The War of Independence saw its fiercest battlegrounds in Munster, and the situation in that province proved deadly most other days during 1921. In early March another major ambush, the latest in a long line of major ambushes, took place in West Cork, not too far from the border with Kerry, in an operation that, like that at Dromkeen, involved men from different brigade areas. One of the targets was a high-ranking member of the British military and, by the end of that day, the war would have one of its highest ranking casualties.
The man who would lead this operation was Sean Moylan. Born in Kilmallock, Moylan came from a strong republican background, and was involved in the likes of the Gaelic League and the GAA from an early age. Having trained as a carpenter, Moylan moved to the north of Cork to set up his own business there, and it was there that he joined the nascent Irish Volunteers. In the re-organisation that occurred after the Easter Rising, Moylan was able to rise up the ranks fairly quickly, coming to lead the 2nd battalion of the Cork No.2 Brigade, and that units’ flying column. An active and charismatic officer, Moylan was involved in numerous ambushes and other operations throughout the course of the war, activities that brought him to the attentions of higher ups in good and bad ways: good insofar as men recognised him as a pro-active commander, bad in that he often chafed under the apparent necessities of being part of a modern army, like written reports and respecting the chain of command. Moylan recognised that the IRA emphasis on brigades could be self-defeating at times, when units refused to help those that were trying to enact an ambush just behind a somewhat arbitrary line on the map, and such thinking was surely an influence on what occurred that day in March 1921.
The war in West Cork, and by extension East Kerry, was at a pivotal stage. Crown Forces had flooded parts of the area, and there was now less in the way of raids and more in the way of cordoning off large tracts of lands for sweeps, a tactic that will, shortly enough, form the basis for one of the most famous engagement of the war. Such moves from the military and police made it increasingly dangerous for the IRA to assemble in large groups. Arrests, and deaths, of IRA Volunteers were on the up, to the point that many individual units were badly effected from loss of efficient leadership. Even while efforts were made to create new columns for active operations, the IRA had been forced to adapt to the current circumstances, and introduced new tactics of their own, like the sniping of Crown Force posts at night, not so much for its benefits in terms of enemy casualties caused, but for the demoralising effect it could have on those same Crown Forces.
But the primary aim was still to create something more high-profile, and to do that there needed to be cross-cooperation. Moylan records that he was approached about a joint operation by Con O’Leary, an adjutant in Kerry’s No 2. Brigade, in late February. It was the painfully (for the Crown Forces anyway) familiar story: a regular convoy route of RIC carrying supplies and pay to other places, that had become a bit too used to the same route, in this case the road between Killarney and Rathmore. Moylan brought men to the appointed place, and a joint force of Cork and Kerry Volunteers waited in ambush for several days, but to no effect: whether the Crown Forces had been warned off or had simply chosen another route, nobody came by, and the Volunteers received intelligence that their position had been rumbled. Then Moylan picked up on the news that General Peter Strictland, the then military governor of Minster, has been performing an inspection tour of the area.
Moylan, who had come a long way out of his own brigade area and had plenty of men to spare, was not prepared to disperse his unit without a fight, and had a good idea of what route such an inspection may travel. He sent scouts back over the border into Cork to find a good ambush position on the road west of Banteer, and sent messages to other local IRA units to provide men if possible. The ambush position that ended up being chosen was that at Clonbanin, and however he came by the information, it was chosen out of the belief that General Strictland’s party would be using the road imminently. The force gathered comprised men from several columns and brigade areas, not all of them adequately armed, but there was a fair supply of homemade mines.
The ambush position was a lengthy enough one, with Moylan splitting the men he had between several different positions, and on either side of the road. It was a long, even stretch, but the IRA were able to utilise several positions of cover provided by nearby farmhouses. Mines were laid with the intention of destroying the leading vehicles and thus trapping the rest of the expected convoy.
At 10AM on the morning of the 5th March, three lorries of Crown Forces approached from the west, but knowing it was not the intended target, Moylan let them go without revealing his position (another account states that the officer whose shot would signal the start of the ambush suffered from a malfunctioning rifle, and that the mines failed to go off). Several hours later the actual target appeared, a full military convoy consisting of several lorries, armoured cars and other vehicles, spaced out considerably.
At first, things went wrong, to the point that the ambush may have been a lame duck before it started. The mine meant to disable to leading lorry failed to explode, instead only giving Moylan, who pressed the detonator, a nasty electric shock. But the IRA rescued the situation when rifle fire opened up all along the line. The leading lorry and then the armoured car came to a screeching halt before turning into the ditches of the road, their occupants dived for cover, and an extended firefight broke out all along the line.
Moylan blames the lack of arms and ammunition for his men as the reason why the engagement dragged on for some time to no result, at least relative to the Crown Forces, who had military regulars in their party, along with Lewis and Maxim Guns. Those machine guns gave the British a decided advantage despite being hemmed in on the road, and the IRA were unable to turn in the flanks of the enemy, taking their lives into their hands anytime that they approached the road. But the British were similarly pinned down, and unable to drive their enemy back so as to allow a withdrawal, despite some attempts.
The result was a stalemate of sorts, and here the British did have one advantage: the IRA could not stay in place forever. As darkness began to fall Moylan knew that he had to withdraw. Reinforcements for the Crown Forces arrived late; allegedly a lorry coming from Newmarket over-turned on the road, while Kanturk soldiers had to be “with difficulty” retrieved from local pubs to come to the convoy’s rescue. Moylan got his men to withdraw in good order under the cover of night before the chance came for them to be encircled, despite some hairy moments when British regulars were initially mistaken for friendly Volunteers.
It was not until the following day that the casualties of the engagement became clear. The IRA had somehow gotten out of the affair without taking any, which was extraordinary enough that we might take the claim with a small grain of salt. But the British had not be so fortunate. A general had indeed been killed but, to the unhappiness of Moylan, it was not General Strictland. Instead the General was a Brigadier named Hanway Robert Cumming, a veteran of the Boer and First World War, who was commanding an infantry brigade in Kerry (he is sometimes identified as a Colonel, with the General rank possibly a war-time elevation). He appears to have been killed early enough in the engagement, as soon as he got out of his car after the initial volley of fire. He constitutes one of the highest ranking casualties of the conflict from the British side.
The other casualties are harder to determine. As we have discussed before, it was not uncommon for the IRA to claim larger casualties than had actually occurred, as a means of covering themselves when an ambush did not go entirely to plan. Clonbanin could be described in such terms, with Moylan lamenting that if he had only 20 well-armed marksmen that they could have wiped out the entire convoy. Numbers as high as 13 have been claimed in terms of British dead, but a more likely number, including Cumming, was four, with the other three constituting a Lt Maligny of the Service Corps and Privates Walker and Turner of the East Lancashire regiment.
The ambush was a mixed bag. Some have grandiosely stated that it was the worst setback that the Crown Forces suffered during the war, which I can only consider hyperbole. Yes, they had taken more casualties than the enemy, and had been unable to drive their attackers off, despite greater firepower. Yes, they had essentially driven without adequate care into an ambush zone. But despite being surrounded and fired upon from all sides, they had been able to avoid being over-run and defeated, in a situation which could easily have turned into something more like Kilmichael. They had been able to attempt some flanking attacks, and had utilised their heavier arms to hold back the enemy effectively. They had prevented the destruction of their vehicles and the capture of their arms. But for the late arrival of reinforcements, they may well have been able to inflict a heavy repulse to the IRA.
Of course, we cannot diminish the success of the IRA at the same time. They had successfully ambushed an enemy convoy carrying a VIP, a VIP they had been able to kill. Despite limited ammunition they were able to engage effectively in a firefight over the course of several hours, and then arrange a successful withdrawal in the darkness. They had gotten out of the ambush with no casualties, and inflicted several of their own. The lack of arms and ammunition taken from the site was a bad loss, but the IRA acquitted themselves well at Clonbanin.
The ambush was clear evidence of what a number of badly stretched brigades could achieve if they worked together, and may well have been an influence on a substantial re-organisation of the IRA unit structure that went into effect from April. This was characterised by the creation of larger divisions, 16 in total, that grouped several brigade areas together.
In the north, these were the 1st Northern, which consisted of the Donegal Brigades; the 2nd Northern which consisted of the Derry and Tyrone Brigades; 3rd Northern which consisted of the Antrim (including Belfast) and North Down Brigades; 4th Northern which consisted of Armagh, South Down and North Louth; and the 5th Northern which consisted of Monaghan and East Cavan.
In the midlands and west, these were 1st Midlands consisting of Fermanagh, South Leitrim, West Cavan, Longford and Athlone; the 1st Western consisting of South Galway, and Clare; the 2nd Western consisting of South Mayo, North and Mid Galway and South Roscommon; the 3rd Western consisting of Sligo, East Mayo and North Roscommon; and the 4th Western consisting of North and West Mayo, and Connemara.
In the east, there was the 1st Eastern consisting of Meath, Mullingar, South Louth and Fingal; the 2nd Eastern, consisting solely of Dublin; and the 3rd Eastern, consisting of Carlow and Wexford.
In the south, these was the 1st Southern consisting of the Cork, Kerry, Waterford and West Limerick Brigades; the 2nd Southern consisting of East Limerick, Mid and South Tipperary and Kilkenny; and lastly the 3rd Southern, consisting of Offaly, Laois and North Tipperary.
The divisions, aside from giving the IRA a more professional sheen through its replication of more formal army structures, were also designed to allow for more inter-brigade co-operation and an ability of localised regions to better prolong the war in the event that GHQ was neutralised by the enemy. In the end, the war did not really last long enough for the divisions to play a major role, and they were practically ignored as worthwhile institutions in many areas. Many of them were only set-up properly during the truce period. They would however, play a somewhat more important role in the lead-up to, and early days of, the Irish Civil War.
So, the war was continuing apace in the countryside, but it was also continuing in the capital. In the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, the Dublin-based conflict was ratcheted up to new heights of intensity, and it is there to study that intensity, that we go next.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.