On this day 1921: The Rathcoole Ambush

2014-06-16 Monument at the site of the Rathcoole ambushOne of the largest ambushes of the War of Independence took place at Rathcoole, North Cork, situated between Millstreet and Banteer, on 16th. June 1921.

The railway line between Banteer and Millstreet had been cut in several places so the Auxiliary forces based at Millstreet had to travel to Banteer by road for their supplies a couple of times every week. Therefore, a combined force of 130 men were mobilised to attack the Auxiliaries as they returned from Banteer. The volunteers were from the Millstreet, Kanturk, Newmarket, Charleville and Mallow battalion columns in the second division area and were under the command of Paddy O’Brien from Liscarroll.

On the night before the ambush the I.R.A. volunteers slept at Rathcoole Wood, which overlooked the planned ambush position. Shortly after sunrise the following morning, Captain Dan Vaughan laid six landmines on the untarred road and covered them with dust. After a wait of several hours a convoy of four armour-plated lorries, each mounted with a machine gun and carrying ten men, was observed heading for Banteer. The volunteers prepared and at 6.20 in the evening, as the lorries passed through the ambush area on their return journey, three of the landmines which had been placed on the road exploded with devastating results. One mine detonated as the last of the four lorries drove over it, another exploded under the leading lorry in the convoy. Both vehicles were out of action with the two other lorries were trapped between them. A third mine exploded amid a party of Auxiliaries as they attempted to outflank the position. A bitter firefight developed. Each time Auxiliaries tried to outflank the I.R.A. they were driven back, suffering losses of more than twenty dead and over a dozen wounded.

When it became clear that the I.R.A. could not achieve a complete victory because of their limited ammunition supply, the order for withdrawal was given and the whole force retired without a single casualty. Although no arms were captured during the action, a reconnaissance party from the column, which returned next day to search the ambush position, recovered 1,350 rounds of ammunition which the Auxiliaries had left behind them as they removed their dead and wounded.

The ambush at Rathcoole was one of the Irish Republican Army’s most successful actions during the War of Independence. A week after the ambush British Forces from Kanturk, Buttevant, Ballyvonaire, Macroom, Ballincollig, Killarney and Tralee carried out a widespread search throughout the Rathcoole area. Michael Dineen, a Volunteer in Kilcorney Company was taken from his brother’s house at Ivale by a party of Auxiliaries and shot dead. On the evening of July 1st. the Auxiliaries set fire to and destroyed the wood at Rathcoole, from where the ambush had been launched. The same day that they shot and killed local man Bernard Moynihan as he was out cutting hay.

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Excerpts from Witness Statements covering Rathcoole Ambush

WS 787 Cornelius Meaney Rathcoole Ambush – June 16th 1921
This was a Brigade operation but being the 1st Battalion Area a large number of men from this Battalion took part both in the actual fight, which extended over a mile of the road, and also, in the erection of barricades of types varying from felled trees to upturned farm carts and implements which were bound together with wire. Each section on barricade work was close to its position and under cover from dawn on that morning until about 6 p.m. that afternoon, when the fight was started. As there was very intense enemy activity in the area at this period the men on the barricades were in as much personal danger as those in the actual ambush. The Battalion Column, consisting of 56 men from ‘B’, ‘C, ‘D’, ‘E’, ‘F’ ‘G’ ‘H’, ‘I’ and ‘J’ Companies took part in the actual ambush. ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’, ‘G’, ‘H’, ‘I’, and ‘J’ Companies supplied 76 men for the barricades.
At the site of the Rathcoole ambush the road runs almost directly East-West. All I.R.A Units to take part in the actual ambush on enemy forces were mobilised before dawn in a wood overlooking the road from the South. This wood’s Northern end was less than 400 yards from the proposed ambush position. Five or six 5 to 7lb. Land mines were laid at different points during darkness on the road over which the Auxiliary R.I.C. used to proceed to Banteer Railway Station once or twice daily for supplies. The G.S.R. West of Banteer Station had previously been rendered impassable by the destruction by fire of the rail bridge over the river Finnow, which is about 11/2 miles East of Millstreet Station. This demolition was carried by I.R.A. forces some weeks prior to June 16th. The Auxiliary convoy passed to and from Banteer twice on that day, but it was only after it went on the second journey to Banter that the I.R.A. forces took up their positions for the actual attack.
The attackers were divided into seven or eight sections, plus a number of small groups in position selected to prevent outflanking of the section. The enemy convoy consisted of four Crossley tenders. On the return from Banteer late in the evening, all four travelling from 200 yards to 400 yards apart entered the ambush position. Just as the rear tender entered the position a land mine was exploded under it and the section covering this position were about to rush it when Lewis Gun fire was opened on them by the crew of No. 3 tender which was about 300 yards ahead of the rear tender. When the fight started all the Auxiliaries leaped from their tenders and under cover of the road fence opened rifle and rifle grenade fire on the I.R.A. positions. The I.R.A. forces opened shot-gun and rifle fire from their positions behind fences which were from 50 to 70 yards South of the road and about 300 yards from the wood where they had been under cover all that day.
Some of the occupants of No. 3 tender, about five in number, started to proceed in a Westerly direction along the road until they came in front of an I.R.A. section about a quarter of a mile West of the position of the mine damaged tender when a mine was exploded between three of their number, putting them out of action; the other two kept replying to the I.R.A. fire until both were eventually silenced. Further West a ding-dong exchange of fire went on. Due to some confusion on the Western flank of the I.R.A. forces and the fact that there were hardly any bends on the road capable of being enfiladed by the I.R.A., the I.R.A. forces retired after about half an hour’s fight. The LR.A. had not any casualties but the Auxiliaries had their complete transport put out of action as well as an undefined number of killed and wounded. During the fight an enemy plane was seen flying in an Easterly direction and appeared to be not more that a mile distant from the scene of the fighting, but apparently the occupants were unaware that anything like a fight was on.

Ws 1185 William Reardon about mid-June when the Column was again mobilised for Rathcoole ambush. The Columns from Mallow, Charleville, Newmarket and Kanturk were also engaged in this fight. The combined forces were in charge of Paddy O’Brien (Brigade Vice O/C). The combined Columns numbered about 120. About 80 were armed with rifles while the remainder had shotguns. The Columns assembled at Rathcoole Wood – about 21/2 miles east of Millstreet – during the night of June 15th 1921. The combined force, which was divided into several sections, took up positions on rising ground to the south of the Millstreet-Banteer road on the morning of June 16th 1921. They were extended over a distance of about 1,000 yards, along which six mines had been laid at intervals along the road. I was a member of a flanking party of six at the western end of the position. We were about 1/2 mile from the centre of the position. We were about 200 yards from the road behind a sod fence and were all armed with rifles. The members of the section were:- Jimmie Hickey, “Neilus” Healy, “Miah” Galvin, Wm. Kelliher, Tom Crowley and Wm. O’Riordan (witness). As the enemy party, travelling from the east, did not reach our position, I am unable to give any description of what happened along the line. When firing ceased we withdrew to a prearranged spot at the rear of Rathcoole Wood, where we received instructions to return to our billets.

WS 1218 James Hickey – the column were mobilised for Rathcoole ambush on the night of June 15th 1921. The whole force was divided into sections. There were from six to eight men in each section. The sections were extended over a distance of about 1,200 yards, along which six mines had been laid at intervals. I think that all sections were on the southern side of the Millstreet-Banteer road. With five other members of the Millstreet Column, I was a member of a flanking party beyond the western end of the ambush position proper. We were behind a sod fence about 200 yards from the road and about 1/2 mile from the centre of the main ambush position. We were all armed with rifles. About 10 a.m. an enemy convoy of four lorries passed through our position from the west (Millstreet) towards Banteer. As it was known that the convoy usually made two trips each day they were allowed to pass through and they returned some time after midday. About 3 p.m. the convoy passed through on the second journey to Banteer. All this time we had been under cover in Rathcoole Wood, which is on the road between Drishanebeg and Rathcoole. When the lorries had passed through to Banteer, all sections moved into their prearranged positions and awaited the return of the convoy. It was now shortly after 3 p.m. and within an hour we heard an explosion and an outburst of machine-gun and rifle fire. We knew then that the scrap was on and we prepared to attack any enemy forces that might get through to our position. However, although the fight went on for about an hour we did not see any sign of the British. When firing ceased we withdrew to the rear of Rathcoole Wood, where we received instructions from Paddy O’Brien to return to our billets. The members of the flanking party with me were:- Wm. O’Riordan, “Neilus” Healy, “Miah” Galvin, Wm. Kelliher, Tom Crowley. We were all armed with rifles.

WS 1405 Cornelius Barratt the night of 15t h June 1921, when the columns from Mallow, Kanturk, Newmarket, Charleville and Millstreet assembled at Rathcoole Wood. The combined columns together with members of local companies acting as scouts numbered about 150. Paddy O’Brien (Brigade Vice O/C.) was in charge. The Millstreet column [Jimmie Hickey, Wm. O’Riordan, ‘Neilus’ Healy, Wm. Kelleher, Tom Crowley, Jerh. Crowley (column leader), Neil Barrett (witness), ‘Neilus’ Cronin, Bernard Sullivan, Con J. Meaney, ‘Miah’ Galvin, Sean Reid, Jack O’Keeffe, Dan Coakley, John Carey and, I think, two others] were armed with rifles. The majority of the members of the other columns had rifles. The others present had shotguns. There was also a machine gun in charge of Leo O’Callaghan (Mallow Battalion). When the whole party had assembled at Rathcoole Wood in the early morning of 16th June 1921, we learned that it was proposed to attack an enemy convoy of 3 to 5 lorries of Auxiliaries who usually travelled between Millstreet and Banteer. The position selected for the ambush was on high ground on the south side overlooking the road, and the whole I.R.A. force was divided into eight (I think) sections to be placed in selected positions extending over a distance of about 1500 yards. Six mines were laid in the road. They were spaced at the estimated distance between lorries travelling in convoy. When the mines had been laid everybody except a few scouts moved into the cover of the wood. It was now 8 a.m. The enemy convoy moved through the ambush position from Millstreet about 10 a.m. and returned about 12.30 p.m. It passed through on a second journey about 3 p.m. When it had passed, all sections left the cover of the wood and took up their selected positions. I was with ‘Neilus’ Cronin (Kilcorney) and Ben Sullivan (Rathduane) in position behind a fence about 200 yards from the road and nearly in the centre of the ambush position. We were armed with rifles and were responsible for covering off a small boreen which led from the road into our position, so that none of the enemy could get from the road. About 4 p.m. the approach of the convoy was signalled from the east and within a minute or two the first of the lorries entered the ambush site. The third lorry was just opposite our position when the mine at the eastern end exploded under the last lorry (4t h). All sections immediately opened fire. The Auxiliaries immediately tumbled from the lorries and took cover behind the roadside fences while we continued to fire at any available target. The enemy returned our fire. The lorries (1st , 2nd , and 3rd ) had stopped between mines so that the mine at the eastern end was the only one to be exploded to any effect. Fighting went on for about two hours and eventually the signal to withdraw was given. We then withdrew from our position to the rear of Rathcoole Wood where we met all the other sections. The I.R.A. party had no casualties. Enemy losses were not made known.

WS 1319 – Matthew Kelliher

There was no unusual activity now until the night of June 15t h 1921, when the Millstreet Battalion Column and the columns from Mallow, Kanturk, Newmarket and Charleville Battalions were mobilised at Rathcoole Wood for an ambush of the Auxiliaries stationed at Millstreet next day. At this time, it had been established from Intelligence reports that a convoy of Auxiliaries travelled from Millstreet to Banteer on a couple of occasions each Friday. The convoy usually consisted of 3 to 5 lorries. When the combined columns were assembled in Rathcoole Wood on June 16th 1921, there were about 150 men on parade. About 100 were armed with rifles and the reminder with shotguns. There was, in addition, one machine-gun manned by Leo O’Callaghan (Mallow Battalion) and crew. Paddy O’Brien (Bde. O/C.) was in charge of the whole party, which was divided into sections of varying strengths. There were also flanking parties and scouts. Mines (six, I think) were laid in the road in the early morning. They were spaced at the estimated distance between lorries travelling in convoy and extended over 1,500 yards. When the mines had been laid and all positions selected, the whole party retired into Rathcoole Wood. It was then about 8 a.m. About 10 a.m. four lorries passed through on their way to Banteer. These lorries returned and were allowed through to Millstreet sometime about noon. During this period the column, except for scouts, were under cover in Rathcoole Wood. It was about 3 p.m. when the enemy convoy of four lorries passed through to Banteer on the second trip. The various sections then left the wood and moved to their selected positions. I was detailed to scout the sections to the eastern side of the ambush position to their posts. Having done so, I returned to the position occupied by the O/C. (Paddy O’Brien). He instructed me to go and see about a barricade which was to be erected on a by-road beyond the eastern end of the position. This road led to Kilcorney area and would enable the enemy to take the I.R.A. party in the rear if left open. When I reached the spot selected for the erection of the barricade I found nobody there. I immediately set about making a barricade with three carts which I took from a farmyard close at hand. When I had blocked the roadway with the carts, I chained them together to make sure that they could not be moved too easily. I then returned to report to Paddy O’Brien but he had left his base for another position. Before I could trace him the enemy convoy had re-entered the ambush position on its way back from Banteer and the fight was on. While still searching for the O/C. I came across the section in charge of Jerh. Crowley (Bn. Adjt. Millstreet and Column Leader), who handed me his own rifle. He was not well that day but he remained with the section. I remained with this section until the order to withdraw was given when the fight had been going on for about two hours. Before I reached Jerh. Crowley’s section, which was covering the second last mine at the western end of the position, this mine had been exploded. There were five or six in this section but the only one I can remember is Tom Lucey. Our section, as well as all sections south of the road, kept a regular fire on the enemy, but the failure to get the enemy lorries into positions from which the mines would be effectively exploded left the enemy with too strong a force – armed with automatic weapons – for us to handle. When the signal to withdraw was given, all sections retired to the rear of Rathcoole Wood and then withdrew to their home areas. There were no I.R.A. casualties and there is no record of enemy losses, although rumours circulating at the time put their losses between dead and wounded at from 20 to 30.

WS 1406 Dan Coakley – column was again mobilised for Rathcoole ambush. The column assembled at Rathcoole, about two and a half miles east of Millstreet, on the Banteer road, after midnight on June 5th 1921. The numbers of the column were:- Jimmie Hickey,Jack O’Keeffe, Dan Coakley, (witness), Wm. O’Riordan, Mick O’Riordan, Neilus Healy, Jerh. Crowley, Miah Galvin, John Reid, Jerome Buckley, Tom Crowley, Con J. Meaney, O/C There were or two others. During the course of the night, we were joined by the members of the Mallow, Newmarket, Charleville and Kanturk battalion columns. The combined columns, to the number of about one hundred and twenty, were in charge of Paddy O’Brien (Brigade Vice O/C). About eighty members of the column were armed with rifles. The remainder carried shotguns. The combined force was divided into, I think, six sections – one to cover each of six mines which had been laid in the road, early in the morning of June 16t h 1921. The whole party extended over a distance of about one thousand, two hundred yards, and there were, in addition, flanking parties and scouts both to the east and west. All these sections were in position on rising ground to the north of the road, and within about two hundred yards of same. I was one member of a party of six or seven who were detailed to take up a position at the opposite side of the road (north) and about the centre of the ambush position. We were armed with rifles and were behind a sod fence, about three hundred yards from the road. Our party were to attack any of the enemy who might take cover behind the north side of the roadside fence when the fight began. We were extended over a distance of about four hundred yards. Some members of the party were: Jack O’Keeffe, Jack Carey, Eugene Sullivan, Dan Coakley (witness), Jack Kelleher and one other whose name I cannot recollect About 10 a. m. a convoy of four lorries of auxiliaries passed through our ambush position. They were travelling from Millstreet to Banteer. As it was known that they passed that way twice each day, they were not attacked on the outward or inward journey in the forenoon. I should have mentioned that all I.RA. forces were, at this time, under cover in Rathcoole Wood and not in the selected ambush positions. When the convoy had again passed through on its way to Banteer, about 2.30 p. m., all sections moved into the pre-arranged positions. We all awaited the return of the convoy, and about 4 p. m. we – in our position at the northern side of the road – heard the lorries approach. Within a few seconds, there was an explosion and, at the same time, an outburst of rifle and shotgun fire. From our position, we could not se what was happening, and we concentrated on our job of ensuring the enemy could not take cover behind the roadside fence, at our side of the road. None of the enemy forces did succeed in getting cover at our side. Fighting went on for about an hour when the signal to withdraw was given. Our party then moved east and crossed to the south side of the road where we joined the remainder of the ambush party at the rear of Rathcoole wood. We were instructed to withdraw to our billets.

WS 1375 Matthew Murphy On the evening of 15t h June, 1921, the Company O/C. (Dan T. O’Riordan) received instructions to send a number of men to report at Drishanebeg. The following were mobilised at short notice:- Tim Ring, Bill Tarrant, Dan Moynihan, John O’Riordan, Dan Lehane, Dan T. O’Riordan, Matt Murphy (witness). There may have been one or two more but I cannot recollect their names. We walked to Drishanebeg where we met scouts that led us to Laught at the rear of Rathcoole Wood. It was now about 3 a.m. There was a big number of men present as the Columns from Charleville, Kanturk, Mallow, Millstreet and Newmarket Battalions as well as several men from local Companies, were also assembled there. There were about 150 in the whole party. The site selected for ambush was about 21/2 miles east of Millstreet on the Banteer road. A number of mines were laid in the road in the early morning. They were spaced at the estimated distance between lorries travelling in convoy. When this work had been completed the whole force, except for a few scouts, retired to the cover of Rathcoole Wood. We remained in the wood throughout the day until we were ordered to our respective sections about 3 p.m. The members of the Cullen party were all armed with shotguns except Dan T. O’Riordan who had a rifle. In addition I carried a revolver. I should have mentioned that Paddy O’Brien (Brigade Vice O/C.) was in charge of the operation. There were about 80 riflemen. The whole force was divided into a number of sections to cover the mines laid in the road. There were also flanking parties and scouts. With the exception of two sections which were north of the road, all others were in position on high ground overlooking the road on the south side. Riflemen and shotgun-men were interspersed in all sections. There were eight to ten men in each section. I was a member of one of the sections north of the road. The O/C. was Denny MuIIane and the only other member I knew was Ned Cronin, Charleville. We were in position on the Millstreet-Mallow railway line about 200 yards from the road. Denny Mullane was responsible for exploding one of the mines. He was in position behind a turn in the fence about midway between our position and the roadway. About 3 p.m. we were all moved to the preselected positions outlined in previous paragraph. At this time the enemy convoy of four lorries of Auxiliaries, which we were to attack, had made a return journey to Banteer while we were in the wood and had now passed through our position for the third time on the way to Banteer. Some short time after all sections had taken up positions scouts reported the approach of the convoy from Banteer on its return journey. The lorries were allowed to drive into the ambush position until the last lorry in the convoy reached the mine at the at be the eastern end. The explosion of this mine was to the signal for opening the attack and if all went according to plan the other lorries should each be over one of the other mines laid in the road. When the mine at the eastern end was exploded it blew up the last lorry. The other lorries halted immediately but were not in contact with the mined positions. As a result Denny Mullane, who was in charge of the mine opposite our position, did not explode the mine, so we did not take part in the attack. Fighting went on for about an hour and eventually the signal to withdraw was given. The two sections north of the road withdrew across the Blackwater through Rathroe, Lyreavocane and Cullen to Doonasleen where we billeted. Amongst those who billeted with us that night were:- John Jones, Dan Vaughan, Jim Riordan, Denny Mullane, Ned Cronin. All were members of Newmarket Battalion Column. Next morning they resumed their journey to their home area and I returned to Cullen. The I.R.A. had no casualties while enemy casualties were reported to be heavy

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The compensation lists and inquest statements enables one to say that the following Auxiliaries were involved in the ambush. There were a total of 29 on the 4 lorries. The convoy was under the command of DI1 WE Cossey, who was the Company Commander. The men appear to be a complete Platoon, that of DI3 FG Ferris . There were 4 T/Constables. whom I assume were the drivers of the 4 lorries. Scott was the Intelligence Officer of the Company, and there were the 3 Section Leaders in the Platoon. In addion to these men there were 19 T/Cadets [ref]

  • W A H Boyd, killed. His parents awarded £2500 compensation. Tender 2
  • F E Shorter, killed. His parents awarded £2000 compensation. Tender 2
  • B E St.C Ninnes, badly injured. Awarded £2000 compensation. Plus £14 for property lost
  • W E CrosseyDI1. commander of the convoy, wounded. £350 compensation. Plus £38 for property lost
  • H W T George – T/Constable. Wounded. £500 compensation.
  • H Pyrah -T/Constable . Wounded. £500 compensation.
  • W Brierley – T/Constable. Wounded. £400 compensation.
  • E P Herdman , wounded. £350 compensation.
  • F Scott DI.3 wounded. £375 compensation.
  • G C TaylorSection Leader, Wounded. £335 compensation.
  • W Kay wounded. £300 compensation.
  • R W V Midlane , wounded. £150 compensation.
  • J Evans wounded. £150 compensation. Tender 2
  • AH Strange – £62 for property lost in ambush
  • ES Read – £60 compensation
  • CE Whurr Section Leader – £50 compensation
  • GP Phelps – Section Leader – £30 compensation. Plus £17 for property loss.
  • S Boyce – £45 compensation
  • CAR Tupper – £45 compensation
  • F G Ferris 3DI – £40 compensation
  • CW Spyer – T/Constable -£40 compensation
  • LJ Rawles – £32 for property lost in ambush
  • AJ Goring – £35 compensation
  • E Hancock – £30 compensation
  • C C Cooke – £25 compensation
  • G P Pattinson – Tender 2 – £20 compensation
  • A Richardson – £20 compensation
  • LG Rutter – £20 compensation
  • JS Eason – £14 for property lost in ambush.

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Further reading:

 

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5 thoughts on “On this day 1921: The Rathcoole Ambush”

  1. Where exactly on the road did the ambush take place? I have tried to use google maps, but I cannot seem to find the exact location. Can anyone help? Thanks

  2. I have been doing research on the ambush, and I’m wondering how I could obtain a map of the area as it was in 1921. I’m wondering about the fields, buildings and terrain. Could you give me some guidance on who to contain regarding a survey map from the 1920s?

    1. There is no survey map from the 1920 that I am aware of. The best map available would be the Ordinance Survey Map from about 1900. Click the link below to see the map online. The memorial is 30m south-south-east of the level crossing where “360” is written:

      http://bit.ly/2UWrxUi

      The fields and buildings there have change little in the last 100 years.

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