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.