The Cork No. 2 Brigade, Irish Republican Army (IRA), attacks and captures a military barracks in Mallow, County Cork, on September 28, 1920, the only military barracks to be captured during the Irish War of Independence. British forces later burn and sack the town.
Mallow had been a garrison town for several hundred years. Eight miles to the north lay Buttevant where one of the largest military barracks in the country is located. Not far from Buttevant are the great military training camps of Ballyvonaire, while nineteen miles to the northeast is Fermoy with its large permanent military garrisons and huge barracks adjacent to the big training centres of Kilworth and Moorepark. Twenty miles to the southeast is the city of Cork with its many thousands of troops both in the posts within the city and at Ballincollig, about six miles west of it, on the Macroom road. Thirteen miles westward a detachment from a British machine gun corps holds Kanturk. Every town and village has its post of Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) men armed to the teeth.
The idea of capturing the barracks comes from two members of the Mallow IRA Battalion, Dick Willis, a painter, and Jack Bolster, a carpenter, who are employed on the civilian maintenance staff of the barracks which is occupied by the 17th Lancers. Willis and Bolster are able to observe the daily routine of the garrison and form the opinion that the capture of the place would not be difficult. They are instructed by their local battalion officers to make a sketch map of the barracks. After that is prepared, Liam Lynch and Ernie O’Malley go with Willis and Tadhg Byrnes to Mallow to study the layout of the surrounding district. Among the details of the garrison’s routine that Willis and Bolster report to the Column leaders, is the information that each morning the officer in charge, accompanied by two-thirds of the men, take the horses for exercise outside the town. It is obvious to the two Mallow volunteers that this is the ideal time for the attack.
Situated at the end of a short, narrow street and on the western verge of the Town Park, Mallow barracks stand on an unusually low-lying location and is relatively small in size. Surrounded by a high stone wall, the barracks can be approached from the town park as well as from the main street. The various details are carefully studied by Lynch and O’Malley. While Willis and Bolster are allotted tasks within the walls of the barracks, Byrnes and Jack Cunningham are chosen to attack with the main body of the column which includes Commandant Denny Murphy of Kanturk.
On the morning of September 27, at their Burnfort headquarters, the men are ordered to prepare for action. Under cover of darkness they move into the town and enter the Town Hall by way of the park at the rear. The eighteen men of the column are strengthened by members of the Mallow battalion, a number of men posted in the upper storey of the Town Hall, from which they can command the approaches to the nearby RIC barracks. Initially it is planned that Willis and Bolster will enter the military barracks that morning in the normal manner, accompanied by an officer of the column who will pose as a contractor’s overseer. The officer is Paddy McCarthy of Newmarket, who would die a few months later in a gun battle with the Black and Tans at Millstreet.
McCarthy, Willis and Bolster enter the barracks without mishap. Members of the garrison follow their normal routine, with the main body of troops under the officer in charge leaving the barracks with the horses. In the barracks remain about fifteen men under the command of a senior N.C.O., Sergeant Gibbs.
Once the military has passed, the attackers, numbering about twenty men and led by Liam Lynch, advance toward the bottom of Barrack Street. All are armed with revolvers which are considered the most convenient and suitable weapons for the operation. Lynch has issued strict instructions that there is to be no shooting by the attackers, unless as a last resort. Inside the walls are McCarthy, Willis and Bolster, their revolvers concealed. Then Ernie O’Malley presents himself at the wicket gate with a bogus letter in his hand. Behind him and out of sight of the sentry are the other members of the main attacking party, led by Lynch, O’Brien and George Power. When the gate is opened sufficiently, O’Malley wedges his foot between it and the frame and the soldier is overpowered and the attackers rush in. McCarthy, Bolster and Willis immediately go to the guardroom where they hold up the guard. Realising what is happening, Sergeant Gibbs, rushes toward the guardroom in which rifles are kept. Although called upon to halt, he continues even though a warning shot is fired over his head. As he reaches the guardroom door, the IRA officer and one of the volunteers in the guardroom fire simultaneously. Mortally wounded, the sergeant falls at the guardroom door.
By this time the majority of the attacking party is inside the gate. Military personnel in different parts of the barracks are rounded up and arms are collected. Three waiting motor cars pull up to the gate and all the rifles, other arms and equipment found in the barracks are loaded into them. The prisoners are locked into one of the stables, with the exception of a man left to care for Sergeant Gibbs. The whole operation goes according to plan, except for the shooting of the sergeant. Twenty minutes after the sentry had been overpowered the pre-arranged signal of a whistle blast is sounded and the attackers withdraw safely to their headquarters at Burnfort, along the mountain road out of Mallow.
Expecting reprisals, the column moves to Lombardstown that night, and positions are taken up around the local co-operative creamery as it is the custom of the British to wreak their vengeance on isolated country creameries after incidents such as what had just occurred. The Mallow raid, however, has greater repercussions than the destruction of a creamery and co-operative stores. The following night, large detachments of troops from Buttevant and Fermoy enter Mallow. They rampage through the town, burning and looting at will. High over the town, the night sky is red with the flames of numerous burning buildings.
Townspeople run through the blazing streets, in search of refuge. A number of women and children are accorded asylum in the nearby convent schools. Another group of terrified women, some with children in arms, take refuge in the cemetery at the rear of St. Mary’s Church, where they kneel or lay above the graves. It is a night of terror such as which had never before been endured by the people of Mallow.
The extent of the wanton destruction outrages fair-minded people all over the world. Details of the havoc that had been wrought and pictures of the scenes of destruction are published worldwide.
(Pictured: Townspeople gather in front of one of the many buildings in Mallow which were reduced to ruins during British Army reprisals)