Having spent some time looking at some of the elements of the War of Independence that may not have brought great credit to the IRA, we turn back to some of their more notable successes. The war intensified as more regular British troops, Auxiliaries and Black and Tans were sent into the country, and as parts of the IRA became more proficient, and daring, in attacking them. The war had now moved fairly decisively from the conflict where it was characterised by attacks on police barracks, and was more and more characterised entirely as an ambush conflict when the two sides did come into contact with each other. This was to the IRA’s advantage in many ways and in early February, over the course of roughly 24 hours, two separate ambushes took place that showed that point once again.
The first takes us back to Longford, and to the IRA units under the command of Sean Mac Eoin. He had not been quiet since the events surrounding the Battle of Ballinalee. There had been visits to Dublin to co-ordinate with Collins and GHQ, smaller ambushes, the creation of mines, house burnings, near-arrests and entanglements with the republican court system. The North Longford IRA remained one of the active parts of the republican movement outside of Dublin and Munster, and much of that was driven by Mac Eoin’s energy and personal charisma.
In late January he discovered that the RIC in the area had made themselves vulnerable through repetition, in the form of a regularly scheduled patrol of two lorries, that traveled from Granard to Longford with about 20 men, many of them Black and Tans. Mac Eoin found a suitable position to enact an ambush at a place called Clonfin, roughly half-way between Granard and Ballinalee. It was hilly ground with the remains of an old fort on a height, where Mac Eoin placed himself and one of his sections, with another to the right and the third across the road. Mac Eoin’s plan called for one of those aforementioned homemade mines to be used to completely destroy the leading lorry, as the firepower of the assembled IRA was poured exclusively on the second lorry.
The IRA were in place early on the morning of the 2nd February, and spent the time placing the mine in a hole in the road, and concealing the detonating wire. Then, they waited. Hours came and went, and the IRA stayed in the position probably only on the word of Cumann na mBan scouts, who insisted that the Crown Forces had left Granard. Around 3PM, they appeared. The first lorry crossed over the mine, and the man in charge hit the detonator, “timing his action beautifully” according to Mac Eoin. There was always a danger that the mines would fail to explode for whatever reason, in which case the ambush would probably never be started. This time, the mine did explode. The driver of the first lorry was either wounded to the point of being incapacitated, or outright killed, in this moment, and the lorry came to a stop. The road blocked, the second lorry had to also come to a stop, and the IRA were quickly opening fire.
Mac Eoin had been hoping for coup de main where the Crown Forces would be compelled to surrender quickly, but was disappointed. Those men capable of doing do were quickly out of the first lorry and firing at their attackers, utilising a Lewis Gun for extra firepower. The second lorry had been able to come to a more natural stop, and some of its inhabitants were able to find basic cover from which they could try and more adequately defend themselves. Mac Eoin’s account claims that this unexpected resistance was on account of the majority of the enemy being Auxiliaries instead of just RIC or the less disciplined Black and Tans.
The firefight lasted for roughly a half hour. The nature of how it ended is a bit disputed, but it appears that the Crown Forces had enough when their commander, a Worthington Craven, was fatally wounded, and agreed to surrender afterwards. Mac Eoin’s account would seem to indicate that some men may have been shot down after they put up their hands, but more precise details are not available. In the aftermath, Mac Eoin claims that he was at pains to provide for the many wounded on the British side, after they had been thoroughly disarmed. Four of the convoy lay dead. The IRA took no casualties.
The IRA took a while at the scene, gathering arms, setting the lorries alight and, if Mac Eoin is to be believed, treating the wounded and getting into debates on the nature of the war with Craven before he died. Unfortunately this delay almost cost the IRA everything. One Auxie had been able to flee the scene of the ambush, though wounded, and call for assistance. As Mac Eoin was preparing to wrap up at Clonfin, several lorry loads of reinforcements were spotted approaching. In danger of being encircled and snatching defeat from the jaw of victory, Mac Eoin rapidly organised a withdrawal, that necessitated another firefight, this time to hold the Crown Forces long enough for the Volunteers to escape to the north.
British forces flooded the area in the aftermath, and in the usual reprisals at least one local, a 70-year-old farmer who may have been too deaf to hear a call to halt, was killed. One of the homes burnt belonged to one of the Clonfin ambushers, a Peter Finnegan, who had left a rifle with his name carved into the butt behind at the ambush site.
It was another ambush success for the IRA, though Mac Eoin had nearly turned it into a disaster. The ambush site had been well chosen, the mine had worked and, even though the firing lasted longer than Mac Eoin had anticipated, the Crown Forces were eventually subdued. A large haul of guns and ammunition were taken, and more casualties inflicted on the enemy. Mac Eoin’s alleged treatment of the defeated Auxies added to his legend and proved a useful propaganda story, though some would criticise the Longford commander for being so focused on aiding his enemies that he almost allowed his unit to be trapped by British reinforcements.
Mac Eoin would remain at large for a time, and engaged in a few smaller operations, but his luck ran out a month after Confin, when he was spotted and arrested at Mullingar train station. A very popular and admired figure in the IRA, his capture hit the midlands hard and after he was sentenced to death by the British – despite members of the Auxiliaries at Clonfin vouching for his good character – Michel Collins would go as far as to organise a raid of Mountjoy Prison to an attempt to rescue him. The raid, that saw six Volunteers using British uniforms and a stolen British vehicle to gain access to the prison, was unsuccessful as Mac Eoin had been moved to a different part of the prison, and the Volunteers retreated after a brief firefight. In the end Mac Eoin was reprieved by the declaration of a truce in the summer, and would soon after be released. By then he had been elected a TD, and was poised to play a more significant role in national affairs.
The larger side of a guerrilla conflict, the side that is ambushed as opposed to performing the ambushing, succeeds or fails largely on the back of how it reacts to those ambushes. If you can learn from such experiences, and apply that learning quickly, you can ensure that your forces are not taking unnecessary losses and forcing the enemy to continually find ways to adapt. As we have already seen, and will surely see again, the British during the War of Independence were often slow to apply the lessons of the IRA’s ambush war. Only 24 hours after Clonfin, an even worse result occurred in an ambush in Limerick.
The place this time was Dromkeen (or Drumkeen), around ten km’s south-east of Limerick City. This was a combined operation of the East and Mid-Limerick Brigades, with roughly 45 men engaged under Donnacha O’Hannigan, the O/C of the East Limerick flying column. The combination was largely on the back of several recent raids of the Crown Forces, that had captured IRA arms dumps: the only way the Limerick IRA could now effectively undertake ambushes was for multiple brigades to be involved. O’Hannigan had received intelligence very similar to that received by Mac Eoin, that a regular convoy of two lorries, populated by Black and Tans, was making trips on the road between Pallasgreen and Caherconlish. O’Hannigan selected an ambush spot at a point where the road bent, then split, and divided his forces so they were either side of the road, with one of four sections behind the stone wall of a graveyard. Using horse carts they blocked the forks of the road, then waited. In the afternoon, the Crown Forces arrived as expected.
O’Hannigan claims the Black and Tans were offered the chance to surrender before fire was opened, but who knows if such things are true. It was the second lorry that was fired on first, by the sections further to the left flank. The driver of the first lorry, hearing the shots behind, appears to have sped up to escape the area and, in combination with failing to see the roadblock on the road to Pallas owing to the bend in the road, too late swerved onto the other road, where he hit a wall and then the other cart at speed, before coming to a stop.
In the resulting firefight, the IRA quickly accounted for the remaining Crown Forces. O’Hannigan’s account indicates that those in the first lorry were neutralised easily enough – possibly some of them were killed when thrown from their lorry after the crash, though other accounts note a grenade successfully thrown into the lorry – and the occupants of the second lorry had only so much they could do, under fire from both sides of the road and a third section back the way they had come. A couple of the Crown Forces, including a District Inspector in civilian clothes, were able to escape the scene of the ambush. The rest were not so lucky, with the majority killed there and others mortally wounded. The overall RIC casualties were 11 dead. The IRA took one casualty, a Volunteer with a bullet wound to the hand.
There are elements of controversy to the aftermath, that ring very similar to the alleged events of Kilmichael. Maurice Meade, a Volunteer who had once been recruited into Roger Casement’s Irish Brigade, claims that a Black and Tan continued firing from under a lorry after the general fighting had ceased, and that when he was eventually compelled to surrender Meade shot him dead for his conduct. Then, two other surviving Tans were assembled, a rapid court-martial took place, and O’Hannigan ordered them both shot, an order that Meade happily complied with. O’Hannigan makes no mention of such things in his account, but these events are backed up by others, who claim the executions were mandated by a GHQ order to kill all Black and Tans captured in arms. Numerous Volunteers had been killed in Limerick in the last number of months, so even without GHQ orders there was ample motivation for the IRA to show little mercy to their enemy, for revenge and to make a definitive statement that the IRA in Limerick were not defeated. The usual reprisals happened in the aftermath, with farms and homes nearby burned.
The Dromkeen Ambush, possibly the second biggest of the war in terms of Crown Forces casualties incurred, was a spectacular success for the IRA, and yet another example of RIC inability to adapt to guerrilla war. They had failed to adequately randomise their convoy routes, the two lorries had traveled too close together and their occupants were unable to properly defend themselves when they came under attack. The IRA had carefully scouted the area, gathered intelligence on the enemy, set-up their positions and insured that local civilians could not interfere. Their prize was the stand-out engagement of the War of Independence in Limerick.
In conjunction with the events of Clonfin the previous day, and three other, smaller, ambushes in Dublin and Cork, 19 members of the Crown Forces were killed in little over a day. Such numbers showcased that, for all of the Crown Forces numerical dominance in certain areas, and the claims of commanders that the tide was turning, they were still as liable as ever to be the victims of ambush and assassination. The aftermath of the two ambushes were radically different though, with Mac Eoin’s chivalric streak on full display in his treatment of the wounded, while O’Hannigan appears to have presided over a drumhead court-martial and summary execution. It should be remembered that, as covered in the previous entry, the British had little compunction about executing captured rebels, albeit with a more substantial legal proceeding, and few in the IRA had much patience for the “laws of war”. The mercy shown at Confin appears to be almost entirely down to the opinions and actions of Mac Eoin though, as has been said before, it was not unusual for the IRA to release the survivors of ambushes after the fact.
We move next to another ambush, in a part of the country we have not been to in a while. That part is the border of Kerry and Cork, where the local IRA were eager to enact an attack that could match the achievements of their colleagues in the rest of Munster, as the War of Independence continued to escalate.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.