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The Coolnacaheragh Ambush, 1921

Daily Mirror, Wednesday 17 May 1916.

COOLNACAHERAGH, County Cork, 25 February 1921. On the day he died, Major James Seafield Grant, MC, instructed the 70 police cadets accompanying him to keep their eyes carefully peeled upon the woods and rocks either side of the road. A decorated veteran of the First World War, Major Grant always knew an ambush was on the cards. In the few weeks since he had taken command of the Auxiliary cadets stationed in Macroom Castle, he had established a routine that was unlikely to win him many friends locally. At 9am every Friday morning, he set off from Macroom at the head of a convoy of eight lorries, each carrying ten armed Auxiliaries, with machine guns mounted fore and aft. Under the Major’s direction, the policemen then spent the day raiding any houses in the locality believed to be sympathetic to the Republican cause. This rugged terrain was considered an IRA hotbed and the British authorities were determined to secure control over such an area.

Watching Major Grant and his convoy slowly trundle into view, Seán O’Hegarty breathed a huge sigh of relief. For over a week, the officer in command of the IRA’s Cork No. 1 Brigade had been waiting for this moment, desperately trying to assure his men that an ambush would work.

Seán O’Hegarty had handpicked his 60 men. Some were Cork City boys, like himself, more used to the hit and run street-fighting tactics than hiding out on rural roadsides. Others were from the locality and had helped him choose the site for the ambush.[i]

It was a perfect site, pitched upon a bleak hillside along the border of the townlands of Coolavokig and Coolnacaheragh, some seven miles west of Macroom and two miles east of Ballyvourney. The road, which presently forms part of the main Cork-Killarney tourist road, wends its way up into the highlands, was bound by small hills and steep slabs of limestone rock. Grant’s convoy passed up this way every Friday morning.

O’Hegarty had two Lewis guns at his disposal which he placed two hundred yards apart high above the road. The concept was to simply sandwich Grant’s convoy between the two Lewis’s and open fire. O’Hegarty established his own command centre between the two guns, while his men were to entrench themselves either side of the road and assume ambush positions.[ii]

The Republicans were duly in position at 9am on Friday 19th February when Grant’s convoy was due to pass through. But the convoy never came.[iii]

Seán O’Hegarty’s men began to think of Dripsey. Just four weeks earlier, a similar IRA outfit had been betrayed as they lay in wait for a British convoy in nearby Dripsey. Five men captured that day now faced execution.[iv] Ever since Dripsey, the Auxies had been heavily reinforcned and, under Major Grant, the raids in and around Ballyvourney were becoming increasingly violent. There was a very real danger that local IRA activity would be wiped out.

O’Hegarty was determined to rerverse this setback. To do that, he needed his Flying Column to engage with and defeat the Macroom Auxiliaries. Patience would be required. As dusk fell, he dispatched his men back to their billets and told them to reconvene in the morrow.

O’Hegarty was a remarkable soldier. The late Sean O’Callaghan subsequently described him thus:

“Every officer in the Brigade knew of, and most had felt, his biting tongue. The silent, brooding, lonely man who presided at Brigade meetings, said little while the arguments, raged for and against a project, and when he had heard each side made his decision. He spoke slowly, incisively, and men instinctively obeyed him.”

However, it took all his skill to keep his men united because for the next six mornings, all 60 of those men arrived to take up their positions in preparation for an ambush that just didn’t happen. The weather was bitterly cold, with frequent showers of sleet, hail and hard rain. The solitary food was a daily piece of bacon stuffed between two slices of bread. Talk of spies and informers spread like prairie fire. And still there was no sign of Grant’s convoy.

Although he was not involved in the ambush, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to include here a photo of Lieutenant Herbert Claude Frecker (1881-1959), a veteran of the First World War who served with the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary during the Irish War of Independence. Born in Brussels in the 1880s, Lt. Frecker joined the Royal Army Service Corps in 1917 and served on the Western Front. He lost his right eye at the battle of Ypres, in the very country where he was born. He resigned shortly before Christmas 1921 and the family returned to England.
With thanks to Paul Frecker.

Although he was by no means a famous orator, O’Hegarty kept the fire lit within his men, insisting that they must “stick it out, tomorrow, the next day, the next and the next, until we nail those Auxies”.

Morale was at an all time low by the evening of Thursday 24th February. The city men were suffering from exposure. The country men wanted to return to their farms. O’Hegarty’s officers urged him to call the operation off. He replied: “We came here to do a job, and we will do that job.” But he conceded that if the Auxies did not show the following morning, he would call it a day.

Shortly after 8am the following morning, O’Hegarty was informed that Grant’s convoy was on its way, one hour ahead of schedule. The IRA men hurriedly assumed position, just as the first lorries nosed into view.

The convoy consisted of 70 Auxiliary cadets and seven RIC men. At its head stood Major Grant, in a touring car, scanning the roadsides with a pair of binoculars. Whether he had been informed or not, the Major evidently anticipated trouble ahead.

Just as the convoy was entering the ambush zone, an IRA Volunteer broke loose from a nearby cottage and scampered across the road. The Auxie cadets in a lorry behind Grant opened fire but missed him. The convoy inched slowly forwards until the Major gave the order to halt and the Auxies began to dismount, guns at the ready.

The first of O’Hegarty’s Lewis guns began to bark at the lorries to the rear, while the second opened up on those at the front. O’Hegarty had given strict instructions that his men aim carefully. Since the start of the year the British had adopted an official policy whereby captured IRA officers or local Sinn Fein members were effectively taken as human shields on assignments such as this.[v]

Sure enough, even as the Auxies dived into the ditches for cover and began to return fire, the IRA could see four hostages being dragged from the third and fourth lorries, screening the policemen behind them as they retreated back up the road. Unwilling to shoot one of their own, the No. 2 Lewis gunners were obliged to cease fire, but the IRA marksmen began to make their presence felt, taking out the cadets one by one.

Major Grant remained in the middle of the road, cool as a cat, directing his men while the bullets chipped into the ground all around him. The No. 2 Lewis gunners decided enough was enough and reloaded. Major Grant’s body was buried in a churchyard in Suffolk the following week.

38-year-old Cadet Cleve Soady from Hampshire, who is believed to have been driving the touring car, was also killed. Elsewhere, RIC Constable Arthur Cane was also shot and died the following day.[vi]

A second touring car managed to turn and escaped to Macroom to sound the alarm. Knowing their time was now limited, the Volunteers began to fire with renewed vigour. However, the first Lewis gun jammed and the Auxies were quick to realize they were out of range of the second one. As the Auxies backed off down the road, shielded by their hostages, the IRA marksmen continued to snipe. The rearguard action continued until O’Hegarty learned reinforcements were on the way and he gave the whistle for his men to make themselves scarce. They duly vanished into the boggy terrain.[vii]

The death tally remains a point of debate. According to a monument at the site of the ambush, “British casualties were admitted at 28” while Irish casualties were “nil”. The IRA claim 14 – 16 British died. Contemporary British records state that they lost just three dead, and that there were at least two Irish killed.[viii]

Some hold that the Coolnacaheragh Ambush was one of the most decisive engagements of the entire struggle. Precicely how decisive it was is hard to gauge, but it certainly gave the IRA a much needed boost in their belief that they could actually send the British into retreat. The Crown forces ceased patrolling in the mountains around Coolnacaheragh which duly became headquarters for both the First Cork Brigade (the biggest in the country), under the command of Sean O’Hegarty, and the First Southern Division itself, comprising of over 30,000 officers and men, under the command of General Liam Lynch.


[i] He handpicked sixty men, mostly from the 2nd, 7th and 8th Battalions. His decision to include men from the 2nd, or Cork City, Battalion was controversial. City kids were not used to fighting in rural terrain. They preferred the hit and run street-fighting of revolvers and bombs to the guerrilla tactics and long-distance ambushes of the countryside. He ignored the 6th Battalion, who were pleading for a chance to avenge their defeat at Dripsey. He was perhaps wary of allowing too much emotion to affect the outcome of his plans. He was also aware that the informant who betrayed the men at Dripsey had yet to be identified.

[ii] The London Times later described how O’Hegarty’s men had prepared the site “in the most elaborate manner on either side of the road, with fences loop-holed, roads mined, and Republicans under perfect cover.”

[iii] The sixty men were billeted in makeshift beds scattered through the surrounding countryside. Shortly before dawn, O’Hegarty gave the order and all sixty men moved into their previously selected positions. A pair of Lewis guns were mounted on the high ground to the north of the road, with 200 yards between them to enable a good spread of fire once the convoy came within range. The concept was to sandwich the convoy between the two Lewis’s and then open fire on the lorries. O’Hegarty’s own command past was midway between the two Lewis guns. And so they waited. And waited. But the Auxies did not come. O’Hegarty told them to return to their billets and resume positions in the morning.

But there was no sight of the convoy the next day either. The weather became bitterly cold. The men looked miserably at the solitary slice of bacon in their sandwich which comprised their sole meal of the day. That evening, he assembled the men in a large barn for a pep talk. He explained how he understood that this might be a tricky operation for city men, “strangers in a strange country”, but insisted that they “stick it out, tomorrow, the next day, the next and the next, until we nail those Auxies”.

It took all his leadership to hold the men together over the ensuing days as the weather turned to sleet and hard rain, and the threat of informers became ever more real. O’Hegarty accepted that it’s not easy to conceal sixty men for several days running in an area already governed by the rule of fear.

O’Hegarty acknowledged that there was a pressing need to finish the job before somebody turned informer. Spies and informers were always a threat. Bodies were constantly being plucked from the roadsides with notes pinned to their breasts stating how the deceased had been found guilty of ‘intending to inform the enemy of the movements of the Republican troops’. Many were in a no-win situation. Under the terms of General Strickland’s martial law proclamation, anyone with any knowledge of impending ambushes, carrying of arms and so forth, was obliged to notify the police or face charges.

[iv] Only four weeks earlier, someone had betrayed the 6th IRA Battalion who were surprised by Crown forces while waiting to ambush another British convoy at Dripsey. At least five of those IRA Volunteers were now in military custody, awaiting execution

On February 16th 1921, some fifty IRA volunteers standing either side of the line opened fire on a passenger train as it pulled into Innishannon Station, four miles north west of Bandon. Although there were forty British troops on board, the attack was an unmitigated disaster, leaving six men and one woman dead, all civilians. Three of the attackers also died. There was no let up though and next day news arrived that the bodies of four civilians had been found in a field seven miles from Bandon. (Rebels’ War On Women. Six Civilians Killed In Train Ambush. The Times, Wednesday, Feb 16, 1921; pg. 10; Issue 42646; col C). On February 23rd, an IRA party again attacked Bandon, killed one policeman, seriously wounded another and kidnapped two soldiers who were subsequently shot. (Unarmed Soldiers Murdered. Attempt To Break Discipline – The Times, Friday, Feb 25, 1921; pg. 10; Issue 42654; col B)

[v] The possibility that their own officers and representatives might be shot thus prevented the IRA from simply blasting every lorry with gunfire, as with Tom Barry’s ambush at Kilmichael in November 1921 which left seventeen RIC constables dead.

[vi] Major Grant’s body arrived back in London the following Tuesday and he was buried in St Peter and St Paul’s Parish Church, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, with his mother and sister being the chief mourners. His wife was Christian Emma Ruth Grant (nee Erskine) whom he married on 7th August 1919. They appear to have been divorced although she subsequently placed a series of memorials to him in The Times.

Constable Cane is sometimes written as Keane or Kane and even as Lane in the first reports of the fight. Cadet Cleve L. Soady (aged 38) later died of his wounds and was buried in Macroom. Amongst the other men wounded were Cadets A.E. Miller, D.J. Fisher, W. Rooth DCM, AC Fothergill and Constable G Noakes (driver).

[vii] At 3pm, a 20-strong patrol of the 1st Battalion, in motor tenders, sighted a party of fifty armed civilians at a stream crossing the mountain road from Ballyvourney to Millstreet. “The rebels broke across the country and a running fight followed as far as the Cork and Kerry County boundary. The rebels had at least half a mile start, and were increasing this over very boggy ground when the pursuit had to be temporarily abandoned at 5pm (ie: 2 hours later) when the soldiers spotted another body of civilians on the high ground making towards their military motors, which had perforce been left unprotected. Two armed civilians were killed and one prisoner taken.

[viii] Another died of wounds while in military custody. Over the ensuing days, the Macroom Auxies went into overdrive throughout West Cork, joined by troops from Ballincollig, Cork, Bandon, Skibbereen and Killarney, as well as a new influx of aeroplanes. Thee five IRA volunteers arrested at Dripsey were executed.


Seán O’Hegarty: O/C First Cork Brigade, Irish Republican Army by Kevin Girvin (Aubane Historical Society)


Thanks to Peter McGoldrick, Jack Lane, David Grant, the Millstreet Museum and Michael Purcell.