The Avondhu - By The Fireside
IRA bomb blows the hand off 8 year old child in Knockraha National School in 1921
As the year of 1921 dawned, the War of Independence between the British forces and the IRA was entering a most serious phase. From the British side more soldiers were coming to Ireland to support the civilian authorities. The old police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary, most of whom were Irishmen, were disgusted with the British tactics and were throwing in their badges and retiring from the force.
So, in order to supplement this, the British recruited a new force, many of whom were people back from the First World War and hardened by their experiences. They were called the Auxiliaries and their lesser ranks became known as the Black and Tans. Their mission was to defeat the IRA at any cost and they were given practically a free hand. Their tactics were to terrorise the population to withdraw support for the IRA - of their conduct no questions were to be asked. So, they murdered, plundered, burned towns as well as Cork City and left destruction in their wake. They became a hated force in the population in the fact that they turned most people against the British forces, which was of course not their intention.
On the other side, the original aim of the IRA was to get rid of the RIC who were the ‘eyes and ears’ of the British Government. So, RIC barracks were attacked, burned and weapons captured and the personnel forced out. Indeed the first RIC barracks attacked in Ireland was in Carrigtwohill. But by early 1921 many of the RIC barracks were burned or had been destroyed and what was left were bigger barracks in towns which were better protected with steel shuttering, more weapons and better back-up by soldiers, which made it very hard to successfully attack these barracks.
The next tactic used by the IRA was to employ ‘flying columns’. They were members who were well-known to the British authorities and couldn’t live in their own houses so they were effectively ‘on the run’. They were formed into columns known as ‘flying columns’ and their aim was to ambush British soldiers and police at every opportunity. They were working on a full-time capacity and were paid to carry out these ambushes in isolated areas and after each fight, to move onto another area. Many of these encounters form a significant part of Irish history, such as the Kilmichael ambush.
When they were in an area, flying column members were housed by local supporters and fed. So for such attacks, rifles and revolvers were important, but what was also important was to have a supply of hand grenades which would start an ambush when they were thrown into enemy lorries, destabilising these vehicles and causing many casualties. But the problem was that the IRA had only a very limited supply and the IRA were finding it very difficult to come by a supply of these grenades.
It was in this situation that Sean Hegarty, OC of the Cork No. 1 Brigade, consulted members with experience of metal work to see if they could manufacture their own grenades – they decided they could. So, they drew up a list of the equipment that was needed, including a furnace which was made at a dockyard in Cobh, taken over by IRA members for the night while they made it. But their big problem was where to locate this factory. Sean Hegarty decided that Knockraha was the ideal location, as it was a very quiet area with a lot of bogs and glens. It was by far the biggest rural Company of the IRA in East Cork.
And so, he approached the captain of the Knockraha Company, Martin Corry, giving him orders to make a dug-out in the ground to accommodate such a factory. So Martin picked out Butlerstown Glen and he got men to construct this dug-out. When completed the equipment was put in and work started on making the grenades. The men working there were paid so much a day.
100 GRENADES DAILY
Ned Fitzgerald of Knockraha East, who was an engineering student in UCC, was sent down from Butlerstown to help in the making of the grenades and he decided he could make a better plant than the operation in Butlerstown, so he asked for permission to do so, which was granted. Another dugout was then situated in Knockraha East. It worked on similar lines to the Butlerstown one and when these two factories were in full production, they would produce 100 grenades a day which were then sent around the country.
These grenades were a great asset for the IRA. As well as that, in Knockraha a vault in Kilquane Cemetery was used for holding prisoners while their fate was being decided by the Cork No. 1 Brigade. This became known as Sing-Sing Prison and many were executed out of it. With all this work going on, Sean Hegarty ordered for there to be no activity of Republicans in Knockraha, so that it would be a quiet area and the British would not conceive what was happening there, thus keeping away from the area, leaving them undisturbed.
At that time all of Munster was under Marshall Law, so if anyone working in the grenade factory or looking after Sing-Sing were captured by the British, they would probably have been executed. And that order was strictly obeyed.
But then an unexpected incident happened in Knockraha in 1921 which, if it came to the notice of the British authorities, would have blown the Knockraha story. This would probably have led to the discovery of the bomb factory and Sing-Sing, which would have huge consequences for the local population.
In May 1921 there were around 60 pupils going to the national school in Knockraha. It was a two teacher school with young teachers Michael Daly from Dunmanway and Nora Fleming from Castlemartyr having taken over a year earlier from Mr. and Mrs. Tom Barry. Jack Donovan from Blossomgrove was 8 years of age and with other members of his family, was going to Knockraha National School, which was built in 1887. He was an uncle of Bertie Óg and Tadhg Murphy of Sarsfields and Cork hurling and football fame.
The school is situated in the middle of the village. This happened during the height of the War of Independence and with a very active Company in Knockraha who had a lot of guns and bombs under their control, practically every evening they would have been doing exercises. That drilling would take place in different parts of the parish, including the school yard. Unfortunately, after one of these exercises, whether it was through carelessness or forgetfulness, a live grenade was left in the corner of the school yard.
The next day at school during the early morning break, young Jack Donovan was playing and picked the grenade up, not knowing what it was. He thought it might be a bowl or something so he took it into the school with him and sat out the next classes with the grenade on him! Then, during the lunch break, he took it out in the school yard and he saw that there was a pin on top of it - once the pin in a grenade is removed, it will blow up in about 5 seconds. He pulled out the pin. At this stage he was holding the grenade in the other hand and a few seconds later, the grenade exploded and took his hand from the wrist down, as well as temporarily blinding him.
His sister, Molly was at school at the time, saw the explosion and saw his fingers going up in the air. Other children who were with him were John McGrath of Kilrussane, Pa Mulcahy of Ballyrea and John Geary of Blossomgrove.
Young Pa Mulcahy suffered serious facial cuts which were very sore, but ultimately curable. He had burns on his face.
The unfortunate Jack was immediately brought into the school and when Mrs. Daly saw what happened, she fainted as he was bleeding profusely - obviously he had to get medical attention and get to hospital quickly.
Now what happened to Jack as a child would have had serious consequences to the Knockraha IRA as it was the incompetence of one of its members that saw a bomb left in the schoolyard. And if it came to the notice of the British that a bomb had taken a child’s hand off in Knockraha, they would no doubt have put huge resources in to finding out where the bomb came from. And they were already suspicious that something was going on in Knockraha from papers found at the scene of the Battle of Clonmult. So, no doubt if they made a complete search of the area they would have found the bomb factories and Sing-Sing, which would have had devastating consequences for Knockraha.
But then, on the other hand, if the officers of the brigade of the IRA heard of what happened, surely Knockraha officers would have questions to answer as it would be very bad publicity for the Republican movement and I’m sure Michael Collins would not have been too happy about it. So the incident had to be kept quiet. The local IRA approached the Donovan family pointing out their predicament and for the good of society they decided to keep it quiet, in spite of the devastating injury to their son’s hand and his future.
They then got a pony and trap to take Jack into hospital in Cork, afraid on the way in that they might meet a company of Black and Tans who, if they saw what happened to Jack, would have taken very strong action.
Eventually, Jack was lying inside in the hospital bed - at this stage his sight had still not returned (but it did come back after a few days). A priest came in to ask and question him about the incident. And Jack, even though he was a child, had been told not to say anything. The priest said ‘I am a priest, you can talk to me about it’. But Jack replied ‘I can’t see you so I don’t know if you’re a priest or not, so I can’t say anything about it’.
After a while, Jack recovered and came out of hospital and came home to his family in Blossomgrove. At this stage the Republican movement felt they had some responsibility for what had happened so they decided to pay for his fees for Christian Brothers College in Cork, where he cycled to everyday.
Martin Corry was the captain of the Knockraha IRA Company when the bomb exploded and many years after the war ended, became a TD and a member of the governing party. He no doubt felt a certain responsibility for what happened to Jack. He raised a question in the Dáil whether compensation could be got for the unfortunate injury. And he was told there were no funds available to cover it.
So Jack continued to live in Knockraha and became a leading member of the local community. He was chairman of the Knockraha Muintir na Tire Council for many years, who did great work, such as bringing the ESB to the area, the bus service, telephones and looking after the roads. He was very involved in the construction of the hall in Knockraha, so he was a great community man and had a big impact on the parish. He lived his life out in Knockraha and married Kathleen Bowen of Ballingohig. He died in 1990 and is buried in Kilquane.
Incidentally, Jack is the only person in Knockraha who got injured as a result of the War of Independence, in spite of all the activity in the area.