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# Collins 100
Anatomy of an Ambush: Béal na Bláth and the military battle that changed the path of Irish history
Commandant Stephen MacEoin, a historian and infantry leader, examines the ambush at Béal na Bláth from a military perspective.

BÉAL NA BLÁTH sits in a tight, shallow valley in rural west Cork, banked by broad deciduous trees and rolling slopes. 

The modern day village comprises of a service station and a pub on a corner with a sprinkle of houses.

Its name translates for some as ‘the mouth of the flowers’; for others it is from the Irish ‘blá’, which translates loosely as fertile green or plain. Whatever its etymology the ditches here, on a summer’s day, are sprinkled with indigenous colourful wild blooms among rich green foliage. 

The closest big town is Macroom or Bandon and it sits in the countryside 30kms west of Cork city. 

Head west from the service station and through sweeping bends of rough-surfaced country roads, and you come upon a shallow ditch, arguably one of Ireland’s most pivotal historic sites. 

On the left-hand side of the road, looking west, stands a Celtic cross and close by is a short white concrete pillar with a black cross engraved. 

This is the site of the ambush where Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins died and where the Civil War reached a critical moment on August 22, 1922. 

When The Journal visited this week, council workers and volunteers were busy putting the finishing touches to the new monument in blazing sunshine. 

Earth movers were on the bluff opposite, flattening the ground, and military engineers were working on a temporary bridge across a babbling stream. Nearby a garda directed traffic as visitors came to view the site. All in preparation for the 100-year anniversary of the ambush on Sunday. 

IMG_2084 Niall O'Connor / The Journal The ambush scene this week. Niall O'Connor / The Journal / The Journal

It was very different a century ago – the road was a winding country route running west from the main Cork road to the town of Bandon, a key strategic location in West Cork’s story of revolution.

The fields and farmyards here had suffered a continuous war since 1919 and raiding parties of RIC Black and Tans, British Army and Auxiliaries from their base in Macroom would have been a regular sight for those people living there. 

So too were the flying columns – bands of armed rebels using the support of the locals to fight an insurgency against the British. They stayed on farms, slept in barns, were fed and supported and backed up by Cumman na mBán members carrying messages and arms.  

A peace was hard won and not without the efforts of the West Cork Flying Column under the command of General Tom Barry who, in areas nearby such as Kilmichael and Cross Barry, dealt a significant blow to British operations in the area.

Take a trek up into the hills near there and it is a regular occurrence to come across isolated small monuments to fallen rebels and successful engagements. The monuments are still maintained, clean and surrounded by flowers; the local people still honour their dead relatives. 

It is less complicated now but back on August 22, 1922 this was one of the last bastions of the Civil War and was in the grip of an insurgency against the embryonic Irish Free State by former War of Independence fighters who did not support the Anglo-Irish Treaty. 

The Civil War

Our research found old reports of roads cut by trenches, bridges over rivers destroyed, strongholds held and a war between Irish men and women who were once comrades in the revolution against the British. 

Just weeks before, Cork city was seized in a seaborne landing by General Emmet Dalton and Irish troops. Landing at Passage West and fighting their way into Cork city, old press cuttings list the dead and the dying.

And into this maelstrom of blood-letting and danger drove General Michael Collins on a mission to inspect his troops in west Cork and pay a visit to his childhood patch near Clonakilty. 

On that fateful evening, shortly before 8pm as dusk settled in the sky, Collins was returning to Cork city in a convoy. A kilometre to the west of where the monument now stands the road begins a slow steady descent to a left-hand bend. 

That bend sits in perfect ambush territory – high ground on either side, a blind bend – it is perfect for what military people call a “kill zone”. 

Insurgents set up a roadblock and had placed a mine earlier in the day having watched the convoy passing through. Such was the wait for the returning Collins that they were in the process of dismantling the mine believing he would not appear.

To their shock the Free State convoy was approaching and they immediately began an engagement, rounds pinging off the roadway and the vehicles. One-time comrades now engaged in a fight to the death. 

At some point Collins stood up and moved between vehicles – he fell to the ground, a gunshot wound to the head. Ireland’s great revolutionary leader was dead.

The account of the evening is contested to this day, largely because it was a fight between two bitterly-opposed military groups. To get a unique perspective on it, we spoke to Commandant Stephen MacEoin, a former director of the Military Archives and now second-in-command of the Third Infantry Battalion in Kilkenny. 

Stephen MacEoin Irish Defence Forces Commandant Stephen MacEoin. Irish Defence Forces

The Commandant is both a soldier and a historian and our interview explored the ambush from the perspective of a battlefield assessment through the knowledge of a trained infantry officer. 

The strategic

MacEoin looks at the engagement through three headings: at the strategic, operational and tactical levels.

On a strategic level, the fighting between the two factions – he believes – was influenced by much more than what was evident on the roadway at Béal na Bláth, and in fact beyond the shores of Ireland itself.

Despite the country achieving a declaration of independence, MacEoin believes the shadow of Britain was still evident over Ireland and pushing the Free State to bring a rapid end to the Civil War. 

“You have a post First World War Europe and a lot of these little conflicts are ongoing. I don’t mean little in derogatory terms but they are small scale conflicts, especially when compared to the First World War.

“So the breakup of Empire and Ireland is not unique, where you have all these definitions of nationalism, and questions being asked about where are we going, as the British Empire is on the retreat.

Following independence after the signing of the Treaty in December, 1921, the Anglo Irish relations are highly significant. The British government was putting serious pressure on the new Irish administration to sort out its own house and there was a fairly substantial threat of re-invasion, or reopening of the War of Independence, if we didn’t get our house in order.

It was this influence, together with the armed threat to the State posed by substantial Anti-Treaty forces, MacEoin believes, that pushed the anti-Treaty side and the Free State Army into conflict and what would eventually lead to Béal na Bláth.

It is his contention that such was the pressure that the Irish Free State were suffering that they were left with little option but to engage in, what the military today call, COIN or Counter Insurgency warfare. 

There was a flood of arms from Britain which included armoured cars and even a Bristol aircraft used for reconnaissance. 

“So the state as a political entity is using military force to ensure its own survival,” he added with a nod to the writings of Carl von Clausewitz. 

MacEoin believes the First World War, the ten years of revolution, the Spanish Flu and the eventual Civil War had left the population with no appetite to continue the blood-letting and this led into widespread support for the treaty and the activities of the Irish National Army. 

He said there is evidence to support that, by late 1922, the National Army were welcomed by the population in Munster and that the insurgents, while ideologically driven, lacked overall popular support, which is “crucial for military legitimacy”.   

For many ordinary people they just wanted to get on with their lives. They weren’t too caught up in the idealism of wondering if is it was a republic or not a republic.

Operational

When it comes to those on the ground, MacEoin’s research has found that the National Army had a substantial edge with weaponry. On a more national footing it had dedicated units which included a hugely developed intelligence arm as well as a naval element and an air capability.

irish-civil-war-a-smiling-national-army-soldier-with-a-a-captured-member-of-the-ira-in-july-1922-photo-national-library-of-ireland Alamy Stock Photo A smiling National Army soldier with a a captured member of the IRA in July 1922. Alamy Stock Photo

On the anti-treaty side it was much more disorganised, he said. 

“The anti-treaty forces, while they were quite experienced, and they have knowledge of the landscape, as per the tactics used in the War of Independence, their armament was haphazard as was their training.

“Their reliance on that sort of flying column concept, as people operating in plain clothes getting weapons from ammunition dumps meant that the quality and quantity of weaponry was not great.

“That said they did have, when we talk about some of the personalities at Béal na Bláth, access to former British army personnel and Denis “Sonny” O’Neill stands out in that regard,” he added. 

MacEoin said Collins’s trip was to inspect troops and that he had a keen interest in “soldiers’ welfare”. When it comes to assessing the reasons for Collins’ trip south, he said it was questionable to make the expedition. That said, as a military person, he is often bemused that there is a belief in some quarters that the events of Béal na Bláth and the death of Collins were, in some way, preordained. 

He believes that the ambush was a much more haphazard affair than has been stated – he believes that neither side had the best position.

MacEoin believes the time of the day was critical and looks to military writer Carl von Clausewitz who coined the phrase “the fog of war” to describe the chaos of the approximately hour-long engagement. 

“When contact happens at Béal na Bláth it’s happening at around eight o’clock in the evening. So it’s dusk, it is evening, and with that in mind anything is up for grabs. So I think people sometimes overstate the degree to which either side had control of the ground at that point,” he said.  

On the day, MacEoin says, the anti-Treaty IRA Brigade were having a meeting nearby and he believes it was just a matter of luck that they had spotted the convoy earlier in the morning. 

They hatched a plan, he says, based on nothing more than the likelihood that the convoy would return the same route as many of the roads had been “cut” with trenches making the other options impassable. 

In our research The Journal discovered some evidence of disquiet among senior leaders of the National Army about transport with Collins castigating an army officer regarding a disastrous convoy which travelled to Kerry the week before.  

But MacEoin said, on this occasion, the convoy was a “fairly normal tactical deployment”. It was comprised of a scout outrider on a motorbike, a Crossley tender which an early form of personnel carrier with armed troops on board, a heavily armed armoured car and a touring car carrying Michael Collins and Emmet Dalton.

9314368154_1607dd25ec_o David Jones / Irish Defence Forces The Sliabh na mBan firing on an Irish army range in 2013 following refurbishment. David Jones / Irish Defence Forces / Irish Defence Forces

The armoured car, the Sliabh na mBán, was a powerful vehicle with a heavy .303 Vickers machine gun which can fire 500 rounds per minute to a maximum range of two kilometres. It had the same ammunition as the Lee Enfield Rifle. 

“If you’re hit by one of those, you’re not getting back up,” he said. 

MacEoin added this was a well known weapon and had a reputation for reliability – being used across the British Empire and subsequently used by the Irish Army in the Congo.

It is his belief that it was well capable of firing in such a way that it would have defended the convoy and “kept the heads of the attackers down”. 

Tactical

What the convoy was facing was a column which had “used the standard practice” of laying a mine and a road block – a tactic still used today. 

“They took to the high ground available in Béal na Bláth in order to be able to engage the convoy once the mine was blown.

“Obviously, there would have been the shock factor and it would’ve very likely killed people in the national army convoy if it exploded, and then they would fire on the convoy from there and that’s sort of standard ambush drills which we would still employ today,” he said.

MacEoin said that the Irish Army today would add a tactic of putting troops in a position as a so-called “stop group” – a detachment placed further away from the main engagement to prevent reinforcements or retreat. 

He said Tom Barry had employed this tactic and it is still used today by military forces including the Irish. 

The aim, MacEoin says, of the Anti-Treaty forces was to channel the enemy, the National Army in this instance, into a “pre-ordained killing zone”. This was achieved by “cutting” the other roads and then slowing them down with a blockade. 

“They’re using all the right principles there in terms of surprise, audacity, the concentration of firepower and the intelligent use of terrain. These are all sorts of principles of offence that the anti-treaty guys are using which is good from their perspective. 

“The problem is that they begin to dismantle the ambush because they don’t see any sight of the convoy returning and in fact, some of the elements from the main body are actually dispatched away from the site,” he said. 

This left the ambushers at a disadvantage but there was a critical error by the National Army at this point, MacEoin said.

That error, he says, quite possibly came from Michael Collins himself. 

MacEoin quotes from interviews by broadcaster Cathal O’Shannon with Emmet Dalton in the 1970s who said that he had given the order to “drive like hell” but Collins had declared that they would stand and fight – this flew in the face of basic counter-ambush military doctrine.

It doesn’t make any tactical sense to have stood your ground. You’ve got to think about what are you trying to achieve. So the biggest thing that convoy was doing was it was escorting the Commander in Chief of the National Army around and his protection is the most important thing.

MacEoin believes that one key factor was the charismatic nature of Collins and the hold he had on his subordinates – their inability to countermand his order was a problem. Collins had been advised by both Dalton and military intelligence not to go on the trip.

There was also an age gap with Collins in his 30s and Emmet Dalton 24-years-old at the time. 

Dalton, who would later become a film producer and open Ardmore studios, was a decorated World War I veteran with the Military Cross for taking on 21 German soldiers with just one other soldier at the Battle of Ginchy during the Somme offensive.  

He was an experienced soldier and more adept than Collins who was an organiser and “transformational charismatic leader” but limited in military service, MacEoin said. 

‘Actions on’

The soldier speaks of how, in a military operation being planned today, they would evaluate the potential for an “actions on” attack by an enemy and how it would be dealt with.

“But whatever the intent was, it didn’t make good tactical sense to have a relatively small convoy with such a high value target, as we would call it. And it certainly didn’t make sense to have him out at that time and at night,” he explained.

michael-collins-risteard-mulcahy-glasnevin-cemetery-at-the-funeral-of-arthur-griffith Alamy Stock Photo General Michael Collins and his successor General Richard Mulcahy (looking backwards) at Arthur Griffith's funeral. Alamy Stock Photo

The modern approach would be to have a reserve force, a Quick Reaction element to arrive to save them – that wasn’t present for Collins. There was the option, MacEoin said, to have placed him inside the armoured car but such was its size that Collins may have struggled to fit.  

“I’m not trying to get into the hero worship, but it’s just like Collins to be dogmatic and charismatic and it’s his leadership style that he wants to be front and centre, leading by example and wants to be out meeting and greeting. It’s my own personal thing, but I really admire his ability to do that,” he added. 

In the midst of the fight, MacEoin says there was another critical moment – the Vickers Machine Gun failed or in military parlance “encountered a stoppage”.

The Commandant believes that had it remained in order it would’ve made the difference in keeping the enemy from firing effectively. But the other complicating factor, he said, was the light and it being dusk with a concealed enemy, the machine gun operator, John “Jock” McPeake, may have struggled to see his targets. 

“So finding the enemy and suppressing the enemy, as we will call it, is actually quite difficult even in daylight,” he explained.

McPeake was a Scottish native, fought for the British in the World War as a machine gunner. He has given fruit to some conspiracies in that he would later defect to the anti-Treaty side. 

In that defection, MacEoin says, McPeake brings the Sliabh na mBán with him.

Conspiracy theory

The conspiracy theory exists that McPeake did the stoppage on purpose but for a variety of reasons MacEoin does not believe that stands up. 

The biggest mistake on the day was the moment, as the shooting slightly subsided, Collins emerged from cover and he is shot. 

“And again this is a tactical mistake and again his people, whether he liked it or not, probably should have been pinning him down behind Sliabh na mBán but Collins in characteristic bravery is actually returning fire,” MacEoin said. 

There are many theories, and Dalton reported that he could not find an exit wound – just the gaping hole behind Collins’ ear.

MacEoin believes that there are a number of explanations – a ricochet off the road or a direct hit from one of the anti-treaty IRA members. 

He believes it is “highly doubtful” to have been friendly fire – especially from the Vickers machine gun given it’s elevation above the ground. MacEoin said it would’ve required a positioning that would have made that shot almost impossible to achieve.

51-sean-collins-beside-the-coffin-of-his-brother-michael-collins Alamy Stock Photo Sean Collins beside the coffin of his brother Michael Collins. Alamy Stock Photo

“I think that most of the conspiracy theories are overbaked. Again, I would go back to my point about sort of the fog of war and look at the circumstance in a chaotic battlefield.

The ‘fog of war’

“For anyone that has experienced this, it’s just crazy. Again, people are having various reactions to it – there is flight or fight syndrome, there’s a lot of adrenaline flowing. It’s no surprise the Collins would have been hit and then there would have been a period before they realised he was hit,” he added. 

The Journal’s research found a statement by then National Army Private John O’Connell who said that as Collins was struck the shooting began in earnest from the Anti-Treaty side. This prevented them moving to Collins’ to render aid. 

But MacEoin said that any efforts to assist Collins’ at that point would’ve been fruitless as they did not have the medical equipment or expertise. 

The fight ends and they leave – making their way back the 32kms to Cork across fields in many places because of cut roads and blown bridges.  

Who fired the fatal shot?

Theories abound on who fired the fatal shot – many lead to Denis ‘Sonny’ O’Neill who was in the Béal na Bláth ambush party. 

MacEoin shares the opinion that it was O’Neill – an accomplished British army marksman or sniper during World War One but leaves it open-ended.

MacEoin in his work in the Military Archives was involved in the collating and study of the Military Service Pensions Collection.

As part of the State’s process of rewarding pensions after the revolutionary period, there were tens of thousands of interviews and written testimonies conducted with the surviving members of the War of Independence and Civil War, beginning in the 1920s. Statements were gathered and form the basis of much research data to this day.

Sonny O’Neill’s pension file is there, he does eventually get paid a pension by the state, ironically. He mentioned being involved in Béal na Bláth and he stopped short of saying that he was responsible.

“But there is a suggestion that in interviews with some of the last survivors in the 1980s, off record, the finger was pointed squarely at Sonny O’Neill as having fired the shot,” he said. 

But MacEoin casts some, but not total, doubt on that, based on his experience as a military infantry officer. 

“As a military guy, I would say if you’re two or three hundred yards away at dusk, and you fire your shot. Okay he’s an experienced marksman and he can tell he has a follow through and he looks to see does Collins fall, there are multiple shots and reports going off.

“How do you know categorically that you are the one who hit Collins?” he added. 

Unintended consequence

MacEoin believes it was a successful operation for the anti-treaty forces but had they had the mine in working order the body count would have been much higher.

One National Army Lieutenant was wounded and Collins killed.

“There is evidence to say that, on the anti-treaty side, they were very sorry that Collins had been killed – he was almost universally respected across Ireland,” he said. 

on-22-august-1922-michael-collins-was-killed-in-an-ambush-at-beal-na-mblath-outside-cork-he-was-buried-in-glasnevin-cemetery-on-28-august-1922-his-coffin-on-a-horse-drawn-gun-carriage-drawn-by-free Alamy Stock Photo Michael Collins funeral at Gardiner Street Lower in Dublin on 28 August, 1922. Alamy Stock Photo

As news of the killing makes its way back to Dublin it arrives at 3am General Richard Mulcahy becomes the de facto leader of the army and issues an order of restraint. 

“And he says, and I am paraphrasing, let not your bright honour be blemished by any act of reprisal,” he added.  

MacEoin, in looking back at the aftermath, believes that those events in Béal na Bláth had an impact on what came next. 

Beal na Blath is a tragedy for Ireland and from a military perspective events at a tactical level have a strategic consequence.Collins dies, and it is unfortunate Griffith also dies, and Mulcahy takes over – the death of Collins strengthens the resolve of the National Army and the Government and it develops into a very heavy handed approach that includes internment and executions.

“There were no shortage of atrocities on both sides and indeed we are still trying to establish how many combatants and civilians died overall.

“The war enters some gritty and nasty phases there after – military action is at no point divorced from political action, and the state relied heavily on its armed forces to ensure the survival of democracy,” he added. 

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