Sean Moylan, Rebel Leader

Sean Moylan, Rebel Leader offers a close and personal look at the man and his life. A fearless fighter, he led a series of ambushes in Cork as Commandant of the Cork No. 2 Brigade. He was part of the team that captured the only British General to be abducted during the War of Independence. Following the truce he fought on the anti-Treaty side during the Civil War. He was elected to the Dáil in 1932 and served in various Cabinet posts until his death in 1957.

Featuring previously unpublished letters from key figures in the Republican movement, this new biography offers a crucial insight into the realities of the War of Independence, the Civil War and the foundation of Fianna Fáil.

By Aideen Carroll
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ISBN 9781856356695    

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By the Author:
Last year Mercier printed Sean Moylan Rebel Leader. I have to declare an interest, the subject was my grandfather. Months after the book went to print, I found an archive of untapped material buried in my mother’s papers. The attached piece from this archive concerns an incident at Knocknagree in 1921.


In the years leading up to the War of Independence, Knocknagree was a thriving village on the edge of Sliabh Luachra boasting over a dozen pubs, 14 grocers, a  draper, bootmaker, blacksmith and baker. There was a Post Office, an R.I.C. station and a  monthly fair and market serving a number of parishes in this part of North West Cork near the Kerry border. The village also had a fine tradition of poetry and music going back to 1783 when the poet and genius Eoin Rua Ó Súilleabháin set up a short lived  hedge school at the  cross-roads. We might be disposed to believe that another man of this parish, Ned Buckley, was influenced by the teachings of Eoin Rua as passed down to him by his own people. Ned’s finely crafted lampoons on the political shibboleths of the post civil war era became known the length and breath of north Cork and Kerry.

In October 1920, the RIC barracks at Knocknagree was evacuated due to the escalating violence against the Constabulary. Its location was vulnerable to attack as the Volunteers pursued every opportunity to capture guns and burn out isolated barracks. Across the region, winter progressed in a downward spiral of violence. The villagers read about the burning of Cork city on December 10th which was described in the papers as a truly staggering reprisal. The British Cabinet introduced Martial Law in Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary and  the heavy hand of the Army was evident in every dwelling where the householder was obliged to pin a list of occupants on their front door. The curfew was another strategy  employed by the Crown to tighten its grip on the Nationalists. In the area around Kanturk, curfew was strictly enforced  and anyone found outside was ‘invited’ to either march all night with the patrol or spend 12 hours in the barracks lockup. As the violence intensified, Martial Law was extended throughout Munster;  many districts were proclaimed and  the suppression of monthly  fairs and markets  affected both the local farmers and the economy at large. Nevertheless, in the early months of 1921, while the sale of livestock was troublesome to say the least, normal life continued for the villagers of Knocknagree, at least during daylight hours. Nothing could have prepared the parish for the tragedy and sadness that engulfed the community on 6th of February 1921.

There was a whiff of spring on Sunday morning as the locals and farming families from the surrounding hinterland made their way to the Church of Christ the King for 11 o’clock Mass. Spilling into the 100 year old church the most devout parishioners wearing their Sunday best filled the front pews. The latecomers shuffled at the back holding their caps. After Mass, neighbours lingered and gossiped at the church wall. The recent Tureengariffe ambush and the  military reprisals at Kingwilliamstown (now Ballydesmond) were  the subject of much discussion.   Some of the men continued the debate  over a bottle of stout down the village. Families in their pony and traps departed for home to prepare the Sunday dinner and the young hurlers readied themselves for the match in Cronin’s field.

The following account by a local man, Diarmuid Moynihan, written to the Minister for Lands Seán Moylan in March 1947, describes the unfolding events as they occurred that afternoon. Tragically, a 17 year old youth was killed, the only son of a widower. Two other boys aged 12 and 13 were wounded, one of them seriously.

“The afternoon was bright and sunny. About 40 boys and youths from the neighbouring townlands of Knocknagree and Nohoval assembled to play a challenge hurling match in Mr. Sylvester Cronin’s field at Knocknagree. The field is north of Mr. Cronin’s dwelling house, one field removed from the Gneeveguilla-Knocknagree road and a similar distance from the Knocknagree-Rathmore Road. A small number of adults were with the boys while in the village at the ‘Cross’, the usual Sunday afternoon group of loiterers assembled.

Rumours had been afloat earlier in the day that a military patrol was in Gneeveguilla approximately three miles west, but as the Crown Forces had been paying particular attention to the said area for some time previous to this, the people of Knocknagree did not anticipate a visit. Only when the patrol was sighted at Lisheen, 1 1/4 miles west of the village did some of the men at the ‘Cross’ bestir themselves. Some few of the men rushed towards the playing field probably with the intention of warning the youths there, some few others dallied at the ‘Cross’ through sheer curiosity until the patrol swept towards the village. The boys in the field were warned of the approach of the military but as this was the first occasion that a military patrol or convoy visited the area, the children did not appreciate the danger. With men moving from the ‘Cross’ to the field and others who had dallied rushing for the shelter of houses while the youths clustered around the playing pitch, the military careered into the village. Two bursts of machine gunfire directed towards the youths was the taste of what was to be a terrifying and tragic evening.

The youths rushed southwards but by this time three lorries had drawn up on the public road to the east and the military advanced towards the field, while another section advanced from the North. Some of the youths made their escape south westwards as also did all the men, but a goodly part of the group of boys threw themselves near fences or in hollows and cart tracks in the field.

Volley after volley was poured into the pitch and in the direction of the others escaping. After some 10 or 12 minutes, Michael John Herlihy who was lying prone in the field was hit. A little comrade (Johnny Cronin) saw the blood, immediately jumped to his feet and raised his hands. The military fire on the field ceased but some further shots were fired after those who had made their escape.

The boys were rounded up and only then was it discovered that Michael John Kelliher was dead.  He had been shot through the left side, the bullet entering the heart as he tried to pass through a gap in the fence on the southern side of the field. Donal J. Herlihy did not know he had been wounded until he tried to rise from the ground. The wounded boys received attention from the military in the field. Their uncle Michael Herlihy who came on the scene, soundly abused the officer in charge for his dastardly act. The officer who intended taking the wounded boys to Killarney eventually handed them over to their uncle. Donal was nursed back to health in the uncle’s house while his brother Michael was accommodated in the one-time RIC barracks owned by his father in the village. The Barracks had been evacuated in October 1920.

The clothing was removed from young Kelliher’s body, it was wrapped in a military blanket and removed to the Rathmore R.I.C. Barracks. The Sergeant in charge there refused as he said ‘to handle the dirty work of the military’.

A search of houses in the neighbourhood of the village was made before the patrol left with the youth’s dead body and two men, James O’Connell and Con Mahony who were in Mr. S. Cronin’s house. They were taken to Killarney and held for one month.

Eventually the patrol returned to Knocknagree where the body was handed over to the boy’s widower-father.

Various rumours and whisperings were afloat in the village after the sad occurrence.

It was said that one of the boys in the field pointed a hurley, rifle fashion, at the lorries as they sped into the village from the Gneeveguilla area. This has not been confirmed. It should be noted that the road at that point, north of the playing field, is very much higher than the field so that the military had a full view of the boys and adults. It was also suggested that the men at the ‘Cross’ rushed in the direction of the playing field.  It would appear that this is true and the silly action of those guilty gave the military an opportunity of opening fire.  It was also said that those who lingered at the ‘Cross’ ran when called upon to ‘Halt’. Those at the ‘Cross’ did run, but as far as I can glean, they had done so before the military arrived or sighted them. There was no such thing as an order to ‘Halt’

It is well to note too that Banard Height, 1 3/4 miles west of Knocknagree affords a clear view of Knocknagree and its surroundings. The military undoubtedly saw those boys with hurleys in that field a long time before they moved towards Knocknagree. Whether they mistook the hurleys for rifles is a conjecture but judging by the speed with which they surrounded the grounds on the North and East, they must have given some study to their maps beforehand and came prepared to terrorise the village.’

Diarmuid Moynihan’s account of this chilling incident belies the Official Military H.Q. Report which appeared in the Irish Independent on February 8/1921 stating: ‘A military patrol saw a body of armed civilians in a field near Knocknagree. Fire was opened and replied to resulting in the death of one youth and the wounding of two others.’ In another section of the same issue, the names and ages of the boys were given with a report that ‘The Crown Forces entered the village in the afternoon and shouted to some men who were at the corner of the street to ‘Halt’. The young men immediately stampeded round the corner, whereupon machine gunfire was opened from the lorry.’

In a letter to the Irish Independent  published the following Saturday, J.J. Herlihy, an outraged cousin of the boys stoutly contradicted the Military Report.

There was no ambush he wrote, ‘nor was there the remotest attempt to carry out one in the district. Neither was there the slighted preparation for nor anticipation of such a thing. Not a single shot was fired by a civilian.  There was no interference whatever with the Crown forces and they were subject to no provocation in any shape or form’. He went on to describe what happened in the village and at the game itself where a small number of  supporters were watching the match. Hearing the rifle fire at the ‘Cross’ they ran into the fields whereupon the soldiers mounted a machine-gun and trained it in the direction of the fleeing men. Children aged between 7 and 14 ‘ran towards the fences for safety, some stood as if paralysed, others with their arms over their heads.’

The 6th Division Record of the Rebellion which carefully logged all engagements during this period, makes no mention of the shootings at Knocknagree. The only humanity demonstrated during the sad debacle was  the efforts of the military doctor accompanying the convoy who administered first aid to the Herlihy boys. His dismay at the shooting of the children and young Kelliher must have communicated itself to his superiors. The following day, the military revisited the village to convey their sympathy to the bereaved and traumatised parents.

The aftermath

Donal J. Herlihy, aged 12 was shot through the right lung and seriously wounded.
Michael John Herlihy, aged 13, was shot through the thigh.
The wounded children were the sons of John and Catherine Herlihy, National Teachers of Farrankeal, Knocknagree.  Both made a full recovery under the care of Prof. John Dundon from Cork and the local G.P. Dr. Collins from Rathmore who provided constant medical attention during those critical weeks.

Michael John Kelliher, aged 17, was the only son of Michael Kelliher, carpenter, Knocknagree, Co. Cork. The 1911 Census record for this family shows 13 children born to Michael and Mary Anne Kelliher. Seven children survived, a boy and six girls.

In the days following the shooting, the community stood united with the Kelliher family in a show of sympathy and solidarity. They attended the wake, funeral and burial of this young man. Standing at the graveside, his elderly father and his grief stricken sisters were inconsolable. The arbitrary violence inflicted on this quiet village in north west Cork was one of many such outrages during a bloody and bitter conflict which saw the moral authority of the Crown seep into the bogs and British rule in Ireland disintegrate.

© Aideen Carroll, 2011

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One Comment

  1. Peter Murphy August 14, 2012 at 3:26 am

    My late father Michael Murphy, born in Knocknagree on Nov. 2,1910, was among the group of boys when this atrocity occurred.

    He mentioned the incident to me on a number of occasions and that he was a friend of Donal Herlihy, a very bright young fellow who earned his doctorate in Rome in his early twenties and later went on to become the Bishop of Ferns. I think he achieved all that with just one functioning lung but I’m not entirely sure of that.

    Peter Murphy,
    Brampton, ON.

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