1920 was to bring a new verve to the IRA’s campaigns. The dispute between the nominal commanders in GHQ and those mid to junior officers “on the ground” would remain, but there was now a greater appetite in Dublin for efforts to expand the war beyond the piecemeal ambushes and independent operations that had taken place up to that point. As previously mentioned, in late 1919 GHQ wanted a larger offensive against the RIC, an entity that had already retreated so much, but it would be the brigades in the localities that would undertake most of the planning and execution of what this meant practically.
The RIC had closed many of them owing to staff shortages and isolation, but the primary symbol of their position in Ireland remained the police barracks, of which hundreds could be found throughout the country even after the contraction of 1919. Those that remained in operation were the ones chosen as the most important, the most defendable. The RIC in rural areas took efforts to shore up the defences of these points in consequence of the IRA’s spread, adding slatted steel windows that could be closed at need, lights that could be turned on at night to highlight any possible attacks, as well as gathering arms and ammunition.
Cork was the place where the war would escalate, specifically with the Cork No. 1 Brigade. Many of its leaders were chafing to expand operations: at a brigade meeting in October 1919 it had been proposed to launch a coordinated attack on every RIC barracks in their operational area. Some officers felt the task would be all too easy, reasoning that most of the barracks were thinly held by unmotivated police. But, unlike others in the country happy to undertake attacks without resort to Dublin, the Brigade OC, Thomas Mac Curtain, preferred to seek GHQ’s approval. Mac Curtain operated on a fine line, his own inaction in 1916 always pressing on him and sowing at least a small bit of dissent in the ranks, but he refused to undertake attacks on his own volition. GHQ initially gave the go-ahead for an attack, but then countermanded the order, with Michael Collins preferring to give most of the attention, and possible publicity, to their attempted ambush on John French.
After the failure of that attack, the proposed barracks assault was revisited. Attacks on every RIC barracks going was discounted, but GHQ did authorise every Cork-based brigade to make an attack on a single barracks of their own choosing. For the No.1 Brigade, the 4th Battalion, that based in the general vicinity of Cobh, was chosen.
The man in charge was Michael Leahy, a veteran of Cork’s aborted mustering in 1916 who had subsequently become a Frongach internee. He had already taken part in several smaller-scale attacks in 1919, as well as spending some time in prison for the cause since his return to Ireland. A close confidant of Thomas Mac Curtain, he was given leeway to pick the barracks to be targeted; his choice fell on the station in the village of Carrigtwohill, a few miles north of Cobh, and east of Cork City. His reasoning was based on the availability of willing men in that area to be engaged in an attack, and its distance from the nearest British Army barracks. It was not an automatic win, being a thick stone building that had been prepared for defence in the manner listed above; the number of RIC men that were inside during the events to be described varies from source to source, but was between five and eleven men, the lesser amount if you believe the RIC, the larger if you believe the IRA.
Leahy’s initial plan was simple: he would use several nearby companies of Volunteers to block roads, cut telegraph wires and isolate the village, before starting an attack on the barracks at both its front and rear entrance, with a demonstration of fire large enough that its garrison would surrender. If that did not occur, he would blow a hole in the barracks wall and initiate a storm. What arms could be taken would be taken, and speeded away in a truck provided by the Cobh company. He had the advantage of committed men and mobility, with the RIC being sedentary and with questionable commitment. The attack was put down for the night of the 2nd January, and would constitute the first major event of the war in 1920, as well as the first GHQ authorised attack on an RIC position.
That night IRA companies from nearby Midelton and Knockraha felled trees to block roads and otherwise stayed on guard and kept a look-out. The actual fighting itself would be undertaken by a mix of men from the three companies, led by Leahy himself, who had assembled at the schoolhouse in the south of the village. Volunteers based in Carrigtwohill were deliberately not used, for fear they would be identified by the RIC and be easily punished afterward. The number actually involved in the attack varies in accounts from either side of the fighting, but may have been around twenty, with perhaps a hundred others blockading the village.
Leahy placed men in houses opposite the front entrance of the barracks, others in a hayshed to the rear, and others behind a low stone wall that went around the barracks. An hour before midnight Leahy, situated in the hayshed, gave the order to open fire, his men having made it to their various positions without detection: a clear sign of the limited ability the RIC now had, of their volition and through the support of the community, to see attacks coming. However, the RIC were not totally without warning, having realised ahead of the first shot that their communications had been cut.
The IRA lay down fire on the doors and windows, and the RIC fired back from slats put into those same windows for the very purpose. Homemade grenades were thrown against the building, to no effect, the walls and steel being too strong to be breached by such improvised weapons, though they presumably made a fearsome noise. Leahy had to be mindful of the amount of ammunition he had – subsequent RIC claims that their barracks had been hit with hundreds of rounds seem fanciful in the circumstances – and after fifteen minutes of exchanging fire without any sign that the RIC were ready to call it quits, he ordered a team of men from the Cobh company to advance to the gable of the barracks and blow open a breach with sticks of gelignite. This took a while to do, as the men moved to the wall, bored holes in it, and then placed the explosive. All the while, the IRA maintained what fire it could, while the RIC used their stock of flare guns to try and signal for assistance.
The explosives laid, the advanced party retreated back to the nearby hayshed and pushed the plunger. The resulting explosion opened up a fair-sized hole in the barracks wall, and prompted the RIC inside to retreat to the first storey. Military defenders may have elected to stay where they were and try and plug the breach with fire, but the RIC were not military defenders. Leahy claims he was prepared to set fire to the barracks via the breach at this point, but was dissuaded by the claim that Volunteer prisoners were inside, something that is not mentioned in other accounts. Instead he ordered the surrounding men to cease fire and entered the barracks with a vanguard, soon realising the RIC were not on the ground floor. Not wanting to attack upstairs, they fired their guns through the ceiling and called for the police to surrender.
IRA accounts state that the wife of the RIC sergeant in command of the barracks, a man named Casey, negotiated a quick end to hostilities, influenced no doubt by the infant she was carrying. The IRA promised they would detain the RIC briefly while they took the guns and ammo from the barracks before setting it alight; Mrs Casey was allowed to go on her way. The RIC men took the offer and laid down their arms, being then handcuffed and assembled outside. Some would later claim they only surrendered as they had run out of ammunition, and one even went as far as to claim they had been the victims of knockout gas. The IRA ransacked the barracks, finding a healthy store of guns and bullets, which were spirited away in the waiting truck. The job completed, without casualties on either side, Leahy assembled his men outside, led a singing of “The Soldier’s Song” and then ordered a dispersal. The RIC were marched a few miles from the village before being released, after being strongly advised to quit the force as soon as possible. The barracks, for whatever reason, was not set alight.
It was a well carried out operation by the IRA. They had reconnoitered their target properly, isolated it and then effectively suppressed the defenders. Upon creating a breach into the building they had swiftly brought an end to the fighting, with no loss of life on either side. The reward was a worthy haul of war material that would be put to good use later, and a severe blow to the already tarnished image of British authority in the area, and in the country at large. On the other side, the RIC did what they could, but were severely outnumbered and hamstrung by their inability to manouvre. The really critical factor was the lack of support from other RIC garrisons or the military.
The first Crown Forces to arrive did not turn up until near noon the following day, by which time the IRA had scattered and the guns had been hidden. Another attack had occurred at the RIC barracks in Kilmurray as part of the effort to coordinate a multi-faceted stroke, but there the attackers would make little headway, and the barracks would survive. A third was aborted. From that perspective, the effort to launch a major coordinated assault was a failure, but with the success at Carraigtwohill, it certainly wasn’t seen like that.
More than one major figure of the period, among them Richard Mulcahy working in GHQ, believed that Carraigtwohill was the real beginning of the Irish War of Independence. It was the end of the unsanctioned randomised violence of 1919 that was taking place in the country at large, and the beginning of something more directed, more politically motivated. In the months to come many more barracks would be targetted, and while a significant number of these attacks would be failures – more than is commonly reported – many of them would be quite successful. The Black and Tans were still a bit away, and the British administration continued not to face up to the magnitude of the problem they were dealing with. Carraigtwohill was the beginning of a time when the IRA offensive went into high gear, and where the British lost any tenuous grasp on the initiative.
Al the while, there were serious political moves occurring. While it was not strictly a military event, the topic of Eamon de Valera’s tour of the United States is one that deserves some consideration in this series, important as it was in terms of providing money for the cause at home, and in how the Republic’s political leader got involved in the internecine feuding of America’s nationalist organisations.
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