seamus dubhghaill

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


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The Clonmult Ambush

The Clonmult ambush takes place on February 20, 1921, during the Irish War of Independence.

Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers occupying a farmhouse in Clonmult, County Cork are surrounded by a force of British Army, Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Auxiliaries. In the action that follows, twelve IRA volunteers are killed, four wounded and four captured. A total of 22 people die in the ambush and subsequent executions – fourteen IRA members, two Black and Tans and six suspected informers.

The 4th battalion of the IRA First Cork Brigade, under Diarmuid O’Hurley and based around Midleton, Youghal and Cobh, had been a successful unit up until the Clonmult ambush. They had captured three RIC barracks and carried out an ambush in Midleton itself. In January 1921, the unit takes possession of a disused farmhouse overlooking the village of Clonmult. O’Hurley plans to ambush a military train at Cobh Junction on Tuesday, February 22, 1921 and at the time of the Clonmult action is scouting a suitable ambush site. However, according to historian Peter Hart, they “had become over-confident and fallen into a traceable routine.” An intelligence officer of the British Army Hampshire Regiment traces them to their billet at a farmhouse in Clonmult.

British troops, a party of the 2nd Battalion, Hampshire Regiment under the command of Lieutenant A. R. Koe, surround the house. Two IRA volunteers notice the advancing troops and open fire. Both are killed, but the shooting warns those sheltering inside the house, and a siege begins. A sortie from the house is attempted in the hope of gaining reinforcements from the local IRA company.

The acting IRA commander, Captain Jack O’Connell, manages to get away but three other volunteers are killed in the attempt. But O’Connell is unable to bring help in time. The Volunteers trapped inside make a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to escape through a narrow opening in the gable. Their hopes are dashed when British reinforcements arrive instead — regular RIC police, Black and Tans and Auxiliaries. The police also bring petrol, which an Army officer uses to set the thatched roof of the farmhouse on fire. With the farmhouse burning around them, an attempt is then made by the IRA to surrender.

What happens next is disputed. In his after-action report, Lieutenant Koe reports that at 6:30 PM six or seven rebels come out of the house with their hands up. As the Crown Forces go to meet them the remaining rebels in the house open fire. Some of the rebels outside the house are killed or wounded by the crossfire that ensues. The Crown Forces rush the house and the eight rebels inside are taken prisoner. By contrast, the surviving Volunteers claim that their men had surrendered in good faith, and had come out with their hands up, only to be shot by the police without any provocation. Opinion is divided amongst historians as to which version of the story to believe.

A total of twelve IRA Volunteers are killed in the action, with four more wounded and only four taken prisoner unscathed. Two of the IRA prisoners, Maurice Moore and Paddy O’Sullivan, are later executed in the Cork military barracks on April 28. Patrick Higgins, an IRA man who survived the killings, is sentenced to death but is reprieved due to the truce that ends the war on July 11. Hampshire Regiment historian Scott Daniell notes on the action that “like all the Irish operations, it was hateful to the British troops.”

The IRA suspects that an informer had led the British to the billet of the column wiped out at Clonmult, and over the following week, six alleged spies are executed by the IRA in the surrounding area. Mick Leahy, a local IRA officer, states that “things went to hell in the battallion” after Clonmult. Diarmuid O’Hurley, the commander of the battalion, is not at Clonmult but is later killed on May 28, 1921.


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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.