Civilian John O’Brien or Brien

Civilian John O’Brien or Brien (aged 15) of 29 Spittal Street, Cloyne (at or near Cloyne)

Date of incident: 12 Dec. 1920

Sources: CE, 14 Dec. 1920; II, 14 Dec. 1920; FJ, 14 Dec. 1920; Kerryman, 18 Dec. 1920; Military Inquests, WO 35/156/45 (TNA); RIC County Inspector’s Monthly Report, Cork City and East Riding, Dec. 1920 (CO 904/113, TNA); McAuliffe (1992), 272; Murphy (2010), 160; ‘The Irish Rebellion in the 6th Division Area’, Irish Sword, 27 (Spring 2010), 140.


Note: There are multiple accounts of how O’Brien died. He was shot in the chest and mortally wounded by British soldiers of the Cameron Highlanders Regiment when he was mistaken for one of a party of Volunteers who had gathered near Cloyne in an attempt to ambush members of the crown forces. Initial newspaper reports, based on British military sources, concealed the death of a civilian. Quoting British army headquarters in Dublin, the Kerryman, for example, offered the following account: ‘A lorry patrol of the 2nd Batt. Cameron Highlanders were ambushed on Sunday afternoon [12 December] near Cloyne, Co. Cork. The lorry was heavily bombed from houses on the roadside. Two of these houses caught fire during the action, presumably caused by bombs used by the attackers. One corporal was severely wounded and one of the assailants [meaning John O’Brien] was killed. Several were wounded and two taken prisoners. Ten bombs and a quantity of arms and equipment were captured from the attackers.’ See Kerryman, 18 Dec. 1920. A subsequent military inquest also found that one unidentified ‘rebel’ had been killed in this encounter while two others had been captured. See Military Inquests, WO 35/156/45 (TNA); ‘The Irish Rebellion in the 6th Division Area’, Irish Sword, 27 (Spring 2010), 140.

According to a police report, however, a party of soldiers was about to search the house of R. Walsh of Cloyne when they took fire. The troops returned the fire and also hurled grenades or bombs, and in this exchange, it was alleged, the young civilian O’Brien had been fatally wounded at about 11 a.m. on 12 December 1920. See RIC County Inspector’s Monthly Report, Cork City and East Riding, Dec. 1920 (CO 904/113, TNA).

The regimental records of the Cameron Highlanders for December 1920 told yet another story, this one perhaps closer to the truth. The records noted the cornering of a group of IRA men in a house in Cloyne and their escape from this predicamant, with the following addition: ‘Later on, as our detachment returned to barracks, it was seen that fifty or sixty rebels were lining a hedge along which the [military] car would have to pass. Lieutenant [Donald] Mackintosh thereupon promptly turned a Lewis gun on to them, upon which, very wisely, they all took to their heels, leaving one of their number dead behind them.’ The victim turned out to be the teenager John O’Brien, who, according to one recent account, ‘was leading a donkey into the village [of Cloyne] and was shot dead in anger by the departing soldiers’. See Murphy (2010), 160.

O’Brien’s name does not appear on either of the two IRA memorials in Midleton or on the Roll of Honour of the Cork No. 1 Brigade (Cork Museum, Fitzgerald Park, Cork). It therefore seems very likely that he was a civilian. In 1911 he was the eldest (aged 5) of the three very young children of James and Marey [sic] Brien of 29 Spittal Street in Cloyne. He had two younger sisters, one of whom had not reached her first birthday. His father was a labourer. 

The Irish Revolution Project

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