Volunteer Liam Ahern or Aherne (aged about 29) of Midleton (Clonmult)
Date of incident: 20 Feb. 1921 (killed after surrender)
Sources: CE, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 Feb. 1921; II, 24, 25 Feb., 28 April 1921; Military Inquests, WO 35/155A/53 (TNA); Seán O’Mahony Papers, MS 44,047/3 (NLI); Joseph Aherne’s WS 1367, 52-58 (BMH); Michael Kearney’s WS 1418, 21-23 (BMH); John P. O’Connell’s WS 1444, 7-15 (BMH); Patrick J. Whelan’s WS 1449, 51-58 (BMH); John Kelleher’s WS 1456, 23-24 (BMH); Patrick J. Higgins’s WS 1467, 3-7 (BMH); Diarmuid O’Leary’s WS 1589, 4-8; Roll of Honour, Cork No. 1 Brigade (Cork Public Museum, Fitzgerald Park, Cork); Last Post (1976), 81; O’Neill (2006), 62, 96-100; Borgonovo (2007), 88; ‘The Irish Rebellion in the 6th Division Area’, Irish Sword, 27 (Spring 2010), 84-85, 143; Rebel Cork’s FS, 190-95; Sheehan (2011), 125; Midleton IRA Memorial, Main Street, Midleton; Cork No. 1 Brigade Memorial, Holy Rosary Cemetery, Midleton; Clonmult Ambush Site Memorial; Clonmult Village Memorial; http://midletonheritage.com/2015/12/11/few-families-suffered-as-we-did-war-of-independence-pension-files-associated-with-midleton/ (accessed 13 March 2016).
Note: Volunteer Liam Ahern was killed by British Auxiliaries after his surrender in what became known as the Battle of Clonmult. On Sunday evening, 20 February 1921, ‘the Flying Column of the 4th Battalion, Cork No. 1 Brigade, was surprised, surrounded, and practically wiped out by British forces at a farm known as Garrylaurence near the village of Clonmult [7 miles north-east of Midleton] in East Cork’. See John P. O’Connell’s WS 1444, 7 (BMH). As John Borgonovo asserts, Clonmult was ‘the IRA’s worst disaster of the entire Anglo-Irish War’. Nevertheless, there were no attacks on Cork city civilians or local unionists or ex-servicemen after the Clonmult reverse or after the execution of two Clonmult prisoners in late April. See Borgonovo (2007), 88.
What led to the Clonmult catastrophe was an IRA plan to ambush a military train at Cove Junction on Tuesday, 22 February. In preparation for that ambush the active service unit of the Cork No. 1 Brigade had established a base near the small village of Clonmult. The leaders had departed to inspect the site of the proposed ambush, and sentry duty had temporarily ceased as the column was getting ready to depart. At that point about twenty column men were surrounded in their temporary base in a farmhouse after the Hampshire Regiment in Cork city had acquired information on their location. Outside the farmhouse was a company of the Hampshire Regiment (four officers and twenty-one other soldiers) who had arrived at about 3:45 p.m. The column was largely trapped inside. Two of these Volunteers went to fetch some water from a well, and it was they who noticed that the cottage had been encircled. Both were fatally shot while attempting to return to the house, but their shouts raised the alarm. Five more Volunteers tried to make a dash for safety, but three of them were mortally wounded. The siege continued for some hours until the ammunition of the IRA defenders was running out, enabling the attackers to get close enough to set fire to the farmhouse, and the Volunteers inside had no choice but to give themselves up. By 5:20 p.m. RIC reinforcements (twenty-five men in all) had arrived. At 6:30 p.m. the IRA surrendered and Volunteers Volunteers Liam Aherne, Jeremiah Aherne, David Desmond, Christopher Sullivan, Donal Dennehy, Joseph Morrissey, and James Glavin were lined up. The official Hampshire account alleged that when the RIC men went to arrest these Volunteers, they were fired upon by the remaining rebels, and that the fight resumed, with inevitable IRA casualties. IRA testimony gathered decades later alleged in contrast that the Volunteers had been massacred by RIC constables armed with revolvers, until a British officer intervened and ordered them not to interfere with the wounded. The crown forces left Clonmult with three wounded prisoners (Captain Patrick Higgins, J. O’Leary, and Edmund Terry) and six others (Volunteers Patrick O’Sullivan of Cobh, Maurice Moore of Cobh, Jeremiah O’Leary of Killeagh, Robert Walsh of Ballycotton, John Harty of Ballyroe, and William Garde of Ballyedmond). There were twelve bodies left lying outside the farmhouse. See Seán O’Mahony Papers, MS 44,047/3 (NLI); Rebel Cork’s FS, 193-95; O’Neill (2006), 96-100; Sheehan (2011), 125.
The later British prosecution of seven of the Clonmult prisoners attempted to whitewash the behaviour of the RIC. The court-martial opened in Cork city on 9 March and lasted seven days, with the prisoners charged with ‘levying war against His Majesty’: ‘The prosecutor said a military party about to search a farm near Midleton found it occupied by armed men. There was a fight, and 6 men surrendered but later tried to escape. A further struggle followed in which 13 men were killed, and the 7 prisoners, 4 of whom were slightly wounded, were captured. An eight man named Higgins was still unfit for trial.’ See II, 28 April 1921. The prisoners were condemned to death. Five of the nine prisoners had their sentences commuted. Volunteers Patrick O’Sullivan and Maurice Moore were executed at Cork Military Detention Barracks on 28 April 1921. Volunteer Captain Patrick Higgins was saved from execution only by his wounds. See Rebel Cork’s FS, 193-95. The Clonmult monument lists the names of twelve Volunteers as having fallen in the Clonmult disaster. See www.irishwarmemorials.ie.
Volunteer Liam Ahern was one of the six living children (nine born) of the lime burner William Ahern and his wife Hannah of 23 Commissioners Buildings in Midleton. Liam Ahern, listed as a law clerk in the 1911 census, was the oldest of these six children (four sons and two daughters), who ranged in age from 6 to 19. Liam Ahern was interred in the Republican Plot of Holy Rosary Cemetery in Midleton, where there is a memorial to those who died at Clonmult and to seven other Volunteers.
Three members of the column—Volunteers Diarmuid Hurley, Joseph Ahern, and Patrick Whelan—were away from the farmhouse on the fatal day but returned with the lone uncaptured survivor (Jack O’Connell) to the scene after learning of the calamity: ‘There we found twelve of our comrades, laid side by side, in a field adjoining the house, their faces covered by a long canvas sheet. Some local people had come to the scene after the military had left, collected the bodies, and laid them as we found them. I undertook the heartbreaking task of uncovering their faces and identifying them, calling out each name consecutively. . . . There were two distinct pauses as I went along the row, as I had great difficulty in naming Liam Aherne (Jos. Aherne’s brother) and Jerry Aherne (first cousin to Jos.). I will not even attempt to describe the mental anguish of [column commandant] Diarmuid Hurley. All four of us—Diarmuid, Jos. [Aherne], Jacko [O’Connell], and myself [Patrick Whelan]—sobbed with a terrible grief and sense of loss at the fate that had befallen our beloved comrades, some four or five of whom had bullet holes in the face, just below their eyes, where they had been shot by the Tans whilst prisoners.’ See Patrick J. Whelan’s WS 1449, 56 (BMH).
The Clonmult survivor who came closest to death but cheated it at least three times was Patrick J. Higgins, who had agreed to surrender with his comrades when further resistance seemed useless. His description many years later of what happened will forever arouse amazement: ‘We shouted out we would surrender and then threw our guns into the burning house. We were told to come out with hands up. We did so. We were lined up alongside an outhouse with our hands up. The Tans came along and shot every man, with the exception of three, namely, Paddy O’Sullivan, Maurice Moore, both from Cobh, and “Sonny” O’Leary, who had been wounded in the fight in the house. These three were saved from the Tans by the officer in charge of the military party. A Tan put his revolver to my mouth and fired. I felt as if I was falling through a bottomless pit. Then I thought I heard a voice saying, “This fellow is not dead, we will finish him off.” Only for the military officer coming along, I too would be gone. I cannot have been unconscious for long because I remember Paddy O’Sullivan and Maurice Moore being told to help me to a lorry. They brought me across the fields to the lorry. I was thrown into it, and with O’Leary, O’Sullivan, and Moore, driven to the barracks at Midleton. We were taken out of the lorry there for identification by the R.I.C. I was the only one identified. We were then beaten up, thrown again into the lorry, and driven the fifteen miles into Cork Military Barracks, where I had my wound dressed for the first time. I was then taken to the military hospital. After some days in hospital the bullet which had lodged in my jaw fell out. (It was a lead bullet, not a nickel one.) I was over three weeks in hospital when I was taken out and put into a cage—a contraption in the barracks square where prisoners with no specific charge against them were kept. I was there for a night and then handcuffed and taken under armed escort to Cork Military Detention Barracks.’ On 21 June 1921 Higgins was tried by court martial and sentenced to death. But his case was appealed, and a decision was still pending when the Truce intervened on 11 July. He was released a few days after the Truce, having been saved by his wounds and by the legal delays in his case. See Patrick J. Higgins’s WS 1467, 6-7 (BMH).