During the War of Independence Active Service Units (ASCU), better known as Fly Columns, were an integral component of the IRA. They were full time mobile military units who utilized guerilla warfare tactics to undertake, raids, ambushes and other operations against crown forces. Their familiarity with their areas of operation combined with a vast network of supporters and safehouses gave them an advantage over their enemy. Many of its members were men who were already on the run and sought by the authorities. The formation Wexford’s flying column took place in late 1920. Originally during the early stages of the war of independence the county was organized as a single military unit. However, towards the end of 1920, possibly in November, the county was split into two brigades; the North Wexford Brigade and the South Wexford Brigade. As this coincided with the period around which a flying column for the county was being formed and it was already comprised of men entirely from within North Wexford, it came under the command of the North Wexford Brigade. (Patrick Doyle, WS#1298 p8)
Liam O Leary in his witness statement indicates the column was first formed following a meeting at a location known as the ‘Black Gates’ in Marshalstown. (Liam O Leary, WS#1276 p9). Initially a man by the name of ‘John Whelan’ was designated as the Officer Commanding (OC), but just as the organisation of the column was near its completion, he was arrested by crown forces. This led to Tom Doyle of Ballindaggin, who had been second in command, take up the position as the columns OC, with a Phil Lennon then becoming vice OC. After one or more meetings in Ballindaggin Hall the column was finally formed in November 1920.
According to the IRA Nominal Rolls, formed in 1935 to aid in the administration of pensions, its initial strength was 21 men in total with an additional 21 after its reformation in 1921. This brought its maximum total strength during the War of Independence to possibly around 40 men, although the real number of men active together at any one time was probably much smaller.
Following on from its formation the column became noticeably active. In Christmas of that year an RIC constable Jones was shot in Bunclody and late in February 1921 their first ambush occurred on an RIC patrol at Munfin near Ballycarney. A good example of the conditions the column often had to endure was given by Thomas Dwyer following the shooting of constable Jones. The importance of the hospitality and support they received from ordinary people is also highlighted.
‘We slept in straw in Devereux’s old disused house. Conditions were appalling, for it was now in the heart of winter and we had no bed-clothes of any description. Also, we had no change of clothes for weeks and we were getting most uncomfortable. The sixteen members of the column were billeted on all the good people of the locality, from whom we received two meals a day. What we suffered in personal discomfort was made up by the splendid meals which those people provided for us. With darkness, we would all converge on the house of good old Mrs. Cowman who lived there with her husband and family. There, until late into the night, we would have a sing-song, concluding with Thomas Francis Meagher’s vigorous rendering of “The Old Side-Car”. (WS#1198 p22)
The column relied heavily on a system of Safehouses, scattered throughout the county, for shelter and food. Some of these were visited more often than others and served not just as places of refuge but also munitions factories and training grounds. While some were used more than others the home of nearly every volunteer would have offered a place of refuge when it was needed. For those providing such hospitality however there existed a real danger of reprisals from crown forces as described by Thomas Dwyer.
‘It would be an impossible task to mention the names of all those good people who afforded us refuge when we needed it most during this time (Late 1920) and until the Truce. They are deserving of the greatest praise, for, in sheltering us wanted men, they were taking the chance of having their homes wrecked and their houses burnt. Amongst all those names are a few outstanding people by whom we were always welcomed with open arms. If their houses were raided, we could nearly always manage to escape, but for them there was no escape. Hence the ultimate success of the war of independence was due in no small measure to such great people.’ (WS#1198, p19)
The Column Evades Capture
As it has already been stated, the column was always on the move, not just for new targets but also to evade capture. In March of 1921 an incident took place which nearly saw the North Wexford Brigade flying column captured and decimated beyond imagination. Early that month the Gorey company of the IRA were planning an ambush for the column in Gorey town. References to the exact details of the operation are scant but indicate the target was an RIC or Black and Tan patrol, possibly escorting the mails to the train station. The night before the attack the column was to stay at the home of an elderly man who lived alone named Dan Macdonald, in the townland of Kilmichael near the village of Hollyfort.
Accounts differ as to where the column started the journey from before arriving at Macdonald’s. One member, Thomas Dwyer, states they set out from Murphy’s of the Bleech, nestled in the safety of the Sliabh Bhuai Hills, roughly 35km from Kilmichael. Patrick Kenny, who was captain of the Crannford company and who would have met the men in Kilmichael, stated instead that it was ‘Byrnes of Raheen’ while another column member, Thomas Maher, says it was Coady’s of Corrageen, which was located beneath the shadow of the Blackstairs mountain. The latter of these three seems unlikely to have been the point where they set out from. Although a well known IRA safehouse, as well as a training camp and munitions factory, it was a journey of over 70km. Additionally, it was through country between Bunclody and Enniscorthy with Ferns in between, three locations which all had barracks and the likelihood of encountering patrols would have been high. ‘Byrnes of Raheen’ located near Ballyduff, roughly 15km away, seems another practical candidate, being the closest of the three. To avoid any unwanted contact with crown forces the column travelled by night and were aided along the way by scouts from the various different company areas they passed through. Eventually after setting out and travelling under the cover of darkness the column arrived at McDonalds at 6 in the morning on the 7th of March 1921
Thomas Dwyer described how when they arrived at MacDonald’s, after travelling all night, they were met with unfavorable conditions with the Gorey company having failed to organise food or accommodation for them. After waiting 12-14 hours food eventually arrived, but from the neighboring ‘Mount St. Benedict school’, which was described as being only 3 fields away. A Miss Eibhis Kehoe, the schools Matron, sent the food upon hearing of the column’s situation. She was a supporter and had previously been imprisoned. Due to the poor conditions some of the men decided to go to the local shop in Hollyfort. There had been an RIC Barracks there until late 1920 when it was burned after being vacated. It’s former garrison’s wifes and families still lived locally though and were hostile to the republican movement. The presence of strangers in the locality aroused suspicion and the RIC in Gorey were alerted to the men’s presence.
In contrast to this Patrick Kenny, the captain of the Crannford company, whom would have been responsible for making arrangements for the columns arrival, suggests it was their own behavior that alerted the RIC; Three members of the column had apparently gone into Hollyfort, gotten drunk and said they were black and tans. Subsequently, news of this reached the RIC in Gorey, who then came to investigate. This seems an unlikely scenario though that men on the run would foolishly expose themselves in a public house in this manner. Patrick’s account may have been an attempt to divert attention from the poor conditions the column had been under, with no food or bedding prepared and because of which some men left and went to the shop in Hollyfort.
Caught by Surprise
It was the 7th of March 1921, about 6 in the evening and the column were patiently awaiting in McDonalds for the arrival of a scout to escort them into the Gorey town. Suddenly, they were alerted by the sound of whistles blowing in the distance. In a hastened and hurried reaction members of the column rushed outside in alarm. Five members, Johnny Maguire, Jimmy Kenny, John Furlong, Aidan Kirwan and Thomas Dwyer, found themselves in a small field at the rear of the house when suddenly they heard the sound of footsteps. They shouted ‘halt who goes there’, expecting it to be a scout from Gorey, but instead they heard ‘RIC, line the ditch’. Suddenly firing broke out and bullets whizzed in all directions. McDonald’s house had been surrounded, but after a brief exchange of fire the column managed to evade capture and escaped with no casualties.
The men of the column became separated throughout the surrounding countryside following the incident and in what was for many, unfamiliar territory. After 6 hours of wandering the 5 previously named found themselves in Crannford, 2 and a half miles from McDonalds. Johnny Maguire knew the area and went into a shop owned by a Buckstown Doyle, a brother of Captain Seamus Doyle, where they got biscuits and Lemonade. Afterwards they continued on their Journey towards the safety of ‘Murphys of the Bleech’, eventually becoming so fed up trawling through rivers, bogs and uneven ground they decided to travel along the main Gorey to Carnew road instead. Along the way they were forced to hide behind a ditch when 2 lorries of RIC and Black and Tans passed by. At about 1 a.m they reached Knockbrandon Creamery and turned right up a long lane at the end of which was a farmer’s house and sheltered for the night in a cowhouse with straw. The men were soaking wet and tired from their journey. One of them, Jimmy Kennedy, said he would milk one of the cows if he could find some sort of vessel, but as there was nothing at hand he instead lay under the cow and decided to help himself. The following morning they made themselves known to the occupants of the farmhouse and they were given a good breakfast. Wanting to make contact with the Askamore company the men travelled over Ballycronan hill and into the companies area. They surmised the rest of the column would attempt the same. After hiding in wait for several hours’ members of the Askamore company, who had been keeping a watchful eye out, found and took the men to a safehouse overlooking Askamore church. (The home may have belonged to a John Mcgrath but this has not been confirmed.)
The rest of the column had reached Askamore the night before and were already in the house. Some members were still missing, including Thomas Doyle of the piers, but who later showed up. After their long journey they were given food and thankful for the companies care. The column was disbanded either following this or shortly after. They split into groups and went to their designated locations.
The Enniscorthy Guardian Newspaper later reported on the incident. It like many other newspapers was under censorship at the time and the article attempts to portray the column as raiders who disturbed and annoyed the people of the area. It stated that the RIC got reports of men ‘visiting houses and demanding food and money’. Police from Gorey set out and at about dusk spotted 20 men at the foot of ‘Buttles Hill’ where there was a brief exchange of fire before ‘the raiders’ retreated. It was claimed that some of them remained in the area for a while afterwards in farmers houses, ‘especially those where they were refused money’ and that they demanded food and took belongings and money from some.
A lucky Escape
On this night the North Wexford Brigade Flying Column came very close to being captured and the incident highlights the dangers and threats which they were constantly exposed to. A month later on the 19th of April the neighboring Carlow Flying Column was caught off guard by Crown Forces near Ballymurphy, on the Carlow side of the Blackstairs mountain, resulting in their capture with 4 people dead, 3 of whom were civilians. The Wexford Brigade had started a training camp at Cody’s Carrigeen, on the opposite Wexford side of the Mountain and on that day while the Column was training they reported hearing shots coming from the Carlow side. As a precaution the Column stayed on during a further week of training for company officers and acted as guards in an attempt to avoid a repeat of what had happened to their comrades just over the Blackstairs. One of the civilians killed was a 62 year old man named Michael Ryan, who was caught up in the conflict and shot while getting a bucket of water. His nephew, Patrick Doyle, who was quartermaster of the North Wexford Brigade, recalled some years later in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History how they heard the shooting from the other side of the mountain on that day while training in Carrigeen.
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, Thomas Maher #1156
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, Patrick Kenny #1174
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, Thomas Dwyer #1198
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, James Daly #1257
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, Liam O Leary #1276
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, Patrick Doyle #1298
North Wexford Brigade Activity Reports
Enniscorthy Guardian 12th March 1921, p4
*The primary source on the formation of the North Wexford Flying Column is the Bureau of Military History witness statements. While a useful resource contrasting accounts do exist and this author has attempted to decipher these to present as accurate an account as possible.