The Moon car and its association with Spike Island came after the turmoil of the Irish War of Independence. Ireland secured its freedom in a hard fought battle with Britain, but a bloody Civil War soon followed, as the terms of the treaty agreed between Ireland and Britain were not to the liking of many.
Part of the concessions were the loss of three strategically important ports including Cork Harbour and Spike Island. The island would remain in British hands for another 17 years, until the handover of 1938.
The terms were bitterly contested but when put to the people of Ireland, they voted in favour of accepting the Treaty. After years of bloodshed the appetite for continued armed resistance was diminished, as were the ranks of those willing to carry out the fight. Many agreed with the sentiment of Michael Collins who reluctantly negotiated the Treaty terms, when he stated;
“I do not recommend it (the Treaty) for more than it is. Equally, I do not recommend it for less than it is. In my opinion it gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it”.
Perhaps no one was better placed than Collins to know that the IRA could not continue as an effective fighting force for much longer than the summer signing of the truce. He was all too aware that Ireland was waging a military battle it ultimately could not win. He experienced firsthand at the treaty debates that men like Winston Churchill had not intention of relinquishing their Empire, and would not hesitate to send the full might of the Army against the ‘insurgents’.
Britain also had Commanders like Bernard Montgomery, based in Cork, who was a future World War Two hero then known as ‘Monty’. During his time in Cork he expressed his willingness to go to any extreme to achieve British aims;
“Personally, my whole attention was given to defeating the rebels but it never bothered me a bit how many houses were burnt. I think I regarded all civilians as ‘Shinners’ and I never had any dealings with any of them. My own view is that to win a war of this sort, you must be ruthless. Oliver Cromwell, or the Germans, would have settled it in a very short time. Nowadays public opinion precludes such methods, the nation would never allow it, and the politicians would lose their jobs if they sanctioned it“.
The risk of IRA eradication and continued British interference in Irish affairs was very real. If the majority of the Irish minority who were willing to bear arms was killed or incarcerated, the indignity of occupation would be passed to another generation, and could still be with us today.
Irrespective of the national vote and pleas of Michael Collins, Ireland descended into a bloody Civil War which lasted from June 1922 to May 1923.
It achieved little but the loss of brave Republicans and the fostering of a bitter resentment that lasted generations.
For the British troops now stationed on Spike Island, it was a battle that must have seemed foreign, as the island returned to a quiet period of military occupation. The period 1922 to 1938 was similar in its simplicity to the quiet years of 1883 to 1914 on the island, after the closure of the 19th century prison and before the outbreak of World War One.
Save for one awful event that shocked the Irish and British government.
March 21st 1924 was a day like another other on the island. The Civil War had ended almost a year before but resentment remained among the ranks. Their anger was aimed at the Pro-Treaty national government. British troops remaining on Irish soil in Northern Ireland were an obvious target, and it cannot have been lost on the British Troops on Spike Island that their presence was not universally welcome. Yet they brought diminished but continuing trade and prosperity to the town of Cobh as they quietly went about their duties, maintaining the defenses of a harbour that for centuries was seen as the back door into England.
On the evening of March 21st, approximately fifty troops from Spike Island’s garrison sailed aboard the launch Sir John Wyndham towards Cobh. There was a mix of the Royal Garrison Artillery and the Royal Army Service Corps, headed for a night on the town. Among them were a number of Irish civilians, those engaged in work on the island. Few of Cobh’s inhabitants would have given the familiar scene a second look, but there was something out of place that evening. A striking yellow Rolls Royce car was parked by the piers entrance, an impressive sporting touring series.
Cars were no longer rare in Ireland as they passed the 10000 mark around 1915, but they remained the domain of the wealthy. Reports varied about the number of occupants, four or five, and witnesses later claimed they wore the uniform of the Irish Free State Army. They sat in silence, and apart from their striking mode of transport, they gave nothing away. Lying in wait for the British troops was the Moon Car, and it was about to become forever entwined with Spike Island Cork.
The British troops climbed the steps of Kennedy Pier in a well worn routine, chatting idly, when the Rolls Royce suddenly dropped its canvas roof to reveal two Lewis machine guns. They opened fire without hesitation, lacing bullets across the pier and into the unarmed soldiers and civilians. Bodies fell to the ground amidst screams and horror as the bullets did their awful work.
After a long burst the car tore away towards Cobh’s High Road, coming to a sudden stop at the beginning of the road in line with the British Naval Destroyer HMS Scythe, which sat at dock in the retained Treaty Port. The machines guns rattled once again, spreading bullets along the length of the destroyer. When it restarted this time, the car disappeared out of the town and into infamy, not being seen again for several decades.
The attack had achieved its aim as one British Solider, Private Herbert Aspinall, lay dying from his wounds. He was just eighteen, from Rochdale, Manchester. A boy caught up in an adult struggle he knew very little about. He was a member of the Horse Transport Company of the Royal Army Service Corps, more used to lugging equipment and supplies than active combat.
On hearing of the necessity for troops to travel to Ireland, he tossed a coin with his friend and lost, a 50/50 outcome that cost him his life on what was supposed to be a quiet posting. Another eighteen soldiers were injured, some seriously, and at least four civilians, including two local women who worked at the island fortress.
The Skipper of the Wyndham, Frederick Bell, was also said to require treatment, as did seventeen year old butchers assistant Maurice Hurley, of 14 Thomas Street Cobh.
Because a well stocked military hospital existed on Spike Island, and there were no assurances the assault was over, the injured were taken back to the island aboard the now blood strewn boat. The medical team labored over the body of Herbert Aspinall as medical reinforcements arrived from Cobh, but he died in their care. It was something of a miracle that no one else was killed, as death was clearly the motivation of the assault.
Witnesses had recorded that the attackers in the Moon Car shouted ‘Up Dalton’, ‘Up Tobin’ before speeding off, a reference to Free State Officers Charles Dalton and Liam Tobin who were instrumental in an ongoing army mutiny that threatened security in the young Irish State. This led to assumptions that the aim of the attack was to create friction and a resumption of hostilities between Ireland and Britain, but the assault had the opposite effect.
Both sides roundly condemned the action and resolved to help one another, turning their anger on the attackers. Even Liam Tobin, one of the names referenced by the attackers when the firing stopped, called it a ‘cowardly act‘.
An incident did occur that could have triggered the attacker’s desired effect of inspiring renewed hostilities. An armed boatload of British soldiers departed Spike Island bound for Cobh, led by Captain Peter Neville of Married Quarters, Spike Island. They had received an inaccurate report that soldiers had become detached from the group during the attack and were stranded in Cobh.
They set off heavily armed in direct contravention of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which stated that they could not undertake armed activities in the Free State. A large crowd gathered on the pier in Cobh panicked and fled at the sight of the armed force walking down the pier, fearing reprisals. Their exit seemed justified when there were reports of shots fired moments later, but no one was reported injured and these shots were likely to clear the streets.
The troops made for the ‘Soldiers Home’, which were licensed premises designed to keep British Troops out of the local’s public houses to limit drink fueled conflicts. They found no stranded troops and returned to the island without further bloodshed, the Moon car having long departed.
The bloody attack on the Spike Island Garrison, the only attack it endured over its one hundred and fifty nine year occupation, made headlines in every corner of the Empire. From New Zealand to Canada, the ‘Cobh outrage’ as it was termed drew condemnation. Five men wanted by the Free State were named as suspects in the assault, but the charges had an air of desperation to them, implying progress in an investigation where there was none. Several arrests months later in Dublin brought no convictions.
As sensational as the crime and ensuing nationwide search was the legend that arose around the ‘Moon Car’, the striking yellow Rolls Royce touring car used in the assault. It was claimed the Moon Car had driven the quiet country lanes of Cork by night during the War of Independence, carrying car loads of would be IRA assassins from hit to hit, exterminating spies and traitors. It is a visual straight out of Hollywood, but for all its drama, there is little in the way of substantiating evidence.
Seemingly more likely was senior IRA official Tom Heavey’s claim that the car was recruited expressly for the Cobh assault, an action approved by the then IRA Army Council as an attempt to get angry army mutineers on the side of renewed anti-British sentiment.
The Moon Car was once owned by the Clarkes of Farran House to the West of Cork City, and also by Oliver St John Gogarty – a colorful eccentric who was rumored to be the inspiration for Buck Milligan’s character in James Joyces epic ‘Ulysses’.
He had transported IRA members in the car while harbouring sympathies for their cause during the War of Independence, before angering them by condemning their actions in the Civil War which prompted his kidnapping. This action may have prompted the Moon Car’s War of Independence and earlier IRA connection.
Whatever the vehicles true background it disappeared from sight and sound for several decades, re-emerging at a farmyard near Bweeng in County Cork in 1981. The car had been burned out and given a shallow earth grave, with not much more than the chassis remaining.
It took a further twenty five years of neglect and a world class restoration team to restore the car to its former glory – a team led by restorer James Black, who had also restored the Rolls Royce armored car that accompanied Michael Collins on his faithful drive at Béal na mBláth. The Moon Car was donated to the National Museum in 2020 with display plans being considered for the storied vehicle, which could include a period on Spike Island Cork.
The brutal shooting of Private Aspinall conducted from the Moon car came about as a result of Britain’s successful insistence that Spike Island be retained for British purposes.
Another sixteen years would pass from 1922 to 1938 before Spike Island received the freedom that was so hard fought on the Irish mainland, and just in time, as a dictator rose in Europe who would gladly eradicate off the face of the earth a symbol of Britain’s Empire and military ambitions.
The 1938 handover of Spike Island from Britain to Ireland was a timely affair, that removed the large bulls eye it otherwise presented to German bombers.
Freemans Journal – Machine guns turned on British Troops at Cobh – 22nd March 1924
John Jefferies – Death on the Pier – 2017, Lettertec Publishing
Wicklow People – Appalling outrage – 29th March 1924