Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (16 April 2020)

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Date of Auction: 16th April 2020

Sold for £4,200

Estimate: £3,000 - £4,000

A 1920 Constabulary Medal (Ireland) group of five awarded to Constable M. Murphy, Royal Irish Constabulary, formerly Army Service Corps, for his gallantry at the famous Lissarda ambush in which County Inspector Major W. T. Rigg and his men successfully fought off an I.R.A. attack, killing one of their assailants and wounding two others; exactly two years to the day later, and five miles away, several of the Lissarda gunmen took part in the notorious ambush in which Michael Collins was killed

Constabulary Medal (Ireland), 2nd type, ‘Reward of Merit Royal Irish Constabulary’ (Constable Michael Murphy 70818. 1920) lacking integral top riband bar; 1914-15 Star (M2-099445. Pte. M. Murphy, A.S.C.); British War and Victory Medals (M2-099445 Pte. M. Murphy. A.S.C.); Defence Medal, nearly very fine and better (5) £3,000-£4,000

Footnote

Michael Murphy, a Roman Catholic, was born in the East Riding of Galway on 18 September 1894 and worked as a motor mechanic before volunteering to join the British Army. He went to France as a member of the Army Service Corps on 20 December 1915. He was demobilised on 12 August 1919, and returned to Ireland, where he joined the Royal Irish Constabulary on 22 March 1920. After a few weeks of initial training, Murphy was allocated to the R.I.C. Reserve from 1 April. The Cork police were under huge pressure at that time, and it seems that he was sent to serve at Bandon in the West Riding of Cork, with his posting there officially confirmed from 1 October 1920.

On Saturday 21 August 1920, a respected long-serving R.I.C. Sergeant, Daniel Maunsell, was shot and mortally wounded by an I.R.A. assassin near his family’s home at Inchigeelagh. The County Inspector (equivalent rank to Lieutenant-Colonel), William Trevor Rigg, decided to investigate the killing personally. English by birth, he had served in the R.I.C. since 1899, and was seconded to the British Army (along with other R.I.C. personnel) during the First World War. County Inspector Rigg had a well-deserved reputation for reckless personal bravery, which he had earned while serving as a Major in the 3rd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles in Dublin’s during the bloody street-fighting of the Easter Rising. An eyewitness near Portobello Bridge saw Major Rigg standing out in the open to direct his men’s fire, ‘his coat ripped to shreds by bullets’. He was wounded, recovered in time to take part in the First Day of the Somme, and, when appointed Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1918, was wounded again.

Early on Sunday morning of 22 August, County Inspector Major Rigg left Bandon in an open R.I.C. tender, together with two experienced R.I.C. ‘Peelers’, Sergeant Peter Ruane and Constable James Molloy, and an escort/protection party made up of ex-soldiers like Murphy, all of whom had served in the army during the war. Constable Thomas Dray drove the tender (effectively an early version of the modern pick-up truck). C.I. Rigg sat with the driver on the front bench seat. Murphy and at least six other armed Constables sat on benches in the back, holding their Short Model Lee-Enfield service rifles.

As the tender drove along the Bandon to Macroom road, its presence was reported to the local I.R.A. commanders. They had prepared a plan to ambush police or army vehicles on the road where it passed through a wooded defile at Lissarda. The ground they had chosen ‘was found to offer a good deal of cover for an attacking party and would help in exploiting fully the element of surprise’. By coincidence, elements of three I.R.A. companies (60-70 men) had occupied the position during the whole of the previous day, ready to attack up to two lorries of British troops or R.I.C. that might appear on the road. As it turned out, no security force vehicles used the road that day, so the I.R.A. ambush was stood down at dusk. Following the sighting of Rigg’s tender, and in particular due to his status as a high-value target, at 11 am on Sunday 22 the I.R.A. hierarchy issued hasty orders for each gunman to re-occupy his position at the selected ambush site, in the hope that, later on Sunday afternoon, the R.I.C. tender would return the way it had come.

After completing his duties at Inchigeelah, C.I. Rigg decided to raid the home of one of the I.R.A. ‘big men’ in Macroom. Sergeant Maunsell had been stationed at Macroom R.I.C. barracks, and Rigg probably had a shrewd idea as to who had ordered his murder. Rigg’s raiders just missed the man they were looking for. He was already on his way to Lissarda to join his I.R.A. ambushers as they hurriedly reassembled. After a thorough search, which involved turning out all drawers and cupboards and smashing furniture, especially any item that was locked, Major Rigg ordered his men to remount their tender, got into the front seat and instructed Constable Dray to drive back to Bandon.

From the I.R.A. perspective, as set out by Charles Browne (I.R.A. Witness Statement WS 873): ‘Only some members from 'H' and 'B' Companies were able to get into position before the enemy arrived at around 2.30pm and the fight was commenced on our side with a depleted force. [Browne lists 43 I.R.A. men by name as having participated in the Lissarda ambush.] A number of our men arrived just after the fight had started but could not get into their positions. The Battalion Vice O.C. was one of these. [This was the man that C.I. Rigg had been searching for at Macroom.]

On the arrival of the lorry at the position a farm cart, on which was tied a long tree trunk, was pushed across the road and the order "Hands up" given. The enemy [R.I.C.], prevented from getting away by the road block, jumped from the lorry and sought the protection of a low piece of ground near Dr. Murphy's gate where they were protected by the surrounding higher ground. From this position, which they reached before fire had been opened on them, they fought back and though some of the [I.R.A.] attacking force was deployed in an endeavour to subdue them or drive them out from their position they maintained their fire, suffering a few casualties in wounded but killing one man of the attackers. This man – Michael Galvin - was one of the Battalion's finest soldiers. Another of the attackers - Daniel O'Leary - was wounded in the hand by the premature explosion of a home-made grenade. [Denis Long was also wounded]. It was now evident that the enemy could not, in the absence of proper hand grenades, be dislodged from their position, so the senior officer, P. O'Leary, O.C. 'H' Company, decided to withdraw his men and the fight terminated.’

Although the fight lasted in total for about 90 minutes, it is clear from the nature of the wounds inflicted on both sides that some 20 minutes of it was intense - Galvin was shot in the head and Major Rigg, true to his form, had a narrow escape when a rifle bullet passed through his uniform cap. Some of the action occurred out in the open, and at close range. Several of the R.I.C. men had wounds from shotgun pellets, especially Sergeant Ruane (see, for example, the Cork Examiner of 28 August). Although several accounts mention the premature explosion of O’Leary’s improvised hand grenade, his medical file at the Irish military pensions department shows that his hand was hit by an R.I.C. bullet. He seems to have been struck after igniting the grenade’s fuse and while in the act of throwing it. It is unlikely that a bullet would by itself have caused the grenade to explode, but it would certainly have knocked it out of his grasp, creating the impression of a premature explosion.

Lissarda was one of the first road ambushes in County Cork. One of the last occurred five miles away and precisely two years to the day later, on 22 August 1922. At Beal na Blath, anti-Treaty I.R.A. members killed General Michael Collins, Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Free State Forces, by a rifle shot to his head. Several of the 43 I.R.A. gunmen at Lissarda also participated in the Beal na Blath ambush.

Michael Murphy was awarded the Constabulary Medal on 30 November 1920, as well as a First Class Favourable Record and a Gratuity of £5. He served on with the Cork R.I.C. until it was disbanded in March 1922. Afterwards, he is believed to have emigrated to England