The Dromkeen Ambush: Down Into the Mire in County Limerick

On the cool, pleasant night of St. Stephens day, December 26, 1920, over two hundred men and women were dancing, eating and enjoying themselves at Caherguillamore House, three miles northeast of Bruff, in County Limerick. The Martin brothers from Bruff were providing the music. This was not a commonplace dance. It had been organized to raise money for the East Limerick Brigade of the Irish Volunteers to buy weapons. It was a very dangerous venture to put so many of their members in the same place at the same time. That they would risk it was an indication of their desperate desire to obtain enough arms to bring the fight to Crown forces more vigorously in the future. But it was also a lovely respite from the increasingly vicious War of Independence that was raging across the county and the island for the Volunteers and their friends and family.

(Below: The ruins of Caherguillamore House.)

Just past midnight that respite came to a crashing and violent end with a flash and a roar. Suddenly the night sky was brightly illuminated by flares and bullets began to slam into the house and buzz through the air. Several hundred army troops and Black & Tans from Limerick City, Bruff, Fedamore, Croom and Hospital had Caherguillamore House surrounded. Screams and shouts rent the air as people inside fell to the floor. The Volunteers inside scrambled for their weapons. Resistance to this overwhelming force from inside of a house full of their wives, mothers, daughters and sweet hearts was not an option. Attempting to escape was the only option, as poor as the odds might be.

A few Volunteers escaped, but Martin Conway, John Quinlan, Éamon Moloney, Daniel Sheehan and Henry Wade were killed that night, some in lookout positions before the attack. Before he died, Moloney killed a Black & Tan named Hogsden, the only casualty for Crown forces. Over 100 members of the East Limerick Brigade were captured. The already hated Black & Tans humiliated them, forcing them to sing songs, and then beat most of them to the point that Volunteer James Maloney reported the hallway floor was covered with blood. Some were beaten so severely that they never recovered their health. The captured were all convicted in hasty, drumhead Court-Martials and sent to prison. Many of them were shipped off to British prisons and would not see home again until well after the treaty. The Volunteers in Limerick vowed to avenge them, but their numbers were now severely depleted.

(Left: A monument in Bruff that commemorates the Volunteers killed at Caherguillamore House.)

Other recent events in and out of County Limerick were hardening the hearts of the Volunteers all over Ireland. On November 26th, Pat and Henry Loughnane were arrested in Shanaglish, County Galway. On the 29th their mother was informed they had escaped. Five days later their heavily mutilated bodies were found in a local pond. They were barely recognizable and had apparently been dragged behind a vehicle before being shot and then burned and dumped by the Auxiliaries who arrested them. The doctor who examined their bodies said they looked as if, “…hand grenades had been put into their mouths and exploded“. They also had diamond shaped wounds cut into their flesh that resembled the cap badge worn by the Auxiliaries.

(Below: The burned and mutilated remains of the Loughnane brothers.) 

Earlier in November Ellen Quinn, was randomly shot while sitting in a chair in front of her house in Kiltartan, Co. Galway by a passing RIC lorry. The pregnant mother had her infant child sitting on her lap at the time. About two weeks later Father Michael Griffin was taken from his house in Rahoon, near Galway City by the RIC. On the 20th his body was found in a shallow grave in a bog at Cloghscoltia.

In Limerick on New Year’s Day, a week after the disaster at Caherguillamore House, volunteer Richard Leonard was taken from his brother-in-law’s house by a group of Auxiliaries. Before they got him back to their vehicle he was shot twice in the back while “trying to escape.” Several days after he was buried the family arrived at the grave site to find that the Black & Tans disinterred his body with no notice to the family.

Added to all this was the outrage of the British government having sanctioned "official reprisals" to civilian property by Crown Forces. Though reprisals had been going on for months, the government had until then claimed they violated official policy. Now it was official government policy to punish the innocent. They also announced that Volunteers captured with gun would be executed. On January 21st five Volunteer prisoners were executed in Cork under this new policy. John MacCarthy, Adjutant, of the East Limerick Brigade, later recalled that a conference of Southern Brigades called on GHQ in Dublin to allow the Volunteers to retaliate by executing prisoners as well, but didn’t recall any such order actually being issued by the GHQ.

In late January, Richard O'Connell, commander of the Mid-Limerick Flying Column, along with Captains Sean Lynch and Morgan Portley, began planning an ambush of an RIC convoy from the Pallas RIC headquarters. Observing their activities for several months, local Volunteer John Purcell, of Caherconlish, had found that the first Thursday of each month they sent a  convoy to Fedamore with the payroll for RIC constables there, about 11 miles away. They also seemed to use the same route each time. Such predictability was often a fatal flaw in a guerrilla war. The ambush was set for February 3rd.

The flying column would be under the overall command of Donncadh O'Hannigan of the East Limerick Brigade, who is a rather legendary figure of the war. Many have claimed credit for the idea of flying columns, but O’Hannigan (below-right) had led what is considered the first small flying column in the summer of 1920. Michael Collins then had pressed every organization around the island to institute the system that fall.

The East Limerick men caught a few hours sleep in Kilteely, then met up with the Mid-Limerick men near Dromkeen. The combined column numbered about forty. After a period of rainy weather, the skies dawned clear that morning. Scouts were sent out to discover if the convoy had departed for Fedamore. Around noon word came that the two Crossley Tenders departed for Fedamore around 9 am and there was no unusual activity of any Crown forces in the Domkeen area.

Checking for activity was very important because O’Connell had gotten a fright a few days before the ambush when a famer by the name of John English, of all things, said to him in a Dromkeen pub, “I heard there was a crowd around my place a week ago (he lived very close to the planned ambush site), looking around there, and I was told there was going to be an ambush". O’Connell tried to keep his poker face as he assured English no such thing was planned, but they switched their plans from ambushing the convoy on the way out in the morning to hitting them on the way back. That way they could observe any planned counter to the ambush and melt away unharmed if the Crown forces were tipped on a morning ambush. There would then also be less hours of daylight after the ambush, while the column was attempting to escape the area.

The ambush location was well selected. The lorries would be coming from the west. There was a severe right-hand turn at Dromkeen House, where the road turned east for several hundred yards in a straight line, to an intersection that split to the north and south. O’Hannigan put D. Guerin, Sean Stapleton, and Maurice Meade, all of East Limerick Brigade, at the corner to be the lookouts for the convoy. There were low stonewalls along both sides for most of most of the road. About halfway down its length there was a cemetery and an old ruined church on the south side (below).

O’Hannigan spread his men along both sides of the road, behind the walls and in several homes along the road and set up barricades on the forks on the eastern end of the ambush, set back so the driver wouldn’t see them until they got to the intersection. He took up a command position in an old ruined cottage at the intersection. In addition to O’Hannigan, John MacCarthy, David Clancy and a few other East Limerick Volunteers were in the ruined cottage.

Mid-Limerick C/O Dick O'Connell, Sean Carroll of Castleconnell, James Horan, Johnny Vaughan, Joe Ryan and Ned Punch and most of the rest of the Mid-Limerick Brigade were on the north side of the road. The East Limerick men on the south side and behind the barricades included Liam Hayes, Dan Allis, Ned Tobin, Owen O'Keeffe, Danny Moloney, Jim Greene, and Tom Howard, who was killed in action a few months later. Two Volunteers from Cork, Bill Burke of Ballindangan, Mitchelstown, and David.Barry of Glanworth were also with the East Limerick men. (Below: The East Limerick Flying Column.)

As they settled in to await the arrival of the convoy, they began to detain any civilians who came along, to be sure no word of the ambush got out. One who was detained was the aforementioned farmer, Mr. English, who discovered that O’Connell had lied to him and worst yet, they were also going to occupy his farmhouse. Another was a woman driving a donkey cart containing a bag of flour. After having her take shelter in a house, they unharnessed the donkey and used the cart to help in blocking the road. They forgot to remove the flour, however, which would become a factor later.

Around 2:30 pm (according to O’Hannigan, some put it a little earlier) the lookouts near Dromkeen House let them know the lorries were coming. The plan was to let the lead lorry reach the barricade before they opened fire, expecting them to be widely spaced.

(Left: Two RIC Crossley Tenders.)

They were closer together than expected, however, and the men lining the road and near Dromkeen House opened fired first at the 2nd lorry when it was near the ruins of the old church to prevent it being getting beyond them. Michael Hennessy, of the Kilfinane Company of the East Limerick Brigade, in a spot near one of the walls, later said he killed the driver of the 2nd lorry, Constable Sidney Millin, on his first shot. Millin may have had his foot on the brake at that moment, as the lorry almost immediately halted in the middle of the road.

The sound of the firing may have caused the lead lorry to speed up. Turning to the left and seeing one barricade, the driver tried to turn to the right, but was going too fast. He ran into the wall and then slammed into donkey cart with the bog of flour in it, sending a cloud of flour into the air and came to a halt.

(Below: A map that John MacCarthy included with his witness statement decades after the ambush. The church was much further to the east than he's placed it.)

That cloud of flour, along with the fact that they were the only RIC members in civilian clothes, may have helped save the lives of two RIC men who were thrown clear of the cab: Constable Cox and District Inspector Sanson, who was in charge of the convoy. By the time the cloud of flour cleared two men in civilian clothes were seen running through the field. Given that Crown Forces sometimes had civilian hostages in their lorries, O’Hannigan had his men hold their fire for fear of killing a hostage, and the two escaped. Many of the Volunteers later spoke of Sanson with scorn for abandoning his men.

All the Volunteer participants said the firing only went on for a few minutes, with the RIC and Black & Tans able to mount very little resistance before all eleven left in the two lorries, three in the 1st and eight in the 2nd, were either dead or wounded. Of the three remaining in the 1st lorry, one was apparently killed very quickly by rifle fire and several grenades. The other two managed to get out and take cover but were quickly hit.

In the 2nd lorry two constables managed to get underneath it. They put up a short resistance before both were hit and killed by Volunteers Johnny Vaughan and Seán Carroll, who moved into positions along the road. The firing had only lasted about 10 minutes. The only Volunteer casualty was Liam Hayes, who was later a general in the Free State Army. He had part of his left thumb and part of a finger shot off, probably by friendly fire.

(Right: Liam Hayes at his wedding to Kathleen Walsh in November 1923)

As the firing ended, the Volunteers came out from cover to collect the arms from the dead and wounded. Constables Arthur Pearce and Henry Smith were still alive but seriously wounded. They were taken into the farmhouse of Mr. English. When English saw O'Connell he rather snidely asked him, "I beg your pardon, sir! Can I give a drink of water to this man that is inside dying?" He had worried about the war coming too close, and now it was in his living room. O'Connell said that English refused to ever speak to him again for lying to him about the ambush. The wounded men were asked if either were Catholic and one of them was. Father Nolan of Kiltealy had been brought to the English house earlier was brought in to comfort the man, who appeared to be dying.

Two of the RIC constables were captured either unhurt or with minor wounds. One was Samuel Adams and other was either William Doyle or Patrick Foody. Some of the Volunteers claimed they had feigned death and were then discovered to be alive. Now the men of the Mid and East Limerick Volunteer Brigades were faced with a moral dilemma that others would be facing around the island over the next five months. The British had announced that Volunteers captured with arms would be executed, and it was not a bluff, as they had already carried out some under this new policy.

On January 6th representatives of Volunteer units from Cork, Tipperary and East Limerick had met and sent a list of suggestions regarding how to prosecute the war going forward to GHQ in Dublin. Among them was this one: “That G.H.Q. issue a proclamation to effect: In view of the enemy proclamation that our troops will be shot if found armed, the enemy will be similarly dealt with by our troops.” They had gotten no response from Dublin yet, but in the minds of many Volunteers, the execution of Volunteer prisoners by the Crown called for the same in return. As Tom Barry wrote later, “They had gone in the mire to destroy us and our nation and down after them we had to go,” but not everyone agreed. O’Hannigan held drum head Court-Martial with four other officers. The vote was 3-2 for execution.

This was far removed from what they had done in Co. Limerick just a few months earlier. On August 4, 1920 many of these same men has been involved in the Kildorrery Ambush. One Black and Tan was killed during the fighting and six were wounded. The wounded were not harmed and in fact were assisted. The Volunteers had a nurse with them, a woman named Sullivan from Tipperary, and she treated the ones with serious wounds before they departed. That illustrated how much more vicious the war had become.

Now O’Hannigan had the unpleasant task of picking someone to kill the two prisoners. He asked Maurice Meade (left) and Sean Stapleton to do it. Meade had served in WWI with the Royal Irish Regiment, so he had seen more brutal death than the others. He had also been captured and later joined Roger Casement’s “Irish Brigade” in Germany. After the war he was Court-Martialed and sentence to death by the British. He endured some humiliations in England before he was given a “King’s Pardon.” But when he got back to Ireland the RIC arrested him anyhow, and turned him over Royal Irish Regiment. They said they had to “check out” his pardon story, and held him, making him preform menial tasks for them. After several weeks of that degradation, he escaped and joined the East Limerick Volunteers as soon has he got home to Ballinavanna. One can imagine that his experiences during and after the war had left him a hard man who was willing to do whatever it took to end British rule in Ireland. His combat experience and familiarity with British army weapons they captured had also made him a valued member of the brigade.

Meade ended up shooting both the prisoners, because Stapleton simply couldn’t do it. In his witness statement over 25 years later Meade did not embellish the agonizing events. “I took my man down the road and shot him. Then went down to see how Stapleton was getting on, and found that he disliked the job and did not want to do it, so I took this fellow over and executed him also,” he said. Meade also told a story of earlier having shot one other Black & Tan who had his hands over his head, then began shooting again. 

The men who were there that day, even those who felt the actions were justified by British executions of Volunteer prisoners, were not proud of what was done. John MacCarthy of the East Limerick Brigade, who chronicled the ambush in a magazine article in the 1930s and the book “Limerick’s Fighting Story” in the 1940s, made no mention of the executions in either, writing that all eleven had been killed or mortally wounded during the fighting.

When the Bureau of Military History began taking witness statements, however, several of the men who were there admitted two survivors were executed. MacCarthy revised his witness statement, calling the executions “a reply to a similar British proclamation ordering the shooting on the spot of any of our troops captured with arms.”

(Right: a close up the monument commemorating the Dromkeen Ambush.)*

The column then moved quickly out of the area, traveling southwest, toward Bruff. They had with them 13 captured rifles and about 500 rounds of ammo. They were only 12 miles from Limerick and 13 miles from Tipperary, and both had large Crown Forces stationed there who were likely to send a substantial number of troops and RIC shortly, so speed was of the essence. They did not halt until they reached Kilfinane.

When the Crown forces arrived, they found the two wounded constables in the English farmhouse were still alive and attempted to save them, but both died that night. Those two Black & Tans were Arthur Pierce, 24 years, a native of Liverpool, and Harry Smith, 22, who was Scottish. That brought the final total killed to eleven.

Over the next few days the Crown forces made the most of their now British government sanctioned right to punish Irish civilians after any attack. On Friday the Brophy cottage in Coolish was burned, after they removed all the furniture and burned that first, assuring that nothing they owned could be salvaged in addition to losing their home. The home and furniture of the mother of Liam Hayes, who was wounded in the ambush, were burned in Kilteely. The same was done to the homes of the Kennedy and Carroll families in Dromkeen and the Lynch and O’Connell homes in Caherconlish, where they also posted a notice warning people against keeping their hands in their pockets, or being out of their homes after 7 p.m.

It’s hard to understand how the British government could have possibly thought that reprisals like these were a way to win the loyalty of the Irish people. Here in Limerick, as in other places around Ireland, they had the opposite effect. In many ways it was a continuation of the counter-productive policy that led to the execution of the Easter Rising leaders. Coercion had always been the tactic they used to hold Ireland, now it would be the way they lost it.

As would be expected, the Dromkeen Ambush had an immediate positive effect on the morale of the Limerick Volunteers, coming so soon after the disaster at Caherguillamore House. But John MacCarthy said it also improved the morale of the civilian population of County Limerick as well, even as the Crown forces were rampaging around the county, destroying the homes of innocent people. He recalled a story that illustrated that improvement in civilian optimism. Shortly after the ambush, Dick O’Connell of the Mid-Limerick Brigade, was asked by  a local acquaintance  whom MacCarthy described as a “character, "Would you take dominion home rule now, Dick?” Little did either realize that he had posed a question that would soon pit many former comrades against each other and leave scars on the psyche of the people of Ireland that would take decades to heal.

* Both photos of Dromkeen Ambush monument by TWG member Kieron Punch.


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