In this series, as we continue to follow the path of the Irish revolutionary period, I know that the incidents of note that I “cover” may seem so small-scale that, at times, you may well think that they are barely worth being noticed at all, especially in the larger context of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, and, later, the Civil War. But I do still find myself drawn to some of the very little known attacks and ambushes, perhaps because I have an innate desire to ferret out information about the lesser-know things, or maybe because there is some unique slice of information about them that draws the eye. Today’s entry is one of those.
We have already discussed, at great length in some ways, the nature of the IRA’s war against the RIC. In significantly large parts of Ireland, to be an active member of the Royal Irish Constabulary was to have a target painted on your back, though this was not a universal state of affairs. There were areas, the jurisdiction of certain units of the IRA, where if a member of the RIC was not too circumspect in pursuit of certain parts of his job, if he did not try to interfere with the local IRA or the republican counter-government, if he “kept his head down” so to speak, then he was not subject to the same harassment or threats, hypothetical or actual, of violence that others were. And, of course, there were plenty of men in the RIC who aided the IRA in more practical ways.
But there were also parts of the country where every member of the RIC, good, bad or indifferent, were in the same boat, being the enemies of the IRA, and the easiest targets in the growing conflict. The area of Cork under the purview of the 3rd Brigade could probably be said to be one of the worst of these. At some point in the war, the decision was made that all RIC men in the brigade area were fair game, and should be the subject of attack and ambush whenever possible. This was a period of the war where the RIC had essentially reached their lowest point, and the decision to push them even harder was good strategy, as well as a response to whatever attempts the RIC had made to fight back in those early months (more on that later).
One of the RIC men situated in Southern Cork was a Sergeant Cornelius Crean. Originally from Kerry, he had served in the RIC for nearly thirty years by 1920. In 1916, he had even been briefly held up by mobilised units of the Irish Volunteers, though nothing came of the act. Crean rose to become one of the main intelligence men of his area, and was a respected figure, even by members of the IRA, one of whom described him as “diplomatic”, a term that was about as good as any RIC could expect as a descriptor from the enemy. Yet, that same diplomacy was also something that doomed Crean in time, as he was known as a man whose penchant for friendly chats with whomever he met could hide ulterior motives: wanting to know how a certain young man was getting on could soon turn into an innocent sounding query about where the same young man was the previous night. One local researcher has since described Crean as “a man of great brain and resource”, the kind of figure that the RIC desperately needed, and that the IRA did not want active in the community.
As such, and regardless of whether Crean was liked, respected, or dismissed by the IRA, he was designated as a target, especially after the local RIC played their part in the increase of raids and arrests that characterised the British response to the IRA in early 1920. Crean’s recent stationing in the local area, and his pro-active work there, often meant that he went on patrols of the route between Bandon and Kinsale, and it was on one of these patrols, on the 25th April, that an ambush was sprung,
Many of the details of this ambush are uncertain, such as just how many took park, and just who was in charge: some say that it was Charlie Hurley, at the time the vice commandant of the Bandon Battalion, and soon to be involved in events of much greater notoriety. Others say it Jim O’Hurley, a man in a similar position. Some sources say that Crean and the others who accompanied him were on foot, while other accounts say that they were riding bicycles (probably more likely, given the nature of police patrolling at the time). Either way, the IRA officers and the men they had assembled from the local unit, aware of the routes that Crean and others would take on their patrols, assembled at the designated ambush point, a road just outside the small village of Ballinspittal.
Crean, Cavan born Constable Patrick McGoldrick and another Constable named Power, had just come from the Innishannon RIC barracks and had passed through the small village of Upton, when they came upon the ambush site. McGoldrick, according to Power, stopped to light his pipe, and then the IRA struck. Firing appears to have commenced almost immediately, with no suggestion that any effort was made to neutralise the RIC bloodlessly. McGoldrick was killed almost instantly by a shotgun blast that mangled his head; Crean and Power ran towards a nearby bend of the road, seeking cover, under fire the whole time. Crean turned to try and return fire, and was hit by multiple rounds in the chest. Power fled, surviving to relate an account of what had occurred. A local priest who went to the area where the firing had been reported claimed that he found Crean alive, his back to a wall, facing the direction of where the fire had come from, but he died shortly after. The IRA took no casualties.
Some may recognise Crean’s name, and make the connection with a somewhat more famous figure. Cornelius was the older brother of Tom, the renowned sailor and explorer, who has been involved in numerous expeditions into hazardous areas, most notably with Ernest Shackleton and his Endurance. Tom Crean had actually only just returned to Ireland after being invalided out of the British Navy for issues with his eyesight: he was unable to properly mourn his brother, owing to the IRA’s influence over the area, and Cornelius’ status, earned or not, as an enemy agent. The younger Crean was already a limited figure in his home land for much the same reasons, his heroics with the British Navy things he could not be celebrated for (ironically, his home would be raided by the British later in the war, who allegedly left the Crean’s in peace when they found a photograph of Crean in Navy uniform).
The death of Sergeant Crean thus serves as an example of how the War of Independence had become an increasingly complicated and bloody struggle. Only a year previously this kind of ambush may not have resulted in any casualties, now death was a foregone conclusion. Excepting the escape of Power, the ambush was carried out in a ruthless fashion, by an organisation that had become more and more adept at such small-scale attacks. Just how much of an effect Crean and McGoldrick’s deaths had on the course of the war in that area cannot be known, but the RIC’s influence undoubtedly continued to retract. They could ill-afford the loss of talented men.
In the next entry we will discuss another ambush, this time in County Limerick, but on this occasion the consequences were a bit more severe. Having already made a bit of a brutal reputation since their first arrival, now the Black and Tans would make their presence felt.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.