Amazing tale of the General kidnapped by the IRA in Cork

This week marks the centenary of one of the more unusual events of the Irish War of Independence, when a British Brigadier-General was kidnapped by the Cork IRA. PAT POLAND revisits the episode, which for once didn’t end in bloodshed, and ponders whether alcohol played a part
Amazing tale of the General kidnapped by the IRA in Cork
General Lucas (seated) pictured with his captors near Bunratty, Co. Clare. Back row (l – r): Paddy Brennan, Michael Brennan. Front (l – r): James Brennan, Joe Keane.

CAREYSVILLE, on the Munster Blackwater, offers some of the best fly-fishing in Ireland. Long regarded as one of the premier beats for salmon, it poses challenges for both novices and the most competent fly casters alike.

The stretch of water, with its pretty scenery, is overlooked by Careysville House, built in 1812 on the site of the ruined Ballymacpatrick Castle, and for generations has attracted fishermen from all over the world, most notably from the UK.

Thus it was, on the calm, sunny morning of Saturday, June 26, 1920, a quartet of British gentlemen left Fermoy with the intention of spending an enjoyable day fishing at Kilbarry, some miles east of the town.

But these were no ordinary anglers. The most senior of them was 41-year-old Brigadier General Cuthbert Lucas, Commanding Officer of the British Army’s 16th Infantry Brigade, based at Fermoy Barracks. His companions were Colonel Danford, Royal Artillery, Colonel Tyrell, Royal Engineers, and the General’s batman.

How the Cork Examiner for Monday 28 June 1920 announced the kidnapping of General Lucas.
How the Cork Examiner for Monday 28 June 1920 announced the kidnapping of General Lucas.

As evening arrived, the weather grew unsettled and the group decided to call it a day. Danford and Tyrell had already made their way back to the fishing lodge, leaving Lucas on his own to make up his tackle.

Lost in thought — perhaps thinking of his heavily-pregnant wife Joan (whom he called ‘Pip’) back in England — he was making his way through a small wood when, suddenly, he was confronted by a man in ‘mufti’ — army-speak for ‘civilian clothes’. The revolver in the man’s hand needed no explanation.

Instinctively reaching for his own pistol, Lucas thought the better of it and put his hands up, dropping his fishing rod on the ground. He allowed himself to be disarmed and marched back to the lodge.

Earlier, the General’s batman had been captured and taken away by local Volunteers, to be later released, unharmed, with a message for the Army authorities in Fermoy. As the colonels, one by one, arrived at the lodge, they, too had been similarly arrested and disarmed. Neither put up any resistance.

The IRA party comprised Liam Lynch (later, Chief of Staff of the IRA), Seán Moylan (later, Government Minister), Patrick Clancy (killed the following August), George Power, the unit’s Intelligence Officer (who had found Lucas) and a small party of Volunteers.

Their message to the British Army authorities was clear. Michael Fitzgerald, OC of the Fermoy IRA battalion, was languishing on hunger-strike in Cork Gaol as a protest against his detention without trial. Lucas would be released if Fitzgerald were set free. (Events dictated otherwise and, sadly, Fitzgerald died on October 17, 1920).

AMBITIOUS PLOT: Comdt Liam Lynch, Cork 2 Brigade, Irish Volunteers.
AMBITIOUS PLOT: Comdt Liam Lynch, Cork 2 Brigade, Irish Volunteers.

Lynch introduced himself and his comrades by name and rank, and Lucas did likewise. It now became essential to move the prisoners as far away from the Fermoy area as possible.

The party set off in two cars: Moylan, Power and Tyrell in a Model T Ford borrowed from local man John B. Curtin, and Lynch, Clancy, Lucas, and Danford in the British General’s large touring car, driven by a Volunteer.

Upon approaching the village of Rathcormac the Ford temporarily lost contact with the other car at a wide, sweeping bend in the road. Lucas and Danford struck up a conversation in a strange language (subsequently discovered to be Arabic), and, at a pre-arranged signal, simultaneously jumped on Lynch and Clancy.

The attack was so sudden, the IRA officers were taken by surprise and almost disarmed by their assailants. In the ensuing fierce struggle, the driver lost control of the car which crashed into a ditch, rendering him unconscious.

The struggle between Lynch and Lucas was particularly severe, as both were well-built, athletic men, around 6ft in height. As the door of the car gave way, both toppled out onto the road where Lynch succeeded in overpowering Lucas who, exhausted, shouted: “I surrender!”

Danford and Clancy were on the ground, the British officer on top, throttling his opponent. Taking in the situation rapidly and seeing Clancy was in mortal danger, Lynch pointed his pistol at Danford and exclaimed: “Surrender, or I shoot!” Danford ignored the command and maintained his grip on Clancy’s throat, whereupon Lynch fired, hitting the British officer in the face and shoulder.

It was decided to release Tyrell to attend to Danford — who made a full recovery) — and proceed with Lucas as the sole prisoner.

As the car drove off into the twilight, Brigadier General Cuthbert Henry Tindall Lucas, for all intents and purposes, disappeared off the face of the earth for the next 35 days. The Boer War and Great War veteran — mentioned in Despatches on eight occasions — must surely have feared the worst.

When news reached Fermoy of the his abduction, a huge search operation, involving thousands of troops and police, and aircraft from Fermoy Aerodrome, got under way.

Two nights later, and for the second time in less than a year, troops from the garrison went on the rampage, looting and causing widespread damage to business premises in the town, with 35 shops being trashed on one street alone.

******

General Lucas was held, in the first instance, at O’Connell’s farm at Glantane, near Mallow, arriving about 3am on Sunday, June 27.

On Monday night he was transported to Dan McCarthy’s house at Creggane, Lombardstown, and transferred to the custody of the West Limerick IRA before being moved to the Sheehan farmhouse at Barna, Templeglantine.

On July 1, in the dead of night, he was moved again to Dore’s house near Shanagolden and later transported across the Shannon Estuary to Co. Clare. Eight more moves followed, until, eventually, he was driven back over the county bounds into Co. Limerick, being billeted at the McCarthy house about five miles from Caherconlish. The East Clare Brigade of the IRA, including OC Michael Brennan (later, Chief of Staff of the Irish Army 1931-1940), were responsible for his detention.

Lucas, an affable man, was well-liked by his captors, playing endless games of cards with them, particularly poker and bridge. He was a great poker player, ‘cleaning’ the Volunteers out on several occasions. They, in turn, taught him ‘45s’. He whiled away his time in captivity fishing, playing croquet and tennis, and even helping to save the hay. Much to his delight and his puckish sense of humour, he even indulged in a spot of salmon poaching with his captors!

A letter sent by Lucas to his wife informing her that he had been taken prisoner.
A letter sent by Lucas to his wife informing her that he had been taken prisoner.

On June 30, when still a prisoner, a letter from him appeared in The Times, stating: ‘I am well and considerately treated. They are doing all they possibly can to provide me with everything I want. However, I want some money, about £10.” (Presumably, the latter was to ensure his place in the nightly card school).

In a letter to his wife, Pip, he described how he was being well looked after and well treated, “but very bored”. His grand-daughter, Ms Ruth Wheeler, recalled: “The rapport between the IRA men and my grandfather, whilst each side kept to their roles, was amazing. They played cards into the early hours which my grandfather tried to conceal from my grandmother in his letters, as she wouldn’t approve. My grandmother (Lucas’s wife, ‘Pip’) was pregnant at the time, and the family kept the news of his capture from her. One morning she was feeling sick, so she called for the nurse who came with a bowl, and underneath the bowl was a newspaper with the headline, ‘General Lucas Kidnapped’. She went into premature labour and a baby boy was born.”

Mrs Lucas managed to get a letter announcing the birth, to her husband by addressing it simply ‘To the IRA’. Postal workers sympathetic to the cause ensured its safe delivery.

But it was General Lucas’s insistence on receiving an officer’s prisoner-of-war allowance of a bottle of whiskey a day that may, ultimately, have led to his release, as Michael Brennan later divulged: “General Lucas was an expensive luxury as he drank a bottle of whiskey every day which I hated like hell to pay for. I was very sorry for him and more so for his young wife in England, who was very ill partly after a baby, but mostly, I imagine, from shock. Through Jack Coughlan, who worked in Limerick Post Office, I arranged a system whereby Lucas wrote to his wife and got a letter from her every day. I put him on his honour that he would make no use of this facility to harm us or to escape and I gave him his letters unopened. He could understand being able to send letters, but receiving them impressed him very much with the machine we appeared to control.”

(The letters to his wife were preserved by the family and, in 2019, appeared on the BBC Television programme Antiques Roadshow).

Jack Hogan, son of one of the guards, Thomas Hogan, disclosed: “The trouble was that they couldn’t keep him. He used to drink a bottle of whiskey every day and he used to beat them at poker. He cleaned them out at poker.”

Additionally, it seems the unit wanted to be rid of their prisoner because the logistics of holding him were tying down a lot of their best men. Having harvested maximum publicity in the international press from the kidnapping, very little in the way of operations could go on in their area so long as the General remained in captivity.

Thus, at 2am on July 30, Lucas’s ‘escape’ was facilitated by the IRA, who relaxed the security around him. With the rain falling in torrents, he made his way across the fields until he reached the main Limerick-Tipperary road, some seven miles from the house. At 7am, he reached New Pallas RIC Barracks where the astonished station party ensured he had a good breakfast and bath, and made arrangements to deliver him back to Fermoy on the Crossley Tender that travelled daily from Limerick to Cork with the military mail. Wearing borrowed civilian clothes, he took his place amongst the escort of eight armed soldiers from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. A motor-cyclist preceded the tender by about 30 metres.

For General Lucas, however, his traumatic ordeal was not yet quite over.

******

At about 9.30am, near Oola, close to Limerick Junction, the British soldiers were ambushed by the Solohead Company of the IRA, whose members included such household names as Dan Breen and Seán Tracey. The motorcycle outrider, 20-year-old Lance Corporal Parker, and Private Daniel Bayliss, aged 18, were killed outright, while three Privates were wounded.

Lucas had a lucky escape in the encounter: a bullet grazed his forehead and nose. (It transpired later that the ambushing party were not aware of his presence in the convoy). There were no casualties on the IRA side.

When General Lucas finally arrived back at his command, he complimented the discipline and efficiency of the Irish Volunteers. In a briefing paper, he contended that the ‘Rebels’ were a much more formidable and organised force than had hitherto been appreciated.

General Macready, Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces in Ireland, had to defend him against the wrath of the Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, who bristled against the General being so foolhardy as to put himself in the position of being taken prisoner in the first instance, and speaking in such glowing terms of his captors in the second.

Ruth Wheeler explained: “My grandfather was a man of honour who didn’t flinch from saying what he thought. He knew he risked being court-martialled for saying that he was held by ‘delightful people’, but spoke out anyway. This he said in spite of almost being killed in the Oola ambush just after he ‘escaped.”

This was not what elements in the British Government wanted to hear.

Thomas Toomey, author and historian, asserted that he believed there had been some sort of deal between the IRA and Lucas as he never revealed any of the locations in which he had been held. “The odd thing,” he wrote, “is that General Lucas knew every house he stayed in, but none of them was ever raided. In over 20 years of research I never heard a bad word said against him.”

Cuthbert Lucas went on to become Assistant Adjutant-General, Aldershot Command, and served on the staff at General Headquarters, British Army of the Rhine, from 1927 until his retirement in 1932. He acted as Deputy Lieutenant of Hertfordshire and served as a Justice of the Peace. He died in April, 1958, aged 79.

He summed up his sojourn at the hands of the IRA in Ireland in the summer of 1920 in a simple audit. He was, he considered, “treated as a gentleman by gentlemen”.

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