When silence overcomes me
My dreams they seem to fill
Of my dear native happy home
Nigh Comeragh's rugged hills
-- From a poem by Pat Keating
My wife, Lindy, and I have just completed our ninth annual vacation trip to Ireland. This year we stayed in a two centuries-old farm cottage in Ardfinnan, County Tipperary, which is just south of Cahir. From there, we explored south Tipperary along with parts of west Kilkenny, west and central Waterford, east Cork and east Limerick.
One of the interesting aspects of roaming around the Irish countryside (to me, at least, though perhaps less so for Lindy) is the numerous local memorials you find commemorating various people and events, on roadsides, at churches and in cemeteries. Even the tiniest of villages will often have one or more. Whenever they are in a place where it's possible to stop and look at them, I do so. The stories they tell are often not well known in the macro-history of Ireland, but they usually do tell the story of people or events that are very well known among the people in that area.
Of course, the full story is never there on the monument. You only find basic information, but you can use it to research the person or event later to get the full story. When I do this, and then re-tell the tale for others, I always feel a kinship with the people involved with the event commemorated, and those who put up the monument so it wouldn't be forgotten by those of us who came after. Some are well kept and cared for, and others are unfortunately neglected and nearly forgotten, but whenever you see one, stop and have a look if you can.
(Pictured: A group of IRA volunteers in West Waterford.)
One of our first days there we went to the County Waterford coast, first stopping in Dungavan and then continuing on to Mahon Falls in the Comeragh Mountains near Lemybrien.
Just outside of Dungarvan, heading north on N-25, I suddenly spotted a monument with a Celtic cross on top of it out of the corner of my eye on the left and luckily had a spot to pull over and check it out. Though the wording on it was entirely in Irish, I know enough Irish to understand that what it commemorated occurred on March 19, 1921, during the Irish War of Independence. You seldom hear much about actions in Waterford during that war. However, I knew the date added to the location would give me enough information to discover the story of what happened.
Once we were back home (we had no internet access at our cottage), I began to research the incident. I found that the IRA had ambushed a British army convoy there on the night of March 18-19. It is known as the Burgery Ambush. I discovered that IRA volunteers Seán Fitzgerald and Pat Keating of the West Waterford Brigade (whose names can be seen on the monument in Irish) had been killed, as was one Black and Tan, Sydney Redman. Also killed, though not at the ambush site, was an RIC constable with the British that night, Sergeant Michael Hickey, a 15-year veteran of the force.
That's the Wikipedia-style overview of what happened that night and the following day. But, if the devil, as they say, is in the details, so in this case is a very enthralling and thought-provoking tale of a little-known skirmish of the Irish War of Independence. Before it was over, an IRA leader would be involved in the sort of moral dilemma that often confronted Irishmen in both the War of Independence and, later, during the Civil War, and for two other volunteers a devoted friendship would come to a tragic end.
On the night of March 18, a group of British military, accompanied by Sgt. Hickey, set off from Dungarvan Castle (above), heading east for the coastal village of Clonea. Twelve soldiers rode in a Crossley Tender (left), preceded by a car carrying Captain Thomas of the Buffs Regiment, commanding the detail; Lt. Griffith; Hickey; and two more soldiers. Their goal that night was the arrest of IRA volunteer John Murphy, who had been involved in gun running between Clonmel, County Tipperary and Dungarvan.
Hickey was to point out Murphy's house, a type of duty typically undertaken by RIC officers, who were familiar with the local landscape and citizenry. The role of the RIC from the time of the Easter Rising through the Irish War of Independence was complex for those remaining on the force. What Hickey was doing on this night, however, increased his odds of being targeted by the IRA.
The republicans considered the RIC part of the occupation army, Irish or not, and were often targeted, as the more than 500 violent deaths in their ranks from 1916 to 1922 would confirm. In some ways, this mindset presaged the Civil War. Still, in some areas, there were RIC men who had tenuous understandings with the local IRA that they would be left alone if the officers did not fully cooperate with the British army. According to one of the local IRA soldiers, Mick Mansfield, Hickey had been “warned on a number of occasions to refrain from certain activities and he failed to do so.”
(Right: Monument to the Piltown Ambush)
Hickey knew that after a November 1920 ambush in Piltown, George Lennon's unit had released RIC Constable Maurice Prendiville when he promised to resign, and that in December he was shot and killed because he reneged on that promise. Other constables had also been killed in the area. He undoubtedly knew what he was doing this night put him in grave danger, but he was a 15-year veteran of the force and his father was also an RIC constable. Resigning must have seemed a terrible fate for him, forfeiting the only life he'd ever known and also the pension he was working toward.
The action at Burgery was not a planned ambush. What the IRA had planned that night was the demolition of Tarr's Bridge over the Colligan River between Dungarvan and the Abbeyside. But when word arrived of the two British vehicles having headed out of Dungarvan moving east, a last-minute action was organized by the A.S.U. (Active Service Unit) to intercept them on their way back to Dungarvan.
As it happened, George Plunkett, brother of Easter Rising martyr Joseph, and a member of the IRA GHQ, was there inspecting the unit that day, as was Brigade Commandant Pax Whelan. The local A.S.U. commander, the youngest one in the country, was 21-year-old George Lennon. Lennon had joined the Irish Volunteers at the age of 14. As a child in Dungarvan, he came to know Hickey, as Lennon played with the children of Hickey's commanding officer.
Also among the group of about 20 members of the IRA that night were boyhood friends Seán Fitzgerald and Pat Keating (left). Before the start of the war, the quiet and unassuming Seán had been a member of the Irish Volunteers, but he had emigrated to England looking for work. He had kept in touch with local friends, however, and said he, “longed to return to give a helping hand.” When an erroneous report reached him that his dear friend Pat had been killed at an ambush outside Tramore, he told a friend, "I was saddened to hear of Pat's death, and I am sorry I was not alongside him." Returning home, perhaps with thoughts of avenging his friend, he was delighted to discover that Pat was alive. He rejoined the unit and had seen action before the night of the Burgery ambush.
Pat Keating was by all accounts one of the most admired and respected members of the West Waterford IRA. An excellent athlete, he was a member of the GAA and had represented County Waterford in Gaelic football. Brigade commander Pax Whelan, who had seen him play, recalled that he was "… a forward of outstanding merit, rarely beaten for a ball in the air and with a great aptitude for exploiting the open spaces." He also wrote poetry. His family were staunch republicans with both his father, mother, sisters and uncle assisting the local IRA in various support roles, while his brothers, Willie and Tom, were also in the IRA. Tom would later be killed in the Irish Civil War fighting on the Republican side.
(Right: Location of the Burgery Ambush. Click on the image for a larger view.)
Knowing that the British seldom returned from a raid the same way they went out, Plunkett split his command, with half covering the route back on the main road from Waterford (now N-25), commanded by Lennon, and half covering the Cork road (now N-72) with Plunkett. Around 2:30 a.m., the returning British took the main road back to Dungarvan through the Burgery, where Lennon's men were lying in wait.
When Lennon's men opened fire, the car continued on, but the Crossley Tender was halted and the soldiers piled out under fire and scattered along the roadside. Halting further down the road, Capt. Thomas sent Lt. Griffith on to the castle to bring back reinforcements and deliver the prisoner. John Murphy was eventually sent to Spike Island in Cobh, County Cork, where he was interred until the truce. He would later serve on the Republican side in the Civil War.
What happened during the Piltown ambush and after it should have forewarned Thomas that, first, the local IRA was capable of overwhelming a small British force, and, second, that RIC constables were particularly vulnerable. Clearly, Thomas should have sent Hickey back for the reinforcements rather than Griffith. A confusing firefight began, with yelling and muzzle flashes all around as the IRA and the British struggled in the dark and Captain Thomas and Hickey took an ill-fated turn back toward the sound of the guns. A tragic string of events that would end some lives, and affect others for the rest of their lives, were now flowing in a direction that no one could stop.
The Price of Freedom - Story of George Lennon by WG member David Lawlor
George Lennon Biography - From Wikipedia
George Plunkett Biography - From Wikipedia
Rebel Heart: George Lennon: Flying Column Commander - Biography (Book)
George Lennon from TG-4: part 1 - 3 parts (Parts 2 and 3 will load automatically)