Some of you no doubt, have been reading reports in the media and on sites such as this about the controversy surrounding the historical anchor of the ‘Aud’ – the German arms ship which was scuttled 8 miles outside Cork harbour on Good Friday 1916, after been arrested by the British Navy.
The capture of the Aud put paid to any real success of the planned Rising, as it sank to the bottom with 20.000 rifles, machine guns and a million rounds of ammunition. The current controversy of the anchor today centers around whether it should remain on public display at Cobh Heritage Centre or be re-allocated on Spike Island.
On 12th September last, the members of Cobh Municipal Council debated and unanimously agreed to keep the anchor in Cobh. The National Museum will ultimately decide however, whether the anchor will stay or go.
During that council debate, a voice in favour of moving the anchor to Spike argued that Spike was the only piece of Irish Soil that the German Crew set foot on in 1916. As the mover of the motion to keep the anchor in Cobh, I thought the case made to move the anchor was a flimsy and weak one, and countered that the purpose for the German Aud coming to Ireland had been much greater than what happened outside our harbour or afterwards on Spike – a British military detention centre and place where Captain Spindler and his crew were taken against their will.
No, I argued that as Cobh was the only town in East Cork that had a Company of Volunteers that turned out for the Easter Rising in 1916, and given that they and their comrades from Cork City and County were about to march to Kerry to collect the German weapons from the Aud and to distribute them to other volunteer units up the west coast as part of an all-out rebellion, that Cobh had a much greater historical claim to host the Aud anchor than the former British Detention Centre on Spike.
To strengthen this argument further, I have chosen the following chapter from my book ‘Republican Cobh & The East Cork Volunteers’ to demonstrate the historical point that the 4th Batt IRA, which was founded, trained and led by the Cobh Volunteers, was one of the most professionally organised volunteer Batt’s of the 1st Cork Brigade.
Under the leadership of Cobh’s Mick Leahy, the 4th Batt went on to capture the first RIC barracks in Ireland since 1916 when they took the surrender of Carrigtwohill Barracks.
The following account, I believe will demonstrate the gallant efforts made by the Cobh and East Cork men when taking the capture of Carrigtwohill RIC Barracks. For me, the historical significance of this and other 4 Batt operations makes such a claim very loudly.
It should also be pointed out that ‘A Company’ or the Cobh Company of the 4th Battalion as it was known, existed long before other areas of East Cork were organised and developed into the 4th Batt.
Later, when any operation involving the 4th Batt was carried out in East Cork, including those carried out by the regional Flying Column, members of A Company were always there in the thick of it.
Please read on and see if you agree with me. Perhaps you might later express an opinion comment afterwards.
Serving Notice on the RIC 6
In the same month of October, a Brigade meeting heard a proposal to attack all RIC Barracks in the Brigade area simultaneously in one night. In his later witness statement to the Bureau of Military History, Mick Leahy stated that he had first made the proposal and produced a clear plan to the Brigade of how it could be carried out. In any event, the Brigade staff was taken with the idea and agreed to develop plans to carry it out, pending approval from GHQ in Dublin. Tomas McCurtain, the Brigade O.C travelled to Dublin to put the plan to the leadership, but in the meantime, had changed it to include that every RIC barracks in the Country would be attacked on the same night.
GHQ naturally dismissed the plan for a variety of reasons, but agreed that since the Cork 1st Brigade was the best organised in the country, it should proceed to further plans to attack all police barracks in its own area. By December, plans were well advanced to attack three barracks in the Brigade area. Those selected were Ballygarvan, Kilmurry and Carrigtwohill Barracks, involving the 2nd, 4th and 7th battalions. The arms and men of the adjoining Battalions were to be pooled together for the simultaneous operations. Then on the eve of the operations, word came through from GHQ in Dublin countermanding them. MacCurtain quickly learned that Mick Collins had vetoed the Cork attacks because he felt they would clash with a proposed plan to assassinate Lord French in the capital at the proposed time and would dilute that operations’ propaganda value.
The Brigade was thus forced to put back the date of the operations and a new date of 2nd January 1920 was set to carry them out. This delay did not suit every area, and by December 1919 there were signs that some RIC Barracks in the 4th Battalion area of East Cork were being fortified with protective steel shutters over their windows and doors. This led Mick Leahy to believe that someone might have been careless and engaged in loose talk. In Ballygarvan, there was no active Volunteer organisation, but it was within six miles distance of the City, so the task of attacking it was given to the 2nd Battalion on the Southside. It was chosen as a suitable target because the police presence was felt to be less alert there.
Two weeks before the date of the proposed attack however, the officer commanding the 2nd Battalion, Sean O’Sullivan, expressed doubts about the plan and said that after inspecting the area with his officers, they felt the Barracks couldn’t be taken with the arms available to them. The Brigade sent its adjutant Florrie O’Donoghue to investigate the problem. He found that O’Sullivan had lost his nerve for the fight and was overly concerned with possible casualties of his own men. O’Donoghue also found that O’Sullivan’s junior officers had taken the least line of resistance in agreeing with him. O’Sullivan was allowed to resign. By then however, it was too late to make alternative arrangements, so the Ballygarvan attack had to be called off. The Kilmurry attack went ahead as planned, but the RIC defences there proved stronger than the Volunteers had anticipated, forcing them to eventually disengage without the capture of any weapons. Brigade staff learned a valuable lesson that night, leading them to play a more active role in future operations of this size.
Meanwhile in the 4th Battalion area, Mick Leahy and his officers needed no such assistance or encouragement from the Brigade, as they carefully moved in to capture Irelands first RIC Barracks since Thomas Ashe took Ashbourne in 1916. In the weeks leading up to the attack, Mick Leahy called a meeting of the Cobh Company officers at his home at Ballywilliam. Those present were, Daithi O’Brien, Ned and Jack Stack, Tom O’Shea, Jack O’Connell and Mick Burke. Leahy gave them an idea of the general plan and informed each of what their respective responsibilities would be on the night. Daithi O’Brien was told to select forty of the most suitable men from the Company for the pending operation but not to give them prior knowledge of what was planned. O’Brien sought the assistance of Mick Burke with this selection process. At least a dozen of those selected would be used in the felling of trees to block access roads between Cobh and Carrigtwohill on the night. Leahy had also instructed Diarmud Hurley of the Midleton Company to ready his men and to have the Midleton road to Carrigtwohill blocked also before the attack began. He also gave similar instructions to Martin Corry of the Knockraha Company to make plans ready for his side. A wooden chest had earlier been dug up at a field near Leahy’s home, and the lever action rifles that earlier had been taken in the O’Keeffe gunsmiths raid two years earlier, were taken to the home of Joe Collins on the Tay Road to be cleaned and stored over a trapdoor in the ceiling.
On the evening of the attack, most of the Volunteers were instructed to make their way in pairs to their selected posts on bicycles. Jack Higgins was also selected as a dispatch rider for the operation. Earlier, Jack O’Connell had commandeered a van in Cobh. This was used to ferry himself, Mick Leahy, Tom O’Shea, James Ahern, Maurice and John Moore to the outskirts of Carrigtwohill. Earlier that day at noon, Daithi O’Brien called to the workplace of Mick Burke at the Kings Square Co-op. He informed Burke that there was a hitch in connection with the van to transport the weapons. Neither man knew that O’Connell had separate plans to commandeer a van of his own. He said the only Volunteer in their group who could drive, refused to do so, as the van selected to be commandeered, was the property of a friend of his. Burke knew another driver however, who although was not a Volunteer, was a sympathiser. The man agreed to do a job for Burke later that evening, but was not told what it would entail. Later, the driver was taken to the safe house of Miss Hawes at Kings Square. The van to be commandeered was also parked in the same square. Daithí O’Brien was already waiting for Burke and his driver at the Hawes’ home. He told the man what was expected of him that night, and found the driver was delighted to be chosen for such a task. The man was then given his tea and not allowed out of their sight until the designated time to move.
After starting up the van, the three proceeded to Collins on the Tay Road, where they loaded up the rifles and equipment, before striking off for Carrigtwohill. On their way out along the Fota Road, they noticed some of their colleagues working discretely cutting trees. When they reached the rendezvous point for the Cobh Volunteers, on the outskirts of the village, all the weapons, grenades and ammunition was distributed before everyone got ready to take up their positions. The Midleton Volunteers were by now assembled and waiting at the village schoolhouse under the command of Diarmud Hurley, while the Knockraha men were felling the last trees which were to complete the blocking off of the village. The telephone lines to the village were also cut, leaving the RIC barracks completely isolated. Mick Leahy, then instructed Mick Burke to select a man and go to the schoolhouse to collect two others of the Midleton Company armed with revolvers. All four men were to then go out onto the main street and, when the first firing of shots by the main firing party began, they were to shoot any RIC who might be on the street when the attack on the barracks opened. It appeared the RIC had become suspicious that something was afoot with the amount of strangers passing through on bicycles all evening. Despite this, it didn’t appear to strike them however, that their own barracks would very shortly be the focus of everyone’s attention. Some of the policemen were out on the street when Mick Burke and his companion were making their way up towards the schoolhouse. Suddenly they heard some noise and someone running down the street towards them. As they readied their revolvers, they were surprised to discover the fleeing man was one of their own colleagues; John Moore. Moore, who would later prove crucial to the success of the pending operation, had naively made his way up to the police barracks to reconnoitre and judge the thickness of its walls. Before he could reach the barracks however, he was pounced upon and arrested by two RIC officers. The wiry and spirited Moore, who fortunately happened to be wearing an overcoat which was loose and oversized, managed to wriggle his way free, leaving it in the hands of two officers before fleeing. Burke immediately recognised the importance of Moore’s escape and was more than relieved when he discovered the escapee had kept the necessary sticks of gelignite for the attack, in his jacket pockets which he still wore. Burkes other companion wanted to proceed after the RIC men to shoot them but Burke, realising the importance of maintaining the element of surprise, would have none of it and ordered the man to put his revolver away. Fortunately for everyone concerned, the RIC men retreated back to their barracks.
When Burke and his colleague reached the Midleton men at the schoolhouse, they relayed Mick Leahy’s instructions for them to proceed to the hayrick at the rear of the barracks. Leahy had earlier placed six men with rifles upstairs in Catherine Murphy’s shop directly across the road from the front of the barracks. He himself took up a position with Tom O’Shea, Paddy O’Sullivan and six other rifle men with grenades in a hayshed at the rear of the barracks. Diarmuid Hurley, Joseph Ahern and a number of others from the Midleton Company joined up with Leahy’s group with rifles and revolvers. Daithi O’Brien, Jack O’Connell, Maurice Moore and some others were positioned with rifles and shotguns behind a wall to the rear of the barracks also. Paddy Whelan, who although still resided in Cobh on the weekends, was now a member of the Midleton Company. He had earlier been instructed by Hurley, to go with five others and detain every civilian on the street who tried to leave the village. As things would transpire, they would only have to detain three people on the night that willingly cooperated with their requests. Earlier however, before the attack commenced and before the RIC realised the seriousness of the situation, Whelan observed two RIC men pounce on the Cobh dispatch rider Jack Higgins as he passed through the street. As Higgins was being grabbed, he managed to bring his bike to the ground, thus allowing him the opportunity to escape from the clutches of the policemen and make off on foot. It was obvious that these were the same two officers who shortly afterwards would try to take John Moore prisoner.
Shortly before midnight when everyone was in place, Leahy gave the order for the attack to commence. The RIC responded to the heavy and constant volleys of rifle fire by sending up verey lights and returning fire on the republican positions. Paddy Whelan later recalled the peace of that night being rudely disturbed by outbursts of rifle and revolver fire on the other side of the village. The attack was on, and he remembered for the first half hour feeling very on edge. “There we were, listening to the continuous rifle fire, with no knowledge of how the attack was progressing. After the first half hour, I remember being satisfied that all was well; the firing was steady and continuous, and there was no sign of retreat. I began to feel happy and confident of success”. Meanwhile Mick Burke and the other three men with him felt there was no further point in waiting on the street as it was clear that all the RIC were in their barracks fighting it out. They decided to join their colleagues where the action was. They were then guided by a local man to an area near the rear of the barracks. Then as they tried to climb over an iron gate, they were fired on from the windows of the barracks. To make matters even worse, some of the Volunteers in the hayshed mistook them for escaping RIC and fired on them also. The men then managed to get to a safe position behind some pillars and slowly made it to the hayshed safely. By now, Daithi O’Brien, Jack O’Connell and their group behind the rear wall, were concentrating their fire on the loopholes in the steel shutters to try and prevent the occupants from sending up further verey lights.
For some strange reason, the RIC never returned fire on Murphy’s shop at the front of the barracks, possibly because they rightly concluded the main threat was coming from the rear. By 3 O’clock in the morning, it became clear to Mick Leahy that they couldn’t penetrate the steel shutters and that the RIC would hold out for as long as it took. He decided there was no further point in wasting their much-coveted ammunition against impregnable defences. The republican leader then decided it was time to bring out the ace in his pack. Situated at the side of the barracks gable wall was a shed. Leahy instructed a select number of men to keep firing the occasional shot in the direction of the barracks to give covering fire to John Moore who would go into the shed and place an explosive charge in the gable. Moore and a couple of other Volunteers dug out a number of carefully selected small holes, each big enough to take a stick of gelignite. After inserting the gelignite and setting the charge, the men then re-joined their comrades before they all took cover. After the explosion, the perfect breach was left in the gable, allowing two men at a time to enter into the barrack dayroom. Leahy initially wanted to place some burning straw in the breach to smoke out the occupants, but later changed his mind because of the Sergeant’s wife and child in the building. A white flag of surrender was by now being waved from an upstairs window on the front of the barracks. Although the Volunteers over at Murphy’s shop could see the flag of surrender and dually ceased firing, the others at the rear and the side of the barracks, had yet no idea of the intentions of those inside. These men continued with light fire on the building while it was decided Diarmuid Hurley, Joseph Ahern and Mick Leahy, would lead a small party through the breach and open up the front doors to allow the others through. Before entering, Leahy instructed the others that they should cease firing once they heard him give the signal through a whistle blast. Once they were past the day-room, the men shouted an order up the stairs to surrender. When Leahy saw Mrs Casey on the top of the stairs with a baby in her arms and her husband Sergeant Casey close behind, he blew the whistle for the others to cease firing. He then told the woman to come down and that no harm would come to her and the baby. He ordered her husband to remain where he was with his hands in the air. The sergeant did as he was told. Mrs Casey and her baby were then escorted to the home of some friends in the village. Leahy then shouted for the other police officers to come out and join their sergeant. The front door of the barracks was by now opened up and other volunteers began piling through. When he had come through the hole in the breach, Jack O’Connell was faced with 8 or 9 RIC men descending the stairs with their hands in the air. Mick Burke, who came through the front door moments later, saw all the policemen lined up against the day-room wall with the hands in the air. Leahy then instructed Burke to go back to the outskirts of the village to collect the commandeered van and its driver. When they arrived, the van was loaded up with all the police carbines, revolvers and a quantity of shotguns previously taken by the police in raids, plus grenades and ammunition. Joe Ahern and Tadhg Manley took the van and its contents to Manley’s home at Tubbereenmire about four miles from Carrigtwohill. When he had earlier heard the explosion go off in the distance, Paddy Whelan knew by the silence which swiftly followed, that the attack must have ended in success. He ordered one of the men with him to take over as he was going to the barracks. The first two people he met when he entered the barracks, was Paddy O’Sullivan and Maurice Moore. He knew the lads well after going to St. Joseph boy’s school with them some years earlier. All three would later join the 4th Battalion Flying Column. Whelan would also later see his two comrades lose their lives to British firing squads, after being captured at Clonmult. O’Sullivan had two half crowns in his hand and while showing them to Whelan, asked “what with you do with them Paddy?” To which Whelan replied, “The same as you’re going to do Paddy”. (14) After all the RIC were handcuffed and taken out onto the street, they were then marched to an area outside of the village and left there. When all the weapons, ammunition and documents were taken from the barracks, Mick Leahy lined up his men outside. He then congratulated them on a job well done, and after all sang a verse of the National Anthem, to which must have been a certain source of amusement to the local villagers, they were all dismissed. Before that, Mick Burke was again instructed to go to the end of the village to make sure all the outlying units had been given the order to stand down and disperse. When he arrived back to the area of the barracks, he found that all the others had already dispersed. He was now minus his previous mode of transport and so took an RIC bicycle from the barracks before peddling off for Cobh.
Michael Leahy and his Battalion of Volunteers must have felt very proud men when they left Carrigtwohill village on the morning of January 3rd. Perhaps they didn’t yet realise it, but their military success was to set a new standard to follow for other Volunteer units throughout the country. Carrigtwohill would be the first of 492 RIC barracks to be abandoned by October 1920. The propaganda bonus from the capture was also immeasurably beneficial for the Republican Movement, with a Cork Examiner report in the days that followed, quoting the Barrack RIC Sergeant as saying hundreds of armed men swarmed the barracks, forcing them to surrender. In fact, the overall figure of those who participated in every facet of the operation was a little over fifty, while the actual number of men who physically fired on the barracks was no more than twenty-seven at any one time of the operation.
For the British, the attack bore out their worst nightmare. Since 1913, a radical element of the Irish Volunteers led by the secret IRB had been plotting an insurrection against the Crown. 1916 saw those outside of Dublin deprived of that opportunity by a series of blunders and uncontrollable circumstances. The British subsequently became aware that Cork was spoiling for the expected fight. They also knew that Michael Leahy of Cobh was one of those instigators, and was behind the development of the Volunteer Movement through out East Cork before and since his release from internment. Now, as they viewed over the damage to Carrigtwohill barracks, they must have been sick in the pits of their stomachs for knowing they had released Leahy from custody on at least four occasions since 1916. The effectiveness of how he and his men pulled off the capture of the barracks, must also have been very worrying, especially since it was almost noon of the next day before relieving forces arrived in Carrigtwohill. Ironically, most of the military had come from Belmont Military Camp in Cobh. These would be part of the same force that would participate in the round up of republican suspects in Cobh in the days and weeks which followed the attack.
Among many of the Volunteers that would be arrested and brought before an RIC identity parade at West View Barracks, would be Daithi O’Brien, Jack and Ned Stack, James Ahern and Michael Burke. There would of course be dozens of others arrested from the locality, but for some strange reason, the dispirited RIC officers from Carrigtwohill, refused to identify any of them as having participating in the attack. Although the vast majority were later released without charge, O’Brien and the Stack brothers were gaoled under the DORA act. The authorities also had their sights on Volunteer James Ahern, who was busy trying to get himself elected to the Town Council. The election was scheduled to take place on January 15th. Although he had no difficulty being elected, having topped the poll of candidates in his ward, Ahern was forced to go on the run almost immediately after his inaugural Council meeting. James Ahern was a seasoned republican activist, having been around from the very beginning of the Volunteer movement in Cobh. The British were well aware of these facts and were probably sure he had played some role in the Carrigtwohill attack. In the main, the authorities had a reasonable picture of who the main republican players in the town were, and now that they were left with egg on their faces, were determined to make life as difficult as they could for the rebels.
Extract from Kieran McCarthy's book: “Republican Cobh and the East Cork Volunteers”, ‘Non Such Publications’, 2008.
Revisit Cobh’s Rebel Past with writer, historian and active member of the Cobh 1916 Centenary Committee - Kieran McCarthy.
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