Victory For I.R.A. at Coolnacahera Ambush

(Irish War of Independence - First Cork Brigade)

Coolnacahera (also known as Coolavokig) situated on the road between Macroom and Ballyvourney was the scene, on a cold February day in 1921, of a fierce four-hour engagement between units of the First Cork Brigade, led by Sean O'Hegarty, O/C and eight lorry-loads of Auxiliaries from the Macroom garrison.

The position was ideal as the site for an ambush. North of the road, the stony hillocks and high masses of boulders provided secure positions for the attackers. High outcrops of rock commanded wide fields of fire over a few hundred yards of barren ground, broken only by a very low loose-stone fence at the roadside. To the north, south and to the west rugged countryside provided safe routes of withdrawal. As the location of a well-prepared ambush, Coolnacahera held all the elements of a death-trap for an unsuspecting convoy-provided that the convoy was not too large or its vehicles too widely spaced to be contained within the three or four hundred yards of roadway dominated by the surrounding rocks. If the position had any disadvantage, it lay in the existence of two cottages that stood beside the road at the eastern end of the ambush site and at the edge of a small grove of trees. The danger of crossfire with the positions north of the road also counted against occupation of one of the cottages.

The Macroom based Auxiliaries were in the habit of making frequent journeys over the road to Ballyvourney. Piecing together the reports from his intelligence agents in the town and from observers on the route, in addition to the observations made by himself and by his staff, the brigade O/C noted that the enemy never left Macroom before 9 a.m. Ballyvourney lay nine miles west of Macroom. The enemy would normally reach Ballyvourney a little before 9.30. The order of battle provided for the occupation of the ambush position at daybreak. A dawn occupation also ensured as much secrecy of movement as was possible in a rural area. The Brigade Staff had also to provide against the eventuality of a long wait extending over a number of days. This would mean the withdrawal of the Column each night and the making of the long return march to the billets, again under cover of darkness, and, outwards again in the early morning for the pre-dawn trek across country to the re-occupation of the position at Coolnacahera before daylight. The very monotony of the prospect of days and nights of waiting was at best irritating, and it could have an unnerving effect on men accustomed to an unusually active life.

Sean O'Hegarty and the brigade and battalion officers hoped to capture a large quantity of much needed arms and ammunition at Coolnacahera. The column comprised sixty riflemen drawn from the second, seventh and eighth battalions. It had also two Lewis light automatics and approximately sixty men armed with shotguns. It could well be that the achievement of complete victory at Coolnacahera would add fifty or more rifles and, perhaps, a Lewis gun or two to the column equipment. The placement of the various sections was decided on, and the hour for the occupation of the ambush position was fixed at dawn on February 18.

The main body of the fighting force went into carefully planned positions off the high rocky ground north of the road. At the Macroom end of the position one of the Lewis guns commanded a field of fire to the east and also to the west on the road below. At the western end the second Lewis gun, mounted in a declivity high in the rock wall, dominated the road towards the east for a distance of a few hundred yards. This Lewis gun was protected by a section of riflemen which was in a position to cover the road to the east and to the west. Further west, another section of riflemen protected the flanks. Here a cart, which was out of view of the road, was ready to be pulled across it, at a moment's notice, to form a temporary road-block which would prevent enemy vehicles from driving out of the ambush position. At the eastern or Macroom end a Section of riflemen was in position around the first Lewis gun. This section also covered a road block on a minor road which ran at the northern rear of the position. The minor road connected, farther to the east, with the main road, and the road-block with its covering sharpshooters was designed to prevent the enemy's use of the minor road from which the column could be taken in the rear. Men armed with shotguns were disposed in support of the rifle-men and also occupied posts as flankers. To the south, sections of the Macroom battalion, under Commandant Dan Corkery, occupied two big rocky outcrops which commanded a long stretch of the central position of the ambush. Corkery's sections were also well placed to prevent the deployment of an enemy force to the south. The Macroom men were positioned so as to pin an enemy force to the more or less open road where it would be exposed to the heavy fire of Lewis guns and rifles from the high rocky ground to the west, north and east. Away to the south, on top of Rahoonagh Hill, an observation post was manned by flag-signallers. The signallers had a view of the road to the east, towards Macroom, for about four miles. To the west, they could see for most of the two miles to Ballyvourney.

The men of the column lay among the rocks. Rural and city men, they lay quietly at their posts. Jamie Moynihan from Coolea, beyond Ballyvourney, was at the western end. Up on the rock, Hugh O'Sullivan lay behind his Lewis gun and looked down the road. He could see where the road turned slightly towards the south at Twomey's and Cronin's cottages and then dipped into the little grove of trees. The men around Hugh O'Sullivan could see the Macroom riflemen and shotgun men on the rocks to the south. The Brigade O/C, Sean O'Hegarty, was at his Command Post above the road and to the north of it. Between him and the western Lewis gun was Dan Sandow" Donovan from Cork city. Jack Culhane was there not far from "Sandow" with Jim Grey, Sean Murray, Patsy Lynch, Corny O'Sullivan, and Paddy O'Sullivan. Michael O'Sullivan was up with First Section near the western Lewis gun. Across the road, Ned Neville of Macroom was in charge of the eastern flank. Dan Corkery commanded from the big rock in the centre. The sun was up and shining brightly. Nine o'clock came and nothing happened. The Auxies would not be long now if they were coming out that day. They would be travelling at the usual speed over the seven miles from Macroom. The waiting was a weary business. The enemy was late or he was not coming.

It was the same on the 19th and during the mornings and days that followed. On the night of the 24th the Column marched away from the ambush position. Next morning they were back again. Shortly after eight o'clock a startled warning roused the men of the sections north of the road to the awareness of an approaching enemy. On the eastern flank the men of Ned Neville's section saw the first vehicle passing the cross down the road. All positions were now alerted. The men at No. 1 section, near the eastern Lewis gun, saw a lorry move up from the cross. Then, on they came. There was a touring car in the lead. A lorry followed closely behind; one, two, three, four, five, six and more lorries. The Auxiliaries in the lorries were standing up and carefully watching the positions to the right and in front and above the road. The Auxiliaries were grasping their rifles and were ready to jump. They had come out earlier than usual. They were ready, even jittery. And they had come in force. Without a doubt, they knew that the Column waited.

Slowly the enemy vehicles moved forward. Slowly and warily they crawled on while their occupants scanned the roadside. Another hundred yards would bring them well into the ambush position. No shot came from the waiting column men. They wanted the enemy in the trap. But some of those in the lorries began to dismount.  No.1 section then opened fire. The Lewis gun stuttered with deadly effect from the west. Civilian hostages were ordered out of the lorries by the Auxies and forced to advance up the road. I.R.A. marksmen picked off the Auxiliaries. The Lewis gun at the eastern end of the ambush opened up once more and then jammed. It was not heard again. The occupants of five lorries were now engaged in the fight. East of the crossroads more lorries were halted. Auxiliaries jumped from them and occupied positions by the roadside, but they did not advance and they were not in the fight. On the road west of Twomey's and Cronin's cottages Auxiliaries and hostages dived for cover by the roadside. The riflemen of the column kept picking off Auxiliaries. Quite a number of them were either dead or dying. Many were wounded. The enemy fought back. Lead spattered off the rocks on which the Column men lay. The western Lewis gun, manned by Hugh O'Sullivan, was taking a deadly toll, but the other I.R.A. Lewis gun was a dead loss. Auxiliaries crawled along the roadside and fired up at the rocks. Some of them tried to take cover from the stone fence south of the road, but the fire of the Macroom men out on the outcrops drove them back on to the roadway. East of the crossroads, and well out of the fighting zone, one of the lorries succeeded in turning and it was driven back to Macroom. Heavy British re-inforcements could be expected.

Major Seafield Grant of the Auxiliary Division stood on the road trying to mark down the I.R.A. positions so that he might direct the fire of his men and order any flanking movement that might be possible. Presenting a proud if foolhardy example, he ignored the flying lead and the death that was taking place around him. An I.R.A. sniper marked him down and shot him dead. Leaving their fallen chief, the other Auxiliaries sought refuge in the cottage plots that sloped from the road towards the south. The men of the Macroom Sections out on the outcrops of rock drove the Auxiliaries from the cottage plots. They drove them up and into the two cottages. Earlier, two of the enemy had tried to climb up to the position occupied by No. 1  section. They were shot down. Out on the south-eastern flank a number of the enemy tried to outflank the Macroom flankers. Ned Neville, and his men wiped out the most daring of the out flankers and the others withdrew.

The survivors of the long fight on the road now retreated into the two cottages, taking with them a number of hostages. The I.R.A. Sections from the south and those who moved down from the west prevented the enemy from the east from coming to the aid of the Auxiliaries in the cottages where they were besieged by the remaining Sections. No. 1 section opened a heavy fire on the front door and windows of the western cottage. The Ballingeary, Coolea, and Kilnamartyra men were now deployed from the western end of the ambush position and an attempt was made to completely encircle all enemy forces in the immediate area of the ambush. What Auxiliaries could manage to do so, had taken refuge in the two cottages. The fences commanding the eastern cottage were still under the fire of the enemy to the east of the ambush, but those inside both cottages began to burst loop-holes through the walls. This was a fatal move in the situation in which they then found themselves. The loop-holes provided ready-made targets for the I.R.A. riflemen, and several of the Auxiliaries in the cottages died from the heavy fire poured in through their own loop-holes. The Ballingeary, Ballyvourney and Coolea men, with the Macroom sections, now moved up to the south of the cottages and a withering fire, from the Lewis gun and rifles, was directed on the rear window. At the front of the cottage, Auxiliaries who made dashes to gain the doorway were shot down in their tracks.

The fight was now raging fiercely. The I.R.A. fire on the cottages grew more intense as that of the trapped men inside became weaker. It was clear that the end was not far away. The attacking sections moved in for the kill or the surrender-it had to be one or the other. The fire of the defenders was dying out. Victory was at hand for the column which had waited so long and so patiently. Suddenly there was a shout of warning. A long line of lorries was approaching from Macroom. Some observers counted almost forty vehicles. Reinforcements were arriving in great strength.

It was now twelve noon. The fight had commenced shortly after eight o'clock. The signal to withdraw was given and the sections had no option but to pull out just as complete victory was within their grasp. The order was to withdraw to the north-west and it was executed by all but No. 4 Section which lay south of the road. Unaware of the fact that the other sub-units of the Column were withdrawing, the men of No. 4 Section continued to man their posts. The newly arrived enemy had rapidly deployed and now these fresh troops attempted to outflank and encircle the column. No. 4 Section fought back stubbornly although somewhat mystified by the lull in the firing from the north and by the renewed resistance from the Auxiliaries in the cottages. They next heard firing to the north-west where the withdrawing sections were now fighting a brief rear-guard action as hundreds of reinforcing troops from Ballincollig and Cork tried to move up on them and encircle them. Fighting skilfully, the section pulled out of its position and later succeeded in reaching the assembly point at Coomachloy far to the north-west.

At Coomachloy members of the column who had withdrawn from the ambush were about to sit down to a meal in a farmhouse at which they believed they were safe from any encircling British troops when two lorries, containing troops from Killarney, approached along the mountain road. The I.R.A. men grabbed their arms and, taking up a defensive position on the mountainside, they fought a sharp engagement with the troops who, it transpired, had lost their way and had simply stumbled on the men of the column about to face their first taste of food since breakfast very early that morning. With the arrival of No. 4 section the British withdrew after suffering two casualties.

The reinforcements which arrived at Coolnacahera, barely in time to prevent the surrender or death of the Auxiliary survivors of the ambush, were but part of the force employed in a huge round-up ordered for that day. Troops were drawn from Ballincollig, Cork city, Killarney, Bandon, and other posts. Clearly, the British had been forewarned about the presence of the waiting column at Coolnacahera, and their plan included the sending of the heavy Auxiliary force from Macroom at the early hour of eight o'clock, when it was scarcely daylight, together with the employment of hundreds of troops in a huge encircling movement all over the Muskerry area. The mission of the Auxiliaries, apparently, was to pin down the first brigade column until the encircling forces moved in to ensure that it was well and truly trapped. Whatever may have been the reasons for the British failure to press home the advantages of superior numbers and arms, the fact remains that the I.R.A. column did not suffer a single casualty whilst the Auxiliaries at Coolnacahera lost two commissioned officers, Major Grant and Lieutenant Sodie, and fourteen other ranks. In addition to the sixteen who died, a further eighteen were wounded.