It was shortly after 5 pm on the hot afternoon of June 1, 1921, in Milltown, County Kerry when the sharp ringing of the phone shattered the still air of the doctor’s office. Thirty-eight-year-old Dr. Daniel Sheehan, whom many of the locals knew fondly as “Dr. Dan,” picked up to the familiar voice of the postmistress, Eileen O’Sullivan, who operated the village phone exchange. “I have William Whinton (left) on the line for you Doctor,” she said.
Whinton was a retired Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Sargeant. In an excited voice, he told Sheehan, “there are wounded policemen on the road” between Castlemain and Milltown. Sheehan, who was a staunch Republican and the medical officer for the local branch of the Irish Volunteers, grabbed his medical bag and jumped into his automobile, picking up Whinton on the way. He knew that among both the constables Whinton was talking about and the Volunteers who had ambushed them, there would likely be men he knew.
About a mile from Milltown on the road to Castlemaine they came upon the scene Whinton had described. Though Sheehan had been the coroner for West Kerry for many years, he had never come on a scene quite like this. On the south side of the road, by an iron gate, they saw one body, with another on the side of the road by a hedge. Whinton was able to identify him as Sergeant James Collery.
Down the road further were more dead and wounded members of the RIC. Also still there was one seriously wounded Volunteer, Jerry Myles. Dr. Sheehan was gazing out upon the aftermath of the Ballymacandy Ambush, one of the last major actions of the Irish War of Independence.
Kerry was one of the less active counties in the west of Ireland during the first part of the War of Independence. Training problems, command problems, and the common problem of lack of arms and ammunition would plague them for months. The site of the Ballymacandy was the area of the 6th Battalion of the 1st Kerry Brigade but was just north of the border of the 2nd Kerry Brigade area. Given that geographical location, their operations were often done in cooperation with men from the 2nd Kerry Brigade.
This would prove problematic, and the commanding officer of the 1st Brigade, Paddy Cahill was not looked on very favorably by those in the Volunteer GHQ in Dublin. He was considered to not be aggressive enough and when the divisions were formed and Liam Lynch was appointed as commanding officer of the Southern Division, he relieved Cahill.
Andy Cooney (right), a representative from G.H.Q assigned to evaluate the situation in Kerry in the spring of 1921 later wrote of the Kerry No.1 Brigade that “no systematic training took place, less than 10% of Volunteers knew how to use a rifle, no efforts were made to developing engineering or first aid, the intelligence service was poor and communications between battalions was poor.”
When Cahill was replaced in the spring of 1921, by the aforementioned Cooney, the Brigade loyalties were split. Many members of the Brigade refused to recognize Cooney and followed Cahill. It was not the optimum way for the rebels in northwest Kerry to operate.
Tom O’Connor and Dan Mulvihill were the leaders of the 6th Battalion that had to deal with the dysfunctional upper leadership of the 1st Brigade. O’Connor was born in Milltown in 1887 and became active in the Irish Volunteers shortly after the 1916 Easter Rising. He was one of the Volunteer leaders that was imprisoned by the British in 1918 under the pretense of the bogus “German Plot.” When he was released he was appointed vice commander of the 6th Battalion and later rose to command of the Battalion.
Dan Mulvihill (left) was born in 1897, on a farm in Brackhill, near Castlemaine. He later credited his mother for his Republican principles. She “knew more about Irish history than anyone I have ever met since,” he would later recall. Their farm served as a safe house throughout the war. Mulvihill said it was a rare night when some Volunteer was not hiding out there. Both of his sisters also joined the Cumann na mBan, the women’s support group of the Volunteers.
Though Mulvihill was eventually “all in” on the War of Independence, he was more of a latecomer to that position than most Volunteer leaders. In 1915, Mulvihill trained to be a wireless and telegraph operator, first in Co. Clare then left the country to study at the Marconi School of Wireless at Chelmsford, outside of London in the UK in 1916. Thus he was there studying when the Rising occurred and remained there for the next two years.
In late 1918, Mulvihill began working as a wireless operator on a steamship. He might have continued that and never participated in the war had he not been forced to return to Kerry to run the family farm when his older brother, Patrick, contracted tuberculosis. The genesis of his participation in the war was his move to Clonakilty, Co. Cork, to study agriculture. There, in the “Rebel” county, the seeds of the Irish history from his mother bloomed into strident republicanism.
The man who turned Mulvihill into that strident Republican was Jim Hurley (right), a Republican leader of the 3rd Cork Brigade and later one of the greatest sports heroes in Cork history. While he was still studying in Clonakilty, Mulvihill joined the Volunteer company in Milltown. By mid-summer 1920, he was back in Milltown for good and shortly “on the run” as well. He advanced in the ranks rapidly and by the end of the year, he was the Battalion Adjutant.
The Batallion did attempt an ambush of the RIC in August, with a plan to roll a wagon downhill onto a road to block it, but it failed to roll all the way into the road and the RIC convoy continued on unscathed. The local Volunteers were active in other ways, however. According to County Kerry RIC inspector the Volunteers “trenched all roads, built up walls across roads, with the intention of making journeys of Crown Forces by motors impossible. They have made it practically impossible to travel in the dark. Journeys of about 20 miles sometimes take between 4 and 5 hours to accomplish.” In the spring, however, the volunteers all over Ireland became more active and that included Co. Kerry.
In late 1920, the Brigade had formed a Flying Column as were most of the Volunteer units around the island. Tom O’Connor and the 6th Battalion then built a wooden shack in the mountains in Keel that would become known as “The Hut.” It would serve as the hideout for the Brigade Flying Column through the end of the war though the British searched for it several times, once coming within 100 yards of it.
(Below: Monument at the site of the Lispole Ambush.)
In mid-March 1921, the Batallion would get involved in the first large-scale ambush at Lispole. Cahill was in charge of the Brigade Flying Column that day and though the original plan may have been good, the execution was not. The biggest advantage the Volunteers had in the war was picking the time and place of attacks. At Lispole, Cahill violated one of the basic tenets of the kind of guerilla war they were fighting by keeping his column in the same place for three days. By the third day, the RIC was informed of the location of the proposed ambush.
As a result, the hunters became the hunted, as the Crown Forces nearly surrounded the column. This mistake cost them the lives of three Volunteers, Thomas Ashe, Tommy Hawley, and Maurice Fitzgerald, but the Volunteers also showed, as other Kerry Volunteers had at Headford the day before, that they could hold their own in a firefight with the Crown Forces. O’Connor and Mulvihill were both members of the Brigade Flying Column and fought at Lispole.
Both were also involved in a very successful operation in Glenbeigh on April 25th. There was a small contingent of British military stationed there and they made the mistake of making fairly regular scheduled trips train trips to Tralee for rations. Once again, being predictable proved the undoing of the Crown Forces. The 6th Battalion was especially interested in capturing one of the Lewis machine guns they were known to travel with.
Calling in Volunteers from around the area, Glencar, Camp, Annascaul, Castlegregory, Dingle, and Inch, and a group from the Flying Column in “The Hut.” In all, they had somewhere close to 30 Volunteers for the operation, expecting to confront perhaps 10 soldiers. By dawn, the Glenbeigh railway station (right) was surrounded. Two Volunteers we sent to the station to the west, Mountain Stage, to delay the train so no train would be there when the soldiers arrived.
The plan worked to perfection, as the 9 soldiers on the platform dropped everything and ran when the ambush was sprung. A few shots were fired, but it was a bloodless victory as they made a great haul of arms and ammunition. They captured 9 Enfield rifles and one of the precious Lewis machine guns with extra loaded magazines along with over 2,000 rounds of Enfield ammunition. They had instantly gone from a poorly armed Flying Column to a well-armed one. The British closed the rail line through Glenbeigh following the ambush.
In May the war continued to intensify all over the island. On May 3rd, the South Mayo Flying Column under Tom Maguire ambushed the RIC at Tourmakeady. On May 4th, the 2nd Kerry Brigade ambush the RIC at Rathmore. On May 14th, the Cork Volunteers killed ten members of the Crown Forces in separate attacks in Innishannon, Midleton, and Cork City. On the 19th, the West Mayo Flying Column under Michael Kilroy ambushed the RIC at Kilmeena. On May 25th, the Volunteers in Dublin attacked and burned the Customs House in Dublin. This last was a disaster for the Republicans in terms of the men captured, but added to all the other increased rebel activity around the island it may have helped start to turn many British politicians against the war.
In the 6th Battalion area, another operation was being contemplated against the Crown Forces in Killorglin. The RIC there made frequent trips to Tralee to collect the unit’s payroll. With the roads in the area being trenched and blocked they were forced to make the trip on bicycles. On May 25th, Mulvihill got word that the bicycle patrol had left Killorglin for Tralee. He immediately sent out word to collect the local units and also to “The Hut” as all the rifles and the machine gun recently captured were there. When no one showed up with the arms from “The Hut,” the operation was canceled.
(Below: The .303 Lee-Enfield rifle, the standard British infantry rifle of the period.)
Following that disappointment, the Battalion leadership decided that if the opportunity arose again, they would go through with the attack with just their shotguns and the two Enfields held by them Around 11 am on June 1st, Mick Galvin told Mulvihill that “the Inspector, Sergeant, and ten men had passed on to Tralee on bicycles,” going through Milltown around 10 am. Though they intended to go through the ambush no matter what, they still sent word to “The Hut” in hopes of getting their assistance.
Paddy Cahill was at “The Hut” and though he would not go himself, whether it being because of his troubles with GHQ, or some said because of him being sick, he permitted any there to go, and all did; putting themselves under the command of Tadhg Brosnan.
Meanwhile, Tom O’Connor (left) and Dan Mulvihill were looking for a good spot to set up the ambush. Ideally, you want a position with good cover, woods or walls, and high ground on one side so you can occupy both sides of the road without shooting into each other. They chose a spot on a straightaway on the main road between Castlemaine and Milltown (the N70 today). They were hoping the fact it was so ill-suited for an ambush would result in the RIC being less alert there.
Volunteer Billy Keane, who lived in Castlemaine, was sent into town to keep watch for the patrol and try to warn the ambush party when they were coming. Mulvihill and O’Connor got their men in position between 2 and 2:30 PM, about the same time the RIC patrol was departing Tralee. Mulvihill and O’Connor were still not sure if help would arrive from “The Hut” as they set their men in position over about 1000 yards along the southern side of the road running from near Clonmore Cottage, a large house on the east, to the cottage of retired London policeman named Shea on the west. Were their two rifles enough? They were prepared to find out.
Suddenly the men from “The Hut” arrived with their vital Enfield rifles, though not the Lewis machine gun that they also hoped for. The morale of the Volunteers immediately went up as several of these riflemen were stationed at each end of the ambush line. The plan was for everyone to hold their fire until the leading RIC men reached the far end of the ambush so that all of them would be within the ambush area.
(Below: Milltown constables with bicycles in 1914.)
All that was left now was the intense pressure that every soldier has felt, anxiously waiting for the “ball to begin.” All eyes were focused down the road, but with heads low, knowing that one movement was seen by the RIC patrol, the ambush would be ruined. As the ambush party sat dripping sweat on what Mulvihill recalled as one of the hottest days he could remember, their targets that day could not have been more relaxed. The twelve constables were sitting in Griffin’s pub in Castlemaine quenching their thirst built up during their trek south from Tralee. As they quaffed their cold beverages, little did they suspect that for some it would be their last.
Just before they departed, around 3:30, young Michael Cronin passed the pub with his horse and cart on his way back to his father’s shop in Milltown. The RIC patrol left shortly after he passed by. While in the pub they had done more than quench a monumental thirst, however, they had also been given some vital intelligence by an informer. That informer may have been Joseph Duckett, who was the station master at the Killorglin railway station. However it came about, as they were leaving the pub, District Inspector Michael McCaughey, commanding the patrol, was aware there might be an ambush somewhere down the road.
(Below: A map of the Ballymacandy Ambush.)
No doubt they had often received similar warnings in the past that proved unwarranted, but to continue back to Killorglin by the same route they took to Tralee earlier would have seemed imprudent at best, if not arrogant. The Volunteers later said McCaughey told his mean he “would not turn off my road for any Shinner.” That they would “shoot it out with any of them and be damned to them.” Worse still, his superiors had recently warned McCaughey that the Volunteers were probably “waiting for a weak convoy or bicycle patrol” to strike in the area. But, as O’Connor and Mulvihill had speculated when they set it up, McCaughey didn’t think the road between Castlemaine and Milltown was a likely spot for an ambush.
Billy Keane arrived back in the ambush area, letting Tom O’Connor that the patrol was probably on its way, though they had stopped on the railroad bridge coming out of Castlemaine having a discussion when he last saw them.
Whatever may have passed between the constables on that brigade, they turned right into the teeth of waiting ambush. McCaughey had them draw their pistols and told them to “be careful” but it was too little, too late. McCaughey had made the worst mistake of his life and his last.
Michael Cronin was now driving his horse and cart toward the ambush position. Behind him, the bicycle patrol was forced to slow down, decreasing the intervals between the six pairs of riders. Volunteer Paddy Paul Fitzgerald (right), who was at the Castlemaine side of the ambush position, managed to get Cronin’s attention and make him aware of what was about to happen without exposing himself to the constables. Cronin immediately urged on his horses and put space between himself and the patrol. The bunched-up bicycle column was now even more vulnerable. The sudden increase in speed of the horse cart in front of them did not seem to alarm them enough for them to stop, and in a few minutes, it was too late.
As they approached the Shea Cottage, Tom O’Connor jumped up and gave the order to “OPEN FIRE!” It was around 4 pm as the stillness of the last spring afternoon was shattered by the explosion of two dozen or more shotguns and Enfields. McCaughey was hit almost immediately. His lifeless body tumbled to the ground. Constable Patrick Bergin, who along with Constable Joseph Cooney was shortly behind, said that McCaughey “fell on his face and I never saw him move afterwards.”
(Below: Sgt. James Collery)
Sgt. Collery attempted to speed up and get past the ambush. Jerry “Unkey” O’Connor, of Boherbee, one of the men from “The Hut,” had a Mills Bomb and lobbed it into the road ahead of Collery. The sergeant was blasted off his bike and lay motionless, his body ripped with shrapnel. He was either dead already or soon to be.
The Volunteers on the Castlemaine side of the ambush, now well behind the last constable of the patrol, moved into the road to cut off any retreat in that direction. Constables John Quirke and John McCormack were also soon down and dying, though McCormack would live another day and a half. The rest of the patrol was now off their bikes and taking cover by the side of the road and starting to return fire. At least one man, Constable William Harvie, soon escaped through the fields to the north of the road. Others would later follow that same escape route.
Several other constables had slipped away and some of the Volunteers began moving in closer. Jerry Myles, one of the Tralee Volunteers from “The Hut,” was confronted by Constable Cooney, who had been concealed in a roadside ditch. Cooney was said to have called out, “I’ll have you, you bastard!” before firing on Myles and seriously wounding him. Cooney then tried to make his escape, as several constables had through the unguarded fields to the north, but was fired on by Bryan O’Brien, from Keel, and Mulvihill and mortally wounded.
That ended the action, which had lasted between a half-hour and 45 minutes. The Volunteers moved in quickly to gather up the spoils of their victory. That included between nine and twelve Enfield rifles, depending on whose account you read, seven Webley pistols, 800 rounds of .303 Enfield rounds, and 100 .45 caliber rounds. They also found some documents on McCaughey about future plans of the RIC and the payroll money of between £100 and £150. In addition, they got 12 brand new bikes, very valuable for messengers negotiating the many trenched roads in the area.
As was usually the case after ambushes during the war, the Volunteers scattered to try to avoid the sweep of Crown Forces that usually moved in. When Dr. Sheehan (right) arrived on the scene there were still a few Volunteers tending to the wounded Myles and he briefly checked on him before he was carried away toward MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. Myles was eventually moved to Glencar, where nurse Nora O’Brien tended to him. As some locals began to arrive on the scene, members of the Cumann Na mBan also began to arrive, including Annie Cronin, whose brother, James, had taken part in the ambush. The ladies tended to Myles and then to the wounded constables.
The locals that arrived included schoolboys Denis Sugrue and his friend Thomas “Totty” O’Sullivan. “For us young lads,” said Sugrue, “it was an eerie atmosphere with the odor of gunpowder polluting the air. There were dead men lying on the road, and the only sign of life was a lone figure of a woman crooning over the strewn bodies.”
Amazingly, there were no reprisals by the Crown Forces in the few cottages in Ballymacandy nor the nearby larger towns of Castlemaine or Milltown. Since the beginning of 1921, the government had officially sanctioned reprisals against civilians in the vicinity of ambushes and they had become nearly universal around the island. Rumor has it that the reason there were no reprisals is that Major Markham Richard Leeson-Marshall (left), Kerry’s former high sheriff and resident of the local Big House, Callinafercy, who had considerable influence with the local RIC, was told that if there were any reprisals, Callinafercy would be burned to the ground. Republican retaliation against large Anglo-Irish homes following official reprisals by Crown Forces had also become common, so Marshall would not have considered it an idle threat. In fact, just two days after the Ballymacandy ambush the British government would rescind the approval of reprisals, pressured by the many Anglo-Irish owners of large estates around the island.
The 6th Battalion had done its part to show the British that Kerry was no longer an area of the island that the Crown could consider to be quiet. Five dead constables was a heavy price in one action that was sure to be noticed in London, and the captured weapons, added to the haul at Glenbeigh in late April, meant the Brigade Flying Column was now very well-armed and dangerous.
Though this ambush is little known to most people in Ireland outside of Kerry or those around the world who take an interest in Irish history, it was another step toward convincing the British government that it was time to enter serious discussions to end the war. About six weeks later the Truce would be signed.
"Ballymacandy: The Story of a Kerry Ambush" by Owen O'Shea
“With the IRA in the Fight for Freedom: 1919 to the Truce” by Gabriel Doherty
“Tans, Terror and Troubles: Kerry's Real Fighting Story 1913-23” by T. Ryle Dwyer
“The IRA in Kerry 1916-1921” by Sinead Joy
Ballymacandy ambush descendants meet to mark centenary of incident
The remarkable story of Annie Cronin of Cumann na mBan (youtube)
The Ballymacandy Ambush- RTÉ Nationwide 30 June 2021
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The Carrowkennedy Ambush, June 2, 1921: Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold
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