Four Police constables wounded at Camolin in Wexford’s Last War of Independence Ambush

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.

Photo of Patrick Carton in later life (Courtesy of his granddaughter Mary Breen and kindly provided by John Kavanagh)

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.

No description available.
Photo of Andrew O Brien’s house (Left) where Patrick Carton stopped off for tea. The house was demolished in in the 70s and was the site of the village’s post office until it closed in 2019 (Photo courtesy of John Kavanagh)

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.

OSI map from 1905 with the approximate location of the ambush marked with a red circle

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.

Ambush Site

The Ambush site as it looks today looking towards Ferns with the approximate position of ambush marked by X

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

Sources

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.

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