by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian
One hundred years ago on 19 March 1921, one of the largest and most significant battles of Ireland’s War of Independence took place and here’s how it happened.
Attacks on the civilian population multiplied after the introduction of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries (Auxies) in mid-1920 to support the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). As a result, Michael Collins escalated Republican attacks on them (see January Historical Happenings). After the Croke Park massacre of 14 innocent civilians (see October Historical Happenings) and the burning of Cork City in December (see December Historical Happenings), Collins unleashed the Republican dogs of war! Enter Tom Barry!
Tom Barry was an ex-British soldier who quit the Army after learning of the 1916 Rising and asking himself: ‘what the hell am I doing in the British Army?’ In 1920 he joined the Third Cork Brigade of the Irish Republican Army and commanded therein a Flying Column – a guerilla band that became famous for its discipline, efficiency and bravery; Barry even earned a reputation as the most brilliant field commander of the war. A week after the Croke Park massacre, Barry’s column ambushed and killed nearly a whole platoon of Auxies at Kilmichael, Co. Cork, an area patrolled by the hated Essex Regiment. Despised for their treatment of prisoners, Republican successes against them led to more intense interrogations in an effort to find the location of the guerrilla force responsible. According to Historian J.B. Hittle: General Percival, Commander of the Essex Regiment, stood out for his violent, sadistic behavior towards IRA prisoners, suspects and innocent civilians. He had previously served as an officer at the Battle of the Somme – a campaign in which more than 57,000 casualties were the worst in the history of the British Army.
Barry led a force of 104 Volunteers and the problem with so large a group was that it is harder to move through the countryside undetected by informers and to find food and billeting for them. However, Barry had faith in the Irish people whose assistance had increased as the British reprisals against civilians escalated. Eventually, the Brits unmerciful torture succeeded in breaking one of the Volunteers previously captured; they learned that the Third Cork Brigade had its headquarters in Ballymurphy and that Barry’s Column was based near Crossbarry. Percival now planned a campaign to wipe out Barry’s column. He mobilized a massive combination of Military, Tans and Auxies to converge on the area from five directions catching Barry’s men in a pincer movement. There were 400 to come from Cork, 200 from Ballincollig, 300 from Kinsale, 350 from Bandon and 120 Auxies from Macroom. The sweep was launched early on 19 March 1921.
At 2:30 that morning, Barry was awakened by scouts who warned that British lorries had left Bandon and were heading in their direction. Soon reports came in of more Brits approaching from the south and Barry correctly assumed there were likely more coming from the north and east. He knew that his 104 men, with only 40 rounds each, could not sustain a head-on fight and would be trapped if they tried. They would have to fight their way out of the approaching encirclement. Then he learned that the Bandon force was well ahead of the others. He felt that if they could take them on, they could open a way out of the intended trap.
He set an ambush at Crossbarry crossroads where many locals had once danced in happier times and had his men in position by 5:30AM. Poor timing caused the segments of the 1,300 plus British force to arrive at staggered intervals and Barry, who was a brilliant strategist, took advantage of that. He would ambush the lorries from Bandon first and, if luck was with them, rout them quickly and open a pathway out of the intended encirclement. At 6:30AM shots were heard from the northeast direction of Forde’s farm where Commander Hurley of their Third Cork Brigade, was recovering from a serious wound received in a previous raid. Barry knew that the shots were sounds of his friend Charlie Hurley engaging the Brits who raided the farm on their way to trap him. Hurley managed to kill one and wound another before he was killed attempting to escape.
Then at about 8AM, a dozen British lorries came into view approaching Crossbarry crossroads. Some of the troops descended from the lorries and proceeded quietly on foot hoping to catch Barry unaware. When they reached the crossroads, they were caught by surprise in a close-range crossfire; Barry even brought a piper to fool the Brits into thinking they were facing a regiment. The Brits suffered significant casualties before breaking and fleeing the scene. Barry’s men collected the British arms and ammunition before setting fire to the lorries. The way was now open for Barry to retreat, but another British unit came into view from the southwest.
Barry decided that they should take on this new unit now that they were better armed and after a stiff fire-fight that unit also broke and ran. Two more British units converged on the area trying to dislodge the Republicans from their ambush positions, but again without success as they too fled in disorder leaving many casualties and the road that once felt the steps of happy Irish feet now felt the warmth of British blood. The action had taken about an hour and Barry took advantage of his victory to get away. He marched his men to safety while the Brits were still all scattered in disarray. Upon realizing what happened, Major Percival rushed to the scene with more troops to reorganize the scattered Brits, but they were only able to open a long range fire at Barry’s happily retreating column.
The reports of casualties vary according to the source reporting them, Barry reported three of his men killed and three wounded while the Brits claimed that the six IRA men were all killed. Barry reported 40 Brits killed while the Brits claimed only 30 in their report. Volunteer Tom Keleher in Barry’s column claimed that he personally shot and either killed or wounded 22 of them during the fire-fights. Either way, the Crossbarry Battle was one of the most significant engagements in the War of Independence in which 104 Irish Republican Volunteers led by Tom Barry, outwitted more than 1,300 British forces trying to encircle them in an hour-long battle. While the casualties were not large as battles go, Crossbarry was a major morale victory for the IRA who had defeated a major British force. Prime Minister Lloyd George later stated that the Kilmichael and Crossbarry ambushes convinced him of the need for a truce and a treaty with the Irish who could not be defeated militarily. Talks began to that end three months later.
General Tom Barry lived to see his country gain independence for 26 of her 32 Counties. General Arthur Percival lived to become Commander of Singapore which he surrendered to the Japanese in 1942 in the largest surrender in British military history; it seems he was destined to enter the history books for one disaster or another. He spent the rest of WWII as a prisoner of the Japanese.