Volunteer Lieutenant Seán Phelan or John Whelan

Volunteer Lieutenant Seán Phelan or John Whelan (aged 21) of Wilton, formerly of Liverpool (Upton train ambush)

Date of incident: 15 Feb. 1921

Sources: CE, 31 March 1921; IT, 31 March 1921; Florence O’Donoghue Papers, MSS 31,174, 31,301/1, 3 (NLI); Frank Neville’s WS 443, 12-14 (BMH); Charles O’Donoghue’s WS 1607, 10 (BMH); Rebel Cork’s FS, 207-8; Deasy (1973), 222-23; Last Post (1976), 80; Ryan (2005), 124-25; Bielenberg, Borgonovo, and

Ó Ruairc (2015), 176-77; http://www.theirishstory.com/2011/02/15/today-in-irish-history-–-the-upton-ambush-february-15-1921/#.U-2IrBbOTHg (accessed 14 Aug. 2014); Upton Station IRA Memorial. 


Note: Three members of the Flying Column of the West Cork Brigade were killed or mortally wounded when they attacked the train carrying British soldiers at Upton station on 15 February 1921. The dead Volunteers were Lieutenant Seán Phelan (John Whelan), Lieutenant Patrick O’Sullivan, and Section Commander Batt Foley. See Rebel Cork’s FS, 208. In Towards Ireland Free, Liam Deasy listed the three dead IRA men as Pat O’Sullivan, Seán Phelan (a primary-school teacher), and Batt Falvey, all of whom were buried in the Republican Plot in St Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork.

At one of the military inquests that followed the Upton train ambush, Volunteer Seán Phelan had been identified as a civilian named Seán Hegarty, an unmarried clerk aged 22. This may have happened as a result of deliberate deception by the IRA and by the victim’s relatives. The mother of ‘Seán Hegarty’ supposedly

identified his body at Victoria Barracks in Cork, where the military authorities held an inquiry on 18 February. She indicated that her son had not lived with her at Wilton since he was 16 years old; he had stayed with her ‘for a few days last Christmas’. He had worked ‘as a clerk with private employers in Dublin and Limerick’. He was friendly with and used to socialise with another Upton victim, ‘William O’Donoghue’ of Bishopstown. See CE, 19 Feb. 1921. ‘O’Donoghue’ appears to have been Volunteer Lieutenant Patrick O’Sullivan, another IRA casualty at Upton. The register of burials at St Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork records the double surnames of Phelan and Hegarty together.

In conveying the news of Phelan’s death at British hands at Upton, Florrie O’Donoghue bitterly lamented that ‘the savages even accompanied his death with inhuman cruelty. He was captured after being badly wounded, and they bayoneted him to death.’ See Florence O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,174 (NLI). Volunteer Lieutenant Seán Phelan had a particularly strong relationship with Florrie O’Donoghue, the intelligence officer of the Cork No. 1 Brigade. The son of Irish immigrants in Liverpool, Phelan had provided crucial assistance to O’Donoghue when in December 1920 he abducted a boy named Reggie Brown from his mother Josephine Brown’s in-laws in Wales and returned the boy to his mother and his younger brother Gerald in Cork city. In return for this extraordinary act of kidnapping, prompted by a custody battle with her Welsh relatives, Josephine Brown agreed to supply O’Donoghue with information about highly sensitive British military activities and plans from her post as a clerk in the Cork headquarters of the British Sixth Division in Victoria Barracks. Subsequently, O’Donoghue married Josephine Brown and adopted her two sons from a previous marriage. See Bielenberg, Borgonovo, and Ó Ruairc (2015), 176-77.       

An unprecedented number of civilians were killed or wounded at Upton station in this disaster for the IRA. Until the end of 1920 the British military in Ireland had found it almost impossible to move soldiers by train owing to a national boycott by railway workers. With the ending of the boycott troops began to travel in numbers by rail, but this provided opportunities for attacks by the IRA. Only a week before the calamitous Upton ambush, the Millstreet Battalion column had inflicted significant casualties on British forces travelling from Killarney to Millstreet in a successful ambush at Drishanebeg.

Commandant Charlie Hurley of the Cork No. 3 Brigade hoped to repeat this success at Upton station, an isoloated stop between Cork city and Bandon on the Cork, Bandon, and South Coast Railway. At short notice Hurley had assembled a small party of thirteen Volunteers, seven with rifles and the rest with automatic pistols or revolvers. (The Flying Column of the West Cork Brigade was then elsewhere, following an attack on the RIC barracks at Drimoleague.) Hurley got his men into position at Upton station ten minites before the train was due from Kinsale Junction. Instead of the twenty British soldiers whom he expected, however, another thirty-five to fifty had boarded the train at Kinsale Junction, having probably been alerted by an IRA spy that an ambush was planned. Two IRA scouts had been posted at Kinsale Junction and saw the large number of additional troops board the train, but the scout, who raced by bicycle to bring the warning to his comrades at Upton, arrived minutes too late.

Hurley had also expected that the arriving soldiers would be concentrated in one car on the train, but instead they were intermingled with the civilian passengers throughout the four carriages—one first-class coach and three third-class carriages. The Cork Examiner of 17 February 1921 reported: ‘Some of the soldiers were in the first compartment, next [to] the engine; some were in the middle of the train, while the officers were in the last carriage.’ According to this account, ‘When the attackers saw that military were travelling in other parts of the train, they at once extended their fire. The soldiers, to avoid being made easy targets of, got on to the platform and kept moving up and down and firing, [with] the attackers all the time firing on them. This was responsible for the large number of casualties amongst the civilian passengers.’ 

As previously noted, three Volunteers were killed or mortally wounded; three others—Charlie Hurley himself, Daniel O’Mahony, and Seán Hartnett—suffered serious wounds but survived (O’Mahony died as a result of his injuries a few years later). The Cork Examiner reported that six British soldiers had been wounded, three of them seriously. But the greatest loss of life was among civilians. British soldiers were said to have found six dead civilians in the carriages of the train and another eight wounded, of whom it was said in the Irish Times of 31 March 1921 that two more had died later. From our careful analysis we conclude that there were eight civilian fatalities. See CE, 16, 17, 18, 19, 21 Feb. 1921; IT, 31 March 1921; Deasy (1973), 222-23; http://www.theirishstory.com/2011/02/15/today-in-irish-history-–-the-upton-ambush-february-15-1921/#.U-2IrBbOTHg (accessed 14 Aug. 2014).

The report issued on 30 March 1921 by a British court of military inquiry sought to divest the soldiers at Upton of almost all responsibility for the civilian deaths. A central claim of the British defence, contradicted by other evidence, was that there had been no intermingling of military and civilian passengers on the train: ‘A military witness gave evidence that a party of soldiers were occupying carriages on the train. No civilians were allowed in the same compartments as the military. The moment the train stopped at Upton station, intense fire was opened on the whole length of the train, which consisted of four passenger coaches, each crowded with civilians, and two guards’ vans. When the firing started, the witness jumped out of the train and found a “strong point” made of corn bags from which armed civilians were firing. He worked round the flank of this strong point and opened fire, killing one of the occupants. The rest of the escort was also engaging the attackers. The situation was now well in hand, and some of the armed civilians were seen retreating. Fire was opened on them, and one man was seen to be bleeding freely from the shoulder. A hatless and excited man was found in a cottage near the scene. He had an arms levy list in his possession, and examination of the room showed that it contained a rifle in excellent condition, and which had been recently fired. He said his name was John Buckley. [Buckley was later exposed as an IRA man-turned-informer named Patrick Coakley. See below in this entry.] Six passengers, including one woman, were killed by fire from the ambushers. All their bodies were found lying in the carriages. The attackers’ fire also wounded two other women and two railway employees.’ The court returned a finding that William Donoghue and Seán Hegarty had ‘died from wounds inflicted by the military in justifiable self-defence, and that John Spiers, Thomas Perrott, James Byrne, Charles Penrose Johnson, Wm. Finn, May Hall, John Sisk, and Richard Arthur were wilfully murdered [by the IRA]’. See CE, 31 March 1921.

Arrested at the scene of the Upton ambush was an IRA man named Patrick Coakley (alias John Buckley). His capture was noted in a subsequent British military inquiry. He was interned on charges of ‘levying war against the king’. See IT, 31 March 1921; CE, 31 March 1921. Before his death Commandant Charlie Hurley claimed that Coakley had ‘turned up that day [at Upton] with a rifle’, but instead of using it, he ‘had hid in a house, never fired a shot, but remained there to be arrested, waiting!’ Within only a week of Coakley’s capture a friendly RIC sergeant tipped off the IRA that Coakley ‘had given the game away, meaning he had talked a lot’. See Ryan (2005), 124-25.

Whether Coakley had alerted the authorities to the planned Upton ambush before it occurred is not absolutely certain but seems likely. Without actually naming this Volunteer company captain, Flor Begley stressed in his BMH witness statement the great damage done by Coakley to IRA operations, including the passing of vital information that had made possible the British military response to the famous IRA ambush at Crossbarry. Begley also explained how the Coakley case was handled after this informer confessesd his guilt after his release from prison in late 1921. The IRA court-martialled Coakley and sentenced him to death, but then instead banished him from Ireland for life. See Florence Begley’s WS 1771, 4 (BMH).

Later, however, in talking with Ernie O’Malley, Begley named Coakley, once the captain of the Upton Company of the First (Bandon) Battalion, as the spy in question, while admitting that Coakley had been tortured into providing information by Auxiliaries from Glengarriff. Said Begley, according to O’Malley: ‘Coakley was tried, and sentence was to have been promulgated, but instead of being sentenced, he was transferred to an internment camp. When he came out with the rest of the prisoners, he sent word to the battalion that he wanted to meet some of the officers, for his conscience was troubling him. He was court-martialled and sentenced to death, but the sentence, being imposed during the Truce, meant that he could not be executed, so he was banished for life. In the Cosgrave regime he came back, first went away, and then came back again. He lives with a brother and a sister. No one speaks to him, not even the children of the place. He does not go to Mass in his parish church but goes into Cork. He is a fine looking man, but of course no girl would marry him now. He is a kind of living dead.’ See Bielenberg, Borgonovo, and Ó Ruairc (2015), 168-69.   

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