The 1920 Midleton Ambush- Battle on the Main Street

One of the aims of this project will be to share information about the town and the environs. To kick off we are going to look at a remarkable account of an event that took place right in the centre of the town during the War of Independence. It forms one of the statements in the Bureau of Military History, which collected reminiscences from those involved in the 1916 Rebellion and the War of Independence. One of the accounts was provided by Commandant Patrick J. Whelan, who had served with ‘B’ (Midleton) Company, 4th Battalion, Cork No.1 Brigade and the 4th Battalion Flying Column during the War of Independence.

The burnt cottage at Clonmult, where 12 members of the local Flying Column were killed (a further two were executed later). Many of these men had participated in the Midleton Ambush.

The burnt cottage at Clonmult, where 12 members of the local Flying Column were killed (two more were later executed). Many of these men had participated in the Midleton Ambush.

Patrick Whelan was born in Co. Wexford on 10 February 1896, but moved to Cobh with his family at an early age. He was later one of a number of members of ‘B’ Company who worked at Pat Hallinan’s Engineering Works in Midleton. On the night of 29 December 1920 he was one of the members of the Column who decided to launch an attack on a patrol of R.I.C. (Royal Irish Constabulary) and Black and Tans in the town. Patrick has left a remarkable account of events that evening, when the Main Street of Midleton was briefly transformed into a battleground:

The whole column, including Jack Aherne and myself, moved into Midleton under cover of darkness, and assembled at a saw-mills in Charles Street [now Connolly Street]. From the saw-mills, Jack and I continued on to the main street. We arranged that I would take up position at the corner of Charles Street which is situated about midway in the main street, and at right-angles to it. Jack posted himself further down the main street, in the vicinity of the Midleton Arms Hotel.

We were armed with .45 Webley revolvers and wore trench coats and capes. I was only about five minutes at my post when I saw a patrol of Black and Tans, marching slowly towards me. They move in pairs, about six paces apart and on both sides of the street, four pairs on my side and two pairs on the opposite side, together with an old R.I.C. man named Mullins. All were armed with rifles and revolvers, with the rifles slung on their shoulders.

In the last pair on my side was a Constable Gordon with whom I was well acquainted before I joined the column. When passing, he noticed me and, evidently surprised at seeing me, shouted, “Hello, Paddy!”. I said, “Hello, Gordie!”, which was my usual way of addressing him. For a moment, I thought he would leave the ranks and come over to me, but fortunately he carried on with the patrol. I am sure my heart missed a beat or two. Gordon knew me well. He had not seen me for the previous few months, and now he was looking at me wearing a trench coat and cap, items of apparel which I had never previously worn in his presence. I remember wondering if he suspected something was afoot. If he did, he kept his suspicions to himself, as the patrol continued sedately down the street. I waited until he had passed Jack Aherne, when I went and collected him, and reported back to Diarmuid Hurley, comparing notes on our way. We had a perfect picture of the whole patrol, and lost no time in describing their disposition to Hurley. He immediately issued his orders.

There were sixteen of us, all intimate with the lay-out, knowing every house and doorway in the main street. Ten of us took positions in doorways between Charles Street and along about forty yards of the main street up to the Midleton Arms Hotel. The remainder did likewise on the opposite side of the street. I was at the corner of Charles Street and Main Street, and Diarmuid Hurley was at the Midleton Arms Hotel end of Main Street, on the same side as I was. It was decided that, when the patrol was between our two positions on the return journey, Hurley would open fire, and this was to be the signal for all of us to go into action. Each one of our party was armed with a revolver.

We were only about five minutes in position when the patrol returned- still in the same order as I had seen it earlier. Hurley judged his shot to perfection, and at once all of us opened fire. The patrol was taken completely by surprise and, in comparatively short time, the attack was over. Some of the Tans did fire back at us, and there were a few narrow escapes on our side. Dan Cashman of Midleton was fortunate to be carrying a cigarette case in his vest pocket- it was badly dented by a bullet, but it probably saved his life. Jim McCarthy of Midleton, although not a member of the column, took part in the attack, and was wounded in the wrist. Otherwise, we escaped unscathed.

But what of the patrol? Constable Mullins was shot dead, and about six other Tans wounded, some of whom died later from their wounds. Some of the patrol threw their rifles on the street and ran away. “Gordie” escaped uninjured, and somehow I was glad of this as I still think he was not of an evil nature. Two of the Black and Tans were lying on the footpath near me, bleeding profusely.

Sergeant Moloney of the Midleton R.I.C. had been sent earlier to the house of a British ex officer, to collect the latter’s uniform. The sergeant was returning to barracks with the uniform, and as his return coincided with the attack, he came under our fire, was shot in the foot, and dropped the uniform convenient to where I was, and only a few yards from one of the wounded Black and Tans. I knelt down beside the Tan and spoke to him. He told me his name, which I have now forgotten, and said he was from Liverpool. He said he would resign if he recovered from his wounds. He then offered me his wallet. I took it from his hand and put it back in the breast pocket of his tunic, and told him I was doing so. I then got the uniform which Sergeant Moloney had dropped, folded it and placed it under the Tan’s head. The poor fellow lost a lot of blood, and I expect he was one of those who eventually died of wounds.

I cannot say with any certainty now what number of rifles and revolvers we captured that night. I do know I secured one rifle and one revolver, and I’m sure the rest of our lads were just as successful. This attack took place only a few hundred yards from the R.I.C. barracks and about five hundred yards from the military post. The whole affair lasted about twenty minutes. We withdrew by the same route as we had arrived. All the boys were in great form, and they had every right to be, but I recall having mixed feelings, due to my intimate contact with the wounded Black and Tan.

Patrick’s account is a fascinating insight into the main incident of the War of Independence in Midleton. Three R.I.C. and Black and Tan patrol men died as a result of the nights actions. These were Constable Martin Mullen, twenty-one year old Constable Ernest Dray and twenty-three year old Constable Arthur Thorp.

The Flying Column’s attack in Midleton led to the first official reprisals carried out by the British military during the War of Independence. Brigadier-General Higginson, commanding in the area, had leaflets distributed around the town (one of which survives in the National Museum of Ireland) informing residents that a number of houses would be burned in response to the attack. Those targeted were the houses of John O’Shea, Paul McCarthy and Edmond Carey of Midleton as well as a number of homes in Ballyrichard and Ballyadam. Extraordinary British Pathe film survives of the aftermath of this reprisal, showing the damage it caused to the town. To see the video click here.

The ambush and its consequences were undoubtedly some of the most dramatic episodes in Midleton’s history, when just over 90 years ago the busiest part of the town was suddenly transformed into a warzone.

References

Bureau of Military History Witness Statement 1449. 1956. Statement of Commandant Patrick J. Whelan, Vice Commandant, 4th Battalion, Cork No. 1 Brigade

Hart, Peter (Ed.) 2009. Rebel Cork’s Fighting Story 1916-21

Categories: War of Independence | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “The 1920 Midleton Ambush- Battle on the Main Street

  1. EILEEN WORROW

    Very vivid and moving account of this battle. Gives an insight as to the feelings of the author rather than the usual factual type of account of events.

  2. A great read! Love the personal account !

  3. Maureen Maher

    Jack Ahern, Ballyrichard, was my grandmother Mary Ellen Ahern McArdle’s brother….my
    great uncle. The Pathe film Reprisals Midleton depicts the store of Jack’s grandfather, Michael
    Ahern. I believe the film also shows the burning destruction of the family home at Ballyrichard.
    Two of my great aunts are pictured in the film: Jane and Christina Ahern. I have visited
    Midleton many times mostly to purchase books on the War of Independence and to search
    works written by locals. There are “other” photographs of Clonmult in the family posession
    including photographs of the funerals of the lads from Clonmult and photographs of the
    house taken within hours of this debacle. Having stopped at the public library at Midleton,
    I often wondered why nothing of this history either exists or is publicly noted. There is the
    obelisk at the top of Main Street……but locals do not seem to note its importance. Also,
    articles are in the New York Times, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis newspapers of the
    Midleton Reprisals. The Congress of the United States also filed objections with the British
    Parliament. Tremendous amount of material and, finally, your article!
    A sincere thank you from Jack’s grand niece.
    Maureen Maher

    • Hi Maureen,

      Great to hear from you and many thanks for the comment! It is an honour to hear from one of Jack’s descendants. We would love to have a look at some of the photos you have of the period, they sound like a really important resource!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

    • Ray & Maura O Grady

      Maureen,
      we are living in the property owned by the Aherns in Ballyrichard and would appreciate any assistance in tracing the history of the walled garden attached to the property. Ray & Maura O Grady

      • George Smyth

        Ray & Maura, not sure if you are still looking. My grandfather lived in Ballyrichard until the late 1950’s and had a walled garden with an orchard in. If the same place I have some photos etc from 1930’s onwards.

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