Capture of Mallow Barracks Provokes Reprisals
Townspeople gather in front of one of the many buildings in Mallow which were reduced to ruins during British Army reprisals.
September 28, 1920 was the date of the attack of Mallow Barracks, the only military barracks to be captured during the Irish War of Independence.
Mallow had been a garrison town for several hundred years. Eight miles to the north lay Buttevant where one of the largest military barracks in the country was located. Not far from Buttevant were the great military training camps of Ballyvonaire, while nineteen miles to the north-east was Fermoy with its large permanent military garrisons and huge barracks adjacent to the big training centres of Kilworth and Moorepark. Twenty miles to the south-east was the city of Cork with its many thousands of troops both in the posts within the city and at Ballincollig, about six miles west of it, on the Macroom road. Thirteen miles westward a detachment from a British machine gun corps held Kanturk. And every town and village had its post of RIC men armed to the teeth.
The idea of capturing the barracks came from two members of the Mallow I.R.A. Battalion, Dick Willis, a painter, and Jack Bolster, a carpenter, who were then employed on the civilian maintenance staff of the barracks which was occupied at the time by the 17th Lancers. Willis and Bolster were able to observe the daily routine of the garrison and formed the opinion that the capture of the place would not be difficult. They were instructed by their local battalion officers to make a sketch map of the barracks. After that was prepared Liam Lynch and Ernie O'Malley went with Dick Willis and Tadhg Byrnes to Mallow to study the lay-out of the surrounding district. Among the details of the garrison's routine that Willis and Bolster reported to the Column leaders, was the information that each morning the officer in charge, accompanied by two-thirds of the men, took the horses for exercise outside the town. It was obvious to the two Mallow volunteers that this would be the ideal time for the attack.
Situated at the end of a short, narrow street and on the western verge of the Town Park, Mallow barracks stood on an unusually low-lying location and was relatively small in size. Surrounded by a high stone wall, the place could be approached from the town park as well as from the main street. The various details were carefully studied by Lynch and O'Malley. While Dick Willis and Jack Bolster were allotted tasks within the walls of the barracks, Tadhg Byrnes and Jack Cunningham were chosen to attack with the main body of the column which included Commandant Denny Murphy of Kanturk.
On the morning of September 27, at their Burnfort headquarters, the men were ordered to prepare for action. Under cover of darkness they moved into the town and entered the Town Hall by way of the park at the rear. The eighteen men of the column were strengthened by members of the Mallow battalion, A number of men were posted in the upper storey of the Town Hall, from which they could command the approaches to the nearby R.I.C. barracks. in the event of the RIC going to the assistance of the military. Initially it was planned that Willis and Bolster would enter the military barracks that morning in the normal way, accompanied an officer of the column who would pose as a contractor's overseer. The officer was Paddy McCarthy of Newmarket who, a few months later would die in a gun battle with the Black and Tans at Millstreet.
McCarthy, Willis and Bolster entered the barracks without mishap. Members of the garrison followed their normal routine, with the main body of troops under the officer in charge leaving the barracks with the horses. In the barracks remained about fifteen men under the command of a senior N.C.O., Sergeant Gibbs.
Once the military had passed, the attackers, numbering about twenty men and led by Liam Lynch, advanced towards the bottom of Barrack Street. All were armed with revolvers which were considered the most convenient and suitable weapons for the operation. Liam Lynch had issued strict instructions that there was to be no shooting by the attackers, unless as a last resort. Inside the walls were Paddy McCarthy, Dick Willis and Jack Bolster, their revolvers concealed. Then Ernie O'Malley presented himself at the wicket with a bogus letter in his hand. Behind him and out of sight of the sentry were the other members of the main attacking party, led by Liam Lynch, Paddy O'Brien and George Power. When the gate was opened sufficiently, O'Malley wedged his foot between it and the frame and the soldier was overpowered. In rushed the attackers. McCarthy, Bolster and Willis immediately went to the guardroom where they held up the guard. Realising what was happening, Sergeant Gibbs, rushed towards the guardroom in which rifles were kept. Although called upon to halt, he continued even though a warning shot was fired over his head. As he reached the guardroom door, the I.R.A. officer and one of the volunteers in the guardroom fired simultaneously. Mortally wounded, the Sergeant fell at the guard-room door.
By that time the majority of the attacking party was inside the gate. Military personnel in different parts of the barracks were rounded up and arms were collected. Three waiting motor cars pulled up to the gate and into them were piled all the rifles and other arms and equipment found in the barracks. In all some twenty-seven rifles, two Hotchkiss light machine-guns, boxes of ammunition, Verey light pistols, a revolver, and bayonets, were taken away. The prisoners were locked into one of the stables, with the exception of a man left to care for Sergeant Gibbs. The whole operation had gone according to plan, except for the shooting of the sergeant. Twenty minutes after the sentry had been overpowered the pre-arranged signal of a whistle blast was sounded and the attackers withdrew safely to their headquarters at Burnfort, along the mountain road out of Mallow.
Expecting reprisals, the column moved to Lombardstown that night, and positions were taken up around the local co-operative creamery as it was the custom of the British to wreak their vengeance on isolated country creameries after incidents such as what had just occurred. The Mallow raid, however, was to have greater repercussions than the destruction of a creamery and co-operative stores. The following night, large detachments of troops from Buttevant and Fermoy entered Mallow. They rampaged through the town, burning and looting at will. High over the town, the night sky was red with the flames of numerous burning buildings.
The raiders first descended upon the Town Hall. As in the majority of towns, the building was the centre of the administrative and social life of the district. A lorry load of uniformed soldiers, frenzied and officer less, gathered in front of it. Petrol was liberally sprayed all over the large building. Within a short space of time the hall was a mass of flames. Warming to their task the British next set fire to the drapery establishment of Mr. J.J. Forde, the Bank Place residence of Town Clerk, Mr. Wrixon and with it the pharmacy of his son, which was in the same building. Firing their weapons wildly, the British continued their orgy of destruction. Up in the flames went the hotel of Mr. George Hanover, the boot and shoe establishment of Mr. Thomas Quinn, the merchant tailor's shop and residence of Mr. R. M. Quinn, the drapery shop of Mrs. Cronin, the residence of Mr. Stephen Dwyer at West End, the garage and premises of Mr. W. J. Thompson and finally the giant creamery of Cleeves which gave employment to three hundred people in Mallow. Townspeople ran through the blazing streets, in search of refuge. A number of women and children were accorded asylum in the nearby convent schools. Another group of terrified women, some with children in arms, took refuge in the cemetery at the rear of St. Mary's Church, where they knelt or lay, above the graves. It was a night of terror such as which had never before been endured by the people of Mallow.
The extent of the wanton destruction outraged fair-minded people all over the world. Details of the havoc that had been wrought and pictures of the scenes of destruction were published worldwide.
The Times of London printed the following editorial:
“Day by day the tidings from Ireland grow worse. The accounts of arson and destruction by the Military at Mallow as revenge for the Sinn Fein raid which caught the 17th Lancers napping, must fill English readers with a sense of shame.
The authorities would have been fully entitled, after the raid, to arrest on suspicion of complicity any townsfolk against whom a prima facie case could be established. No complaint could have been made had they dealt summarily with any insurgent caught in possession of arms. They were not entitled to reduce to ruins the chief buildings of the township and to destroy the property of the inhabitants merely as an act of terrorism”.
On the following Sunday morning St. Mary's Parish Church was crowded for eight o'clock Mass. Canon Corbett, parish priest of Mallow addressed the people from the pulpit. In a voice that shook with emotion he described the scenes he had witnessed on Mallow's night of terror:
“The rush of frantic women and children to my door at midnight asking, for God's sake, to provide them with some place of safety or refuge; bullets hissing over our heads as I tried to stow them into the Convent School; another crowd in St. Mary's cemetery—mothers with infants at their breasts sitting on the family burying ground, as if they thought their dead could aid them. Splendid business premises burned to the ground, and a winter of unemployment made sure for hundreds by the burning of Cleeve's factory. These are amongst the signs of victory, won not by Zulus or Sioux Indians, but by Englishmen; the great victory of Mallow at midnight of the 28th of September, 1920.
'Reprisals' they said by the civil and military authorities. They are not reprisals. They are, as Mr. Arthur Griffith points out, a calculated policy to goad our people into insurrection now as in 1798, an excuse for drenching the country in blood. I have only to repeat the advice of our good Bishop: ' Be patient.' God sees all and, in His own good time, will deliver His people who trust in Him”.