On Monday night the 4th of April 1921 an RIC police patrol was ambushed in the village of Ferns, Co. Wexford. One of those involved in the attack, Joseph Killeen, recalled the event in his witness statement to the bureau of military history many years later; On the night of the ambush himself, together with four members of the North Wexford Flying Column, Stephen Pender, William Kavanagh, Tom (Lundy) Dwyer and har Connors, took up position behind a ‘high wall’ along the main street, about 50 yards from the RIC barracks. Tom Dwyer in his witness states recounting the same event states the wall was located where the former national bank building now stands.
Joseph was armed with 0.45 revolver and five rounds of ammunition, while the other men in the party also had revolvers and a few home made hand grenades. Joseph state the target was ‘…a composite patrol of six R.I.C. and Black and Tans…’. and ‘The patrol approached in single file on both sides of the street. When they came opposite our position, we opened fire on them and threw some grenades.’
A contemporary newspaper report stated that bombs, revolver and rifle fire were directed at the police from a high wall along the Main Street. In response two of the police fired back on the attackers with their carbines, while the other four constables ran back to the safety of the barracks. Meanwhile another constable inside the barracks, upon hearing the gunfire outside, sent up Verey lights into the night sky to alert neighbouring barracks for assistance. The four constables had reached the saftey of their barracks when the rear of the building was targeted with gunfire and ‘so incessant was the fire that it was next to impossible to emerge in safety to go to the assistance of their comrades on the street’ . In an attempt to save the remaining two officers outside five of the constables emerged, firing at their attackers, whom then fled. Evidence of the short battle could be seen the following morning as bullet marks were visible in many of the neighbouring houses and the back of the barracks also. The official report from Dublin castle stated the fighting last for about fifteen minutes with no casualties were reported. The following morning there was a strong police and military presence in the area. A Myles Kenny from Ballyduff was arrested and brought to Enniscorthy and detained.
Tom Dwyer’s account differs to that of Joseph Kileens as the former states the police were escorting a mail car drawn by a donkey and cart, while the latter makes no mention of such. The newspaper report also makes no reference to any mail car and Kileen’s recollection of the event and is therefore the most plausible.
The Site Today
The streetscape where the ambush took place has undergone many changes in the 100 years since. The ‘high wall’ where Joseph Killeen and the others hid behind was cleared to make way for the construction of the national bank building in the 1920s. This building is still visible but no longer functions as a bank. The RIC barracks was demolished in the late 20th century and the site now forms part of the catholic church car park. A single bullet hole is visible on one of the granite window sills of the school building, situated beside where the barracks once stood and any maybe associated with the event.
A bullet hole is visible in a window sill of the old school building which is situated beside where the RIC barracks was. A physical reminder of the events that April evening in 1921.
Enniscorthy Guardian, April 9th 1921, p5
Bureau of Military History Withness Statement: Joseph Killeen #1215
Bureau of Military History Withness Statement: Thomas Dwyer #1198
On Monday night the 11th of April 1921 a ford motor car and lorry belonging to the military were burned by the IRA in Wexford town. The vehicles were parked at the town’s South Station, near the military barracks. A group of the ‘Devons’ proceeded to put out the flames and the newspapers described how there was considerable military activity on the station premises afterwards, with staff and civilians both held up.
The South Wexford brigade activity reports state four men were responsible for the operation.
Enniscorthy Guardian, 15th April 1921, p4
South Wexford Brigade Activity reports
In the early part of the 20th century county Wexford was well served by the railway with lines connecting most of its major towns and villages to Dublin, Waterford and Carlow (Figure 1). The addition of a rail link at Rosslare served overseas passengers and goods, adding a somewhat international dimension. Throughout the War of Independence the IRA undertook regular raids on trains targeting both goods and mails, the latter of which were conducted for intelligence gathering purposes. In contrast to the proceeding civil war, the period was a relatively quiet time for the counties’ railways with only one ambush on a train which took place on Wednesday the 11th of May 1921 just North of Killurin Railway Station.
The three o’ clock train departed Wexford town and headed towards Dublin. According to the witness statement of James Daly, an adjutant in the North Wexford Brigade and part of the Courtnacuddy volunteers, the target onboard was a group of ten soldiers accompanying an RIC sergeant. The latter was travelling from Wexford to Enniscorthy to pay the Devon Regiment who were stationed in the town’s courthouse . This was a weekly journey and it was understood that both the sergeant and soldiers usually travelled together in a single carriage.
The train travelling north through the Wexford countryside, skirting the western bank of the river Slaney. The route was dotted with various stops, one of which was at Killurin Station, situated south of Macmine Junction. About a quarter of a mile beyond Killurin station (Figure 2) the train arrived at a spot known as ‘The Ballast’ where there was a wood on either side of the line and also sandpits. According to contemporary newspaper accounts once the train reached this point it suddenly and unexpectedly slowed to halt, the driver reportedly having seen two red flags. What was described next as ‘Terrible and Continuous Firing’ came from the adjoining woods and sandpits and all hell broke loose.
Upon realizing they were under attack the soldiers on board responded with their own fire . A firefight quickly ensued, lasting 10 minutes or more. The passengers on board were taken by surprise with one man describing how he was reading in his compartment when suddenly he heard shots coming from the woods, followed by cries of ‘surrender’. Passengers scrambled over one another as they sought shelter under seats and on the floors to the sound of bullets ricocheting around them. Fortunately those aboard escaped injury and no casualties were reported but one of the troops was wounded in the wrist. Despite the incident the train miraculously managed to continue on its journey, arriving in Dublin ‘only 7 minutes late, at Westland Row.’ A reporter described the condition of the 8 ca carriage train that met him there.
‘Eight coaches were riddled with bullets and presented an extraordinary spectacle at Westland Row, Dublin, where they lie awaiting repairs. Practically every window was smashed, the roofs and sides were perforated with bullets and in more than a dozen places there were traces where bullets hit the floors.’ (Enniscorthy Guardian 14th September 1921, pg 5)
‘The Guard stated the train was fairly crowded. Several bullets came into his van, one in some mysterious way coming up through the floor and embedding itself in the side of the van.’ (Ibid)
Passengers aboard in danger
In his witness statement given years later to the Bureau of Military History, James O Toole, a lieutenant in the 3rd North Wexford Battalion, stated he and others stopped firing and called off the attack upon realizing there were civilians on board. This was despite their original intelligence being that there would be only troops. He further adds that some of the soldiers used civilian passengers as shields, although this cannot be confirmed in other accounts of the incident.
‘From my position I saw a soldier pushing a civilian up against the carriage window, and the soldier taking cover behind him. Other members of our party told me afterwards that they saw the same thing happening in other compartments; in fact, in some cases the soldiers took cover behind women.’ (pg 9)
James Daly, an adjutant in the North Wexford Brigade and part of the Courtnacuddy volunteers, similarly indicated the reason for calling off the attack was to prevent injury to civilians. In contrast though according to James they knew there were civilians aboard, but on the day of the attack they were caught by surprise when the soldiers were seated mixed with civilians, a change from their usual arrangement together in a single carriage.
‘…on the day of the ambush they (the soldiers) were mixed up amongst the passengers, about 2 in each carriage, and so upset I.R.A. arrangements which were worked out on the understanding that the soldiers would be together in one carriage. (pg 5)
Making good their escape
After the attack James Daly described how they had great difficulty in escaping as it was daylight and the countryside was being scoured by military lorries in search of them. On several occasions these passed within only a few fields and they were lucky to escape undetected. Specific mention and gratitude was given to Denis Asple of Galbally who ‘… knew the country well for getting the IRA safely away by every lane and mass path.’ (pg 5)
He also cited the lack of ammunition was an ongoing problem for the IRA at the time stating
‘The attacking party on the train at Killurin, armed with shotguns and 4 rifles, only had about 8 or 10 rounds of buckshot each. When these were fired there wasn’t a cartridge left in the battalion area.‘ (pg 5)
The group of volunteers likely made their escape along the valley of a small northwest to southeast stream that flows into the river Slaney immediately southwest of the ambush site. It would have provided the men with cover, allowing them to remain concealed before dispersing into the roaming countryside and fields to the west. The route is shown on the map at the end of this article.
Circumstances surrounding the ambush
James O Toole described how himself, lieutenants and company captains were attending a training camp in the Blackstairs mountains when they got word that a troop train was proceeding on the Wexford to Dublin line. With that the flying column, who were also in attendance, left camp and headed to ‘…a spot near Killurin where there was an embankment on both sides of the line.‘ Railway sleepers were placed across the line, which differs from the newspaper accounts, and the train came to a halt. They then opened fire on the train from their position on top of the embankment. According to James Daly the attacking party was hand picked and made up of 5 men from each company in the 2nd Battalion area, numbering 35 in total.
This was the first and only ambush on a train during the War of Independence in county Wexford and a precursor to what would become much regular during the Civil War that was to come. Some discrepancies are noticeable in the accounts; railway sleepers being used to stop the train rather than the red flags as described in the newspapers; soldiers using civilians as human shields; whether the attack was called off due to the soldiers being mixed among the passengers or the presence of civilians on the train in general. Despite these variations though it is clear the train was deliberately halted and that the attack was called off to prevent civilian casualties and save life’s.
Identifying The Ambush Site
The site was described in Newspaper accounts as being a quarter of a mile outside of Killurin station, at a location known as ‘The Ballast’, which offered a ‘…splendid vantage point for such an attack.’ James O Toole described the ambush site as ‘…a spot near Killurin where there was an embankment on both sides of the line.‘, while James Daly recounted how ‘The train was brought to a standstill in a place known as the “Sandpit”, about a mile on the Macmine side of Killurin.‘
From these we know that the ambush site was on the north side of Killurin station, with an embankment and woods on either side while the reference to sandpits suggests quarry activity in the immediate area. Only one such location matches this description north of Killurin station and is located just beyond the railway bridge about a quarter of a mile as described with woods on either end. The existence of woods and sandpits at this point is obvious from OS maps which post date the ambush by only a few years.
The assistance and local knowledge of the Byrne family of Brookhill House, Ballyhogue, was fundamental in identifying and visiting the site. The family recalled a memory of quarrying at the location which would tie in with James Daly’s reference to the location being called the ‘sandpit’.
Although 100 years has passed since the event the ambush site remains much the same, flanked on both sides by mature forests and high embankments. A slight bend in the railway line at this point may also have been a factor in why this location was chosen; providing a limited line of sight for any oncoming trains which ensured any obstruction on the tracks would have come to the driver as a sudden unexpected surprise.
The Attacking Party
The North Wexford Brigade Activity Reports provide a list of 34 men associated with the ambush. While James O Toole’s witness statement states it was the flying column who were responsible for the attack that of James Daly’s corresponds with the list provided in the activity reports and that it was undertaken by a party of local men instead.
Mapping the Killurin Ambush
Through a combination of cartographic sources, descriptive references and local knowledge it was possible to create a map detailing the ambush site. It provides a visual aid of understanding the event with many physical archaeological elements associated with it surviving to this day including the railway line itself and Killurin station, now a private residence. The ambush site also has remained much the same as the day of the attack. The local RIC barracks, which was burned in 1920 and is now a rebuilt private residence, forms another element in the local revolutionary landscape from the period.
Bureau of Military History Witness Statement James O Toole #1084
Bureau of Military History Witness Statement James Daly #1257
Enniscorthy Guardian 14th September 1921, pg 5
North Wexford Brigade Activity Reports
A special thanks to the Byrne family of Brookhill house Ballyhogue for their assistance in identifying the ambush site; The Asple and Breen families for allowing use of their family photos and Aidan Murphy of Ballyhouge for his assistance also.
This aspect of the project involves mapping of the various incidents and the archaeological remains of the War of Independence in county Wexford. Click on the link below to browse the map.
In 1818 Solomon Richards, an eminent Dublin Surgeon, bought Ardamine estate from Sir Walter Roberts of Courtlands Devon. What was described as a ‘smallish white square house which was used by the family as a seaside holiday home’ existed on the site and would later become Ardamine house. In the 1820s and 1830s Solomon Richard’s son, John Gobbard Richards, added extensively onto the building. In 1835, Lewis in his topographical dictionary of Ireland, referred to how ‘the grounds have been recently embellished with thriving plantations and other improvements’.
After John’s death the estate passed onto his son, Solomon Augustus and then to his son Bernard John, who died young and unmarried in 1879. As Bernard had no family it subsequently became the property of his brother, Major Arthur William Mordaunt Richards, who was high sheriff, a justice of the peace, and deputy lieutenant for county Wexford.
On the 8th of July 1921 Ardamine House, the residence of Major Richards, was burned to the ground. The major was not resident in the house at the time of the incident, instead residing in England for some years before. In preparation for the operation the surrounding roads were blocked with felled trees and outposts set up to impede the arrival of crown forces. Only the gardener and his wife were in the building on the night when about 80 raiders arrived. Once they gained admission inside the mansion some of them asked to be led to the garden house where they took the watering cans and filled them with petrol, which they then sprinkled around the house. After three hours the beautiful building was burned to the ground.
The raiders were complimented for the courtesy, apologising as they left the burning building, but said they had to carry out their instructions. It was estimated to cost at least £50,000 to rebuild the house which boasted its own electric plant. A compensation claim of £35,000 was later lodged.
James O Toole, in his withness statement to the bureau of military history, recalled years later that Major Richards was a signatory of the death warrants of the 1916 rising leaders. It had been their intention to also destroy Courtown house of the same night but they received countermanding orders at the last minute. The North Wexford brigade activity files state the operation was undertaken by the Courtown and Riverchapel company as a reprisal for the destruction of several houses by British forces following the ambush at Inch outside Gorey in May that year in which an RIC constable was shot dead.
After the destruction of Ardamine house Major Richards considered rebuilding before later abandoning the idea and returning to live in England. The estate was sold out to the land commission in 1922. The only remnants of the estate today are some woods, stables, a complex of workers houses, the walls of the walled garden and a sundial which still stands on which is inscribed ‘I give all men warning how the shadows fly. All men are shadows and a shadow am I. A hotel currently occupies the site.
Ardnamine House and Ballyrankin (located near Bunclody) were the first ‘Big Houses’ to be destroyed in the county with many others falling victim to the Civil War that was yet to come.
Bureau of military history witness statement, Jame O Toole #1084
Enniscorthy Guardian, 16th July 1921, p5
North Wexford Brigade Activity Files.
Houses of Wexford, 2016 by David Rowe & Eithne Scallan, Ballinakella Press #15.
On Thursday morning the 13th of May 1920 the R.I.C Barracks at Kilmore was burned by the Bridgetown company of the I.R.A. The New Ross Standard reported that about 2 a.m. the building was noticed ablaze and the fire was started with the aid of some straw soaked in paraffin. Afterwards only the burned walls remained. The building had been vacated by the police for some time before.
The Barrack building was rented from a Mrs. Francis Roche who was later awarded £680 compensation in the courts (New Ross Standard, 25th June 1920, p6). This was later increased to £850 following an appeal. (The Irish Times, 7th July 1920).
The exact location of the barracks is as of yet unknown, only that is was located near the coastguard station and post office.
New Ross Standard, 14th May 1920, p5
New Ross Standard, 25th June 1920, p6
The Irish Times, 7th July 1920, p5
It was Tuesday the 5th of July 1921, within the closing weeks of the War of Independence and he North Wexford Flying Column were resting at Kinsella’s of Ballinamona, 5km northeast of Camolin village. Their commanding officer, Paddy Kenny, decided to send one of the men, Patrick Carton, to Camolin to purchase cigarettes. Many years later Patrick described in his witness statement to the bureau of military history how he set out armed with a 0.38 revolver and a single Mills bomb. Although he may have appeared well armed ammunition was in short supply for the IRA and this was highlighted by the fact that Patrick only had three bullets on his person.
His destination Camolin was a small rural village in north county Wexford, situated along the Gorey to Ferns road. In 1921 it boasted a post office, church, railway station and until it had been burned by the IRA the previous year, an RIC barracks. Patrick made his way into the village along the Ballyshane road, stopping off at the home of Andrew O Brien and his wife. This was one of many friendly houses in the district where men like Patrick knew a warm welcome always awaited them. While inside, comfortably drinking a cup of tea, he was suddenly alerted to an cycle patrol of 8 RIC officers coming up the street towards the house. Being conscious of the danger Patrick warned Andrew and his wife to seek shelter out the back in case he would need to fight his way out. Fortunately though tensions eased and worries relaxed when the patrol continued past the house and onto the crossroad a short distance away. However the danger was not over yet and after pausing for a while the patrol doubled back, but to Patricks relief continued past the house once more and into a nearby residence belonging to the Gahan family. Contemporary newspaper accounts recounted how the constables had come from Ferns barracks to inspect motor car permits and pay police pensioners who were unable to travel to Ferns for their monthly pensions.
It was about 7 or half 7 in the evening and while the RIC were pre occupied with their duties Patrick decided it was best to make himself scarce. Rushing across the street he jumped over a wall and into a field. Using it for cover he followed the wall along until he got to a point near Valentia house. Here he climbed on top of the wall and saw that some of the patrol had passed by while the remaining four constables were coming along the road in pairs, spread equally apart. As they got nearer one of the constables spotted Pat and in an attempt to alert the others shouted ‘look out’. With that Patrick took out the mills grenade he had, flung it towards the patrol and took cover behind a 6 foot high tree stump. The newspaper account state that there were 2 bombs (grenades) thrown instead with the first failing to inflict any damage. Despite this minor difference in scenario’s a bomb did land right in the centre of the cycle patrol, injuring all 4 constables.
Upon hearing the commotion, Sergeant McNamara, who was leading at the head of the patrol with the three other constables, opened fire on Patrick’s position. The official report from Dublin Castle stated the firefight lasted nearly 15 minutes with rifle fire coming from multiple attackers. This seems unlikely however with Patrick having so little ammunition and maybe an exaggeration by the crown forces to make it appear that they put up a better fight. Following the short firefight Patrick made his way towards Ballydaniel bridge, eventually reuniting with the column and informing Paddy Kenny of what had just happened. It was then decided they would move to the safety of Murphy’s of the Bleach among the Sliabh Bhuai hill rang. They rested here for a couple of days when they were informed of the truce set for the 11th of July.
Tending to the wounded
After the fighting had seized Dr Wyse of Camolin dispensary was sent for and quickly arrived on the scene. Four ladies had their holiday to Courtown cut short when the car they were travelling in was commandeered and the 4 wounded constable taken back to Ferns barracks. Here they were attended to by a doctor Green from the Ferns dispensary.
One of the worst injured was Constable George Evans from wales who had his left thumb blown off and his index finger badly lacerated. Fortunately his thumb was recovered on the roadside after the attack. He previously served in the army and then worked as a steel hardener before joining the RIC on the 21st of May, just over a month before the ambush.
A Constable Stephens fractured his right arm above the elbow and sustaining injuries to his right thigh and hip. He had served in the British army from 1904-1911, re-joining when the war broke out in 1914 before being captured in France and remaining in custody for a whole year. He previously worked as a steel hardener before joining the RIC and was only two months into the job when the ambush occurred. He had a wife and 2 children.
The other two constables injured were William Jackson from Scotland, who was wounded in his right thigh and a constable Robert Johnson from England, who was wounded in his left calf. Apparently a rifle bullet went through the crown of his cap during the ambush, giving him a lucky escape. The first two mentioned, Constables Stephens and Evans, were later removed to a Dublin Hospital for further treatment.
In November of that year an article from the Irish Times newspaper reported compensation was paid out to the the victims amounting to Stephens: £2600, Evans £150 and Johnson £760.
The site of the ambush is easily identifiable thanks to a description from the Enniscorthy Guardian. The journalist reporting on the incident described how the police patrol was ambushed when they ‘… reached a point about 15 yards (13.7m) on the Ferns side of the lodge leading to Camolin House’. It also describes how the bomb was thrown ‘…over the demense wall about 6ft high‘.
The location has changed little since 1921. The entrance lodge into Camolin House, now Valentia nursing home, remains as those the boundary wall behind which Pat Carton hid. Many of the trees that make up this wooded location would have provided Pat with cover to make his escape, following the river Bann towards the eastern end of the town before crossing the road at Ballydaniel Bridge. The ambush is reported to have occured at 7 p.m. based upon the official report of the incident.
This was the last ambush with casualties in county Wexford during the War of Independence
Bureau of Military History Witness Statement, Patrick carton, #1160
Enniscorthy Guardian, 9th July 1921, p5
Enniscorthy Guardian, 12th November 1921, p6
Irish Times, 8th July 1921, p5
Irish Times, 12th November 1921, p8
North Wexford Brigade Activity Files
Thanks to John Kavanagh for his assistance and help while compiling this article.
On the 18th of June 1921 the early morning silence was broken in Wexford town by the sound of a terrific explosion emanating from the Courthouse. The building was situated along the quays, opposite todays Wexford bridge and the explosion was the result of an operation planned by Francis Carty, who up until this point was dissatisfied with the success of the IRA. Subsequently he decided to destroy Wexford courthouse, which he considered ‘…the symbol of English law in Wexford town.’
On the night Francis describes how himself and Gerry O Brien, gained entry into the courthouse through it’s windows and proceeded to sprinkle petrol throughout the building. When they then exited the building other men outside flung paraffin torches through the windows. The resulting explosion was so strong that one of these men was carried from the top step of the building where he stood and lifted into the air and over the buildings 10ft iron railings. Fortunately he managed to land safetly and escape without any injuries. Francis, who lived nearby in the town did not attempt to return home following the explosion, instead opting to sleep away from home that night. Meanwhile his friend Gerry O Brien, who also lived in the town, was halted by the RIC as he made his way home, but managed to persuade them he was going to get the fire brigade!
Unbeknown to the IRA the buildings caretaker, a Mrs. McNally was sleeping inside with her 12 year old niece. Luckily upon being awoken by the explosion they managed to escape the building unharmed. The fire brigade, together with members of the public, arrived quickly on the scene and after four hours managed to extinguish the inferno. The flames had managed to engulf the entire building including the crown court, two judges chambers, council chamber, crown solicitor’s rooms, the petty and grand jury quarters and finally the prisoner’s rooms. Only the petty sessions court remained intact as well as the former county council’s offices. Despite the fire the police managed to save nearly all the records of the Clerk of Crown and Peace. The damage to the building was estimated at £15,000 which today would be somewhere in the region of €778,000.
The building was originally built in 1806 to replace another courthouse on the bullring and was designed by Richard Morrison who also designed St. Mary’s Pro Cathedral in Dublin. In the decades that followed the building fell into a dilapidated state that it was decided to no longer invest money towards it’s repair. It was eventually demolished with a petrol station built on the site. This too has since been demolished and the site is now used as a car park.
Bureau of Military History Withness Statement: Francis Carty #1040
Enniscorthy Guardian, 25th June 1921, p3
On the 2nd of April 1921 members of the South Wexford Brigade IRA lay in wait for a party of military, which were due to arrive at Campile station by rail. At 11 p.m. the express train to Rosslare left Waterford. However instead of a party of military only a single member of the R.I.C Auxiliaries, from Pallas Co. Limerick, was on board. The signalman at Campile station had already been ‘seized’ and when the train came to a stop it was boarded by armed men. They Auxie, who was dressed in his civilian clothes at the time, stated his identity. He was promptly taken from the train onto the platform and relieved of his revolver, ammunition and some documents he had on his person. Contemporary newspaper accounts recalled how he was ‘made swear never to return to Ireland’ and that a young lady pleaded with the men not to shoot him. The train then continued onto Rosslare and was reported as being a half hour late. One can’t hope but wonder did the Auxie miss the boat!
The line from Waterford to Rosslare no longer open, being closed to passenger traffic in 2010, while the station building at Campile no longer remains.
Enniscorthy Guardian, 16th April 1921, p4
South Wexford Brigade Activity Reports