Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 7 January 2021
Journeys to a Truce, 1921: Excommunication and Ambushes
Mid to late December 1920 coincided with the continued cleaning up of the burnt out ruins of St Patrick’s Street. In addition, there was fall-out from the decree issued by Bishop of Cork Daniel Cohalan on 12 December 1920, that the penalty of excommunication would be imposed on IRA men in the Cork Diocese if they continued to carry arms against the Crown forces.
Bishop Cohalan had intervened during Easter Week 1916 and was responsible then for influencing the decision of the standing down of Cork City Irish Volunteers. His actions then were believed to be motivated by concern for the peace and safety of the citizens and in December 1920 his actions were also driven by peace and safety. But the end of 1920, the Volunteers were on a full war footing and there was anger across different levels of Cork society about the Burning of Cork.
Michael O’Donoghue, Engineer, 2nd Battalion in Cork Brigade No.1, in his witness statement in the Bureau of Military History (WS 1741) details that the reaction in Cork was immediate and emphatic to the Bishop’s decree. He notes that a large portion of the Catholic population were disappointed at it and shocked and angered as he describes it as “its anti-national bias”. More than half of the congregation walked out in protest from the North Cathedral during his Sunday sermon and decree issuing.
However instead of the decree stopping violence, it increased. Not a single member of the IRA in Cork ceased their Volunteer activities or eased off in their active military opposition to the Crown forces. On the contrary, city Volunteers pursued their offensive more than ever.
Michael O’Donoghue noted that on the Sunday afternoon of 12 December 1920 he with other Volunteers, were mobilised for republican police duty in St Patrick’s Street at the scene of the fire. They were mainly engaged in salvaging goads, damaged and undamaged, removed from the partly demolished smaller houses. These goods were stored in houses and yards on the north side of Patrick Street. Looters, too, had to be kept in check. He personally thought that these police activities by them were unwise and unnecessary as he felt it exposed them to recognition and identification as Republican forces. He notes: “The idea was to make a spectacular gesture for propaganda purposes to show the Volunteer forces of the Irish Republican Government protecting property and maintaining order in vivid contrast to the disorder and vandalism of the British forces who had run amok”.
Michael Murphy, Commandant, 2nd Battalion, IRA Brigade No.1 in his witness statement (WS1547) takes up the story of IRA activity in the closing days of 1920. On 28 December 1920, by orders of the brigade, men of the 1st and 2nd Battalions entered the newspaper premises of the Cork Examiner and broke up the printing machines with sledge -hammers. Michael highlights that the offices were attacked as they were deemed by the IRAto have too much of pro-British publication output. About fifty men in all took part in this operation. The majority were on armed duty in the vicinity of the printing works, St Patrick Street while the demolition was being carried out.
On 5 January 1921, martial law edicts were intensified across Munster as General Strickland had issued another proclamation. For all breaches of martial law edict in the south, ‘Death’ was the penalty – “for being in possession of arms or ammunition or any lethal firearm, for levying war against the British Crown, for harbouring, aiding or consorting with rebels (i.e. The Irish Republican Army) for wearing military uniform, British or otherwise & or being in possession thereof, the penalty was death by shooting before a firing squad”. The edict continued – “The accused, if he was not shot out of hand on the spot, which, incidentally, was a frequent occurrence, was tried immediately by drumhead court martial, found guilty and banded over to the execution squad”.
On the same day as the Munster martial law edict was enacted, an attack by the IRA on RIC officers was conducted on Parnell Bridge near Union Quay Barracks.
Each evening, shortly after 6 o’clock, it was the custom for a party of 25 to 30 police and Black and Tans to leave the barracks at Union Quay. They would cross the River Lee at Parnell Bridge and there disperse to points in the city. Commandant Michael Murphy arranged to attack this party, using only the company officers in his battalion, the idea being to give all of them experience under fire.
On the evening of 5 January 1921, Michael Murphy, Peter Donovan of C Company, and Christy Healy went by a motor car driven by Michael Coonan to Morrison’s Island. In the car they had a Lewis gun, one of the two Michael Murphy had got in London a few weeks previously. They parked outside Moore’s Hotel, which was almost directly opposite Union Quay Barracks – the River Lee being between them and the barracks at a distance of about 50 to 60 yards. The remainder of their men were posted at Parnell Bridge, Anglesea Street and at points in the neighbourhood, covering approaches to the enemy barracks. The IRA men were armed with revolvers and grenades.
At approximately 6.15pm the police and Tans came out of Union Quay Barracks and, by the time they were ready to move off, they fixed the Lewis gun in position on the roadway outside Moore’s Hotel.
As the enemy party proceeded towards Parnell Bridge, they opened fire with the Lewis machine gun. The first burst killed seven of them and wounded others. Of those not hit some ran back to the barracks and those at the head of the party ran towards Parnell Bridge where they were met with revolver fire and grenades by IRA men stationed there. The affair lasted no more than ten minutes. None of the IRA men were wounded on the occasion.
When the RIC members had all had disappeared, either shot or gone to cover, the IRA members got their Lewis gun back into the car and made for the house of Sean Hyde, a Volunteer officer, in Ballincollig, where the gun was left for a few days before its next outing.
1081a. Parnell Bridge, c.1900 from Cork City Through Time by Kieran McCarthy & Dan Breen
Happy new year to everyone. Stay safe.
Missed one of the 51 columns last year, check out the indices at Kieran’s heritage website, www.corkheritage.ie