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The Clonmult Ambush, 100 Years Ago This Week
Volunteers of the 4th Battalion, 1st Cork IRA Brigade
One hundred years ago this week the IRA suffered its highest number of casualties in a single incident during the Tan war, again in the 1st Brigade, in the east County Cork at Clonmult. This was the operational area of the 4th Battalion flying column. In December they had attacked crown forces in Midleton, killing two Black and Tans and capturing a good haul of weapons. In early January they moved across the country and based themselves about a mile from the village of Clonmult in an abandoned thatched, single-story farmhouse with a few outbuildings. Unusually for a flying column, they stayed there for several weeks, thus increasing the danger of detection by the enemy, or of being informed upon.
The flying column received orders from Florrie O’Donoghue to prepare an attack on a train carrying British munitions on the Cork to Cobh line. The column prepared to move out of Clonmult for this operation on the 20th of February 1921. But before they could leave, disaster struck. It seems that sentries posted at outlying points, 24 hours a day, to protect the farmhouse, had either failed to be alert or had left their posts without orders. British crown forces had succeeded in surrounding the place, with most of the column now trapped. These soldiers of the British Army’s Hampshire Regiment opened fire on the house and a siege began. The decision was made by the trapped IRA men to try and hold out as long as possible while others tried to escape to bring back reinforcements. The attempt was led by Captain Jack O’Connell, who managed to escape. He contacted other volunteers and sent them to Conna, six miles away, to get reinforcements. Michael Hallahan, Richard Hegarty and James Ahern died in the escape attempt. Jeremiah O’Leary made it back to the house but was badly wounded.
The burnt out shell of the Clonmult cottage after the ambush by Crown forces
British reinforcements arrived in the form of Black and Tans and RIC. They proceeded to set fire to the thatched house. Volunteers Galvin and O’Leary were both shot dead as they made an opening in the gable of the house. A decision to surrender was made before leaving the house and the volunteers destroyed their rifles.
As they emerged from the house with their hands up, Joseph Morrissey, James Galvin, Donal Dennehy, Liam Aherne, Jeremiah Aherne, Christopher Sullivan and David Desmond were all shot by the Black and Tans. The intervention of a British military officer stopped the shooting and the remaining eight Volunteers were later tried by court-martial and sentenced to death. Two of these sentences were carried out. Maurice Moore and Paddy O’Sullivan were executed 28 April 1921; the other sentences were commuted. The life of Captain Paddy Higgins, recovering from wounds, was spared due to the July 1921 Truce.