The battle of the armoured cars

On May 24, 1923, IRA Chief-of-Staff Frank Aiken issued an order to all fighters to cease fire. As we mark the centenary of the end of the Irish Civil War, Pauline Murphy looks at how those fighting on the anti-Treaty side of the bitter conflict did not have quite the same firepower as the pro-Treaty Free State army. 

At the outbreak of civil war a number of armoured cars were handed over to the Free State Army by the British Government. Painted green and christened with Irish names such as ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Sliabh na mBan’, these Rolls Royce armoured cars could carry a crew of three, achieve speeds of up to 45mph and fire up to 500 rounds per minute. Still, for all their speed and fire power, these vehicles did often break down due to an over-heated engine!

The anti-Treaty IRA responded to the threat of these Free State armoured cars by making their own. ‘The River Lee’ armoured car was one such homemade vehicle and its origin story is as shaky as the machine itself! 

One tale relates that the car was built in Cork city from a coal truck, which had armoured plates and two Lewis machine guns attached to it. Apparently it was constructed at the IRA’s engineering shop on Leitrim Street, under the direction of Cork Brigade engineer Jim Grey.

Another story comes from First Cork Brigade O/C Mick Murphy, who suggested in his Bureau of Military Witness Statement that the ‘River Lee’ was made from the chassis of a car that was seized in 1920 from two Auxiliaries who had dropped it for a service at the Johnson and Perrott garage on Emmet Place in Cork city. 

Whatever its origins, ‘The River Lee’ armoured car became famous in Republican lore, even though the men tasked with driving her often complained that the machine was fiendishly sluggish due to being weighed down with heavy steel plates!

We know ‘The River Lee’ was used at the Battle of Kilmallock in County Limerick in 1922 where it came up against ‘The Manager’, a far superior Free State Rolls Royce armoured car (pictured above). ‘The River Lee’ put up a good fight but, one IRA Volunteer quipped, “it cruised around like a labourer’s cottage!”

Towards the end of the fight at Kilmallock, ‘The Manager’ gave chase and came face-to-face with ‘The River Lee’, whose days would have been numbered were it not for the Vickers machine gun in ‘The Manager’ jamming, allowing the IRA car to escape. 

Kilmallock was not to be these cars’ last tango and they met again a week later when ‘The River Lee’ trundled her way back to her native county to partake in the Battle for Cork. 

On August 9, 1922, Free State troops landed at Passage West port and made their way into Cork via Rochestown and Douglas; the troops met strong resistance as ‘The River Lee’, along with IRA fighters positioned in the woods of Rochestown, briefly impeded their advance. 

Free State troops quickly deployed ‘The Manager’ and the IRA fighters were overpowered and retreated, with their car, westwards out of the city and towards Macroom. The battle had been brief but bloody, with casualties on both sides. 

In September 1922, ‘The River Lee’ took part in its final fight when it battled against Free State forces in Macroom town. Just as they had done in Cork city, the State forces pushed the anti-Treaty fighters out of Macroom and westwards towards the county bounds.

Not much is known about the ultimate fate of this famous homemade armoured car; ‘The River Lee’ was last seen chugging her way to Ballyvourney, where she vanished into the hills.

WCP Staff

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