Family links on both sides of a tragic ambush in West Cork

The stories of two men in West Cork intertwined in the War of Independence. Unlikely to have ever met, one was involved in the killing of the other in the IRA attack on the RIC barracks in Rosscarbery. Decades later, their families were linked through marriage and the war was forgotten. Dan and Flor MacCarthy relate their family’s extraordinary story
Family links on both sides of a tragic ambush in West Cork

Dan MacCarthy outside the RIC barracks in Rosscarbery where one of his granduncles was involved in the siege that saw his other granduncle killed. Picture Denis Minihane

At the back of a drawer in an imposing teak bookcase in the family living room in Skibbereen, Co Cork in the 1970s, nestled among old family photographs and yellowing newspapers, my hand touched something made of steel. 

My childish curiosity piqued, I withdrew the oily brown paper in which the object was wrapped, and opened it up. It was a revolver — a Webley.

This weapon was a standard-issue gun for British soldiers, and of course, the Irish people who served in their army, from the late 19th century onwards. 

Many homes up and down the country will still have firearms dating from that period which once belonged to an older generation who took part in the Easter Rising, War of Independence, or Civil War.

This one was missing its handle, but its barrel and chamber were in perfect condition. There were no bullets with it.

This particular Webley told a family story that was as old as the Republic itself. It had come into the family from our father, passed down from his uncle, Jeremiah MacCarthy from Dreeny (also Dereeny), near Skibbereen, in West Cork, who had been a member of Tom Barry’s famous Flying Column. 

Our father, Daniel G, told us the story of its owner, but only when our mother, Florence wasn’t around. As kids we were warned not to talk about it 'when your Mum was around', and for very good reason, as we will see. He was half joking, half serious.

As he’d explained it, our granduncle on his side, had been involved in the death of our granduncle on our mother’s side. Neither man had known the other at the time; and us kids, now, half a century later, were the familial link between them. We wanted to know more. 

Jeremiah MacCarthy was born and grew up in Dreeny House, one of seven siblings, his parents were the only teachers in the nearby Bauravilla National School.

Daniel G had been election agent for Michael Collins’s nephew Sean in the latter’s failed attempt to make Dáil Eireann in the 1950s. 

The Webley might have come in handy on one occasion when he was confronted by the same Tom Barry at an election rally in Clonakilty when the two men argued their political theories concerning the early 1920s.  Barry feigned to pull a gun. We’ll never know if he really was armed. 

The adversaries went their separate ways. So, our paternal family tradition was firmly on the Free State side, the idealised 32-county republic, deemed a step too far at that stage.

The gun at the back of the drawer was the very same Webley used by Jer during his membership of Tom Barry’s Flying Column in the late 1920s and 1921. 

He would have used it in the Crossbarry attack where he fought “with distinction”, the attack on the Rosscarbery RIC Barracks in March 1921, and several other engagements with the enemy. 

And later, post-Treaty when he found himself on opposite sides of the great Civil War debate to his former commander, Tom Barry. 

At the back of the bookcase it vibrated with history, and provoked a yearning to find out more.

Though it didn’t have the pivotal importance of the Kilmichael or Crossbarry ambushes in determining the outcome of the War of Independence, the attack on the Rosscarbery Barracks nonetheless was a major achievement for the IRA 100 years ago this week. 

It showed the capabilities of a well-drilled unit which could attack seemingly at random and then disappear into the night. It was another major wake up call to the British who had regarded Rosscarbery Barracks as impregnable.

Included in the ranks of Tom Barry’s very capable Flying Column was the aforementioned Jeremiah MacCarthy. 

The young UCC medical student had packed in his studies, and probably any hopes of a career as a GP, such as that enjoyed by his older brother ‘Dr Dan’, in Kinsale. 

Jeremiah was possessed of several sobriquets, Jer Mac being the most commonly used. However, to General Tom Barry he was the Dashing Man, and the Dauntless Man, and the men he commanded in the Civil War were the Holy Terrors.

In his 1946 account, ‘Guerilla Days in Ireland’ Barry mentioned disguises he would adopt to evade capture by the British: ”I switched to travelling as a medical student, and there was no dearth of coaches for that role either as there was a number of medical students on active service with our brigade: ... including that dashing flying column soldier Jeremiah McCarthy of Dreeny, Skibbereen, now in the United States."

There were several other medical students in the Flying Column. In Ken Loach’s film The Wind That Shakes the Barley,  the Cillian Murphy character, Damien, plays one of them. Whether his character is modelled on our father’s uncle or not, who knows.

Jer Mac’s chilling nickname at once displays the high regard in which Barry held Jer Mac but it also conveys something of the ruthless military man as evinced in Michael Collins’s executionary outfit known as The Squad which operated mainly in Dublin. 

The final action of Michael Collins in the Eldon Hotel, Skibbereen the night before the commander of the IRA travelled to meet his maker on that fateful day at Beál na Bláth on August 22, 1922, was to promote Jer Mac to the position of vice commandant, 4th Battalion, Cork Brigade. By this time, the War of Independence had morphed into the Civil War after the Truce and Treaty.

Twenty one miles south of Rosscarbery lay the quiet fishing village of Baltimore. This village was famous for a battle of a much more distant epoch when Algerian pirates attacked in the dead of night in 1631, slaughtered some of the inhabitants and sailed back to north Africa with 107 prisoners to be used as slaves.

Ambrose O’Shea from Co Wicklow, had secured a posting with the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1895, and moved to West Cork with his wife Christine (Chrissie) Shiel from Limerick and their three very young sons. 

As a counterpoint to his duties as a constable he liked to play the piano. Though nothing was passed down in our family as to his repertoire, Ambrose was known to enjoy playing the piano on Sunday mornings. 

The setting was a peaceful village. The couple lived happily, bringing up their young family at Mariner’s Row, the terrace of coastguard houses on the edge of the Cove in Baltimore.

When the War of Independence broke out in 1919, Ambrose put in for a transfer back to Dublin. He considered Dublin to be a much safer option to sit out the war with his family instead of the tinderbox of West Cork. 

Ambrose was our mother’s uncle through marriage; his wife Chrissie was our mother’s aunt, and the sister of our maternal grandmother, Lena Shiel.

As an RIC officer, his daily work involved routine police duties such as arrests for larceny, breaking and entering, and testifying in court at the trials of the accused. 

In March 1917, at the Skibbereen Petty Sessions he testified in the trial of a group of people for larceny from the stricken steamer Alondra which sank at the end of December 1916 off Baltimore, with the loss of 17 lives.

Two years earlier he was involved in the aftermath of a much greater ocean tragedy when he gave a deposition at the coroner’s court in Skibbereen regarding the discovery of seven bodies found at sea by a Sherkin Island vessel, The Village Maid, owned by a John Nolan. 

The bodies (all the victims had drowned) came from the Lusitania which had been sunk by German torpedoes a few days’ earlier off Kinsale, with the loss of 1,198 lives. “There were seven bodies in the boat,” he told the court, “two females and five males”.

One of the deceased had a watch which had stopped at half-past two — the exact time of the fatal U-boat attack. Another had £6 in British gold and a leather purse with 22s. 9d, in silver and copper, a knife, and a mother of pearl toothpick. Ambrose was requested to forward all the effects to the owner of the Lusitania, The Cunard Line.

The attack

At the start of 1921, about 56,000 British troops were stationed in Ireland, with around 12,500 in Co Cork. 

In 'Rebel Cork’s Fighting Story' Tim O’Donoghue states the West Cork Flying Column comprised approximately 100 riflemen but not all were called into action for each operation. 

“In the column were men from all grades: Farmers, students, tradesmen, labourers; West Cork men all, loyal and staunch comrades, equipped with the arms and ammunition fought for ... and all armed with that deadly hatred of England and imperialist oppression.” 

The West Cork Flying Column was a unit of the West Cork Brigade and was subservient to the brigade commandant. The membership of the column was rotated as all seven West Cork battalions dispatched officers and men to serve on it. 

The battalions were listed as: 

  •  1 Bandon 

  •  2 Clonakilty

  •  3 Dunmanway

  •  4 Skibbereen

  •  5 Bantry 

  •  6 Beara

  •  7 Schull

Jer Mac fought with the Skibbereen battalion and was seconded to the Flying Column as instructed. In the Crossbarry ambush' he had been listed as serving with the University College Cork company.

As IRA attacks increased in 1921, RIC barracks began to close and the constabulary quit their role. Rosscarbery had stayed open with the top brass confident that it could withstand any attack. 

At this juncture, two sergeants and 19 constables had been assigned to the Rosscarbery barracks. The IRA had twice attacked the barracks but was twice repulsed.

At 9pm on March 30, the Flying Column No. 3 (West Cork) Brigade was paraded near Rosscarbery at Reenascreena, having billeted near there the day before. Only then were they informed of the attack to be launched four hours later. 

In his Guerilla Days in Ireland,  Barry wrote that he was prepared to lose several men to achieve his aim of the destruction of the barracks. As it turned out, he would lose none. What he hadn’t foreseen were civilian casualties.

The men were ordered to take off their shoes and socks as they approached the barracks. 

Barry later recalled: “The Column had made its approach so efficiently that we afterwards learned not a single person in the town knew of our passing through until the action opened.” 

At this point in the evening Ambrose O’Shea was thought to have been asleep in his room on the groundfloor as a few of his colleagues kept guard. 

A police witness later testified at a military court that he had been seen alive at 11pm. If there was a guard, it didn’t observe the approaching Flying Column.

Barry had fought with the British Army in Iraq in the First World War and had experience of mills bombs, but not enough to build one for an attack of this magnitude. And the use of mines was regarded as indispensable in carrying out the attack. He made this clear in his book.

”The mine was the only weapon the IRA had in its armoury to breach a barrack door or wall. Rifle and revolver bullets were about as useful as snowballs against those strong enemy posts. The IRA had the materials for making mines but it lacked the trained men to assemble them properly. 

“I learned in January 1921”, said Barry, “that no guerilla force should attempt to operate without having 10%  of its personnel capable of constructing, laying and detonating effective mines. Later I was to raise that percentage to 25.” 

The mine contained 50lbs of explosives and was built by Tom Moloney of the Rosscarbery Company who had served in the Royal Engineers in World War I. 

The recollection of Flying Column member and a key participant, O’Donoghue, captured the stealth that was so important to the mission: “About a mile from the town, the order 'all boots off' was given. We moved up and then No 1 Section handed over the mine. Barry crept up to the gate to slip the latch but it was too dark and the torches had to be lighted. The fuses were lighted and we moved up quickly as they began to sputter like fireworks. Barry snapped the latch and to our joy it gave with him. [The latch was actually oiled by a sympathiser the day before so any sound would be dulled]. 

"We placed the mine against the door and then ran back 30 yards and lay flat with our palms to our ears. The mine went off with a deafening roar and sent up a cloud of blinding dust. By the time the dust cleared the garrison opened fire.” 

The garrison was very well armed with machine guns and bombs and had boasted that it could not be taken. Defensive fire immediately broke out from the building. 

Barry’s main force was positioned across the road from the barracks at the post office. The force of the extremely powerful explosion blew backwards with less damage to the barracks itself. 

The houses opposite had parts of their roofs blown off. The wreckage from this explosion caved in on Ambrose’s room, apparently killing him while he slept.

The fight escalated for two hours before the RIC men retreated upstairs. By this stage, the Flying Column had thrown more bombs at the building, including one by Barry himself where he audaciously stood in full view of the barracks before launching the missile. 

At one point O’Donoghue recalled the fight looked to be going against them: “That night it looked a hopeless task to take it [the barracks] but I think that any other man than Barry would have thrown in the sponge.” 

It was sometime at this point that Ambrose, aged 46, was killed along with Sergeant Bowles. Their bodies lay among the debris as the fighting raged. 

Two more bombs were thrown in an effort to destroy the floor and when this failed they managed to set fire to the staircase. By this stage the building was an inferno and the post had to surrender.

They brought out their wounded through a rear window. They were not taken prisoner and received succour in some nearby houses.

Three RIC men made their way to Clonakilty about 12km distant to seek help from the barracks there. These reinforcements were severely delayed in reaching the village as bridges had been blown up and trees felled during the night by the IRA for this express purpose.

In addition to the two fatalities constables Doyle, Kinsella, and Harken were seriously wounded, with six others injured. 

The aftermath of the attack had a tragic outcome as the Cork Examiner reported: ”But another appalling feature of the morning’s sensations were yet to come. Thursday was ‘fair morning’ in Rosscarbery and the town was pretty well filled with buyers and country people, large numbers of whom congregated in the vicinity of the wrecked barrack to view the scene of the night’s startling events.” 

A bomb was picked up among the smoking ruins by a curious young girl before a constable grabbed it from her and threw it away rapidly. It exploded nearby and killed farmers John Collins and George Wilson, as well as a toddler Francis FitzPatrick.

The truce between the IRA and British forces came just four months later.

That long night in Rosscarbery saw some of the fiercest fighting the area had seen. And these were the events alluded to by our father: “It looks like your granduncle on my side killed your granduncle on your mum’s side”. 

It is extremely unlikely that his uncle, Jer Mac, aka The Dauntless Man, and Sergeant Ambrose Shea, our mother’s uncle, had ever met. They would be linked three decades later by our parents’ marriage in 1954 when their two families became united.

The precise involvement of Jer Mac is not known but that he took part in the attack in which Ambrose was killed there is no doubt. 

The Cork Examiner reported an attacking force of at least 200 but about 70 seems to have been the actual numbers of enlisted Flying Column men. It is also possible that a shot from Jer Mac’s gun killed Ambrose.

In a letter to the Southern Star in 1997, the O/C of the Skibbereen Battalion Nelius Connolly’s son, Sean, wrote that Jer Mac, 24, didn’t know the meaning of fear and had fought at Crossbarry with distinction. 

He wrote that Jer Mac “had crossed the street in Rosscarbery with Jack Corkery of Bandon and my father [Nelius] through a hail of bullets to enter a house to give them a better advantage to take the barracks.

Looking back at the encounter in Rosscarbery, Tom Barry decisively summed up the operation: “This was the longest and toughest fight fought in West Cork. It took the Column over four-and-a-half hours to destroy the fortress, driving the police by bombs, revolver and rifle fire from the ground floor to the upstairs rooms and eventually having to bring down some ceilings of the ground floor by home-made bombs, about six or seven pounds in weight, and later having to set fire to the stairs with paraffin.” 

The Column’s mission would have been deemed by them as successful save for the deaths of the child and the two men. No arms were captured as they were destroyed in the flames.

The view from the British Press Association newswire bespoke a noble defence: “The police fought with the utmost gallantry until finally they concentrated for a last stand in the only room which provided any kind of cover. 

"Here, in this confined space they battled against overwhelming forces until even this frail piece of refuge was set on fire, and those who were able to do so escaped by means of an upper window, wounded and exhausted”.

After his body was recovered from the barracks Ambrose was interred in Rosscarbery cemetery, but his remains were later moved to Tullagh Cemetery, in Baltimore.

A few days after the attack, the Cork Examiner sent a reporter to describe Rosscarbery: “The streets of the town were littered by debris of all kinds, broken glass, dislodged slates, etc, while scarcely a house but bears palpable traces of the terrible force of the explosion. Roofs were stripped and windows shattered, even in the most distant parts of the village, while the interior of the houses opposite the barrack were one mass of wreckage.” 

The Cork County Eagle reported that the explosions were heard in Clonakilty, Ballineen and even in Baltimore. It is entirely possible that Chrissie heard the explosion that killed her husband.

By the time the Civil War broke out in June 1922, Jer Mac and Tom Barry found themselves on opposite sides of the ideological divide.

On one occasion Jer Mac hitched to Dublin with Neilus Connolly O/C to meet Michael Collins to discuss a supply of arms for West Cork.

He later defended Skibbereen Barracks with 12 rifles at his disposal, against anti-Treaty forces, whose numbers were around 500. He was the unanimous choice of the men to take over from Nelius Connolly who was stepping down to get married.

After the Civil War, Jer Mac joined the Garda Síochana on the foundation of the force and spent some time in Dublin. He left after a short time and emigrated to the USA. 

In common with many combatants of this turbulent period in Irish affairs, the United States provided an outlet to build a new life. Jer Mac was no different.

We don’t know the date he left for the USA, but we believe it was in the early 1920s. Very little is known of his life there for the next three decades. We do know he worked as a hospital orderly in Trenton, New Jersey. Did he use his medical knowledge from his UCC days to land the job? 

We’ll never know. One of the many unanswered and probably unanswerable questions, such as: Why was he coming to Ireland in 1953. Was it his first time returning in the 30 years since he had left. That we’ll never know either.

He lived alone in a flat at 122, Perry St, Trenton, New Jersey. That is the address on two letters we have that he posted ‘home’, one of them to his niece, in which he wrote: “Life hasn’t treated me too harshly, and although I’m nearly 54 I think I feel a lot younger. I have a nice job and good health DG. What more could I want? Write to me soon again, if only to say “hello” to your sometimes lonely uncle”. 

Jer was an active member of the County Corkmans’ Association in New York and as late as 1946 was involved in raising funds for the erection of a monument to another son of Rosscarbery, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. 

However, Jer Mac never got to come home. On May 6, 1953, the week before his big trip home, he was hit by a car while crossing the road in Trenton and killed instantly. He would never again get to see the woods of Dreeny on the banks of the River Ilen.

Legacy of Jer Mac

On his death, his former comrades had no doubt as to the character of Jer Mac. One account wrote: “Diarmuid MacCarthaig turned his back on university life, exchanged the pen for the rifle, and risked his life for the fight for national independence. Like many others …he regretted that such a heart-breaking experience [Civil War] should come his way.” 

When Jer Mac’s body was flown back to Ireland, Barry spoke at the removal in Leitrim Street, Cork and led the funeral cortège to West Cork..

Memorial notices in this paper and the Southern Star appeared for years afterwards placed by his former comrades. ‘Always remembered by his colleagues in the IRA and the National Army. He led with dauntless courage, Jer Mac from Dreeny House’.

The Southern Star, whose premises was a mere 10km or so from Dreeny wrote: “He supported the Treaty and sometime after the end of the Civil War went to America where he remained. During his time in the States he always evinced a lively and sympathetic interest in Irish affairs and was a leading member of the County Corkmen’s Association in New York.” 

Other accounts were equally glowing: On May 16, the Star wrote that “he was one of the most outstanding fighting men in the Flying Column in West Cork during the War of Independence. Anyone who had the experience of soldiering with him felt that, in a tight corner, he had a reliable comrade. 

"In the middle of his studies for a profession he sacrificed his career for his country. He had died in a foreign land when, he understood that he contemplated returning to Ireland to live. 

"Jer Mac was a soldier who answered with only one weapon when fighting the enemy. His services were invaluable and his record in the fight for Irish freedom spoke for itself more effectively than any words they could find."

Ambrose not only has no gravestone but the family does not know for certain where he is interred. It is considered highly likely that he is buried at Tullagh Cemetery but if so, it is in an unmarked grave.

“His burial is not recorded in the graveyard register that we have for Tullagh Graveyard. The Tullagh graveyard register does have an entry for Ambrose's infant daughter Puera Shea on January 17, 1920,” says Margaret Murphy of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre.

Chrissie (Christina) successfully sued for the sum of £10,000, equivalent in those days to about €150,000. She moved to Dublin with her three young sons and got on with the task of raising them.

One of our siblings once asked our mother Florence if there had been any opposition on either side of the family, to her and our father getting married: “No. Not at all. Sure you knew your Auntie Chrissie, she wouldn’t bear a grudge against anybody.” 

As to the conduct of the Rosscarbery Barracks members prior to the attack, Tom Barry had this to say:

“The RIC and Black and Tans as a force, were detested by the masses of the people and had committed many atrocities in West Cork. This garrison however, had not killed or wounded a single citizen, nor had they burned houses, or effected any arrests. They were unique in this respect. 

"When the Auxiliary and Military forces operated around Rosscarbery, this garrison had, on numerous occasions, saved the lives of some of our people, and intervened when the terrorists were clubbing and beating defenceless men. Their behaviour was all the more praiseworthy because of the several previous attacks made on them.” 

Barry recorded that the garrison had fought exceptionally well and had defended their barracks to the end, But good as those men were, they were far excelled by the men of the Flying Column, he wrote.

In his book entitled In Peace and in War, Jer Mac’s nephew, Dr Carthach MacCarthy, reinforced the complexity for some of the police force.

“The RIC men were in an unenviable position. The great majority being Irish and Catholics, at least in the south of Ireland, they were the agents of the Crown for maintaining law and order. 

"Up to this they had been accepted by the people but suddenly in 1920 they found that the whole fabric of British administration in Ireland was under attack by the IRA, with at least the tacit support of the public at large. The RIC were left standing in the middle, their lives were at stake”.

Barry’s regard for the spirited defence of the barracks may be attributable to the fact that his own father was an RIC constable in Killorglin, Co Kerry. 

That, and the fact that it was where he grew up himself. The family had moved to the town in 1911 when he was 14 and in his book he recalled several nostalgic memories. Just ten years later West Cork had exploded into warfare.

  • Jer Mac: a medical student at UCC in 1919. Disposed to libraries and textbooks.

  • Ambrose O’Shea: A country policeman with a liking for music hall songs.

The destiny of these two men was to coincide on the night of March 30, 1921 at Rosscarbery with a calamitous outcome for one of them.

  • With thanks to Margaret Murphy of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, John Hayes, Tim McCarthy, Robbie O’Shea, Aidan Sharkey, Philip O’Regan, Cécile Chemin.

  • dan.maccarthy@examiner.ie

  • maccarthyflor@gmail.com

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