On Saturday the 28th of May 1921 the Enniscorthy Guardian reported that two RIC constables cycling from Clonroche, to the nearby railway station at Chapel, were ambushed by around 40 men armed with shotguns and rifles. The police reportedly returned fire and the attackers fled.
This same ambush is recalled in the Bureau of Military History Witness Statements, given some decades later, by men involved directly in the incident. According to their accounts the operation was a planned ambush undertaken by members of the North Wexford Flying Column. Although contemporary newspaper accounts state around 40 individuals were involved the real number was likely instead to be around half that amount, as it would have been in similar ambushes by the column. Daily a group of RIC constables cycled from their barracks in Clonroche to Chapel railway station, located about 2km south of the Clonroche village, for supplies. This was the intended target for the column who positioned themselves somewhere along the route, spread out for about half a mile. Thomas Dwyer in his statement recalled the location chosen for the ambush as a flat stretch of road with Clonroche barracks visible in the distance. A man called Johnny Maguire was placed at the head of the group and told to open fire with his parabellum pistol when the final officer passed his position. This type of pistol apparently had a distinguishable shot and would be the signal for the rest of the column to open fire on the other officers.
The exact number of RIC officers involved varies from 6 to 12 with the smaller number the most likely. As the column lay in wait two RIC constables cycled into their position along the roadside. Johnny Maguire, awaiting the arrival of the remaining police, did not open fire as ordered. However, as the two constables cycled passed it quickly became apparent that no others were coming. Then in a quick reaction the column opened fire on the officers, who at this stage had passed the ambush position. Accounts state they quickly dismounted and made their escape across the fields with the column making their own getaway after. No casualties were reported on either side.
The location of the ambush site is not known but its description as a ‘flat’ stretch of road in view of the RIC barracks would place it near the village or a short diatance out.
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, Thomas Dwyer #1198
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, James O Toole #1084
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, Patrick Carton #1160
On Tuesday the 10th of May 1921 the nights silence was broken in the town of Enniscorthy by the sudden and unexpected sound of gunfire. At approximately 10:30p.m. the town’s RIC barracks located in the Abbey Square came under fire. Contemporary newspaper accounts reported that few people were on the street at the time, but those who were quickly sought refuge in premises nearest to them. Those inside their own homes were equally scared about the possibility of a stray bullet finding its way inside and many sought refuge in their back kitchens.
The gunfire was directed at the barracks from the ‘Turrent Rocks’, a high point upon a rocky eminence on the opposite side of the river Slaney. The police were inside the barracks at the time and upon hearing the sound of bullets ricocheting off the buildings wall quickly returned fire. Meanwhile, soldiers stationed in the town’s courthouse came to the aid of the police upon hearing of the attack, directing machine gun fire on their attackers position which was visible due to the fire from their guns. The entire incident lasted for about 15 minutes and ceased shortly after the machine gun fire began. Following the incident there was increased police and military activity in the area. Bullet holes were visible on neighboring buildings the following morning, as well as the wall which the attackers were supposed to have taken cover behind.
The operation was under taken by 12 members of F (Shannon) Company of the 2nd Battalion, North Wexford Brigade IRA. Incidents such as this were common during the period and were known as ‘sniping’, involving a brief or sort period of gunfire concentrated on a building, usually police barracks. The aim was not so much to capture the building but to harras it’s inhabitants, with the potential to inflict injury also.
Enniscorthy RIC Barracks
The former RIC barracks in Enniscorthy was the most easterly building on the southern side of the Abbey Square. From contemporary photos it can seen as a strong built three story structure with windows to the front and side of the building. During the time of the attack is was most likely fortified with sandbags and steel window shutters. The building was demolished sometime later in the 20th century and the site is today used as a car park.
By May 1921 the War of Independence had been raging for over two years in Ireland. County Wexford, although relatively quiet early on in the period, experienced a surge in IRA activity from early 1920 onwards. At the end of that year the IRA within the county was reorganized and divided into a North and South Brigade. This coincided with the formation of an Active Service Unit (ASU), more often referred to as a flying column, for the county. These were full time mobile military units who used guerilla warfare against crown forces. As its membership at the the time of its formation was entirely made up of men from North Wexford it then fell under that Brigade area’s command, therefore becoming ‘The North Wexford Brigade Flying Column’. On the 7th of May 1921 the column undertook, what was probably their most significant ambush, when they attacked an RIC patrol near the Village of Inch just north of Gorey town, resulting in the death of one RIC Auxiliary constable.
Background and Preparation
In early May 1921 the column had been resting at Coady’s of Corrigeen, underneath the shadow of the Blackstairs Mountain. Coady’s, as well as being a safehouse, was also a training camp, munitions’ factory and acted as a general meeting point or HQ for the IRA in North Wexford. Its somewhat isolated and rural location, along the Blackstairs mountains, made it a safe and secure location. Two months previously in March the column had a lucky escape in the townland of Kilmichael, near Hollyfort outside Gorey, when they were caught off-guard and surrounded in a safehouse by the RIC. Luckily they managed to escape without any casualties. Afterwards the column was temporarily disbanded before later being reorganised under the command of Myles Breen of Tinnashrule, Ferns, with Patrick Kenny of Ballycarney as second in command.
The ambush at Inch came about after information was obtained that a lorry load of RIC and Black and Tans travelled via Inch to Gorey on the 1st Saturday of every month bringing the pay to the various RIC barracks. After some planning and discussion it was decided that they would ambush the lorry on the Gorey side of Inch, at a location known as ‘the cuttings’. The site is also referred to locally as ‘Manus Rocks’ and is in the townland of Boleybawn. Having decided on their course of action the column set out on foot towards Inch. From the safety of the Backstairs mountains they travelled east towards the Sliabh Bhuai Hill range, arriving at Bill Murphy’s of the Bleech, Monasootha, where they rested for a night. While here they obtained a mine to be used in the ambush, made by a man called Daniel Byrne, whom was described as an expert explosive maker. After spending what was described at ‘a most enjoyable night’ at Bill Murphy’s the column skirted along the Wicklow Wexford border and moved onto Doyle’s of Buckstown, then through Monaseed and onto the Mount Hill. Here they met 2 scouts from the local Crannford company, named Murt Kavanagh and Dinny Maher, who were to escort them to their destination. Company scouts regularly aided the column as they passed through their area of operations. What was perhaps unfamiliar territory to many men in the column was the opposite for the scouts, who knew the local terrain like the back of their hands and ensured a safe route to travel. While on Mount Hill Murt Kavanagh told the column about the local area, including tales of 1798 and the infamous Hunter Gowen who back in those days owned the estate they were encamped on, now belonging to the Rev. Dom J.F. Sweetman who was running the well-known Benedictine College there at this time.
The mine they had been carrying, since they left Murphy’s near Sliabh Bhuai, was heavy and upon stopping on top of the mount hill the man who had been carrying it, Dick Hume, jokingly drew his small .22 revolver and threatened to shoot someone if they didn’t carry it for him. Continuing on their journey the column crossed the Bann river via a narrow foot bridge at Ballingarry. Only one person could cross at a time, which proved difficult for one member of the column , Thomas Meagher, who lost his balance and fell in. They continued on via Bolacreen and Coolinteggart finally reaching Errity’s outfarm at Ballyconlore where they rested for the night in a disused house, only a short distance away from Inch. A Dinny Allen (TD), captain of Kilanerin (D company) arranged for accommodation and food for the men while at Errittys.
Two men from Inch, Peter Kavanagh and John Sheridan, from the Kilanerin company, acted as guides going to and from the ambush site. At dawn the following morning the column was led to the ambush position along the Gorey to Arklow road, just south of Inch. The position ‘known as the cuttings’ was suited to an ambush, as the road at this point contained sharp bends, which would compel any vehicles to slow down and give the column a better opportunity for a successful attack. Also the ground on either side was higher and offered a good vantage to fire from while the trees and scrub covering offered them some protection.
The column positioned themselves along a high bank on the western side of the road, or what is the right hand side travelling from inch to Gorey. The men, armed with shotguns and rifles, numbered around 25 in total and were spaced about 5 to 10 yards apart overlooking the roadside. This meant they covered a total distance of about 125 yards, giving them a commanding range over the road beneath. Initially it was planned to set the mine they had brought with them into position along the road for the approaching lorry. However, this was decided against at the last minute when they realised as it was a fair day in Gorey and as the road would be busy they feared arousing suspicion which might alert crown forces. The mine was later found by the police following the ambush and taken back to the barracks in Gorey. It remained there following the truce, after which the IRA took over the building. Upon discovering the device in April 1922 they called in Daniel Byrne, the mines maker and ironically in a twist of faith while experimenting with the bomb it exploded killing him nearly a year after he first manufactured it.
Throughout the morning the column lay in wait for the truck but by 11 o clock that morning it had failed to arrive and they learned later it had bypassed Inch altogether. It was 12:30p.m. and the men were considering withdrawing when they noticed 5 police officers on bicycles coming along the road towards them from Inch. The officers had left their barracks in Coolgreany early that morning and were on their way into Gorey to buy their weekly provisions. They were cycling in formation and spaced a distance apart; A Sergeant Doolan was in front with another constable behind, followed by an auxillary constable called Fredrick Dupree. The two remaining officers then followed a distance behind at the rear. During the military inquiry following the ambush the policeman between Doolan and Dupree stated that they reached a bend in the road about a quarter of a mile from inch village when they were fired upon. Sergeant Doolan was wounded in the left arm and the right leg above the knee. Both men immediately took shelter in a narrow ditch on the right side of the road. The attackers continued firing at them and the officer responded with his own gunfire. He attempted to make his way up to the attackers and while attempting to do so heard a whistle, after which the firing ceased. The two constables behind saw the commotion ahead of them, took cover on the right hand side of the road and returned fire. One attempted to reach the attackers along the cliff and fired, but could see no body. Both officers then doubled back to Inch post office and phoned Gorey RIC for help as well as a doctor and nurse.
The firing was ongoing as the two officers made their way to the post office to phone for help, but by the time they returned it had ceased. Constable Dupree was then found dead on the left hand side of the road, having been shot through the breast and right lung.
The Column Escapes
The column was well aware that following the ambush they couldn’t afford to linger around, fearful of police and or military arriving from Arklow or Gorey, both towns being only about 5 miles away. The RIC in Gorey later arrived on the scene in an armored car with two additional motor cars. A Dr. Nolan from Gorey and a nurse Kimher arrived on the scene also. After the ambush the column hid in Ballinstraw wood on the property of Thomas Esmonde and after dark moved onto the home of Paddy Kenny at Ballydarragh, who was the officer commanding for the Crannford company, arriving at midnight. After eating they then moved to Murphys of the Bleach, reaching their destination at 5 or 6 in the morning. By this time the men were tired having travelled 10 miles through rough country and crossing Ballydarragh and Corriglegan hills. James O Toole in his witness statement stated that
‘all the members of the column were suffering from sore feet, cuts, etc. In my own case I sprained my ankle at Murphy’s, The Bleach, when setting out for Inch and did the whole journey in that condition. The pain was so intense that several times I had to put my foot and ankle into running water so as to numb the pain’ p12.
Eventually they reached the Bleech where they remained for a week while police activity died down.
Constable Frederick Dupree was originally from Margate in Kent and was only 19 when he was shot at Inch. He had joined the auxiliary police a year earlier, having first been stationed at Gorey before being moved to Coolgreany after four months. Following the ambush his body was brought back to the RIC barracks in Gorey. Shopkeepers were notified by the police to close their premises while the body was being conveyed through the town and that one person from each house was to attend the funeral. When the body was brought through Gorey at 4 that evening a large crowd lined behind the remains and the traders were told to close their premises for the evening. The Gorey Fair always brought large crowds but later on that day the town became very quiet with hardly anyone about. The following Tuesday Dupree’s remains were brought for a short service to Gorey Methodist church and were then transported by train from Gorey station to Dublin, then onto England for burial.
Following the ambush at Inch crown forces carried out several reprisals. A notice in the New Ross Standard on the 27th of May 1921 (p5), stated that Colonel Commandant Cameron ordered the destructions as the owners were active supporters of the armed rebels who undertook the ambush at Inch resulting in the death of constable Dupree. It stated the following houses were destroyed on Monday-Tuesday the 23rd-24th May 1921.
The House of John Etchingham Courtown Harbour
The House of Patrick Kenny Ballykale Gorey
The house of Margaret Veney, North Parade Gorey
The house of M. Kelly , Clones Ferns
The Liquor in the establishment of Patrick Byrne Inch
The Irish Times on the 25th May 1921, p5 reported the destruction of Veney’s Gorey stating that the residence of Frederick Veney was leveled with explosives at 1 o clock on Tuesday monring. Military and police armed with machine guns arrived in Gorey the previous evening staying in the courthouse and barracks. The injured parties were only allowed to remove bedding and valuables.
The Site Today
The location of the Inch ambush today is distinctive and easily recognisable due to the high ground on the western side of the road where the column were positioned. In the 100 years since the event alterations have removed the bend where the RIC would have been fired upon. This would have been located approximately where the 1798 monument stands today.
100 years on
Unfortunately due to the current pandemic and restrictions it was not possible to hold a commemoration event at Inch to mark it’s centenary. However, a small group of people gathered for a short period at the location to mark the event, 100 years on. The group included, starting from the left, the author of this article, followed by Gráinne and John Kavanagh. (John’s father was Peter Kavanagh, D/Company (Kilanerin), who in 1921 acted as a guide escorting the column to and from the ambush position). Also present was Denis Sheridan (sixth from the right, whose father, John (Jack) Sheridan, also acted as a guide with Peter Kavanagh) together with the extended Sheridan family. Also Charlie O’Shaughnessy, (fifth from the right) whose father Jack and uncle Ted were members of D Company and his aunt, Hanah, was adjutant of Castletown Cumann na mBan. Thanks to Peter O Connor for taking the photo.
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, Thomas Dwyer #1198
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, James O Toole #1084
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, Michael O Brien #1158
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, Patrick Carton #1160
Enniscorthy Guardian 11th May 1921 , p4
Irish Times 25th May 1921, p5
County Wexford in the Rare Oul Times by Nicjholas Furlong and John Hayes, Vol 4
Thanks to Owen Dunbar of Gorey for bringing additional references to my attention
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 the 31st of March 1921 Mr. Oriel Richard Lee, a petty sessions clerk for Oulart courthouse, had been busy issuing dog licenses from his office in Killagowan. Usually such business would be conducted inside the courthouse but Mr Lee had been working from his father’s residence ever since the courthouse building was sold earlier that year. Throughout the day he was aided in his work by RIC constable Patrick Eger of Oulart Barracks. Shortly after 8 in the evening both men decided to retire for the night and went onto the kitchen to have a cup of tea. Oriels parents, Samuel and Sara, as well as a neighbor, Richard Robinson, were also present in the house at the time. The men were just finished their brew and getting ready to part their own way when at about 9 o clock a knock was heard at the door. Oriel, likely assuming it was a late dog license caller, decided to answer it and those inside heard the words, ‘Hands Up’, and then knew that this was a raid. A single shot rang out from the Hallway and in response constable Eger fired two shots from his own revolver in the direction of the raiders who then fled the scene. While the constable stayed on the premises Mr. Robinson then went to the barracks for help. Twenty minutes later Oriel Lee staggered into the room covered in blood and managed to sit into a chair before collapsing onto the floor. Initially he was unrecognizable to either the constable or his parents until he was searched and identified by his belongings. It was discovered he had been shot during the incident. Despite the efforts of doctors his wounds were beyond any help they could offer and by the following morning Oriel had died.
A revolver was later found outside containing 6 bullets, one of which had been discharged. The South Wexford Brigade’s report on the incident states the raid was carried out by a Thomas Cullen and Thomas Cosgrave from E company to seize the dog license money. The presence of the RIC constable on the premises was most likely unexpected and the subsequent fire fight resulted in the death of Oriel Lee. He was only 31 years of age at the time and as well as his duties as a court clerk he also worked on the family farm. Both his parents were elderly while his father was blind. They were later awarded £1000 compensation for the death of their son. Later that year in October Oriels father, Samuel would pass away at the age of 69 and both he and Oriel are buried in Kilnamanagh Church graveyard.
E.O’ Halpin and D. Ó Corráin (2020) ‘The Dead of the Irish Revolution’, Yale University Press, p368
On Monday morning the 21st of March 1921 Richard Murphy, who lived in the townland of Booladurragh, situated beneath the southern face of Blackrock mountain, left home with two horses to harrow a field. Upon reaching the land he opened the field gate and came upon ‘a man lying on his mouth and nose apparently dead and blood on the ground all round him.’ Richard, in a state of shock, immediately turned around and made his way to Ballindaggin to send a ‘wire’ to the police.
Contemporary newspaper accounts later reported the shocking discovery, but that there was not just one, but two men, found shot and lying close to one another within the same field. They were named as James and Thomas Skelton, two brothers, whose family home was a short distance away from where their bodies were found.
The eldest brother, James Skelton, was 28 years of age and had been working as a farm labourer with Edward Byrne of Askinacloe, not far from the family home. He had previously served in the British Army during the world war 1 and at the time of his death lived in the family cottage in Booladurragh with his father, mother, two sisters and younger brother. The other victim, Thomas Skelton, was 21 and worked as a farm laborer with a James Murphy of Kilcullen. Both of the brothers were single at the time.
The father of the deceased, Patrick Skelton, recalled in his witness statement, which he gave for the subsequent investigation, how his son James was taken from their home by armed men on the the night of the 21st of March. Patrick was awoken at about 1 in the morning by the sound of knocking on the front door. When he answered two men were standing outside with revolvers in their hands. One enquired of Patrick, ‘Is your son James within’, to which he replied he was not, for fear of James’s life. He was then told that they would search inside and if James was found he (Patrick) would be taken away also for telling lies. He then led the two men inside and proceeded upstairs, calling his son James. The men asked James of his name and told him to get ready and to come with them for a few minutes, after which they would let him go. James never spoke a word, only got up and went with the men. Patrick was told to go back to bed, that his son would be back soon, but he heard nothing more until the discovery of his body the following morning.
James o Toole, whom was a member of the IRA and present on the night, recalled the incident some years later to the bureau of military history. It is interesting to note contrasting differences in his account of the story. He recalled how on the night members of the north Wexford flying column had surrounded the house in an attempt to block any possibly escape. After knocking on the door and asking for James his father Patrick purposely identified his younger brother instead, while James attempted to escape. However he was caught and positively identified by ‘local men who knew the Skeltons and were there for the purpose of identifying them’. No mention is made of James’s attempt to escape or the identification of his younger brother as him in Patrick’s account.
The younger brother Thomas did not reside at the family home and lived in Kilcullen townland, which was not to far away. A workmate of his named Thomas Sutton was possibly the last person to see him alive. In the statement he gave as part of the investigation he recalled how they last spoke on Sunday the 20th of March. Both were working together, milking cows on the day, when Thomas Skelton after having a brief conversation with Sutton, said he was returning home for a shirt and that he would not be back until late. This was the last time he was seen alive. Thomas Sutton would later identify his body and remarked that as far as he knew Thomas Skelton took no part in politics.
Circumstances surrounding the shooting
Contemporary newspaper accounts from the period offer little information behind the motive for the killing of the two Skelton brothers. The witness statement of James O Toole is the only one given to the bureau which makes reference in any great detail to the shooting. According to James the two Skelton brothers came under the suspicion of the IRA after the RIC in Bunclody continued to obtain information on them, despite the shooting of Contable Jones in December 1920. Initially it was thought Jones had been providing the RIC in Ballindaggin with information regarding Volunteers and he was subsequently shot.
‘The R.I.C. in Ballindaggin had been getting a great deal of information regarding Volunteers and their movements. The I.R.A. had information that a Constable Jones was responsible for it. He was stationed in Newtownbarry for a considerable time and knew the area and people very well. He was shot by the first column in a pub in the town. After his death the R.I.C. in Newtownbarry continued to get information about us. Eventually we came to suspect two brothers named James and John Skelton, who lived with their father and younger brother named Patrick, in a small cottage at Templeshambo. They always seemed to have plenty of money which they spent very freely on amusements, etc.‘ (p13-14)
James goes on to tell how a letter, addressed to Sergeant Torsney in Bunclody, was intercepted after a mail train was held up at Scarawalsh and the mails sized. This was a regular intelligence gathering activity at the time which aimed to intercept British communications. The letter in question was found in a bag addressed to the district inspector in Enniscorthy and informed Sergeant Torsney that arrangements were being made for one of the Skelton brothers to be taken into the R.I.C. O Toole in his statement was unsure which brother this was but suggests it may have been James. A sum of money for the two brothers was also found in the envelope. He notes how he was unsure as to the origin of the letter and it may have been from the county inspectors office in Wexford or instead RIC HQ in Dublin. The information was forwarded to IRA general headquarters in Dublin and permission was given to execute the brothers. James refers to how all executions had to be sanctioned by Dublin and that permission was only given after ‘…the guilt of the persons concerned had been proven beyond the slightest doubt’ (p14). He recalls how the two brothers were taken away and told to make an act of contrition, and after having done so, were then shot.
RIC Sergeant John McNally was the first officer to visit the scene and gave a statement for the investigation in which he described what he saw; on the morning of the 21st he found the body of James lying on his face and hands while Thomas, who had been blindfolded, was in a sitting position with his back against a wall. Both had been shot in the head. Two cards had been placed around the brothers necks accusing them of being spies. That around Thomas read ‘Spy, Sergt ——— is responsible for this man’s death, all informers beware we are on your track IRA’. The card around the neck of James read ‘Convicted Spy, IRA’. The name of the Sergeant referred to on the card around Thomas Skelton was purposely omitted from the constables statement with only a line after Sergt. In the book ‘Dead of the Irish Revolution’ those who carried out the execution are named as Patrick Fitzpatrick, James Whelan, Frank Gibbons, Thomas Roche and William Kavanagh.
The Enniscorthy Guardian reporting on the incident stated the bodies of the men were discovered ”at the back of an unused house at Boladurragh, which is situated about half a mile from his (Patrick Skelton’s) home’. Where the bodies where found appears to also have been the same place as the execution. It ws situated on the Bunclody to Kiltealy road just north of a crossroads known as Butlers cross. Although reported as being in the townland of Booladurragh the site is actually in Boolamore townland with the road forming the border between the two.
Nothing remains of the disused house today and the field has since been planted with Christmas trees. No marker or memorial exists on the site. The home of the brothers, where James was taken from, is located a short distance to the north and it seems that the IRA intended for the bodies to be easily found.
A story untold
Few sources exist relating to the execution of the Skelton brothers in March of 1921. The only witness statement in the Bureau of Military History which covers the incident in any detail is that of James O Toole. Some discrepancies are noticeable when its compared against other sources. This includes using the wrong names, referring to Thomas as John and indicating that both brothers lived in the home house when only James did. It should be taken into consideration that the account was written many years after the incident took place and is from a single viewpoint. In contrast to the accusation that the brothers were informing on the IRA the police reports refer to them having no association with either the police or politics. The execution appears to have been sanctioned by IRA GHQ in Dublin, as stated by James in his witness statement and suggests that such an incident would not have been undertaken without much consideration.
In his witness statement James O Toole refers to the shooting of RIC constable William Jones in Bunclody in December 1920 and how the RIC in the town continued to receive information despite this. The circumstances surrounding Jones death (which this author has written on previously) were questionable with conflicting accounts surrounding the circumstances. It appeared to be either an opportunistic killing or else was undertaken because he was suspected of providing information on local IRA activities. The latter of the two may not have been true, as suggested by James’s statement and from this the Skelton brothers were suspected. This highlights the nature of such operations and that fault and confusions could of and did occur. Looking back on the events of 100 years ago today it is important to consider the difficult legacies of the past with understanding, generosity of spirit and empathy and to value equally the dignity of all lives that were lost during the period.
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, James O Toole #1084
Courts of inquiry in lieu of inquest: James and Thomas Skelton (National Archives United Kingdom [hereafter NAUK], War Office [WO] 35/159B/7).
E.O’ Halpin and D. Ó Corráin (2020) ‘The Dead of the Irish Revolution’, Yale University Press, p349
Enniscorthy Guardian 26th March 1921, p4
A special thanks to Aaron Ó Maonaigh for his help with sources
Thanks also to Liam Kelly for help with identifying the sites referred to in this article
At 10 p.m. Thursday the 31st of March 1921 the evening silence in New Ross was broken when a bomb was dropped into the yard of Mr. D Evoy, situated near the rear of the town’s RIC barracks. The resulting explosion could be heard several miles away and tore a large hole in the yard. Splinters from the bomb damaged the surrounding walls and rear door of Mr. Evoy’s house. This was immediately followed by the sound of gunfire on the barracks and the garrison inside responded with machine gun from the front and rear.
The Attack on New Ross RIC Barracks was undertaken by about 22 men from C company (Cushinstown) together with members of B company (Rathgarogue). Initially plans were set in place for Members of B company to attack a police patrol, while C company were to provide covering fire on the barracks from the high ground in front.
However, the police patrol failed to show and instead B company threw a bomb towards the rear of the RIC barracks. This was the signal for C company to attack and upon hearing the explosion they commenced fire on the building. Two outposts were also set up to prevent B company from becoming surrounded by the police or military. One was located on Henry Street and the other on Cross Lane.
People had been out walking on the night and upon hearing the gunfire fled in all directions for cover. Some found shelter in the nearest building to them, while others lay prone on the ground. Bullets whizzed in all directions with some houses in Jones Hill and William Street being struck. Others found their way through windows and inside the homes. On the opposite side of the river Barrow people walking along the Waterford road reported hearing bullets passing close overhead with some striking the railway bridge between Rosbercon and Chilcomb. The barrack’s head constable had a lucky escape as shortly after he left his room it’s the light was smashed by a bullet. The gunfire lasted for about half an hour and no injuries were reported on the night. Afterwards the military and police proceeded down South Street and onto North Street, telling people to clear off the street, while men where held up and questioned
The old RIC building still stands on Priory street today and gun loops are visible on both gable ends. These would have allowed flanking fire down both sides of the street. Markers are said to have been positioned at set intervals along the roadside to allow the gunners at both ends determine their firing distance.
Gun loop on north gable Gun loop on south Gable
The high ground to the east of the barracks chosen for the attack today contains houses but in 1921 was a green field. Bullet marks can be seen at the rear of No.6, the building opposite the barracks, which would have been in the direct line of fire. This brief attack on the RIC barracks was the first in New Ross during the period. It was a daring operation to attack a barracks in such a large town and would have likely had a demoralizing effect on the garrison ,who up until this point had experienced little resistance there. At a meeting of the New Ross Harbour Board a few days later in April it was noted a new military regulation required people to go by the quay, instead of passing the police barracks from there on.
Shortly before nine in the evening on Saturday the 19th of March 1921, four RIC constables left the safety of their barracks in Foulksmills to buy some necessities from Furlongs, the village’s grocers. The business was situated a short walk up the street from the RIC barracks. As the four officers were entering the shop a bomb was thrown at them from behind a large tree which stood in the center of the village. One of the constables, Dermot J Dunne, who was originally from Galway, was the last of the group to enter Furlongs and was just outside when the device exploded. He was wounded in the right shoulder and calf of the left leg. Although injured he managed to stagger into the safety of the shop where another constable closed the door behind him. Just then shotgun fire rang out with some of the pellets penetrating the door, fortunately though nobody was injured. The attackers fired several more shots before they made off in different directions. The police then took their wounded comrade back to the safety of their barracks.
The 20 or so customers inside Furlong’s during the attack were unharmed, attributed to one half of the double door being closed at the time of the explosion and absorbing many of the splinters, some of which embedded themselves in the wall outside. Mrs. Furlong herself had a lucky escape as she was holding the open half at the time of the explosion.
After the attack rockets and verey lights sent up from the barracks illuminated the night sky and signaled for assistance. It was reported the rockets could be heard from Taghmon, 5 miles away and were visible in Wexford town, 14 miles away. The parish priest Michael Hickey Clongeen hurried to the barracks to minister to the wounded man. At 11 o clock military from New Ross arrived on the scene and a Dr. Hickey to administer treatment to the wounded officer, who was later removed to hospital in Dublin. The attack was condemned by Fr Hickey at mass in Clongeen on Sunday Morning. Earlier in December 1920 a large scale attack took place on the barracks in Foulksmills and it was regularly sniped or shot at in the six months prior to the Truce from January to June 1921.
The ambush was undertaken by members of D company (Adamstown) 1st Battalion; Thomas Furlong, James Furlong, Peter Jordon, M. McDonald. Today the Oak Tree pub occupies the premises which was Furlongs and amazingly the tree from behind which the IRA threw the bomb still stands to this day, a direct physical link to the event.
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.
On Saturday night the 12th of March 1921 members of the Bridgetown company IRA attacked their local RIC barracks, situated on a staggered crossroads just south of the village. The New Ross Standard reporting on the incident stated that at around midnight many local people were awoken by the sound of gunfire, which lasted for 15 or 20 minutes. Trees had been cut down on most of the approach roads by the company to delay the arrival of any potential reinforcements. A particularly large tree was reported cut down at ‘Sleedagh’, completely blocking the road to all motor traffic.
The military and police undertook numerous raids in the week or so following the attack with some reported in the districts of Baldwinstown, Bridgetown, Kilmore and Murrintown . Two young men from Bridgetown, Joe and Moses Murphy were arrested at Oldhall while two other brothers, named Rowe, were arrested at Killinick. It was noted that the raids appeared to be undertaken in search for someone on the run.
Later that year on the 14th of May the barracks was attacked again at two in the morning. The incident lasted for fifteen minutes and the police reported no casualties.
The attack on Bridgetown RIC barracks was of a type which occurred throughout the War of Independence, consisting of a short period of concentrated gunfire. The aim of such attacks was not to necessarily capture the building but to haras it’s inhabitants. Such incidents are often reffered to as ‘sniping’. By early 1921 Bridgetown barracks was one of only a few still operational within county Wexford. Many others in similar ‘rural’ settings had been burned or sabotaged. It would most likely have been fortified with steel shutters placed on the windows and sandbags and perhaps barbed wire used also. The building today is a private residence and bullet holes are said to be still visible on the exterior walls.