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The Headford Ambush 100 Years Ago

 The Headford Ambush 100 Years Ago              Gerry OShea

The Irish War of Independence started with an ambush in Tipperary in January 1919. There were some attacks on the Crown forces in Kerry during that year and in 1920, but the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), aided by the two English military groups introduced to subdue the revolt, the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries, believed that they had re-established law-and-order in the county.

 In a written report in January, 1921, the RIC chief in Kerry declared that the campaign of round-ups and reprisals had defanged the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which he said would “never again regain the hold they had on the popular imagination.” He boasted that police could again move freely throughout the county.

The lack of action in Kerry compared poorly with neighboring “rebel” Cork where there were some major ambushes against the British forces. Michael Collins, while serving as a minister in the provisional Republican government appointed after the huge Sinn Fein victory in the 1918 Westminster election, would taunt his cabinet colleague from Tralee, Austin Stack, about Kerry’s failure to meet expectations in the military conflict.

Tom Barry, the legendary leader of the West Cork IRA flying column, complained that Cork was being forced to carry too much of the war and that other neighboring counties needed to step up their revolutionary activities. He dismissed the efforts in Kerry by proclaiming that all they had accomplished was shooting a police inspector at the Listowel Races.

 The IRA headquarters in Dublin sent Andy Cooney, a distinguished volunteer from Nenagh in County Tipperary, to shake up the organization of the Kerry Number 2 Brigade which operated out of the southern part of the county.

Cooney, a medical student in Dublin, was a member of “The Squad,” Michael Collins’ elite strike force that killed eleven British agents in Dublin on “Bloody Sunday” in November 1920. He changed the leadership of the Kerry Number 2 Brigade by appointing Humphrey Murphy from Castleisland as the top officer and John Joe Rice from Kenmare as number two in command. Further, he formed a flying column, comprising a group of elite fighters, the top marksmen from the various local IRA battalions.

The leaders of this flying column, consisting of thirty volunteers, were Dan Allman from Rockfield, near Tralee and his number two was Tom McEllistrim from Ballymacelligot.

Cooney managed to provide enough arms for the new flying column which assembled in early March 1921. They gathered in various safe places ending up billeted in the beautiful Gap of Dunloe where training exercises were led by John Flynn from Bonane, near Kenmare, a British army veteran.

During the winter of 1920 a party of British soldiers brought provisions regularly from Killarney to the barracks in Kenmare and returned to home barracks by train the following day. On the evening of Sunday March 20th, 1921 Nora “Petty” Tangney, the local leader of Cumann na mBan, a sister organization of the IRA, brought word to leaders of the insurgency in Kenmare that a contingent of thirty British soldiers would be returning from Kenmare to Tralee the following day, the 21st, the Monday of Holy Week, on the 1.30 train.

The local leaders in the Kenmare-Kilgarvan area met in the Quill family home in Gortluchra, close to Kilgarvan, - yes, the home of the great New York trade union leader, Michael J Quill, - to discuss how they should deal with the information which they knew came from a reliable source. They decided to send a message with their news to Dan Allman, the leader of the Flying Column, who got the missive at 1.00pm on Monday.

 They decided to attack the train with the special purpose of capturing their arms and in particular a highly-prized Vickers machine gun because they were very low in their supply of military equipment.

The train was scheduled to arrive in Headford at 3.15pm but it was a fair day in Kenmare, resulting in full carriages, so they didn’t make their usual stops at sub-stations along the way – a very unusual occurrence. Consequently, the train pulled into Headford Junction about thirteen minutes early, creating some consternation among the rebels who had allowed themselves that time to pick up their assigned positions.

Dan Allman, Dave Healy and James Coffey had not found their planned places when the train arrived, and they took refuge in the toilet in the middle of the platform. One of the soldiers made for the lavatory and was flabbergasted when he saw the armed Irishmen but greeted them with “Hello Paddy.” They tried unsuccessfully to disarm him, so Allman shot him dead and the rest of his men immediately opened fire.

 A short time later Allman tried to move into a position where he could fire on the soldiers who had taken cover under the train, but he was picked off by a sniper’s bullet. Before he expired he called for water, pointing to his coat pocket where he had a small bottle of holy water which he always carried for protection, a clear sign of his religious devotion, although the Catholic Church opposed the guerilla war being conducted by the IRA.

 Earlier, James Bailey from Ballymacelligot was shot in the head while throwing a hand grenade and he died immediately.

 Tom McEllistrim took over the leadership and as the fusiliers had lost many soldiers in the early barrage of firing, he called on the remaining ones to surrender. Their reply was an emphatic “Never.” Meanwhile the Cork train was waiting for the signal to enter the station. It included a group of soldiers who, strangely enough, came from the same regiment as the men under attack, The First Royal Fusiliers. This was the 4.00 train that their comrades coming from Kenmare were supposed to take back to their base.

The Irish leader called for his men to retreat although Tom O’Connor Scarteen wanted to fight on but he was overruled. Their ammunition was greatly depleted so they would not be able to sustain another engagement.

 Instead, Johnny O’Connor, Jack Brosnan, Peter Browne and McEllistrim covered the retreat of the others who headed for the cover of the Paps Mountains nearby and from there to relative safety in the Muckross area of Killarney.

The IRA lost Bailey and Allman and three civilians were killed. The official British report named seven soldiers dead with two subsequent deaths from injuries received, but the IRA claimed that at least twelve were shot, based on the number of coffins that were observed leaving Killarney.

The Headford Ambush, which took place a hundred years ago on Monday March 21st, was by far the biggest engagement in Kerry during the War of Independence and is also noted as one of the most important battles during the fight for freedom throughout the island. Andy Cooney said later that the Chief of staff, Richard Mulcahy, took some time to believe that the newly-formed flying column in South Kerry planned and successfully executed such a major battle with Crown forces.

The Irish Times a few days later described this ambush as “one of the fiercest that took place between Crown forces and rebels in the South of Ireland.”

Tom McEllistrim and his son and grandson of the same name served in the Irish Parliament, as did Johnny O’Connor who was elected in 1954  and John Joe Rice in 1957. The current Mayor of Kerry, Patrick Connor Scarteen is a grand-nephew of Tom O’Connor Scarteen


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