and a large amount of ammunition to supplement their meager resources. But best of all, the British left behind a Lewis machine gun (below) and eight full magazines. Now the odds were improving, and Barry, who at that point now had a clear path to retreat, decided he wanted to fight, not run. His mindset had gone from escaping the British to giving them a beating.
They barely had time to set fire to three of the lorries before Barry hurried off to the sound of firing from the east, where E Section was now engaged with British forces coming from Kinsale and Cork. Barry reinforced them with men from D Section, taking advantage of his interior lines. The group coming from Kinsale was held and then driven back by the reinforced line and retreated to the south.
The wisdom of his disposition of his troops was demonstrated again as a group of stragglers from the column from Bandon now ran into O’Connell’s G Section protecting the right and rear of Barry’s line, saving his main line from being flanked and taken from the rear. O’Connell drove the soldiers off so quickly that Barry recalled reinforcements he started to send him.
One of the final British groups to arrive was commanded by Major Arthur Percival of the Essex Regiment, whom Barry actively despised. In fact, in the years after World War 2, Barry often pointed out Percival as the man who surrendered Singapore to the Japanese. These forces from Cork attacked in two prongs, one near Crossbary and the other further north, threatening Barry’s left flank. He rushed reinforcements to both areas. The E section position, now reinforced, was assaulted several times by Percival’s men, but each attempt was beaten back until they finally withdrew.
(Below: A pistol carried by Tom Barry during the war, probably the one he is holding in the photo at Rosscarbery, above. It's now on display at the Cork Public Museum.)
North of town Kelleher’s F Section, which had mostly just listened to the fighting in the distance until now, had to stop the last serious threat of disaster for the column. Kelleher got his reinforcements just in time as British forces tried to swing around his northern flank. Kelleher, who was the captain of the local Volunteer company and thus knew the local area well, brilliantly used a castle ruin as cover to help drive off the British. He personally led another group positioned behind a wall that jumped up and routed a group of advancing British at very close range. Everything had gone the Volunteers' way up until then, but if the British had pushed through Kelleher and captured the high ground to the north it would have put the column in grave danger of being caught between two superior forces.
Just after that, Barry arrived with the entire column, now ready to withdraw from the area. Having heard the incredible level of fire on Kelleher’s front, he had feared the worst as he hurried the rest of the column to him. Seeing the excellent job they had done, he slapped Kelleher on the back and said with a laugh, “I thought you were dead.” It was the kind of fearless bravado that endeared him to his men.
With his entire 100 man force now gathered, but still certainly in danger, Barry formed them and fired three full volleys at the British in the distance as a literal “parting shot” that had the desired effect of delaying any pursuit. Thanks to the Auxiliaries from Macroom having confused their orders and gone to Kilbarry instead of Crossbarry, the column had an open path to safely withdraw to the northwest, which they did, to the Gurranereigh area.
Glory O, Glory O, to the Bold Fenian Men
The battle had lasted about two hours. Barry had lost just three killed and two seriously wounded. How many British were killed varies widely depending on the source. The British admitted to 10, but Barry spoke of bodies “strewn around” the Crossbarry road and in front of Kelleher’s position and thought up to 40 were killed, and some British papers gave similar figures.
Whatever the exact figures, the British had suffered an embarrassing defeat from a Volunteer force that did not just hit and run, but had stood and fought them for two hours, something that seldom happened during the war. As they escaped the area, Barry and his column had every right to be proud of their performance. Not long before they had been farmers, clerks and students, and now they had stood toe to toe against the army of the British empire, which had many combat veterans in their ranks. Though the British army tried to chalk up the debacle to “bad luck,” many believe this defeat had a profound effect on the British political leadership, shaking their faith in the military’s ability to defeat the Volunteers in the field and eventually leading to the truce. Barry himself believed it “may have been a decisive factor in getting the British establishment to think of a truce.”
Crossbarry was the pinnacle of Barry’s time in command of the West Cork Flying Column and the largest and perhaps the most well-fought battle of the war by any flying column. Liam Deasy (right), the brigade adjutant, said of Barry, “He was a leader of unsurpassed bravery, who was in the thick of every fight, and so oblivious of personal risk that his men felt it an honor to be able to follow him.”
On November 18, 1966, a monument to the battle was unveiled and dedicated just west of the town. Tom Barry and 30 of the veterans who fought with him that day were there along with thousands of spectators. Barry, who was always justifiably proud of the record of the men who fought with him, spoke and he called his comrades the men who, “thrashed the British at Crossbarry.” He ended with a plea that so many men who had fought for Irish freedom for several centuries would have surely echoed, saying, “I hope that all who pass by here will remember those valiant soldiers and sincere patriots who fought so bravely and gave their lives generously so that Ireland would break the chains of her slavery.”
It’s been nearly a century now since Barry and his men fought, bled and died to free Ireland around the little town of Crossbarry. Those brave men are all gone now, and as time passes there will be less and less people still alive who knew them as well, and heard about those days directly from them. As those direct connections pass away and the memories of what they did begin to fade, it is “to us the living,” as a Abraham Lincoln once said, to ensure that those who “gave the last full measure of devotion … shall not have died in vain.”
In the lonely graveyard of Clogagh, he sleeps his last long sleep,
But in our homes throughout West Cork, his memory we will keep
And teach our youth his love of truth, his scorn of wrong and fear,
And teach them, too, to love our land, as did our brigadier.*
* From a tribute to 3rd Brigade commander Charlie Hurley written by his comrade Seán Buckley.
(Left: The monument to Charile Hurley, near the spot he was killed on the morning of the battle.)
(Right: Ned Young, a member of the West Cork Volunteers.)
The Ballad of Charlie Hurley OC 3rd West Cork Brigade sung live at the Commodore Hotel Cobh by Séan Ó Sé.
MORE ON THE IRISH WAR OF INDEPENDENCE
The Forgotten Ten:
Barry, Thomas: Guerilla Days in Ireland
Ryan, Meda: Tom Barry IRA Freedom Fighter
Butler, Ewan: Barry's Flying Column
Begley, Diarmuid: The Road to Crossbarry
O' Conchubhair, Brian: Rebel Cork's Fighting Story, 1916 - 1921
Coogan, Tim Pat: Michael Collins: The Man Who Made Ireland
Bennett, Richard: The Black and Tans