OVER the past 13 months, people in Cork city have commemorated the centenaries of the deaths of Lord Mayors Tomás Mac Curtáin and Terence MacSwiney and other key events such as The Burning of Cork.
While it is important these events are commemorated, it is equally important to remember that others also made the ultimate sacrifice during the War of Independence.
One hundred years ago today, on April 19, 1921, one man who did so was Captain Tadhg O’Sullivan of the 2nd Battalion, Cork No. 1 Brigade of the IRA
The son of farmer Patrick O’Sullivan and his wife Kitty (née O’Leary), Tadhg was born on January 7, 1887, in the townland of Annagh Beg, Co. Kerry. As a young man he moved to Cork where he found work as ‘van man’ delivering goods with a horse-drawn vehicle.
O’Sullivan was a committed republican and soon after arriving in the city, he joined the Irish Volunteers. He also became a leader of Na Fianna Éireann. P. J. Murphy, a member of that organisation, later said that O’Sullivan, “took a fatherly and controlling interest in the Fianna and he was active in organising throughout the county”.
During the War of Independence, O’Sullivan also took an active part in IRA operations in Cork. After the death of Tomás Mac Curtáin, he was one of the Coroner’s jury that delivered the historic verdict of ‘wilful murder’ against senior members of the British government and RIC. After the inquest, he was arrested and interned in Belfast but he and other prisoners were soon released after they went on hunger strike.
On returning to Cork, O’Sullivan resumed his activities with the IRA. He was now a captain in the 2nd Battalion of Cork No. 1 Brigade, a unit commanded by Michael Murphy, a tough, aggressive, guerrilla fighter and well-known hurler who considered O’Sullivan to be “one of my best company captains”.
On the morning of October 8, 1920, the two men took part in the operation known as the ‘Barrack Street Ambush’.
The previous evening, Murphy was with the brigade commander, Seán O’Hegarty, in the unit’s headquarters in the home of the Wallace sisters on St Augustine Street when they received information that a lorry full of soldiers would be leaving Victoria Barracks for Elizabeth Fort early the following morning.
On hearing this, O’Hegarty immediately decided to mount an ambush and he gave the task to Michael Murphy.
Once curfew had been lifted the following morning, 20 armed Volunteers made their way to Thomas Ashe Hall on Father Mathew Quay where Murphy told them his plan. He and O’Sullivan would position themselves at the junction of Cove Street and Barrack Street and attack the lorry with grenades and revolvers. The remainder of the Volunteers would be deployed to cover Elizabeth Fort and the RIC barracks on Tuckey Street and Union Quay, in case reinforcements were sent from these locations.
Murphy later recalled what happened in his statement to the Bureau of Military History:
“At about a quarter to nine, the lorry came into view. When it reached our position and had begun to slow down as we expected, I saw that it contained three soldiers in the drivers’ ‘cab’ and 8 to 10 inside in the open lorry.
“I threw the first grenade which hopped off the side of the lorry and exploded, wounding O’Sullivan and myself, but not seriously.
“O’Sullivan and I then hurled grenades into the ‘cab’… Our third grenade got into the back of the lorry, causing casualties amongst the soldiers there. The lorry continued on up the hill and was met by a volley from our revolver-men stationed further up the road.”
One soldier was killed in this incident and two others were wounded. All the Volunteers escaped unharmed.
However, O’Sullivan was now a marked man. At that time, he was residing at 91, Douglas Street. On the evening of April 19, 1921, he was outside No. 23, talking to some other people, when he saw two plain clothes policemen and an RIC patrol converging on him.
In an effort to avoid arrest, he ran across the road and up the stairs in No. 82, pursued by the police, who were firing their revolvers at him and shouting at him to halt. O’Sullivan was climbing out a back window on the top floor when more shots were fired and he fell down onto the roof of an outhouse in the back yard.
The police found him lying on the ground in the yard. He was in a critical condition and he died within minutes.
The remains of Tadhg O’Sullivan were taken by ambulance to Union Quay RIC Barracks where two priests from St Finbarr’s Parish administered the Last Rites. They were then taken to Victoria Barracks where they were examined by an army doctor before being released to members of his family.
The doctor later informed a military inquest that O’Sullivan had been hit by seven bullets.
Tadhg O’Sullivan’s Funeral Mass was held at St. Finbarr’s Church on the afternoon of April 22, 1921.
Under a military order, only 100 mourners were allowed to attend and accompany the remains to their final resting place.
Large numbers of British soldiers in lorries and an armoured car were deployed near the church to ensure that this order was obeyed, and the four men who were carrying O’Sullivan’s Tricolour draped coffin to the hearse after Mass were arrested.
Notwithstanding the large military presence, large crowds lined the streets of Cork to pay their final respects to O’Sullivan as his remains were taken to St Finbarr’s Cemetery where they were buried in the Republican Plot.
In three months, this country will mark the centenary of the Truce that ended hostilities in the War of Independence. As we approach that day, we should spare a thought for Tadhg O’Sullivan and all of the lesser-known Volunteers who sacrificed lives in that conflict for what they hoped would be a better Ireland.