So far in 1919 elements of the IRA had proven they were more than capable of dealing with both armed and unarmed police forces, whether it was G Division in Dublin or the RIC in rural areas. The consequences of such attacks were that the British would inevitably start to bring Army forces into operational areas more and more, and that was going to prove a different challenge for the IRA. But, contrary to the expectations of some military commanders in Ireland, it was far from an insurmountable one.
In comparison to the deaths and shootouts in Tipperary, Cork had been comparatively quiet up to the mid-summer of 1919. Which is not to say that the IRA was not active there – houses were raided for arms, cattle stocks were stolen, RIC supply depots were targetted for sabotage – but the War of Independence was yet to have a stand-out moment there, despite the obvious strength of the Volunteers in the county, enough for several Brigades to exist.
The far south and west of the county was the domain of the 3rd Brigade, arguably the most famous Brigade of the IRA in this period, owing to later events that I will get to in time. It was, like all the others, divided into regionalised battalions further divided into localised companies, one of which was the Kilbrittain Company of the 1st Battalion. Kilbrittain was (and is) a small village/townland not far west of Kinsale, near the southern coast. The activities of the IRA company there up to June 1919 had been sufficiently disruptive, that the British authorities attempted to counter them by stationing 40-50 regular troops at the local castle, not far from the increasingly beleaguered RIC barracks of the area.
The soldiers operated basic patrols during their deployment, sometimes on foot, sometimes on bikes. Day and night they could be seen marching through the surrounds always assisted by the local RIC who knew the area, its terrain and its, in their view, untrustworthy inhabitants much better than the military did. But if the British were watching the locals, then the locals were also watching them. Elements of the Kilbrittain IRA company kept close tabs on the regulars, seeing in their presence not a deterrent, but an opportunity. Crucially, they began to notice that the British did not sufficiently alternate their patrol routes day to day, allowing a pattern to emerge.
On the night of the 16th June, a group of them decided to take their chance, though, typical to operations of that year, they had gotten no go ahead from Brigade HQ to proceed. Instead, they simply identified a target of opportunity, and moved to attack it. A patrol of the Army men, usually around five accompanied by RIC, had been spotted taking a repeating route from the castle out to Burren Pier on the estuary of the nearby River Arigideen, before returning to their billet. It was a round trip that typically took them around four hours.
That night, a group of 14 Volunteers took up positions at a road junction at Rathclarin, another small townland which lay on the route between Burren Pier and Kilbrittain, awaiting the British patrol on its march back home. While the leadership situation at the time is a bit murky from accounts, the man directing things is commonly identified as Patrick Crowley, a strongly republican son of a local shopkeeper, who was joined by two brothers, one of several sets at Rathclarin that night, indicating the tight family bonds that were often common to rural IRA units.
They were pitifully armed: one carried a a shotgun that was essentially a fowling piece, another held a pistol. The rest had nothing. Appropriate for their level of apparent threat, the plan was simple: either man with a gun went to one end of the proposed ambush point, and the rest were in-between, with the intention that the Volunteers would overwhelm their enemy through the element of surprise and their numerical inferiority. On the face of it, it was a very dangerous proposition: if anything had gone wrong, if there was a moments delay in acting, they would be at the mercy of well armed and well-trained military men.
When the “Crown Forces” arrived, oblivious to the men hidden around them, they briefly paused at the junction to decide which route to take, upon which the IRA pounced. The fighting, such as it was, was over in moments: unlike Soloheadbeg or Knocklong, there was no significant bloodshed, which does appear to have been the intention of those involved on the IRA side anyway. Rushed, bamboozled and rapidly disarmed, the ambush was largely over before the British or their RIC escort probably understood fully what was happening. The only casualty was a Mick O’Neill, who got a rifle butt to the face before its owner was completely subdued, a crack to the head that needed a few weeks convalescence, but which was not fatal.
The job done, the soldiers and RIC were tied up, then relieved of their weapons and ammunition, that an element of the ambush party moved rapidly to bury for later digging up and distribution. It may only have been five rifles, but considering the limited arms the Kilbrittain company had before then it might as well have been an armoury. Unwilling to go any further with their captives, the ambush party rapidly dispersed, knowing that many of them had to be back in their homes quickly, as they would soon be the subject of raids.
The British vigorously searched for the ambushers in the days that followed, raiding the Crowley families home several times a day, searching for any sign they or anyone else had been involved at Rathclarin. They also instituted a local curfew and beefed up patrols, but it was all for naught. None of the ambushers were arrested at that time, though their freedom to undertake any operations or activities were restricted severely for a significant amount of time.
The Rathclarin ambush may not seem all that important, especially compared to other events of 1919, or to the later exploits of the 3rd Cork Brigade. But it was, to the IRA at the time, a major event, being the first example of their organisation successfully getting the better of British Army personnel. Any aura of special status that the military had was badly damaged. The morale effect of Rathclarin was major for the Cork IRA, as noted in the account of regional head honcho Liam Deasy, and the attack made waves as far as Dublin and London.
The reason for the IRA’s success at Rathclarin are obvious, with the benefit of hindsight. The British Army were not operating, at the time, with the full realisation that they were engaged in a guerilla struggle. Hence why they did not do enough to alternate their patrols, a basic precaution when the eyes and ears of the local population were ever more on the side of potential ambushers. It was a mistake that the British would replicate, but in time they would take steps to ensure it did not happen again. Beyond that, the Rathclarin patrol allowed themselves to be taken too easily in the circumstances.
We must also take note of the IRA’s own bravery and daring. The guns they had were hardly the best for the action they planned to take, even if their lack of them may have been the key reason why there was no serious bloodshed. It is no small thing for unarmed men to rush armed men in the dark, and points to the commitment that elements of the Cork IRA were going to showcase at various points of the conflict. The basics of ambush tactics were also implemented well, from the location chosen, the distribution of soldiers to various points ahead and behind of the target, and the final attack.
Actions such as that which occurred at Rathclarin would now begin to happen with much greater regularity, as the IRA gradually upped their efforts and began to put military as well as police in the cross-hairs. But the Crown Forces in Ireland were still capable of fighting back themselves: the next incident we will discuss will serve as an example of the inherent escalation of what was happening in Ireland, as we move to North Clare.
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