19 March 1921: Battle at Crossbarry, Co Cork on this day. The Flying Column of the West Cork Brigade under Commandant Tom Barry successfully engaged and defeated a number of different British units that were advancing on his position at the crossroads near Crossbarry, 12 miles south west of Cork City. During the days preceding the encounter both sides had engaged in a deadly game of intelligence and counter intelligence gathering information as they desperately tried to outwit each other. The IRA were keen to ambush a British column but their intention & general location had been given away. General Strickland, head of the British forces in Cork, decided to organize a ‘sweep’ that would flush out Barry’s men and kill or capture them. In return Irish scouts and agents brought news to Barry as to what was afoot.
With just 104 Officers and men, armed with only rifles and 40 rounds per man he knew that to retreat would mean his column would be cut to pieces in a running battle. He decided to hold his ground and fight it out – he calculated that when the enemy was broken and no longer in a position to pursue would be the moment to withdraw on his own terms.
In the very early hours of the day Barry’s scouts reported considerable enemy activity from a number of different points of the compass as they converged on his position. His plan was that all the men were to stay under cover until the British were amongst them and could be surprised at close quarters. All sections were to stay put even if under pressure and only to move from their positions under express orders. To encourage his men in battle he had made arrangements that on the commencement of firing the Column’s Piper would strike up martial airs on his bagpipes to quicken their spirit. As luck would have it the British advance was not well co coordinated and this gave Barry the chance to defeat them in sequence of arrival.
All went well until the first convoy of lorries weaved its way along the road and was almost ready to be attacked when (despite strict orders) a Volunteer inadvertently revealed himself to the enemy who immediately started to deploy for action. The order was then given to open up and the British soldiers were either cut down or fled the scene. But there was no time to savour the moment as another three columns came upon them from different directions and were also shot down or bolted. Eventually all the converging forces were engaged and defeated in detail until not one organised enemy unit remained in the field.
About two hours had elapsed since the opening of the fight; we were in possession of the countryside; no British were visible and our task was completed. The whole Column was drawn up in line of sections and told they had done well.
Guerrilla Days in Ireland
By Tom Barry
Barry then gave the order to move out leaving behind a scene of dead and wounded British soldiers strewn about the ambush site as their lorries blazed away in the background. His men carried away much military booty – plenty of bandoliers of ammunition, rifles and a much prized Lewis machine gun. While the enemy had lost numerous casualties the Flying Column had not escaped without loss either. Three Volunteers were killed in action and another three were seriously wounded. Those who died for Ireland that day were Peter Monahan, Jeremiah O’Leary and Con Daly.
Earlier the British had shot dead a wounded volunteer, Charlie Hurley, when they discovered him in a nearby farmhouse. But he did not die in vain for the shots that killed him helped alert his comrades to the close presence of the enemy.
Crossbarry was a great morale booster for the IRA and helped to further weaken the grip of British rule not just in Cork but also further afield. For it showed that even in an open fight and against overwhelming odds that the British could be defeated when brave and well-led Volunteers with excellent Leadership were given the chance.