The War of Independence saw its most active areas in Munster and Dublin, not counting the bloodshed in Belfast. Of course there was military activity throughout the rest of the country, but nearly always to a much smaller scale, with the IRA being smaller, and the loyalist forces opposing them being of a lesser stature also. One of the more traditionally quiet areas of the war was the western side of the River Shannon in the province of Connacht, where the population was smaller, and Crown Forces targets in relatively short supply. But there were still some incidents worthy of greater consideration, and today’s entry is one of those.
The East Mayo Brigade of the IRA took in, as the name would imply, the eastern portion of Mayo, but also parts of Roscommon: by the summer of 1920 it had grown in size enough that it was able to claim the existence of four battalions, further sub-divided into numerous companies. For these units, it was largely to be a mundane war: even in the case of members of the local population being not firmly on the side of the IRA and the Republic, they also had no great attachment to the British administration either, and were generally happen to respect whatever authority was in control of their area. The IRA here disrupted communications, stole supplies, enforced the rule of the Republic as best they could and supported the activities of units outside of their brigade area: flashier operations were hard to conjure up, once the most isolated RIC barracks had been abandoned. In the early part of 1920 the brigade commandant, a man named Patrick Cassidy, had gone as far as firing indiscriminately at a post office to try and attract the attention of the RIC from a nearby barracks, sending a man to report their activities, only to get no takers. The situation was influenced by schisms within the IRA structure, that dated back to recriminations over action, or lack of action, during the Easter Rising.
This paucity of activity may explain why the local IRA responded as rapidly as they did to events that took place in late July/early August that year, arguably the one moment in the war when they attempted to make a major impact. The instigating incident was something as humdrum as car trouble. On the 31st July, a British military convoy was travelling between the villages of Claremorris and Ballyhaunis, not far from the latterly famous area of Knock. While passing through the townland of Holywell, a lorry carrying a sizable supply of petrol lost control and crashed off the road, landing in bogland. Though no-one was seriously hurt, the truck was mired, and the men in the convoy did not have the means to retrieve it. Those in command were unwilling to abandon the lorry – an expensive piece of equipment – or its cargo, and were similarly unwilling to delay the rest of the convoy.
Somewhere between 12 and 20 soldiers, men of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, were ordered to stay with the lorry while the rest of the convoy moved on, with the expectation that they would be able to guard it long enough for more suitable help to be sent. The guarding detachment set up camp in an abandoned house nearby. A local IRA volunteer happened upon the scene, and quickly informed his commanding officer, the O/C of the Ballyhaunis company of the 4th battalion, a man named Patrick Kenny.
Kenny already had plenty on his mind. The same night that the truck had careened off the road, a force of 25 or so IRA men of a different company had ambushed a train just outside of Ballyhaunis, bringing it to a halt and taking control of it after firing only a few shots. The train’s cargo – steel shutters that had been destined for the Westport RIC, to improve the defences of their barracks – was taken and buried. As soon as this not inconsiderable operation was finished, many of the men and their officers answered Kenny’s call to meet so they could discuss the target of opportunity that had just fallen into their laps at Holywell. The truck and its petrol was one thing, but there was also a sizable enough force of British regulars, isolated, sedentary and in numbers small enough that the IRA could count on having the advantage. Rapidly, Kenny and others formulated a plan, to surround the British and overpower them, non-lethally if possible.
Arriving at the location on the night of the 1st of August, the IRA remained unsure as to just how many men they were facing. A volunteer was sent to beg a light off of a sentry, using the opportunity to survey the camp and count the rifles stacked up around campfires: 18 were noticed. The IRA was twice as strong as this, and were prepared to enact an attack, but while Kenny was ordering his men into position they were spooked by a line of British vehicles that passed-by, sending the men scrambling back before they were spotted. Lacking enough darkness to enact his plan, Kenny decided to pull back entirely, and to try again the following day.
The delay was a blessing in disguise, as it allowed the larger 4th battalion to be called in to assist. Neatly 200 men from the 4th would be employed that day, the vast majority in an unarmed fashion, building roadblocks, guarding approaches and operating as sentries, all working to further isolate the Holywell position and make it impossible for a similar surprise as had happened the previous night to interrupt Kenny’s work again. On the night of the 1st/2nd, he was ready to give it another go.
Kenny was more daring on this occasion, deciding to take advantage of a perceived lack of watchfulness in the British to try and tip the odds even more in the favour of the IRA without actually firing a shot. He himself led a small group of volunteers into the camp in the early hours of the 2nd, avoiding the sentries, for the purpose of taking the Highlanders’ rifles before they had a chance to use them. Kenny was able to grab five or six rifles before heading back the way he had come, but was unable to make a clean getaway: having avoided being spotted on the way out, the alarm was raised as he retreated. The IRA men dove for cover as the British opened fire and the IRA surrounding their camp responded. Before Kenny could get to cover, he was hit in the arm and face by a shotgun blast, an incident of friendly fire which took him out of the subsequent engagement. Three British soldiers were wounded in the first exchanges.
For the next hour and a half the two sides exchanged fire, the British from their camp and the abandoned house, the IRA from behind fences. In the pitch blackness, targets would have been hard to find. Those on the republican side who left accounts state the belief that the British must have been near surrendering after those 90 minutes, but it’s unclear to be how they would have realistically believed that: if it was an issue of ammo, the IRA always tended to run out first. Regardless, it was a superfluous question: around that time British military reinforcements arrived, in the form two lorries speeding from the direction of Claremorris (the British used the small town as a garrison for the area). The surrounding support were unable to stop them. These soldiers went as far as firing out of their moving vehicles int he direction of the IRA. Now badly outnumbered, and with dawn approaching, the IRA retreated and dispersed again.
The number of casualties was somewhat disputed. The British insisted that they had inflicted several wounded and one death on the ambushers, while members of the IRA claimed they had wounded between five and ten of their opponents. Unless a masterful job was done by both in covering up these casualties, it seems more likely that both claims are exaggerated. Kenny was shuffled between several medical resources and a disused wing of a local hospital, but recovered. The British authorities instituted a round of house raids, looking for anything incriminating that could point to the identity of the ambushers, but found nothing.
The Holywell Ambush was a tremendous opportunity for the IRA. An otherwise “quiet” district suddenly found itself with a prime target of opportunity, in the form of an extremely isolated group of enemy soldiers, whose ability to manouvre was painfully limited. The local IRA largely failed to take advantage of that opportunity: excepting some wounded regulars and a few stolen rifles, the British were able to survive the encounter, while the IRA suffered a badly wounded officer and the necessity of having to retreat from the same area two days in a row. The operation that waylaid the train was a more impressive result in terms of the final outcome.
The question is why. Well, the East Mayo IRA were under-experienced with such operations: direct combat with trained military, many of whom would have been veterans of the First World War, was a hard task to accomplish when up to then your war mostly consisted of raiding farms for shotguns and digging trenches across roads. The IRA lacked the right kind of armament to be going up against such regulars, with shotguns being an especially difficult weapon to use in night-time fighting. And they were outnumbered when the larger situation in the area, with reinforcements not too far away, were considered, that the larger East Mayo IRA was unable to prevent joining the scene of fighting.
Holywell was not the best way to begin, but there would be bigger fights in the county of Mayo before the War of Independence came to a close. For now we must go back down south, to discuss a similar situation – British authorities being forced to guard a broken-down vehicle in a hostile area – but one that had much more deadly results for many that were involved.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.