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What Was Happening In Cobh In 1920?

America 2020 – Ireland 1920, Who Learned From Who?

By Kieran McCarthy

November 3rd, 2020 and the weeks leading up to it will go down in American and World history as the time when the people of that nation went out in unprecedented numbers to take back control of theirdestinies. Equally, November 7th will be remembered as the day that that act of liberation was realized through the confirmation of a new presidency. Almost immediately, TV images showing people out on the streets celebrating in huge numbers in nearly every city and town across the US, were broadcast around the world.  These were not the simple images that one would normally associate with people who had supported a winning political party or candidate in a general election, but were rather more a kin to scenes one with expect from a people who might have been held in subjugation by a hostile occupation force for the preceding four years, and who nowhad suddenly found their freedom, broke off their shackles,by together, simply going out to cast their votes for change.

One hundred years earlier, the people of Ireland found themselves in a similar situation to that of the American people. Their situation, while similar in some respects, was far more complicated. The governing foreign occupation administration in Ireland had nearly an 800-year head start andwas reinforced by a huge military establishment. Just like the American founding fathers a hundred and fifty years before, Irish revolutionaries leaders knew their enemy would resort to brutal violence to ensure they held on to power and control in Ireland, and knew they too would have to answer that with force and violence themselves. They also realised that violence alone wouldn’t be enough and so also reached for the one weapon their foreign enemy had no control over, the votes of the Irish people. This was the age when the gun met the ballot box. 

The following is just a small sample of what was happening in one Irish town Cobh, in 1920 during the height of the Irish War of Independence.

1920, in terms of Anglo-Irish relations, was a very bloody year and in many respects was regarded as one of the bloodiest of the Irish War of Independence. It was, if you like, the storm before the calm of a peace treaty of one year later.  Among the national highlights of 1920, was the arrival of the Black and Tan and Auxiliaryterror groups who were then pouring into Ireland from Britain. 1920 also saw Britain’s first Bloody Sunday in Dublin and the introduction of Collins hit squad. From Cork, we saw three republicans defy British rule by starving themselves to death, including the Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney who died in Brixton Gaol in October. MacSwiney’s predecessor Tomas MacCurtain had earlier been murdered at his Blackpool home by the RIC.

Cork also featured in the headlines later that year when Tom Barry’s West Cork Flying Column took the fight to the enemy and inflicted heavy losses on British Auxiliaries at Kilmichael on 28thNovember. Barry and his men would inflict further heavy losses on the British the following March, at Crossbarry when the ambushers would become the ambushed. Cork was back in the news weeks later when the Black and Tans, Auxiliaries and ordinary RIC members burned the centre of the city to the ground in the weeks leading up to Christmas 1920.

1920 was also the year that the British Prime Minster Lloyd George made a bold claim to parliament, when he said “We now have murder by the throat in Ireland”, while his Minister for War, Winston Churchill,the man tasked with recruiting the Black and Tans, later added his own boast, “We are fighting terror with terror in Ireland”.  These two statements were made in the months following the arrival of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries to Ireland, and not only were they aggressively jingoistic and racist in tone, but lacked little sense of accuracy as to how the war was going for the British in Ireland.

Cobh, like most county Cork towns was unable to escape from this war, but Cobh was not like most Irish towns. It had on its doorstep, among the largest military and naval garrisons anywhere on the Island of Ireland.  Indeed, most of the adult males livingin the town were either serving or reservist members of the British navy, and many of those who were not, were employed as civilian workers at the naval dockyard at Haulbowline. Other local ex-servicemen were employed at the Admiralty buildings at Mount Crozier in the town. Some of these sailors and ex-servicemen’s sons were also employed at the naval dockyard,serving apprenticeships.

Cobh, therefore, was a booming town in terms of employment and compared to your average Irish town at that time, punched away above its weight in economic terms. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker – all were making a comfortable living from the British presence in Cobh and its harbour environs. This was one community that should have been among the least to have been expected to rise-up and bite the hand that feeds it. Yet, it was among the first to do so, and not only that, but among those locals who led that rebellion, was none other than the apprentice boys at the Haulbowline naval dockyard.

One of those leaders, Michael Leahy, would later boast that Cobh would be one of the first towns in county Cork to form a company of the Irish Volunteers, even a week before Cork city in December 1913. On that occasion, Leahy said he was joined by twenty-one other teenagers at the (A.O.H) Ancient Order of Hibernians Hall on Church Street – today a privateresidence named Stella Maris.   Not only was Cobh one of the first towns to organise a company of the Volunteers, but it would go on to help organise other towns and villages throughout the East Cork region, into the 4th Battalion, of which Mick Leahy would be its commander. The Cobh ladies of Cumann na mBhan would likewise lead the way and help to organise other towns and parishes throughout the 4th battalion area.  So, when the War of Independence really took off in 1919, the Cobh Volunteers werevery much the driving force and leadership behind it. 

The following events are just some of the highlights of what was happening in Cobh throughout 1920. If you wish to learn more about these recorded events and much more, you can do so by purchasing a copy of my eBook ‘Republican Cobh & The East Cork Volunteers Since 1913’.  You can log onto to purchase same.

  1.  The year 1920, began when the members of the 4th battalion under the leadership of Mick Leahy moved in to capture Carrigtwohill RIC Barracks on January 3rd.  It would go down as being the first RIC Barrack in the country to fall since Ashbourne Barracks in 1916.  The Carrigtwohill attack in fact, was meant to happen earlier near the end of 1919, but had to be changed on the instruction of Mick Collins who feared its date and timing was too close to another big operation that was timed to go off in Dublin, where Volunteers there had planned to assassinate the Viceroy Lord French, then commander of all British forces in Ireland. Collins was anxious that the Carrigtwohill operation should not happen then because if it succeeded, would take from the limelight of the French attack, and dilute its propaganda value, if both hit the headlines at the same time. As it turned out, Lord French escaped with his life in the Dublin attack, and as fate would have it, French again escaped with his life in Cobh the following June, when he visited the Admiral in the town and evaded an ambush by local Volunteers who lay in wait for him as he left Admiralty buildings and his car and escort took an unexpected exit route back to his destroyer ship waiting for him in the harbour.
Westview Barracks Cobh

Leahy’s second in command on the Carrigtwohill raid was Diarmuid Hurley of Bandon, Hurley worked at Midleton Distillery and was commander of B Company in the town.  Most of the planning for the Carrigtwohill raid took place in Cobh between Leahy and his local officers. Much of the logistical support for the operation, in terms of personnel, houses, weapons, and transport for the raid would also come from the town. In fact, most of the weapons used in the attack would be part of a large cache taken in a raid on O’Keeffe’s gun shop at Harbour Row the previous year. A week before the Carrig raid, they were dug up and taken from a large chest buried in a field on Leahy’s land and were then taken to the home of Joe Collins on the Tay Road, where they were cleaned, oiled and hidden in the attic until the date of the proposed raid. Martin Corry and his men of E company at Knockraha were also on standby for the raid.  Those travelling from Cobh to Carrigtwohill on the night, left by bicycle and motorcars. One civilian in Cobh, was recruited at the last minute to drive a van which would later transport the captured arsenal from the Barracks to its selected destination four miles away.

After its fall and capture, it would take British relieving forces twenty four hours to reach Carrigtwohill, and they would have to come from Belmont Hutments in Cobh, after phone lines had been cut and access roads had been blocked by felled trees, but by then the horse had well and truly bolted.

  • The aftermath of the Carrigtwohill raid was much as had been expected.  The British were under no illusions as to who had led the operation and of the sort of influence that Cobh held within the 4th battalion ranks. In the days and weeks following the raid, the roundups began in earnest in the town.  But when an identity parade was held at Westview RIC Barracks involving the Carrigtwohill RIC officers who had surrendered to the raiders, including its sergeant, they all failed to identify any of the republican suspects. It wasn’t clear if this failure was due to fear, or of a grudging respect and admiration for the volunteers who had earlier treated the surrendering RIC men with respect and decency. Some felt the attitude adopted by the pride-wounded policemen was down to Mick Leahy who had lined them up on parade after their surrender and gave them a lecture about what their future intentions towards their country should be.

One of those arrested and singled out for attention in Cobh was Captain James Ahern. Ahern who lived at 11 Oreila Terrace, didn’t have much time for dwelling on the Carrigtwohill raid as he was busy trying to get himself elected to the Urban District Council, whos electionswhich were due to be held on the 15th, less than two weeks after the raid.  James Ahern was successful and topped the poll in his ward.  Alas, Ahern would attend very few council meetings as he would have to go on the run almost immediately due to harassment by British forces. He would make it back to Cobh occasionally for meetings andmanaged to sneak into the famous July 2nd meeting to cast his vote to the abolition the name Queenstown and bring it back to Cove again. In fact, most councillors would have to run the gauntlet that day while attending town hall to vote as the British were set on harassing the councillors, as they had often had done while raiding republican courts which were regularly held at the town hall.

James Ahern would be killed eight months later at the battle of Clonmult, along with three other Cobh volunteers, who would either fall that day or face execution later.

August -Just before 1 o’clock in the day on August 1st, 1920, as District Inspector George Archie Mordantwas leaving the RIC barracks at Westview, Cobh to go home for lunch, four republican volunteers were making their final arrangements for an assassination attempt on his life. Under the guise of working on a broken-down van outside the Inspectors residence at the entrance to the Park at the bottom of the Laundry Hill, the four, Daithi O’Brien of Roches Row,who was the leader of the unit, was joined by Jerome Grayley who lived a short distance away at Smalls Well, William McCarthy of Carrignafoy and Donal Leahy, brother to Mick Leahy of Ballywilliam, were by the way, looking into the engine of the van which had its hood up. Leahy was in fact the driver of the company van belonging to Delaney’s grocers. About sixty yards away to the east, a young Fianna member aged sixteen named James Glavin, was posted as a look-out in a doorway at Park Lane, close to Mansworth’s bar, and was keeping a close watch out for movement in the direction of the Bishops Road (Spy hill).

Seamus Fitzgerald, the Town Chairman

Some weeks earlier, Seamus Fitzgerald, the republican Town Chairman, had received an anonymous notein the post warning him that if any policemen were shot in the town, they would come for him next. Fitzgerald immediately knew the threat was not made lightly as his colleague the late Lord Mayor of Cork City Tomas MacCurtain, had been shot dead in his bed by the same RIC force five weeks earlier.  On the same morning that Fitzgerald received his warning, Dr. White, the republican Mayor of Waterford received an identically worded note in the post, signed by Rory of the Hills.

District Inspector Mordant was clever enough to have not developed an obvious routine around his daily movements. However, what he could not have anticipated, was that one of his officers at Westview, had been for some time working with the IRA and had betrayed his movements. Mordant did not walk the short journey up the hill from Westview to the Park after leaving his barracks, but rather had turned down the hill and into the town centre before heading west along Westbourne Place and then rounding the bend up Spy Hill and headed north towards to his home at the Park. By the time the policeman had rounded the final bend in the road only yards before the Park gates, James Glavin had already signalled to his waiting comrades.  Daithi O’Brien was first to spring into action and crossed the road to meet his target. With a revolver in hand, O’Brien fired a single shot which hit the policeman in his thigh beforefallingwounded to the ground. Two more shots immediately followed, also hitting Mordant in the leg, but it’s not clear if they had come from O’Brien’s weapon or from his colleagues. But what O’Brien didn’t see happening at that very moment was that the policeman’s wifeand child had just arrived at the gates to meet their father and husband.

Mrs Mordant marital instincts immediately kicked in,where she ran across the road and shielded her wounded husband with her own body before another shot could be fired. Realising the game was up, O’Brien turned to Mrs Mordant and told her to look after her husband before he and his comrades departed from the scene.

D.I. Mordant, probably for reasons of security was then taken to Haulbowline military hospital, rather than Cobh hospital which was only a couple of hundred yards away near the top of the Laundry Hill.There, he soon recovered from his leg wounds. The District Inspector soon after however, resigned from the force which had a knock-on negative effect on local police morale. In contrast, the local Black and Tans who were also based at West View saw the attack as a challenge and that night visited the home of the Town Chairman to fulfil the threat they had earlier made in their anonymous letter. Fitzgerald said he was always only about fifty feet away when the drunken Tans arrived shooting into his family home at 19 East Beach and calling out his name to face his would-be executioners. We must therefore assume; he was taking refuge in a neighbour’s house close by. When he refused to come out, the Tans turned to burning him out with lighted torches, but later relented after some of the elderly neighbours pleaded with the drunken attackers to not set fire to the property for fear the whole block would go up.  The Tans instead smashed their way into the Fitzgerald home and when they failed to find the towns first citizen, beat up his father instead, a man who happened to be a British naval reservist.

August –Two weeks after the Mordant shooting, republican volunteers were back in action in the Top of the Hill area of the town, when they moved in to arrest a suspected informer at Barry’s Lane, off Bishop Street on 14th of August.  The suspect, John Coughlan was arrested under a charge that he had prostituted two of his daughters to British soldiers.  Local republican commanders wished to interrogate Coughlan to establish if the charge had foundation and whether he had passed on information about their activities or that of his neighbours to the British in the process.  Coughlan was then transported to a secluded house in Aghada across the harbour where the interrogations were planned to take place over the following days. Those plans went askew however, after the daughter of the household where the prisoner was held, went to take breakfast to his room in the attic the next morning. The young woman to her horror, discovered that John Coughlan had taken his own life the night before and was hanging from a rafter.

This had caused some problems for the volunteers and their battalion commander Mick Leahy, as they were now not going to receive the information they were seeking and couldn’t return Coughlan’s body back to Cobh where the authorities would be looking for it and them.  Leahy then instructed four men to dig a secluded grave that wouldn’t be easily located and to bury the man’s body there. Those four men in turn, believed there was an easier way of handling the matter and instead tied a weighted car axel to the man’s body with iron chains and dropped it in the harbour. Some weeks later the body washed up inland near Midleton and was later buried in a pauper’s grave at Knockgriffin cemetery in the town. Mick Leahy, in an interview some years later, said they had established solid proof about a month after Coughlan’s burial that he had been an informer.

August – Staying in the vicinity of Bishop Street. About eighty yards up the hill from Barry’s Lane, a local woman, Mrs Coleman kept hens in an area known as the Quarry.  The Quarry also had a blacksmiths forge which was run by John O’Connell. Part of the Quarry also bordered with an adjacent piece of land owned by the British military and was accessed to and from the nearby Admiralty.  On the morning of 25th of August, while feeding her hens, Mrs Coleman noticed many soldiers behind a wire fence dismantling some military huts. The huts were formerly used by the ‘Cove Ex-Servicemen’s Association’ local men who had returned from WW1, but as things had now turned sour in the country with the British, the ex-servicemen had issued a public proclamation withdrawing their allegiance from the British Crown. The British in turn found no further reason to keep the empty huts and so began dismantling them. What really caught Mrs Coleman’s attention on the morning of the 25th, was that three soldiers stood out separate from the others and each was standing guard over a stack of rifles, just inside the wire fence, one each by the small wicket gates at either end of the Quarry, and a third in the middle behind the fence.

Mrs Coleman’s next move was to make her way down the town to Queenstown Coop, the workplace of Michael Burke, the newly appointed commander of the local A company volunteers. There, Mrs Coleman told Burke that he needed to get up to the Quarry as there were a load of riffles there for the taking. When Burke arrived sometime later with some of his comrades, they first hung-out across the road at the ‘Cove Harrier Club’ premises, while working on a plan of attack. Burke soon discovered however, that he needed to get a closer view of the situation before he could achieve that goal. He then made a number of trips to the Quarry itself while pretending to have business with the Blacksmith at the Forge. After some hours later, Burke and his comrades executed their plan and netted themselves twelve Lee-Enfield rifles, but not before having to shoot two Cameron Highlander soldiers in the process, one, Private Young of Edinburgh fatally.

The backlash from the Quarry raid was harsh and swift. The Camerons were caught totally unawares at the Quarry and ithad taken them some hours to regroup and make sense of what had happened. Some local people at Bishop Street reported having seeing some of the Scots soldiers in a terrified and confused state running westwards towards the Top of the Hill area, instead of going east to where their barracks was situated at Belmont. It would be two more nights before the Jock soldiers would seek to level the score, not against the republican volunteers who had earlier relieved them of twelve rifles, but against the local community, or as one of their senior officers would later describe it, “We Jocks had now learned a valuable lesson. Unless we knew otherwise, we viewed all Irish as the enemy and Sinn Fein community.”

On the night of 27th August, large numbers of drunken Camerons left their barracks at Belmont and began smashing their way through the town, breaking shop windows and tossing grenades and blast bombs into business premises and private homes. The Cameron Company Sergeant Major was said to have led his drunken men in this orgy of violence and mayhem. At Cottrells Row, an area with a small quiet enclave of houses above the Holy Ground, a concerned mother who was woken by the sound of gun fire and shouting outside, woke her husband to go and check on their son who was staying with his grandmother across the street.  But when George Walker had only taken a few short steps from his own front door, he was immediately challenged by two Cameron soldiers. Walker didn’t stand a chance, for he was immediately shot and as lay on the ground, the soldiers then plunged their bayonets into his body.

What the British soldiers didn’t know, is that some of Walkers friends and neighbours happened to be hiding in the shadow of some nearby trees and witnessed the event. Neither did the soldiers realise that George Walker, a Liverpool native, was a WW1 veteran himself, who at the time worked on the Defence Departments Launches which ferried soldiers and sailors to the harbour islands.

The next evening, while many of the townspeople were engage in a prayer service at Kings Square (Pearse Square) in the town to pray for the repose of George Walkers soul, and for the release of the Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney, who was then on a hunger strike in Brixton Gaol, the gathering was suddenly interrupted in panic when a party of armed Camerons were sighted coming along the street. The group of soldiers were merely on their way to the railway station to collect some band equipment. However, the events of the previous twenty-four hours was enough to make most people think the worse, where a panic ensued and saw people scatter in all directions. Some people who headed up the steps to the Crescent near the Town Hall, became jammed in the rush, before it was realised the Cameron threat had faded and people relaxed again.

Ten months later, on May 29th, 1921, more evidence of Cameron revenge emerged, when a Captain Gordon Duff, approached the Blacksmith John O’Connell as he walked along Harbour Row, and shot him dead with his revolver. O’Connell had been a totally innocent bystander at the Quarry during the republican raid ten months before. He had no idea of what was happening outside of his forge, but the British believed otherwise.  Today the local GAA grounds in Cobh carries John O’Connell’s name as he had been a huge lover of Gaelic games.

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