Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Flying Column

(This is a short story I wrote that won first prize in a local radio competition, it was recorded by an actor and read out live on air)

Flying Column

Written by
Stephen Dwyer



Many people associate the term “flying column” with the hit-and-run IRA guerrilla units of the Irish War of Independence. These units, first instigated in 1919 consisted of up to 35 local men, usually serving for a week at a time. The columns travelled light, with the minimum of equipment and carried out ambushes on British forces to often devastating effect.

Such was the impact and casualty rate of the flying columns that the British Government introduced a mercenary or “Auxiliary” division to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the police force responsible for law and order in Ireland at that time. The purpose of this force was to participate in counter-insurgency campaigns; the popularity of the division was enormous that it led to a shortage of uniforms so new recruits were issued with khaki Army trousers and dark green or blue police surplus tunics .This mixture of colours was similar those of a famous pack of foxhounds in Limerick called the “Black and Tans” and the name stuck, even when the auxiliaries were issued full RIC uniforms.

The resultant battles between the Auxiliaries and flying columns caused many tragedies on both sides. At its peak, the Auxiliary division of the RIC contained 9,500 members; the true number of men who served in the flying columns is unknown. The disruption caused by the flying columns greatly hindered the sustainability of British rule in Ireland and galvanised support at local level, eventually resulting in a truce in 1921.

A Republic was born and Ireland would be forever changed by the War for Independence.


“You cannot conquer Ireland; you cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom. If our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom then our children will win it by a better deed”
- Padraig Pearse


Séan and Liam Byrne were the only sons of Kate Flanagan and Liam Byrne, Kate’s parents had been famine emigrants who returned to Ireland in 1860 to ensure their daughter was born on Irish soil. Séan and Liam were born a year apart, Liam, the eldest and stronger of the two cared for his younger brother after their father died while still a young man. Of the two, Séan was more cerebral; he was much slighter than his elder brother and devoured all the books he could find. His love was Irish poetry, literature and native Legends and had a particular fondness for the transcendent beauty of Yeats learning several of his poems by heart.

A flying column was no place for Séan Byrne. No doubt he had a love for his land, pride in defending it and bravery beyond bounds, but a fighting ability within Séan was absent. He had never held a gun, never fought with so much as his brother when they were growing up; he seemed gentle and not the archetypical tough soldier.

Against the wishes of Liam, he had persuaded the officer commanding the local IRA unit that he wished to join the war for freedom and would fight and die for Ireland. Buoyed by the young man’s enthusiasm, Séan was accepted into the column and swore a simple oath over a folded, fraying Tricolour, the orange side facing a dusty farmhouse floor.

Two months had passed since Séan had taken the oath and now the two brothers lay in the countryside, side by side on damp grass, shadowed by a thick ash tree. They were waiting for a Lancia Armoured Car to chug down the laneway and stop at a makeshift roadblock. As it narrowed into a bottleneck, railway sleepers blocked the laneway; these were earlier positioned by several of the other volunteers who now lay in wait on higher ground. It was an early evening in spring; the sun was setting lazily behind a nearby hill, Woodpigeons could be heard cooing overhead, they were accompanied by the beautiful chirping of little finches. There was simple stillness in the air, dew was settling and diffusing on the volunteers bolt-action Lee Enfield rifles. Abruptly, breaking the bird’s evening vespers, a heavy splutter of the oncoming armoured car could be clearly heard, its reinforced wheels trundled down the lane quicker than anyone expected.

A muffle of British voices, quieter at first became louder now as they noticed the sleepers blocking their path, there was no room to turn the vehicle, the driver braked hard and the car started to grind to a halt, sending dust billowing up behind it. As it passed the two brothers; Liam unpinned the detonator on a percussion grenade that dangled from his Sam Browne belt and threw it behind the car. Seconds later a deafening explosion ripped through the air, sending sodden earth and gravel in a blast wave. The car swayed and three Auxiliaries bounded from the back hatch, as they ran for cover the volunteers in the higher position primed and pointed their weapons and prepared to fire “Surrender” they cried at the British forces, “Surrender and lay down your arms” . Taking no need, the Black and Tans opened fire and the machine gunner aboard the Lancia sprayed the hedgerows with lethal covering fire. Liam and Séan fired at the troops, who were sprinting for cover, before they reached the ditch; they were hit from above and dropped to the ground. Liam flung another grenade at the car, it landed by the engine and exploded in a ball of flames, the fuel tank aboard exploding, killing the driver and gunner. The ambush was over in under a minute and five auxiliaries lay dead. The brothers collected any salvageable weapons from the British soldiers and started to march towards the nearest safe house.

At supper in the safe house, Séan explained to his fellow troops how “Guerrilla” means “little war” in Spanish; they understood it is the method by which small groups of soldiers raid and ambush larger forces. What they did now know was that it has been used for centuries, the Boers used flying columns to great effect against the British Empire in 1900, they disrupted supplies and command posts viciously and swiftly, then withdrew and vanished into the surrounding countryside. Liam was proud of Séans knowledge and it even drew a coy smile from the youngest daughter of the woman of the house, this did not go unnoticed and a healthy banter ensued. Guerrilla tactics were now employed on a widespread scale by the Irish Volunteers against the black and tans, many of who were World War 1 veterans. Far from the poppies of Flanders field, the tans were stationed now in RIC barracks, one such garrison was the next target of the flying column that included Séan and Liam Byrne.

The assault on the barracks was carefully planned, it was five weeks after the last raid and it was understood that a large consignment of weapons and ammunition lay in the strong room within. Twenty volunteers were apportioned to the task of storming the barracks and acquiring its contents. Dusk was falling; the walls of the barracks were throwing long dark shadows onto the ground. A former famine workhouse, it seemed ethereal. There were rumours heard from housekeepers who worked within the fortress of unexplained noises at night, whispers and noises from still corridors and locked rooms. An unpleasant place for an unwelcome force they called it, tonight it would be razed to the ground, purging whatever malcontent spirits lay within.
Liam Byrne had acquired a 75mm French field gun which had been raided from a stockade near the Curragh camp; the cannon and several high explosive shells was now hidden behind a deep gorse bush and aimed straight at the heavy oak double door of the barracks. Small groups of volunteers had positioned themselves in strategic positions around the building, spread out like the end points of a compass, awaiting the order. From the inside information that had been gleaned from the local housekeepers who worked within, up to thirty RIC soldiers were garrisoned within at any one time.

Liam blew hard on a whistle which signalled the start of the attack, he fired the field gun and a huge explosion of oak splinters, beams and bolts fragmented all around, another shell was directed at the door and with a great crash, the supporting wall collapsed. Covering fire from a Vickers machine gun was directed at the pillbox which housed a similar weapon at the top of the barracks wall. Several members of the flying column poured into the gaping hole and into the barrack. Led by Séan they carefully made their way into the heart of the barracks towards the strong room, they were met with little resistance, all auxiliary forces were rushing into defensive positions atop the barracks, the diversionary tactics were working and the strong room loomed ahead. Two sentries posted near the arsenal were immediately subdued by the larger force; they were knocked unconscious from blows of long IRA rifles. Inside, the weapons cache was substantial, easily a hundred rifles, thousands of rounds of ammunition, incendiary grenades and gun cleaning equipment, a vital resource for the flighty flying columns.

With the building secure and over a dozen black and tans fatally wounded, Séan ran back out the front of the barracks toward the gorse bush to Liam. Heavy canvas bags lay behind him which would be used to store the weapons. Picking up an armful each, the brothers started to move back into the barracks. Séan eagerly moved some yards ahead of his brother, as he turned back to check how far Liam was behind him, he noticed a movement in the furze bush near the cannon, he saw a familiar khaki colour near the field gun and cried out to Liam, he raised his pistol to fire. Panicking, and blindly letting lose a volley of shots Séan, still firing his handgun was thrown off his feet by the blast as the cannon fired, it was off target and missed by some twenty yards.

Some long seconds later and through ringing ears and a bloodied face, he peered up from the ground; he crawled towards Liam who he noticed was also lying prone on the earth. Behind him, several of the volunteers were walking out of the barracks, carrying freshly minted British rifles. When Séan crouched over Liam, he saw a single dark spot in his chest, unmistakably made by the pistol which was still clutched tight in Séans right hand. As Blood collected underneath his dirty uniform, kneading his knees into the ground he looked through tears into the lifeless eyes of his brother and understood what he had done.

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