100 Years Ago: The Piltown Ambush (1 November 1920)

By the summer of 1920, the I.R.A. policy of attacking British administrative and police structures was bearing fruit. In August the  Waterford R.I.C County Inspector noted:  “there is hostility to the police everywhere…I do not regard it as safe for a single police vehicle to travel. We are losing men every day from retirement and resignations and getting practically no recruits…. I see no alternative to evacuating some of the stations that we still hold. At present we run the risk of being weak everywhere and strong nowhere.”

(Right: Seán Riordan)

On 15 August 1920, a second attack was made, under Jim Mansfield,  on the police barracks in Ardmore. Verey Light flares were launched into the sky to secure help for the beleaguered garrison. Accordingly, the British military was sent out from the Youghal Barracks.

Seeking to capitalize on this knowledge, Brigade O/C Pax Whelan, ASU O/C George Lennon, ASU Vice O/C Mick Mansfield, and returned Great War veteran  Sean Riordan then set out to plan what was to be the first large scale attack by the local   Flying Column on British forces in the Deise.   Historian/writer Terry O’Reilly noted Riordan as being of that generation of soldiers nearly wiped out in the Great War. He had fought at the killing fields of  Mons and Ypres before being wounded at  La Bassee. 

Chosen as the ambush site was Piltown Cross, the old name for the village of  Kinsalebeg. According to Riordan this “was the most likely spot … to engage the enemy as he came along the road from Youghal.”  Chosen as the date was 1 November (“All Souls Night”) -  coincidentally the scheduled date (as announced on 28 October) for the hanging of  UCD medical student Kevin Barry in Dublin.

That evening Volunteers Jim Mansfield, Pat Keating, and “Pakeen” Whelan undertook the feint attack on the Ardmore Main Street Barracks. As anticipated, Verey lights were launched skyward.  Leaving the local men to keep the barracks under fire,  the three men cycled back to Piltown arriving circa 11 P.M.  Located in various positions with Lennon, Riordan, Pax Whelan, and Mick Mansfield were Sean Wade, Paddy O’Donnell, Michael Morrissey, Paddy Lynch, Declan Slattery, Ned Kirby, Michael Curran, Willie Walsh, Tom Sheehan, Jim Prendergast,  Jim Lonergan, “Skins” Whelan, “Nipper” McCarthy, George Kiely, Patsy Veale and  Tom Veale.  

Additionally, for the Third Battalion (Ardmore/Old Parish) this was a very large undertaking with at least eleven positions  manned at various outposts  up to a several mile radius of the Piltown intersection

The plan worked well although the military, (2nd Hampshire Regiment) with 2 R.I.C. “guides” (O’Neill and Prendiville)  in a single lorry from Youghal, were not spotted until they were on the bridge crossing the Blackwater. Reaching an uncompleted trench, which failed to stop it, the vehicle was fired upon and the driver killed.   Riordan observed that “the suddenness of the attack seemed to have taken the wind out of their sails. They surrendered without a murmur.” Captured were the two constables and a youthful  British Lieutenant Griffin. The two  R.I.C. were taken

up the road towards Clashmore and informed  that they would be shot unless they gave their word  that they would resign from the R.I.C. Prendergast stated that “as news of Kevin Barry’s execution  had not reached us, we decided not to proceed  with the hanging of the British officer.”

Contrary to the  British reported  single death of the driver  (Private Albert Leigh) the I.R.A listed  two enemy killed and “about a half dozen wounded.” Much needed weaponry - reportedly some eighteen Lee-Enfield rifles, police carbine/ revolvers, the Lieutenant’s revolver plus grenades and ammunition -  were seized and the wounded attended to.

However, the lorry could not be restarted and the Volunteers accordingly procured a horse and dray to enable the soldiers, under Lieutenant Griffin, to take their wounded back to Youghal. This most chivalrous action was taken in the expectation that the enemy, in the future,  would extend the same courtesy to captured Volunteers – i.e., to be treated as military combatants, not civil insurrectionists.

There were repercussions to follow this engagement.  True to his word, Constable  O’Neill  “walked out” of the R.I.C.  but Prendiville continued on in the force and, some weeks later  (3 December) crossing the Youghal Bridge to bring a pension payment to the keeper on the Waterford side of the Blackwater, was fatally wounded along with two other members of the patrol. Reportedly responsible for the shootings were  Clashmore’s Bill Foley along with his brother Bob, Bill Murray, Mick  Healy, and Bill Kiely.

Significantly, the Volunteers were seeming, in the future,  much less reluctant to confront and shoot members of the R.I.C. and Black and Tans.  Late November witnessed the deaths, in separate Cappoquin incidents, of Constables Rea (21 November)  and Quirk (27 November) by Piltown participants (Lennon, Riordan, Mick Mansfield, “Nipper” McCarthy, Ned Kirby, and Pat Keating). 

(Right: Ardmore Author Tommy Mooney at the Piltown Monument.)

Black and Tan deaths included  Duddy at  Scartacrooks on 3 March 1921 and  Sydney Redman who was shot at the Burgery on 19 March along with executed local  “police spy” Sergeant Michael Joseph Hickey.  Constable Denis O’Leary was ambushed cycling to his lodgings in Carribeg on 9 June. Early July saw the death, near Tallow, of Constable Francis Creedon.

However, captured British military foes were generally viewed in a different light than the native informants of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Released at the Burgery Ambush (18-19 March 1921) was Captain Thomas, O/C of the Buffs Regiment. This was done at the instigation of G.H.Q’s  Seorise Plunkett who was the ranking officer at the ambush and viewed by Pax Whelan as being “most humane.”

Sadly, the release of Thomas was to have fatal repercussions when, just days prior to the 11 July Truce, land mines, likely installed by Thomas’ men from Dungarvan Castle, resulted in the deaths of six men, including Volunteer Johnny Quinn, and the wounding of several others. These Kilgobinet deaths were the last to occur in the Deise during the War of Independence.

Ivan Lennon, son of Irish Volunteer George Lennon, is a retired history teacher living in Rochester, N.Y. He was born during the “ The Emergency” years, at  Dublin’s famed Rotunda Hospital, a stone’s throw from the G.P.O. where the Irish Republic was proclaimed during Easter Week 1916. Ivan is the author of a family history of the Shanahan and Lennon sides of his family. “Ulster to the Déise: Lennon's in Time” includes material on the War of Independence in County Waterford.

RELATED LINKS:

"Rebel Heart: George Lennon: Flying Column Commander" by Terence O'Reilly (Book)

"Waterford: The Irish Revolution, 1912-23" by Pat McCarthy (Book)

"Cry of the Curlew: A history of the West Waterford, Déise Brigade IRA during the Irish War of Independence" by Tommy Mooney and Paul McLoughlin (book)

George Lennon from TG-4: part 1 - 3 parts (Parts 2 and 3 will load automatically)

Commemoration, the Piltown Ambush and Ireland 2016

The Cross of Old Piltown (song video) Martin ó Domhnaill singing "The Cross of Old Piltown," written by Pat Keating, at the unveiling a monument in memory of the Piltown Cross Ambush in 1920.

Ó Chogadh go Síocháin: Saol George Lennon (Video)

George Lennon - Wikipedia

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Tags: George Lennon, Irish Freedom Struggle, Irish War of Independence, Military History, Piltown

Comment by Ivan Lennon on October 24, 2020 at 9:29pm

 Thanks to Joe for his assistance. 7 more articles  on tap re  Waterford at the appropriate centenary dates.

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