In the guerrilla phase of the Civil War, caves became the perfect hiding places for anti-Treaty forces - and in some cases the scenes of extreme violence, as Marion Dowd explains
Intimate knowledge of the landscape was key to successful guerrilla warfare tactics during the War of Independence and Civil War. In this context, natural caves in remote locations were frequently repurposed as secret and convenient places in which to store arms and ammunition or indeed as hiding places.
An added advantage was the reluctance of the general population to venture into caves, which were often associated in folklore with malevolent beings and supernatural events. Little specific detail survives as to how these caves were utilised during the revolutionary period apart from scant references in written records or oral history accounts.
The arms stash: Ovens Cave, Cork
Caving as a sport emerged in Ireland during the 1930s, propelled primarily by the endeavours of Corkman Jack Coleman. When he first started exploring and surveying caves, mainly in his home county, Coleman discovered remnants of the Civil War that had lain undisturbed for a decade or more. In 1934, for instance, Coleman found a Lewis machine gun and Lee Enfield .303 rifle resting on a butter box in Ovens Cave, 12km west of Cork city.
This is a large and complex cave system that would have been an ideal hideout or meeting point for clandestine gatherings. The arms had been stashed in a small side passage that Coleman subsequently named the 'Gun Room'. Numerous traces of fires have been noted in Ovens Cave, some of which may relate to the Civil War period. This cave was located within the area of the 3rd Battalion, Cork No. 1 Brigade of the IRA, which fielded a small flying column during the Civil War and regularly used butter boxes to transport arms. The cache was probably concealed in the cave towards the end of the war and thereafter abandoned.
The hideout: Tormore Cave, Glencar, Sligo
Tormore Cave, in the Dartry Mountain range in north County Sligo, was arguably the most successful hideout of the entire revolutionary period. It lies 600m north of Glencar Lake in a remote area of rocky cliffs and is extremely difficult to locate. The cave had been used during the War of Independence and was one of the main hideouts of the North Sligo IRA during the Civil War.
September 1922 saw a series of attacks and counter-attacks between IRA Flying Columns in Sligo and the National Army, with an increased number of soldiers descending on Sligo town that month. On 18 September the National Army advanced on, and captured, the IRA headquarters at Rahelly House, 10km north of Sligo town at Cashelgarran.
Republicans were forced to retreat to Benbulben Mountain with the intention of crossing the uplands to seek refuge in their cave hideout further east in the mountains. Thirty-four men made their way to Tormore Cave and reputedly lived there for six weeks, evading discovery that whole time. Others were not so fortunate.
On 20 September, Divisional Adjutant Brian MacNeill, Brigadier Seamus Devins, Lieutenant Patrick Carroll and Volunteer Joseph Banks of 1st Brigade 3rd Western Division IRA were on King’s Mountain (Slievemore) en route to the cave hideout.
They were surrounded by National Army troops at Lislahelly. A chase ensued and though they surrendered, the men were shot dead just 4km west of Tomore Cave. Captain Harry Benson and Volunteer Thomas Langan were shot dead during a second incident on Benwiskin Mountain that day as they too attempted to reach the cave hideout. The men become known as ‘Sligo’s Noble Six’.
Tormore Cave was all but forgotten after the Civil War and people living in the area did not know where it was located. In 1936, however, the cave was identified by General Officer William Pilkington (by then a Catholic priest serving in Cape Town, South Africa), who was one of the thirty-four men who had sought refuge there; he was nursing a broken shoulder during his time in the cave (see RTÉ documentary 'A Lost Son').
Remnants of those six weeks in 1922 lay scattered on the floor of Tormore Cave in the form of broken ceramic dishes and a glass bottle, related to the food and drink that was brought to sustain the men. Feeding thirty-four people for six weeks was a significant and potentially dangerous undertaking that must have involved organisation and cooperation between many households in the Tormore area. Memories of bringing tea and tobacco to the men in the cave have been passed down to the present day.
The hardships of life in hiding
Archaeological excavations of the cave in 2022 revealed that considerable effort had been invested to make the cave suitable for occupation. Steps had been constructed leading into the cave. A mortar floor had been laid down and the living space was defined by a low stone wall. Apart from pottery and glass sherds, finds recovered included a clay pipe, fragments of an iron three-legged skillet pot (that may have served as a portable toilet), and sods of turf.
Archaeological excavations such as this not only enhance our understanding of life during the revolutionary period but also provide insight into the conditions endured by those ‘on the run’. The cramped, dark and damp conditions of this relatively small cave were undoubtedly very difficult for such a large group of men, and likely an experience they remembered for the rest of their lives.
One recollection that has survived is that the men’s feet were slimy and water sodden, with the skin and flesh coming away due to the damp and wet environment of the cave. This seems to describe a condition known as ‘trench foot’, where the feet are damaged due to prolonged exposure in cold, wet and unhygienic environments. It was a common complaint amongst soldiers during the First World War. Though a miserable experience, probably with prolonged periods of boredom, the cave served its purpose and after six weeks the men safely left their mountain hideout.
The sea caves: Clashmelcon (or Clashmealcon) Caves, Kerry
There is a series of sea caves located at the foot of a cliff face at Clashmelcon in north County Kerry, about 7km south of Ballybunnion town. Local folklore claims that the pirate Browne family from the adjacent fifteenth-century towerhouse (‘Browne’s Castle’) stashed smuggled goods in the caves. Whiteboys Peter Dunfort and Owen O’Neill were also said to have taken refuge there in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.
It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the Clashmelcon Caves were again used as hideouts by the IRA during the War of Independence and the Civil War. To access the caves it is necessary to descend the almost vertical cliff face, a perilous and difficult undertaking.
On 15 April 1923, following a shoot-out between the IRA and the National Army, six members of the 3rd Battalion Kerry No. 1 Brigade IRA, led by Commandant Timothy ‘Aeroplane’ Lyons, descended the treacherous cliffs and took refuge in the caves. In the late 1930s, schoolgirl Eileen Hussey documented the recollections of William Casey of Clashmealcon about the events of that day:
"The Free State soldiers on top of the cliff fired at the mouth of the caves from every vantage point, they also got tar and hay and let it down and shook petrol on it and then put fire to it in order that it would smother them in the cave. They also used mines which, when exploded, could be heard miles away" (National Folklore Collection Schools, available at www.duchas.ie).
The Republicans held out in the caves for three days and three nights, interrupted by bouts of machine gunfire. Two National Army soldiers were killed. Volunteers Pat O’Shea and Tom McGrath swam out from the caves in an attempt to summon help, but drowned. Their bodies were never recovered.
Aero Lyons surrendered on 18 April 1923 when the group had run out of food, water and ammunition. The National Army lowered a rope down the cliff but when Lyons was climbing up, the rope either broke or was cut (there are conflicting accounts). He fell onto the rocks below and drowned. William Casey recollected:
"The soldiers on the top of the cliff got ropes to haul them up ... Timothy Lyons fell on to the rocks some 30 feet below, and when they saw they could not get him up they turned the machine gun on him and riddled his body with bullets where he fell. The tide flowed over and washed his body into the deep and three weeks after his body was found about 100 yards from where he was shot" (NFCS0415:225-231).
In an advanced state of decomposition, Lyons could only be identified by the boot he was still wearing. He had become a legendary figure in Kerry during the revolutionary period, earning the nickname ‘Aero’ for his ability to unexpectedly appear in times of strife and equally the deftness with which he escaped from difficult situations.
The surviving men – Captain James McEnery, Volunteer Edward Greany and Volunteer Reginald ‘Rudge’ Walter Stenning (aka Reginald Hathaway) – were arrested. London-born Hathaway had come to Tralee during the War of Independence as a member of the East Lancashire regiment but had deserted and joined the IRA. When the Civil War began, Hathaway joined the National Army but soon left and rejoined the IRA. He was singled out at Clashmealcon and received a brutal beating on the cliff edge. All three were then taken to Tralee Jail where they were executed on the 25 April. The IRA stood down five days later, effectively ending the Civil War.
The Clashmealcon Caves event has been described as one of the last acts of extreme violence of the Civil War. It became a focal point for commemoration and remembrance, summed up in a ballad penned shortly after the event: ‘The cave will be their monument, and that for many a day’.
This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.