Ireland of the Welcomes
A new book by Owen O’Shea tells the tale of The Ballmacandy Ambush, a daring IRA ambush in 1921 which left five men dead and was one of the most significant engagements of the War of Independence
Memories of Cork's most famous uprising, " Ballymacandy: The Story of a Kerry Ambush"
Rural village spared reprisals after attack on Royal Irish Constabulary and Black and Tans
In the early morning sunshine of 1 June 1921, 28-year-old District Inspector Michael Francis McCaughey checked his bicycle before he and his colleagues departed their base. The imposing three-storey barracks of the Royal Irish Constabulary in Killorglin, County Kerry, at the corner of the Square and Upper Bridge Street was the police headquarters for the district. One of its previous officers had been Thomas Barry who until 1901 was a member of RIC in the town. His son, Tom Barry, who was born in Killorglin in 1897, would go on to become one of the most high-profile IRA leaders in the country and led the Kilmichael Ambush, in County Cork, in November 1920.
By the summer of 1921, McCaughey had been District Inspector in Killorglin for just over six months. He grew up at John Street in the village of Crossgar, County Down, about 15 miles from Belfast. He had worked as a draper’s assistant before first joining the RIC on 15 March 1913. In August 1915, however, McCaughey left the police to join the army and was a Lance Corporal with the Irish Guards before becoming a Second Lieutenant with the Royal Irish Rifles during the First World War, serving in India. Re-joining the RIC as a member of the Black and Tans in March 1920, he was appointed to District Inspector rank at Killorglin, in December 1920. The IRA’s Bertie Scully from Glencar noted that McCaughey was "a British Officer who was in charge of Tans in Killorglin and the RIC worked with him also. He was a peculiar type." He was known to take a group of 14 or 15 police on night patrols of Killorglin, Milltown and Castlemaine.
The party of a dozen policemen under McCaughey’s leadership on 1 June was to cycle to Tralee to collect their pay – said to be a total of £100 – from the divisional headquarters before returning to Killorglin. McCaughey – unsure of whether the road to Tralee was passable by motor car or not – figured that bicycles were the only viable means of transportation.
By the middle of 1921, cycling had become the main – and safest – mode of transport for the local constabulary as the IRA continued to disrupt police movements around the countryside. Cutting and bombing of roads had become a critical tool in the IRA’s arsenal to ensure that the Crossley Tenders and other vehicles used to transport troops were disrupted. Whereas a four-wheeled vehicle could not navigate a trench or craters in a road, bicycles were not similarly hindered. But while a bicycle made for a more reliable means of transport in one respect, it lacked the relative speed and safety which a car or lorry provided. Just a month before events at Ballymacandy, the Kerry County Inspector of the RIC had reported to headquarters in Dublin that the IRA had "trenched all roads, blew up bridges, tore up railway lines, felled trees across roads, built up walls across roads, with the intention of making journeys of Crown Forces by motors impossible. They have made practically impossible to travel in the dark. Journeys of about 20 miles sometimes take between 4 & 5 hours to accomplish."
A few miles away in Brackhill, Dan Mulvihill was busy filling cartridges with buckshot with the help of his sister, Katie, as well as Michael Scully, from Dungeel, and brothers Michael and Mossie Casey, of nearby Ballinoe. By the spring of 1921, the local IRA companies had become "seriously short of ammunition, especially shot gun ammunition," but Mulvihill had managed to acquire 400 cartridge cases as well as a mould for making buckshot.
Paddy Cahill’s Flying Column and other units in the locality had also supplemented their arsenal since the attack at Glenbeigh railway station six weeks earlier, through which they had managed to acquire nearly 2,000 rounds of ammunition. In the weeks that followed, Mulvihill and his comrades "made a good share of powder and… started making buckshot" to load some 200 cartridges. On the morning of 1 June, Mulvihill had tested one of the cartridges and it "proved satisfactory."
At about 11 o’clock, Mulvihill heard a shout from the farmyard. A breathless Michael Galvin, a member of the youth organisation, Fianna Éireann and a neighbour of Mulvihill, told him that a cycling party of RIC officers and Black and Tans had passed through Castlemaine on their way from Killorglin to Tralee. Mulvihill knew immediately there was a prospect for an attack.
At her home at Boolteens, a few miles away, word reached 33-year-old Cumann na mBan member, Nellie Corcoran (Foley) that an ambush was being planned. A loyal and dedicated member of the Keel Company of Cumann na mBan, of which her sister Nora was captain, Nellie had spent several months preparing and sending food to the men at the Hut: "I cooked for them and paid for it at my own expense and I helped the other members of Cumann na mBan to collect food for them and to raise funds to supply them with groceries, cigarettes etc."
She and Nora had become used to IRA activity in the locality. Battalion meetings at their homes were frequent. Tom O’Connor of Milltown and Bryan O’Brien of Keel regularly stayed there while on the run. Around lunchtime on 1 June, the men from the Hut had been seen running in the direction of Castlemaine. No stranger to bloodshed
and providing succour to men who were scarred by battle, Nellie spent the afternoon getting her house "in readiness to receive the wounded."
The police completed their business in Tralee by 2.45pm and they set out on the return journey over the mountain and on towards Castlemaine, with McCaughey taking the lead. Stopping in Castlemaine for refreshment, they entered Griffin’s public house where they remained for no more than a half hour. Neither McCaughey nor any of his party noticed the two IRA scouts in the corner of the bar. The presence of the scouts likely alerted the publican that something was afoot but nothing was said to arouse suspicion.
Dan Keating of Ballygamboon who was lying in wait at Ballymacandy, later reflected that the publicans "were great, no hint in the world of the ambush plan." While in Castlemaine however, one of McCaughey’s constables, Patrick Foley "got a tip to look out on the road home." Another constable William Harvie later gave evidence that, in Castlemaine, the party was approached by Joseph Duckett, the stationmaster at Killorglin Railway Station, to warn them of possible danger.
The bicycle patrol departed Griffin’s Bar in Castlemaine about 3.30pm, again travelling in six pairs of two. One of the pairs of cyclists included Constable William Harvie and Constable John Stratton McCormack. Harvie later explained what happened before they moved off from Castlemaine:
Before we proceeded on our way, the District Inspector told us to be very careful. He said that he wouldn’t be surprised if something happened before we got into Milltown. We rode on at about the same interval between pairs carrying our revolvers in our hands.
‘Under a hail of bullets’
As the dozens of IRA men from Milltown, Keel, Kiltallagh, Castlegregory and Tralee lay waiting in the ditches at Ballymacandy on the afternoon of 1 June 1921, their sweaty fingers poised on their triggers, they heard the "clip-clop" of a horse on the road. Peering through the ditch, they
noticed a civilian travelling on a horse and cart in the direction of Milltown.
Michael Cronin, a local merchant, was transporting supplies to his shop on Church Street. IRA man Paddy Paul Fitzgerald, who was at the Castlemaine end of the ambush zone shouted at Cronin to move along. Cronin and his horse might have distracted the already nervewracked men in the ditches but his arrival on the scene worked to their advantage.
McCaughey and Sergeant James Collery, who were cycling side by side, were the first of the group into the danger area. Having slowed down behind Michael Cronin and his horse and trap, and stopped in some cases, the police had inadvertently placed themselves firmly within the range of their armed assailants.
When the last of the police had passed Tadhg Brosnan’s position near Clonmore Cottage, he, Paddy Paul Fitzgerald and those with them, placed their fingers on their triggers. At the opposite end of the ambush zone, Michael O’Leary, catching sight of McCaughey and Collery aimed his weapon. Tom O’Connor, the Commanding Officer of the IRA yelled an instruction which punctured the tranquillity of the summer’s afternoon: "Open fire!"
Under the hail of bullets which forced many of the police off their bikes, Sergeant Collery had continued to cycle onwards towards Milltown in an attempt to flee. From behind the ditch, Jerry "Unkey" O’Connor from Tralee lobbed a grenade onto the road. It exploded and the shrapnel struck Collery, killing him instantly.
McCaughey had fallen lifeless to the ground nearby, having been shot through the chest. IRA men James Cronin and Sonny Mason were at the Castlemaine end of the ambush zone and as soon as the last of the cyclists passed their position they came out of hiding onto the road behind the police and opened fire. By this point, all 12 targets were completely surrounded. Cronin explained:
Tadhg Brosnan was in a position on high ground behind the vacant cottage with two or three more and I called him down. He came down and joined me on the road and just as he reached the road, the firing started. At this time,
the Tans and RIC were about 300 yards from us. Tadhg Brosnan and I had rifles and we opened fire up the road from a kneeling position.
Cronin thought he saw a policeman or two in a field to the north of the road and he and Brosnan gave chase "but we were crossing the fire of our men and we had to get out." Michael Casey was "at the back of the ambush" along with Michael Scully of Dungeel and they were armed with shotguns. When one of the policemen came in their direction, Casey and Scully both fired at him and "the Tan returned the fire."
Four casualties now lay dead or dying on the road. Along with McCaughey and Collery, Constable John Quirke lay dead, having succumbed to multiple gunshot wounds, while Constable John McCormack lay a short distance away, bleeding profusely from a bullet wound in the neck.
No reprisals after Ballymacandy
Milltown was spared reprisal in the aftermath of Ballymacandy and didn’t suffer the burnings and brutality that had come to typify the Black and Tans reign of terror in Ireland.
In the days after the ambush, local Protestant landowner, Major Leeson Marshall of Callinafercy House received a letter from the local IRA. It was correspondence sent by Tom O’Connor, Officer Commanding at Ballymacandy. The major was told that his "place would be burned to the ground" if there were any retaliatory attacks or reprisals. The IRA warned that "loyalists in the district" including the residents of Callinafercy House would be targeted.
Tom O’Connor later claimed the major was alarmed by the warning and "went into Ballymullen Barracks the following morning" to alert the military authorities and that as a result, "nothing happened" by way of retaliation. Local folklore also holds that senior army and police figures were so impressed by the way in which the bodies of those killed had been washed and laid out by local women before being removed to the Sacred Heart Church in Milltown, that an instruction issued that Milltown was not to suffer retaliatory measures.