Kieran McCarthy, chief tour guide with Cobh Rebel Walking Tours in County Cork, is asking…
By December 1916, most of the republican Internees in Wales had already been released. By now the British Government had realised the own goal it had scored after the execution of the Volunteer leaders.
The mood in Ireland had been transformed from that immediately after their surrender when the volunteer prisoners were spat at and jeered by members of the Dublin public. Now republican prisoners were being openly welcomed home amid hero status. Cobh was no exception to these triumphant and celebratory displays, as the following report in the Cork Examiner newspaper of august 1916 showed:
“A very large crowd gathered at the railway station for the arrival of the two naval dockyard workers Jim Fitzgerald and Michael Leahy who were interned following the outbreak of the Rising. Among those welcoming the men home were the Chairman and Town Clerk of the UDC. On alighting from the train, the crowd broke over the barriers and lifted the two men shoulder high and carried them through the town singing nationalist songs and cheering vociferously. At the request of the home comers, no band played.”
In Cobh, as elsewhere in the country, the period of celebrations was short-lived and the business of reorganisation and preparing for the next round of fighting was quickly got underway. Cork was especially eager to redeem itself and to make up for missing out in the fight at Easter. But if the volunteer movement was eager to build upon the gains of the last eight months since the rising, so was the British administration in Ireland determined to prevent the rebels from becoming a further cause of trouble.
Almost immediately after their return home from Frangoch, Leahy and Fitzgerald had grabbed the attention of the RIC at Westview Barracks once again. District Inspector D.E. Armstrong who had made a written recommendation on the 13th April, a full week and a half before the Rising, calling on the Admiralty to discharge five employees from His Majesty’s Dockyard for being Volunteers, was now very annoyed that Leahy and Fitzgerald had been reinstated back in their posts at Haulbowline. The District Inspector pointed out that had the German arms ship ‘Aud’ and Roger Casement not been captured, the Rising would have almost certainly gone ahead in Cork, where these two local leaders would have been in the thick of it.
But not only had Armstrong some justification for being perturbed that Leahy and Fitzgerald were parading around town and in Haulbowline like hero’s, while being paid for the honour by His Majesty’s Government, but the senior policeman was also in possession of up to date intelligence which showed the two men were engaged in further organising and plotting. In a report sent to Dublin Castle in December, Inspector Armstrong explained that a new GAA club had been established in Cobh – the ‘McDonagh’s Football Club. The Inspector noted that it was likely a cover for the Sinn Feiner’s who met in the rooms. A short time later, Armstrong was back onto the Castle to report that Leahy, Fitzgerald and Jack Stack were the organisers of the club and that they paid 15d a week in rent. He added that the club now had 65 members.
By now the pictured that was emerging in Cobh was being mirrored all over the country. Volunteer recruitment and training was well underway in most areas, particularly in areas where it hadn’t before 1916. In East Cork, towns like Midleton, Youghal, Castlemartyr and Cloyne soon began organising. The Cobh Volunteers, or A Company, as they came to be known, would be the driving force behind this new recruitment drive to establish the 4th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers. Capt. Mick Leahy would naturally spearhead this task and in time, would also take command of the Battalion from his new base in Midleton. Daithi O’Brien of Roches Row in Cobh would replace Leahy as commander of the Cobh Company.
With this new volunteer impetus, would also come a new boldness and daring. Few volunteers believed the next round of fighting wouldn’t involve them, or that future actions would be confined to a particular area of the country like the last time. Everyone knew however, that there couldn’t really be any fighting until the volunteers had the necessary arms to undertake the task. As things transpired, only those areas that took it upon themselves to go out and steal or buy guns from those that had them, would be the ones best positioned to take the fight to the enemy. Such actions would first require bold and daring leadership and few leaders came as bold and as daring as Daithi O’Brien in Cobh.
While local commanders like Daithi O’Brien were raiding the big houses all over the country for arms, or were bribing soldiers with money to hand over their rifles, there was also parallel political activity underway in 1917 and 1918 where Sinn Fein contested and won a number of By-elections around the country. These series of electoral victories gathered pace and galvanised nationalist opinion behind Sinn Fein and away from Redmond’s Irish Party in the General Election of December 1918 when Sinn Fein had a landslide victory. More than anything else, the reason why Sinn Fein prospered at the expense of the old Nationalist Party was because of its opposition to conscription. Redmond’s party had called for Irishmen to fight for Britain, while Sinn Fein opposed the idea of Irishmen fighting in another country’s imperial war. On this occasion, Sinn Fein was also joined by the catholic bishops who had come out strongly against conscription. In Cobh, Bishop Robert Browne, who normally was a regular invited dinner guest at the Admiralty House at the Mount, had since openly begun joining republican speakers at anti-conscription rallies in the town.
A month later, on the opening day that the First Dail met (21st January 1919) at the Mansion House in Dublin, while the new republican TD’s refused to recognise or attend the House of Commons in London, a small group of Volunteers at Soloheadbeg in Tipperary, shot dead two armed RIC officers who were escorting a cart of gelignite to a quarry. This action is generally referred to by most historians as the first action of the war of independence, or by republicans as the beginning of the Tan War.
With more and more daily raids for arms and shootings taking place all over the country, followed by increasing numbers of RIC men resigning from the force, the British Prime Minister Lloyd George began recruiting a new force of demobbed soldiers from WW1 to supplement and back up the RIC in Ireland. The force soon became known as the Black and Tans because of the colour of their uniforms. This force was soon followed by another comprised of former army officers called the Auxiliaries, with both becoming synonymous in Ireland with murder, destruction and general terror.
From this period in early 1919 to the summer of 1921, a highly tense militarised period between the IRA and British Crown forces existed. While the IRA took the war to the British with a highly motivated guerrilla war and assassination campaign against policemen, the British often responded by punishing the civilian community through the burning of properties and shooting of civilian/republican suspects.
On 3rd January 1920, Ireland’s first RIC Barracks was captured and destroyed when Mick Leahy led his 4th Battalion men to take the surrender of Carrigtwohill’s Barracks after a five-hour gun battle. Later that year, the IRA began utilising a growing number of its volunteers who had fled their homes on the run, into mobile Flying Columns. These full-time active service and highly trained columns proved very effective against often far superior numbers of British forces.
Paradoxically, two of the more famous of these flying columns were from opposite ends of County Cork. In West Cork, Tom Barry’s flying column scored some highly punishing defeats against often superior British forces. In East Cork, Diarmuid Hurley’s column, while initially notching us some minor military victories of its own, went on to succumb to the IRA’s greatest ever defeat with the loss of 14 volunteers who were either killed outright, or shot immediately after surrendering, or were later executed by firing squad, after their quarters, a cottage at Clonmult near Midleton was surrounded and ambushed by Crown Forces in February 1921. Cobh had lost four volunteer sons to the ambush, with the only volunteer to escape from the ambush with his life was Captain Jack O’Connell, also of Cobh.
On 11th July 1921, a Truce came in to being between the British and Republican forces. It was obvious to many IRA commanders that talks had already being ongoing for some time. On the day, the Truce was announced, Mick Leahy and the Brigade Intelligence Officer Florrie O’Donoghue had just completed an inspection of all republican units in Munster and were convinced from what they had witnessed, that the IRA were about to enter into negotiations with the British from a position of strength. Also, during this break in hostilities, the Republican Army began another round in recruitment, training and development in manufacturing ordinance. Henry O’Brien of Cobh, a moulder with Henry Fords in Cork, and brother to Daithi, was in charge of grenade making at an underground bomb factory at Blossom Grove in Knockraha. By the time the Treaty negotiations had come to a close, there would be two additional Brigade grenade making factories in the County.
By the time the contents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty become known, they were met with deep suspicion by many senior IRA commanders. One man who had good reason to doubt the sincerity of how the treaty was being sold to members of the Dail and to the IRA itself, was Mick Leahy.
Leahy noted how Mick Collins was making the case for accepting the Treaty on the basis that failure to do so would involve a much-heightened all-out war from the British, and that the IRA simply didn’t have the weapons and resources for such a prospect. Leahy knew this to be a false premise for he had only finished examining all the Munster volunteer areas and their resources when the Truce began. He was well aware of all the recruitment, training, development and manufacturing of ordinance which had taken place throughout that period since.
But perhaps what made Mick Leahy suspicious of Collins motives more than anything else, related to an adventure that Collins had sent him on many months earlier. Collins had sent Leahy to Italy on a secret mission back in January for the purpose of skippering a ship full of weapons back to Ireland. All the necessary preparations had already been put in place for the landing of the weapons at a location off Rabbit Island not far from Collins home turf in West Cork. When Leahy arrived in Italy he met up with a number of Army officers who had all the weapons ready and on standby, as was the prearranged ship. The problem was, the promised money for the purchase of the weapons wasnt forthcoming. Leahy waited and waited and made contact with his two go-betweens, Sean T O’Kelly in Paris and Art O’Brien in London, but there was no reply from Collins or any sign of the money for the weapons. Leahy eventually gave up the wait at Easter and made his way back to Ireland.
Mick Leahy never did get an explanation, an apology nor a thank you from Michael Collins as to why the weapons were not purchased and why he was left out on his own. However, with the benefit of hindsight, the Brigade Commander drew his own conclusions – that his time in Italy happened to coincide with some secret discussions that had been taking place at that time between Collins and British sources. It occurred to Leahy that perhaps a too well armed IRA would be less inclined to accept a future bad deal/ultimatum from the British and therefore the Italian arms deal was better to not go ahead in Collins mind. Enter – The Civil War.
All content written and researched by Kieran McCarthy