seamus dubhghaill

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


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The Upton Train Ambush

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)


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Birth of Robert Erskine Childers, Writer & Fenian

Robert Erskine Childers, British writer universally known as Erskine Childers and whose mother is from County Clare, is born on June 25, 1870 in Mayfair, London, England. His works include the influential novel The Riddle of the Sands. He is the second son of Robert Caesar Childers, a translator and oriental scholar from an ecclesiastical family, and Anna Mary Henrietta, née Barton, from an Anglo-Irish landowning family of Glendalough House, Annamoe, County Wicklow. He is also the cousin of Hugh Childers and Robert Barton, and the father of the fourth President of Ireland, Erskine Hamilton Childers.

Childers is raised at the home of family members at Glendalough, County Wicklow. At the recommendation of his grandfather, Canon Charles Childers, he is sent to Haileybury College. There he wins an exhibition to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studies the classical tripos and then law. He distinguishes himself as the editor of Cambridge Review, the university magazine.

Childers’s first published work is some light detective stories he contributes to the Cambridge Review while he is editor. His first book is In the Ranks of the C. I. V., an account of his experiences in the Boer War, but he writes it without any thought of publication.

After serving in the British army during the Boer War he becomes an Irish nationalist. In 1914, Childers smuggles a cargo of 900 Mauser Model 1871 rifles and 29,000 black powder cartridges to the Irish Volunteers movement at the fishing village of Howth, County Dublin on his yacht, Asgard.

Though he serves as the principal secretary to Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith at the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations, Childers opposes the treaty, supporting the anti-treaty forces during the Irish Civil War. Childers is captured with a pistol by Free Staters in November 1922 shortly after the Free State has passed legislation making such possession a capital offence. Ironically, the revolver Childers possesses is a gift from former comrade Michael Collins, who led the Free State until his death in an ambush three months earlier.

Childers is put on trial by a military court on the charge of possessing a small Spanish-made Gaztanaga Destroyer .32 calibre semi-automatic pistol on his person in violation of the Emergency Powers Resolution. Childers is convicted by the military court and sentenced to death on November 20, 1922.

While his appeal against the sentence is still pending, Childers is executed on November 24, 1922 by firing squad at the Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin. Before his execution he shakes hands with each member of the firing squad. He also obtains a promise from his then 16-year-old son, the future President Erskine Hamilton Childers, to seek out and shake the hand of every man who has signed his death sentence. His final words, spoken to the firing squad, are, “Take a step or two forward, lads, it will be easier that way.”

Robert Erskine Childers is buried at Beggar’s Bush Barracks until 1923, when his body is exhumed and reburied in the republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.