Upton Ambush Bullet
In this month 97 years ago, just two years into the War of Independence, the 3rd Cork Brigade of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was in the midst of what Tom Barry referred to as “twelve dark days” for them. In all, from the 4th to the 16th of February 1921, 11 members of the Brigade were killed; 7 assassinated by British Forces, 1 in an accidental shooting and 3 in direct combat. The 3 combatants were to die in the Upton Ambush on 15th of February 1921.
It was only from December 1920 that military personnel could travel by civilian rail transport; up until that time railway workers had refused to facilitate this mode of transport for British soldiers. By early 1921 the British forces in County Cork, having declared martial law in the County, had strengthened due to reinforcements and this allied with this recent avenue for troop deployment could not be countenanced by the IRA. Emboldened by a recent successful train ambush in Drishanbeg ( near Millstreet ) where a British soldier was killed and five more were wounded, Charlie Hurley, Officer Commanding of the 3rd Cork Brigade (West Cork) planned an ambush at Upton Station, a remote station stop between Cork City and Bandon on the Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway.
Based on intelligence from the IRA in Cork City, Hurley expected that about 15 British soldiers from the Essex Regiment would be on the train to Bandon and crucially would be travelling in one compartment – thus greatly reducing the possibility of civilian casualties as well as facilitating a clean attack. At short notice Hurley hastily got together a party of local company volunteers along with acting Brigade Adjutant, Flor Begley and General Staff Officer, Sean Phelan to stage the ambush.
To ensure the element of a surprise attack and to eliminate any possibility of leaks the unit of some 14 men (not including outer-lying local scouts) only secured position within the station perimeter some minutes before the train arrived.
However unbeknown to the IRA Unit a party of some 30-50 additional soldiers had also boarded the train at the previous (Kinsale) junction and unfortunately had mixed in with civilian passengers. Once the train entered the station the attackers opened fire on what they believed to be the compartment containing the original number of soldiers from the Essex Regiment. The soldiers on the train rapidly returned fire and were soon swarming the platform. From his commanding vantage point of the scene over a railway bridge to the west of the platform, Charlie Hurley quickly summoned a withdrawal on seeing his men hopelessly outnumbered. His own Pat The Painter gun having jammed Charlie not only received a serious bullet wound to the head , from ear to ear, but also sprained his ankle while jumping down from the bridge. His men quickly re-adjusted and amazingly made their escape to the west of the station; the severely injured, of which Charlie was one, were not left behind despite being vastly outnumbered by the pursuing Crown Forces. However 2 of their comrades, Seán Phelan and Batt Falvey who died in the engagement were left where they fell. Another Volunteer Pat O’Sullivan was mortally wounded in the ambush but still managed to make good his escape; he succumbed to his injuries in Cork’s North Infirmary Hospital some two days later. Volunteer Dan O’ Mahony died some years later attributable to the serious injuries he suffered in the engagement. On the British side it was announced officially that 6 soldiers had been wounded. Tragically however there were 6 fatalities amongst civilians on the train and 5 wounded.
Any army waging guerrilla warfare is dependent on the goodwill, support and cooperation of the civilian population and the IRA were only too keenly aware of this. Thus they made it their business to avoid, if at all possible, exposing the civilian population to danger; indeed many planned operations were cancelled where the risk to the civilian population was deemed too serious. Charlie Hurley no doubt had considered the undoubted risk to the passengers on the train in this instance but based on the initial intelligence and the success of the previous train ambush a few days before he must have deemed it a lesser risk than allowing the British Forces unchallenged use of ordinary civilian rail transport in his Brigade area. Had the two scouts who were to join the train at Kinsale Junction not missed that embarkation through some ‘misadventure’ then they would have been able to effect aborting of the mission as directed; as it happened one of them made a valiant if vain attempt to warn his comrades of the vastly increased number of soldiers on the train, by cycling from Kinsale Junction to Upton Station but arriving there just after the attack had started.
The bullet on display in Independence Museum Kilmurry was one of the bullets discharged on that day. It was retrieved from a railway sleeper which formed a fence on the station platform.
The truncated attack itself lasted just 10 minutes but the cost, both human and in Brigade morale was immense, as well as the loss and incapacitation of key personnel; none more so than the Brigade Commander himself – Charlie Hurley. Just over a month later, around dawn on the morning of 19th of March 1921, while recuperating from his injuries in Brigade Headquarters, Charlie was killed while taking on, single-handedly with two Webley Revolvers, a number of British Forces who had raided the house. The shots were heard by his Brigade Comrades who were four miles away about to engage vastly superior British Forces in one of the defining battles of the War of Independence, the Crossbarry Ambush.
The loss of its much admired Officer Commanding was the Brigade’s darkest hour but that day in Crossbarry, their run of bad luck – and in the opinion of Tom Barry, the course of the War of Independence – was about to change.