Having spent a few entries discussing events in the west and south of the country in 1919, we must not move briefly back to the capital, where things continued apace. The Dublin Brigade’s shadowy war against the DMP and G Division was continuing, but Collins and others also had other plans. In December, they made an audacious bid to strike at the head of British government in Ireland, in the form of the Lord Lieutenant, Sir John French.
It can be put simply enough that French was not a popular figure, seen an overly-militant and harsh in his policies by even other military minds and civilians officials in Dublin Castle. French had little regard for the Irish, and little time for any suggestion that conciliation should be the order of the day: this was the man who had threatened to use air power to enforce conscription. French wanted military order enforced by military men, and routinely clashed with the government back in London on issues of manpower and supplies. He had no compunction about ordering arrests and operations that overly-targetted the civilian population. He pushed hard for the proscription of Sinn Fein and other nationalist groups. As such, it is easy to understand why he was the subject of death threats throughout 1919.
It was not until the end of that year however that elements of the IRA decided to act on those threats. Earlier there had been notions of kidnapping French for use in a possible hostage exchange for a then imprisoned Eamon de Valera, but de Valera’s subsequent escape left that plan a lame duck. There were other plans and other schemes, but only two appear to have put into serious operation.
The first was in November, a rapidly assembled attack if the recollections of Seamus Robinson are to be believed. He and his three compatriots from Tipperary – Sean Treacy, Dan Breen and Sean Hogan -were on the run in Dublin at that time after the events at Soloheadbeg and Knocklong. Though for some in the Dublin Brigade and in GHQ their presence was a detriment to ongoing operations, others thought their experience in ambushes invaluable. That morning in November, Robinson was met by Collins at his temporary Dubin residence, and told to go to nearby the entrance of Dublin Castle, where French and his convoy would soon be travelling past, as part of a larger journey from Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire). Collins insisted that French would be attacked by IRA operatives at every stage, and Robinson would be asked to only finish the job if he got that far. The Tipperary men waited nervously around Dublin Castle before Collins, accompanied by Cork OC Thomas Mac Curtain, nonchalantly walked up to them in broad daylight to tell them French wasn’t coming after all. Other reports claim that Cathal Brugha, concerned about civilian reaction, called the attack off.
In December, it was determined to try again. The Tipperary four were again to be involved. They were to be joined by men of the Dublin Brigade and “the Squad”, like Paddy Daly who had led the effort to blow up the Magazine Fort in 1916 and was in command, Vinny Byrne and Martin Savage, a Sligoman who had fought with the 4th Battalion that year. Savage was not originally supposed to play a part, but was recruited into the attack at the last minute.
On the 18th of December, French was in Frenchland, County Roscommon, hosting a dinner at his country residence there: the next day he returned to Dublin by train, with the intended plan being for him to alight at Ashtown train station, in the north-west of the city, from there to take a car back to his official residence in the Phoenix Park. His car would be one of four travelling in convoy, with one of those being an outrider. IRA intelligence operatives determined that French would be travelling in the second car, third overall, going by his usual routine.
The men made their way in smaller groups to Kelly’s Pub near the Ashtown crossroads, between the train station and the Phoenix Park. The plan called for a hay cart to be placed halfway across the road, allowing enough room for the outrider and the first car to pass, before it would be pushed fully across to prevent the remaining cars – one of which was supposed to contain French – from passing. The remaining men would then attack from the hedges on the right-hand side of the road, with a mixture of guns and grenades.
The plan was almost kaput before it even got started, when a member of the RIC interrupted the group pushing the cart across the road. Not understanding what was happening, he ordered them to move on. One of the Volunteers threw a grenade: the pin wasn’t pulled so it did not detonate, but the IRA had at least good aim, with the grenade striking the RIC man on the head and knocking him unconscious.
It was only a few minutes later that French’s convoy began to approach the site. The outrider and the first car were allowed to pass as planned, before the IRA blocked the road completely. The second car swerved off the road and came to a stop. The IRA opened fire and threw their grenades: one exploded in the back seat of the second car. Unforntelt for the IRA, French wasn’t in that backseat, having taken a place in the first car, that had already sped away from the ambush site. Lucky for French: if he has been in the second car as the IRA believed, he would most likely have been killed by the grenade. Sean Hogan dropped his grenade, but had the wherewithal to dive for cover.
The British were soon returning fire. The IRA were at a disadvantage in an extended firefight, armed with smaller guns and with small supplies of ammunition: the British, on the other hands, had rifles and the comfort of knowing reinforcements were close by. Breen was hit in the leg, shortly before Savage was hit in the neck, living long enough to tell Breen to carry on the attack. The IRA inflicted casualties of their own, wounding two police and one of the drivers, before the engagement came to an end, the British who could driving on and the IRA dispersing.
So French survived. The Ashtown Ambish must be considered a fairly notable failure by the IRA, in a time when they were rapidly gaining a fearsome reputation. There were mistakes at every level. It is questionable whether French should have been targetted at all, as he may have done more good than harm for the cause in the position that he held. Collins and GHQ’s approach to the entire affair seems to have been all too casual, as if they never really had much commitment for the scheme. IRA intelligence let the men on the ground down in misidentifying the target car. And, on a tactical level, the ambushers seemed to have been unprepared for having to take part in a sustained engagement, and paid the price for that.
However, we must also recognise the opposite position, in that the failure of the Ashtown ambush was a positive outcome for the IRA. If they had been able to block the road completely, they likely would have wound up heavily outnumbered and outgunned by a trapped enemy. If they had succeded and killed French, the British response would probably have been an overwhelming show of force in the capital, earlier than the IRA would have been ready for it. It would have been just a bit to brazen, a bit too early: by December the following year the IRA throughout the country would be in a position to be doing such things, and would.
And it must also be noted that the ambush, despite its failure, continued to add pressure to the morale of British military and the RIC/DMP. That the IRA was able to even mount such an attack, and come reasonably close to success, was an ill-omen that early in the conflict. David Lloyd George may have joked about the ambush and how it showed the IRA to be “bad shots”, but it was a deflective quip: the Ashtown affair showed that the British approach to the Irish turmoil was not working. French spent much of what was left of his time in Ireland ensconced in the Vice-Regal Lodge, attending less and less public engagements.
In the aftermath the British military swarmed the area, but the IRA had made good their escape, even the wounded Breen, who got medical attention and lived to fight another day. A Volunteer named Tom Ennis saved sensitive documentation from Savage’s workplace just before the British arrived, and was fired upon for his trouble. As the attack took place on the border of the DMP and RIC operational areas, there was confusion and miscommunication that effected the subsequent investigation. The attack was condemned by local media, with the Independent newspaper being particularly venomous. This written assault was answered by a real one when Peader Clancy, a high ranking officer of the Dublin Brigade, led twenty men to the Independent’s offices and wrecked its machinery. Across the country, Savage’s funeral was a large affair, that was surrounded by armed RIC.
It just so happens that I happen to currently live only around a ten-minute walk from where all of the above took place. Much has changed in the century since: the area has become heavily developed, Kelly’s Pub is now the Halfway House and the Ashtown crossroads is now a large roundabout. But the signs remain of what occurred that December morning, in the memorial dedicated to Martin Savage just off that roundabout, and in the nearby estates that bear his name.
In the next entry, I wish to take the time to offer some brief thoughts on a number of other, smaller and lesser-known engagements from 1919.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.