Journeys to a Free State: The Battle of Douglas
Over the next weekend, 5-8 August, the town of Passage will be the host to a series of major historical events. The inspiring committee of the Passage West Maritime Museum is currently engaged with the specific aim of furthering reconciliation, in an initiative to acknowledge the centenary of one of the most significant events of the Irish Civil War – the 1922 Battle of Douglas.
In the early hours of 8 August 1922, the cross-channel steamers SS Arvonia and SS Lady Wicklow, with more than 450 Irish Free State troops on board, sailed into Cork Harbour and berthed at Passage West dockyards. In the days that followed, prolonged fighting took place as Anti-Treaty forces struggled to curb the advance of the national army troops.
Although the precise figure has never been conclusively established, up to 20 fatalities (with many more wounded) are estimated to have occurred during fierce battles in and around Rochestown, Oldcourt Wood and Garryduff.
The museum’s website passagemuseum.ie has a full and impressive programme of events. Among the events to be held throughout the weekend will be re-enactment displays, with armoured car and 18-pounder field guns, a special exhibition at Passage West Maritime Museum, guest panels of speakers, walking tours, unveiling of commemorative plaques at Passage and Garryduff upper, and schools’ projects. Members of the defence forces, RNLI and community groups will be attending.
Among those visiting from throughout the country will be archaeologists from University College Dublin, who will be arranging an open artefact day. They have requested that anyone with memorabilia, including photos or other historical items from around that period may like to come to have it appraised. The items can be brought along on the day, or any member of the museum committee can be contacted in the meantime.
The centenary event is one which brings together much information and it really is the first public attempt since 1922 to mark the Battle of Douglas. The programme of events is inspired by the great series of community historical events which the Maritime Museum’s committee have hosted over many years.
The work of UCC historians such as Dr John Borgonovo have been crucial and his book ‘The Battle of Douglas’ (2011 published by Mercier Press, and still available) has been very important in placing a focus on the events in the past few years.
The revisiting by John and others in the ‘Atlas of the Irish Revolution’ (UCC Press) has inspired others such as historian Niall Murray and archaeologist Damian Shiels in exploring what kind of archaeology has survived from the battle between Passage West and Garryduff.
In addition, there is a very rich local history in all the battle locations, which is an aspect I have tried to connect to in my recent walking tours across the battle’s site.
Throughout July 1922, Irish Free State supporters collected intelligence on Cork Republican defensive positions across Munster. In early August 1922, the largest seaborne landings took place in the south.
Ships disembarked about 2,000 well equipped Free State troops into the heart of the ‘Munster [IRA] Republic’ and caused the rapid collapse of the Republican position in this province. On Tuesday 8 August 1922, Free State forces landed at Youghal, Union Hall and Passage West.
The Passage West assault was led by General Emmet Dalton. At just 24 years old, he had First World War combat experience, having won the Military Cross while still a teenager. He had led quite large bodies of British troops, and also studied guerrilla warfare during his later IRA service.
The Cork city landing contingent comprised 450 soldiers from the 2nd Eastern Division of the National Army’s Eastern Command. Some came from the Dublin Guards battalion, which had participated in the recent Dublin fighting and comprised former IRA veterans.
Emmet Dalton’s plan was to enter Cork Harbour, follow the River Lee all the way to Cork and dock at the Ford tractor factory’s marina. The SS Lady Wicklow carried about twenty soldiers and initially acted as a scout ship, running before the packed SS Arvonia.
The harbour pilot was Joey O’Halloran, a Republican. He refused to guide the invading force into Cork, citing the Republican dreadnoughts and sea mines upriver. Dalton selected Passage West to dock in the early hours of Tuesday morning of 8 August 1922.
Republicans hustled to Rochestown, where they met gathering IRA Volunteers. Across the river, Cobh Republicans threw themselves into the emerging contest. IRA riflemen took up positions around Carrigaloe, and began heavy firing on the two ships. At 4am, IRA engineers blew up Fota railway bridge, severing the Cork/Cobh rail line. This seems to have been part of a predetermined defensive response to an expected landing in Cobh. A little later, about 4am on Tuesday morning, the Irregulars set off a mine placed under the bridge on the main road at Rochestown station which was destroyed.
When daylight came, the whole Passage West to Douglas area was occupied by Irregulars, numbering several hundred. They had machine guns in position at various point with no less than three having been set up at Rochestown Cross.
Obstructed in lower Rochestown and under fire, the National Army troops needed to secure higher ground, so they could get around and above IRA defences on the Cork road. The Republicans attempted to counter these attacks, which resulted in heavy fighting around Old Court Wood, between Rochestown and Douglas, about a mile inland. During the afternoon, heavy rifle and machine-gun fire erupted in this labyrinth of fields, narrow country lanes and woodlands.
By Thursday morning 10 August 1922, the Irregulars retreated from Rochestown and blocked the roads at several other points, in order to delay the advance of the National soldiers.
Early on Thursday afternoon, National forces reached Douglas, and the Irregulars commenced evacuating Cork city, which was occupied by National troops before night fall.
Passage West Maritime Museum hosts commemorative events from 5-8 August, see their website passagemuseum.ie for more.
Dr John Borgonovo’s book ‘The Battle of Douglas’ (2011), is still available from Mercier Press.
Kieran’s National Heritage Week tours, 13-20 August are also posted up under Heritage Events at corkheritage.ie.