How IRA pirates in Cork altered history

A new book recalls an amazing story that happened in Ballycotton 100 years ago that had a huge impact on Irish history, says GRAINNE McGUINNESS
How IRA pirates in Cork altered history

Cover of the book, The Ballycotton Job, by Tom Mahon.

A NEW book is set to bring a long-forgotten story from Cork dramatically back to life.

In The Ballycotton Job, author Tom Mahon tells the story of what he describes as “arguably the most brilliant military operation ever carried out in Ireland”.

“In March, 1922 – four months after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty – Ireland teetered on the brink of civil war, with the IRA split into anti and pro-Treaty factions and Britain hurriedly evacuating its soldiers and their equipment back to England,” Mr Mahon says.

“Sean O’Hegarty, the anti-Treaty IRA leader in Cork city, was determined to arm his brigade for the looming conflict and he decided to capture the British war ship Upnor as she returned to Plymouth laden with munitions.

“On the afternoon of Wednesday, March 29, 1922, the IRA seized a tugboat in Cobh and set off in pursuit of the Upnor, which had embarked a few hours earlier. Later that evening they intercepted the arms ship 55km beyond Roches Point. Using a brilliant ruse they forced the captain to cut his engines, allowing an IRA squad to storm the Upnor and install their own crew. Both ships then set sail for the fishing port of Ballycotton.

“In the meantime, the IRA in Cork city hijacked almost 100 lorries, trucks and cars and drove them in a huge procession to Ballycotton. O’Hegarty halted the convoy just before the village and waited until midnight when he saw a flare in the sky, which was the signal that the ships had arrived.

“He led the lorries through the village down to the pier, where the Upnor had docked. Up to 1,000 volunteers – both IRA fighters and locals - joined him and they laboured all night emptying the ship and loading the trucks. It was a massive haul of 80 tons of weaponry, comprising machineguns, rifles, revolvers, ammunition and explosives.

“The incident caused an ‘almighty uproar in London and Dublin. General Nevil Macready, the outgoing British commander in Ireland, said it was as if there was a ‘gale blowing’ in Downing Street and the government reacted with a greater degree of ‘wild excitement’ than occurred even after the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Winston Churchill admitted ‘the Irish have a genius for conspiracy’., while a furious Michael Collins, accused the British of colluding to arm his opponents in the anti-Treaty IRA.”

Thomas G Mahon, author of The Ballycotton Job.
Thomas G Mahon, author of The Ballycotton Job.

Mr Mahon says international newspapers were incredulous. The London Times called it “a clever and daring coup” and the New York Times reported it was a ‘sensational affair... carried out with great audacity’.

“The capture of the Upnor had significant political and military consequences,” he adds. “It forced Churchill to start arming Michael Collins’ National Army and it emboldened the anti-Treaty side, both of which led further down the road to civil war. Additionally, it was the source of much of the weaponry and ammunition used by the Cork IRA in the war, resulting in significant loss of life and the destruction of much of the county’s infrastructure as well as prolonging the conflict.”

The Ballycotton Job brings this story to life, with the events leading up to the capture as well as the consequences of the Upnor seizure discussed in detail. Based on years of archival research, it tells a unique story of both sides, Irish and British. The book’s narrative is enlivened by dialogue and details obtained from interviews with participants. So how did the author, who grew up in Dublin and studied medicine in UCD, come to this story?

“My mother Mary was from Cork city, where her family owned a shoe shop on North Main Street,” he says. “When I was a young boy we often used to visit my grandparents, Tom and Ellen Crofts.

“My grandfather was a warm, jovial person, who always had a twinkle in his eye. He smoked a pipe and it was said he had read every cowboy book in Cork Library. I remember he had a brass ship’s spyglass, which I enjoyed playing with, and my mother told me it was a souvenir from the time he captured a Royal Navy ship. This boosted my already considerable admiration for him since I was delighted to discover there was a real ‘pirate’ in the family.

“However it wasn’t until decades later that I learned the full story. Over the years, I came across mention in history books of the Cork IRA’s capture of the Upnor, but the references were short, incomplete and frequently inaccurate - surprising considering it was one of the most spectacular incidents from the time of the War of Independence and the Civil War.”

Mr Mahon worked as a consultant radiologist in Boston and now lives in Honolulu with his family but he also has a long-standing passion for Irish history.

“I’ve been researching the IRA for over 20 years,” he says. “My first book Decoding the IRA (Mercier Press, 2008) was based on the decryption of over 300 secret IRA documents, which I wrote in collaboration with James Gillogly an expert cryptologist. Through my research I’ve met many wonderful people.”

Research for The Ballycotton Job took considerable time.

“The reason the story has never been fully told before, is most likely because researching it was such a daunting project,” Mr Mahon says. “It was an amazingly complex and multifaceted operation and it has to be understood from both an Irish and British perspective. When I started the project I had no idea that it would take ten years to finish!

“During that time, I visited numerous archives and historical sites, both in Ireland and Britain. Fortunately, in the end, I discovered a huge trove of information, including the official Royal Navy inquiry into the incident, Winston Churchill’s papers on the seizure, and numerous statements by IRA participants.

“In Cork, I explored Cobh and the harbour, Spike Island (where my grandfather escaped from in 1921) and of course beautiful Ballycotton. I visited St Benedict’s Priory in Cobh, once home to the resident British admiral.” The author believes there are elements of Irish history that are now being researched and assessed in a way that didn’t happen previously.

“Until recently, it was difficult to write about Ireland’s revolutionary period, without being expected to take sides,” he says. “This was due in part to the long shadow cast by the troubles in the north. Despite this, many terrific books were written such as David Fitzpatrick’s ground-breaking Politics and Irish Life: 1913-1921, about the War of Independence in Clare, which was published in 1977. But it was usually clear as to what ‘side’ the author was on.

“Nowadays, there are many excellent historians writing nuanced and balanced histories. I’m particularly impressed by the terrific group at UCC, including Dr John Borgonovo, who has been extremely generous in sharing his expertise and knowledge with me over the years.”

Of The Ballycotton Job, Mr Mahon wanted to get this sensational story to a wider audience and highlight one Cork man in particular.

“My goal in writing the book is to tell a great yarn, but in the background I also want to address issues such as colonialism, violence and human nature,” he says. “In particular I found Sean O’Hegarty, who masterminded the attack, to be a fascinating and complex character.

“He was a proud son of Cork and I feel his contribution to the Ireland of today is grossly underappreciated, due in large part to his modesty and unpretentiousness compared to his better known and frequently boastful contemporaries.”

The Ballycotton Job, by Tom Mahon, published by Mercier Press. Available now.

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