The greatest loss of life incurred by the Cork IRA occurred at Clonmult, seven miles north of Midleton, 91 years ago this week.
Almost the entire East Cork flying column was wiped out in a single defensive action. Twelve men were shot dead and a further two were later executed.
In January 1921, the East Cork column, under Commandant Diarmuid O’Hurley, took possession of an old farmhouse close to the quiet village of Clonmult. Twenty men had been chosen by O’Hurley and his officers to take part in a number of planned operations and the house and farm were to be used as training and living quarters by the volunteers. After undergoing a month of intensive training, the first target of the Volunteers was to be a military train at Cobh Junction. Having made a survey of the scene O’Hurley timed the attack for Sunday, 20th February.
On the Sunday afternoon the Volunteers prepared their equipment, ready to leave at 4.15 p.m. When volunteers Michael Desmond and John Joe Joyce went to a well to fill their water bottles they spotted a company of the Hampshire Regiment surrounding the house. They immediately drew their revolvers and fought their way back into the house but both were hit a number of times and later died. The remainder of the column, realising that escape was unlikely, made the decision to try hold out as long as possible while a few tried to slip away and bring back reinforcements.
As five men, led by the acting O/C Jack O’Connell, lined up for a desperate break-out, heavy fire was opened up by the troops outside. In the dash from the bullet-riddled cottage Michael Hallahan was mortally wounded before he got any further than the doorstep, Richard Hegarty fell as he sought cover behind the fence in front of the house and Cobh-man James Ahem was killed when he tried to jump a fence some 200 yards from the house. Jeremiah O’Leary was badly wounded but managed to get back to the farmhouse. Only Captain Jack O’Connell was successful in getting through the withering fire of the British.
O’Connell frantically tried to organise reinforcements for his trapped comrades. He contacted three local Volunteers, one of whom raced to Conna his bicycle, some six miles from Clonmult, where the North East Cork column was located. Meanwhile the battle raged relentlessly around the cottage. The British were the first to be reinforced when, within an hour of the start of the battle, a number of Black-and-Tans arrived. After a two-hour fight the thatch on the cottage was set alight by the Black-and-Tans and troops. With a blazing roof over their heads, the trapped Volunteers tried to make a breach in the gable and soon a narrow opening had been made. Volunteers Glavin and O’Leary tried to force their way through the narrow passage, but almost immediately fell back with head wounds. With no other means of escape possible, the men in the cottage had no option but to surrender. Before leaving the house, they destroyed their rifles.
When the Volunteers emerged from the house with their hands up, the first seven to come out were immediately mown down by the waiting Black-and-Tans. While lying on the ground volunteers Liam Aherne, Jeremiah Aherne, David Desmond, Christopher Sullivan, Donal Dennehy, Joseph Morrissey and James Glavin (from Cobh) were finished off by the enemy. The wounded volunteer, Jeremiah O’Leary, had lapsed into unconsciousness prior to the surrender and was being removed from the house by three comrades. The action saved their lives as it gave a British military officer time to get the policemen under control before the other prisoners emerged from the blazing house.
The North East Cork column, upon hearing of the plight of their East Cork comrades, had at once set out to help them. Unfortunately, the six-mile journey by foot meant that they were too late arriving at Clonmult.
In addition to those who had been murdered, nine volunteers had been captured by the troops. They were tried by court-martial and sentenced to death. The death sentences imposed on O’Leary, Terry, Walsh, Garde and Harty were later commuted and Captain Higgins, recovering from severe wounds, was spared by the advent of the truce in July. However, Cobh men Paddy O’Sullivan and Maurice Moore were executed at Cork military barracks on 5 May, 1921, despite extensive appeals for mercy.
It is believed that the men at Clonmult were given away by an informer. A British ex-serviceman, out trapping rabbits at Clonmult, had noticed the presence of the column in the farmhouse and informed the British authorities. When he was subsequently captured and court-martialled by the North East Cork column, the man is said to have confessed to his treachery.