The Upton train ambush takes place on February 15, 1921, during the Irish War of Independence. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) mounts an attack on a train carrying British soldiers at Upton, County Cork. The action is a disaster for the IRA with three of its volunteers killed and two wounded. Six British soldiers are wounded, three seriously. Six civilian passengers are killed and ten wounded in the crossfire.
According to a study of the region, Cork is “by far the most violent county in Ireland” during the War of Independence and has several active guerrilla brigades. Of these, the 3rd Cork Brigade is one of the most effective and it is a unit from this Brigade that carries out the Upton ambush.
Up until the end of 1920, the British had been unable to move troops by train, due to a nationwide boycott by railway workers of trains carrying the British military. However, the strike is lifted in December 1920. While this helps the British military’s mobility, it also gives the IRA a new target: trains carrying soldiers. A week before the Upton ambush, the local IRA had made a successful attack on a train travelling from Killarney to Millstreet near Drishanbeg, killing one sergeant and wounding five more soldiers.
Five days after the Drishanbeg ambush, plans are made for an attack at Upton and Innishannon railway station on a train traveling between Cork city and Bandon. The ambushers, led by Charlie Hurley, are thirteen strong. Seven are armed with rifles and the remainder with revolvers or semi-automatic pistols. They take up position at the station ten minutes before the train pulls in, imprisoning the station master, clearing the station and taking cover behind sacks of grain and flour taken from a store.
The train is carrying approximately 50 British soldiers of the Essex Regiment, who are mingled with civilian passengers throughout the train’s carriages. The IRA party is therefore quite heavily outnumbered and out-gunned, but are unaware of this, as two IRA scouts, who were supposed to have been on the train and signaled to them the British numbers, never turn up. They also wrongly believe that the British troops are all in the central carriage. As a result, when the IRA opens fire on the train, there are heavy civilian casualties, including two commercial travelers killed by the first volley. The New York Times reports that “a shower of bullets was rained on the train, practically every compartment being swept.”
The firefight lasts only ten minutes, but in that time six civilian passengers are killed and ten wounded. Six British soldiers are injured, three of them seriously. Two IRA volunteers are killed outright and another is fatally wounded. Two more are badly wounded but survive. Charlie Hurley, who had led the ambush, is struck in the face by a bullet. IRA leader Tom Barry later writes, “Through some miracle, the nine unwounded and two wounded got away across country, in small parties, with the British following close behind.” Three civilian passengers, one unwounded and two wounded, are detained by the British on suspicion of belonging to the ambush party.
The Upton ambush is part of what Tom Barry describes as “twelve dark days” for the 3rd Cork Brigade of the IRA. Between February 4 and February 16, eleven members of the Brigade are killed. One is shot dead by British troops when they raid a safehouse on February 4, another dies in an accidental shooting on February 7, two more (brothers James and Timothy Coffey) are assassinated in their beds on February 14 by Black and Tans or Auxiliaries, three die at Upton on February 15 and four are killed on February 16 when they are arrested by the Essex Regiment in Kilbrittain while digging a trench and shot dead. Of the eleven dead, only those at Upton are killed in combat.
The Upton attack also highlights the dangers, and particularly the risk to civilians, of attacking trains carrying troops. Only a month later at the Headford Ambush in neighbouring County Kerry, an IRA column successfully attacks a train-load of troops, but again, there are civilian casualties alongside the IRA and British Army losses. One of the three men captured by the British at Upton is reported to give information leading to the 3rd Cork Brigade’s main column of over 100 fighters almost being encircled at the Crossbarry Ambush. Hurley is killed in this action.
The Upton ambush is later made famous in a popular 1960s Irish ballad titled “The Lonely Woods of Upton.”
(Pictured: A portion of the cover of an Italian magazine from 1921 that reported on the Upton ambush)