Irish Republican Army volunteers occupying a farmhouse in Clonmult, Co Cork were surrounded by a force of British Army, Royal Irish Constabulary and Auxiliaries. In the action that followed, twelve IRA volunteers were killed, four wounded and four captured. A total of 22 people died in the ambush and subsequent executions – 14 IRA members, 2 Black and Tans and 6 suspected informers.
The 4th battalion of the IRA First Cork Brigade, under Diarmuid O’Hurley and based around Midleton, Youghal and Cobh, had been a successful unit up until the Clonmult ambush. They had captured three RIC barracks and carried out an ambush in Midleton itself. In January 1921, the unit took possession of a disused farmhouse overlooking the village of Clonmult. O’Hurley planned to ambush a military train at Cobh Junction on Tuesday 22 February 1921.
British troops (a party of the 2nd Battalion, Hampshire Regiment under the command of Lieutenant A. R. Koe) surrounded the house. Two IRA volunteers – Michael Desmond and John Joe Joyce – noticed the advancing troops and opened fire. Both were killed, but the shooting had warned those sheltering inside the house, and a siege began. A sortie from the house was attempted in the hope of gaining reinforcements from the local IRA company.
The acting IRA commander, Captain Jack O’Connell, managed to get away but three other volunteers were killed in the attempt. But O’Connell was unable to bring help in time. The Volunteers trapped inside made a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to escape through a narrow opening in the gable. Their hopes were dashed when British reinforcements arrived instead—regular RIC police, Black and Tans and Auxiliaries. The police had also brought petrol, which an Army officer used to set the thatched roof of the farmhouse alight. With the farmhouse burning around them, an attempt was then made by the IRA to surrender.
In its official communique, General Headquarters merely stated that some of the IRA Volunteers ‘came running out of the house, with their hands up, while others continued to fire on the Crown Forces as they went to accept the surrender.’ But in his monthly confidential report, the local county inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary accused the Volunteers of treachery, saying that some ‘had tried to escape by a ruse. Some came from the building while those that remained inside opened fire on the police and military.’
By contrast, the surviving Volunteers claimed that their men had surrendered in good faith, and had come out with their hands up, only to be shot by the police without any provocation. Patrick Higgins, an IRA man who survived the killings, recalled:
We were lined up alongside an outhouse with our hands up. The Tans came along and shot every man with the exception of three…who were saved by the officer in charge of the military party. A Tan put his revolver to my mouth and fired [he was wounded in the jaw]…Only for the military officer coming along, I would be gone.
A total of twelve IRA Volunteers were killed in the action, with four more wounded and only four taken prisoner unscathed. Two of the IRA prisoners (Maurice Moore and Paddy O’Sullivan) were later executed in the Cork military barracks on 28 April. Patrick Higgins was sentenced to death but was reprieved due to the truce that ended the war on 11 July.
The IRA suspected that an informer had led the British to the billet of the column wiped out at Clonmult, and over the following week, six alleged spies were executed by the IRA in the surrounding area. Mick Leahy, a local IRA officer, stated that ‘things went to hell in the battalion’ after Clonmult. Diarmuid O’Hurley, the commander of the battalion, was not at Clonmult but was later killed on 28 May 1921.
Photo: Clonmult Ambush Site Memorial