When you look into the history of the Irish War of Independence, you are often dependent on limited sources for certain actions. Ambushes had only a certain amount of participants on either side, and both were caught up in a propaganda war that was as or more important than the actual military conflict. The inevitable result is that a degree of exaggeration is constantly evident, whether it is the Crown Forces who insist they were attacked by hundreds when it was really dozens, or the IRA Volunteers who claim they inflicted massive casualties when they may have created a handful.
People on the same side of engagements will, in later remembrances, disagree with each other about such details, and careful consideration must be made if one is to determine the difference between truth and hyperbole. In the final days of 1920 two ambushes took place, one in Clare and one in Tipperary/Kilkenny, that afford us the opportunity to try a bit of this ourselves, and determine if the claims made by some of the participants are closer to fact or closer to fiction.
The first took place on the 18th of December, on the road between Ennis and Ennistymon. The IRA involved we have already encountered in this series, they being men of the Mid-Clare Brigade, the same that had fought the successful action at Rineen just a few months earlier. Leadership in the county, mindful of the reprisals that had taken place since Rineen, wanted to strike another blow, and so the various battalions were asked to contribute men for a column, that underwent a training camp in the days leading up to the 18th. The effort to coordinate another ambush was aided by a significant raid that had taken place at Ruan RIC barracks, where a large haul of rifles and ammo had been carried away.
Joe Barrett was designated as the column commander but ran into trouble with some of the men chosen to be part of the unit, chiefly Ignatius O’Neill. His reputation had grown considerably after Rineen, and while his battlefield acumen was not questioned, his willingness to submit to a chain-of-command was. When questions were asked about the chosen ambush site, and whether it was suitable for an attack, O’Neill allegedly threatened to break off from the Mid-Clare command structure and start his own column if the operation did not go ahead. A desperation to enact an attack that could be seen as the equal of Kilmichael may also have influenced many of the men involved.
The problems with the position lay in the fact that it required the proposed trap to be instituted flawlessly. The ambush site was near a crossroads routinely passed by Crown Forces, with rising ground to the east, and the River Inagh to the west. The IRA there were divided into two sections. One would be placed east of the road, another to the west, with scouts on the flanks and covering the roads leading to the ambush point. As was often the case with IRA ambush positions, the road curved so that trucks would have to slow, but in this case a stone wall on that same curve would hide the trucks until they were right on top of the IRA. There was also precious little cover on the west side of the wall, and any unit forced to retreat in a hurry would have the obstacle of the river to deal with. Any attack would need to be able to incapacitate the enemy force entering the “kill” zone quickly, and would be in significant trouble if part of that enemy force was able to take shelter behind the stone wall and direct fire on the west side of the road. If the enemy force was anything more than two lorries, then the position was not well-suited to attackers. Some members of the column thought better sites could be found closer to Ennis, and worried that Crowd Forces would be on their guard at Monreal.
The IRA were on site at Monreal for several hours before the engagement, dealing with the nervous tedium and the bitterly cold weather. When scouts signaled that a number of lorries – carrying a mixture of British regulars and RIC – were coming from the direction of Ennistymon, the distance between was noted as being too large for an effective engagement: the IRA would only be able to attack one. It is likely that the British would have been allowed to pass unmolested, but according to some accounts the “accidental” discharge of a Volunteer weapon alerted the Crown Forces of the IRA positions as they were driving by.
The first lorry was fired upon as it drove by the ambush site but the driver was unhit and the vehicle capable of proceeding, so it did not stop, instead accelerating to a nearby crossroads where the men capable of dismounting did so, setting up their machine gun. The second lorry was brought to a halt by fire, but most of the men inside were able to dismount, find cover and return fire on their attackers. The third lorry, forewarned, stopped some distance from the ambush site, and its occupants now fanned out and attempted to outflank the IRA, or to come at them from the rear.
The situation made the position untenable for the IRA, and the sections on either side of the road both decided to retreat before they got cut off. The east, under O’Neill, got away cleanly enough, but the west, under Barrett, got into trouble. Several Volunteers were wounded as they withdrew without cover, and then had to tackle the river. The British may have been able to cut them off completely, but for the actions of two Volunteers who maintained fire at the nearest bridge crossing to delay the Crown Forces being able to use it.
With the IRA getting away without sustaining any fatalities, Monreal could be put down as a fairly minor episode. But what makes it interesting is the amount of casualties that the IRA claimed they had inflicted on the British. Various veterans have offered differing figures, with the highest going to an astonishing 16 British dead. Others are more vague, insisting rather loosely that every member of the Crown Forces in the first lorry was “knocked out”. On the British side, things are radically different: the accounts left by them, most especially from the driver of the first lorry who later settled in the area, insist that they suffered only seven or so wounded, none of whom later became a fatality. The British records list no fatalities suffered at Monreal, and given that they were not shy at listing them in other instances, it seems safe to say that no-one was killed that day.
Why the radical discrepancy? We can put put down to a mixture of genuine belief that the British hit must have been dead men, and an effort to excuse the poor performance of the column by turning what can only be considered a reversal into a triumph. Monreal could have been an utter disaster for the IRA, who fought on poor ground and came close to having the entire column encircled. They took several wounded, and were lucky not to suffer fatalities themselves. Under criticism from GHQ, it is easily believable that the men involved would attempt to fashion themselves as having perpetrated a Clare Kilmichael, instead of what appears to have actually occurred.
The second took place on the 20th December, near the small village of Nine Mile House (or Ninemilehouse), on the border of counties Tipperary and Kilkenny. It was carried out in a somewhat dire time for the local IRA. The Kilkenny Brigade had been instructed by GHQ to undertake some manner of operation against the Auxiliaries based out of the village of Inistioge, which was essentially the central base of operations for them throughout the south-east area of the country. To aid in the effort, Ernie O’Malley was sent to the area to train, aid and otherwise lead the IRA as he had in numerous other places during the war. But O’Malley, who it must be said had led a charmed life up to that point, finally saw his luck run out when he was arrested during a raid, with incriminating documents on his person that made a mockery of his story of visiting an elderly relative. The documents included a list of company captains in the area, and the Crown Forces were able to hoover up much of Kilkenny’s IRA leadership in the days and weeks that followed.
Yet still, the IRA in Kilkenny were capable of taking the field. On the 20th, a number of men from the county’s 7th battalion – based near Callan – took up position on a road near Nine Mile House, technically in the brigade area of a neighbouring unit, but in an advantageous spot for an ambush. There are some differences in accounts about who was in charge but it appears to have been a James Leahy, the commander of the Callan company and soon to be promoted to the battalion head. They sought to attack a routine Auxiliary patrol that travelled between Callan and Clonmel, and were well-placed to do so. As was typical, the ambush point was located ahead of a bend in the road, so enemy lorries would have to slow down. Up to 80 men may have been involved in various capacities.
However, though they were in place early in the morning, by the late afternoon no Auxiliary patrols had appeared. Such thing were not all that unusual: perhaps the Auxiliaries had changed their patrol route to avoid the often deadly consequences of repetition, or maybe they had been warned off by a sympathetic observer. Either way, the expected lorries never came by. However, a different target did present itself: a mixed force of British regulars and RIC, travelling up an intersecting road by bicycle. The IRA were prepared to engage this unlooked for target of opportunity, but a premature shot – either by accident or intentional is not clear – warned the Crown Forces of what they were about to cycle into. There was a brief exchange of fire, but the military/RIC, having abandoned their bikes and found cover, could not be neutralised. The IRA decided to disperse, some of them taking the discarded bicycles.
Later, Volunteers from the ambush site blundered into a military checkpoint, and were easily identified as participant from the stolen bikes they had with them. They were able to escape across the fields, but when those who had chased them returned to the road, they were accidentally fired upon by a newly arrived force of military and Black and Tans, who mistook them for Volunteers. In this brief moment of friendly fire one RIC Constable, Thomas Walsh, was shot dead. Reprisals followed in the local area, and a civilian, Margaret Ryan, is recorded as having been killed as a result of a gunshot wound more than likely inflicted by Auxiliaries, perhaps because she had let a customer into her grocery shop on a day when businesses were ordered to be closed.
Aside from those deaths, and vague references to British casualties by some surviving accounts, there are no indications of any other fatalities occurring, yet if you look into the Nine Mile House ambush, you are bound to find claims that as many as eight British soldiers died there, in a series of ambushes. As with Monreal a few days earlier, there was never any indications from official British reports that men, excluding Thomas Walsh, died in the area that day. The idea that such a bloodbath occurred may have come from sensationalist reporting in The Times of the incident, the basis for which is not clear. As with what I suggested with Monreal, it may have come from Volunteers eager to claim a great success out of an operation that achieved very little, at a time when the IRA in the county were struggling. However, even up to modern times, it is still possible to find references to Nine Mile House in academic works that reference a death toll of eight men.
I suspect some might claim there must be a cover-up of some kind perpetrated by the British, but the deaths of soldiers, especially in such numbers in one action, is not something that could have been easily covered up. You would need to explain the silence of fellow soldiers from the men’s unit, their commanders and their families. Moreover, if the ambushes inflicted the casualties that were claimed, they would be much more well-known events, things on a par with Kilmichael, not lesser-known ambushes that required deep digging just to determine where the claims of soldiers killed came from exactly.
Both ambushes also demonstrate the weaknesses that the IRA often suffered from. There were intelligence failures in both instances, regards the number of lorries to expect in Monreal, and the lack of lorries in Nine Mile House. In both instances premature firing alerted the enemy, a sign of ill-discipline in a crucial moment. Both instances also show a section of ambush sites that had problems, relative to the possibility of the ambushing force either being outflanked or having to deal with the enemy coming from an avenue that had not been given enough consideration.
We have come to the end of 1920, one of the bloodiest years in Ireland for a long time. Before we move on to 1920, I wanted to offer a brief summation of a number of smaller engagements that took place that year, just as I did for 1919. That will be the focus of the next entry
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.