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Death On The Pier

The Full Story Finally Told

Reviewed by Kieran McCarthy

In an era and society that listens to almost daily calls for public enquiries into various scandals involving state, voluntary and religious bodies, to establish the truth around institutional wrong-doing, I say forget about wasting € millions of public monies on state enquires, just send in John Jefferies with his natural forensic investigate abilities, and the truth won’t be long surfacing before our eyes.

Through his book ‘Death On The Pier’ John Jefferies has done a great service to not only the memory of the victims of the pier head attack, to students of Irish history everywhere and to generations yet to come, but above all he has done a great service in the search for the truth of this story.

I specifically mention the ‘truth’ because what John achieved through his book was to enlighten his readers that what was going on in the background and in tandem with the pier head tragedy was an equally important if not bigger story. John has shone a light on a place in our history that few historians or investigate journalists have ever laboured with much enthusiasm – namely the matter of the army mutiny of 1924.

During the mid-1980’s while working at Irish Steel in Haulbowline, I was approached one day in the fitter repair shop by a man named Liam O’Callaghan. Liam had heard that I was at that time undertaking research for a book on the Cobh Republican Volunteer Movement. He took great delight in showing me some photographs of a recently discovered Rolls Royce car he had uncovered in a bog in north Cork. It was there and then that I had learned for the first time about the Moon Car and the Cobh pier head attack.

Two books later, and in the run-up to the publishing of ‘Republican Cobh & The East Cork Volunteers since 1913’ in 2008, I found myself again discussing the Pier Head attack with John Jefferies. John had, in fact agreed to work on the manuscript for me as proof-reader. He also made available to me for publication, a copy of the original wanted poster of the five republican suspects for the attack, as it had been in the possession of a family relative. Over the years, John mentioned he was planning to do a more thorough investigation in the form of a book on the pier head attack, believing there was a much bigger story to be told around it. How right he had been.

As much as I had waited and looked forward to reading John’s finished study, I was not prepared for what turned out to be such a masterly work of research. It is one of the best and easiest books to read that I have come across. The layout and chapter composition is second to none and of course, John’s use of such an extensive source pool is most impressive.

From the moment, you turn the first page, you are instantly gripped and waiting to see what comes next. I heard someone say recently that this story has it all, tragedy, violence, intrigue, cover-up, escape and of course ‘politics’ and would therefore be a ready-made story for the Hollywood big screen. In fact, there would be very little here in this story that a film director would have to change or embellish to make it a box-office hit.

So, what have we learned from ‘Death On The Pier’ and through John’s extensive research? We are still left in the position that we cannot definitively say who exactly carried out the attack, because whoever the gunmen were, they have taken that information to the grave with them.

While there is no reason to doubt the word of a senior IRA figure who claimed many years later that the IRA Army Council had planned and organised the Cobh pier head operation, and while its possible and even probable that the five named suspects had carried it out, there are still too many unanswered questions and conflicting bits of information to be entirely sure.

One of the primary reasons why there was conflicting information and resulting questions left unanswered, was in no small part due to the hasty actions of the Free State Government when it made the unprecedented decision to publicly post wanted posters with a £10,000 reward for five named suspects. What that single move ensured, as subsequent events demonstrated was that not only could the five suspects for the attack never receive a fair trial if they were apprehended, but the victims of the attack would never see those responsible brought to justice. It would seem, the small matter of justice had been kicked to the side-line in the interest of political expediency, and what we were probably looking at thereafter was a calculated political diversion.

The five named Cork men on the wanted posters may, or may not have been responsible for carrying out the pier-head shooting, but what they certainly seemed to become once the Cosgrave government issued its proclamation, was political patsies.

Why did the Cosgrave government act as they had, knowing what the likely outcome would be? Well to understand that, one must first take on board what was happening elsewhere at the same time. John Jefferies steers us clearly to where that was happening in chapter three of the book around the Army Mutiny. There was no doubt of how serious matters had become for the Cosgrave government when it had received a written and signed ultimatum from several senior army officers. The country had just come out of a bitter civil war and not only had this development the potential to topple the government, but it could also have sparked another round of military unrest.

While the Cobh Pier Head attack had a series of connections to the army mutiny (if you’re not the type to believe in coincidences), the Free State government seemed to have seen the attack as the perfect opportunity and diversion from their real problem. As John demonstrates in his book, Cosgrave and his cabinet appeared to come under enormous pressure from Downing Street to bring the culprits of the attack on its soldiers to book. But in an ironic way, this story and how it was played out seemed to show what little freedom our Free State actually had from London, and that ironically was one of the stated reasons for the army mutiny in the first instance. It would appear the limited freedom to achieve freedom as envisaged by Michael Collins, had turned out to be far more limited than what was hoped, or at least was being far less enthusiastically exercised and applied than what many senior army officers would have liked.
If it’s reasonable to believe the testimony of a senior republican that the IRA army council had met to discuss how it could take advantage of the free state army mutiny, and accordingly put a plan in place to carry out the Cobh Pier Head attack, it should therefore not take a huge stretch of the imagination to consider the possibility that at that same time, senior free state army mutineers were likewise considering making contact with republicans to further their own goals.

When one considers all the anecdotal evidence, of free state army officer uniforms being worn, Lewis machines guns both used in the attack and stolen and unreturned to barracks after the attempted mutiny, plus the witness testimonies of some, that former free state officers had been sighted in the attacking moon car, one must then consider that collaboration of some degree had taken place between the two armies at some point before the attack. And it seems this was precisely the reason why the Cosgrave government was so swift to spring into action with a list of named republican suspects and in doing so, hoped to divert attention away from the possibility of free state army involvement.

There was probably nothing that terrified the government more than the possibility of its army leaders uniting with republicans in a common purpose, and more so that this might be how it would be viewed in London.

Some might look at the actions of the Cosgrave government at this time and ask, why was it behaving in such an apologetic and subservient manner towards London. It did after all, nothing wrong, or at least it was insisting in public that it had nothing to hide. As the author, had pointed out, surely the actions of the IRA, if it was responsible for the attack as the government was insisting, could not be blamed on the state.

Why hadn’t the government protested either publicly or in private to the British government over the actions of its troops when they arrived back in Cobh armed and began firing in the streets following the pier head attack. Surely, the next day, with the eyes of the world on Cobh, was the time for the government to issue a public statement, notwithstanding the tragedy that had taken place the previous evening, that no foreign army baring arms had any right to set foot on sovereign Irish soil without permission, let alone to do so and begin firing indiscriminately in its streets.

Why was there no separate investigation into that British Army incident in Cobh and why are there no records by any Garda detectives of interviews with the British military personnel involved. Indeed, why is there no Garda records of the incident at all, given that the British had clearly and deliberately broken the terms of the Treaty?
Readers can draw their own conclusions as to why the government behaved as it had, but If I was to make a calculation from the evidence put before us by the author, I would say the government felt obliged to act as it had for either one of two reasons. (A) it behaved as a guilty party because it was not entirely sure the IRA acted alone, and wasn’t entirely satisfied that there wasn’t some involvement by its own forces. Or (B) that British Intelligence which evidently was still operating in Cobh at the time, had produced definitive evidence that there was National Army involvement in the Pier Head attack.

The thing was, it was as much in the British Governments interests to go along with the cover-up if there was one, and to help the free state government to get over its difficulties and in particular, to suppress a potentially explosive army mutiny. This would surely explain the subservient behaviour of the Irish government and the rather arrogant and near aggressive calls from the House of Commons for swift arrests and prosecutions. The puppet masters had their hands firmly on the strings.

The fact that a £10,000 reward was being offered for the capture of the five named republican suspects, always meant that the Gardai were going to be flooded with information of sightings of the suspects along with all sorts of wild stories relating to the attack. The problem there, is that human nature being what it was, the lure of the £10K or £700K in today’s equivalent value, meant that all sorts of fictional sightings and concocted stories would emerge. However, as the author revealed, there was probably as many genuine attempts by witnesses to aid the investigation. The question remains however, was the investigation itself compromised from the start by who it was instructed to investigate and was its remit confined to republican suspects only? The recorded evidence produced in this book suggests it was indeed compromised by political expediency.

One piece of information revealed in the book which immediately grabbed my attention, involved a report passed on to the Gardai immediately after the pier head shooting by an unnamed British military source in Cobh, stating his belief that an ex- RIC man and an ex free state army Captain were involved in the attack. For me, this was proof if it was needed that British Intelligence was still active and functioning in Cobh in 1924, and this report coming so soon as it did after the shooting, probably played a big part in influencing the Cosgrave government to instigate a cover-up through the issuing of their infamous wanted poster naming the five republican suspects.

John Jefferies did his book a further justice in my opinion by devoting a chapter to private Aspinall the poor soldier who lost his life on the pier. Aspinall who shortly before wrote to his mother expressing his looking forward to returning home soon to Manchester, could not have known from his peaceful and tranquil surrounds in Spike and Cobh, that he would soon lose his life to such an armed action.

One can only try to imagine what thoughts were flashing through the mind of the young soldier as the bullets were cracking the pier surface around him, before he was eventually struck in the back. I am sure what he wasn’t thinking, was that this was all down to a very poor settlement that one way or the other, was forced upon the Irish people by his own government a few years before. Nor would he, while lying amongst the mayhem, as the life was ebbing from his body, have time to consider that his soon to come passing, and the multiple injuries of his colleagues around him, would soon be the cause of a huge political cover-up.

In conclusion, I must again congratulate John Jefferies on an impressive work of history. It must have been a most difficult task for John to achieve the level of impartiality he had, given his own political background and keeping in mind that one of the central figures in the Cobh story was a family relative. I have absolutely no doubt that in the years to come when any history student is tasked with researching either of the topics of the pier head attack or the army mutiny, it will be John Jefferies book ‘Death On The Pier’ they will be guided towards first for references.

If I could finish by mentioning just one question that this story leaves hanging over it, one that John failed to address. I suppose John felt there had already been more than enough speculation expended throughout the book without delving into the territory of ‘What If’s’, but nevertheless this is one that seems to scream out at me after all we had read and learned about the Pier Head Attack.

What if the Pier Head Attack never happened – Would the army mutiny still have been suppressed so swiftly? In other words, knowing as we do now that the IRA army council had deliberately organised the attack to exploit the army mutiny, could it have been that the public outrage which followed the attack, drove many of the mutineers and potential others back to cover, thus assisting the Cosgrave government to put the matter to bed before it could really take off? Remember, not all the stolen army weapons and equipment had been handed back. And if that was the case, wouldn’t it have been a terrible and costly irony that a single IRA action had inadvertently prevented a full Free State army mutiny.

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