Over the past number of entries, we have discussed a range of ambushes and barracks attacks undertaken by the IRA, all of which gained some measure of success. But this is not fully representative of the Irish War of Independence, not even in the seemingly lop-sided inner conflict between the IRA and the increasingly beleaguered RIC. In this entry, I wish to take some time to discuss a dual attack carried out by the IRA that did not succeed, why this happened, and what the knock-on effects of this failure were.
The action on this occasion fell, once again, to the 3rd Cork Brigade, rapidly establishing itself as one of the more belligerent units of the IRA. It was commanded by a man named Tom Hales, who with the other Brigade staff convened a meeting early in 1920 where the coming attacks were proposed and planned, a meeting attended by the likes of Liam Deasy and a soon to be more prominent Volunteer officer named Charlie Hurley. Both would be the work of the 1st Battalion, commanded by Tom’s brother Sean – a good sign of the local nature of the IRA structure – which was based in Bandon, 15 kms or so south-west of Cork City.
The Newcestown company, based in a village in the west of the county, was given the bulk of the work for one of the attacks, on the Mount Pleasant RIC barracks, a few km’s to their east, an operation that Tom Hales would command himself, along with Liam Deasy. The plan was simple: to isolate the building, pin the garrison down with small-arms fire and use an available store of gelignite to blast a breach in the barracks wall. This done, the garrison would likely surrender, and the building would be taken.
Not a bad plan, but it came awry when the IRA attempted to implement it. On the night in question – either the 25th or 27th February depending on whose account you favour -there was confusion that resulted in some members of the intended attacking party arriving late. Having cut the roads and got the men into position, the attack still went ahead, but the accidental discharge of a firearm from the attacking party alerted the RIC to what was about to occur, and they were able to open fire on the IRA before the mine was close to being laid. There was an exchange of shots and Mills bombs, but the IRA could make no headway. With flares alerting the nearby Bandon garrison, the Volunteers had no option but to withdraw. No casualties on either side were taken.
On the same night, “C” Company, based further south-west at the small coastal village of Timoleague, went into action. This company were tasked with arranging an attack for late February 1920 on the RIC barracks there, yet another isolated point in a county that increasingly only had isolated points for the Crown Forces. The local IRA were able to benefit from a Volunteer that, through his day job at a local store that supplied the barracks, was able to obtain knowledge of the lay-out, garrison and shifts. The plan was simple, and very similar to that the IRA attempted to enact in Mount Pleasant: to surround the barracks, suppress the RIC inside with small-arms fire from buildings nearby, and then use a mine made from gelignite to blow a hole in the barracks. This done, the expectation was that the RIC would give up, and the building could be occupied. If not, a force of men would storm the barracks, with Mills bombs at the ready to further clear the way.
On the night of either the 25th or the 27th February, the plan went into action, with Sean Hales in command. The barracks, situated on the main street, only had five or so men in it at the time. Roads were blocked leading to the village, and telegraph wires cut. Volunteers laid their makeshift mine at the wall of the barracks, before the order to open fire was given. But when the detonator was activated, nothing happened.
It must be remembered that most IRA members only had a very rudimentary knowledge of explosives, and not everyone would have been able to have the benefit of bomb-making courses from GHQ. Homemade mines were thus liable to not work, as was the case here. While fire continued to be exchanged between IRA and RIC, an attempt was made to get the explosive to blow by placing hay on top of it and setting it alright: a truly amateurish effort really, that did not work.
The firefight continued for a few hours, but lacking any method to force an entrance or enact a big decisive blow, the IRA were stuck. With flares fired from the garrison attempting to alert reinforcements in nearby Clonakilty, in the early hours of the morning the decision was taken to withdraw, which the attackers were able to do in relatively good order: the RIC were in absolutely no position to pursue. One IRA man was wounded, and the police took no casualties.
The failure of both attacks is a good example of the hither-to little acknowledged vulnerabilities of the IRA. The smaller companies could plan, they could isolate, they had the confidence to attack a held position with small arms. But if they suddenly did not have the ability to make the breach, to enact the big decisive bang that brought the Ballytrain attack to an end in an instant, then they were in trouble. They did not have the ability or the means to assault a barracks without explosives. Other aspects of the attack, such as the early discharge of arms or the desperate ad-hoc efforts to explode the gelignite indicate an army that still had issues with discipline and coordination, despite their insistence on the opposite. On the other side, the RIC had little to do but absorb the small arms fire and signal for assistance: with the advantage of a thick wall between them and the IRA, and no way for it to be reduced by the attacks, the police held all the cards.
But in the larger strategic sense, the attacks on Mount Pleasant and Timoleague barracks turned out to be more productive for the IRA than they initially appeared. Probably because of the attempted attacks, the RIC were convinced that, even though they had survived, the respective barracks’ were no longer tenable, being too isolated and vulnerable to assaults further down the line. As such, within a few weeks, both Mount Pleasant and Timoleague were evacuated, ceding the areas to IRA and Republic control. In so doing, the IRA’s tactical failure became a strategic success. That, and such failures were learning experiences too, with the IRA in Cork better prepared in future having directly experienced what had gone wrong.
In the next entry we will stay in Munster, moving to Limerick, to discuss an attack/assassination that invoked the actions of the Squad in Dublin, with equally deadly effects.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.