Civilian William (or John) Ahern

Civilian William (or John) Ahern (aged 38) of Coole East (Coole near Ballynoe Cross and White’s Cross)

Date of incident: 31 July 1920 (ex-soldier)

Sources: Death Certificate, 31 July 1920; CE, 2, 3 Aug., 16 Oct. 1920; FJ, 2 Aug. 1920; II, 2, 3 Aug. 1920; Limerick Leader, 2 Aug. 1920; CWN, 7 Aug. 1920; Last Post (1976), 68; ‘The Irish Rebellion in the 6th Division Area’, Irish Sword, 27 (Spring 2010), 137.


Note: A party of Volunteers (estimated to number twenty-five) ambushed a military lorry making a regular run in carrying the military mail from Cork city to Fermoy. This ambush of members of the Lincolnshire Regiment took place at Ballynoe Cross, on the straight road from Ballyvolane, about 1 mile from White’s Cross and 4 miles from Cork city, on the morning of 31 July 1920. ‘A bomb was hurled into the lorry from behind the road fence. Its explosion immediately knocked out five of the nine soldiers in the lorry, which carried a Lewis gun. The gunner was amongst those casualties and suffered very severe injuries in the head and arms. Another soldier was wounded in the legs, a third near the heart, a fourth on the head and chest, and the fifth in the thigh. Two others received splinter wounds in the hands. The machine gun was put in action, and its fire directed in the direction from which the bomb was thrown.’ See CE, 2 Aug. 1920. Uninjured soldiers reportedly fired more than a thousand rounds from their Lewis gun. An aeroplane was flying as an escort and assisted in drawing reinforcements from Victoria Barracks to the ambush site after the initial attack occurred. The object of the IRA raid was said to have been the capture of the mails, but this is questionable.

In compensation for their severe wounds suffered at White’s Cross, the Recorder of Cork later awarded £1,500 to Private James Smyth of the Lincolns; £800 to Private Peter Sizer; £600 to Private Harry Sharpley; and £300 to Sergeant Maycox. The hero of the occasion was Private Symth. When the IRA at White’s Cross threw a bomb into the military lorry, Smyth ‘threw the mail bag down on it and flung himself on the mailbag. By doing so, he saved his comrades but received himself severe wounds and was shot in addition.’ See CE, 16 Oct. 1920.

William Ahern was said to have been the only civilian casualty; he reportedly came into the line of fire by accident, was shot, and bled to death. He died at Coole, and a newspaper account indicated that he had been ‘lately residing at Coole East, White’s Cross,’ an area adjacent to the ambush site at Ballynoe. (Newspaper sources generally referred to this dead civilian as John Ahern, but his death notice appearing in the Cork Examiner of 3 August 1920 identified him as William Ahern, son of the late John Ahern of Rathpeacon, with William Ahern ‘killed by the military on July 31st’.) William Ahern ‘was a man of 45 who had seen much soldiering, being through the South African campaign and also through the late war. He was the bearer of many wounds and in the recent war he got a bullet in the head. But surgical skill then saved his life by substituting a silver plate for the part of the skull that had been blown away. This wound, however, left a permanent mental mark, and the poor fellow walked into the encounter without knowing what was really happening.’ He was mortally wounded ‘the moment he appeared on the scene’. See CE, 2 Aug. 1920. Ahern appears as a Volunteer casualty in The Last Post (1976), 68, but this designation is erroneous. 

A journalist for the Irish Independent made the following addition to his report on the ambush: ‘It has now been established that an ex-soldier named Ahern was shot dead in the course of the indiscriminate firing by soldiers after the attack. He was a considerable distance from the scene and was killed long after it had occurred.’ See II, 2 Aug. 1920. The failure of jurors to appear at Victoria Military Barracks, where Ahern’s body had been brought, doomed any official inquest, but the military authorities showed no real interest in assisting the coroner. Ahern was interred in Grenagh Cemetery. See CE, 2, 3 Aug. 1920.

In 1911 William Ahern was one of the four living children (eight born) of the Rathpeacon (Whitechurch) general labourer John Ahern (aged 78) and his wife Ellen (aged 60). The couple, who had been married for forty years, were not literate. None of their children resided with them at Rathpeacon any longer.

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