Seán Moylan slowly moved his binoculars back and forth pointed to the west as he scanned the east Kerry countryside in the direction of Scartaglen. He was standing on some high ground in Thade Daly’s Glen in Tureengarriffe, along what is now the R-577 road. Moylan, commanding the Cork No. 2 (North) Brigade of the Irish Volunteers, believed that a high-ranking officer of the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) or British military was going to be traveling east toward Cork on this Friday, the 28th day of January 1921.
Moylan’s men, together with a few Volunteers from the East Kerry Brigade, had shivered in a cold rain all day Thursday waiting for those staff cars that never came. Friday had dawned bright and clear and dry, so at least the waiting this day was less miserable for them. Most attempted ambushes during the Irish War of Independence ended with no action and it appeared this might be another one. It was about noon and Moylan was just about to put down the glasses and tell half his men to go back to the nearest house and get some tea when he suddenly saw some movement. Two RIC staff cars came into view on the road.
Today would not be another day of boredom waiting for a fight that never came. On this day Moylan and his men would strike a blow against the Crown forces. Moylan ordered his men to get ready and ran back to his position further east, over the rocky high ground and past the spot where the cars would have to make a severe righthand turn. Moylan’s Volunteers had dug a deep trench across the road a short distance to the east of the curve, so the driver wouldn’t see it until they were very close to it.
Moylan’s heart must have been pounding as he got to the spot where he had their column’s Hotchkiss machine gun set up. It was manned by Bill Moylan (no relation) and Seán Healy and was positioned with a field of fire straight down the road from near the trench. As they heard the sound of the lead car, an Austin, growing louder and louder, every eye was trained on the corner. Sweaty palms gripped weapons as they waited for it to emerge. Finally, the Austin touring car appeared with the second car, a Crossley, about 50 yards behind it.
(Right: Hotchkiss machine gun)
As the driver of the Austin saw the trench, he at first sped up, thinking he could jump it. He soon realized it was too wide and slammed on his brakes. The Crossley stopped a short way behind them. Moylan had Seán Healy zero in on the Crossley with the Hotchkiss gun, knowing that disabling it would trap both cars in position. As Moylan gave the order to open fire Healy pulled the trigger and prayed that the Hotchkiss would not jam, as it was prone to do. The butt bounced back into his shoulder as the thunderous burst of the automatic weapon cracked through the stillness of the crisp January air. The Tureengarriffe Ambush was underway.
Though Tom Barry and his Cork No. 3 (West) Brigade garner most of the fame and attention for their actions during the Irish War of Independence, and it is well earned, the other two Cork Volunteer Brigades were very active as well. Seán Moylan was the North Cork Brigade’s counterpart to Tom Barry, commanding their flying column.
Moylan, a carpenter, lacked the military experience the World War veteran Barry brought to the job, but his involvement with the republican movement went back much further. While Barry grew up as the son of an RIC constable, Moylan was born into a republican family in Kilmallock, County Limerick in 1888. He was christened as John, and known to his family and friends as Jack. His maternal grandfather and two grand-uncles had been involved in the Fenian uprising in 1867. He grew up around many other men in Kilmallock who had also been Fenians.
(Left: Early 20th century Kilmallock)
As a teenager, he joined the Gaelic Athletic Association and became a fluent Irish speaker. It was a progression that was seen in many Irish rebels of the period, with interest in Gaelic athletics and the Irish language reinforcing the development of nationalist politics. In 1913, John joined the Irish Volunteers and changed his name to Seán. The shedding of the Anglicized version of his name was the final sign that he had rejected the British domination of his homeland. In 1914, he moved to Newmarket, County Cork and joined the Volunteer organization there.
After the Easter Rising in 1916, Moylan became a Sinn Féin organizer and also was promoted to captain of the Newmarket Volunteers company. Volunteer Denny Mullane of the Freemount company recalled him making “a very blood-thirsty speech to a small handful of us on the necessity of fighting for a Republic.” Moylan was forced to go on the run in May 1918 when the British began arresting Sinn Féin leaders as a result of the bogus “German Plot.” In late summer that year, he fell ill during the great Swine Flu epidemic of 1918 and barely survived.
(Right: Cork Male Prison)
In February 1919, Moylan was arrested for “sedition” and incarcerated in Cork Male Prison. Spending time in a British prison was nearly a rite of passage among Irish rebels, and going on hunger strike was fast becoming a new one. He called prison ”an excellent test of conviction, a glacial immersion for enthusiasm.” Moylan was soon on hunger strike and then faked insanity to get himself transferred to Cork Insane Asylum in April. In May he took advantage of the lower security measures there to make his escape.
Moylan was free, but his health was nearly destroyed by the combination of the swine flu and his hunger strike. It took him a year to recover his full health, and thus he missed the first part of the War of Independence. Many of his friends who visited him at his mother’s home in Newmarket believed they might be speaking with him for the last time, but in May 1920 he defied his doctor’s orders and walked out of her house and into the war. Though his doctor called it suicidal, he wasn’t going to die in bed while other men fought for his country’s freedom. “I struggled out of bed and into my clothes, which hung woefully about me,” he recalled.
The 2nd Brigade commandant, Liam Lynch, immediately put Moylan back in charge of the Newmarket company, though he protested he might not be up to it. In June, Moylan took part in one of the most famous incidents of the war: the capture of General Cuthbert Lucas, commander of the 17th Infantry Brigade. The British launched a huge operation to recapture him, but he was spirited away to West Limerick and kept moving him to avoid their dragnet. Lucas was able to escape a month later from the East Clare Volunteers, but his capture caused a sensation that made news around the world and boosted the morale of the entire republican movement.
(Left: Liam Lynch)
As was the case for all Volunteer units, the Cork No. 2 Brigade was woefully short of arms and ammunition when the war began, and in most cases right through to the end of it, especially when it came to ammunition. In July, Moylan came into some money from his brother Ned, who was a member of the Canadian Mounted Police. Ned had gotten a large reward for the capture of a bank robber and shared it with Seán. He used it to buy weapons from GHQ in Dublin. He got six 'Peter the Painters,' (below: a Mauser Pistol often used with a shoulder stock), two parabellums, with ten rounds of ammunition for each, one dozen percussion bombs, a rifle and 50 rounds of .303 ammunition. It seems a small “armory,” but it made the Newmarket company one of the better armed in the brigade.
In September, the brigade pulled off an attack that would greatly increase their firepower. Led by Liam Lynch, who kept Moylan out of the action, apparently so he could take over the brigade if Lynch was killed, the Cork No. 2 Brigade captured the barracks of the 17th Lancers in Mallow while most of the regiment was away training. It was the only capture of a British military barracks during the war. They got away with 27 rifles, 2 Hotchkiss light machine-guns (one of which would be used at Tureengarriffe), and many boxes of ammunition. As was now becoming common, though not yet official policy, the British ran riot in Mallow that night, burning down the town hall and 10 other buildings, but the brigade could now start thinking about offensive operations against the Crown forces.
As Volunteers around Ireland began to form Active Service Units, usually called Flying Columns, around the island in the later half of 1920, Lynch tabbed Paddy Clancy, one of Moylan’s best friends, to lead the column for the No. 2 Brigade. 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. He set up brigade-wide training camps that included physical training in addition to weapons training and even training in street fighting with pistols.
(Right: Paddy Clancy)
On October 11th the flying column struck its first blow, but Lynch and Ernie O’Malley were on the scene and commanded rather than Moylan. It was Moylan who came up with the plan, however, based on information provided by Jack O'Connell, the Newmarket intelligence officer. Their ambush of one military Crossley Tender at Ballydrocane was very successful. They captured 8 rifles, 2 pistols and several hundred rounds of precious ammunition. All the British soldiers in the lorry were wounded and one was killed. Moylan was deeply affected by the sight of this young man, Edward W. Cowin, sitting dead in the driver’s seat. "God help his mother,” he recalled thinking. He was no soldier at that point, he later said, but like Irish Volunteers all over the island, he was becoming one.
(Left: Ernie O'Malley)
As was the case with most of the Volunteers' ambushes at this point in the war, the wounded soldiers, some of whom had just minor wounds, were released. The time was soon coming when the war would become far more brutal all over the island than it was in October 1920, however.
On November 22, Moylan lost another dear friend to the war when Paddy McCarthy was shot and killed in Millstreet during an attempted raid on the Black & Tans stationed there who had been terrorizing the town. Like many soldiers before him, he was quickly learning how heartbreaking war could be.
“Now I was no more to see his friendly face, to hear his merry laughter, to have my spirits renewed by his unbreakable courage.’ said Moylan. His death, “… was the sorest blow that could be given to them (his comrades)", he observed, but clearly it was deeply personal for Moylan. Lynch sent men into Millstreet every night for a week intent on revenge, but the Black & Tans refused to leave their heavily fortified barracks. Finally, the last night they brazenly set up one of their Hotchkiss guns across the street and opened fire on it hoping to drawn them out, but the Tans stayed buttoned up in the building.
(Right: Main St. in Millstreet. The RIC barracks was on this street.)
Moylan personally saw to the construction of a coffin for McCarthy. To avoid police detection, they had the funeral at midnight. Moylan later described the, “eerie experience, following a coffin at midnight along lonely bye-roads from Millstreet to Kilcorcoran.” The "on the run" Volunteers of the Active Service Unit were living in a surreal world as 1920 came to an end. In December, the Auxiliaries burned a large portion of Cork City. Martial law was declared in Limerick, Kerry, Tipperary and Cork, meaning any captured Volunteers could be executed, and the government made reprisals against Irish civilians for any attacks -- going on unofficially for some time -- officially sanctioned policy. In January it was extended to Clare and Waterford.
Moylan put together a large flying column in early January and attempted to ambush two military lorries near Meelin on January 4th. It was unsuccessful, owing to the British coming from a different direction than anticipated, but it was a learning experience for Moylan, as problems with the command and control of his large column caused him to trim down the size of the column for future actions.
(Left: One of the victims the British reprisals in Meelin)
The following day the British got their “official” revenge on the people of Meelin, burning down a half dozen homes. The Quinlan, Murphy, and Brown families, among others, lost their homes. One teenage boy, John McSweeney, (who was 15 or 16) of Lismeelcunnin, was wounded and later died.
The fortification of RIC barracks and the military traveling in ever larger groups began to reduce the opportunities to attack the Crown forces as 1921 began. Another tactic the British began using was putting Irish hostages in the vehicles to act as human shields against attack. That tactic thwarted Moylan's next attempted ambush, as he refused to take the chance of accidentally killing innocent civilians or Volunteer prisoners.
One plan Moylan came up with to attack one of the now nearly impregnable barracks was both bizarre and a bit ingenious. They got a 17th century cannon, perhaps from Ross Castle in Killarney, and constructed a carriage for it. They actually had a successful test firing, blowing a hole through the wall of an old kiln, but never did use it in action. Had they done so, they may have been successful with it, which would have made it one of the legendary attacks of the war.
In late January a random event led to the information that would culminate in the Tureengarriffe Ambush. It had been raining for most of January. Moylan said he didn’t, “remember ever wearing a dry garment during the month.” 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.
(Right: The famous "Men of the South" painting by Seán Keating. The Volunteers who posed for it, Jim Riordan, John Jones, James Cashman, Denis O’Mullane, Roger Kiely, and Dan Browne, were members of Moylan's Flying Column. Jones, Cashman and Browne were at Tureengarriffe.)
A chance meeting with a man working a roadside field confirmed that two car loads of Black & Tans has come through headed west. Expecting that the cars had gone to British headquarters in Tralee and would not return until the next day, he began to formulate a plan to ambush them at Tureengarriffe in east Kerry, west of Ballydesmond, which was then known as Kingwilliamstown. He sent out word to assemble his flying column. He also sent word to the East Kerry Brigade, asking to send any assistance they could send.
Years later in their witness statements for the Bureau of Military History, some of the men who were there identified the following Volunteers as having participated in the ambush: Daniel Guiney, Tom McNamara, John D. O'Connor, John Murphy, Sean Kennedy, John O'Leary, Tim Cronin, Jerh. (Jeremiah) O'Mahoney, Owen Daly, Dan Galvin, Liam Moylan, Dave McAuliffe, Dan Browne, Dan Vaughan, Mick D. Sullivan, Con Morley, Seán Healy, Tom Herlihy, Dan Fitzgerald, Con Finucane, Martin Murphy and John Jones.
(Left: Seán Healy)
Thursday, the 27th, dawned wet, foggy and miserable. With some additions from East Kerry, Moylan had a little more than 20 men in his column, plus some local Volunteers working as scouts and lookouts. The spot Moylan found to set up his ambush was well chosen. There was a big right-hand turn the cars would make just before the spot he set up the ambush.
As they dug a trench that would not be seen until the lead car was around the corner and very close to it, the rain was pelting down. Then the rain turned to hail, with hail stones bouncing all around them. When it was done, the Volunteers sat in position hour after hour, peering into the fog and straining to hear any sound of engines until the sun went down. Then “so wet it penetrated to the bone,” according to Moylan, they gave up for the day. Setting up an ambush in the same place two days in a row was always dangerous, but Moylan took the chance.
(Right: An Austin Touring Car)
Moylan knew he had an excellent chance of success if the enemy showed up. On the high ground to the right (south) side of the road, Moylan put the few men he had armed with rifles, who numbered either 8 or 10 depending on which Volunteer’s witness statement was correct. On the north side he had another ten with shotguns behind a turf wall about 30 yards from the road. With the rifleman up high shooting down and the shotgun men on the same level as the road, they could fire from both sides without firing into each other.
At the spot where the road took another sharp turn to the left, Moylan set up one of the Hotchkiss machine guns that had been captured at the Mallow barracks. From there it could rake the entire length of the road between the two corners. It was a well set up ambush. If they could stop the vehicles at the trench, Moylan had set up a killing field cross fire that would be nearly inescapable. And now, into it they had come.
What Moylan didn’t know was that RIC Divisional Commissioner Philip Holmes was a passenger in one of the cars. Holmes had replaced the infamous Divisional Commissioner Gerard "Shoot on Sight" Smyth, who had been shot dead by the Volunteers at the Cork City Country Club in July. The driver of the first car accelerated when he saw the trench, thinking he might be able to fly across it, but he quickly saw that wouldn’t work and slammed on his brakes. The Hotchkiss gun opened up on the second car as it halted. As Holmes and the seven RIC constables jumped from their vehicles, the rest of the Volunteers opened fire.
(Below: An approximate representation of what the RIC cars drove into.)
Though their situation was certainly hopeless, Moylan complemented the RIC men, saying, “They fought gallantly.” Taking whatever cover they could behind their vehicles and roadside fences, the Constables returned fire. The air of the normally hushed, peaceful glen was suddenly filled with rattling of the Hotchiss, the sharp cracks of the Enfield rifles and the booming of the Volunteers shotguns. After a few minutes, Moylan blew his whistle to have his men cease fire. Not wanting to wipe them out, he called on the RIC men to surrender, but Holmes had a full volley fired back in response.
The firefight went on for somewhere between 15 to 30 minutes. The RIC had one dead already and several more wounded when Holmes himself was seriously wounded. Seeing that their return fire was slackening, Moylan blew his whistle and called on them to surrender again, and this time they did. As the Volunteers came onto the road they found Holmes had a severe head wound as well as wounds in his leg and shoulder, and Constable Thomas Moyles was dead. Among the rest of the RIC, Sergeant A. Charman had an arm fractured by a bullet; Constable J. H. Andrews was wounded in the face, right arm and leg. Constables J. Hoare and F. D. Calder were slightly wounded. Moylan had a slight leg wound. It was the only casualty among the Volunteers, a tribute to how well he had set up the ambush. It was a great success for the column. In addition to having no serious casualties, they captured seven rifles, nearly doubling what they brought into the ambush, a repeating shotgun and a .45 Webley revolver.
Knowing how brutal the treatment of prisoners was becoming on both sides, one of the constables brought out a set of rosary beads to show he was a Catholic and begged Moylan not to kill him. Another, however, defiantly told him, “I’m a bloody Black & Tan, and you can shoot me if you want to.”
(Left: A group of Black & Tans)
But Moylan had no intention of shooting any of them. He managed to hold onto his humanity through the war in spite of several deeply personal losses. He even stopped one of his men from taking cash they found in Holmes' pocket.
Moylan had the wounded men treated and bandaged and when a civilian car showed up, he had the driver, a school inspector, transport them to the hospital in Castleisland. Holmes was transferred to Cork Military Hospital by train but he died there the following day.
As was becoming common, and was now official policy, innocent Irish people in the vicinity of the ambush were punished for the defeat suffered by the Crown forces. The next day 30 lorries full of British troops arrived in Ballydesmond. When no one would give them any information, they burned the homes of Timothy Vaughan, William McAuliffe, T. O’Sullivan and M.J. Cronin.
In an even more egregious reprisal, Crown forces opened fire on a group of children in a roadside field in Knocknagree. Seventeen year-old Michael John Kelleher was killed while a 12- and 13-year-old were wounded. The official army report said a group of “suspicious armed civilians in a field” were ordered to halt and when they refused, the troops opened fire on them. It referred to the 14-, 11-, and 9-year-old victims (without their ages, of course) as “young men.”
(Above and below right: The Tureengarriffe Ambush monument)
Tureengarriffe gave the Cork No. 2 Brigade and their Kerry comrades a great morale boost in addition to boosting their flying column’s cache of arms significantly. It also further damaged the morale of the County Cork RIC by killing their divisional commander for the second time in 6 months.
Seán Moylan had performed brilliantly during the ambush and the days leading up to it. First, he quickly formulated a plan based on intelligence he uncovered. Then he found a perfect location for the ambush and did a superb job deploying this column. Like so many Volunteers at the time, the Newmarket carpenter was learning on the job, and he was learning fast. A little over a month later he would be in command at one of the Crown’s worst defeats of the war at Clonbanin, killing 15 British soldiers, including Brigadier General Hanway Robert Cumming.
Moylan was captured in May 1921 and charged with the "murder" of Commissioner Holmes. It is likely he would have been executed but for the testimony of two of the surviving constables from the Tureengarriffe ambush. One of them claimed that one of Moylan's men suggested shooting the prisoners and Moylan said he would shoot anyone who attempted that. Thanks to their testimony, he spent the rest of the war in Spike Island and would go on to have a long post war political career, not dying until 1957.
“With the IRA in the Fight for Freedom: 1919 to the Truce” by Gabriel Doherty (Book)
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