The Clonbanin Ambush: 'To Hell With Surrender!'

March 5, 1921, dawned bright and clear on the Mallow-Killarney Road (N-72 today) west of Clonbanin, Co. Cork. The men of Seán Moylan’s Cork No. 2 (North) Brigade and Thomas McEllistrim’s Kerry No. 2 (South) Brigade of the Irish Volunteers began to move into position on the north and south sides of the road.

At around 10 am most eyes were trained to the west, where they hoped a military convoy transporting General Sir Edward Peter Strickland, commander of the British 6th Division, would soon appear. But suddenly a warning cry was sounded. Three British lorries were approaching from the east. Moylan had to make a quick decision, attack them or wait for the possible convoy from the west that might include Strickland. Calculating how often they and other Volunteer units waited hours or days in an ambush position without ever seeing an army or RIC vehicle, he decided to take the “bird in the hand.”

Moylan told Paddy O’Brien of the Charleville battalion, “You fire the first shot. When I am switching the mine I will tell you to fire” [on the driver of the lead lorry]. The rest of the Cork and Kerrymen had been ordered to hold their fire until they heard the mine explode.

As the lead lorry approached, the Volunteers could hear an accordion playing and soldiers voices rising in song. The Irish always loved a good hoolie, but they were prepared to sing “The Parting Glass” and end this one early. As the lead lorry neared the mine, Moylan flipped the switch for the mine and told O’Brien to “FIRE!” But as happened so often with the Volunteers mines, it did not explode. Now O’Brien’s shot would have to be on target to stop the lead lorry. But O’Brien’s Enfield misfired and the rest of the Volunteers, obeying orders, held their fire.

(Below: A Crossley Tender, the most common lorry used by the British in Ireland.)

The three lorries went merrily on their way, with the singing soldiers having no idea that they had literally “dodged a bullet.” As the sound of the accordion slowly fading away to the west, Moylan was irate, but now every eye was on the convoy to see if they slowed down or showed any indication that the Volunteers had been detected. It appeared that they had not seen anything, so now the question was whether to risk staying in place to await the hoped-for arrival of Strickland.

If they had been detected by the just past convoy, they could be quickly surrounded by a battalion of the Gloucester Regiment in Kanturk, six miles to the northeast, and RIC men from Millstreet, about the same distance to the south. Moylan knew it was a big risk, but the decision was made to stay in place and hopes that they were undetected and Strickland’s convoy would still arrive. The Volunteers settled down to wait, with wary eyes scanning in all directions, for the convoy to the west and any possible Crown forces moving in around them. The waiting began.

Moylan was attempting to kill or capture his third British general of the war, and his second in five weeks. On June 26, 1920, Moylan was in a group commanded by Liam Lynch that captured General Cuthbert Lucas (right) in Kilbarry. Excellent intelligence work by the Volunteers had discovered that Lucas and two other officers, colonels Danford and Tyrell, would be at a cottage in Kilbarry to go salmon fishing on the Blackwater River. His capture was one of the most well-known incidents of the war.

Lucas had seen action in Boer War shortly after he was commissioned and in WWI had commanded Infantry units in Gallipoli and on the western front in Europe including the massive Battle of the Somme. He did not go quietly into captivity. Though he surrendered with no resistance, as they were driving away in his touring car he and Colonel Danford, after conversing a bit in Arabic, tried to overcome Lynch and Patrick Clancy and escape. The attempt failed and Danford was seriously wounded. The Volunteers left Tyrell to care for Danford and continued on, sending a doctor back to them at the next village. Moylan’s involvement with Lucas ended there.

The capture caused the sensation around the western world. Lucas was held briefly near Mallow and then transferred to the West Limerick Brigade. For the next month, he was moved around Limerick and Clare while the Volunteers unsuccessfully attempted to exchange him for various men held by the British. Lucas was lucky that his capture occurred when it did. Had he been captured 7 or 8 months later, the outcome may have been tragically different. As it was, he admitted to having been treated very well during his time as a prisoner.

On July 30th, while being held by the East Clare Brigade, Lucas escaped, though most believe the Volunteers allowed it to happen. It had become clear they were not going to be able to exchange him, and at that point in the war they were not prepared to execute him. Incredibly, the convoy carrying Lucas east later that day was ambushed in Oola, in east Limerick. The ambush was led by Dan Breen and Sean Treacy of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade. There is no indication that they knew Lucas was traveling with this convoy.

(Left: Sean Treacy, to the left, and Dan Breen.)

Two soldiers were killed and three others were wounded in the ambush. A bullet also grazed Lucas’ head. He may have been longing for the safety of his “prison” at that point. The Volunteers retreated from the area after a very short firefight, possibly because they got word of approaching Crown Forces reinforcements. Later that day Lucas finally arrived safely back in Fermoy, Co. Cork. How ironic it would have been if the Volunteers accidentally recaptured Lucas on the same day as they had essentially released him.

Moylan was involved from beginning to end with his second encounter with a British General. In January he commanded another ambush at Tureengarriffe in East Kerry. Liam Lynch tabbed Paddy Clancy, one of Moylan’s best friends, to lead the flying column for the No. 2 Brigade in the summer of 1920. But Clancy was killed in mid-August when he and Jack O’Connell were surrounded by the British at O’Connell’s farm in Kanturk. When Lynch asked Moylan to assume the command, he agreed and threw himself into the task, no doubt anxious to avenge his friend.

At Tureengarriffe Moylan not only commanded the attack, he actually developed the intelligence that allowed him to conclude that a high ranking military or RIC officer would be traveling through the area. He and Volunteer Dan Vaughan were on a muddy road near Kishkeam when they found a fresh tire track that they believed came from a military vehicle. A man working a roadside field confirmed that two carloads of Black & Tans had come through headed west. Because it was touring cars, not lorries, Moylan speculated that a high ranking RIC officer was probably with them and had gone to Kerry and would soon return.

Hoping that they would be foolish enough, or perhaps arrogant enough, to return by the same route, Moylan set up an ambush down that road at Thade Daly’s Glen in Tureengarriffe. On the 28th the RIC cars showed up and Moylan’s excellent setup of the ambush resulted in a very successful ambush. The RIC two-car convoy was overwhelmed and surrendered. Seven Enfield rifles were captured, one RIC constable was killed and several were wounded. Among the wounded was General Philip Armstrong Holmes, Divisional Commissioner of the RIC for the counties of Cork and Kerry. Moylan's guess had proved correct. Holmes died of his wounds the following day.

(Right: Members of the Kerry No. 2 Brigade, with Tom McEllistrim to the right.)

The planning of the Clonbanin ambush in March involved much more traditional forms of intelligence. John Keogh was a porter at the International Hotel in Killarney, and also an intelligence officer with the Kerry No. 2 Brigade. On March 2nd he was in a discussion with a British officer, Lt. Sherwood, who ended the conversation by saying, “I must be off now, this is the general.” He then learned the general would be touring the area for three days. The Volunteers intelligence service already had information that a high ranking officer had left Buttevant Barracks in County Cork a few days earlier. So now they knew where he was, and where he would be going back to in a few days.

Seán Moylan and his Cork No. 2 had ambushed and killed RIC Divisional Commander, General Philip Holmes, in the ambush at Tureengarriffe, on the Williamstown – Castleisland road. Moylan guessed correctly that would cause this officer’s convoy to likely use the Mallow – Killarney road.

The Volunteers believed the man they were hunting was General Sir Edward Peter Strickland, commander of the British 6th Division. The Volunteers had already attempted to kidnap him the preceding Autumn. In fact, however, the general John Keogh heard mentioned by title but not name was Brigadier General Hanway Robert Warren Cumming, who commanded the troops in Kerry. Had they known that, they might have been even more motivated to see his convoy come down the road. Cumming was especially hated by the Volunteers for having come up with the idea of carrying Irish hostages on convoys.

(Left: General Cumming in Kenmare, while touring Co. Kerry troops.)

On March 1st the Volunteers first set up an ambush at a spot called “The Bower”, between Rathmore and Barraduf. There Moylan met up with Humphrey “Free” Murphy and Tom McEllistrim with men from the Kerry No. 1 and 2 Brigades. There were close to 100 Volunteers in total. Though many of the Kerrymen were unarmed, most of Moylan’s men had Enfield rifles thanks to the Tureengarriffe ambush and the raid on the Mallow military barrack in September. They also had a Hotchkiss light machine gun from the Mallow raid that had been vital to their ambush at Tureengarriffe.

They stayed in position for two days, intently watching the road to the west. On the morning of the 3rd day, March 4th, someone arrived with a newspaper from Tralee that included a story that General Strickland had warned a group of people in Tralee that there were armed men with “Cork accents” in western Kerry and that the people of Kerry would face dire consequences if they helped them. This convinced Moylan that they had to abandon this ambush position of risk disaster.

(Right: Seán Moylan)

They did not give up on the ambush, however. “Intelligence arrived from Killarney that Major General Strickland would probably travel from there towards Cork on Friday,” Moylan said later in a report on the ambush, “The news strengthened our desire to remain on until Friday.” They moved about 15 miles to the east and reset the ambush about a half-mile west of Clonbanin Cross. Thomas McEllistrim and “Free” Murphy with about 20 of the Kerrymen came with them to the new location. Moylan called in Con Meany and 20 men of the Millstreet battalion to reinforce the column of men from Newmarket and Charleville. The spot selected for the ambush was a dangerous spot, just six miles from both Kanturk, where a military unit was based, and Millstreet, which had a large RIC contingent.

The Millstreet and Kerry men took position to the south of the road with the Charleville and Newmarket men to the north over a distance that James Cashman and James J. Riordan of the Newmarket battalion estimated as 600 yards. On the far eastern part of the ambush formation, on the south side of the road, they set up their Hotchkiss light machine gun in the front of Mark O’Shaughnessy’s farm. It was manned by Liam Moylan, Denis Galvin, and Dave McAuliffe of the Newmarket battalion. After the morning failure to ambush the westbound military convoy the men settled in to await the hoped-for arrival of General Strickland’s convey.

(Left: A Hotchkiss light machine gun.)

As morning turned into afternoon, the Volunteers might have been amused to know that miles to the west, as the hoped-for convoy was on its way, it had stopped just short of the Bower, their previous ambush site. Soldiers from the Royal Fusiliers had disembarked and were sweeping the sides of the road to the east and other soldiers of the East Lancashire Regiment were sweeping to the west from Rathmore. The position had, indeed, been compromised. It’s likely that these East Lancashire soldiers were the same ones who had narrowly avoided being ambushed in Clonbanin that morning. So their good luck had only been temporary.

Finding the ambush had been abandoned, the soldiers of the East Lancashire Regiment loaded into the lorries to take over escort duties moving eastward. They were likely filled with a feeling that the danger of an ambush was behind them now, as indicated by the fact that the Royal Fusiliers troops were ordered back to Killarney, rather than continuing as part of the escort.

(Right: The badge of the East Lancashire Regiment.)

General Cumming, not Strickland, was the passenger of the touring car. Cumming, who was hated as the originator of the policy of carrying hostage on Crown Forces convoys, climbed back into his touring car. And true to form, hostage Maurice Slattery of Milltown, Co. Kerry, climbed back in with him. It seemed that there would be smooth sailing back to Buttevant, but storm clouds were gathering in spite of the clear, beautiful sky.

Sometime after 2 pm, Thomas Culhane of the Charleville Battalion recalled that “a young lady arrived at our position with a basket which contained tea, bread, and butter.” She had hardly begun passing out these refreshments when the alarm was sounded. After four fruitless days of waiting, the boredom of the Volunteers was finally broken as the ambush site lookouts to the west signaled “THEY ARE COMING!” They saw it was a large convoy: two lorries in the lead, a touring car, an armored car, and another lorry. The armored car was an indication that an important person was in that touring car, but the Volunteers had no weapons with which they could penetrate the car's armor. Few even existed at that early point in the development of both armored vehicles and anti-armor weapons.

There were probably about 40 soldiers of the East Lancashire Regiment in the convoy to oppose the close to 100 Volunteers in the ambush, but that was misleading. All the British soldiers were armed with modern Enfield rifles while some of the Volunteers were unarmed and many others had shotguns. The addition of the armored car with it’s Vickers machine gun more than evened the odds.

(Left: A Rolls Royce armored car.)

As the lead lorry moved into the ambush zone Bill Moylan tracked the driver until the lorry was near the eastern edge of the ambush. Seán Moylan tried the mine detonator again and this time instead of merely not going off, it short-circuited and the shock stunned him for few seconds. This time, however, the men had orders to open fire if the lead lorry went past the mine and it didn’t go off. Suddenly the clear, crisp March air was shattered by the rattling sound of the Hotchkiss machine gun quickly followed by a few sharp reports of the Volunteers Enfields. The lorry came to a halt at the side of the road. Many remembered a pause then, as the rest of the convoy was lagging behind.

The following lorry, the touring car, and the armored car came up even to the men near the middle of the ambush and the countryside exploded as the Hotchkiss gun, all the column’s Enfields and some shotguns let lose with flame and smoke. The 2nd lorry and the touring car came to a halt perhaps a 100 yards behind the 1st lorry. The armored car ran into the rear of the touring car and swerved to the side of the road, stuck in the ditch. The 3rd lorry came to halt a perhaps another 100 yards back behind the armored car.

Now the normal still of the Cork countryside was shattered by the rattling of the two machine guns, the sharp cracks of the Enfields and the booming echoes of shotguns. With the spacing of the British forces, it became essentially three separate skirmishes along the road.

(Right: General Cumming)

The British took serious casualties in the opening volleys and were pinned down. Moylan or someone else on the Volunteers called on the British to surrender. General Cumming, from behind the cover of the touring car answered the demand with, “To Hell With Surrender! Give them the LEAD!” They were brave words and fitting last words for a solder. Shortly after that, a round hit him in the head, killing him. Meanwhile, the general’s hostage Maurice Slattery slipped away over the roadside wall and successfully made his escape.

The Volunteer goal of killing or capturing the high ranking officer they believed would be traveling east had been accomplished, though they didn’t know it. And as always, they wanted to capture arms and ammunition. So the fight would have continued in any event.

The Volunteers had the advantage of position, but the British had much better firepower when the Volunteers Hotchkiss gun jammed and could not be cleared, while the British got a Lewis machine gun into action to go along with the Vickers in the armored car. The British had taken significant casualties, however. The Volunteers could hear the moans of wounded soldiers whenever the sound of the firing lessened. After a time much of the firing of the soldiers slacked off. Moylan wanted those guns and ammo, but the Vickers in the armored car continued to fire and it commanded the length of the road.

Moylan was on the north side of the road. He collected three members of the New Market Battalion, William O'Keeffe, Jim Cashman, and Con Morley and moved west and crossed to the south side of the road hoping to flank the armored car and put it out of commission. He found it impossible, however.

One of the British survivors recalled that in the middle of the battle a young woman came from one of the nearby cottages to help tend to the wounded. He remembered her only as, Miss Leader, who said her father was a local Church of Ireland minister. No matter which side had her sympathies, it was a courageous act.

After about 2 hours, Moylan realized they could never overwhelm British opposition and capture their arms because they could not put the armored car out of commission. They also had to worry about British reinforcements arriving sometime soon. And they were expending a huge amount of ammunition in the fight. Thomas Culhane of the NewMarket battalion recalled that “We were all supplied with 30 rounds of .303 ammunition with instructions to hold five of these in a separate pocket to be used in the event of a retreat.” Low ammunition was always a constraint on how long a Volunteer unit could continue a battle.

(Above: A .303 caliber Enfield rifle of the type captured at Tureengarriffe.)

Around 5:30 Moylan ordered a retreat. As it began a British officer and a squad of soldiers from the lorry on the west of the ambush tried to swing north and flank the retreating Newmarket and Charleville Battlionis as they pulled out. Captain Dan Vaughan of the Newmarket Batallion saw them moving through the field. He and Commandant Paddy O’Brien engaged the British as the two battalions made a successful retreat. The danger was extreme, for most of the men north of the road were down to 5 rounds or less.

Moylan made his way from the area disappointed and thinking the ambush had been unsuccessful before they captured no arms. Before the night was over, however, he heard the news that General Cumming had been killed in the action. This was a massive blow to the morale of the British forces and perhaps more importantly to the morale of the British population and also the British Parliament. As was usually the case, the two sides disagreed on the casualty figures. The Volunteers believed as many as 15 British died. The British records acknowledge four killed that day, the three other than Cumming were Lieutenant Harold de Maligny, Private Harold Turner, and Private William Walker. A good number must have been wounded, but they never said how many. The Volunteers, on the other hand, suffered no casualties at all.

(Right: From the March 7, 1921, New York Times.)

Word of the general’s death was sensational news around the world. The headline in the New York Times said “Brigader Slain in Irish Ambush” and mentioned that it had happened despite a “strong guard.” With the increase of Volunteer activity all over the island as the spring went on, the organization was getting stronger through the seizure of arms and ammunition. But the killing of high ranking officers in the fighting had a huge propaganda value to the Republican movement.

The British Army’s reports on actions at this time often exaggerated the number of Volunteers involved to soothe their own egos in explaining why they did not win a given action. In this case, their claim that there were five to six hundred Volunteers involved when there has actually been about one hundred, had an unintended result at home in Great Britain. Members of Parliament, being told the Volunteers could put five to six hundred armed men in the field for one ambush began to more seriously consider the possibility that military victory might not be possible.

As had been the case in the ambush at Tureengarriffe, the ex-carpenter Moylan had shown himself to have real military talent. He had taken in the intelligence information about the movements of a high ranking officer and formed a plan in which he correctly guessed the route they would take. When he got more information indicating their original ambush site might be compromised, rather than give up on the objective, he redeployed the ambush further west. This resulted in the escort size being reduced and the East Lancashire Regiment troops perhaps being less alert to a continuing threat of an ambush.

(Right: The monument to the Clonbanin Ambush on N-72, about a half-mile west of Clonbanin Cross.)

In mid-May Moylan was promoted to command of the Cork No. 2 Brigade, but he didn’t hold it for long. Shortly after that, he 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, but over five weeks in early 1921 at Tureengarriffe and Clonbanin he had a profound effect on the outcome of the war.


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Tags: Clonbanin, Sean Moylan

Comment by Joe Gannon on March 2, 2020 at 11:11am

According to Thomas Culhane Member, Cork Main street Buttevant, Co. Cork. 

The names of the 3rd Battalion Column on that day were:

Michael Regan, R.I.P., Con McCarthy, R.I.P., Pat Sheedy, R.I.P., Don O'Brien, R.I.P., brother of the Vice O.C. Brigade – he was executed by the British the following May - Maurice O'Brien, Denis Motherway, Robert O'Connell, James Jago, Edmond McCarthy, P.J. O'Brien, Pat Russell, Paddy O'Brien, V/O.C. Brigade and Edmond Ryan, O/C. Column, and myself, Thomas Culhane.

Comment by Thomas Michael Quirk on March 10, 2020 at 2:39pm

Great job Joe, as I told you before I love this part of Irish history.

Comment by Joe Gannon on March 10, 2020 at 5:54pm

Thanks, Thomas. Twenty years ago or so I only had a vague knowledge of the Irish War of Independence. General histories tended to give very few details of the war. As I started to read more books specifically about the period,  along with seeing Ken Loach's "Wind that Shakes the Barley" and then seeing so many roadside monuments in Ireland commemorating events from the war, my interest continued to build. It's a fascinating "David vs. Goliath" tale. It has much in common with the story of the army of farmer soldiers of the American Revolution taking on the same Empire, though on a smaller scale.

Comment by Thomas Michael Quirk on March 11, 2020 at 2:40pm

Joe, you and I could have some great talks on The War of Independence.

Comment by Joe Gannon on April 5, 2020 at 10:28am


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