| 2.2°C Dublin

Crossbarry centenary: A running battle fought to the tune of bagpipes

During the Crossbarry ambush on March 19, 1921, 100 IRA men led by Tom Barry took on more than 1,000 British soldiers

Close

Tom Barry became aware of the danger posed to the entire flying column by the Essex Regiment and decided to fight, despite knowing his men were likely to be outnumbered 10 to one

Tom Barry became aware of the danger posed to the entire flying column by the Essex Regiment and decided to fight, despite knowing his men were likely to be outnumbered 10 to one

Tom Barry became aware of the danger posed to the entire flying column by the Essex Regiment and decided to fight, despite knowing his men were likely to be outnumbered 10 to one

Though ten to one they were that day

Our boys were victors in the fray,

And over the hills we marched away

With bagpipes merrily screaming

These lines from the folk song The Men of Barry’s Column commemorate the incident where the War of Independence came closest to a conventional battle. At Crossbarry in Co Cork on March 19, 1921, about 100 IRA men took on more than 1,000 British soldiers.

It occurred against a backdrop of escalating violence, including the Kilmichael ambush of November 1920 and the burning of Cork city centre.

Through interrogation of IRA men captured at an ambush of a train in Upton, Co Cork, in February 1921, British forces discovered there was a significant gathering of IRA columns in the area under Tom Barry’s leadership. The military organised a sweep from several directions, arriving at a site north of Crossbarry in the early hours of March 19. This was a significant operation involving about 1,200 troops with the intent of seeking out the IRA columns to “bring them to action and annihilate them”, as an IRA volunteer later put it.

A patrol of the Essex Regiment arrived at the home of a Humphrey Forde. Here they found Charles Hurley, an IRA man recuperating from wounds received in the Upton ambush. During a brief fight, Hurley was shot and killed.

Tom Barry subsequently became aware of the danger posed to the entire flying column. He immediately decided to fight, despite knowing his men were likely to be outnumbered 10 to one. The IRA selected an ambush site at the Bandon side of the crossroads at Crossbarry and lay in wait until 8am, when the convoy of eight lorries appeared.

Michael O’Driscoll, second lieutenant of the Coomhoola Company of the 5th Battalion of the 3rd Cork Brigade, described the ambush in his Bureau of Military History witness statement: “Some soldiers started to get out of the lorries. We got orders to open fire and we gave it to them point blank. We had three lorries in easy reach of our rifles, another four were stretched back along the road. The British had jumped from their lorries and any who were not hit ran some way into the open country.”

Daily Digest Newsletter

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan's exclusive take on the day's news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

The Irish Independent of March 21, 1921 reported the events of the morning in detail: “When the Hampshires [reinforcements] arrived they found a regular shambles, dead and dying along about the road on which the burning lorries stood. A running fight followed through the furze and gorse-covered hills for some hours.”

Although efforts to detonate mines failed, and despite their much smaller number, the IRA gained the upper hand in the ensuing gun fight.

All of this took place to the accompaniment of bagpipes. Assistant Brigade Adjutant Florence ‘Flor’ Begley played Irish war songs as he marched up and down a farmyard in the centre of the ambush position.

The bagpipes gave the IRA courage in the fight, O’Driscoll would recall. “Flor often played the pipes for us as we marched across the country at night. The pipes had a great effect on us. We could have tackled the whole British army.”

Tom Barry hoped that the bagpipes would have a “demoralising effect on the Sasanach foes”. Begley was henceforth known as the Piper of Crossbarry and his story is recalled in a song of the same name: “we will speak with pride of Barry’s men who bled for liberty, and the Piper of Crossbarry, boys who piped old Ireland free”.

The battle was witnessed by railway passengers travelling on the Cork, Bandon and South Coast Line who had a “full view of the fight for several miles”. According to the Skibbereen Eagle, this was “a most thrilling experience”.

For civilians, however, the day was one of fear and loss. Those living near the ambush were reported to be in a “state of terror” and incapable of commencing a day’s work after the scenes of the morning. Many reportedly fled, panic-stricken, and returned to find their property damaged. The hours and days after the ambush witnessed “intense military and police activity in the whole district for miles around”. Houses and farm produce were burned.

Close

Aidan O'Hare as Tom Barry with Jack Walsh and Michael Grennell in the stage adaptation of 'Guerilla Days In Ireland' by Tom Barry. Photo by Amanda Ferriter

Aidan O'Hare as Tom Barry with Jack Walsh and Michael Grennell in the stage adaptation of 'Guerilla Days In Ireland' by Tom Barry. Photo by Amanda Ferriter

Aidan O'Hare as Tom Barry with Jack Walsh and Michael Grennell in the stage adaptation of 'Guerilla Days In Ireland' by Tom Barry. Photo by Amanda Ferriter

Three IRA volunteers died at Crossbarry: Peter Monahan, Cornelius Daly and Jeremiah O’Leary. Monahan was killed accidentally by one of the mines laid by the IRA. He had joined the organisation only a few months previously, having deserted from the British army, where he had served with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. O’Leary was an only child and his parents were left in financial hardship after his death. They received pensions under the Army Pensions Act but his mother ended her days in poverty in a county home.

One RIC constable, Arthur Kenward, and eight British soldiers died in the gun fight and the hours that followed. The final casualty, Lieutenant Geoffey Hotblack, died of his wounds three days later. The British army casualties were from the Royal Army Service Corps and the Essex Regiment. They were taken home to England for burial. This included the 24-year-old Stanley William Steward, who had joined the British army in 1915 and served in France in World War I.

‘A soldiers’ burial’ was an important tribute to fallen comrades on both sides. Charles Hurley’s body had been taken to the Bandon workhouse by the British military. Members of Cumann na mBan switched his corpse with that of a recently deceased inmate.

Hurley’s body was then taken to his family grave in Clogagh for burial in the early hours of March 21. Tom Barry delivered the graveside oration. He recalled the burial vividly in his memoir: “the dirge of Flor Begley’s war pipes caoining a lament, the slow march of the Brigade Flying Column, the small group of only six other mourners, the rain-soaked sky and earth and the wintery moon that shone, vanished and shone again as we followed him to his grave”.

Hurley was engaged to Leslie Price, a Cumann na mBan organiser. She later married Barry. Hurley’s family had already lost one son, William, who died in 1918 from typhoid fever while on the run with the IRA.

A daughter, Margaret, was imprisoned during the War of Independence for her republican activity. The family repeatedly applied for support under the Pensions Act. In a letter to the Minister for Defence in 1953, James Hurley described his practical support for his brother’s IRA activities. He added bitterly that he knows “persons who were laughing at us when police were raiding our home and I believe are drawing pensions”.

The Crossbarry ambush revealed the continuing strength of the IRA flying columns and their willingness and ability to keep fighting effectively. Barry believed it represented a “composite victory of one hundred and four officers and men banded together as disciplined comrades”.

Dr Fionnuala Walsh is assistant professor of modern Irish history at the School of History at University College Dublin


Most Watched





Privacy