Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 20 May 2021
Journeys to a Truce: Stories from the Active Service Unit
Patrick Murray was Officer-in-Charge of C Company of the 1st Battalion of Cork No.1 IRA Brigade. In his witness statement in the Bureau of Military History (WS1443) by May 1921, he was a core part of the Active Service Unit for Cork City. Much of the work of the Unit during this period comprised patrols, moving materials from place to place and taking arms, to columns. The assigned intelligence officers were daily seeking information, which might lead to a successful ambush of Crown forces.
Patrick describes that a number of spies were executed at this time, and a captured report from the British, sometime around May 1921, stated that the last of their intelligence officers in the city had been executed and that they were now without civilian intelligence in the city. This particular type of work was very severe on the mental health of Seán Twomey, who was in charge of the Active Service Unit.
About the beginning of May 1921, a special order was received from IRA divisional headquarters that every effort was to be made by each unit in the division, to carry out an attack on Saturday, 14 May. The Unit decided to concentrate upon Captain Campbell Kelly, who was the principal British intelligence officer in Cork and who had been responsible for the torture of many IRA volunteers and had been sought by the IRA for over five months. He frequently travelled in a motor car to Cork Jail off Western Road, and it had been noticed by the Active Service Unit intelligence officers that Saturday morning was one of his regular mornings to visit the jail.
It was decided that the Unit would take up duty from eight o’clock in the morning along the route usually taken by Kelly. Seán Twomey and Patrick Murray took up position in St Patrick’s Street at about nine o’clock. Things did not go according to plan as Seán faced a an anxiety attack. Patrick got him home but during this time, Kelly had gone up to the jail in an open car and returned from it in an armoured car.
Patrick recalls: “Immediately all members of the A.S.U. and helpers were concentrated in one or two parts of the city to see if something could not be done. Late in the evening, the men on duty at the north side of the city were informed that an R.I.C. patrol had gone down O’Connell Street, Blackpool. They immediately ran to the attack and threw some bombs, killing one and wounding three policemen”.
On the morning of 23 May 1921, plans were again made to ambush Captain Kelly, this time on Washington Street. Two groups from the Active Service Unit took up positions along the street. An intelligence officer was placed some fifty yards or so beyond Patrick and another man. Three other members of the Unit were placed about seventy-five yards below Patrick’s group.
Captain Kelly came from the jail in an open car on this particular morning and had practically passed the intelligence officer before he was recognised. Patricks recalls the throwing of the bombs: “When we got the signal, the car had passed us, and we signalled to the men further down. The car was going so fast that it was practically past them before they threw the bombs. One bomb was thrown into the car but failed to explode. The second bomb hit the hood of the car and rolled on to the roadway. Some shots were also exchanged, but Kelly escaped”.
Days later Seán Twomey was arrested, subsequently walked out of the police barracks, and was fired on by soldiers, receiving some six or eight wounds. Peter Donovan, the new Officer-in-Charge was arrested practically immediately after his appointment. About a week later, Patrick was appointed as Officer-in-Charge of the Active Service Unit. For a week or two he tried to re-group the battalions and replace arrested officers. At that time, everyone in Cork City who was known to have had any association with the Volunteers had been arrested, and casualties among the officers were substantial.
After the attack on the patrol at Blackpool, police patrols became less frequent; in fact, they often did not appear on the streets for five or six days. The Active Service Unit were patrolling the streets regularly at this time, and their intelligence officers were constantly engaged in trying to find out the movements of the police. They noticed that they congregated outside the different barracks for a short time in the evenings and decided to attack them outside Tuckey Street and Shandon Street RIC barracks (on North Abbey Street). To do this, they got two motor cars.
Unfortunately, the driver of the car attacking Tuckey Street had some trouble with the motor and drove the car to the attack about two minutes before the agreed time. As a result of this, some thirty or forty Volunteers, who were leaving their own points to converge on Tuckey Street, heard the bombs before they were in a position to attack. Patrick was forced to withdraw his men. Bombs were thrown though at Shandon Street barracks and Douglas barracks was attacked with gunfire.
Up to this time, the Active Service Unit was equipped only with revolvers and bombs and operated in the city area only. As a result of the attacks on patrols and barracks, the movements of the British were restricted to travelling through the city area in lorries, protected by armoured cars. With this change of tactics on the part of the British authorities, it was decided that the Active Service Unit would extend its operations to the suburbs and country areas.
This article marks the 1100th article in the Our City, Our Town series. Check out the index to the series and the new history trails section on my blog, www.corkheritage.ie.
1110a. Western Road with the Cork-Muskerry Tram, c.1910 from Kieran McCarthy’s and Dan Breen’s Cork City Through Time (2012, Amberley Publishing).