There has been plenty of barracks raids and attacks in the course of the War of Independence up to September 1920. Indeed, it could be said that such operations formed the majority of the IRA’s activities to that point, with night-time bombings, burnings and assaults of the various bulwarks of British authority located across Ireland. But, before the 28th September 1920, the IRA had not yet attacked, raided or otherwise targetted a barracks building that was held not by the RIC, but by the British military.
The operation that ended this state of affairs had as its genesis the officers of the Cork No.2 Brigade, who saw an opportunity to put operatives inside the walls of the Mallow barracks then occupied by a detachment of the 17th Lancers. Mallow lay inside an area of Cork that was dominated by British military installations: larger military barracks could be found in nearby Buttevant, Fermoy and Cork City, there were numerous training camp facilities in the countryside all around, and even smaller urban areas, like Kanturk to the west, contained elements of the British Army as part of their Crown Force. The escalation of the war in Cork had seen military numbers swell, hence why Mallow was now hosting, alongside its regular RIC presence, up to sixty men of a cavalry regiment.
Liam Lynch, not too long after the General Lucas affair, arranged for two members of Mallow-based IRA, Volunteers Dick Willis and Jack Bolster, to obtain temporary jobs as craftsmen inside the barracks, making basic repairs and painting walls (other sources claim Willis and Bolster were the instigators of this themselves). They were able to create an accurate map of the barracks interior as a result, and to monitor the daily routine of the barracks occupants. They quickly noted one very crucial detail of the latter, namely that the garrison commander would, daily, take two-thirds of the men and horses under his purview out of the barracks and the town for exercises in the countryside. During this time little more than 15 men, under the command of a sergeant, remained inside.
Willis and Bolster’s report made its way to Lynch, and to the visiting Ernie O’Malley, on yet another of his famous liaison and training missions throughout the country. They reviewed the map, the details of the garrisons daily weakened state, and the location of the barracks inside the town of Mallow. This was to the IRA’s advantage in many ways, with the barracks, a small example of the type of building, located in a low-lying area, approachable from both the street it was on and a park that it bordered on the other side. More importantly perhaps, the nearby RIC barracks could be covered from the town hall opposite, so that the police could not quickly join any potential fray as reinforcements. The plan was simple enough: the IRA would wait until the garrison was reduced, before they would use subterfuge to gain an entrance. They would then rush the interior of the barracks, with the intention of a stick-up job: the soldiers inside would be subdued, but not killed, before the IRA would take as many guns and amounts of ammunition that they could conceivable make off with, aided by some vehicles that would pull up to the barracks gate after it had been taken.
The men of the Mallow Battalion were joined by men from the local column – Lynch had arranged the No. 2 Brigade columns on a battalion basis, unlike some of his neighboring brigades – that were allotted to the operation entered the town together in the darkness of September 27th, assembling at the town hall. Some men were left in its upper floor to act as the covering force for the RIC barracks, leaving around twenty more to attack the military position. On the morning of the 28th Willis and Bolster went to the barracks as per normal, but now accompanied by their “overseer”, who wanted to inspect the work being done by the men in his employ. This was a man named Paddy McCarthy, an officer in the local column, who would be killed in a separate engagement only a few months later. McCarthy, though not expected, was granted entrance. All three had concealed handguns on them.
Once the majority of the barracks’ occupants had left on their daily maneuvers, the rest of the plan went into action. Twenty men under Lynch’s command, armed with revolvers, began making their way down the street towards the entrance of the barracks. Ernie O’Malley himself was in the lead, and got to the front door first, where he presented a letter to the sentry at the post, claiming it was for the barracks commander. The sentry had to open the door to take the letter, and did so without adequately warding against any aggression: when he moved to take the letter, O’Malley grabbed his rifle and wedged his foot in the door.
That was the moment for the rest of the IRA to rush in, subdue the sentry and then go about neutralising the garrison. Before the occupants really knew what was happening, twenty volunteers were inside the walls, rapidly holding up the mostly unarmed soldiers at gunpoint. The three “contractors” whipped out their own guns and held up the guardroom. At this point the only bloodshed of the operation occurred, when the Sergeant in command, William Gibbs, ran to the guardroom, where rifles were kept. Accounts of those present claim that Gibbs ignored a warning shot fired over his head, and was then hit by several shots. Though not killed immediately, Gibbs would expire within a short time. It seems likely that the operation was not meant to be a bloody one, so this killing would not have been to the liking of Lynch and O’Malley.
However, what was done was done. The barracks occupants were rounded up and placed under guard, while the IRA assembled as many guns and supplies of ammunition that they could, that reportedly amounted to nearly thirty rifles, two machine guns and numerous handguns. According to one source, the soldiers had attempted to call for assistance, but an operative, a member of the Cumann na mBan, in the local post office held up the message. No reinforcements, from either the absent military or the ignorant RIC, were coming.
The IRA stayed in the barracks for maybe twenty minutes, before three cars, now carrying the rifles and some of the men, pulled away. The soldiers were confined in one of the stable buildings, save one who was left to care for the ailing Gibbs as best he could. A fire was apparently started in part of the barracks by the departing attackers, but it either failed to take or was put out after they left. The rest of the attacking force melted away into the town and then out into the countryside. Trees were felled to block pursuit, but none occurred, at least not quickly The larger 17th Lancer detachment first knew of what had happened when they arrived back in the barracks from their maneuvers.
The inevitable reprisals came the following night. Local IRA had situated themselves near a co-operative creamery, a common target for rampaging Crown Forces, but it was the town centre of Mallow that was hit, by a spate of burnings, harassment and undisciplined, random firing of weapons. The perpetrators, for once, were not members of the RIC or its attached elements, but apparently nearly all military, with men of the 17th Lancers joined by detachments from nearby towns that drove in, some drunk. The town hall that the IRA had used as a base ahead of the raid was one of the buildings destroyed, with others including a hotel and condensed milk factory that was a central seasonal employer in Mallow. Civilians fled the town into the surrounding countryside or took refuge in churches. No-one was killed, but the incident, the “Sack of Mallow”, attracted, as before and anon, widespread condemnation from the press, British opposition figures and the international community.
The raid was a major success for the IRA, the first time that they had seized, albeit temporarily, a position held by the British military, as opposed to the RIC or a mix of the two. They had identified a weak link in the structure of the British military, utilised subterfuge and deception to gain a working knowledge of the target, assembled men for the operation in the immediate area under the very noses of the Crown Forces, and then prosecuted the raid successfully. They took no casualties, inflicted one of their own, and made off with a treasure trove of war material, much of which would soon be employed in ambushes elsewhere in the brigade area. They also carried out the raid itself in broad daylight, a rarity for the IRA when it came to barracks’. On the other hand, the 17th Lancers, and the British military in Ireland in a more general sense, were once again shown-up, with their isolation, lack of preparedness and an inability to adequately defend themselves once attacked, showcased to the country and to the world. The reprisals that followed were simply another step in the road to completely alienating public opinion.
The war continued apace as September turned to October. We are now heading directly for arguably the most famous phase of the conflict, the final months of 1920, but before we get there, there are a few more events of consequence to note. The first is a series of gun-attacks that took place in the capital in early October, that involved some figures already famous in the war.
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