February 1921 was punctuated by two military disasters for the IRA in Cork. On February 20th at Clonmult, the Cork IRA suffered its biggest reverse of the war when 12 men were killed, four wounded and four captured when a joint force of RIC, British army and Auxiliaries surrounded a farmhouse in which men from the fourth battalion of the IRA No1 Cork Brigade had taken shelter.
Five days prior to that the Upton train ambush took place west of Cork city. Unlike at Clonmult, this was a self-inflicted disaster based on faulty intelligence and a disregard for the safety of civilians.
Between February 4th and 16th, 11 members of Tom Barry's 3rd Cork Brigade of the IRA were killed. The only three who died in combat were at Upton on February 15th, 1921. Barry described it as "12 dark days" for his brigade which had been under the most intense pressure following its success at Kilmichael in late January 1920.
The leader at Upton, Charlie Hurley, was later to die at Crossbarry a month later.
Between May and December 1920, Irish railwayman staged the "Munitions of War Strike". This was a highly effective attempt to stymie the movement of military materiel and Crown forces across Ireland.
The strike ended in December under threat from the British government that it would close the entire railway network, which was then the principal means of transport in the country.
When the railways resumed carrying British troops in January, the IRA decided to target them, despite the inherent risks involved to civilians.
There had been an attack on a train at Millstreet station in Cork on February 11th in which a sergeant of the 1st Royal Fusiliers was killed. It gave rise to the mistaken belief that trains could be targeted without undue risk to civilians.
On February 15th the train, the 9.30am from Cork to Bandon, left the station at Cork with approximately 20 men from the Essex Regiment on board.
It was due into Upton station at 10.15am. Ten minutes before the train was due, a party of 13 IRA ambushers arrived at the station and tied up the stationmaster.
Another 50 soldiers joined the train at Kinsale Junction. When the IRA scouts on bicycles witnessed this, they pedalled furiously in the direction of Upton to warn Hurley and his men, but the train won the race.
Two IRA scouts were also supposed to have been on the train, but never turned up. It was planned that they would leap out from the carriages on arrival in Upton, indicate how many British soldiers were on board and point out where they were located. It was assumed the British soldiers would travel together and not mix with civilians.
Hurley was under the mistaken belief that the enemy was concentrated in the middle carriage of the train, yet in the ensuing fire fight, every carriage in the train was riddled. The British soldiers leaped from the train and began to return fire.
Hurley realised his men were outnumbered and ordered the retreat, but not before he was wounded and three of his men were killed, John Whelan, Patrick O'Sullivan and Batt Falvey.
The British reported six wounded but none of their number had been killed. The number of civilians who died has been variously reported as six, eight and 10. Eunan O’Halpin and Dáithi Ó Corráin’s book The Dead of the Irish Revolution lists eight.
Among those killed were three railwaymen; three commercial travellers, Charles Johnston, James Joseph Byrne and John Spiers; a painter, Thomas Perrott; a 21-year-old primary school teacher Seán Phelan; and a cook, Mary Hall.
The attack prompted widespread condemnation, even among those who were sympathetic to the cause of an independent Ireland.
It also led to one of the most famous representations of the War of Independence in a foreign publication. The front cover of La Domenica del Corriere, the Sunday magazine of the popular Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, was a dramatic reconstruction of the event and demonstrated how the War of Independence had filtered into the consciousness of the world at that stage.
Today the Upton Train Ambush endures in popular memory through a maudlin song, The Lonely Woods of Upton, by the singer-songwriter Sean Dunphy. It was a huge hit in 1969 and spent eight weeks as number one in the Irish charts in 1969. It was a staple of the dance-hall circuit for years after that.
“Let the moon shine out tonight along the valley, where those men who fought for freedom now are laid, may they rest in peace those men who died for Ireland and who fell at the Upton ambush for Sinn Féin.”
Nobody ought to look for historical veracity in rebel songs, but the Lonely Woods of Upton has a particularly selective recall of the ambush and no mention is made of the civilians who died.
Similarly a memorial at the Upton ambush site mentions the three IRA men who died, but not the innocent civilians who were killed.
In mitigation it must be said that the Upton ambush was an aberration of the IRA who willingly killed civilians they believed were spies, but were generally careful when it came to attacks which might endanger the lives of civilians.