Volunteer Lieutenant Michael John McLean

Volunteer Lieutenant Michael John McLean (aged about 18) of Lowertown, Schull (near Gaggan)

Date of incident: 6 Dec. 1920

Sources: Death Certificate (unidentified male), 6 Dec. 1920; CE, 8 Dec. 1920; II, 11 Dec. 1920; Weekly Summary of Outrages against the Police, Dec. 1920 (CO 904/148-50, TNA); Frank Neville’s WS 443, 9 (BMH); Timothy Keohane’s WS 1295, 7-8 (BMH); Edward Young’s WS 1402, 16-18 (BMH); Edward O’Sullivan’s WS 1501, 4 (BMH); James ‘Spud’ Murphy’s WS 1684, 8-9 (BMH); West Cork’s FS, 207; Barry (1949, 1989), 58, 236; Deasy (1966), 11; Deasy (1973), 183; Last Post (1976), 76; Michael John McLean Memorial, Gaggan; McLean Memorial, Lowertown, Schull; Cork No. 5 Brigade Memorial, Bantry.


Note: Michael McLean, a lieutenant of the West Cork Brigade and a member of the Leamcon Volunteer Company (Schull Battalion), was killed near Gaggan in the Bandon district by British forces following an abortive IRA ambush at Gaggan. An official police account maintained that McLean, armed with a fully loaded Webley revolver, had been shot dead while trying to escape from custody after the ambush by running away. See Weekly Summary of Outrages against the Police, Dec. 1920 (CO 904/148-50, TNA).

According to Liam Deasy, British forces captured McLean in the house of a loyalist, ‘and having tortured him mercilessly, riddled him with bullets in view of a sixteen-year-old lad who witnessed the atrocity from a nearby cottage’. See Deasy (1973), 183. Frank Neville, assistant quartermaster of the West Cork Brigade, also reported that McLean had not died in combat. According to his account, there was ‘a running fight’ near Gaggan between the Flying Column and British forces: ‘The Black and Tans and R.I.C. were the opponents, and they captured one of the column scouts—McClean [sic] from Schull—and murdered him then and there. He was armed with a revolver but he was not killed in action; he was taken prisoner and then shot.’ See Frank Neville’s WS 443, 9 (BMH). 

But Tom Barry offered a different account, made memorable for him by its association with a painful case of cowardice on the part of one of McLean’s comrades. An intended IRA ambush at Gaggan of a party of RIC men who regularly travelled the Clonakilty-Bandon road in a single lorry miscarried when by mistake the lorry was allowed to pass through the IRA ambush site with only a few shots fired. The Tans soon stopped the lorry, ‘got into the fields, and came on the unsuspecting column’s flank as it retired’. Surprised at the strength of the IRA force, they ‘fired a few volleys, ran back to the lorry, and drove rapidly on to Bandon. The few volleys killed Lieutenant Michael McLean of Schull and caused some confusion in the ranks of the column. A few of the I.R.A. behaved very badly and one nearly caused a panic before the Brigade O.C. [Charlie Hurley] regained control. . . . Charlie made only one mistake, not shooting on the spot the man who nearly caused the panic. Later on, this coward was dismissed from the I.R.A. and ordered out of the country.’ See Barry (1949, 1989), 58. 

Some interesting oral testimony exits about the circumstances of Volunteer McLean’s fate at the hands of British forces. According to local memory, Volunteer leader Charlie Hurley gave the injured McLean a revolver to use before the fight with British forces at Gaggan on 6 December 1920. McLean had injured his hand some time after the Kilmichael ambush, and Hurley did not believe that McLean could effectively use a rifle. Hurley also instructed McLean to go to the residence of loyalists John and Annie Duke of Cashel Beg and to keep them in their house during the ambush. When the British forces drove through the ambush site at Gaggan without casualties, they halted their lorry on the Clonakilty side of the ambush position, formed a semi-circle at the rear of the Volunteers, and called to the Duke household as they approached. McLean was caught unawares and would have been executed right there in the Dukes’s yard but for the intervention of John Duke. Instead, British soldiers took McLean down the road about 500 yards from the Dukes’s residence and shot him dead outside the agricultural labourer Timothy O’Sullivan’s cottage. (John Desmond of Bandon heard this oral account from a son of John and Annie Duke.) 

Timothy Keohane, a member of the Flying Column of the Cork No. 3 Brigade, who had participated in the Gaggan ambush, has left an additional account: ‘At Gaggin the column was divided into two sections and took up position on high ground about 20 yards south of the Bandon-Clonakilty road. An enemy convoy of one lorry was expected, but just as the lorry entered the position, a rifle was accidentally discharged by one of our men, and the enemy dashed through before effective fire could be brought to bear on it. Several shots were fired at the lorry as it dashed away. The lorry, however, stopped some distance from where we had been in position, and the occupants took to the fields. The lorry went to Bandon, which was about 3 miles away. When the column was withdrawing from the ambush position, it was attacked by the party (enemy) who had entered the fields, but our return fire forced them to withdraw. During the attack a member of the column (Michael McLean of Skull Coy.) was killed. He had been guarding the members of a household on the opposite side of the road, and when the column was withdrawing, he was shot while crossing the road to join the main body.’ See Timothy Keohane’s WS 1295, 8 (BMH).

The Cork Examiner of 8 December 1920 reported that after the IRA ambush of police near Gaggan on Monday, 6 December 1920, soldiers from Bandon had returned to their barracks with the body of an unknown ‘civilian’, and that on Tuesday evening the remains, still unidentified, had been removed to the Bandon workhouse. The Irish Independent of 11 December 1920 claimed that the body remained unidentified officially when it was interred on Friday of that week in St Patrick’s Graveyard in Bandon. McLean is commemorated in the Republican Plot in St Patrick’s Graveyard and on the IRA memorial in the middle of Bantry. 

There is a death certificate registered for an unidentified male (aged about 25) who reportedly died on 6 December 1920 from shock and haemorrhage owing to bullet wounds inflicted by the military at Gaggan. This document may refer to McLean even though the date of death on the certificate is earlier than that given by other sources and even though the stated age refers to a victim perhaps seven years older than McLean. See Death Certificate (unidentified male), 6 Dec. 1920.

In 1911 Michael John McLean was one of the two children (he had an older sister) of the Lowertown farmer John McLean and his wife Kate. By 1920 Kate McLean had become the postmistress of Lowertown; her husband John (aged 60 in 1911), now a retired farmer, reportedly served as manager of this local post office, with their son Michael John McLean having the duties of postman.

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