Remembering The Crossbarry Ambush
On March 19th 1920 the IRA in West Cork successfully fought off a large British force intent on defeating the IRA in that county.
The increasing success of the IRA's 3rd Cork Brigade led to a spate of arrests and interrogations of suspected IRA volunteers in West Cork, in an effort to discover the identities and headquarters of the Republicans.
The British succeeded in breaking an IRA volunteer under interrogation and discovered that the West Cork Brigade had its headquarters in Ballymurphy Co Cork, an operation to kill or capture this IRA column of around hundred Vols commanded by Tom Barry was now put into place by the British.
The British commanders, mobilised about twelve hundred troops, to converge on the area from several different directions. According to Tom Barry, four-hundred British troops came from Cork, two-hundred from Ballincollig, three-hundred from Kinsale and three hundred and fifty from Bandon. Later in the day about a hundred and twenty Auxiliaries also left Macroom.
The British sweep was mounted early on the morning of March 19th. At Crossbarry, some of the troops descended from their lorries to proceed on foot or bicycle to try and catch the IRA unaware.
One early victim of the action was Charlie Hurley, the IRA Commanding Officer of the Cork Number Three Brigade. Hurley, who was recovering from a serious wound sustained at the recent Upton ambush, was trapped in a house and killed at about 6:30 am.
Tom Barry, only becoming aware of the danger at the last minute, resolved that his men, 104 strong, would have to fight their way out of the encirclement.
Barry's calculation was that his men, who had only 40 rounds per man, could not sustain an all-day fight and that the small column would be trapped if it took this course of action.
Barry observed that one of the British columns advancing towards Crossbarry was well ahead of the other British units. If his men could break through this British force, roughly the same strength as his own force, then they could break out of the British encirclement.
Barry laid out an ambush for the British at Crossbarry crossroads—his men being in position by 5:30 am. The first British lorries, about twelve vehicles according to Barry's account, came into view of the IRA at 8:00 am. When they reached Crossbarry, they were caught by surprise and hit by a crossfire at very close range.
They took significant casualties and many of them fled the scene. Barry's men collected the British arms and ammunition before setting fire to the lorries. At this point, they were attacked again by another British column of about two hundred, coming from the southwest, but they too retreated after a stiff firefight.
Two more British units converging on the area from the southeast tried to dislodge the IRA from their ambush position, but again without success and they too fled in disorder.
Taking the chance offered by his quick victory to get away, Barry then marched his men to safety in the Gurranereigh area, while the British were still disoriented by the ambush. There was another brief exchange of fire at long range as the IRA column got away. The action had lasted for under an hour.
On realising what had happened, Major Percival of the Essex Regiment rushed to the scene with his troops but was only able to open a long-range fire on the fleeing IRA men. He later blamed the failure of the British operation on the Auxiliary column which had gone to the wrong rendezvous point and had therefore left a gap in the encirclement.
There were some further firefights along the IRA column's line of retreat at Crowhill and Rearour but with no further casualties on either side.
The reports of casualties inflicted in the ambush varied according to the source that reported them. The IRA at the time claimed that about thirty British troops were killed and that they had lost three men but the British claimed they had lost ten men and killed six Republicans.
Whatever the true casualty list is, this ambush was a huge morale booster for Irish Republicans especially in West Cork as they had successfully fended off a substantially larger and better armed British force.