ON March 19, 1921, one of the largest battles of Ireland’s War of Independence took place at Crossbarry, Co. Cork. It was a battle that pitted the forces of the Crown against the flying column of Cork No. 3 Brigade of the IRA.
IRA brigade flying columns were full time units that made their first appearance in the summer of 1920. Comprised of Volunteers who were ‘on the run’ or who mobilised for a specific operation, they were equipped from the brigade’s meagre resources and supported by members of the civilian population.
The Cork No. 3 Brigade column was formed in September, 1920, and commanded by a 23-year-old son of an RIC constable named Tom Barry.
Born in Killorglin, Co. Kerry, on July 1, 1897, Barry joined the British Army in June, 1915, and served in Mesopotamia and Egypt during the Great War. Demobilised in March, 1919, he returned to live on Convent Hill in Bandon, Co. Cork. Inspired by the 1916 Rising, he joined the Bandon Company of the IRA in the summer of 1920 and because of his military experience, he was appointed commander of the brigade flying column.
Under his command, the column soon proved one of the most effective units in the IRA and a major threat to Crown forces in West Cork.
On October 20, 1920, it ambushed a convoy of British troops at Toureen, killing four soldiers. Then, on November 28, it eliminated an 18-strong mobile patrol of Auxiliaries at Kilmichael.
The Kilmichael Ambush shook the British establishment and led to the introduction of Martial Law in the south of the country. It also led Crown forces to increase the number of personnel deployed in operations against the IRA. In response, Barry increased the size of the column.
In March, 1921, a column of 104 men were mobilised to ambush a convoy of British troops that travelled from Kinsale to Bandon. The following brigade officers were with the column: Liam Deasy, Adjutant; Tadhg O’Sullivan, Quartermaster; Dr Con Lucey, Medical Officer and Eugene Callanan, Assistant Medical Officer. Flor Begley, a piper and an assistant to the Adjutant was also present.
At dawn on March 17, the column took up ambush positions at Shippool, halfway between Kinsale and Bandon, but the convoy failed to appear. Barry marched his men to billets in Skeugh, around 6km from the village of Crossbarry. That evening, when he discussed the situation with Liam Deasy and Tom Kelleher, a captain in the local Crosspound Company, a decision was taken to lay an ambush for a convoy of British troops that passed through Crossbarry.
On the night of March 18, the column moved to billets near Crossbarry. Among the buildings occupied were the homes of the Harold and Beazley families near the roadside east of the village. Both families were held captive while the column was present. Barry and Deasy also conducted a reconnaissance of the area to select a suitable ambush position. The site chosen was a 400 metre stretch of road that ran from the Harold home in the west, to a turn in the road near Crossbarry Bridge in the east. After sentries were posted, the column retired for the night. As the Volunteers went to sleep, they had no idea they would be called to arms within hours.
Four weeks earlier, on February 15, a party of Volunteers from Cork No. 3 Brigade, led by Commandant Charlie Hurley, had attacked a train carrying British troops at Upton. Six British soldiers were wounded, three Volunteers were killed and two, including Hurley, were seriously wounded. Six civilians also died and three were detained on suspicion of being members of the IRA. Under interrogation, one man revealed that the headquarters of Cork No. 3 Brigade was located in the district of Ballymurphy, a few kilometres north of Crossbarry. Armed with this information, the British decided to conduct a cordon and search operation of the area at 6am on March 19.
According to Barry, 1,400 Crown forces took part in the operation: 400 troops from Cork, 200 from Ballincollig, 300 from Kinsale, 350 from Bandon and 150 Auxiliaries from Macroom. Deasy put the total between 400-500 and Flor Begley put it at 350. British accounts coincide with the latter figures. Whatever the number, the column would be seriously outnumbered.
Around 2.30am, a sentry spotted lorries approaching from Bandon and raised the alarm. When Barry was informed, he immediately decided to deploy his men in the ambush positions he had selected earlier.
The column was divided into seven sections under the command of Seán Hales, John Lordan, Michael Crowley, Denis Lordan, Tom Kelleher, Peter Kearney and Christopher O’Connell, all experienced officers who would perform well under fire.
Sections one, two, three, six and four were positioned west to east on the road and in the Harold and Beazley homes. Section five covered the rear of the column and its eastern flank while section seven covered its western flank and a laneway that led to the north. Stone roadblocks were erected on this laneway and near Crossbarry Bridge to prevent British vehicles outflanking the column. A mine was laid on the road near the Harold home and another was laid near the bridge.
The column was in position around 4am and two hours later, shots were heard to the north. British troops had begun searching that area and came to the home of Denis Forde, a ‘safe house’ where Charlie Hurley was convalescing; he was shot dead while trying to escape. Upon hearing the shots, Barry decided to move the column north to Skeenahaine Hill so he could assess the situation. However, as the column prepared to move, a convoy of eight British lorries were seen heading towards Crossbarry from the west. As it happened, each vehicle only carried a driver and an escort and they were heading to Crossbarry to collect troops on completion of the search operation.
The column opened fire after the first three lorries entered the ambush site. Within minutes, the occupants were either dead or had been put to flight and the remaining lorries had withdrawn to safety.
A Volunteer prisoner from Newcestown, Edward White, was being carried in one of the lorries but he managed to escape unharmed. When the shooting started, Flor Begley started to play his pipes to inspire his comrades. Deasy described this as Begley’s ‘finest hour’ for which he would become known as ‘The Piper of Crossbarry’.
While the fighting on the roadside was taking place, other aspects of the British plan had already started to unravel. The troops travelling from Cork had taken a wrong turn and the Auxiliaries from Macroom initially headed to Kilbarry instead of Crossbarry. While this display of military incompetence favoured the column, Barry’s men still had a fight on their hands.
Having burned the three lorries and collected a quantity of arms and ammunition, the column was in the process of withdrawing northwards when members of sections six and four came under heavy attack near the road. Volunteer Peter Monahan, a member of section four, was killed and two other members were wounded. There was now a danger the Volunteers would be overrun but when Denis Lordan, commander of section four, detonated the mine near Crossbarry Bridge, they were able to withdraw without further casualties.
As the column moved north, Christopher O’Connell and the members of section seven managed to repel an attack from the west. Tom Kelleher’s section five also came under heavy attack from British troops advancing from the east. Two members of his section, Volunteers Cornelius Daly and Jeremiah O’Leary, were killed but when Barry sent a party of reinforcements to Kelleher, the British were forced to retreat.
Having seen off the enemy, the column gathered at Skeenahaine where the wounded were treated. From there it marched to billets at Gurranereigh 20km to the south-east. As the men set off, some Auxiliaries were observed to the north and east but they were also sent packing and the column reached its destination without further incident.
In Gurranereigh, Barry leaned of the death of Charlie Hurley and in the early hours of March 21, he marched his men to Clogagh where they buried the commander of Cork No. 3 Brigade with full military honours.
A fighting withdrawal is one of the most difficult operations for a military unit to conduct. That the column managed to fight its way to safety is a tribute to the leadership provided by Tom Barry and the performance of its members.
British casualties in what became known as ‘The Crossbarry Ambush’ were ten dead and seven wounded. Counting Charlie Hurley, IRA casualties were four dead and two seriously wounded. While the death of Hurley and the three Volunteers was a serious blow to Cork No. 3 Brigade, the failure of the Crown forces to eliminate the flying column was a major victory for the IRA and proof its Volunteers could conduct a large-scale military operation.