100 years ago today: the Clonmult ambush was the IRA’s worst disaster

IRA men had spent weeks in abandoned east Cork farmhouse when crown forces arrived

Men from the Clonmult volunteer active service unit, from the collection of  John Hallahan

Men from the Clonmult volunteer active service unit, from the collection of John Hallahan


There is a photograph from the collection of Cork photographer John Hallahan which is one of the most familiar of the War of Independence.

It shows men from the Clonmult volunteer active service unit (ACU) column posing for a rare photograph. They are dishevelled and louche-looking, one has a cigarette hanging from his mouth, and only half have rifles. They don’t look like members of an army that would scare anyone, let alone an empire like Britain’s, but it was men like these that forced the British government to terms which led to the independent Irish State.

This image has added poignancy because shortly after it was taken, six of the 10 men in the photograph had died, wiped out at Clonmult 100 years ago today.

The Clonmult ambush was the IRA’s worst hit of the War of Independence coming in the worst week of the campaign and just five days after three IRA men and nine civilians were killed in the disastrous Upton train ambush.

Men from the Cork No 1 Brigade spent six weeks holed up in an abandoned farmhouse in Clonmult in east Cork. From there they ranged across the country raiding and harassing British forces.

The house was a death trap for any guerrilla force. There was no back door and the roof was thatched. There were rumours of loose discipline and men went drinking in the nearby village. On the fateful day, the commanding officers left the 20 or so men inside the farmhouse and set out to carry out a reconnaissance of Cobh Junction to plan an ambush.

Cruelly for the men left behind, they were told to move to new billets that evening.

They remained unmolested until February 20th, 1921 when a detachment from the Hampshire regiment arrived at a neighbouring farmhouse. They saw two IRA men drawing water from a well. The men, Michael Desmond and John Joe Joyce, were shot dead.

The two sentries detailed to keep a watch for crown forces were inside the house packing their belongings when the 12 man patrol from the 2nd battalion of the Hampshire Regiment came upon the house and surrounded it.

Soon, another eight man patrol arrived at the house. Despite the overwhelming force against them, five men, including Capt Jack O’Connell tried to escape by fighting their way out of the house. O’Connell was the only one who managed to get away. Mick Hallinan and Dick Hegarty were killed.

The chances for the rest of the men dwindled further when two truckloads of auxiliary police, 24 men in all, came on the scene.

They set fire to the thatch to burn the men out of the house. Defiantly the men inside threw their guns on the fire rather than surrender them. The ammunition exploded creating a ferocious din.

What happened next has been described as “Kilmichael in reverse” after the famous ambush in November 1920 when 16 auxiliaries were killed, some allegedly after a false surrender.

Seven men were shot without warning by the auxiliaries, many people believing then, as now, in retaliation for Kilmichael. The Hampshires claimed the men were shot when they engaged in a false surrender.

The men who were killed were Christopher O’Sullivan, David Desmond, Jeremiah Ahern and his first-cousin Liam Ahern, Donal Dennehy, Joseph Morrissey, and James Glavin.

Of the eight taken prisoner at Clonmult, two, Patrick O’Sullivan and Maurice Moore were hanged.

In retaliation, the IRA executed six spies they suspected of being involved with the British authorities.

The original farmhouse was destroyed and replaced with a memorial and a diorama of the scene as it was 100 years ago.