The Crossbarry ambush restored IRA morale in March 1921, but could so easily have been a disaster.
The Parish of Clogagh had never seen a funeral like it. No parish in Ireland would ever see its like again.
In the pre-dawn darkness, down the rain-slicked road from the church to the cemetery, the cortege came. The coffin was borne by six men, and behind the coffin, six mourners walked.
Six mourners. At an Irish country funeral. It was as many as they dared bring.
Carried on the wind: the creak of leather, the soft shiiing-shiiing of metal upon metal, the murmur of boots on damp, hard-packed road – the unmistakable sound of heavily armed men on the move.
Behind the mourners, 100 men slow-marched in formation, rifles carried in reverse, upside down and pointing backwards.
The moon appeared fitfully from behind the clouds. The lit candles borne by the altar boys guttered in the breeze.
Almost every person on that road that night was liable to arrest if discovered by the British Army or police. The men with rifles would face almost certain execution.
Every person there, knew the risk. And considered it a risk worth taking.
Because the parish, and the Flying Column, were burying one of their own, Charlie Hurley, Commandant, Cork No. 3 Brigade, IRA.
For the British a prize beckons....
When the British Army looked back on the debacle at Crossbarry, the officers could console themselves with the knowledge that they had, at least, rid themselves of one of the IRA's most senior officers, in the county at the heart of what they called 'The War Zone'.
A few weeks before, it all looked so promising.
In the wake of the IRA’s calamitous setback at Upton Railway Station in February, an IRA prisoner, an officer, offered up a priceless nugget of hard intelligence, the probable location of the headquarters of the 3rd Cork Brigade of the IRA. The location was a farm in a tight stretch of country in west Cork, between the townlands of Ballymurphy and Crossbarry.
Such a prize was worth casting the net for, with hundreds of troops and police drawn from all over west Cork, tasked with sweeping the countryside, to flush out and capture or kill key elements of the 3rd Brigade, including the senior officer, Tom Barry, Commandant of the Brigade's Flying Column.
A successful operation like that would make it almost impossible for the West Cork IRA to regroup.
The first the locals in Crossbarry knew about it was when, two weeks earlier, for no apparent reason, Auxiliaries appeared, stopping and questioning locals, going into the bar to talk to the owner, then, just as quickly, going away. The locals thought no more about it, just part of everyday life in the War Zone.
The first moves
Tom Barry’s account began on the side of the road between Bandon and Kinsale, on the 16th of March. In his memoirs, Barry wrote that he had deployed the West Cork Flying Column to ambush British troop reinforcements, numbering 300, reported to be moving from Kinsale to Bandon.
(What is not made clear by Barry is why he believed his 104-man column, with 40 rounds each for their rifles, could successfully ambush a force three times larger, armed with machine guns and grenades, as well as rifles).
They 'laid up’ in ambush positions overnight, as was common practice. The next morning came bad news, as his scouts reported that the troops had turned back to Kinsale
Barry concluded that his column had been spotted, and that the British knew roughly where they were.
He said that he moved the column a townland called Skough, east of Innishannon. En route, an RAF plane flew overhead. Even though the men had concealed themselves, Barry believed that they had been spotted again. It was now the 18th of March.
Whether or not they had been spotted, and historians doubt it, Barry decided to take no chances (fair enough, a man in his position had not survived that long by assuming the best scenario), and moved the column onwards to a townland called Ballyhandle, just north of Crossbarry.
In the small hours of the 19th, came seeming vindication of Barry's assuming the worst. In his billett, he was woken with the news that truck engines had been heard, and lights seen, coming from the west, i.e. Bandon. Then soon after, reports of the same coming from the east. Then, farm dogs were heard barking madly to the south.
This account tallies with the British version; what is absolutely certain is that by about 2.30 am on the 19th of March, units from the Essex regiment in Bandon and the Hampshire regiment from Cork city, along with Auxiliaries from Macroom were closing in on Crossbarry from three directions.
Barry’s own calculation that over 1,000 and men were arrayed against him, was not confirmed by other IRA men who were there, and is rejected by modern historians. The most informed calculations, some of it from Barry’s own comrades, conclude that up to 350 soldiers were involved. The Auxiliary force size is not recorded, as they reportedly got lost on the way to Crossbarry, and arrived too late to take any effective part in the action. (See section: 'A note on numbers’).
One key fact reported by Barry’s scouts, would indicate that this was in fact a sweep of the area, and not a dash to a certain location; by the movement of the headlights of the trucks on the roads to Crossbarry, it could be seen that the convoys were stopping, starting, stopping, as if methodically searching the farms, barns and outhouses.
It was only a matter of time before the convoys would stop outside the farms where Barry and his men were billeted.
An early round to the British
Around 6.30am, even as word was reaching the Column about the approaching convoys, a burst of gunfire was heard from the north-east.
Troops of the Hampshire Regiment had just scored the one unqualified British success of the morning.
In the Forde farmhouse at Ballymurphy, known to the Volunteers as ‘HQ’, Charlie Hurley was hiding, while his wounds from the defeat at Upton Station were healing. He was woken by pounding on the front door, so loud that it could only be a raid. He fired through the door, retreated into the kitchen, opened the back door, and ran. Straight into a party of soldiers waiting for him to do just that.
Volunteers later heard from sympathetic sources close to the British, that the bullet that killed him was a chance shot, from a soldier literally firing his rifle from the hip.
The IRA had just lost one of its best officers from one of its best brigades.
One throw of the dice
Barry says in his memoirs that in those minutes, he reached several conclusions about the Column’s situation, when he realised enemy forces were approaching from several directions, and seemed to know where to find him and his men. In all such testimonies, allowance has to be made for retrospective embellishment and reputation-buffing, as well as the passage of time. But in this instance, Barry’s logic is hard to fault.
- His men were in danger of being encircled, with a possible but not definite escape route to the north-west, the only direction there seemed to be no troops arriving from.
- With 40 rounds per rifle in the Column, there was not enough ammunition for a drawn-out battle against such odds.
- He would need to throw everything he had against one element of the encircling forces, and aim for a break-out.
- He believed the force coming from the west would arrive first, and for the brief period when they were the only enemy force in place, he should attack them.
Barry had divided his men into sections, 14 men to a section, seven sections in all, with a three-man reserve.
They were arranged in a rough horseshoe-shape deployment, facing west, south, and east, in the fields just behind the village.
Two mines were set into the road, to catch the trucks as they passed.
Let battle begin
By now, it was about 7.15 am. The first trucks of the Essex regiment arrived from the direction of Bandon, to the west. The trucks were nearly empty, most of the soldiers had disembarked several miles from Crossbarry.
The official British account pinpoints this moment as when the key mistake was made, from their side.
Standard British practice was for truck convoys to have soldiers on foot ahead and on the flanks, to detect ambushes. The officer at the head of the convoy was an untested junior officer three months out of Officer School, Lieutenant A.F. Tower. He had very few men with him, perhaps eight, along with the drivers, who were each only armed with a pistol. For whatever reason, he pulled in his flank and advance guards, just as the convoy was approaching the village, where the mines were set.
Barry's plan to have the whole convoy in sight before attacking, fell apart when one of the ambushers was spotted from the trucks. Three of the trucks were in the ambush zone, out of sight of the rest of the convoy when the alarm was raised, they halted, and the soldiers jumped off.
For that brief moment, they were outnumbered by the ambushers, who drove them back across the fields, away from the road. Barry claimed to have killed many of them, this is where the British sustained most of their casualties. Survivors reported being attacked with grenades and rifle fire. At least three of the dead were drivers. Lieutenant Tower was seen by his men to be badly wounded, in the face and leg, but still giving orders.
The Volunteers stripped the trucks of weapons grenades and ammunition before setting two of them on fire. They said afterwards the third truck was spared, because the driver lay wounded in the cab.
The troops who had earlier dismounted from the trucks then attacked from the west, and were beaten back, and their officer, Lieutenant Geoffrey Hotblack, was fatally wounded.
At this stage, the Hampshires from Cork had arrived at the eastern edge of the village. They made unsuccessful attempts to outflank the IRA sections posted there. At one point, one of the mines that had been planted in the road, detonated, killing the Volunteer in charge of it, but also halting briefly the advance of the troops through the village. That gave the sections time to withdraw, peeling back towards the north-west.
Barry said later that the withdrawal was done by the book, with flank guards out in front, sides and rear. They reached safety at the townland of Gurranereigh, 14 miles from Crossbarry.
They left behind three men killed: Con Daly, Peter Monahan, and Jer O'Leary.
British casualties were ten (later 11) soldiers killed, and four wounded. An RIC constable was killed, and one wounded. The British tally is challenged by a prisoner, Volunteer William Desmond, who claimed to have seen eighteen bodies laid out in a farmyard at Crossbarry, and then later seen eighteen coffins at a military prayer service in Bandon Barracks.
Allowing for Tom Barry's inflated claims of casualties inflicted on the British, and about the numbers of troops he faced (See section: 'A note on numbers’) his Flying Column WAS engaged by British troops from three directions, he WAS outnumbered, and he DID fight a successful retreat, bearing away captured enemy equipment. He was entitled to chalk Crossbarry up as a victory, albeit much narrower than he claimed. And the IRA in Cork that Spring of 1921, needed a victory.
Questions for the British
Barry later said that Crossbarry and other actions might have contributed to the British government’s decision to see a truce a few months later.
Whatever about the strategic impact, if it had any, back on the front line, as professional soldiers, the British licked their wounds, absorbed the hard lessons learned at Crossbarry, and prepared to go again.
They had a lot to ponder.
The heaviest casualties were sustained because the unluckiest man on the day, Lieutenant Tower, who is blamed for exposing his troops so badly, seemed not to have been briefed on what to expect in Crossbarry. He was preparing to park his trucks, not getting cut to pieces in an IRA ambush.
And where were all the other Essex troops when he was in so much trouble? Why was he left alone with a handful of troops and drivers, once the shooting started?
Why was the Flying Column allowed to withdraw intact, with the proper flank rear and advance guard, laden with captured booty, in daylight, when 300 British troops were milling around Crossbarry?
The senior officers complained about how poorly conditioned their troops in Ireland seemed to be, unable to sustain any extended cross-country action. To which their own officers replied, where were they to get this fitness, cooped up inside fortified barracks, or bouncing around in trucks on the road? (Exactly the same question asked by British officers in Northern Ireland, five decades later).
The biggest question was, where were the Auxiliaries? Had they arrived on time, the encirclement could have been completed.
They reportedly got lost on the way to Crossbarry, arriving too late to make any difference. How this could happen, when locals in Crossbarry saw Auxiliaries in the area a few weeks earlier, is unclear.
Many years later, one of the IRA men at Crossbarry, Flor Begley, in estimating the number of troops encountered that day (See section: 'A note on numbers'), summed up the Auxiliaries' impact at the ambush thus: "I am not counting them in, because they were not there."
'Haunted lucky'; The fine line between victory and disaster
This was not a minor detail. Had the Auxiliaries been where they were supposed to be, the notion can’t be dismissed that Crossbarry could easily have become a second Clonmult (read here), with the difference being that at Crossbarry that day they would have eliminated the IRA’s two most senior officers, Tom Barry as well as Charlie Hurley, and one of the biggest and most effective Flying Columns in the entire war.
You can listen to Donal Byrne's Morning Ireland report on Clonmult here:
We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences
Historians say that Barry was 'lucky’ that day, because he rightly gambled on hitting the most exposed British unit in the attempted encirclement. He was also lucky that the British units were so disjointed. The line between victory and disaster was never so fine. The expression they use in that part of West Cork for Tom Barry's fortunes that day: 'Haunted lucky’.
Two such defeats so close together, along with the deaths at Upton station, would have finished the Volunteers in west Cork, delivered a hammer blow to the morale and self-belief of the rest of the IRA, and, in the big picture, encouraged the British generals and Lloyd George’s government to go for a final victory in the war, and ignore the pressure to talk peace with the Dáil government.
No further actions of significance are recorded by the West Cork Flying Column, between the 19th of March and the declaration of the ceasefire and truce in July. British tactics of mass sweeps and drives of the countryside resulted in scores of arrests of Volunteers, the uncovering of arms dumps, and made it almost impossible for such a number of Volunteers as Barry had at Crossbarry, to assemble again.
On the afternoon of Sunday 20th March, a pony and cart pulled up outside Bandon Workhouse Morgue. The tearful driver and passenger presented themselves at the entrance as man and wife and asked to claim the body of a near relative. They were in fact Volunteer and farmer Richard 'Rick' O'Regan, and Cumann na mBan member Mary O’Mahony*, and they were there with instructions from the local IRA to spirit away the body of Charlie Hurley, from under the noses of the British.
Charlie Hurley’s body had been brought from the barracks the evening before, along with the bodies of the Volunteers killed in Crossbarry. The military had put them into cheap white-wood coffins, and in those coffins, they lay in the morgue overnight.
At some point that night, hospital matron Mary Crowley went into the morgue, took Charlie Hurley’s body from the coffin, and replaced it with the body of another person who had passed away. Charlie Hurley, in death, was given a new identity, and under that name, his body was released from the morgue to his 'relatives’.
The body was put on the cart, and hidden behind sacks of bran. O’Regan and O’Mahony, still posing as grieving man and wife, drove the cart out of the Workhouse, and away on the backroads to O’Regan’s farm, where a new, finer coffin was waiting.
The Brigade Flying Column did assemble once more, on that slow night march behind Charlie Hurley's coffin. In his memoirs, written nearly thirty years later, Tom Barry remembered it thus:
"It is still fresh and clear - the dirge of the war pipes played by Flor Begley, the slow march of the Brigade Flying Column, the small group of only six other mourners, the rain-soaked sky and earth and the wintry moon that shone, vanished and shone again as we followed him to his grave."
It seems that Lieutenant Alfred Tower never recovered from the wounds he sustained at Crossbarry. His subsequent record refers only to chronic ill health, and half-pay status. The British Army, perhaps acknowledging he had been made the scapegoat for the failure at Crossbarry, gave him a token commendation for his actions that morning. He died on June 6th, 1923 at Aldershot Military Hospital.
*Some accounts refer to 'Ellen O'Mahony’
A quick note on numbers...
Tom Barry made big claims about Crossbarry, about the engagement itself, and its impact on the conduct of the war.
The best-known claim is that he was facing between 1,000 and 1,400 troops and police, so he was outnumbered ten to one. That claim has survived in countless repetitions in print, to the point where it is accepted as fact.
Not only do modern defence experts challenge Barry's claim, his contemporaries had much more modest numbers in mind.
Barry's claim was made in his memoir, 'Guerilla days in Ireland'. He wrote that: "four hundred troops left Cork, two hundred Ballincollig, three hundred Kinsale, and three hundred and fifty (left) Bandon".
And that claim has been accepted again and again, without anyone seemingly going back to assess if it was even possible that such numbers would have been available to the British, and how Barry could have known with such certainty, the numbers deployed against him.
The American Defence lecturer William Kautt includes analysis of the War of Independence, in courses he teaches to senior officers at the US Army Staff College. He combined his lectures into a book, 'Ambushes and Armour'.
Kautt’s analysis had more modest numbers of troops committed, for example he believed 81 men and officers left Cork city, 65 left Bandon.
Florence Begley was probably the Volunteer physically closest to Barry during the engagement, and nearly 30 years later, he gave the Bureau of Military History his estimate of the total of enemy forces facing the Column that morning in Crossbarry.
He said that just before firing broke out that morning, a local family was warned by a senior officer of the Hampshire Regiment to stay put on their farm during the operation, as the British had over three hundred men in the area.
Begley told the Bureau that he spoke to a local IRA Quartermaster several months later, who told him that people in the area had counted 34 trucks in total around Crossbarry during the engagement. From that, Begley said he worked out that the Column faced about 350 British soldiers.
Challenging Barry’s claims of the numbers arrayed against him does not undermine the basic facts, outnumbered three-to-one instead of ten-to-one is still heavily outnumbered.
For all the skill and daring that Barry showed in deploying his Column that morning, had he faced 1,400, or even 1,000 of the enemy, his position would surely have been swamped by sheer weight of numbers.