As a child I had the opportunity and privilege of walking beside one the great Irish heroes of the War of Independence, Stephen O’Neill.
The Clonakilty born builder, later Tralee and finally Castleisland resident played a full and active part in the ambush at Kilmichael on November 28th 1920 – 100 years ago yesterday but on this Sunday to the day.
Always on a Sunday
And the Kilmichael Ambush is always commemorated on the Sunday nearest to the 28th.
My unwitting brush with patriotic greatness came about because we got our daily milk supply from Stephen’s wife, Christine O’Neill’s dairy under the archway between Tadhg Prendiville’s Bar and O’Neill’s house.
On many a Sunday morning in the early 1960’s Stephen O’Neill asked me to help drive the cows out from the back of the dairy up to his land on College Road.
Hartnett’s Corner and Cordal Road
I would run to Hartnett’s Corner to stop them from bolting for Limerick Road and to the library to halt any notions they had about going to Cordal.
It was all plain sailing after that as we swung onto College Road and my final official duty of the morning was to get to the other side of the gap and usher them into the field at the top of the road.
There was always a tanner in it for me as we retraced our steps back down towards Main Street.
Degree in Animal Husbandry
I had a degree of sorts in animal husbandry and droving from my time with our Tralee Road neighbour, Steve ‘Steveen’ Corkery on his regular Tuesday morning trips to town to the pig fairs and his weekly joust with pig buyer, Mossie O’Connell and we had a goat and a few hens at home.
It wasn’t until much later that I realised the part Stephen O’Neill played in the fight for Irish freedom and how privileged I was with the company I kept – albeit ever so briefly.
He was a lovely old gentleman – from a youngster’s perspective – and he had a roguish sense of humour in spite of all he’d gone through in a life of service to his country.
The Kerryman in 1937
Killorglin native, Tom Barry was the officer in command at the Kilmichael Ambush and he rated his second in command, Commandant Stephen O’Neill as one of the top six volunteers in both wars – for his courage, coolness, patriotism and tirelessness.
There is no trace of Stephen O’Neill’s account of the War of Independence in the Bureau of Military History. But he was captured by the British and interned and, during the Civil War, he was jailed in Mountjoy.
However, he gave an account of the Kilmichael Ambush to The Kerryman in 1937 – just 17 years after the event. The following is the article which appeared:
Historic First Attack on The Auxies
The first attack on the Auxiliaries in Ireland, and the first activity of the newly formed Flying Column of the West Cork Brigade I.R.A. took place at Shanacashel, Kilmichael on Sunday, 28th November 1920.
It was the most decisive encounter of the Anglo Irish struggle, the entire Auxiliary unit being wiped out and their arms and munitions captured. Three Volunteers, Michael McCarthy Dunmanway, Jim O’Sullivan, Kilmeen, Clonakilty and Pat Deasy, Kilmacsimon, Bandon were killed in action.
A Cross Planted
A cross planted on the spot overlooking the scene of the ambush records their sacrifice.
It was a do or die affair for both sides involved in the ambush waged between hastily trained Volunteers poorly armed, and veteran officers of the World War, equipped with the most modern weapons.
Of the many hard blows struck at the Englishry by the West Cork Column of the I.R.A. under Tom Barry in the 1920-21 period, the ambush at Kilmichael was, in many respects, the most decisive.
Spasmodic Attacks on Police and Soldiers
Up to the autumn of 1920, the system of war waged was in the nature of spasmodic attacks on police and soldiers by small numbers of men in different areas.
The success of these small coups compelled the enemy to move in much greater numbers, and about this period never less that two lorry-loads travelled from one enemy post to another.
The brigade council were obliged to take measures to meet this new situation and a brigade column was formed.
Tackling Big Operations
Each of the six battalions supplied six fully equipped and armed volunteers.
The idea was that the battalions should persist in their operations on a small scale, while the brigade column would tackle, in conjunction with the local battalion, any big operations.
The Auxiliaries Come to Macroom
About September 1920, a company of Auxiliaries was drafted to Macroom and took up headquarters at the Castle.
This body had been specially recruited from ex-British officers and had had considerable fighting experience in the Great War.
From their advent they had been tireless in their shootings and burnings and repeatedly raided the district about ten miles south of Macroom which was in the West Cork Brigade area.
Movements Carefully Noted
On the first three Sundays of November, two lorries of Auxies travelled the main Macroom – Dunmanway road as far as Coppeen, and this regularity in their movements was carefully noted.
The west Cork Flying Column was mobilised on 21st of November and after less than a week of training the O/C decided to attack those Auxies – a force which up to this time had not been attacked in Ireland – on Sunday 28th.
Choosing the Ground for the Ambush
The finding of a suitable position was not an easy matter as the road runs through flat, boggy country, but he eventually chose a spot at Shanacastle, about a mile north of Gleann in the Parish of Kilmichael.
Shortly after midnight on Saturday the Column moved on the long journey to its appointed position.
A considerable number of the Column had never before participated in a military operation.
The Arrival of John Lordan
The arrival of the late John Lordan, Vice-Commandant of the Bandon Battalion, at dawn on Sunday morning at the ambush position was most welcome.
Even at this early period he was renowned for his great qualities as a fighter.
He had heard on the previous evening of the O/C’s intention, and hurrying to the scene was typical of him.
The position was occupied about 9am. The morning was frosty and foggy.
Lying on Wet Ground
As the day progressed our condition, lying on the wet ground for many hours after the long march and sleepless night, was not an enviable one.
We waited on.
About 4 o’clock the scouts signaled the approach of the lorries. There were a few tense minutes.
The first lorry appeared and then the second – 150 yards behind.
Silence Broken by Whistle
They moved unsuspectingly into the ambuscade. The silence was broken by the O/C’s whistle which was the signal to open fire.
Simultaneously, a bomb struck the first lorry which put more than its mechanism out of action and rifle-fire opened on both sides of the road.
The first lorry being in the ideal position from our point of view, many of the occupants were either killed or wounded in the first few minutes.
Took Cover and Fought Courageously
The remainder took what cover was available and fought courageously, even though wounded, but within five minutes they were all accounted for.
As can be readily understood, the second lorry, thought coming within the ambush, was not in such a suitable position when fire opened.
The Auxies were able to take cover afforded by rocks on the roadside, and replied to our fire.
Their expert marksmanship and long training made itself felt, and for some time we failed to dislodge them.
The Enemy Annihilated
The O/C with three of the section responsible for the destruction of the first lorry, came to our assistance with the result that the attack was intensified.
On being challenged to surrender, they signalled their intention of doing so, but we ceased at the O/C’s command, fire was again opened by the Auxiliaries with fatal results to two of our comrades who exposed themselves believing the surrender was genuine. We renewed the attack vigorously and never desisted until the enemy were annihilated.
Precious Arms and Ammunition Collected
The arms and ammunition so precious to us, were carefully collected.
The lorries were burned, seventeen Auxiliaries lay dead on the road. As we retired the rain which had been threatening all day, fell in torrents. After many hours of weary marching we crossed at Granure. An unoccupied labourer’s cottage, containing a plentiful supply of straw, enabled us to secure a well earned rest.
The Three Who Died
Victories such as ours on that day, cannot be achieved without sacrifice. On November 28th 1920, three young Irishmem, as noble and unselfish as any who ever fought, lost their lives at Kilmichael in this dour encounter.
Michael MacCarthy of Dunmanway, and Jim O’Sullivan of Kilmeen , Clonakilty, were killed outright. Pat Deasy, Kilmacsimon, Bandon, a heroic youth of under sixteen years, was so seriously wounded that he died a few hours later.
They lie buried in the graveyard at Castletown-Kenneigh. The cause for which they died is still unattained.
Memories Ever Dear
And when our thoughts go back to the three gallant men who died for Ireland at Kilmichael, there is one other who was with us on that day, who died three years ago and whose memory will always be ever dear to us, ‘Flyer’ Nyhan of Clonakilty.
‘Flyer’ was one of the best loved and most gallant of volunteers of the West Cork Brigade.
He, too, has passed on, his life shortened by his wounds and his years of service to his country.
May he and all who died for Ireland, Rest in Peace.
Buried in Kilmurry, Cordal
Stephen O’Neill died on July 8-1966 and he is buried with his wife Christina and her people the O’Leary’s in Kilmurry Cemetery in Cordal.
The inscription on the stone is only barely legible. In this era of commemorations, it is surely something that could and should be rectified.
My thanks to local man, Tom Griffin for his considerable help and local knowledge in locating the grave this morning.
Stephen Joseph O’Neill was born in Clonakilty on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th 1889 and died in Castleisland on July 8th 1966.
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