Volunteer John O’Brien

Volunteer John O’Brien (aged 18) of 8 Green Lane, Blackpool, Cork city (Harley Street, Cork)

Date of incident: 18 July 1920

Sources: CE, 19, 20 July 1920; II, 20, 21 July 1920; Weekly Summary of Outrages against the Police, July 1920 (CO 904/148-50, TNA); WS 719 of Maurice Forde et al., 6 (BMH); IRA Roll of Honour, Cork No. 1 Brigade (Cork Museum, Fitzgerald Park, Cork); Last Post (1976), 70; Borgonovo (2007), 82; Borgonovo in White and O’Shea (2010), 573-83; Sheehan (2011), 29-31. 

Note: A member of the First Battalion of the Cork No. 1 Brigade, O’Brien was engaged in Volunteer duty in Blackpool when he heard firing in the direction of Patrick’s Bridge. He hastened towards MacCurtain Street, and at the corner of Harley Street he saw an old woman fall and rushed to her assistance. As he stooped to help her, British soldiers opened fire and mortally wounded the boy with two bullets in the hip. On that night some forty persons were reportedly treated for the effects of rifle fire. This tragedy was part of the wider disturbances in Cork city for two days between British soldiers and ex-servicemen enraged over the death of their comrade James Burke. According to the BMH witness statement of Maurice Forde and six other city Volunteers of E Company of the First Battalion, ‘The night after the shooting of [RIC Divisional Commander Ferguson] Smyth, the British military ran amok in the streets of Cork and “E” Company suffered its only fatal casualty as a result of enemy action when Volunteer Jackie O’Brien was shot down by machine gun fire in King Street (now MacCurtain Street).’ See WS 719 of Maurice Forde et al., 6 (BMH).

The IRA vowed revenge for the killing of O’Brien and for the earlier murder of Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain. Head Constable Clarke of the Empress Place RIC station in Cork city received a threatening letter on 28 July 1920 from the commander of the First Battalion of the IRA: ‘Your death will avenge that of the late Lord Mayor T. MacCurtain and Lieut. O’Brien, I.R.A., murdered on King Street at your command.’ Clarke had been on duty when O’Brien was killed, but he had had nothing to do with this death. See Weekly Summary of Outrages against the Police, July 1920 (CO 904/148-50, TNA).

It seems that John O’Brien and his older brother Timothy had been raised by their uncle James Smith (a labourer in a manure works) and his wife Frances (a domestic servant), who had four living children of their own (a son and three daughters). O’Brien was an 18-year-old messenger boy in mid-1920; his brother Timothy was a merchant seaman who had miraculously survived the sinking of the SS Kenmare by a German submarine in 1918. Volunteer O’Brien was buried in the Republican Plot in St Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork city.

The Irish Revolution Project

Scoil na Staire /Tíreolaíocht

University College Cork, Cork,