From the north of the island back to the south we go today, to turn our eyes back to the County of Cork, now established as Ireland’s real hotbed of revolutionary activity, and to another ambush that indicated the scale of the problem facing the British authorities. More importantly, it affords us a chance to look at a pivotal figure in the region, whose rise to command would lead to some of the most famous events of the conflict.
Charlie Hurley was a Cork native, born near the small village of Kilbrittain in 1892, the son of a farmer. An intelligent boy, Hurley passed civil service examinations at age 15 and became a government clerk. But the influence of nationalist organisations and figures – he was a member of the GAA and Gaelic League, among others – had already had an effect on him, and when given the chance to be promoted to a position in a naval base he refused, on the grounds that the promotion would require at least a nominal enlistment in the Royal Navy. Instead, in 1917, he joined the reconstituted Irish Volunteers, in which he quickly gained prominence, aided by close friend Liam Deasy.
Hurley served a year of a five year sentence in 1918, on charges of arms possession, as well as possession of plans of the British base at Bere Island. A hunger strike aided his efforts to find release, and soon after he was appointed to the position of vice-commandant of the Bandon Battalion, under the overall aegis of the Cork No. 3 Brigade. It was in this position that Hurley became involved in the planning of the Mount Pleasant barracks attack, and later the Ballinspittal ambush.
Hurley’s battalion was an active one, that harassed RIC and undertook other operations for the Republic as best it could. In the aftermath of the general RIC retreat from their rural barracks, the focus turned to hitting patrols and finding arms, and it was in pursuit of this goal that Hurley got his chance to to strike a decisive blow against the crumbling remnants of British authority in their operational area. The instigating action in this case was “agrarian trouble” in the area, which, while not elaborated upon by the accounts that have been left, was presumably a result of loyalist landowners clashing with less than loyal tenants and farmers, the kind of people that the forces of the Republic preferred to back up. Whatever the nature of the “trouble”, it was enough that whatever was left of the local RIC was obliged to try and keep the peace, sending regular patrols to the area, which was between Timoleague – already the source of some drama in the War of Independence – and Ballyroe.
In an insurgency war, repetition is an invitation to disaster, and so it was the case here. The RIC did not deviate from their patrol routes enough, mostly taking the same roads around the same times, and this mundanity proved their end. When noticed by elements of the local IRA, very quickly a plan was orchestrated to enact an ambush. Charlie Hurley was summoned from his nearby company area in Kilbrittain to take command of a small force of IRA men taken from the Kilbrittain and Ballyroe companies, comprising of around ten or eleven men.
The plan was basic, but one that took advantage of the agrarian situation to lure the RIC into a trap they would not see until far too late. The cattle belonging to the loyalist were to be driven off the disputed grazing land by supporting Volunteers. The RIC would presumably be notified and would send men to investigate. Knowing their patrol routes and previous preferences, the IRA would wait in ambush at a place called Ahawadda Cross, just over four km’s from Timoleague, and neutralise the RIC as they came by.
The ambush plan was carried off almost without a hitch. On the 10th May the cattle in question were driven off, the RIC were notified, and a patrol of four men was sent out to investigate. Their exact make-up is a but fuzzy, but likely there was three full-time RIC men, and a single ex-soldier of the reserves: a Black and Tan. The IRA had taken position at Ahawadda since the early hours of the morning, and waited there patiently until the late afternoon. This was commonplace for waiting ambushers in the War of Independence, who often were stuck in their prepared positions for extended periods of time ahead of brief bursts of action, if the ambush even went ahead.
This time, it did. The IRA, under Hurley, spaced themselves out around 5 yards apart to the south of the road. They were armed mostly with shotguns, while their opponents would have pistols, and a singular rifle. Around 3PM, the RIC were spotted. The police walked into the ambush area heedless of the danger, and were easy targets when Hurley gave the order to open fire. It is yet another sign of the more cut-throat nature of the conflict at this stage in 1920 that no attempt appears to have been made to subdue to RI without resort to bloodshed.
The fighting, such as it was, was soon concluded. Two of the RIC, Constables Edward Dunne and William Brick, were killed in the opening torrent of fire, without any chance to draw their weapons. The commander of the RIC, a Sergeant John Flynn, was wounded, but was afforded to opportunity to return a degree of fire before expiring. The fourth, the “Tan” named Grimsdale, was wounded also, but not so badly that he was not able to flee back the way that he had come. He was obligated to spend a spell in hospital, but survived. As was common, the IRA had no interest in maintaining a pursuit of a single escaping ambush victim. The dead RIC were relieved of their weapons and ammo, before the attacking party dispersed.
Whether it was intentional or not, the ambush was a bit of opportunistic revenge of the IRA. John Flynn, the dead RIC sergeant, had been in command of Timoleague RIC barracks in February when the IRA had attacked it, an operation that had ended in failure. Now he, along with Constable Dunne who had also been inside the barracks that night, were dead.
As was common, the area was briefly awash with RIC and military in the aftermath of the ambush, but to no tangible effect. The inquest into the deaths of the Sergeant and Constables called the act murder, but no charges were ever brought against anyone, and the jury members probably regretted the decision in time to come, being the subject of threatening correspondence from the IRA for their trouble. Local clergy condemned the deaths – an increasing rarity it has to be said – but to no avail. Military regulars were stationed at the nearby Timoleague Castle, owned by a man named Robert Travers, a descendant of a Parliamentarian officer who was killed at Knocknanuss 373 years earlier. For the next five months they were the key element of an effort to enforce law and order, but their most lasting impression was made when they vandalised the graveyard at Timoleague Abbey. After this incident, which inflamed local opinion, they were withdrawn to be based nearer the coast, much to the distress of Travers. The Castle, and the nearby mansion belonging to Travers, were both destroyed by the IRA before the year was out. The entire area was now firmly in IRA and republican control.
The Ahawadda ambush, while little remembered in comparison to some of Charlie Hurley’s later exploits, is still an excellent example of the state of play in this section of the country at this time. The IRA were able to learn about a target of opportunity through the weakness of the enemy, plan rapidly for an engagement on favourable terms and execute that plan successfully, inflicting four casualties on the enemy and taking none of their own. In exchange for a short-term influx of enemy soldiers, they gained a more long-term hold on the area, as the British authorities continued their withdrawal from rural Ireland. Hurley proved himself an able commander in the field, and the RIC proved themselves, again, to be an inadequate response to the IRA.
Hurley’s reputation, already quite high, was solidified still further by the part he had played at Ahwadda and when Tom Hales, the Brigade O/C, was captured by the British, it was Hurley who was elevated to replace him. It was a fortuitous appointment for many reasons, not least one of Hurley’s own key appointment decisions: to place an veteran of Britain’s Mesopotamian campaign in World War One in command of a flying column. The man was named Tom Barry, and both he and Hurley would soon be involved in more momentous operations than Ahawadda.
Next, we move a bit further north but stay in Munster, to discuss another barracks attack. This one carried a deeper historical significance than other such attacks for the local IRA, and would prove one of their toughest fights in the entire war.
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