Ireland’s Wars: Pikes Bridge

The period between the end of August up to November was a time where the balance of the war had vacillated between the two sides. The National Army maintained a nominal control, the provisional government got its legislature in being and the pro-Treaty side still had the support of the majority of the country. On the other side the IRA scored a number of notable successes, at least some form of republican government had been established and the anti-Treaty faction as a whole had managed to bounce back somewhat from the disaster of the conventional Civil War. But as more time passed and winter came, the military situation began to swing decisively in the favour of the National Army. In this entry I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about one stand-out example of this, before we move back and take a look at the larger situation.

As previously discussed, the anti-Treaty IRA in Co Kildare were generally not in a position to do a huge amount for the cause. Owing to limited numbers, ammunition and proximity to the pro-Treaty core, the republicans in Kildare were mostly reduced to cutting telegraphs wires, interfering with the roads and the odd small-scale ambush. Something of an exception to this was the flying column formation commanded by Patrick Mullaney. Mullaney we have encountered before briefly, owing to his role in the aborted scheme to use captured airplanes to attack the provisional government in Dublin. Mayo born, he had been a teacher before the War of Independence, and during that conflict worked with IRA units in Meath and Kildare, sabotaging railway lines, destroying bridges and helping with attacks on RIC barracks. After the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty Mullaney sided with the anti-Treaty faction, and was open enough about his allegiance to be one of those arrested in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War’s beginning. Imprisoned in the Curragh, Mullaney escaped in August and shortly afterwards was given command of Eastern Division’s 1st Brigade, whose area of operations generally took in the west of Co Dublin and the east of Co Kildare.

Mullaney’s brigade cut telegraph wires, blew up bridges, robbed post offices and engaged the National Army through the use of snipers and bombs. Aside from he and his mens role in the Baldonnell Aerodrome plan in November, larger operations they were involved in included a brief occupation of Leixlip, ahead of a proposed ambush that ended up not taking place. Mullaney’s command probably consisted of around 20 or so men at this point and having existed in some form for some time by December, could be said to be one of best anti-Treaty units left in the field, with additional notoriety owing to their proximity to the capital. Their relatively aggressive course of action in terms of sabotage and destruction marked them out, and meant that their ability to operate with impunity had a time limit.

On the 30th November Mullaney led his men to Maynooth, where they raided pubs for supplies. The next day they had moved a few km’s east of the town to Grangewilliam House, a country manor, which Mullaney intended to use as a base for enacting an ambush on the nearby Dublin/Galway road. A rail-line was also nearby which could prove a tempting target. Mullaney split his men into different sections, with some facing the road from the other side of the parallel Royal Canal, some in a graveyard outside of a ruined church, and others to guard the units Maynooth flank. The area was dominated by the structure of Pikes Bridge, an arch bridge that constituted the only nearby method of crossing the canal.

Mullaney knew that his brief occupation of Maynooth would draw the National Army to the area and he was not disappointed. A column of pro-Treaty soldiers, led by a Commandant Joseph Ledwith, was sent from nearby Lucan to occupy Maynooth, and these men would have to be supplied. On the morning of the 1st December, a truck with pay and supplies for Ledwith came by the Pikes Bridge position, with only a small number of soldiers inside. The lorry actually broke down on its way: while undertaking repairs, the occupants were fired upon by advanced members of Mullaney’s column, from which they retreated on foot, only to run into the larger IRA position. Two of the three men were captured and held in the big house while their lorry was ransacked and then burned.

So far so good for the republicans, but the third man, the driver of the lorry, was able to evade capture and made his way within a short time to Ledwith in Maynooth. Informed of what had happened, he put in calls for National Army reinforcements to converge on the area, and these were soon coming from multiple directions: Lucan, Naas, Trim and Portobello all soon had units speeding towards Pikes Bridge. They probably expected to find nothing once they got there, with the IRA unlikely to stick around after the brief engagement they had fought.

But the IRA did not disperse as you would have expected them to. Despite the fact that they had initiated an attack – a successful one it has to be said – and left a burning lorry as evidence to anyone that they were operating in the area, Mullaney did not withdraw. He perhaps was hoping for a larger engagement, feeling that he had the men and the arms to give Ledwith a proper fight, and was unwilling to leave without at least attempting such an encounter. It must also be stated bluntly that, despite the Leixlip columns experience in guerrilla operations, Mullaney himself had not commanded an IRA unit in an operation of the kind now being contemplated, and may have been in somewhat over his head.

Ledwith, with around 25 men, left Maynooth in the afternoon and advanced on Grangewilliam across the fields in-between the House and the town. They came under fire from the guards who had posted at the edge of Grangewilliam Woods to watch movement from that direction. Ledwith’s men, strung out to avoid being easy targets, were unable to make much headway in the circumstances, lacking adequate cover and with their enemy having no such difficulties. The IRA also had use of a Lewis Gun, a gift from deserting soldiers who had departed their service from the provisional government with the weapon. One soldier, a Private Joseph Moran, was hit in the head and killed instantly during this hour-long exchange, and another captured.

Despite this, the IRA were in enormous trouble, as pro-Treaty forces now moved relentless on their position from other directions. General Dan Hogan, with five Tenders of troops and two armoured cars, now arrived on the scene, and other units were not far behind. The firepower advantage that Mullaney had held up to that point vanished, as his men were now pressed back by the rifle fire from at least 40 soldiers under Hogan’s command, and the machine guns of his armoured cars. The IRA in the graveyard inflicted a single casualty before being forced to abandon their positions and flee back to Grangewilliam House. The National Army then advanced on either side of the canal, the armoured cars sweeping over Pikes Bridge from the main road to the north, while other units crossed further east and then swept down on the southern side.

Under fire from Ledwith’s men coming from the west and the multitude of National Army soldiers advancing behind the armoured cars to the east, Mullaney weighed his options. He was now decisively outgunned, and could not hope to hold Grangewilliam House until nightfall, even if this could be expected early in December. He presumably considered surrender then and there, but instead he decided to take his chances and order a break-out to the countryside of the south, reasoning that they would only have to stay active for a set period of time, before sunset would allow them to slip away in the dark. The prisoners that had been taken were brought along for part of the way, perhaps intended to be hostages, but were abandoned before too long. What resulted in the fields and lanes was a scattered, desperate firefight, as the column attempted a fighting retreat.

It was hopeless for the IRA: other National Army units had pushed south, and Mullaney was now encircled. Under continual heavy fire from the enemy machine guns and nearly out of ammunition himself, the IRA got as far as Ballygoran a few km’s to the south before they could go no further. Pro-Treaty soldiers now attacked them from the south, and though they maintained a creditable resistance for ten or so minutes, there was no way out. Mullaney surrendered, later lamenting that if they could have held out for another half an hour, they may well have been able to escape in the falling darkness. Three of the Volunteers had been wounded, with it claimed that one was shot, though he survived, after the surrender. The final fate of some of those captured is something we will discuss in more detail in a few entries, but it suffices to say that the Leixlip flying column was out of action.

Mullaney had essentially led his unit to disaster, having been given numerous chances to escape the area and the encirclement. As soon as the initial engagement had taken place the IRA should have left, and the decision to remain in place was one that doomed them. When Ledwith’s men attacked from Maynooth, Mullaney still arguably had time to slip away, but in remaining where he was he allowed the National Army to close the trap. On the pro-Treaty side, a degree of luck had allowed for the successful conclusion of the entire affair, as in normal circumstances the majority of the troops that arrived in that portion of Kildare would have found no enemy to fight at all, but the National Army soldiers had acquitted themselves well when it came to the point of a fight. The IRA had been pinned down and left with few good options, and the rapid movement of troops from the south had insured that they were unable to escape when they belatedly tried to.

This was typical of the manner in which the war was now going. The National Army was slowly, painfully and with no small degree of loss, coming to terms with the war it was being asked to fight. In combination with the weaknesses of the IRA, which were only growing, it meant that the pro-Treaty faction was now firmly in the ascendancy. In the next entry I will take the opportunity to look at the National Army’s counter-insurgency campaign from a larger context, what about it worked, why it worked and what the outcomes were.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Pikes Bridge

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Execution Policy | Never Felt Better

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