It’s taken a while to get to this point, from the moment when we first mentioned the man who, perhaps more than any other, has become synonymous with the idea of Irish guerrilla warfare as practiced in the War of Independence and after. First noted as a soldier serving in the British Army in World War One, it is now that we must give a deeper context to the man, and also talk about the first significant engagement of the war that he took part in. It would be far from the last.
Thomas Barry was born in the small town of Killorglin, County Kerry, though he spent most of his childhood in his father’s home across the border in Cork. He grew up without a firm direction in life, running away from school, and enlisting in the British Army at the age of 17, where he was placed in the Royal Field Artillery. His enlistment was seemingly made without any firm political belief, either in the freedom of “small nations” or in Home Rule. He served in Mesopotamia, at the Siege of Kut and elsewhere, rising to the rank of Lance Corporal. But the news of the Easter Rising, in line with ill-treatment he received some British soldiers, awakened an up-to-then seemingly dormant political consciousness. Dropping down in rank and being cited several times for disrespectful behavior towards superiors, Barry spent most of the rest of the war in Egypt.
Upon his return to Cork, Barry cultivated contacts in both ex-servicemen organisations and the republican movement, meaning it took some time for him to be trusted by the latter. The capture and torture of Tom Hales and Pat Harte in the summer of 1920 appears to have been a major turning point for him, and Barry formally joined the IRA, through its Cork No. 3 Brigade, shortly after. His friendship with Charlie Hurley helped to mitigate any concerns over his Army background and these objections would be essentially forgotten by the end of the year, owing to the particulars of Barry’s service.
By the summer of 1920, Barry was acting as both intelligence officer, the O/C of the Casteltownroche Battalion, an instructor at numerous training camps, and eventually had a command role in the local flying column. His military experience made him useful as a resource for educating volunteers who lacked such history, and the training camps at which he took part or presided are cited by numerous witnesses of the time for their importance, especially those that took place ahead of planned engagements. Barry attempted to enact several ambushes, most notably one at Fanlobus that was called off, but it was not until the second half of October 1920 that he had the opportunity to take part in his first direct engagement of the war.
That engagement would be the Toureen Ambush. The target would be men of the hated Essex Regiment, a British Army unit that had made its presence felt in a significant proportion of West Cork, in raids and in its perceived harassment of the local civilian population. In yet another example of British forces demonstrating a predictability that was unsuited to guerrilla warfare, a regular military convoy coming from Bandon was noted travelling on the road between the villages of Innishannon and Ballinhassig, roughly 10km’s from Cork City. The road used was scouted thoroughly, and a stretch best suited for an ambush chosen, near the small hamlet/townland of Toureen (or Tooreen).
The men taking park in the attack would come from a few places, but the bulk would be the No 3. Brigade’s flying column. Many of the accounts disagree on who exactly was in command of this unit at the time. It was certainly Barry within a short enough time period, but it seems likely he was not in charge the day the ambush took place. But the ambush attracted officers of a much higher standing anyway: he brigade’s overall commander, Charlie Hurley, was to take the lead, and alongside him his vice-commandant Liam Deasy, who both travelled to the area by train. They had under them around 30 or so men for the ambush., and many more serving in auxiliary roles. Barry, while trusted by Hurley, was not in overall command that day, as some accounts have subsequently attested.
Originally scheduled for the 19th of October, the attack was delayed a few days owing to the capture of two local Volunteers, that the ambushers feared would be on the vehicles they were planning to attack. When their confinement in Cork City was confirmed, the go ahead for the ambush was made, and the operation went ahead on the 22nd. In the early hours of that morning, a farmhouse and attached complex on the chosen stretch of road, owned by a well-known loyalist family, was quietly taken over, its owners detained, later joined by their daily workman as they arrived.
From there, Hurley laid out the men according to the agreed plan. He himself arranged for the placing of a substantial homemade mine on the road, and situated himself behind a wall close to it, directly in front of the farmhouse. To Hurley’s right, the east, Deasy was placed in a ditch on the south side of the road with nine riflemen. To Hurley’s left, the west, Barry took a similar position north of the road, with ten men. Others were sent out further to guard the flanks and the rear, and a few others still as forward scouts. The plan was to allow the vehicles, travelling west to east, to pass the first position, detonate the mine to cripple the first truck and stop the others from being able to escape, and then engage. The ambushers expected no more than three to four lorries, so maybe over 30 men, but banked on the mine and the element of surprise to make up for their potentially lower numbers.
After waiting for a few hours, the target approached, signaled to Hurley as just two lorries: a smaller enemy force than expected. This was a good and a bad thing as it was an easier target, but a less opportune one at the same time. The two lorries together held 23 men. As the first passed Barry’s position and then Hurley’s, the brigade O/C pulled the plunger to detonate the mine.
Nothing happened. The IED’s that the IRA constructed during the war could be notoriously unreliable, prone to electrical failure once placed, or any number of other faults. Whatever it was, the mine did not explode. Barry claims that at the same time he was able to chuck a three-pound homemade bomb onto the first lorry, which would have been quite the feat if he was where the accounts say he was. If he really did do it, it didn’t matter, as this bomb also failed to detonate.
The IRA now revealed themselves and opened fire on both vehicles. The second swerved and ended up in a roadside ditch; one soldier from the first dismounted and opened fire while the lorry sped on, out of the contact area. IRA accounts have labelled this act a cowardly abandonment, but British sources insist that the first lorry was carrying important documentation and a protected witness, and so had to keep going. Indeed, it was thought by some in the aftermath that it was this documentation or witness that was the target of the IRA attack, but this does not appear to have been the case. What few procedures were established at that time for the British military in Ireland called for vehicles in such situations to depart the scene, regardless of what had occurred with other vehicles in a convoy, a doctrine that would soon be altered. The commander of the convoy was also in the second vehicles, and thus unable to direct the first to stop even if he had wanted to. It was unfortunate for the British that the other lorry did not stop, even from a distance: Barry’s account claims that if they had done so, it is unlikely the operation could have succeeded.
The one soldier from the first lorry engaged – probably a Corporal Woodward, from accounts – was hit in the knee quickly enough and subdued. The soldiers in the second lorry, stuck and under fire from multiple directions, dismounted and attempted to fight back, jumping into the ditch for cover (one account claims they fought on the open road, but this makes little sense). They were only nine men, and were led by a Lieutenant William Alfred Dixon. He is sometimes described as a Captain, but he appears to have had that rank only temporarily towards the end of the First World War, where he served at Ypres and Salonika, winning the Military Cross, before being part of the Russian Expeditionary Force. In the passenger’s seat when the ambush began, he was hit in the shoulder leaving the lorry.
The British position was fairly hopeless. The rebels had them outnumbered, and outflanked, they had no possibility of withdrawing, and reinforcements could take a relative age to arrive. Regardless, Dixon attempted to co-ordinate a fightback. A number of the British were hit and killed, but it was not until Dixon was hit again, fatally in the head, that the remainder threw down their arms and put up their hands. The IRA ceased fire. The still alive soldiers were guarded, though permitted to tend to their wounded comrades, while their arms and ammunition, a fairly good haul of both by reports, were taken. The lorry was set alight, and the IRA withdrew into the countryside.
There are conflicting accounts over how many of the British were killed in the attack. IRA sources, like Barry, insist five were, but the British listed their dead at three, Dixon, Private Charles Reid and Sergeant Thomas Bennett, who may have been fatally wounded at the site before dying later. The Essex Regiment does not list anyone else as dying in or around those few days. It’s possible that seriously wounded men were mistaken for dead, or that the IRA simply exaggerated. They would have been in good company, with some of the British later claiming they had been engaged by over a 150 men, who charged them with bayonets. When scouts, road guards and other auxiliary Volunteers were taken into account, there may have been a hundred or so involved in the Toureen Ambush, but at the actual site there were no more than 30, and they were not armed with bayonets: having rifles for everyone was a big enough problem.
The typical reprisals followed that night. Bandon was the target, not for the first time in the war, with shops and homes looted and burned, though no casualties were reported. Local accounts claim Essex men from the ambush site participated in this destruction, but this may just be hearsay. According to another source, the IRA column moved to the outskirts of Bandon the day after the reprisal in an effort to ward off more, but the soldiers did not return afterwards.
The ambush was a success for the IRA. They had successfully engaged and defeated a force of the enemy military. They had responded well to the initial failure of their mine, isolating, pinning down and neutralising the second lorry. They had captured a substantial store of weapons and ammunition, that would be put to good use within a very short time. Yes, they had been unable to engage the first lorry properly, but it seems harsh to put conditions on the IRA’s victory by focusing on the getaway of one car.
Perhaps much more importantly, lessons had been learned. Men like Barry, soon to be the O/C of an enlarged column officially, got their first taste of guerrilla warfare in the Irish countryside, and the knowledge that the Crown Forces were far from invincible. For all of their advantages in weaponry and transport, a well-placed ambush carried out with conviction could result in an Irish victory. It would take Barry just over a month to give the most potent demonstration of this in the history of the Irish revolutionary period.
But for us, we move now a bit further west, to the county of Kerry. On the night of the 31st October, the IRA there would launch an ambitious cross-county operation, targeting the RIC. From this, a further explosion of violence would come to surround the town of Tralee.
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