Twelve Dark Days

Tom Barry’s Twelve Dark Days in the Context of the wider Guerrilla Campaign

Let the moon shine out along the valley

Where those men who fought for freedom now are laid

May they rest in peace those men who died for Ireland

In the lonely woods of Upton for Sinn Fein

Seán Dunphy’s rendition of the Lonely Woods of Upton will be familiar to many of those who frequented Irish dance halls in the 1960s and 70s. Recorded in 3/4 waltz tempo the song’s lyrics give an almost entirely fictionalised account of the Upton ambush of 15 February 1921. The real Upton ambush was a serious reversal for the West Cork IRA and came at a time when the county’s IRA units were coming under increasing pressure from an acceleration of British military activity in all of its regions. Tom Barry referred to the Upton ambush as part of a period which he called ‘the twelve dark days.’ He gave the period between 4 and 16 February 1921 this ominous title because eleven members of West Cork’s 3rd Brigade IRA, were killed in five separate incidents during that period. The largest of those engagements came at Upton where three IRA volunteers were killed and three more injured. A further five men were killed as a result of two separate British counter-offensives near Kilbrittain. One volunteer was killed in a tragic accident near Skibbereen, and two more were killed as a result of a brutal reprisal near Enniskeane. Things had changed in West Cork. And all over Ireland, particularly in Munster, IRA units were coming into contact with increasingly aggressive counter insurgency tactics implemented by emboldened British police and military.

The infamous events of Bloody Sunday, and the Kilmichael ambush of late 1920 had convinced the British establishment that new tactics were essential if they were to quell the rebellion in Ireland. The British government had previously resisted calls for martial law by members of their military, on the grounds that the imposition of such law would involve admitting the reality that a sustained military rebellion was ongoing in Ireland. Such an admission of reality was not politically expedient but was made inevitable by increasing reports of spiralling violence in Ireland. The military had wanted martial law extended to all of the southern 26 counties. They also wanted its provisions to override all aspects of civil law. They argued that such an approach was essential if they were to succeed in crushing the rebellion, rather than escalating the violence in specific areas. They also bemoaned the independence of the police as amounting to the disorganised deployment of two independent armies in the field. However realpolitik collided with military expertise and the functionality of British martial law in Ireland was compromised. The severely stringent laws were only applied in Munster and served to intensify violence in that province, while comparative quiet was maintained elsewhere. The British military were forced to implement a series of brutal counter insurgency measures that many of their commanding officers considered ineffective in progressing their prosecution of the war.[1]

The first official reprisals under martial law occurred in Midleton in east Cork, on 29 December 1920, after a local ambush. The British military now had licence to take extreme measures against IRA operatives captured under arms, and against civilians deemed to be assisting the rebels. The stakes were raised for everybody involved in the war. Tom Barry’s West Cork Flying Column’s celebrated success at Kilmichael had brought increased attention to the Cork IRA. A Flying Column was surrounded and almost wiped out at Dripsey in mid Cork in late January. Five of the eight men captured at Dripsey were subsequently executed and buried in Cork County Gaol. Their final resting place is marked by a monument near UCC’s Kane building. Tom Barry’s 3rd Brigade Flying Column was almost surrounded at Burgatia House near Rosscarbery on 2 February 1921. Under Barry’s leadership, they succeededin fighting their way out. But this was the first of two narrow escapes that the column had from Crown forces in February and March 1921. On 15 February 1921, an IRA Column at Mourneabbey was ambushed by Crown forces attempting to surround them, while they themselves lay in ambush positions.[2]On 20 February an IRA column billeting at Clonmult in east Cork was surrounded and twelve of them were killed, four wounded, and four captured. It was the most serious reverse suffered by the IRA in the War of Independence. Five days later, another Flying Column had to fight its way out of a round-up operation at Coolavokig, near the Kerry border. All of these men were undoubtedly aware that, should they be captured under arms, a summary execution probably awaited them. Most of them were lucky and significant numbers of active IRA fighters were spared. But the days of congregating large numbers in sizeable Flying Columns were about to draw to a close. The British military and police were conducting regular large scale round-ups and encirclements. On several occasions they seemed to be acting on information attained from within the ranks of the IRA itself.[3]

In the early part of 1921, a casual observer may have felt that the Cork IRA were close to being beaten. Since the declaration of martial law, and the intensification of British military operations against them, several serious reversals had been visited upon them. Though violence was also intensifying in other martial law areas, in Cork, the IRA seemed to be on the receiving end more than anywhere else. Thus, Tom Barry’s ‘twelve dark days’ came at a time when his men’s morale was probably at an all-time low.

The first casualty of Barry’s twelve dark days came on the morning of 4 February when Volunteer Patrick Crowley ‘was surprised in a house at Kilbrittain by British forces and was shot dead.’[4] Crowley was a particularly active volunteer from a very republican family. He had two brothers in the IRA and a sister in Cumann na mBan. The family lived in a lodge near Kilbrittain Castle and their father farmed part of the estate. Crowley himself was said to have worked as a gardener when he was not engaged in IRA activity. Their brother’s death may have served to intensify the republican resolve of a family that were already at the militant extreme of republicanism. In 1924 two of the family were still interned and the Crowley family were described by Free State authorities as ‘in arms against the Government since its inception.’[5]

Three days later, on 7 February, Patrick O’Driscoll was accidentally shot by a comrade while taking up sentry duty near Skibbereen. It seems that the outgoing sentry accidentally discharged his weapon while briefing O’Driscoll on his duties. Tom Barry witnessed the tragic accident and later wondered whether his presence as a commanding officer had caused the nervousness that led to the accidental discharge. According to Barry, the man who fired the shot had been nervously ‘fingering the trigger’ of his revolver while reciting his duties for O’Driscoll.[6] It is perhaps an insight into how poorly trained some of the IRA personnel were. Professional soldiers are trained to carry out a series of safety precautions every time they pick up a weapon. Essentially these precautions ensure that the weapon cannot be fired accidentally. These precautions seem to have been tragically absent on this occasion.

On the night of 14 February James and Timothy Coffey from Breagha near Enniskeane were asleep in their beds when their house was breached by Crown forces. They were taken to a nearby field and brutally interrogated about the death of a local Church of Ireland farmer, Thomas Bradfield. When the interrogation ended they were shot and left with messages proclaiming the involvement of an ‘Anti Sinn Féin Society.’ This was said to have sown the seeds of the so-called ‘Dunmanway killings.’ A few months later when Crown forces vacated a barracks in Dunmanway they left a notebook behind them. The notebook contained the names of the Coffey brothers, along with many other republican operatives. It also contained the names of the informants who provided those names. This helped propagate a belief among some IRA operatives that local Protestants had formed an ‘Anti Sinn Féin Society.’ A few months later, thirteen Protestant men and boys were killed in and around Dunmanway. The killings have proven very controversial as some historians have claimed that their motivation was almost entirely sectarian, while others have claimed that the IRA were acting on intelligence obtained at the barracks in Dunmanway.[7]

The day after the Coffey killings, the Upton Train Ambush saw the West Cork IRA meet with yet another disaster. After a railway workers boycott on the carriage of troops was lifted, the IRA were presented with new targets in the form of trains carrying Crown forces. After the success of a train ambush in north Cork, the west Cork IRA planned a similar attack for the Upton train station. The target was a group of some 15 soldiers from the Essex Regiment, who IRA intelligence had ascertained would travel in a central compartment on the train. They passed this information to the Commander of the Third Cork Brigade, Charlie Hurley. Commanded by Hurley, thirteen lightly armed IRA operatives took up position in the station a few minutes before the train was due to arrive. This last minute deployment ensured that their take over of the station couldn’t leak into the wider community. They were unaware that some 50 additional soldiers had boarded the train at its previous stop at Kinsale Junction. The scouts who were supposed to be able to warn their waiting comrades of this development failed to board the train and though one of them made a desperate attempt to reach Upton by Bicycle, the engagement had commenced before his arrival. As soon as the IRA opened fire, they were met with withering fire from all along the train. It was immediately apparent that they were heavily outnumbered and Hurley was forced into ordering a hurried withdrawal. Two of the IRA were killed and three wounded, one fatally. On the British side there were six soldiers wounded. Perhaps the saddest aspect of the ambush was the deaths of eight civilians and wounding of up to ten more. Hurley was wounded in the ambush and apparently suffered from considerable grief regarding the civilian casualties. He died while recuperating from his wounds, near Crossbarry, a short time later. His fiancée, Leslie Price, would later marry his good friend Tom Barry.

The final incident of Barry’s twelve dark days came on 16 February 1921 when John McGrath, Con McCarthy, Timothy Connelly, and Jeremiah O’Neill were killed while trenching a road near Kilbrittain. It seems that they were surprised by Crown forces while engaged in this work. The IRA became very suspicious that one of their own number had passed information to the British and blamed him for their comrade’s deaths. Such suspicions could, and did, lead to fatal outcomes. Luckily for the man in question, he sold his farm and left the area before the local IRA could dole out retribution.

The twelve dark days represented a low ebb for the west Cork (3rd Brigade) IRA. These dark days came during the war’s most intensive phase and eighteen more people were killed in other parts of Cork, during the same time period. The Irish War of Independence was not a grandiose military campaign. The fact that Tom Barry could sombrely refer to a period where only eleven men from an entire brigade, were killed, as the twelve dark days, gives a very clear indication of the comparatively small scale of the conflict. But such a small-scale conflict was never going to be won on a battlefield. The Irish War of Independence was never going to have a Waterloo or a Stalingrad moment. No one side was going to inflict a military defeat on the other. What they could do was inflict a series of morale sapping blows on the enemy. Blows that may make that enemy re-evaluate their participation in the conflict and perhaps consider what they may be willing to offer for the restoration of peace. In mid-February 1921, the British military establishment had inflicted a series of such blows upon the Cork IRA. There is no evidence that these setbacks had any affect on the IRA’s resolve however. Meanwhile the British military establishment had shown themselves capable of combating the IRA but felt that the half-hearted nature of martial law hampered their utilisation of the tactics required to win the war. Thus, while the British could boast some success in Cork, they were becoming increasingly convinced that they could not win. If anything the IRA’s resolve was strengthening. Martial law had delivered increased violence and the associated negative publicity for the British government, while failing to defeat the IRA, and the months ahead would show how far from defeat they really were.

[1] Michael Hopkinson, The Irish War of Independence, Gill and MacMillan, Dublin, 2004, pp 92 -96.

[3]The failure at Dripsey was due to local knowledge of IRA deployment. The failure at Mourneabby was due to an informer in the IRA ranks. The failure at Clonmult was due to British intel attained through indiscrete IRA deployment. The IRA snatched victory from the jaws of defeat at Coolavokig, but they had been betrayed by an informer in their own ranks.

[4] IMA, Military Service Pensions, DP24365 (

[5] Ibid.

[6] Tom Barry, Guerrilla Days in Ireland, Mercier Press, Cork, 2013, pp 164-5.

[7] Barry Keane, Massacre in West Cork: The Dunmanway and Ballygroman Killings, Mercier Press, Cork, 2014, pp143-173.

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