Historical Happenings for March 2021

CROSSBARRY

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.

General Tom Barry

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.

Historical Happenings for January 2021

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

       The Black and Tans

When Sir Robert Peel introduced the Irish Constabulary in 1822 he never expected the colloquial terms “Bobby” and “Peeler” to derive from his name, nor did he expect that though well intended, it would become the most hated force in modern Irish history.  A Constabulary was set in each province with constables and inspectors under British administration in Dublin Castle.  Separate from the ministry of war, it was only for civilian policing. For most of its history, it was about 75% Irish Catholic, who joined needing employment, and 25% Protestant, though most senior officers were Protestant.  Queen Victoria added the prefix Royal to their name for their service during the Fenian rising of 1867; thus was born the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).

Unlike police elsewhere in Britain, the RIC were armed and billeted in barracks.  A few of its Irish members were sympathetic to the nationalist cause after 1916 and even worked with Michael Collins on clandestine activities allowing him to infiltrate the administration with the help of men like Ned Broy, David Neligan, Joseph Kavanagh and James McNamara.  Some also co-operated with the IRA out of fear for their lives and welfare of their families.  A raid on an RIC barracks in Cookstown, County Tyrone, in June 1920, was carried out with the help of sympathetic RIC men.  The barracks in Schull, County Cork, was captured with similar inside aid.  Collins even had RIC spies within the upper echelon at Dublin Castle.  However after the start of the War of Independence in January 1919, the RIC were markedly British and a civilian campaign of intimidation began against them.  They were subjected to threats, attacks and their families were ostracized by the local community.  By June 1920, RIC casualties rose to 55 killed and 74 wounded.  Barracks were attacked and recruitment suffered as RIC morale declined.  Barracks were abandoned and ranks were consolidated as pressure on their families, friends and shopkeepers resulted in resignations and early retirements.  Several also left rather than fight their countrymen over an issue with which they agreed.  However that was soon to change.

In late 1919, the Brits decided to counter the reduction in force by equipping the remaining RIC with military trucks, rockets, bombs and shotguns. Finding a more powerful RIC still insufficient to defeat Collins, PM Lloyd George, for political reasons, still refused to recognize the IRA as a military force.  He insisted that controlling them was a policeman’s task and called for more, better-prepared men in police uniforms.  Thus began the recruitment of jobless returning WW1 veterans.  Hurried into RIC service in January 1920 with a combination of dark green RIC jackets and khaki British Army pants, they were dubbed the Black and Tans. They had been recruited into and were under the control of RIC officers, but their lack of police training soon showed in their heavy-handed tactics.  Still unable to stop Collins’ IRA, a drastic move was made as a new force made up of returning military Officers were recruited in June. These turned out to be mostly battlefield commissions and  a lower class of men than Sandhurst quality officers. They were sent as an Auxiliary unit of the RIC but were, in fact, a counter-insurgency force operating independently under their own officers to open an offensive against the IRA.  They became notorious for their brutality and attacks on civilian instead of military targets.

On Bloody Sunday in Dublin, 21 November 1920, after 14 British intelligence agents were shot, the new RIC, with their Tans and Auxies, claiming that the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was in league with the IRA,  retaliated by firing on an innocent crowd at a GAA football match, killing 14 civilians and wounding 65.  In December, the Brits declared martial law in southern Ireland and the civilian center of Cork city was burnt out by the new RIC in reprisal for an ambush on a military convoy.  Brian Hanley,  historian at National University of Ireland, noted that: the Brits were wrong that the GAA was a front for the IRA. While some of its members were in the IRA and the GAA was for independence, it was divided on the wisdom of armed rebellion.  They even refused to let the IRA use Croke Park for drills. Collins wanted the 21 November Croke Park match called off, fearing a reprisal for the shooting of the British spies that morning, but GAA officials refused since the day’s proceeds were for the families of imprisoned Irish republicans. Hanley said that the GAA massacre was the tipping point in the war.  It was then, in January 1921, 100 years ago, that the RIC, their Black and Tans and  Auxiliary units all became special targets by order of Michael Collins marking the beginning of their end. 

On 1 January the IRA ambushed an RIC patrol in Ballybay, County Monaghan, killing one officer and wounding others, the next day two RIC men were executed in a Belfast hotel.  On 4 January, an RIC Sergeant was fatally wounded in an IRA grenade attack in Armagh.  A Waterford IRA column ambushed an  RIC patrol outside Cappoquin on 5 January and on 7 January, ambushed another at Pickardstown.  On 12 January, the IRA ambushed a British troop train carrying 150 soldiers at Barnesmore Gap, County Donegal and on 20 January the IRA in Clare ambushed an RIC truck at Glenwood, between Sixmilebridge and Broadford in which six RIC were killed, two were wounded but escaped and the IRA took their weapons and over 1,000 rounds of ammunition before burning the truck. On 22 January, three RIC officers were killed near their County Monaghan barracks and an IRA ambush was mounted in County Armagh where two RIC men were killed and others injured.  In Dublin, IRA Third Battalion ambushed a number of RIC trucks at the Merrion Square/Mount Street intersection and a standing fight developed until the Brits withdrew with high casualties and no IRA losses.  By the end of January 1921, the RIC began carrying republican prisoners in their trucks when on patrol to stop grenade attacks on them, with signs saying “Bomb us now“.  This was discontinued when foreign journalists in the city reported it. They later covered the open back of their trucks with a mesh to prevent grenades from entering the vehicles, to which the IRA responded by attaching hooks to the grenades!

It soon became obvious that Collins’ IRA could not be defeated and the attacks on civilians in retaliation for attacks on the RIC had done little more than increase civilian support for the Republicans fighting for the independence of their country.  The end was near as a treaty in less than a year’s time would disband the RIC during a debate over whether they were just an armed police unit or a paramilitary force.  Either way, Peel’s Constabulary formed in 1822 was no more by 1922.  But some don’t know their history.

Unbelievably, in January 2020, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar asked the Irish people to pay homage by attending special commemorations to honor the Royal Irish Constabulary!  The request not only sparked major controversy, it resulted in the Wolfe Tones 1972 recording of Come Out Ye Black and Tans returning to the number one spot on the Irish charts.  Thankfully the people remembered their history and the commemoration was cancelled.  While it is worth remembering that the RIC had a few resignations after the heavy-handed crushing of the 1916 Rising, with some leaving the force as independence agitation increased and some even working as double agents on behalf of the IRA, there was also the fact that the overwhelming majority of the RIC were British tools of repression.  They had tumbled thousands of homes, evicting men women and children into starvation and exile during the Great Hunger; they helped defeat the Fenian brotherhood and the 1916 patriots and supported the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries during their murderous campaigns during the War of Independence.  Their  disbandment, shortly after a truce in July 1921 sent more than 6,000 officers and men back to England where they belonged and the only commemorations that should ever be held are prayers for those who died at their hands.

Historical Happenings for December 2020

A DECEMBER TO REMEMBER

by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

The Burning of Cork City in December 11-12, 1920

According to the Supercentenarian Data table of the Irish Central Statistics Office on 29 November 2020, five woman in Ireland have passed their 110th birthday.  They are among the 456 Irish Centenarians and as little girls of 10 years a century ago, they experienced one of Ireland’s most tragic months – December 1920.

It was a time when the Irish people, inspired by the deeds of 1916, were involved in a War of Independence which  was about to enter its third year.  The new Army of the Irish Republic, made up of members of former Volunteers, Citizen Army, Hibernian Rifles and others was led by Michael Collins’ Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).  They had been concentrating their efforts on British military targets like Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks and ambushing British patrols.  The Brits found it difficult to defeat them for Collins fought a guerrilla campaign of hit and run tactics supported by the Irish people.  In March, 1920, the British government introduced the Black and Tans to beef up the RIC with little effect.  Then in July, they introduced the Auxiliaries, a counter-insurgency group of former military officers to act as a paramilitary force and launch reprisals against the civilian population to scare them away from their support of the IRB.  

The Black and Tans were reportedly under the control of the RIC, but the Auxies, as they were known, operated  independently and soon gained a reputation for brutality.  After the summer of 1920, the Tans and Auxies began responding to IRA attacks on military targets by carrying out arbitrary reprisals against civilian targets. This usually involved the burning of homes and farms with gunfire and grenades and the looting of businesses, all accompanied by beatings and killings.   Many villages also suffered mass reprisals, like the Sack of Balbriggan on 20 September.  After an ambush of a military convoy in Rineen, County Clare on 22 September, in which six RIC men were killed,  the surrounding villages of Milltown Malbay, Lahinch and Ennistymon were put to the torch and five civilians were killed.   Also burned were the villages of Kilkee (26 September), Trim (27 September), Tubbercurry (30 September) and Granard (31 October).  In early November, they besieged Tralee in reprisal for the IRA killing of two local RIC men, closing all the businesses in the town, letting no food in for a week and shooting dead three local civilians.  On 14 November, they even abducted and murdered a Catholic priest, Father Michael Griffin, in Galway.  From that time on, the level of brutality was far above the norm.  Then came a deadly December and the most barbarous act of revenge ever perpetrated against an innocent civilian population.

On 10 December 1920, the British government and administration in Ireland put the official stamp of approval on the reprisals by proclaiming Martial Law in counties Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary and imposing a 10pm curfew..  The next day, 20 Auxies were dispatched by Auxie Captain Charles Schulze in two lorries from Cork’s Victoria Barracks to carry out a series of raids.  The lorries were ambushed near Dillon’s Cross by 6 IRA men trying to prevent those raids and 12 Auxies were wounded; one critically.  At 9:30 pm that evening, more lorries of Auxies and British soldiers were sent to Dillon’s Cross where they broke into houses, herded the occupants onto the street and burned their homes to the ground.  Those who tried to intervene were fired on and some were badly beaten.  After seven buildings were set alight, one was found to be owned by Protestants and the Auxies quickly doused the fire.  Then the arsonists turned their anger on Cork City.

At curfew, witnesses reported seeing them arrive on St. Patrick’s Street, the city’s main thoroughfare.  Some were Auxies, some were British Army while others wore no uniforms at all as they smashed shop windows and set buildings alight.  A group of Auxies were seen throwing a bomb into the ground floor of the Munster Arcade, which housed both shops and flats.  It exploded under the residential quarters while people were still inside.  Those who escaped were detained by the Auxies.  The city’s fire brigade came at once.  On finding Grant’s department store ablaze, they tried to save it.  Fire brigade Superintendent, Alfred Hutson, met Cork Examiner reporter, Alan Ellis, and told him “all the fires were being deliberately started by incendiary bombs” and in several cases he had seen: “soldiers pouring cans of petrol into buildings and setting them alight.”  Firemen later testified that British forces hindered their attempts to tackle the blazes by intimidating them, cutting their hoses and/or driving lorries over the hoses.  The firemen were shot at and at least two were wounded.  Shortly after 3 am, Ellis found a unit of the fire brigade pinned down by gunfire from Brits who had broken into the City Hall building and  the firemen watched as uniformed men carried cans of petrol into the building from nearby Union Quay barracks.

At about 4 am a large explosion was heard and City Hall and the neighboring Carnegie Library went up in flames, resulting in the loss of a treasure in historic documents and public records.  When more firefighters arrived, British forces fired on them and refused them access to water.  The final act of arson took place at about 6am when a group of policemen looted and burned Murphy Brothers’ clothing shop on Washington Street.  After eight hours of uncontrolled destruction, five acres of the city, including more than 40 businesses and 300 homes were destroyed, amounting to near $11 million  in damage by today’s value while many were left homeless and 2,000 were left jobless.

The final act of vengeance associated with that event took place on 15 December as Auxie officer, Vern Hart, killed Catholic Very Rev. Canon Thomas J. Magner, who had been told to toll his bell for deceased British military on Armistice Day a month earlier on 11 November and he refused.  On a quiet road a mile from the Cork side of Bandon, he was walking with parishioner, Tadgh O’Crowley, when Hart shot them both dead.  Hart was arrested and at his Court Martial it was noted that he had been a close friend of the Auxie killed at Dillon’s Cross and had been drinking heavily since 11 December.  A number of ‘expert’  witness testified that Hart was temporarily insane at the time of the murders and the Court Martial ruled that he ‘was guilty of the offenses with which he was charged, but was insane at the time of their commission.’   He was discharged from the Auxies and sent to an asylum for a year.  He was then retired to South Africa and died in Golden Valley Hotel, Cape Provence in 1937 at age 55.  If that wasn’t rubbing enough salt in the wound, the Auxies took to wearing burnt corks in their caps to taunt the Irish. Auxie Captain Schulze, wrote to his girlfriend in England that it was “sweet revenge“, while to his mother he wrote: “Many who had witnessed scenes in France and Flanders say that nothing they had experienced was comparable with the punishment meted out in Cork.

Some debated whether British at Victoria Barracks had planned to burn the city before the ambush at Dillon’s Cross ever took place, or whether the British Army was even involved and whether those who set the fires were under the command of superior officers.  Florry O’Donoghue, intelligence officer of the 1st Cork Brigade IRA at the time, answered that debate when he wrote: “The ambush provided the excuse for an act which was long premeditated and for which all arrangements had been made.  The rapidity with which supplies of petrol and Verey lights were brought from Cork barracks to the centre of the city and the deliberate manner in which the work of firing the various premises was divided amongst groups under the control of officers, gives evidence of organization and pre-arrangement.  Moreover, the selection of certain premises for destruction and the attempt made by an Auxiliary officer to prevent the looting of one shop by Black and Tans: ‘You are in the wrong shop; that man is a Loyalist’ and the reply, ‘We don’t give a damn; this is the shop that was pointed out to us’, is additional proof that the matter had been carefully planned beforehand.”  Then, the month ended on 30 December 1920 as Martial law was extended to Counties Clare, Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford and the horror began anew. 

We can only imagine what those little girls who lived through that time would have experienced or the trauma they may have endured.  On the other hand, we are happy that they lived to see a partially independent Irish Republic when so many others were denied that privilege.

Kevin Barry

Photo by Kevin Barry Relative Tom McNabb

Dublin in 1920 was a tense city. Searches, shootings, and ambushes were a daily occurrence as the Irish people showed their disdain for England’s new police force – the Black and Tans. This force had recently been recruited from the English military returning from the Great War, expressly to keep the Irish in check after the Easter Rising of 1916. Since military personnel are not trained in civilian policing tactics and treat any opponent as the enemy, they operated so with a significant amount of brutality.

It was therefore, not unusual that the British lorry which arrived at Monk’s bakery in Upper Church Street at 11:30 AM on September 20, was heavily guarded by armed members of the Second Battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. As the soldiers loaded supplies to transport to Collinstown Camp, a voice from the street called, Drop your rifles and put up your hands. It was a group of Irish Volunteers. The Volunteers had been reorganized after the 1916 Rising to continue the fight for Ireland’s independence by opposing the British presence in Ireland. Suddenly, one of the soldiers fired, then a fusillade erupted as Volunteers and soldiers dueled with revolvers and rifles. When it was over, one soldier was killed and four wounded, and the Volunteers had fled. The British spotted a young man hiding under their lorry and pulled him out. They threw him into the back with their wounded and sped off. An official statement later that day from British HQ stated that, One of the aggressors had been arrested.

The aggressor, as it turned out, was an 18-year old medical student named Kevin Barry. Kevin had joined the Irish Volunteers when he was only 15. His job was to cycle to various parts of the city delivering orders and communications between officers of the movement. As a precaution against written messages being intercepted, most of the communications had been verbal and Kevin had an intimate knowledge of the movement. its members and leading figures. Kevin was from a nationalist family; his mother was a Dowling from northeast Carlow, where the Barrys and the Dowlings had done their part in 1798. Kevin’s older brother Mick was Officer in Charge of the Volunteers in Toombeagh, Co Carlow, and his sister Shiela was in Cumann na mBan – the IRA Ladies Auxiliary. The British knew of Barry’s position as courier for the movement and knew that they had a prize catch.

The questioning and physical persuasion began in earnest: Who were his companions? Name the officers of the Volunteers? . . Where was their Headquarters? Kevin steadfastly refused to betray the independence movement. He was offered amnesty and freedom, yet he refused. He was tortured for days on end, and still he refused. The British had never seen such determination in one so young. His mother visited him, and reported that his arm was in a sling as a result of the beatings and mistreatment he received, yet Kevin did not give in. Finally, under the misnamed ‘Restoration of Order Act’, Kevin was charged with murder. At a secret Courts Martial, he was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging.

Photo by Kevin Barry Relative Tom McNabb

A reprieve movement began, and focused world-wide attention on the injustice of British rule in Ireland. Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, had only recently died in Brixton Prison, after a 74-day hunger strike, and was laid to rest on the eve of Barry’s proposed execution. This intensified the pressure on England to release the young student, but still no repeal.

Late at night, Kevin was taken to see the scaffold that would end his life the following morning. With incredible cruelty and mental coercion, he was promised a full pardon, his tuition paid at any Medical school in the world, and a pension of 2,000 Pounds Sterling a year for life if he would only reveal the names of his officers and comrades. Kevin, visibly shaken, listened to the officer in silence, then glanced up at the beam from which hung the noose that would end his life and said, Yes, I think that should bear my weight.

On November 1, at 8 AM, his hands pinioned behind him with leather straps, the slender young 18-year old boy was led to the gallows at Mountjoy Jail where his short life was ended. Later, Father Albert, one of Kevin’s last visitors, reported that Kevin’s final message to Ireland and his comrades in arms, was, Hold on, and stick to the Republic.

Kevin Barry’s life was over, but his influence had just begun. His name became a symbol and a slogan; a hymn to freedom and to unconquerable youth.