Wexford Flying Column’s First Ambush Near Ballycarney

On Tuesday afternoon the 15th of February 1921 five police officers, travelling in their Ford Motorcar from Bunclody to Enniscorthy, were ambushed near Ballycarney by the North Wexford Brigade Flying Column. The Irish Times, reporting on the incident, stated that the car, being driven by a sergeant Torsney, was passing through Munfin, a short distance north of Ballycarney. Suddenly Torsney heard a noise, which he assumed was a burst tyre and decided to pull over and investigate. But just as he was slowing down the sound of rifle and revolver shots rang out from behind a hedge on the left side of the road. The other officers in the car returned fire on their attackers while sergeant Torsney sped up and they made a narrow escape. The bonnet of the vehicle was reported to be riddled with bullet marks and fortunately for its occupants they escaped without injury.

Map showing the approximate location of the ambush in the townland of Munfin (also called Mountfin), just north of Ballycarney.

First Ambush in the county

Thomas Dwyer, one of those who took part in the attack, recalled decades later in his witness statement to the bureau of military history how the north Wexford flying column didn’t have much luck in previous ambushes since its formation in late 1920. Several attempts had been undertaken but on each the enemy forces failed to show. The incident in Ballycarney was the first ambush by the column in Wexford where a shot was fired. Dwyer recalled how Phil Lennon, then the columns officer commanding, afterwards remarked, “It is the first ambush in the county and I am proud to have been in it”.

Conflicting Circumstances

One would imagine that as this was the first somewhat successful ambush by the column it would be well recorded and documented. However the accounts relating to it vary. Thomas Dwyer stated that they were awaiting the arrival of an RIC cycle patrol that failed to show when instead a car turned up. Michael Kirwan though states the ambush was originally intended not for a cycle patrol but instead a lorry delivering supplies from Wexford town to Bunclody for the Devon Regiment stationed at the latter. The account of a Thomas Meagher also refers to the target being a lorry. James O Toole states they happened upon a police car unexpectedly while trenching the roads, with no previous plans for an ambush.

Despite these differences the vehicle fired upon in the end was most certainly a car, as that is what was reported in the contemporary newspaper accounts. One commonality the accounts do share though is that the targeted vehicle arrived later than expected, which caught the column by surprise and that there was a delay in engaging the target due to this fact. Reference is made to how they had planned to block the road by felling a tree across it. One half was cut and held by a rope, ready to drop when the order was given.

The Irish Times report on the incident is is slightly biased and somewhat exaggerates the actions of the police. For example, the police estimated at least 50 people were involved in the attack, a number which is very unlikely, especially given the fact that the column never numbered near that many people during the period. Also the promptness of the police response fire to their attackers and the quickness of Sergeant Torseney to respond and speed away are given particular focus. Additionally they believed one of the attackers was badly wounded also, when in fact no casualties on either side were recorded.

The Ambush Site

The Irish times newspaper reported that the incident took place on the main road between Bunclody and Enniscorthy at ‘Munfin’. It described the road at this point as being twelve feet wide and the attackers had taken position on the left side where they were sheltered by a high thick hedge. Thomas Meagher in his witness statement tells how it occurred about a mile outside Ballycarney, on the Bunclody road at a location known as ‘the White Woman’s Hollow.’

The location was called so as it was supposedly haunted by a lady who wore white as referenced in the ‘Schools Folklore Collection’ from Bunclody school. This collection is made up of folklore and local traditions compiled by primary school pupils from all over the country between 1937 and 1939.

‘The White Woman’s Hollow.
There is a hollow in the road about four miles south of Bunclody, and near Ballycarney. It is called the White Woman’s Hollow, because a white woman is seen there riding a white horse at twelve o’clock at night. They say that a woman was killed there and that the white woman is her ghost. She is seen crossing the road from one ditch to the other. When twelve o’clock strikes she will disappear, and will not be seen until the next night. A man named Michael Byrne of Clohamon is supposed to have seen her.

The precise location of the ‘white woman’s hollow’ in Munfin is not marked on any maps and alterations to the road (now the N80) in the last 100 years have left no such hollow obvious or visible. However, local knowledge and memory places it at the point in the road where there now exists a layby, shown in the photograph below.

Location of the ‘white woman’s hollow’ on the N80 road, just north of Ballycarney as it looked in 2009. The layby left maybe part of the original old road. Today this side section of the road is overgrown with vegetation. (Google Street View)

The flying police man

The ambush at Munfin may have been the first such experience for many of the officers, except the driver of the police car Sergeant Torsney, whom had a lucky escape previously in 1920; While cycling near Ferrycarrig with another constable both were ambushed by two men at gunpoint and ordered to stop. The two officers in fear for their life kept cycling through and were fired upon with Torsney receiving a bullet to his leg. Torsney was an active member of Waterford RIC cycling club in the 1890s winning Ireland’s one-mile bicycle championship in May 1893, earning him the nickname ‘The flying police man’. Though injured he miraculously continued to cycle until they reached the safety of the barracks in Taghmon. Later in December of that year he was in the barracks in Bunclody when constable William jones was shot only a few doors up in Kelly’s pub.

Torsney wearing the shirt of the Waterford RIC Cycling Club in the photograph. (Irish Cyclist, 4 April 1894.)

The Ambush site today

Today the stretch of road at Munfin where the ambush took place forms part of the busy N80. It has changed drastically from what it would have looked like 100 years ago and many of those who use it on a regular basis may not even realise it was the site of the first ambush by the North Wexford Flying Column. No memorial or marker exists on the site and knowledge of the incident and its location has been confined to history. Sites and landscapes like these form an important part of our more Revolutionary past and should be given the same consideration as other historical and archaeological sites within the county. But hopefully to those who have read this piece they will remember the events which took place along the roadside at Munfin 100 years ago this year.

Sources

Bureau of Military History Witness Statement, James O Toole #1084

Bureau of Military History Witness Statement, Michael Kirwan #1175

Bureau of Military History Witness Statement, Thomas Dwyer #1198

Bureau of Military History Witness Statement, Thomas Meagher #1156

The Irish Times, 16th February, p5

Schools Folklore Commission

A special thanks to Colette Bennett and others on the ‘Bunclody History and Photos Facebook Page’ for helping to identify the ambush site.

7 Replies to “Wexford Flying Column’s First Ambush Near Ballycarney”

    1. Roger
      I’ve come across numerous mentions of him. I always think of him as the lucky policeman as he escaped through two ambushes, at munfin and Ferrycarrig. He was shot at the latter. He was the first on the scene when a policeman was shot in Bunclody as well.

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    1. He is buried in Taghmon graveyard with his pre deceased wife who died when my Mother was only 12. The exact locations are contained in the Church records. There are no headstones or marking in case they were defaced. All their children emigrated to London. James Torsney lived to a good age peacefully in Taghmon.

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