Kieran McCarthy, chief tour guide with Cobh Rebel Walking Tours in County Cork, is asking…
The Lead Up To Joining The Flying Column
Today I would like to talk a little about five of the Cobh Flying Column members. The four who lost their lives to the Clonmult tragedy, and their commander on the day and sole escapee of the ambush Jack O’ Connell. There were in fact six Cobh members of the column, the most senior, Paddy Whelan was absent from Clonmult at the time of the ambush that day, while he assisted the Column leader Diarmuid Hurley and Joe Ahern with some reconnaissance work at Cobh Junction, for a pending military operation there.
I would like to focus on the lives of these individuals in the time leading up to the ambush, particularly that of two of the men who ended up in the column almost by accident.
We know for example that the Column was set up in Knockraha in October 1920 less than six months before the ambush. We also know that James Glavin, Maurice Moore, and Paddy O’Sullivan joined the column soon after it was established.
We know that James Glavin acted as a look-out at Park Lane for volunteers who a short distance away outside the Park on the Laundry Hill, had set up an ambush of RIC District Inspector Archie Mordaunt on August 1st, 1920. Almost immediately after the shooting, both James Glavin and one of the shooters that day, Daithi O’Brien went on the run and moved to Knockraha, where they began working on a grenade factory. Two months later when the columned was set up, Glavin joined, while O’Brien stayed on in Knockraha with other Cobh volunteers making grenades.
Maurice Moore and Paddy O’Sullivan were very close from their schooldays at the Presentation Brothers in Cobh. Both lads played hurling together, Joined the Volunteers together, worked at the naval dockyard together and took part in many military operations together. So, it was no surprise that they also joined the Flying Column together. Paddy O’Sullivan also acted locally as the clerk to the local republican parish court which was regularly held at Cobh Town Hall. This very public court work would have put O’Sullivan very high on the attention list of the British and was undoubtedly an influencing factor in him going on the run. While Maurice Moore wouldn’t have needed much encouragement to join his comrade, as his home at Tick knock, which was then under regular attention from British raiding parties who used to harass him and his two volunteer brothers John and Andrew.
Such was the bond of friendship and comradeship that existed between O’Sullivan’s and Moore, that when they later came before their court-martial at Victoria Barracks in Cork, Maurice More was prepared to seal his own fate by offering himself as an alibi witness for his comrade, an honourable but alas, a failed sacrifice.
But if Glavin, Moore and O’Sullivan were always destined to become martyred members of the Column, the cases of their other two Cobh comrades were very different. In fact, for O’Connell and Ahern, fate took a sudden twist after they very nearly didn’t join the column at all.
Their stories began on the 27th of February 1920, almost a year before Clonmult, when Jack O’Connell led a local ambush on a British army patrol at Bunker Hill, Rushbrooke, the site of Great Island motors today. During the raid, five rifles were captured, and a British soldier lost his life. As Jack O’Connell was merely acting commander of the local company at the time, due to widespread sweeps and arrests in the town, it was left to others to later issue a full report of the operation to Brigade HQ in Cork.
However, when the Brigade commander and Lord Mayor Terry MacSwiney was arrested at City Hall Cork on August 11th, he unfortunately was found in possession of a number of documents, one of which was a report of the Rushbrooke operation, and which named Jack O’Connell as its leader. Although MacSwiney was later shipped off to Brixton Gaol in London where he began a hunger strike, he first managed to get a note off to Jack O’Connell via a Capuchin Priest. O’Connell at that point was working as a mechanic at Hallinans motor works in Midleton. The note warned the Cobh officer to get out that the British were closing in on him. O’Connell most likely met up with James Ahern at Knockraha where other Cobh volunteers hung out on the run and worked on the construction of hand grenades in an underground bomb factory.
Ahern who was elected to Cobh Urban District Council in January 1920, was probably the most harassed of all the local councillors by the British, as he was also the local commander of Na Fianna Eireann, having assumed the position when he came of age and his former commander Phil O’Neill stepped down. Ahern knew he had choice but to get out.
Around that time, Mick Leahy the Battalion commander was asked by Michael Collins to travel to Italy to pick up a cargo of weapons and to skipper the ship back to Ireland. Leahy had asked O’Connell and Ahern to join him, to remain on standby and wait for word to follow him out to Italy as soon as he had made the purchase. He wanted them as crew members to help land the cargo on the return journey. Leahy had even set O’Connell and Ahern up with jobs with Cork Harbour Commissioners, from where they would be easily contactable. However, due to a series of questionable circumstance, the purchase was never made and O’Connell and Ahern, never received the call from Leahy.
It was two weeks before the Clonmult ambush at the beginning of February 1921, when local Town Chairman and volunteer Seamus Fitzgerald, bumped into Jack O’Connell and James Ahern outside the Harbour Commissioners yard on the Lower Road Cork. Fitzgerald said he could see that the two men were anxious about something, before Ahern explained that they were still waiting for word from Leahy and couldn’t understand why he hadn’t made contact yet. Fitzgerald told the men that he unfortunately knew nothing about that and couldn’t help them.
James Ahern then said he heard about the Flying Column in East Cork and wondered if he, Fitzgerald would put in a word with its commander Diarmuid Hurley for them to join? Fitzgerald said he had an ominous eerie feeling about the request, it didn’t feel right, leading him to question if that is what the men really wanted to do, as it would be very dangerous work. “It would hardly be any more dangerous than the smuggling around of those deposition documents that you asked me to carry around recently,” replied Ahern. Ahern and O’Connell were welcomed into the Column shortly after. The rest is history.
By now most people know the story of what took place at Clonmult. We know of the brutality that was dished out by the British that day and the war crimes committed by the Auxiliaries and Tans through the summary executions of surrendered prisoners.
We know too how much the British feared the volunteers as much in death as they did when they were alive. In 1987, I interviewed a local survivor of the Tan war for a book I was then researching, Mrs Geraldine Norris nee Hawes. Geraldine told me that on the day of the funerals of James Ahern and James Galvin, as she marched behind the cortege coming down tick nock hill, as a then member of Cumann na Cailiní, she said she noticed that everyone in front of her had their heads turned right looking up towards Cnoc hill. When she joined them, she said she saw the whole hillside covered with British Cameron Highlanders with their rifles trained down upon the mourners. She estimated by the number of soldiers present, that an extra battalion of Camerons must have been drafted into Cobh for the occasion.
Geraldine then mentioned an incident which was then dominating the TV headlines at that time, where the funeral of a Belfast republican Larry Marley, days before murdered by British agents, had been prevented by the RUC and military from leaving his home while it had a tricolour on the coffin. “some things never change she said, as the British fear the volunteers as much in death as when they are alive, because dead martyrs normally means new enemy recruits”, she said.
The British have also ensured that we will never forget their deeds, but also the sacrifices made by our fallen comrades.