The War of Independence in County Cork stepped up a gear on January 2nd 1920 with simultaneous attacks on police barracks in Carrigtwohill, Kilmurry and Inchigeela. The Royal Irish Constabulary with its network of barracks throughout Ireland provided valuable sources of information to Dublin Castle and thus constituted a serious threat to the Irish Republican Army and its goal of an independent republic. The result of the attacks was the abandonment of small, isolated, rural barracks and the concentration of forces in towns and cities. In the early hours of Easter Sunday 1920, hundreds of these abandoned barracks and smaller court houses were set on fire and destroyed.
As the IRA began to develop its structures and to co-ordinate its companies at brigade and battalion level, secure lines of communication became critically important. Blarney, with its two railway stations and network of roads leading to Mid and North Cork, was an important hub for couriers carrying despatches and transporting weapons and explosives. The presence of a R.I.C. barracks constituted a threat to these communications and a decision was taken by the officers of Cork No. 1 Brigade to eliminate that threat.
However, this was no simple task. The barracks was in the centre of the village flanked with buildings on each side, fronting the Green. Since the earlier attacks, it had been strongly fortified with steel shutters and coils of barbed wire at the rear. It was manned by six constables under Sergeant Matthew Larkin. Moreover, there were army garrisons nearby in Cork and Ballincollig, a mere ten minutes drive away. Any attempt to capture it would require guile, speed and efficient organisation; the mobilisation of hundreds of volunteers and the combined resources of all the surrounding I.R.A. companies of the First and Sixth Battalions.
It was Brigade Adjutant Florrie O’Donoghue who drew up the plan in consultation with officers of the local company. A local volunteer drew a sketch of the rear of the barracks. Duties were assigned to the various companies; all roads leading into the village were to be blocked with trenches and fallen trees. All telephone and telegraph lines were to be cut. Blarney was to be quarantined. Ambush positions were selected overlooking roads leading from Cork and Ballincollig to Blarney. In the early evening of Tuesday, June 1st, a small group of men broke into the premises of the Southern Motor Company in Cornmarket Street and removed a number of cars. Men armed with rifles and explosives were collected and were driven out to Blarney village. Local volunteers knocked on doors, moved people off the village footpaths and warned them not to leave their homes.
It was a beautiful summer’s evening and almost all of the barrack’s occupants were outside, leaning on the wall of the Green, enjoying the last of the sunshine. Frank Busteed, who had been delegated to keep a watch on the barracks, was sorely tempted to make a rush for the door and lock the police outside. He calculated that he could have taken the barracks by himself. At ten o’clock a number of men carrying concealed arms walked into the bar of the adjoining Smith’s Hotel and ordered all the customers outside. Two other men carried a mine inside and placed it in the firegrate of the wall dividing the hotel from the barracks. A fuse was lit, the raiders withdrew and a mighty explosion rocked the peace of the village. A huge pall of smoke, ash and dust covered everything and it took a while before the full scale of the damage became apparent. The roof was blown off the hotel, the front wall blown out onto the roadway. However, while it suffered considerable damage, the barracks was still intact. The mine had been placed up against a partition wall in the barracks, possibly the strongest point, and the full force of the blast went straight up.
Firing began from across the Green and from behind the barracks. The police scrambled to get back inside and began to return the fire. The only casualty was Constable Butcher who was shot through the hand as he scrambled to re-enter the barracks through a rear window, having gone through the kitchen of one of the adjoining houses. The sky lit up with Verey lights fired from the Barracks to alert the neighbouring garrisons. The response was immediate, lorries of troops began the journey to relieve the besieged barracks.
After a sustained assault of rifle fire and grenade throwing from front and back, the attacking party realised that there was little chance of taking the barracks and began to withdraw towards the cars. They travelled back to the city via the Waterloo Road, the only road into the village left open. As soon as they had safely passed, local volunteers quickly made that route impassable also. The convoy made its way back to the city by a circuitous route, abandoning the transport at the outskirts. The vehicles were all reclaimed undamaged by their owners the following day.
As the relieving troops headed towards Blarney, they found their way impeded by trenched roads and fallen trees. There were exchanges of fire around Leemount and particularly at Healy’s Bridge where the men of Courtbrack and Donoughmore companies exchanged heavy fire with the troops from Ballincollig before retiring in good order back to their areas. It was well after midnight before the first troops from Cork reached the village.
Although the barracks was intact, it had suffered severe structural damage and the decision was taken to abandon it the following day. On Wednesday night, the local company returned to complete the destruction of the barracks with explosives and reduced it to a burnt-out shell. They also destroyed the adjoining courthouse, but this time did not use explosives for fear of damaging the houses next door. Instead they smashed it to pieces with axes and sledgehammers, destroying all the court records.
The destruction of Blarney R.I.C. Barracks was a successful action for the Cork No. 1 Brigade of the I.R.A. It was well planned, efficiently organised, succeeded in its aims and deployed hundreds of volunteers without loss or capture. Those who took part remembered it for years afterwards and used it to claim their pensions and write their witness statements in later years.
Mr. John Mulcahy is a member of Blarney and District Historical Society, and this article was due to be presented as part of his lecture to have taken place in the Blarney Castle Hotel (Smyths Hotel) on Wednesday June 3rd 2020. Due to the current situation with Health and Safety regulations relating to Covid-19, the lecture is postponed at present but will take place at some future date to be announced.