President warns against ‘affected amnesia’ in Civil War commemorations

Higgins calls for inclusive response to revolution-era events and division at Cork event

Irish society must confront commemorating the events of the Civil War with the same bravery and honesty as those who fought for Irish freedom 100 years ago, President Michael D Higgins has said.

Mr Higgins told an anniversary event in Co Cork that people must show the same courage in remembering the division of the Civil War as the volunteers of the East Cork Flying Column of the IRA who lost 14 men when they were surprised by Crown Forces at Clonmult near Midleton on February 20th, 1921.

Recalling the division in his own family where his father took the anti-Treaty side while his uncles joined the National Army, the President said that authentically inclusive commemoration involves avoiding any affected amnesia but instead an honest recognition of the facts of history.

“There is no future in any kind of affected amnesia and recognising the facts, we allow that there are different versions as time went on but we must not be burdened by distortion or abuse of the past,” the President told the 70-strong crowd who braved driving rain to attend the commemoration of the IRA’s biggest reverse during the War of Independence.


“We must grasp together the possibility of a brighter future and have open minds but also generous hearts, the price of an inclusive commemoration, authentic as to fact and considerate as to impact and emancipatory in its consequences and we will only be the better for it,” he said to loud applause.

Paying tribute to the 12 IRA Volunteers of the East Cork Flying Column killed at Clonmult and two other IRA Volunteers captured there and later executed, Mr Higgins said their sacrifice in the fight for Irish freedom would live on in the memories of all present and the generations to come.

Accompanied by chairman of the Clonmult Commemoration Ambush Committee, Christy O'Sullivan and secretary, Tim O'Sullivan, Mr Higgins then unveiled a limestone diorama or model of the ambush scene before relatives of all those involved in the ambush laid crosses in their memory.

Among those to attend Sunday's ceremony was Taoiseach Micheál Martin, whose grandmother Peg Ahern helped wash the bodies of those killed in the ambush at Victoria Barracks in Cork and former Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes whose grand aunt, Lena Allen, washed the bodies at Clonmult.

Local historian and author of The Battle of Clonmult, Tom O’Neill told how the Flying Column of the 4th Battalion of the Cork No 1 IRA Brigade was caught in a disused farmhouse at Garrylaurence, Clonmult, some 12km north of Midleton by a combined force of British troops and Auxiliaries.

British soldiers surprised and fatally wounded two column members, Michael Desmond and John Joe Joyce as they were getting water from a well near the thatched farmhouse where the column were billeted and the troops quickly surrounded the building which had only a front door and no rear exit.

Mr O'Neill explained how Capt Jack O'Connell attempted a break-out from the house and while he managed to escape, three men following him – Michael Hallahan, James Ahern and Richard Hegarty – were killed while Diarmuid O'Leary was wounded and retreated back to the house.

Capt O’Connell tried to get help but it proved too late as the British troops, backed up by a contingent of Auxiliaries from Midleton, set the thatched roof of the farmhouse on fire, forcing the remaining members of the Flying Column to surrender and 15 men emerged to be taken prisoner.

But seven of these were shot by the Auxiliaries before a British officer intervened and prevented the remaining eight being killed. Among those who survived and were taken prisoner was Diarmuid O’Leary who was badly wounded and got a last-minute reprieve from execution three months later.

Paddy Higgins, the remaining most senior officer in the Flying Column, "instructed the boys to throw their guns into the blazing house and come out with their hands up, bringing me with them – this was done, whereupon the Black and Tans lined up the boys and shot seven of them in cold blood," O'Leary later told the Bureau of Military History.

Capt Paddy Whelan, who originally had been earmarked to stay in charge of the Flying Column at Clonmult, later told how he and his comrades, Comdt Diarmuid O'Hurley and Capt Joseph Ahern and sole survivor, Capt O'Connell returned to the scene of the fight later that night.

“Some local people had come to the scene after the military had left, collected the bodies and laid them as we found them . . . their faces covered by a long canvas . . . I undertook the heartbreaking task of uncovering their faces and identifying them, calling out each name consecutively.”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times