The success of Tom Barry’s flying column plagued British forces and posed a serious and consistent threat to the authorities in West Cork. A historical account of the Crossbarry ambush, 100 years ago this week, by Gerry White (for the Examiner).
In the first two months of 1921, crown forces inflicted defeats on Cork IRA units at Dripsey on January 28, Mourne Abbey on February 15, at Upton that same day, and at Clonmult on February 20.
While these defeats were significant, the ‘History of the 6th Division’, the British army unit with responsibility for the province of Munster and commanded by Major General EP Strickland, stated that: “On March 19th, the biggest battle of the campaign, and one more nearly approaching to an action as fought in normal warfare, took place between Bandon and Cork.
“If the outcome had been completely successful, this action might quite easily have had decisive results as regards rebel activity in West Cork.”
The battle referred to in that document has become known as the Crossbarry ambush. Fought between forces of the Crown and the flying column of Cork No 3 Brigade of the IRA near Crossbarry, Co Cork, it was one of the largest engagements of the War of Independence.
IRA Flying Columns made their appearance in the summer of 1920. They were conceived as a full-time strikeforce comprised of Volunteers ‘on the run’, that would be sustained by supporters of the Republican movement.
The Cork No 3 Brigade flying column, based in West Cork and commanded by Tom Barry, proved to be one of the most effective.
TOM BARRY: AN AGGRESSIVE, COURAGEOUS, EFFICIENT COMMANDER
Born in Killorglin, Co Kerry, on July 1, 1893, Thomas Bernadine Barry was the son of an RIC constable and a veteran of the Great War who fought in Mesopotamia with the Royal Field Artillery.
Demobilised in March 1919, Barry returned to live in Bandon, Co Cork, and in the summer of 1920, he joined No 3 Brigade. Though initially distrusted by some officers, because of his military experience, he was made commander of the Brigade flying column.
Barry proved to be an aggressive, courageous, and efficient commander who quickly mastered the strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare.
On November 28, 1920, his column eliminated an 18-strong mobile patrol of Auxiliaries at Kilmichael, Co Cork. In the weeks that followed, it mounted a number of other operations against crown forces and their supporters in the civilian population.
In 1921, the British army changed the tactics it used against the IRA and increased the number of personnel deployed on operations. In response to this development, Barry increased the strength of his flying column.
More than 30 members had taken part in the Kilmichael ambush, but, as Barry stated in his book, Guerrilla Day in Ireland, the column that mobilised in March 1921 contained 104 men. Included in that number were the following brigade officers: The adjutant, Liam Deasy; quartermaster Tadhg O’Sullivan; medical officer Dr Con Lucey; and assistant medical officer, Eugene Callanan. Florence Begley, an assistant to the adjutant and a noted piper, was also a member.
Barry later recalled that having a piper with the column was “an innovation” as “the best of soldiers will fight better still, to the strains of their traditional war songs”. That March, his theory would be put to the test.
When Barry learned that a convoy of British troops would be travelling from Kinsale to Bandon on March 17, a decision was taken to ambush it.
At dawn on St Patrick’s Day, the column took up ambush positions at Shippool, halfway between Kinsale and Bandon, but the convoy never appeared.
Around 4pm, a scout reported that it left Kinsale but had turned back. When Barry received this report, he stood down the column and moved it to billets in Skeugh, east of Innishannon.
Barry believed that since the column had mobilised, it was important for the men to undertake an operation. When he discussed the situation with his officers the following day, Liam Deasy stated that British lorries had passed through Crossbarry earlier that week and, as the column was close to the village, it might be possible to ambush them there.
When Tom Kelleher, a captain in the Crosspound Company who was familiar with the locality agreed, a decision was taken to lay an ambush on March 19.
In his book, Towards Ireland Free, Liam Deasy stated, “As things turned out, this was to be the most momentous decision in the whole campaign in West Cork.” He was correct.
That night, the column marched to Crossbarry. It arrived around 8.30pm and was billeted in the locality. Once sentries had been posted, Barry and Deasy selected a site for the ambush.
The location chosen was a 400m stretch of road east of Crossbarry bridge that was dominated by farmhouses belonging to the Harold and Beazley families.
It ran from the Harold home in the west to a turn in the road in the east, around 100km from Crossbarry bridge. Having discussed the plan, Barry and Deasy returned to their quarters unaware that the forces of the crown were about to converge on the column.
Sometime earlier, the British army received information from a volunteer captured in the Upton ambush that the headquarters of Cork No 3 Brigade was located in the townland of Ballymurphy, north of Crossbarry. Based on this intelligence, a cordon and search operation to locate the headquarters was planned for 6am on March 19.
Accounts differ as to the number of crown forces involved. In his book, Barry gave a total of 1,400, consisting of 400 troops from Cork, 200 from Ballincollig, 300 from Kinsale, 350 from Bandon, and 150 Auxiliaries from Macroom.
In his statement to the Bureau of Military History, Flor Begley put the number at 350, while Liam Deasy estimated it was between 400 and 500.
The figures for the crown forces provided by the historian William Sheehan, in his book A Hard Local War, are closer that those provided by Deasy and Begley. Whatever the true number, the only thing that would matter was the outcome of the operation.
According to documents contained in the papers of Major General Strickland in the Imperial War Museum, the British plan called for units of the Essex regiment from Kinsale and Bandon to deploy near Crossbarry, then sweep northwards to search the townlands of Ballyhandle, Ballymurphy, and Belrose.
At the same time, members of the Hampshire regiment from Victoria Barracks in Cork would deploy to the north-east of the target area, while auxiliaries from Macroom would deploy to the west. A party of troops from the Manchester regiment in Ballincollig would also be involved.
There is an old military dictum that states, ‘No plan survives first contact with the enemy’. But in this case, the plan started to flounder before the crown forces had any contact with the column.
On the morning of March 19, troops from the Hampshire regiment took the wrong route and didn’t play a major part in the fight that followed, while, according to Deasy, it appears that the auxiliaries misinterpreted their orders as they initially made for Kilbarry instead of Crossbarry. The troops from Ballincollig also arrived late.
However, that wasn’t all that would go wrong for the British that day.
At around 2.30am, IRA sentries had spotted lights from a number of vehicles coming from the direction of Bandon. When Barry was informed, he was faced with the decision to retreat or fight. He chose the latter. After issuing his orders to his men, they were deployed in the positions that had been selected for the ambush.
Sections one, two, three, six, and four were positioned west to east on the road under the command of Seán Hales, John Lordan, Michael Crowley, Peter Kearney, and Denis Lordan.
The homes belonging to the Harold and Beasley families were also occupied. Section five, commanded by Tom Kelleher, covered the rear of the column and its left flank while section seven, led by Christopher O’Connell, covered its right flank, the Bandon road, and a laneway west of the Harold home that ran due north.
A stone roadblock was erected on this laneway to prevent British military vehicles using it to outflank the ambush party, and a similar barricade was erected on the road near Crossbarry bridge to prevent vehicles entering from that direction.
A mine was laid on the road at the turn before the bridge and another one was laid on the road east of the Harold home.
The column was in position around 4am. Two hours later, shots were heard from the north that signalled the death of Commandant Charlie Hurley, the commander of Cork No 3 Brigade. Hurley had been wounded in the Upton ambush and had moved to the farmhouse of Denis Forde at Ballymurphy to convalesce.
Earlier, Barry had sent William Desmond, a captain in the Newcestown Company, to inform Hurley of the planned ambush but he was captured on the way and when British troops raided Forde’s, Hurley was shot dead in the farmyard while trying to escape.
According to Liam Deasy, when the shots were heard, a decision was taken to move the column to high ground to the north, near Skeenahaine Hill, from where it could assess the situation and come to Hurley’s assistance if required. However, before this could be done, a gun battle erupted on the road.
The normal practice in a cordon and search operation was that the troops involved would be transported in lorries to designated locations outside the target area.
On arrival, they would dismount, form the cordon, and commence the search. The lorries would then move to a rendez-vous point where the troops would be collected on completion of the search.
Apparently, Crossbarry had been selected by the British as a rendez-vous point and that morning, eight lorries carrying their drivers and an escort were making their way there unaware of the presence of the column.
Three lorries had entered the ambush site when a soldier travelling in the first vehicle observed an armed volunteer looking out of a barn.
These vehicles then came to a halt and were engaged by the column. As soon as the shooting started, in what Liam Deasy described as his “finest hour”, Flor Begley began to play a number of rousing war tunes on his pipes.
The firefight on the road lasted around 15 minutes. When the shooting stopped, a number of British soldiers and policemen had been killed and wounded while others had retreated to the south.
A volunteer from Newcestown named Ned White had been captured earlier that morning and was being carried in one of the lorries, but he escaped injury.
The column also took possession of a quantity of arms and ammunition and set the three lorries on fire. The other vehicles in the convoy had halted outside the ambush site when the battle began and escaped the attention of the column.
The shooting attracted other members of the cordon who now started to converge on the area. According to Deasy, sections one, two, and three now began to move northwards, as originally planned.
Christopher O’Connell’s section managed to repulse a group of soldiers advancing from the west but Tom Kelleher’s section was now under heavy attack from the east and members of sections six and four were involved in an intense firefight near the road with troops advancing from the south-east.
As soon as Barry learned that Kelleher’s section was under attack, he immediately ordered members of the column to reinforce it. Denis Lordan also sent Con Lehane and Denis Mehigan, from section six, as reinforcements.
When they arrived, Kelleher sent the two men to the ruins of Ballyhandle Castle with orders to open fire on the officer leading the British troops. Faced with this firepower, the British troops soon retreated in disarray and section five withdrew to Skeenahaine Hill.
Two of Kelleher’s section, volunteers Cornelius Daly of Ballinascarthy and Jeremiah O’Leary of Leap, were killed in this battle.
While this was happening, the fight on the roadside was continuing. Volunteer Peter Monahan had been mortally wounded and the remainder of the column were pinned down.
But then, Denis Lordan detonated the mine near Crossbarry bridge and the explosion caused enough confusion for the two sections of the column to withdraw without further casualties.
After all the elements of the column gathered at Skeenahine and the wounded were treated, it was decided to move northwards and occupy higher ground on Raheen Hill as this position would dominate the surrounding countryside.
The men moved off at around 9.30am and reached Raheen without incident. After a short time, the decision was taken to carry on to Knockawaddra where the column could rest and get food.
Just as it was setting off, a party of auxiliaries were observed to the north and east but they were quickly put to flight by volleys of rifle fire. After a rest at Knockawaddra, the column marched some 20km south-west to Gurranereigh where it billeted for the night.
The withdrawal of the flying column brought the engagement known as the Crossbarry ambush to an end. Counting Charlie Hurley, IRA casualties were four dead and some others wounded, two seriously.
Initial reports of the British casualties varied but official records now show that nine soldiers and one member of the RIC were killed and six soldiers and one policeman were wounded.
A MAJOR VICTORY FOR THE IRA
While accounts of the Crossbarry ambush may differ, there can be no doubt that it was a major victory for the IRA. It was also a victory that can be attributed to the incompetence of the crown forces and the performance of the flying column.
A successful cordon and search operation requires proper planning and careful co-ordination. This was clearly lacking at Crossbarry. In recalling the battle, Tom Barry described it as: “A composite victory of one hundred and four officers and men banded together as disciplined comrades. No genius of leadership or no prowess of any officer or man was responsible, for all shared in the effort that shocked the confidence of the British authorities in the power of their armed forces.”
However, much of the credit for the victory must also go to Tom Barry. With command comes responsibility and as commander of the column he was ultimately responsible for all of its operations, successful or otherwise. This was a responsibility he never shirked.
Liam Deasy later described Barry as a “strict disciplinarian and a good strategist” and “a leader of unsurpassed bravery, who was in the thick of every fight, and as oblivious of personal risk that his men felt it an honour to follow him”.
In his weekly report to the British cabinet, General Macready, commander of British Forces in Ireland, described the action at Crossbarry as “the nearest approach to actual warfare, as contrasted with ambushes, that has yet occurred”.
The ‘History of the 6th Division’ was correct when it stated that, if the result had been different, “the action might quite easily have had decisive results as regards rebel activity in West Cork”.
By fighting its way out of Crossbarry, the flying column lived to fight another day and in doing so, it would continue to pose a serious threat to British rule in West Cork.