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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Execution of Major Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith

geoffrey-lee-compton-smithMajor Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith (DSO) of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers is captured and executed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on April 30, 1921 during the Irish War of Independence.

Compton-Smith was born in 1889 in South Kensington, London. After finishing school, he decides not to follow the family tradition of studying law. He actually wants to become an artist, but his father insists that he join the army. He studies at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and during World War I his regiment is sent to France. In 1917 he is wounded at the Battle of Arras, but he continues to fight on. He is awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). In 1919 he is sent to serve in Ireland during the Irish War of Independence.

In 1919 Compton-Smith is commander of the British Army base at Ballyvonane, near Buttevant, but he is also an intelligence officer. As an officer he also sometimes presides over courts martial. In January 1921, for instance, three IRA volunteers are tried by him for involvement in the ambush at Shinanagh, near Charleville, and he sentences them each to six months.

February 1921 is a bad time for the IRA in County Cork. They suffer major losses at the ambushes at Clonmult and Mourne Abbey, and several volunteers are taken prisoner, four of whom are sentenced to death. The IRA believes that these death sentences might be commuted if a British officer is held as a hostage. This leads to the capture of Compton-Smith. On April 16, 1921 he travels to Blarney, supposedly on a sketching trip but actually to meet a nurse in Victoria Barracks with whom he is having an affair. The IRA has spies in Victoria Barracks who likely tip off the IRA that Compton-Smith is coming to Blarney. A squad led by Frank Busteed easily capture him after he gets off the train.

Busteed then meets with Jackie O’Leary, the IRA battalion commander. It is decided that Donoughmore is the perfect place to keep a hostage, because parts of the parish are remote and the IRA is strong there.

On April 18, under the cover of darkness, Compton-Smith is transferred by car to Knockane House, an abandoned big house in Donoughmore. The following night he is moved again, this time by pony and trap, to Barrahaurin, a remote townland in the Boggeragh Mountains. He is kept there for the last eleven days of his life, on the small farm of Jack and Mary Moynihan. He is held prisoner in a shed, always under guard. Every evening he is brought into the house, where he eats and stays at the fireside. He and his guards have conversations about history and politics.

The four IRA prisoners are executed on April 28, 1921. On April 30, O’Leary informs Compton-Smith that he is going to be executed. He then writes a final letter to his wife. He tells her that he will die with her name on his lips and her face before his eyes and that he will “die like an Englishman and a soldier.” He also writes a letter to his regiment and one to Lt. General Strickland.

After finishing his letters, Compton-Smith is led up into Barrahaurin bog behind the Moynihan house, to a place where his grave had already been dug, and is given a final cigarette. In his witness statement Maurice Brew writes, “When removed to the place of execution he placed his cigarette case in his breast pocket of his tunic … He then lighted a cigarette and said that when he dropped the cigarette it could be taken as a signal by the execution squad to open fire.”

It is not until late May, following the discovery of the cache of letters in a Dublin raid, that the Compton-Smith family is informed of his death. His father, William, then starts a campaign to find his son’s body. He wrote letters to MPs and to the British Army, seeking information and help. He also writes to Erskine Childers but gets no reply. He offers a reward of £500 for information, but only The Irish Times agrees to print his advertisement.

In November 1921 a cousin of Compton-Smith’s wife, Gladys, meets Michael Collins in London and asks him for help in finding the body. Correspondence between Collins and the Compton-Smith family suggests that Collins is trying to help in 1922, but he fails to get any results before he is assassinated at Béal na Bláth later that same year.

On March 3, 1926 Compton-Smith’s grave is discovered by the Gardaí. The newspapers report that the remains, because of the conditions of the bog, “were not so badly decomposed as to render identification impossible.” The body is brought to Collins Barracks in Cork. On March 5 the Gardaí send a telegram to the Compton-Smiths, informing them that the body has been located.

The reburial of Compton-Smith is carried out with great dignity on March 19, 1926. The Irish Army escorts the coffin from Collins Barracks to Penrose Quay, where British forces from Spike Island take the coffin on board a boat. While the boat travels down the River Lee, the Irish Army’s guard of honour presents arms and sounds the “Last Post.” The British then bring the coffin to Carlisle Fort, near Whitegate, where it was buried in the in the British Military Cemetery with full military honours.


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The Buttevant Rail Disaster

buttevant-rail-disasterThe Buttevant Rail Disaster, a train crash that occurs at Buttevant Railway Station, County Cork, takes place on August 1, 1980. More than 70 people are injured, and 18 die, resulting as one of Ireland’s worst rail disasters to ever occur and the country’s worst rail disaster during peacetime history.

At 12:45 the 10:00 am Dublin (Heuston) to Cork (Kent) express train enters Buttevant Railway Station carrying some 230 bank holiday passengers. The train is diverted off the main line across a 1:8 temporary set of points into a siding. The locomotive remains upright but carriages immediately behind the engine and generator van jack-knife and are thrown across four sets of rail lines. Two coaches and the dining car are totally demolished by the impact. It results in the deaths of 18 people and over 70 people being injured.

The accident happens because a set of manual facing points are set to direct the train into the siding. These points are installed about four months previously and have not yet been connected to the signal cabin. The permanent way maintenance staff are expecting a stationary locomotive at the Up platform to move into the siding, and set the points for the diversion to the siding, without obtaining permission from the signalman. Upon seeing that this has been done, the signalman at Buttevant manually sets the signals to the Danger aspect and informs the pointsman to reset the points. The train is traveling too fast to stop in time. The train is moving at approximately 60 mph when the derailment occurs.

The train consists of one locomotive, a generator van and eleven coaches. Six of the coaches consist of wooden bodies on steel underframes. Four of these are either destroyed or badly damaged in the impact, the two which survive being at the rear of the train. The remainder of the coaches are light alloy Cravens stock and most survive the crash.

This event, and the subsequent Cherryville junction accident, which kills a further seven people, account for 70% of all Irish rail deaths over a 28-year period. CIÉ and the Government come under severe public pressure to improve safety and to modernise the fleet. A major review of the national rail safety policy is held and results in the rapid elimination of the wooden-bodied coaches that had formed part of the train.

The passengers who are most severely injured or killed are seated in coaches with wooden frames. This structure is incapable of surviving a high speed crash and does not come near to the safety standards provided by modern (post-1950s) metal-body coaches. The expert bodies that review the accident discover that the old timber-frame carriage bodies mounted on a steel frame are totally inadequate as they are prone to complete collapse under the enormous compression forces of a high-speed collision.

The more modern steel-framed carriage bodies survive due to their greater structural rigidity. On this basis the decision to purchase a new fleet of modern intercity coaches based on the British Rail Mark 3 design is quickly made. The Mark 3’s longitudinally corrugated roof can survive compression forces of over 300 tonnes. These coaches, an already well proven design, are built by British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL) in Derby, England and, under licence, at CIÉ’s own workshops at Inchicore Railway Works in Dublin between 1983 and 1989.


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The Rathcoole Ambush

rathcoole-ambush-monumentThe Rathcoole Ambush, one of the largest ambushes of the Irish War of Independence, takes place at Rathcoole, County Cork on June 16, 1921.

The railway line between Banteer and Millstreet had been cut in several places so the British Auxiliary forces based at Millstreet have to travel to Banteer by road for their supplies twice a week. As a result, a combined force of 130 Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers from the Millstreet, Kanturk, Newmarket, Charleville and Mallow battalion columns are mobilised to attack the Auxiliaries as they return from Banteer. The volunteers are under the command of Paddy O’Brien from Liscarroll.

On the night before the ambush the IRA volunteers sleep at Rathcoole Wood, which overlooks the planned ambush position. Shortly after sunrise the following morning, Captain Dan Vaughan lays six land mines on the untarred road and covers them with dust. After a wait of several hours a convoy of four armour-plated lorries, each mounted with a machine gun and carrying ten men, is observed heading for Banteer.

The volunteers prepare themselves and at 6:20 in the evening, as the lorries pass through the ambush area on their return journey, three of the land mines explode with devastating results. One mine detonates as the last of the four lorries drives over it and another explodes under the leading lorry in the convoy. Both vehicles are out of action with the two other lorries trapped between them. A third mine explodes amid a party of Auxiliaries as they attempted to outflank the position. A bitter firefight develops. Each time Auxiliaries attempt to outflank the IRA they are driven back, suffering losses of more than twenty dead and over a dozen wounded.

When it becomes clear that the IRA cannot achieve a complete victory because of their limited ammunition supply, the order for withdrawal is given and the whole force retires without a single casualty. Although no arms are captured during the action, a reconnaissance party from the column returns the next day to search the ambush position and recovers 1,350 rounds of ammunition which the Auxiliaries had left behind them as they removed their dead and wounded.

The ambush at Rathcoole is one of the Irish Republican Army’s most successful actions during the War of Independence. A week after the ambush, British Forces from Kanturk, Buttevant, Ballyvonaire, Macroom, Ballincollig, Killarney and Tralee carry out a widespread search throughout the Rathcoole area. Michael Dineen, a Volunteer in Kilcorney Company is taken from his brother’s house at Ivale by a party of Auxiliaries and shot dead. On the evening of July 1, the Auxiliaries set fire to and destroy the wood at Rathcoole from where the ambush had been launched. That same day that they shoot and kill a local man, Bernard Moynihan, as he is out cutting hay.

(Pictured: Monument at the site of the Rathcoole Ambush)


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The Clonbanin Ambush

*The Irish Republican Army (IRA) ambush a British Army convoy near the townland of Clonbanin, County Cork on March 5, 1921, during the Irish War of Independence.

The IRA force is comprised of almost 100 volunteers from counties Cork and Kerry, armed with rifles, hand grenades and a machine gun. Their target is a British Army convoy of three lorries, an armoured car and a touring car carrying Brigadier General Hanway Robert Cumming. The convoy is travelling from Killarney to Buttevant and comprises almost 40 soldiers of the East Lancashire Regiment.

When the convoy enters the ambush position, IRA volunteers open fire from elevated positions on both sides of the road. The three lorries and touring car are disabled, and the armoured car becomes stuck in the roadside ditch, although those inside continue to fire its machine guns. As Cumming jumps from his car, he is shot in the head and dies instantly. He is one of the highest ranked British officers to die in the Irish War of Independence.

The battle lasts slightly over an hour. As the IRA forces withdraw from one side of the road, a British officer and six soldiers attempted to flank the IRA on the other side. After a brief exchange of fire they retreat.

The IRA are not believed to have sustained any casualties.

(Pictured: Two British officers surnamed Lawson and Adams with Brigadier General H. R. Cumming in Kenmare County Kerry shortly before their deaths at the hands of the IRA in 1921)