John Arnold: I wept as I recalled 14 men for whom the Clonmult bells tolled

John Arnold recalls the bravery and heroism of those who died at Clonmult, a century ago
John Arnold: I wept as I recalled 14 men for whom the Clonmult bells tolled

Members of the commemoration committee Jim Ronayne, Sean Hennessy, Tom O'Neill, PRO: Christy O'Sullivan, chairman; Mick Hegarty, Jim O'Callaghan, Fr Barry O'Flynn, Dungourney; Mary Barron and Tim O'Sullivan secretary at ceremony for the 100th anniversary of the Clonmult ambush in East Cork on Saturday February 20.

AT about 8pm last Sunday, the strains of Amhráin na bh Fiann rang out across the valley from the townland of Garrylaurence, near Clonmult in East Cork. Three of us stood in silence with, as the line from The Soldier’s Song says, the starry heavens o’er us.

It was like a Christmas scene — all around the rolling countryside lights winked from windows of houses and farm buildings. Unlike the previous few nights, it was mild as I chatted to Christy O’Sullivan and Jim Ronayne. We stood by the magnificent limestone sculpture created by Sheedy’s of Midleton to commemorate the Battle of Clonmult.

Darkness had descended but we were not without light. The glow from the 14 little candles laid out on the limestone plinth gave us enough light to see each other.

Last Sunday was February 21 — a century to the day since the 12 cold bodies of those killed here the previous day were taken by Crown Forces to Victoria Barracks in Cork.

I thought of the awful and bloody task undertaken by five local women on the evening of the killings. The Mulcahy sisters, Agnes, Ellen and Hannah, along with National Teachers Lena Allen and Mary Cashell, laid out the lifeless bodies of the 12 IRA volunteers. Imagine the scene they encountered? Young men lying in their own blood, many shot through the head at close range.

The women washed them and bandaged the fatal wounds. After the fighting had ended the Crown Forces made off with their prisoners and left 12 brave men on the ground with their blood oozing into the clay.

You know, sometimes people, mostly nameless pen-pushers or so-called keyboard warriors, criticise me for “always writing about auld history”. Their attitude is a bit like that of Henry Ford, who declared ‘history is bunk’. They want to forget about the past as though it didn’t happen or wasn’t important.

Well, as long as I can talk or write I’ll promote and praise history. It is our story.

I recall about 40 years ago reading of a group or movement known as Holocaust Deniers — Hitler never caused the deaths of Jews, they declared, the Concentration Camps never existed — they were only mythically created by the Allies to discredit Hitler!

Well, lads, when I visited Dachau Concentration camp a few years back, I thought of those anti-history fanatics. It’s a bit like that with Irish history — a lot of it isn’t pretty but it happened and there’s no point in denying it.

In Clonmult last Sunday night, I recalled the local people coming to that very site after the bodies of the slain were taken away. They gathered congealed blood and other bodily tissue blown to smithereens by gunfire the day before and placed the material in glass jars. Later on, these jars were buried with the Volunteers remains in the Republican plot in Midleton cemetery.

On Saturday at 5.15pm, I went up to our local church. At the same time in churches all over East Cork one or two people gathered. As a remembrance of the Clonmult dead it was agreed to toll church bells at 5.30pm.

The fourteen members of the flying column who lost their lives as a result of the Battle of Clonmult. Front, from left: Donal Dennehy, Liam Ahern, David Desmond and Maurice Moore*. Middle, from left: James Glavin, John Joe Joyce, James Ahern and Michael Desmond. Back, from left: Richard Hegarty, Jeremiah Ahern, Christopher O'Sullivan, Joseph Morrissey, Michael Hallahan, and Patrick O'Sullivan*. *Captured at Clonmult and later executed after a trial by Military Court. This composite photograph was created in 1921, very soon after the battle, by John Hallahan of Midleton, brother of Michael.
The fourteen members of the flying column who lost their lives as a result of the Battle of Clonmult. Front, from left: Donal Dennehy, Liam Ahern, David Desmond and Maurice Moore*. Middle, from left: James Glavin, John Joe Joyce, James Ahern and Michael Desmond. Back, from left: Richard Hegarty, Jeremiah Ahern, Christopher O'Sullivan, Joseph Morrissey, Michael Hallahan, and Patrick O'Sullivan*. *Captured at Clonmult and later executed after a trial by Military Court. This composite photograph was created in 1921, very soon after the battle, by John Hallahan of Midleton, brother of Michael.

With our Sacristan, I counted down the seconds from 19 minutes past. Three bells rang out for Richard Hegarty of Garryvoe, then a silence. One, two, three for Jeremiah Ahern of Midleton, then a silence. Christopher O’Sullivan, Midleton — one, two three; a silent pause. The bell tolled thrice for Joseph Morrissey, born in Carlow, but working in Castlemartyr in 1921, then a silent pause. One, two, three; the bell rang out across the countryside for Michael Hallahan of Midleton. James Glavin of Cobh, one, two, three and then a silence again. John Joe Joyce of Midleton was the seventh victim for whom the bell tolled, silence again. The second Cobh man shot in Clonmult was James Aherne — one, two, three, a reverential hush. Michel Desmond of Midleton — one of two brothers slain, three bells and quietness again. Donal Dennehy from the town of Midleton, a h-aon, a dó, a thrí, sshhh. One bell, two and then a third for Liam Aherne of Midleton, silence and then the Bartlemy bell tolled again and again and again for David Desmond.

I lit candles for them before I went home to do the evening farm work. It was close to 6pm as we milked the cows — I could imagine at that very hour 100 years before the petrol being thrown on the thatched roof in Clonmult. Soon it was a blazing inferno. Those inside had no choice but to surrender.

Little did they think, as they came out, hands over their heads, that seven would be lined up by a stone outhouse wall and shot dead — Paddy Higgins was shot in the mouth but miraculously survived.

Imagine later on that fateful Sunday when their comrades O’Hurley, O’Connell, Whelan and Ahern went back to Clonmult. The smoke was still rising from the burnt out farmhouse. The women had laid out the 12 bodies side by side with a canvas sheet over their faces. Paddy Whelan recalled removing the sheet and heartbreakingly calling out the names of his dead comrades, what a pitiful and anguishing sight.

As I travelled home from Clonmult on Sunday, so many thoughts were swirling round in my head. The two Desmond brothers, Michael and David, to die together there in Garrylaurence. Back in 1834, in the Battle of Gortroe in the Tithe War, 14 men died from bullet wounds and among the slain were brothers John and Michael Collins. Just five years before Clonmult, in Dublin in 1916, the Pearse brothers, Padraig and Willie, were both shot dead by a firing squad in the stone-breakers yard. The words written by Padraig Pearse seemed apt, thinking of Mrs Desmond after Clonmult and Mrs Collins in 1834, and Mrs Pearse herself:

I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge

My two strong sons that I have seen go out

To break their strength and die, they and a few,

In bloody protest for a glorious thing,

They shall be spoken of among their people,

The generations shall remember them,

And call them blessed;

But I will speak their names to my own heart

In the long nights;

The little names that were familiar once

Round my dead hearth.

Lord, thou art hard on mothers:

We suffer in their coming and their going;

And tho’ I grudge them not, I weary, weary

Of the long sorrow — And yet I have my joy:

My sons were faithful, and they fought.

Major commemorations had been planned for Clonmult last weekend but sadly, because of Covid all had to be cancelled. In fairness, the local committee had done Trojan work for two years. A magnificent calendar/ journal was produced and many articles were written as well as podcasts and a ‘virtual’ ceremony’ on Facebook.

Some may say Clonmult would never have happened IF the Volunteers hadn’t stayed there so long, IF they had an escape route planned, but there’s no point in blaming anyone and saying ‘if this’ or ‘if that’ —that’s a futile exercise.

My grandmother used to say ‘if ifs and ands were kettles and pans there’d be no need for tinkers’, or as Phil Coulter wrote ‘what’s done is done and what’s won is won’. Sure, if Dermott Mac Murrough hadn’t invited the Normans to Ireland... but he did and the rest is history so read all about it!

On Sunday night, we three chatted for a long while in Clonmult, reflecting on those brave men gone before us who gave their life-blood for Ireland on that hallowed spot. The 14 little candles that lit up the darkness represented the 12 killed on the day and Maurice Moore and Patrick O’Sullivan executed in April, 1921.

I love history and I must say I cried a lot last weekend, in sorrow at the slaughter and in pride also at the bravery and heroism of those who died at Clonmult. They died for Ireland and they died for us.

Sworn to be free,

No more our ancient sire land

Shall shelter the despot or the slave.

Tonight we man the gap of danger

In Erin’s cause, come woe or weal

‘Mid cannons’ roar and rifles peal,

We’ll chant a soldier’s song

In valley green, on towering crag,

Our fathers fought before us,

And conquered ‘neath the same old flag

That’s proudly floating o’er us.

We’re children of a fighting race,

That never yet has known disgrace,

And as we march, the foe to face, We’ll chant a soldier’s song

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