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
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.
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.
On Saturday night the 12th of March 1921 members of the Davidstown Company IRA sabotaged the courthouse in Aurthurstown. Up to 20 armed and masked men with sledge-hammers wrecked the premises. All the windows and doors were smashed and thrown on the street together with the desks and benches inside while slates were torn from the roof also. After the destruction the noise of gunshots was reportedly heard. The telegraph wire near the village had been cut to slow the arrival of any police or others who might have attempted to put a halt to their activities.
Despite the damage the petty sessions court was held inside the following Monday with the rain and wind coming in through the broken roof and window. Lord Templemore, the owner of the building in which the courts were held, was later awarded £190 compensation for its destruction.
The building was still being used as a courthouse, despite the damages, in September 1921 as the New Ross Standard reported how during a petty sessions that month ‘… the petty sessions have been held in the wrecked premises, a temporary bench having been got under the portion of the roof that was not damaged.’ The destruction of the courthouse was an attempt by the IRA to cause disruption to the British administration. Sinn Fein courts were in operation at the time and such an incident like this would have been in their favour.
In early January 1921 county Wexford, together with Clare, Waterford and Kilkenny, were placed under Martial law. This was a response by the British military to the increase in IRA activity over the preceding year. Its imposition gave the military additional powers, imposing strict new rules with penalties for people who did not abide by them, including a potential ‘Death Sentence’ for anyone found in unlawful possession of a firearm.
A proclamation was circulated detailing the new rules and penalties for non compliance. These included the following
An ultimatum to surrender arms, ammunitions and explosives was given until the 11th of January 1921. Anyone found in possession of such after this date would be liable to conviction by a military court to suffer death
The unauthorized wearing of military or police uniform was also liable to conviction by military court to suffer death. Possession of the same would result in the person being convicted and sentenced to penal servitude.
A state of insurrection existed and anyone found taking part in such, or harboring those who had, would be liable to conviction by a military court to suffer death.
The owner, lessee or responsible occupier of every building is required to keep a list of occupants inside detailing their name, age, sex and occupation and to keep this updated.
Meetings and assemblies in public places were forbidden. This constituted a group of more than 6 people.
No unauthorized telegrams were to be sent and the use of carrier pigeons or wireless telegraphs was forbidden.
No loitering in the public streets without exception i.e. work.
Copies of the Martial Law proclamation were printed and displayed in various locations throughout the county. It was forbidden to deface these and anyone found removing or interfering with one was liable to be convicted and punished. Some were purposely placed in locations to antagonize known republicans. An example of this exists from Wexford town where a proclamation was placed in the front window of the Doyle family home in Auburn Terrace. The Doyle brothers owned Selskar Iron Works, now located were Dunnes Stores is. In 1914 they refused orders for British war production. They also sheltered many volunteers on the run and manufactured guns, bullets and hand grenade casings in their foundry. On several occasions their home and business was to be burned by crown forces but thanks to the discreet warnings of RIC constable sergeant Collopy they escaped such a faith. Their home was frequently raided by the police and military also. Knowing that they could not tamper with the Proclamation, as it would result in a possible conviction, they placed the Irish tricolour above it in the same window. A silent and symbolic defiance.
The information regarding the Doyle family and the accompanying photo was soucred from Sthe book County Wexford in the Rare Oul’ Times 1910-1924 by Nicholas Fulong and John Hayes, p127
On New Years morning, Saturday the 1st of January 1921, the police and army surrounded Ballindaggin church during morning mass. The Enniscorthy Guardian reporting on the incident described how young men were held up as they left the church and anyone from the Coolree and Monbeg area was detained. Houses at these locations were searched that morning also, but no arrests were made and the detained men from the church were then released.
This was a planned operation targeting IRA members in the area. The police and army were most likely acting on intelligence, while the shooting of an RIC constable in Bunclody several weeks before may have been a contributor to the raids. The occasion of New Years morning mass perhaps attracted a larger congregation than usual and so why it was chosen to carry out the raid then.
One IRA member from the locality, Patrick Doyle of the Piers, Coolree, describes how he was one of those caught up unexpectedly that morning while leaving mass. He humorously describes how despite the best efforts of the authorities they left empty handed and yet the IRA had hidden a large quantity of explosives within a within a tomb of the church’s adjoining graveyard! He also describes the lucky escape of one innocent parishioner who was shot at for sport as he was made run away, after getting a beating.
‘My brother Tom, a few other Volunteers and I decided to go to the 8 o’clock Mass and receive Holy Communion at Ballindaggin Church on New Year’s morning, 1921, as we thought it would be quite safe to do so. However, during the Mass the Church was surrounded by British Forces and, with seven other boys including Tom, I was held prisoner. They searched the whole parish but got nothing although a tomb in the graveyard was filled with gelignite. They ‘beat up’ one boy and then told him to run, and as he ran they fired shots at him but they failed to hit him. He dodged them and got into the priest’s house. Upstairs the priest was entertaining the officers. The district was searched all day for him but they did not get him. We were held prisoners until evening when we were released through the Parish Priest’s influence.‘ (p11)
Bureau of Military History Witness Statement, Patrick Doyle #1298
On Sunday the 5th of June 1920 members of the IRA undertook a raid for petrol on the railway stores in Enniscorthy. Two days earlier on a Friday up to 800 gallons of petrol was delivered there by Rail. Due to its flammable nature however it was left stored on the railway wagon and not in the goods store. The petrol was stored in Tins and in total the delivery weighed around 5 tons. This meant it would require a large party to move and it was reported that 90 to 100 men were involved in the operation which started at 11p.m. and lasted into the early hours of the morning. The petrol was transported in two lorries belonging to MJ Whelan Enniscorthy and taken to Ballingale Mill, the home of a Mary O Neill, where it was stored safely. The operation was a success that they were not detected considering the number of people involved and its location near the Town itself. The petrol would later be used in other operations such as the assassination of Inspector Lee Wilson in Gorey.
New Ross Standard, 11th June 1920, p8
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, Thomas Dwyer #1198
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, Sean Whelan #1294
On the 18th of July 1920 the New Ross Standard reported that two police officers making their way from Rosslare towards Wexford town, at about nightfall, were stopped by four masked men and searched. It said the outcome of the search was unclear with some reporting that nothing in the way of firearms was discovered by the men while others alleged that the police were relieved of 2 revolvers. The south Wexford brigade activity reports state two revolvers were taken in this instance but that only two IRA men were involved. Where exactly the occurrence took place is unsure but the activity reports state it was on the road from Rosslare to Killinick. The police were likely on route to Wexford via Killinick. Members of E company (Tagoat) were involved in the operation.
As part of intelligence gathering operations the mail trains in Wexford were regularly raided by the IRA. Official letters between barracks and army officials were targeted and often contained valuable information relating to the strength and activities of the police and others. Also letters from spies and informers were intercepted. While private mail was never read many letters were stamped with the words’ censored by the IRA’ to give the impression of a large scale operation. In an instance below in New Ross Standard it was reported how mails taken previously from Rathgarouge station near New Ross were returned and put back on another at Campile after the IRA had finished ‘sorting’ through them!
In November 1920 a bold operation was planned by the south Wexford brigade IRA to seize control of Wexford Military barracks. Such an operation required help from the inside and IRA intelligence had made contact with a Corporal of the Devons, which was the British military regiment occupying the barracks. He provided the IRA with a plan of the site and gave information on the garrison and any details that were required. In return he was to receive £75 and safe passage out of the country. The money was handed over and preparations were in place for the raid, when unexpectedly a big round up took place resulting in several IRA officers being captured and the plan had to be abandoned.
This was a bold and risky operation which the IRA had planned in Wexford town. The barracks was a well fortified location with a well armed garrison inside. The IRA, although they may have had the numbers, would have been lacking in weapons and ammunition in contrast to the Devon regiment. If the operation was successful it would have been a significant event in Wexford and the country during the period. Likewise if it had gone wrong it could have resulted in multiple prisoners or worse, casualties.