The town of Cobh, County Cork has many historical connections and interesting places – the magnificent cathedral of St. Colman towers over the town and the surrounding harbour; the town boasts a world-class heritage centre and museum, the reborn military fortress of Spike Island and of course its strong association with the ill-fated ocean liners Lusitania and Titanic. These are just a few of the highlights of a historic heritage town .
But in the centre of Cobh there is a lasting reminder of a less well-known piece of history. If you closely study the railings of Cobh’s 165 year old landing pier, the Pier Head, you will find some unusual markings with no obvious cause. These are the bullet marks left behind after the Pier Head shooting incident of 1924.
On Friday, 21st March 1924, a large yellow Rolls Royce touring car pulled up beside the pier. On board were four or five men dressed in the uniforms of the Irish Free State Army. But were they really Free State Soldiers or men masquerading as such? A few minutes passed and a large launch arrived at the pier carrying up to 50 British soldiers and a number of civilians, mostly employees of the British Army at Spike Island a half mile away. As the British soldiers and civilians began to disembark onto the pier the men in the Rolls Royce produced a Lewis sub-machine gun and mounted it on the side of the car. They immediately opened fire on the soldiers, many of whom were hit. 19 soldiers were injured, many of them seriously, and one, Private Herbert Aspinall, died an hour later at Spike Island Military Hospital. A native of Rochdale, Greater Manchester, he was 18 years old. Six civilians were also injured.
The Rolls Royce then sped off but stopped briefly to fire on a British warship moored near the train station. Damage to the ship was slight. The Rolls Royce then departed at speed and was not seen again for some 57 years. Thus began one of the biggest manhunts in modern Irish history. A second incident occurred in the town an hour later in which British soldiers returned and some shots were fired. The latter incident remains a controversial one.
The Irish Free State government denied that any of its troops were in any way involved in the Pier Head attack and offered compensation to the victims. It also offered a reward of £10,000 (about €750,000 today) for information leading to the arrest of five men it deemed to be responsible for the attack.
Ninety-three years later bullet damage is still visible on the Eastern side of the Pier Head’s railings. These marks are referred to in some of the contemporary statements made by eye-witnesses to the shooting. A local councillor, Bartholemew Downing, who was standing across the road when the shooting took place, said: “Were it not for the stanchions on the railings on the side of the pier and landing place, many more must have been killed, for had the bullets which made marks not been diverted, many more would have been killed“. A local woman eyewitness, who returned to the pier on the morning after the attack, described the scene thus: “There are large blobs of blood all the way out, a couple of pools of blood, thick and dirty now, on the pier itself and on the steps leading down to the water, and bullet-marks everywhere”.
Death on the Pier is a new book by Cobh based author John Jefferies which tells the story of the Pier Head shooting (known in Britain as the “Queenstown Outrage”). It outlines the background to the attack, details what happened and follows up on the search for the attackers and the lengthy attempts to track down the elusive Rolls Royce Silver Ghost known as the Moon Car from its disappearance to its eventual recovery. The book will be launched during the Cobh Readers & Writers Festival next Saturday, 6th May at 5pm in the festival marquee at Cobh’s Promenade. The author will be present to sign copies of the book which is priced at €12. It can be ordered online for €15 (including postage & packaging). It is also hoped that local booksellers in the Cobh and Cork area will have copies soon after the launch date.