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Clonmult Ambush

In the Republican Plot of this cemetery lie the remains of Captain James Ahern and Volunteer James Glavin IRA, who were killed in action with ten of their comrades at Clonmult on 20th February 1921. Also buried in the plot are the men’s two local comrades, Volunteers Maurice Moore and Paddy O’Sullivan who were captured on that day and were later executed by firing squad.

The Irish War of Independence, 21st January 1919 – 11th July 1921 was initiated by a small number of young, determined Irish Volunteers, known from August 1919 as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). From necessity, they adopted a guerrilla campaign as a conventional war of large-scale open conflict was not feasible, given their lack of men, training and arms.

In August 1920, the British Army was given powers to intern persons on suspicion without trial. A consequence of the arrests which followed – 4,500 by August 1921 – was that large numbers of volunteers went ‘on the run’. They became in effect professional revolutionaries, differentiated from their part-time colleagues, with no prospect of normal life until British rule was ended. In Munster especially, these organised themselves into flying columns – mobile units of about 100 men, based in remote camps or safe houses – ideally suited to guerrilla warfare.

The Midleton 4th Battalion column included five Cobh volunteers.

Around mid January 1921 the column moved to an isolated thatched house about a mile from Clonmult village.

They were preparing to move to Leamlara on Sunday 20th February 1921 but the day’s events would lead to the slaughter of most of the column that day and go down as the worst military defeat ever suffered by the IRA in its history.

The sentries had withdrawn and were preparing for the move to Leamlara, unaware that a British Convoy from Victoria Barracks was surrounding the house. One sentry was shot dead while the other, though wounded made towards the house to warn the occupants.

The house came under fire from all sides and the thatched roof was set on fire. Five of those inside made a breakout. First out was Jack O’Connell who made it to the safety of a haggard and then escaped. Three others including Capt James Aherne from Cobh were shot dead and one other made it back to the house.

When the fumes from the burning thatch started choking the Volunteers inside, they knew the game was up. Word was passed on and agreement was reached with a British officer that the lives of the remainder of the column would be spared if they surrendered. Capt Paddy Higgins ordered his men to throw their weapons in to the fire before they surrendered. Seventeen year old John Harty was first to venture out of the house. He was one of the lucky ones, and had the good fortune of receiving a blow to the head by a rifle butt as soon as he appeared. It was after Harty went down unconscious that the killing started. The others were lined up against a wall of the haggard with their hands up. The Axillaries quickly leapt into action, moving down the line and shooting every man as they went. Christopher O’Sullivan, David Desmond, Jeremiah Aherne, and his cousin Liam Aherne, Donal Denehy, Joseph Morrissey and young James Glavin from Cobh were shot dead. The arrival of another army officer ended the killing spree and Capt Paddy Higgins was spared. The others who were delayed coming out of the house with the semi conscious Sonny O’Leary were Maurice Moore and Paddy O’Sullivan who were carrying O’Leary and Robert Walsh, Edmund Terry and William Garde.

In all twelve IRA volunteers were dead, eight were wounded and captured and only one had escaped.

On Wednesday 23rd February, the people of Cobh turned out in their thousands to pay their respects to their fallen sons. From Saint Colman’s Cathedral they followed the funeral cortege to the new republican plot at the Old Church Cemetery below Ticknock on the northern outskirts of the town.

The pain and anguish of the families of captured volunteers Maurice Moore and Paddy O’Sullivan was only beginning as each man awaited Court Martial. The Court Martial began on 8th March at Victoria barracks. Maurice Moore, Paddy O’Sullivan and Sonny O’Leary were found guilty. After a number of failed appeal attempts, where public petitions were set up in Cobh, Midleton and Killeagh, the two Cobh men were finally executed on April 28th. O’Leary’s death sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. Later that morning at 11am, a Solemn Requiem Mass was said for the souls of O’Sullivan and Moore at St. Colman’s Cathedral by Rev. D. O’Keefe.

They are also buried in the Republican Plot of the Old Church Cemetery in Cobh.

The information in this article is taken from the book “REPUBLICAN COBH & THE EAST CORK VOLUNTEERS” with kind permission of the author, Kieran McCarthy.

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