Broadcaster’s look to the past uncovers unlikely family war story

Flor MacCarthy’s granduncle died when RIC barracks attacked by IRA group featuring other granduncle

Broadcaster Flor MacCarthy   delved into her family history and learned about a story from the War of Independence that had remained largely unspoken of. Photograph: iStock.

Broadcaster Flor MacCarthy delved into her family history and learned about a story from the War of Independence that had remained largely unspoken of. Photograph: iStock.

 

A broadcaster who delved into the past to learn about her descendants’ lives has uncovered an unlikely story.

RTÉ presenter Flor MacCarthy found out that her granduncle was serving in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) during the War of Independence when he was killed by an IRA unit of which another granduncle was a member.

“My granduncle on mother’s side, Ambrose O’Shea was an RIC sergeant and he was in Rosscarbery RIC Barracks on the night of March 30th, 1921 when it was attacked by Tom Barry’s Flying Column, and among the column members was my granduncle on my father’s side, Jer MacCarthy,” she said.

Speaking at the West Cork History Festival in an interview with Irish Times news editor Mark Hennessy, Ms MacCarthy revealed how she and her brother, Dan, a journalist with The Irish Examiner, uncovered an extraordinary family story that had remained largely unspoken of.

She said their interest was piqued when they found a Webley revolver belonging to Jer MacCarthy, known as Jer Mac, at the back of a bookcase. When they went inquiring about it, they learned that he had given served in Barry’s ranks in west Cork during the war. He gave up studying medicine at University College Cork to go and fight in the conflict.

Ms McCarthy said her granduncle, described by Tom Barry as “that dashing Flying Column soldier Jeremiah MacCarthy of Dreeny, Skibbereen”, fought with distinction at Crossbarry and was part of a Flying Column force of 70 men selected to attack Rosscarbery RIC Barracks on March 30th, 1921.

Seeking transfer

The other granduncle, Sgt O’Shea, who lived with his wife and three young sons in Baltimore, had applied for a transfer to Dublin and was staying in Rosscarbery Barracks on his way to the capital to discuss the matter. The 46-year-old was originally from Co Wicklow.

“Tom Barry ordered the Flying Column to remove the shoes and socks so as to not make any noise and they made their way into Rosscarbery late on the night of March 30th and began their attack. It’s thought that Ambrose O’Shea was asleep in a ground floor room when the attack started,” Ms MacCarthy said.

She said it appeared that Sgt O’Shea was killed early in the two hour attack when the IRA began throwing home-made Mills bombs or grenades. His body was recovered from the rubble the next morning along with that of the other RIC fatality, Constable Charles Bowles.

The IRA succeeded in forcing the RIC party to surrender following a fierce gun battle but Barry, whose own father had been an RIC man in Rosscarbery, allowed them to leave as they were not known to have behaved badly or committed any atrocities in the area.

While the IRA succeeded in destroying the RIC Barracks without losing any men, the attack was to prove costly. The following day was the fair day and when an RIC man grabbed an unexploded bomb from a little girl and threw it away, it exploded and killed two farmers and a toddler.

Ms MacCarthy said Sgt O’Shea was buried the following day in Rosscarbery but was later exhumed and taken to an unmarked grave at Tullagh Cemetery in Baltimore. His widow, Chrissie and their sons later moved to Dublin.

Emigrated

Jer Mac took the Free State side in the Civil War, receiving a promotion from Michael Collins prior to his death at Béal na Bláth. He later joined An Garda Síochána but after two years emigrated to the United States. He remained there until 1953, when he died after being hit by a car in Trenton, New Jersey. His remains were brought to Cork for burial with Tom Barry giving the eulogy at his funeral.

The broadcaster revealed that the two families became linked when her parents, Daniel (Jer Mac’s nephew) and Florence (Sgt O’Shea’s niece) married in 1954. While she and her brother have spent the last few years tracing the two men’s stories, there is much more they would like to learn.

Ms MacCarthy believes that other Irish families may have similar stories from the revolutionary era to learn about and she urged younger people to speak to older relatives about family history so that such stories are not lost.

“They will find incredible drama and stories and it’s important that these stories are recorded down in paper to become a really important archive because we learn from history as well and knowing about the past, that informs where we go in the future and how we act.”

The West Cork History Festival runs until August 8th. Details of the programme can be accessed at https://www.westcorkhistoryfestival.org/