Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 18 March 2021
Journeys to a Truce: The Victory of Crossbarry
By mid-March 1921, British crown forces invariably operated in West Cork in units of not less than three hundred. Consequently, the 3rd West Cork IRA Brigade flying column under the leadership of Commandant Tom Barry was brought to its greatest possible strength by the addition of every available rifle and the limited ammunition they had. The column had a membership of 104 men. It was also not easy to move, conceal, billet and feed a flying column of that strength over a long period, in an area that was then holding down at least five thousand British troops.
Tom Barry assembled the column into seven sections of fourteen riflemen in each section including the section commander. Those seven sections were commanded respectively by Sean Hales, John Lordan, Mick Crowley, Denis Lordan, Tom Kelleher, Peter Kearney and Christy O’Connell.
Barry in his book Guerilla Days in Ireland (1949) recalls that on the morning of 16 March 2021, information reached him that 300 British soldiers were being sent on the following day from Kinsale to Bandon as reinforcements. That night his flying column marched to ambush them at Shippool, half-way between Kinsale and Bandon. British crown forces had set out as scheduled, but after a mile halted and later returned to barracks.
Barry withdrew the column to Skough, just east of Innishannon. Meanwhile a British reconnaissance plane flying low, zoomed along the valley, searching for the column who laid low. At 1am that evening the column arrived at the house of John O’Leary’s, Ballyhandle, and this house became column headquarters. The son of the house, Paddy, was a member of the column.
Two days later at 1am on the morning of 19 March, four hundred troops left Cork, two hundred from Ballincollig, 300 from Kinsale and 350 from Bandon. Later 120 auxiliaries left from Macroom. Still later, troops left Clonakilty and more left Cork. They proceeded by lorries to four points, approximately four miles north-north-east, south-east and west of Crossbarry. They raided and closely searched every house and out house in the countryside. They took many civilians and some unarmed volunteers as prisoners. One of the eastern columns came to the house three miles north of Crossbarry, where Commandant Charles Hurley was recuperating from a bullet wound arising from the Upton ambush. He was killed fighting as he tried to break through the cordon.
Tom Barry had no doubt that they were out-numbered by ten to one at least. He had to determine without delay whether to fight or to evade action. The decision to fight was made. From observations of enemy movements, it was clear that the British force from the west would reach Crossbarry some time before the other British columns. That would even up the opening fight, and he was confident of being able to defeat it and thus smash one side of the encircling wall of troops. This would leave the flying column free to pass on to the west where it could, according to circumstances.
At 3am, Tom Barry spoke to the flying column, giving them a summary of their situation and the strategy of attack for each of the seven sections. He stressed that no section was to retire from its position without orders, no matter how great the pressure and that no volunteer was, in any circumstances, to show himself until the action started.
The column marched off to Crossbarry at 3.30am, and positions were occupied by 4.30am. Seventy-three officers and men were deployed for an attack. The 31 others were to protect their flanks and rear. By 5.30am all these preparations were completed.
About 8am a long line of lorries carrying British troops came slowly on past Christy O’Connell’s flanking section and into the main ambush positions. Twelve lorries were between Mick Crowley’s section in the centre and Christy O’Connell’s flankers, but many more stretched back along the road. The leading lorry came on, but suddenly it halted and the soldiers started shouting. Unfortunately, despite the strictest orders, a volunteer had shown himself at a raised barn door and was seen. The British started to scramble from their lorries, but Tom Barry had given the order to fire.
Volley after volley was fired, mostly at ranges from five to ten yards, at those soldiers and they broke and scattered, leaving their dead, an amount of arms and their lorries behind them. The survivors fled towards the south.
Helping them now was a man named White of Newcestown, who although was not a volunteer, had been arrested that morning and carried as a hostage in the leading lorry. He had a double lucky escape from death as, after escaping the first volley, he was nearly shot dead until he started shouting that he was an Irishman and a prisoner of the British.
The lorries were then prepared for burning and the British dead pulled away from their vicinity. The first three lorries were burning when heavy rifle fire broke out on their left flank, and all volunteers were ordered back to their original action stations. Another British column of about 200 had advanced from the south-east. They were attacked by Denis Lordan’s section. Peter Kearney’s men were moved up to reinforce Lordan’s, and after heavy fighting the enemy retreated leaving a number of dead.
Tom Barry describes in his book that his men did had not long to await the third phase of the engagement, for shortly afterwards the sounds of rifle fire came from their right flank. Here about a platoon of British tried to come in across country but they were met by Christy O’Connell’s Section.
Ten minutes later the fourth development of the action opened. Still another British column came in on their left rear. Numbering about 200, they had entered an old boreen about a mile back, and, keeping close to the ditch as they crept in, they were unobserved for some time. Tom Kelleher’s riflemen were waiting for them and killed a number of them. The remainder hurriedly retired to cover from where they continued to engage our men but some minutes later withdrew.
It was a victory for Tom Barry’s column at Crossbarry. He records though that three column members lay dead – Peter Monahan, Jeremiah O’Leary, and Con Daly, and several others were wounded. The column retired to billets at Gurranereigh, which were fourteen miles due west of Crossbarry, Flankers would have to travel cross-country for at least twelve miles.
1091a. Crossbarry memorial, present day (source: Cork City Library)