If you ever drive down the south side of the beautiful and scenic Dingle Peninsula in Co. Kerry, as I did with my wife, brother and sister-in-law last June (and everyone should, at least one in their lives), you will pass through the small village of Lispole on N-86 a few miles before you get to Dingle town. As you make a sharp right hand turn coming out of the village you’ll see a Celtic cross monument tucked into the left hand side of the road, at the foot of a steep incline.
As always, I had to stop to take photos of the monument so I could research what had happened there at some point in the future. I expected it might commemorate an event of the Irish War of Independence, as I’d seen this style of the monument at other such sites around Ireland. That did, indeed, turn out to be the case. This monument did not commemorate a great victory of that war; it commemorated the sacrifice of a small group of Irish Volunteers to the cause of Irish freedom in a fight that few have heard of today. The monument says it occurred on March 21, 1921 but nearly all the participants and locals say it was on the 22nd.
In the spring of 1921, all over Ireland, but especially in the southwest, the pace of the fighting was rapidly increasing. The institution of the Flying Column system by the Volunteers was having the effect Michael Collins had hoped for, resulting in more attacks. However, the British were now moving around the countryside in larger and larger convoys as a result, increasing the danger of disaster in every ambush.
On Friday the 18th of March that year, the Flying Column of Kerry No. 1 Brigade was formed up with men from Castlegregory, Dingle, and Killorglin along with those from the Lispole area under the command of Paddy Cahill, from Tralee. Local Volunteers had observed that every weekend for several weeks the Black & Tans out of Dingle were driving the road east to Annascaul (now N-86), repairing any trenching of that main road done by the Volunteers during the week.
Cahill decided to set up an ambush in Lispole, which is about halfway between those two towns. They set up just west of the town, with possibly over fifty Volunteers in all, the estimates varied among the participants.
(Below: The area of the ambush as seen from the hill above it.)
The men were split up, with perhaps seven by the railroad bridge north of the road commanded by Paddy Fitzgerald, from Tralee, another group of six or seven further west on that side of the road commanded by Dan Rohan, from Castlegregory, and about eight in a cottage on the north side of the road under Michael Duhig, of Castlegregory.
(Below: Paddy Cahill is seated 3rd from the left)
Another group of about twelve was in the schoolhouse (which is no longer there) opposite the cottage on the south side, commanded by Daniel Mulvihill, from Brackhill. On the high ground with a commanding view of the road further to the west of the schoolhouse was the main group under Paddy Cahill.
As was often the case with most Flying Columns, their weaponry was spotty. The groups on the side of the road were mainly armed with rifles, but the groups in the two building all had shotguns except for one man. No doubt, it was expected that those in the buildings might be involved from closer range.
In the schoolhouse they also set up a punt gun (below), which was essentially a hugely over-sized shotgun designed to kill large numbers of birds. According one of the Volunteers, James Fitzgerald, of Lispole, it was loaded with "a cap full of slugs," and aimed straight down the road in the hopes that it could disable the lead vehicle.
The Volunteers were in place before 2 pm on Sunday the 20th, waiting, and waiting, but the Black & Tans did not arrive. They were in position again all day on the 21st, but once again, the Black & Tans were a no-show. The decision to set up the ambush again in the same place on the 22nd was an unwise one. The bane of a guerilla force in any revolution is the informer, and the longer you stay in one place, the greater the danger.
Around ten that morning, the accidental discharge of one of one of the numerous shotguns carried that day mortally wounded Volunteer Maurice Fitzgerald. Perhaps it was the Gods of War were sending a warning to them that “today will not go as planned.” If so, the warning went unheeded. Then around 1 pm, as the tension of possible combat must have been waning, they suddenly got the word that “they are coming” from the lookouts watching to the west, and every man was on pins and needles once again.
They had halted about a half-mile away, at a dip in the road and gotten out of their trucks. The lookouts came back to the ambush position, incorrectly assuming that the Tans were going to raid a group of homes then continue on. They often did that while moving through the Irish countryside, but not keeping them under observation was another mistake. In reality, the Black & Tans knew where the ambush was set up and were swinging around on both sides of the road to ambush the ambushers.
(Below: Black & Tans in a Crossley Tender)
As the Volunteers in Lispole kept a watch down the road, expecting the lorries to come round the bend at any minute, the tension just have been palpable. This was especially true for Patrick Kennedy, of Annascaul Company, the man on the punt gun, nervous about his key role in stopping the first lorry. He would never have the chance, as sometime between 2 and 3 pm (accounts vary) the Black & Tans broke that tense silence by opening fire from above the ambushers on the hill. Almost immediately another opened fire from near the railroad bridge to the north. They had a machine gun with each group, but they were apparently unsure of the position of most of the Volunteers, as the fire of both was directed only at the schoolhouse.
One of the men in the schoolhouse, James Cronin, recalled that, “a machine gun opened up and bullets started coming through the roof of the school … we had sandbagged the windows of the school house and we just sat tight.” They were not taking casualties, but they were trapped in the building by the machine gun fire. What followed was a very confusing, fluid, back and forth fight with no real battle lines.
(Below: A group of Volunteers from Co. Kerry)
Shock and confusion reigned in the Volunteers ranks, as the ambush they had set had suddenly turned into a possible catastrophic trap. Two things saved them from that looming catastrophe: one was that the Tans informer must not have given them good information on how many Volunteers were present, causing them to come with only around twenty men. In addition, they also obviously didn’t have good information on the disposition of the attackers, perhaps thinking most of them were in and around the schoolhouse. As was the case during the entire War of Independence, however, they were far better armed than the Volunteers. All had rifles, not short-range weapons like the shotguns carried by so many of the Volunteers, and most all, they had a pair of machine guns.
The machine gun to the north was firing directly over the heads of Paddy Fitzgerald’s unseen group. Using a small streambed, he was able to slowly infiltrate his men around that northern group of Tans. The men in the boreen on the hill on the south side of the road, near the schoolhouse, were in the worst position, as firing from above that was short or below that went over the schoolhouse would unwittingly target them. Three of them, Thomas Ashe, Tommy Hawley and James Daly, were seriously wounded. Ashe was the cousin of the more famous Thomas Ashe, who died on hunger strike after the Easter Rising.
Meanwhile, higher up and to the west, Paddy Cahill’s group was as yet unseen by the Tans and began to cautiously maneuver themselves into a better location to help the men in the boreen and the schoolhouse. They got in position without giving away their position to the deadly machine gun higher on the hill.
The machine gun fire from above allowed the Tans to advance down toward the boreen where they captured several Volunteers, including the wounded Hawley. Patrick O'Neill, of Clahane, who was fighting beside the wounded Thomas Ashe, recalled the fighting becoming nearly hand-to-hand there. “A Tan came down behind us and as I looked over my shoulder I saw the Tan aiming at Tadhg (Brosnan, left). I fired at the Tan and Gregory Ashe (Thomas’ brother), who was nearby, fired at the same time. The Tan fell head over heels and his rifle fell beside me.”
Some of Cahill’s main body began moving down the hill under the cover of a streambed hoping to help the men in the schoolhouse and the boreen, while the rest began engaging the Tans that had moved down toward it. The advancing group got down near the main road still hidden in the streambed. In the school, Daniel Mulvihill said the Tans were so close that they were hitting the building with rifle grenades.
To the north, the tide of the battle began to turn as the men in the two buildings began engaging the Tans on that side of the road. Paddy Fitzgerald had also gotten his group behind the Tan’s and their machine gun. Aware of their danger of being surrounded, their fire on the schoolhouse ended and they began moving back toward the road.
On the south side, the Volunteers tried a ruse to scare the Tans into retreating. In the stream bed near the road, the Volunteers there all shouted at the Tans to drop their arms, while Michael Harrington, commander of the Dingle Company, who had served in the American Army during WWI, began shouting military orders to delude them into thinking a larger force was there. At the same time farther up the hill, Cahill had Thomas O'Connor of Tralee blow his whistle, which may have fooled the Tans who had advanced into thinking it was an order to retreat. It worked, they began to quickly retreat up the hill, leaving their prisoners behind, including the wounded Hawley. The British never revealed their casualties, but the Volunteers had seen several wounded and dead Tans on the field and others being helped off the field.
Two lorries had arrived and unloaded a group of Royal Marines down the Dingle road, but the Tans, perhaps spooked by the unexpected number of Volunteers in the town, were done for the day. They loaded into their lorries and beat a hasty retreat to Dingle. Some of the Volunteers were so enthused by the sight of the Tans retreating that they suggested to Cahill that they follow them, but Cahill was concerned about his wounded.
Cahill gathered his Flying Column together and retreated east, in the direction of Annascaul. They acquired a horse and cart from a local farmer to carry away the badly wounded Ashe (right) and Hawley. Jimmie Daly, of Castlegregory, though wounded through the upper chest, managed to follow on foot. They retreated to the town of Acres. Ashe and Hawley were taken to the home of the O'Sullivan family and left in the care of Cumann na mBan nurse Nancy Scully. Thomas Ashe died that night and was buried secretly in Ballinacourty but later reinterred in Kinard. Hawley, who had a bullet wound in the head, hung on for several weeks before passing away. Daly recovered from his wound, though it was said that he was disabled by it for the rest of his life.
Much as was the case a few days earlier at Crossbarry in Co. Cork, though this was on a much smaller scale, the British had started the engagement with advance knowledge of the position of Volunteers. However, in both cases the Volunteers had managed to avoid potential disaster and inflict damage on their attackers. Around Ireland, the Volunteers were demonstrating that their ability to confront the better armed British, who were in most case also WWI combat veterans, was rapidly improving. The sacrifice of men like Fitzgerald, Ashe, Hawley and Daly would not be in vain, as engagements like this one were beginning to convince the British government that it was time to consider what had been unthinkable at the start of the conflict: a negotiated peace.
Remembering the fallen of the Lispole ambush (From "The Kerryman" newspaper)
More on the Irish War of Independence