Historically our area is well known for “The Battle of Clonmult”. A Monument to commemorate this event stands at the “Clonmult Ambush Site”.
The Battle of Clonmult (20 February 1921)
Surely one of the most dramatic events to have occurred in the vicinity of Clonmult/Dungourney occurred on Sunday 20 February 1921 during the Irish War of Independence 1917 to 1921.
The battle of Clonmult was fought between the Irish Volunteers and British soldiers from Victoria Barracks, now Collins Barracks, in Cork city. The Irishmen involved were members of the flying column of the Fourth Battalion, First Cork Brigade. This flying column was based in east Cork and was led by Commandant Diarmuid O’Hurley.
Early in 1921, the flying column moved to a disused farmhouse at Garrylaurence, near the village of Clonmult. The farmhouse was a single storey building, with a thatch roof and no back door. They remained there until the Battle of Clonmult.
On the week prior to the battle, the column was ordered to attack a train carrying British military stores, at Cobh Junction railway station near Cork City. The commander decided to move the column nearer Cobh Junction, and the move was to take place late on Sunday 20 February. Because they were about to fight in a battle, some of the Volunteers decided to go to confession in nearby Dungourney on the Saturday evening. Some of the survivors of the battle concluded afterwards, that it was while returning from confession that a former British soldier spotted their Volunteers and reported the location to the British Army
At about lunchtime on the day of the battle, the commander left the column to carry out a reconnaissance of the area around Cobh Junction. He took Vice-Commandant Joseph Aherne and Captain Paddy Whelan with him. He left Captain Jack O’Connell in charge of the column and ordered him to leave the farmhouse just after dark that evening. Shortly after the three officers left, Volunteer Dick Hegarty, who had gone home for the week-end returned to the farmhouse. While returning, he met four young lads and he brought them with him. The four had brought clothing, money and cigarettes for the Volunteers in the house.
The British informer went to Victoria Barracks on the Sunday morning and informed the British where the flying column was. Two Crossley tenders with British soldiers from the Hampshire Regiment and the informer left the barracks for Clonmult. So that the noise of the engines would not alert the column, the trucks were parked at Rathorgan cross-roads and the soldiers went the rest of the way on foot. The British officer in charge, Lieutenant Koe had to divide his troops into three groups. He left one group of nine soldiers at the cross-roads to guard the informer and the two trucks. The remainder he ordered to advance cautiously on the farmhouse. Of these, one group of seven with Lieutenant Hook in charge advanced on the house from the north. Lieutenant Koe himself led the remaining nine in from the south. By approaching in this way he was making sure that the house would be surrounded.
Inside in the house the column of seventeen volunteers and the four youths were preparing to move out in a few hours. Two sentries had been out providing security for the column but decided that there was no danger so the left their posts and went into the house. This abandonment of the sentry duties was to have catastrophic consequences because this meant that the British soldiers managed to get right up to the house without being seen.
Just as the soldiers under Lieutenant Koe approached the house they found two Volunteers, John Joe Joyce and Michael Desmond outside filling water bottles. The two volunteers were immediately killed. The volunteers who were inside came to the conclusion that they were surrounded. Captain Jack O’Connell decided that the men had to charge out of the house, but another officer, Captain Paddy Higgins was against this and preferred to wait for assistance. Four men agreed to attempt a breakout with their commander. Captain Jack O’Connell went first and with the element of surprise got through the British cordon. Volunteer Michael Hallihan went next and was shot dead at the door. Next to try was Capt James Ahern, he was shot trying to get over a ditch, about two-hundred meters from the house. The fourth man out was Volunteer Dick Hegarty and he was killed outside the door. The last to try was Volunteer Diarmuid O’Leary, he got out of the house but quickly ran back inside.
Lieutenant Koe sent one of his men to Midleton in one of the tenders to get reinforcements. When he arrived at the RIC Barracks he found two truck-loads of Auxiliary Police there. These men provided the reinforcements for Lieutenant Koe. When they arrived at the farmhouse, one of the British officers threw petrol onto the thatch roof of the building and set it alight.
The Volunteers inside with Captain Paddy Higgins in charge had a decision to make, to surrender or burn to death. They decided to surrender. The first out was John Harty, one of the four young lads, he was knocked to the ground by one of the Auxiliary Police. Paddy Higgins was next out with Christopher O’Sullivan, David Desmond, his brother had been killed earlier, Jeremiah Aherne, Liam Aherne, Donal Dennehy, Joseph Morrissey and James Glavin. The Auxiliary Police shot and killed all except Paddy Higgins. He was shot through the mouth and the bullet lodged between his teeth. Just as the remaining group were coming out, one of the British Army officers stopped the Auxiliary Police from finishing off Paddy Higgins and prevented them from killing any of the remainder which included the three youths. The survivors who were taken prisoner were, Capt Paddy Higgins, Maurice Moore, Patrick O’Sullivan, Diarmuid (Sonny) O’Leary, Robert Walsh, Edmund Terry and William Garde
The Battle of Clonmult was now over, during which twelve members of the flying column were killed, four members captured in addition to the four youths. Only one, Captain Jack O’Connell had managed to escape.
The British soldiers collected the Volunteers weapons and marched the prisoners to the trucks at Rathorgan cross-roads. The bodies were collected and left at the farm-house overnight. The convoy made its way to Midleton RIC Barracks and from there to Victoria Barracks. British soldiers returned to the farmhouse on Monday morning and removed the bodies to Victoria Barracks. The bodies were handed over to their families on the following Wednesday. James Ahern and James Glavin were taken to Cobh and buried in the Republican Plot there the following day. The others were taken to Midleton where all except Dick Hegarty were buried there on Thursday afternoon. Dick Hegarty was buried in the grounds of Ballymacoda Church on Friday.
Seven of the eight prisoners were court-martialled in Victoria Barracks and all were found guilty of waging was against the King. Three of them, Maurice Moore, Patrick O’Sullivan and Diarmuid O’Leary were sentenced to death. Of these, Maurice Moore and Patrick O’Sullivan were executed in the Cork Military Detention Barracks, now Cork Prison, on Thursday 28 April 1921. Paddy Higgins was later court-martialled, found guilty and sentenced to be shot. He appealed his death sentence and the Truce of the 11 of July 1921 came into force and therefore saved his life.
The Battle of Clonmult remains to this day, in terms of volunteers killed, the worst defeat suffered by the Irish Republican Army.
Tom O’Neill M.A. author of “The Battle of Clonmult – The IRA’s Worst Defeat”.
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