Random Ramblings from a Republican
In this extract from 'The Sack of Mallow', Ernie O'Malley recounts an IRA Flying Column raid on Mallow Barracks during the War of Independence. It was first published in Ireland Today, September, 1936.
I walked up to the gate of the barracks. Paddy O'Brien from the column was some distance behind. I knocked. A face with a tin hat on its head peered out through the iron grating. 'What do you want,' said a voice. 'I've a letter for the officer commanding.' He unbolted the door. I passed through. He closed it. He stood in a half on guard position, the bayonet of his rifle pointing at me. About fifteen yards away was a group of lancers, others stood around the barracks yard. I held the letter in my left hand; as he stretched out for it I bent down and put on the safety catch on his rifle so he could not fire. I snatched the rifle from his hands, slipped off the safety catch and shouted 'Put up your hands!' He put them up quickly.
I backed and opened the door; our men rushed in. The guard room had been rushed as soon as I had disarmed the sentry. Motor cars drove in. Rapidly, rifles, revolvers, lances, swords, ammunition and equipment were carried out to them. As I with two other men, rushed from the officers' quarters, I heard a shot and saw a lancer fall, but I had no time to investigate. Upstairs we went to find the officers' room locked. With a smash three of us broke in the door. Inside was a soldier, the officer's orderly. We searched for papers but did not find many. Later we discovered a large tin box full, which was too heavy for us to carry.
I sent down for two more men. On the officer's desk was an unfinished letter: 'Mallow is a very quiet town, nothing ever happens here.'
I saw motor cars move off, long lances stuck out and pennons waved. A wounded sergeant-major lay on the ground; some of his men were trying to stop the blood whilst I bandaged his stomach wound. I heard Liam [Lynch] order all men to leave the barracks.
'But it hasn't been properly searched yet,' I said, 'and it hasn't been burned.'
'We have no time,' he said, hurriedly.
I tried to stop the flow of blood whilst the comrades of the dying man stood round. I heard a shout from the gate. Jerry Kieley, a rifle slung on his back, ran towards me.
'I came back,' he said, 'when I heard you were alone; why didn't some of them stay?'
'Let's move those bales into the building' I said. There were compressed hay bundles in the yard. We tugged them towards the main building, loosened them inside and set fire to the hay, then we dashed through the gate and down the town. We caught up with some of the rear guard, seated on an ass and cart, their rifles covered the road behind them. One was playing a melodeon. The thin swirl of smoke from the barracks did not increase. Above Burnfoot we halted.
Thirty rifles, two hotchkiss guns, small arms and over four thousand rounds of ammunition had been captured and had been brought by the motor cars to a safe place in the opposite direction. Sentries were thrown out while some of the men slept.
Twelve miles away was Fermoy, with a strong enemy garrison of about fifteen hundred men. Buttevant with its hutments and camps was twelve miles away and was a battalion headquarters. We could expect a concentration of troops in and around Mallow.
The Mallow Commandant [of the IRA] sent off dispatch riders to mobilise some of the armed men in the battalion. After some time they came, poorly armed, mostly with shot guns, and reinforced our outposts.
'We must get away as soon as it gets dark,' said Liam, 'There will surely be a round up, a big one, and they'll know that we've come in this direction'.
Some of the column officers wanted to remain with me to help the local men defend the town against reprisal parties.
'We must get away,' Liam said, 'the local men can easily avoid the round up. We must get twenty-five or thirty miles away before morning.'
The Mallow Commandant received instructions. He said he would do his best to defend the town: 'The Colonel from Buttevant has assured the parish priest and the minister that there won't be reprisals,' he added.
'We cannot rely on such a promise' I said...
We started off in ponies and traps, strung out in intervals. We lifted the cars across trenches and through gaps where the roads were blocked with heavy, fallen trees. We hauled and pushed them across streams where the bridges had been smashed, we removed heaps of stones or networks of boulders strewn over a long stretch of road. We bumped over filled-in trenches and lurched into deep potholes: this battalion had done its work well.
Enemy would find it difficult to penetrate. The rear guard had to put back the obstacles. We halted from time to time on rising ground to look towards the town; at first we could see a faint haze, the lights of Mallow, then it dimmed as we moved on. Nothing had happened. Later we saw a dim glare; but as we watched it seemed to disappear. Could it be the town? The men would surely defend it. Some hours later we came to a high hill and as the ponies struggled on the bad road the men jumped out and ran up quickly. Away in the distance were flickers of light, separated by intervals of darkness. The flames leapt up as the wind increased. It was Mallow.
'I hope to God it rains,' said the Adjutant. Another pointed to a big glare in the centre. 'What's that?' he said. 'It must be the creamery; that means about three hundred out of work.' Bolster looked at the leaping stab of flames, 'I think it's the Town Hall.'
There was silence for a time as we watched, helpless. The sheltering belly of our horse has paid for harbouring us.
'Damn it, it's terrible,' said Liam, 'to think of the women and children in there and the tans or soldiers sprawling around drunk, setting fire to the houses.'
The enemy had revenged the capture of the barracks on the townspeople. Our elation at success ebbed away; we felt cowardly and miserable; in silence we journeyed on amongst the hills.