The Irish War of Independence was beginning to heat up. While little remembered, the events in North Clare during August 1919 pointed to an escalation of the conflict in terms of reactions to IRA instituted violence. Only a month later, a more substantial example of this same activity was to take place.
The figure at the centre of what occurred is someone we have already mentioned, in relation to his part in IRA investigations into criminal activity, but considering his role in later events, he perhaps a deserves a more expanded introduction here. Liam Lynch was born near the border of Cork and Limerick in 1893. From a nationalist upbringing, Lynch was a studious young man who was involved in the Gaelic League and Hibernians from an early age and became increasingly dedicated to republicanism, to the point of fanaticism, after witnessing the arrest of the Kent Brothers in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. Despite his young age, his intelligence, dedication, training ability and knowledge were quickly noted, and he rose through the Volunteer ranks post-1916 fast. He took a key role in the organisation of the IRA in Cork, and became Commandant of the No 2 Brigade there in early 1919, just ahead of the War of Independence beginning.
Lynch was thus in a crucial position in what was to be one of the key operating theatres of the war, and his first major involvement in terms of engagement with the enemy took place in early September 1919, but he was not inactive in the earlier months of that year. In April he had travelled to Dublin to seek arms and come away with only a few revolvers: the lack of support from GHQ, whether it was down to stinginess or scarcity, convinced Lynch that the Cork-based IRA would have to source their own guns. That same month he took part in a raid on an under-manned RIC barracks, but the rifles that every IRA unit really wanted were not to be found there.
In July, under pressure from several different units in that part of the country, GHQ acceded to requests that the IRA could engage with British Army targets for the purposes of obtaining arms, with the condition that such engagements had to be bloodless. They still had public opinion as a concern, and felt that fatal actions could yet prove detrimental to the higher cause. While unhappy about such expectations, Lynch was delighted that he now had authorisation to get more guns his way, and began planning in earnest.
The target would be Fermoy, a mid-sized town in the north-east of Cork, not far from the borders of Waterford, Tipperary and Limerick. Fermoy was a garrison town, home to the HQ of the 16th Infantry Brigade; between the town and the surrounding area, thousands of troops could be mobilised quickly. While that made it a dangerous place for any physical force nationalist, it also meant it was the best area to find rifles. Lynch and his compatriots spent a great deal of time observing the movement of troops and gathering information, seeking for any part of the British military routine that would constitute a weakness.
They found it through the Army’s religious dedication. Over time, Lynch discovered that a party of the Fermoy garrison, men of the East Kent Regiment, left their barracks every Sunday to attend Mass at the Weslayen Church, half a mile away. Numbering around fifteen men, they carried their rifles with them as they went. Though some may have been squeamish about the reality of attacking church-going men, it was an excellent opportunity to catch the British Army off-guard.
Lynch picked the 7th September as the day to enact his plan. Had assembled twenty-six men, including himself, from various units from Cork and surrounding counties. There was nowhere near enough guns for all of them: six got revolvers, with the rest making do with clubs concealed in their coat sleeves. Lynch’s plan called for the British to be secretly surrounded and rushed at the given time, to be neutralised and disarmed rapidly, before the ambushers made good their escape via several motor cars employed for the purpose.
For the most part, everything went to plan. As the unit – 13 privates led by a corporal on the day – marched up to the steps of the church, the concealed Volunteers closed in, some in cars that drove up alongside. At the sound of a whistle from Lynch, what guns they had were produced and the order for the Army men to put their hands up given. Unfortunately for an pretensions of a bloodless hold-up, the British were not content to go quietly, quickly unslinging their rifles.
A brief and confused gunfight followed. One of the British soldiers, Private William Jones, was hit, later dying of his wounds, and three others wounded before the Volunteers asserted control. Lynch was winged by a bullet that may have been a case of friendly fire, but was not seriously hurt. Surrounded and outnumbered, the British surrendered without any more resistance.
The rifles were rapidly collected, and thrown into the cars before the IRA drove off. Their hurry was justified: within minutes the local barracks had been alerted, and trucks full of soldiers were in pursuit. Lynch was a step ahead of them, with felled trees placed on the road out of Fermoy after the IRA had gone by, cutting of the British ability to pursue. Excepting Lynch’s slight wound, the IRA achieved their objective without any cost to themselves. The guns were buried and the ambushers then scattered.
The ambush was a huge success, a natural follow-on from what had occurred at Rathclarin. It provided further evidence that the British military were far from invincible: indeed, it offered evidence that they were frequently quite vulnerable. The poorly armed IRA had triumphed through good intelligence work, meticulous planning, and their own bravery and daring. GHQ may not have liked the headlines that the killing of Jones would create, but it would not be too long before the conditions of bloodless ambushes would be dropped anyway.
The British authorities in the area began round-ups and raids almost immediately, and many arrests were carried out, some of them on the actual perpetrators. One of the ambushers who was arrested, Michael FitzGerald, would die on hunger strike in prison the following year; a half-baked scheme to kidnap a British general to exchange for his release failed. The local citizenry bore the brunt of the rest of the reaction which was noted by some sources as being particularly brutal, with ordinary citizens rounded up, interrogated harshly, and physically assaulted with rifle butts in some instances. The area was proclaimed a military distract in due course.
Worse was to come. As a result of the killing, and perhaps also because the subsequent inquest refused to label it “murder” – the apparently republican-minded jury decided instead it was an act of war – the Kent’s decided to take matters into their own hands. A large group of them left barracks and began a rampage in the town centre, smashing numerous shop windows and looting the premises. Conflicting reports are at variance regards the direction of this action, as to whether it was just a mindless reaction or a more ordered affair. Nobody was hurt or killed during the incident. Tensions between military and civilian in Fermoy rose sharply for a time after, and there are reports of scuffles between the two groups several days after. Some have, with suitable drama, referred to this event as a “sack” of Fermoy, a term I will borrow since others seem inadequate or crass, but it is important to note that the town was not burned or otherwise destroyed.
An official policy of reprisals on the Irish civilian population was yet to come, but what occurred in Fermoy was an obvious example of where things were headed. Aside from a commitment to briefly confine units to barracks, the officers of the Kent’s did nothing in terms of punitive actions on their own men. Ennistymon has been a taste of what the War of Independence was going to turn into, but Fermoy was a main course, where the attackers made no effort to hide what they were doing: British military and police would, ever more going forward, enact retaliatory measures against civilian targets in the aftermath of IRA attacks, usually in the form of attacking, looting and otherwise wrecking urban centres. By the end of the next year, what had occurred in Fermoy would seem like small potatoes, but a more open tactic of enacting such reprisals would begin there.
Things were escalating hugely in Cork: on the same day as the Fermoy ambush, another military party was held up at Slippery Rock by elements of the Cork No 1 Brigade. The next month Liam Deasy, an adjutant of the Cork 3rd Brigade visited Dublin to converse with Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy and Cathal Brugha (and others) about the official direction that GHQ wanted the war in the localities to go. There, he found the head men of GHQ very interested in the IRA’s capacity to target RIC and military barracks in rural areas. The gloves were coming off, and Deasy left with instructions to begin a campaign of targetting such isolated points in the new year.
GHQ had their own concerns though. In the next entry we will turn back to the capital to discuss one of the last noteworthy ambush attempts of 1919, when the IRA attempted their most high-profile attack to date.
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