99 years on, recalling the tragedy of Clonmult

Twelve members of the IRA were killed in the Clonmult Ambush in East Cork on February 20, 1921... John Arnold tells the story
99 years on, recalling the tragedy of Clonmult
A Clonmult Ambush anniversary procession passing through Main Street, Midleton, in February, 1935 - 14 years after the tragedy

THE headlines in The Cork Examiner on Saturday, February the 19, 1921, gave a good indication of the state of the country.

Back then the front cover of ‘de paper’ carried the Birth, Death and Marriage Notices and basically the rest was just advertising.

Though the War of Independence was underway, Roches Stores had a Huge Salvage Sale; J.W. Dowden & Co. Ltd of 113-115 Patrick St had Special Offers of Ladies’ Spencers and Golf Coats ‘Slightly Tossed’; and Mr B. Lovitch, ‘Teeth Specialist’, was advertising his business at Washington Street (West).

Inside, on page 7, the real trauma of Ireland and Cork at the time was printed in bold headlines;
















Yes, in February, 1921, the ferocious and oft times vicious struggle between the British forces of occupation and Irish Republicans was in full spate. Michael Collins, the master tactician, knew the IRA could never defeat the British in all-out warfare. Thus the Flying Columns, and a policy of ambush, attack and disperse into the countryside was the only method of inflicting serious damage to the enemy forces.

On February 19, another article on that same page 7 entitled ‘Dublin Castle Report’ listed what are termed ‘Outrage Statistics to Feb 12th’ as follows: ‘Courthouses destroyed, 70; police barracks destroyed, 536; police barracks damaged, 257; raids for arms, 3,046; policemen killed, 225; policemen wounded, 347; soldiers killed, 58; soldiers wounded, 149. So we can see that the War of Independence, begun in 1919, was wreaking a heavy toll on those trying to suppress Irish nationalism and the march towards Irish freedom.

For a group of young IRA volunteers in East Cork, that Saturday night was probably one of little sleep. Since January they had occupied an idle thatched house in the townland of Garrylaurence, near Clonmult in the parish of Dungourney.

This became a training centre and headquarters of the Flying Column of the 4th Battalion, 1st Cork Brigade of the IRA. In charge was Commandant Diarmuid O Hurley.

He had received orders from higher ranks in the IRA during the week to leave Clonmult with all his men and prepare to ambush a military train near Cobh Junction. In preparation for their departure the following day, some of the Volunteers had gone to Confession in Dungourney on the Saturday night.

So, on Sunday February 20, exactly 99 years ago on this day, O Hurley, along with Vice Commandant Joe Aherne and Captain Paddy Whelan, left Clonmult for Cobh Junction. They were planning for the train ambush early the following week.

Captain Jack O’Connell was left in charge of the men at Clonmult with instructions to pack up and leave the house that fateful Sunday evening. Unfortunately, the location of the Column seems to have come to the knowledge of the Crown Forces.

A few years back, the late Jim Willis, a child in 1921, told me they were warned to leave on the Friday night because ‘they had been sold’, another way of saying betrayed.

Theories of multiple spies abound to this day, but one way or another, that Sunday in February nearly a century ago proved to be an awful tragedy for so many young men in Clonmult.

In preparation for their departure, Volunteers John Joe Joyce and Michael Desmond were outside filling water bottles. Two Crossley tenders with soldiers of the Hampshire Regiment approached the area. They parked at Rathorgan Cross and came towards the house filled with Volunteers on foot.

Joyce and Desmond were shot dead by soldiers led by Lieutenant Koe. The house was surrounded and gunfire began. Five of the Volunteers made a dash for safety from the house, but only Jack O’Connell got safely away. Michael Hallahan, Richard Hegarty and James Ahern were all shot dead. Diarmuid ‘Sonny’ O’Leary got back into the house.

O’Connell knew that another IRA leader, William ‘Bronco’ Buckley and his men were in Ballynoe, five miles away. They came when summoned but by then it was too late.

An attempt was made to make a breach in the back wall of the house to escape. O’Leary was first to try the route but got a severe head wound so this ploy was abandoned.

Koe sent word back to Midleton for reinforcements, who arrived with petrol. The thatched roof was set ablaze and the remaining volunteers had a stark choice: burn to death or surrender.

After being called on to come out with hands up, and being reassured no harm would come to them, the brave Volunteers agreed to give up the struggle. As Pat O’Sullivan and Maurice Moore tended to the injured O’Leary, seven volunteers walked out with hands over their heads. They were lined up by an outhouse wall and callously murdered.

Patrick Higgins had a pistol put in his mouth. He was shot but miraculously survived. But for the intervention of an officer from the Hampshires no-one would have survived the awful slaughter on that Sunday evening in Clonmult. Eight were arrested and taken by lorry to Cork. In April, Maurice Moore and Pat O’Sullivan were executed for their part in the fight.

Later that Sunday evening, O’Hurley, Whelan and Aherne, along with Cobh Volunteer Mick Burke, returned to the scene of the carnage at Clonmult. An eerie silence greeted them. The stench of death and the burning embers of the thatch hung around the place. Twelve men lay cold in death, their faces covered with canvas.

For Joe Aherne, it must have been such an appalling sight for amongst the ranks of the slain were his brother and cousin.

During the War of Independence, Clonmult marked the greatest loss of life in one single incident for the IRA. It was a disaster for the Volunteer movement in East Cork. However, we must not be critical of the stand those brave men took.

Hindsight, of course, is wonderful and we can argue that they stayed in Clonmult too long, they had no escape route and they should have had sentries posted until the minute they left the place. These were not professional soldiers, not military men by trade — no, they were simply volunteers, young men who wanted Irish freedom and paid the ultimate price in striving for that goal.

I was in Clonmult last weekend. Plans are well afoot to remember these brave Irishmen next February, on the centenary of the Clonmult Ambush.

For over a year now, a local committee has been in situ making plans.

Just a few weeks ago, our country voted in a free and fair democratic General Election. The men who died at Clonmult 99 years ago today helped win us our freedom. We should never, ever forget them.

Next Sunday, Mass will be said in Clonmult Church at 11am and afterwards Dr Gabriel Doherty, UCC Historian, will speak at a ceremony at the Ambush site at 12.45pm.

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