Ambush that lit spark for the Burning of Cork

100 years ago this month, a large part of Cork city was razed to the ground in one of the worst atrocities of the War of Independence. To launch a four-part Echo series on the Burning of Cork, GERRY WHITE recalls the ambush at Dillons Cross that fuelled a thirst for revenge among the British forces and led to the city inferno
Ambush that lit spark for the Burning of Cork

One of the few building facades still standing on Patrick's Street following the burning of Cork in December 1920. Picture: Archives

ON the evening of Saturday, December 11, 1920, District Inspector Second Class Thomas Sparrow of K Company of the Auxiliary Division of the RIC was in Victoria Barracks in Cork preparing to go on a mission.

His task was to take 20 Auxiliaries to Union Quay RIC Barracks at 7.30pm. There they would meet their commanding officer, District Inspector First Class Owen Latimer, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Air Force who had established his headquarters in the Imperial Hotel. The Auxiliaries would then take part in an operation against the IRA.

However, that night, Sparrow and his men would never reach their destination.

K Company of the Auxiliaries was formed on November 22, 1920 and started to arrive in Victoria Barracks on December 2. Tension in the city was high as the previous few weeks had seen a dramatic escalation of the war in Cork. On November 28, 16 Auxiliaries from C Company in Macroom had been killed in an ambush in Kilmichael and another was missing.

The members of K Company wasted no time making their presence felt. On December 6, a group descended on the city centre determined to strike fear into the hearts of local people. Some stopped pedestrians on Patrick Street and subjected them to physical and verbal abuse, others drove around in a motor car, firing shots in the air and ordering people to get off the streets.

The IRA in Cork couldn’t let this conduct go unchallenged. Intelligence reports indicated that Auxiliaries travelling in two lorries usually left Victoria Barracks each night around 8pm to take part in operations against members of the IRA and their supporters. Their route would take them to Dillon’s Cross, around 200 metres from the barracks, and a decision was taken to ambush them there. It would give the IRA the element of surprise as the Auxiliaries wouldn’t expect to be attacked so close to the barracks.

Captain Sean O’Donoghue.
Captain Sean O’Donoghue.

On the night of December 8, 15 members of the Cork City Active Service Unit under the command of Captain Seán O’Donoghue took up position behind an old stone wall around 40 metres long that ran between Balmoral Terrace and the buildings near the cross.

Behind it was an area of open ground known as O’Callaghan’s Field which led down to the Glen and would provide an excellent escape route for the ambush party.

A scout would be posted on the road, whose task was to let the ambush party know that the Auxiliaries were approaching by blowing a whistle. Because of the proximity of the barracks, the ambush would have to be short and sharp. The IRA planned to halt the lorries, attack them with grenades and revolvers, then make their escape. However, that night their quarry never showed up.

Seán Healy, a member of the ambush party, later told the Bureau of Military History: “We heard numerous lorries of military passing to and fro, but the Auxiliaries made no appearance that night. They probably went in the opposite direction, as the city could also be reached by another route.

“After what appeared to be an interminable hour of waiting and watching, we had to disperse, in order to reach home before curfew hour, which was 10pm. At least 1,000 troops would pour out of the Victoria Barracks at this hour and take over complete control of the city.”

The ambush party took their revolvers with them but before they dispersed, Anne Barry, a member of the Cumman na mBan, collected the grenades and stored them in her home at 8, Windsor Cottages on the Ballyhooly Road.

A large loyalist population lived in the area of Dillon’s Cross at that time and it is possible that the presence of the ambush party had been reported to the police or military as the British Army maintained a large presence in the area for the next two nights. In view of this, IRA headquarters in Cork felt it would be prudent to reduce the number of men taking part in the ambush in order to avoid detection.

On the afternoon of Saturday, December 11, the day after Martial Law had been declared in the south of Ireland, Seán O’Donoghue received word that a party of Auxiliaries travelling in two lorries would depart Victoria Barracks that night at 8pm. The report also mentioned the possibility that Captain Campbell Kelly, a British Army intelligence officer based in Victoria Barracks who was known to torture IRA prisoners, would be travelling with them. The IRA considered Captain Kelly a major threat and was anxious to eliminate him.

Michael Kenny.
Michael Kenny.

Armed with this information, O’Donoghue decided to act. Though time was short he managed to muster the following Volunteers: Michael Baylor, Seán Healy, Michael Kenny Augustine O’Leary and James O’Mahony.

He also sent word to Anne Barry to have the grenades ready. As darkness fell, she took them from her home and hid them in the front garden of a house owned by the Lennox family at Mount View on the Ballyhooley Road.

At around 6.30pm, James O’Mahony collected the grenades and distributed them among the ambush party when they arrived to take up their positions. Michael Kenny, of the brigade intelligence squad, was nominated as the scout. He took up position on the footpath at Harrington Square while the remainder again took cover behind the stone wall across the road.

The tactics adopted by O’Donoghue were similar to those used by Tom Barry at Kilmichael. Kenny was dressed in mufti to resemble an off-duty British officer. When the lorries approached, he would put up his hand in an attempt to stop or slow them down. He would then blow his whistle to alert the ambush party and make his escape through Harrington Square.

Meanwhile, in Victoria Barracks, District Inspector Sparrow was briefing his men on their mission. Then, at 7.20pm, two lorries carrying around 20 Auxiliaries left the barracks. Sparrow was travelling in the first one and when it approached Dillion’s Cross, Kenny stepped out on the road and raised his hand. The ruse worked. As the vehicles slowed down, he blew two blasts on his whistle then ran down through Harrington Square, up Gardiner’s Hill and on to an IRA ‘safe house’ in Rathcooney.

Michael Baylor. Dillons Cross ambush.
Michael Baylor. Dillons Cross ambush.

When they heard the whistle, O’Donoghue and his men stood up from behind the wall. Baylor and O’Leary each threw a bomb at the first lorry while O’Mahony, Healy and O’Donoghue targeted the second. After the grenades exploded, the men drew their revolvers, fired a volley of shots at the Auxiliaries then ran off into the darkness through O’Callaghan’s Field towards the Glen.

From there, Baylor, Healy and O’Leary went towards the city and O’Donoghue and O’Mahony made their way to the Delany farm on Dublin Hill. Daniel Delany and his family were supporters of the Republican movement and two of his sons, Cornelius and Jeremiah, were IRA members. O’Donoghue still had some grenades in his possession and he hid these on the farm after which he and O’Mahony split up.

Twelve Auxiliaries had been wounded in the ambush while others were suffering from shock. Some managed to fire a few shots in the direction of the ambush party, then the entire group sought shelter in O’Sullivan’s public house in Dillon’s Cross. They entered the premises with weapons drawn and ordered all the customers to put their hands over their heads while they were searched. As this was happening, the proprietor, Miss Nora O’Sullivan, tried to calm the situation by informing the Auxiliaries that the customers who frequented the pub were all loyal ex-servicemen.

Also present in the pub that night was Nora’s niece, Mary O’Connell, 19, the girlfriend (later wife) of Michael Kenny and a supporter of the IRA. On the night of the ambush she was hiding a small quantity of arms and ammunition for him upstairs in a bedroom. Fortunately for her and her aunt, they were never discovered.

After the search of the customers, first aid was administered to the wounded men. One of those injured, Cadet Spencer Chapman, was in a serious condition and would die the following morning.

When the sounds of the explosions and gunfire was heard in Victoria Barracks, reinforcements and ambulances were immediately ordered to Dillon’s Cross. Searchlights were also sent to the scene to illuminate O’Callaghan’s Field and a pack of bloodhounds were turned loose in pursuit of the ambush party.

The Auxiliaries of K Company were outraged by what had happened. After the wounded men were taken back to the barracks to be treated, they decided to exact retribution.

That retribution would be swift in coming and when it did, it would change the geography of Cork city forever.

OUR CITY BURNS: Our centenary series resumes in The Echo on Monday.

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