The Headford Ambush: Time Runs Out in Kerry

Now rise up DJ Allman, arise and tell me true
Who fought at Headford Station that day along with you?
Who stood out on that platform board, who fired that signal gun?
Who fought to free old Ireland with you my darling son?
-- From “The Ballad of DJ Allman"

Irish Volunteers Dan Allman, Jim Coffey and Dan Healy of the Kerry No. 2 (South) Brigade flying column could hear each other breathing heavily as they huddled inside the windowless lavatory on the platform at the railway station in Headford, County Kerry. It was Monday, March 21, 1921, and outside they could hear the train from Kenmare arriving. It had been scheduled to arrive at 3:15 PM, but it was nearly 15 minutes early.

(Left: Kerry No. 2 Brigade flying column C/O Dan Allman.)

The plan was to ambush a group of soldiers from the 1st Royal Fusiliers as they changed trains in Headford railway junction on their way back to Tralee. The 32 men of the column had to scatter as the train was unexpectedly seen coming around the right hand turn into the station. Allman, the C/O of the column, and the other two had been forced to take cover in the lavatory, which was the only building on the platform.

As Allman and his two comrades warily watched the door, they heard the passengers disembarking from the train. They waited, expecting to hear a British officer calling out orders to enlisted men, but heard nothing other than the hum of conversation and the clicking foot-steps of the departing passengers moving by. “Were they not on the train,” Allman whispered to Healy and Coffey?

Coffey began to open the door a crack to check what was happening. As he did it swung open and an enlisted man of the Fusiliers stepped in. He looked Coffey in the eye, not noticing his rifle, “Hello Paddy,“ he said, as Coffey tried to grab the soldier’s rifle away from him. Suddenly realizing the danger, the startled soldier tried to lift his rifle to fire, but he was too slow. Allman raised his Webley pistol and fired nearly point blank into the soldier’s chest. As the mortally wounded soldier blew backwards onto the platform from the impact of the bullet and the sound of the shot reverberated in the air, the shocked passengers and soldiers on the stopped to look at the fallen, bleeding soldier.

(Below: The lavatory on the Kenmare platform.)

Time stood still for a moment, one more shot was heard, then suddenly there was a thunderous explosion of sound as the guns of most of the other 29 Irish Volunteers opened fire. The Headford Ambush, the biggest battle of the Irish War of Independence in Kerry, had begun.

Just a few months earlier, such a large ambush in Co. Kerry would have been totally unexpected. In Dublin, as 1920 ended, the GHQ considered Kerry to be one of the counties that was not taking the fight to the enemy as vigorously as possible. Early in the independence movement, the county had appeared to be one of the leaders in the fight. They had one of the earliest attacks on an RIC barracks in Gortatlea in April 1918, an attack that pre-dated the Soloheadbeg Ambush, which is generally considered to have begun the war.

(Left: A British military train with mounted Vickers machine gun.)

That first attack at Gortatlea was led by Tom McEllistrim, from Ballymacelligott, who would be 2nd in command at Headford. McEllistrim had joined the Volunteers in Tralee in 1915, sworn in by Austin Stack. He hid Robert Monteith, who arrived in Kerry in the boat with Roger Casement, in his house for 4 days just before the Easter Rising. Following the Easter Rising, he was one of the Kerry Volunteers that was rounded up and arrested. He and a few others from Kerry had been interned in the famous Frongoch POW camp in Wales with Michael Collins and the other famous Easter Rising men.

(Below: Frongoch POW camp in Wales.)

Through 1920, while there had been some attacks on RIC barracks in Kerry, the first being once again at Gortatlea, this time burning it, then at Scartaglin, Brosna and Rathmore, the Volunteers in Kerry had not managed to organize any large-scale attacks on the Crown forces while they were moving around the county. Tom Barry, who complained often that other counties were not doing enough to help relieve British pressure on the Volunteers in Cork, would later say that all the Volunteers in Kerry did during the war was to shoot one decent police inspector at the Listowel races. That was a tremendous exaggeration but gives an indication how poor the fighting reputation of the county became at one point.

As 1920 went on though, things changed in Kerry, as they did in many parts of Ireland, with the arrival of first the Black & Tans and then the Auxiliaries to bolster the Royal Irish Constabulary. Their treatment of people around the county, and harsh reprisals against civilians, had the opposite effect they hoped for, increasing support for the Republican cause. And their increased raids and round ups around the county forced many known Volunteers to go “on the run,” providing the manpower for a flying column.

(Left: A squad of Auxiliaries being inspected.)

Still, as 1921 began, the Crown forces believed their reprisals had worked and they had the Volunteers in Kerry under control. The Kerry County Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary said in his monthly report in January that the Volunteers would never, “regain the hold they had on the popular imagination” and the police could now travel wherever they wanted in the county.

(Below: Kate Kearney’s in the Gap of Dunloe.)

In January GHQ in Dublin sent Andy Cooney to help reorganize the No. 2 Brigade and get a flying column organized. Cooney, from Nenagh, County Tipperary, had been a medical student at University College Dublin when the war began. He joined the 3rd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade, finishing his studies after the war and becoming a doctor. He was among those in “The Squad” who killed eleven British agents in Dublin on “Bloody Sunday” in November, 1920. Cooney cleaned house in the brigade command, appointing Humphrey “Free” Murphy of Castleisland the new C/O and John Joe Rice of Kenmare the new 2nd in command.

Cooney helped get enough rifles to organize the first Kerry No. 2 flying column. He got about 25 members from the various companies around the 2nd Brigade area to come to the beautiful Gap of Dunloe to train them. To make sure they kept their minds on the task at hand, he banned them from visiting Kate Kearney’s, north of the gap, which many tourists still visit today.

They were trained in the use of rifle, revolver and bombs by Sean Flynn, a British army veteran, and in making mines and on the laying of road mines by Alexander Mason, Brigade Engineer. Flynn would also fight at Headford. Cooney appointed Dan Allman, of Rockfield, the O/C of the newly trained flying column, with Tom McEllistrim to be 2nd in command, though McEllistrim later claimed they were put in co-command. By early March the column was ready for action.

(Left: Sean Moylan)

Their first action came on March 5th, in cooperation with the Cork No. 2 (North) Brigade. A Volunteer intelligence officer, John Keogh, was a porter at the International Hotel in Killarney. There he learned that the British general Hanway Cummins was doing an inspection of troops around Kerry. The guess was that he would be returning to Mallow on Saturday using what is N-72 today. Cummins was particularly hated for having begun the practice of having Irish hostages travel with British convoys.

Tom McEllistrim took 20 men from the Kerry No. 2 flying column and joined up with about 80 Volunteers from Cork No. 2 under Sean Moylan, who commanded the ambush. McEllistrim and his men performed well in this famous ambush at Clonbanin, Co. Cork. There were about 40 soldiers of the East Lancashire Regiment protecting the convoy. General Cummins was killed, along with 12 other soldiers and 15 were wounded.

(Right: General Cummins)

Were it not for the armored car that was with convoy, they might have over whelmed the remaining soldiers and made a huge haul of guns and ammo. Still, in killing a general they had inflicted a stunning and dispiriting defeat on the British and suffered no one killed or wounded themselves. It was an auspicious beginning and excellent combat experience for the Kerry No.2 Brigade flying column. They would shortly put their experience to work back home in Kerry.

When McEllistrim and his men got back to Kerry the entire flying column was put together again. Around St. Patrick’s Day they attempted to lure the Black & Tans or Auxiliaries into an ambush near Farranfore with a feigned attack on the RIC barracks there, but they didn’t take the bait. On the morning of March 21st, they were near Gortdarrig, about 4 miles east of Headford when they got word from one of their spies, Con Moynihan, that 30 British soldiers of the 1st Royal Fusiliers had traveled by rail from Tralee to Kenmore that morning.

They were expected to return on the afternoon train that got to Headford junction station at 3:15 PM, where they would have to transfer to the train coming in on the other line from Mallow at 4 PM. Time was very short, but Allman and McEllistrim talked it over and immediately got the column on the move. They divided the column into four sections. No. 1 Section was under Jack Cronin of Rathmore; No. 2 Section under Denis Sullivan of Rathmore; No. 3 Section under James Coffey of Beaufort; and No. 4 Section under Sean Flynn, of Bonane.

(Left: Jack Cronin of Rathmore)

They only had about an hour and half to make a forced march to get to the station and set up the ambush. They got there in time, actually stopping for a a time just short of the station to have about 25 minutes to set up if the train was on time, which seemed like enough time. Though the lack of time to set up the ambush would prove critical in denying them a total victory, how early to set up an ambush was always a hard thing to determine. And because this ambush would be in much more public place than a road ambush, being there too soon would have posed an even greater danger of the British being warned.

When they arrived, they saw several wagons and a van that would block lines of sight to the platform and several Volunteers were put to work moving them. Meanwhile, McEllistrim placed Moss Carmody in the signal station at the west end of the Mallow-Tralee platform. His job was to make sure no one changed the signals to halt the Kenmore train. Around the time McEllistrim got back near the station master’s house on the Kenmare side, the Volunteers were startled by the sound of the train arriving about 12 minutes early.

Now most of the Volunteers, other than Section No. 1, which had been placed on the embankment on the Killarney platform side, had to scatter to get out of sight like cockroaches when a light switch is thrown. McEllistrim and 4 others ran into the station master’s house. Six Volunteers who were going to cover the south side of the track realized they would be easily seen there if they stayed close to the tracks and sprinted for a fence 30 yards back down a slope. It put them out of sight for the moment, but also left them with no line of sight to the train. Six Volunteers ran behind the east end of the Kenmare platform, which dropped off at the end to give them cover. And finally, Allman and his two companions dashed to the lavatory (WC, for “water closet,” on the map below).

There were many pig and cattle buyers on the train, returning from the Kenmare Fair. The plan had been to wait until all the civilians had departed and soldiers had crossed over the elevated walkway to the Killarney platform waiting for the train from Mallow. They would have been surrounded with no cover and surely would have all been killed, wounded or captured and all their guns and ammo captured. Because of their slim supplies of both, that was usually a bigger goal of Volunteer ambushes than killing the enemy.

But the old military adage that, “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” would be proven once again. Had there not been one enlisted man of the 1st Royal Fusiliers who either had a weak bladder or perhaps drained his canteen faster than his comrades, the story of the Headford ambush might have been much different.

And so the battle began with some civilians still on the platform and a few in the train. Just after Allman’s shot, as everyone on the platform froze in shock, Johnny O’Connor of Farmersbridge fired from near the signal station, dropping another soldier near the lavatory and then everyone on the northern embankment and to the east of the platform opened fire.

(Right: Johnny O’Connor of Farmersbridge.)

Hasty as the set up to the ambush had been, the Volunteers on the embankment on the northern side of the tracks and to the east side of the Kenmare platform still had the British soldiers in a deadly crossfire, but a small number of civilians were also caught in the killing zone. Pandemonium reined on the platform as soldiers and civilians alike ran for cover, with some of the soldiers firing wildly as they moved.

Several Volunteers remembered a young mother dressed in white, holding the hands of two small children on the platform. Her screams filled the air between the cracks of the rifle shots from both side as she managed to run across the platform unscathed, leaping over the bodies of the first two soldiers who were hit. Other civilians were less fortunate, however.

John Breen of Killarney was hit and killed in the station waiting room, probably by a British round. Michael Cagney of Balllyfane was mortally wounded on the platform and Patrick O’Donoghue of Killarney while still inside the train. Timothy McCarthy of Loo Bridge and his young daughter were both wounded in the legs.

One of the British victims of that first Volunteer volley was the commanding officer of the detachment, Lt. Cecil Adams. The WWI veteran was hit in the chest as he standing in the doorway of the carriage. With him gone, a sergeant took command and tried leading a group of soldiers toward the east side of the platform, but there waiting for them were the barking rifles of the 6 Volunteers posted there. Most of the soldiers, including the sergeant, were killed and rest dropped wounded. Sometime during those opening volleys or shortly afterwards, the Volunteers suffered their first casualty when Jim Baily of Ballymacelligott, who was on the northern embankment, exposed himself trying to throw a Mills bomb and took a round through the head.

The British were being overwhelmed and routed, but most of them were WWI veterans who had been under fire before and reacted by looking for some kind of cover. They found it by slipping off the exposed platform and under the train. The platform they left behind was littered with British dead and wounded.

(Left: A bullet holed railway carriage from an ambush near Killarney in July 1921.)

The soldiers had one possible ace-in-the-hole in the skirmish: a Vickers machine gun in an open carriage behind the engine. McEllistrim recalled that three times British soldiers tried to man it, and each time the Volunteers on the north side embankment, who could fire down on it, killed them or drove them off.

After ten minutes or so the firing died down. The platform shielded the soldiers under the train from the Volunteers on the northern embankment. The Volunteers there and in the station master’s house tried killing or disabling them with Mills bombs, but they had too much cover from the wheels of the carriages. For a time, the fight devolved into sniping. Allman had made his way off the Kenmore platform and around to the east end.

Allman told Johnny O’Connor, “we have them now,” thinking they could get behind the van at the end of the Kenmare rails and fire down the length of the train and kill or dislodge the remaining soldiers. He knew the Mallow train was arriving soon, and he wanted those guns and ammo, especially the Vickers. That may have made him more reckless. He, O’Connor and Jim Coffey made it safely behind the van. But when Coffey tried to get into position to fire, he was wounded in the elbow while barely exposed. Coffey, who was a WWI veteran, warned Allman that a skilled marksman probably had them covered but he exposed himself to take a shot.

It was a fatal mistake. Allman suddenly slumped back onto the ground with a bullet wound in the chest. "I got that, lads; I'm done,” he said as he fell down on to his elbow and rolled on to his back. His last words were “water,” pointing to a small vial of holy water in his chest pocket. O’Connor sprinkled it over Allman as blood began to gush from his mouth. Coffey had been right about the skilled marksman. Allman was shot by Lance Corporal Daunt, who had been a sniper during WWI. He was also, ironically, the only Irish born soldier who was on the train that day. He was promoted to sergeant for his service at Headford.

(Right: Tom McEllistrim)

Coffey rushed to the station house to let McEllistrim know Allman was dying. McEllistrim had already called on the soldiers several times to surrender. He tried again, but once again the reply was, “NEVER!” As he contemplated rushing the British, which would have certainly resulted in heavy casualties, the train from Mallow arrived and stopped a few hundred yards from the station. A few of the Volunteers took it under fire as another squad of 1st Royal Fusiliers soldiers began to deploy off the train. “We had eight rounds per man left,” Johnny O’Connor recalled later. McEllistrim had no choice but to order a retreat. He and O’Connor were in the last group off the field along with Peter Browne and Jackie Brosnan of Castelisland.

(Below: Members of the Kerry No. 2 Brigade. Johnny O'Connor kneeling at left and Tom McEllistrim standing on right.)

The British reinforcements got to the station in time to take many of the retreating Volunteers under fire. McEllistrim and O’Connor split off together, having to cross an open bog with bullets buzzing past their heads and into the ground around them. It was a near thing, but the column safely retired south from Headford and the British didn’t pursue them. They went through Glenflesk and finally halted at Mangerton Mountain south of Muckross.

It was a victory, but a bittersweet one. They had lost two men, including their commander, and had missed out on a huge stockpile of guns and ammo that had nearly been in their grasp, but they had put the Crown forces on notice that Kerry was far from a pacified county. 

For the British Headford was a demoralizing defeat in a county where they had recently said that the Volunteers would never, “regain the hold they had on the popular imagination.” And that was reinforced the following day, when the Kerry No. 1 Brigade was involved in an ambush at Lispole, on the Dingle peninsula. The roadways of Kerry were no longer a safe space for Crown forces. Hardly a day had gone by in the month of March without some sort of attack by the Volunteers in some part of the island. The world was taking notice and the British government was starting to feel the pressure. 

As was so often the case in these ambushes during the war, British casualties at Headford are uncertain. They acknowledged 7 dead on the field and 2 dying later and at least 12 wounded. But the Volunteers who were there believed the British dead were at least 20 or more. O’Connor later told Ernie O’Malley that, "twelve coffins left Killarney later and that wasn't all.”

(Below: Caskets of British victims of the Headford ambush being loaded onto a train in Killarney.)

GHQ in Dublin was hardly less surprised at this turn of events in Kerry than the British. Andy Cooney said that, “I had considerable difficulty in convincing the Chief of Staff ( Richard Mulcahy) that it was this (South Kerry) flying column and not a Cork one’ which had carried out the ambush.” Later in March G.H.Q. recognized Kerry stepping up their efforts when they declared that "all of Munster could be considered The War Zone and properly speaking this embraces the counties of Kerry, Limerick, Cork and Tipperary."

(Right: Andy Cooney)

Once he was convinced they had done it, Mulcahy sent this message to the No.2 Brigade: “I want you to convey especially to all the men who were engaged in this fight our very great appreciation of the soldierly spirit in which this very fine piece of work was carried through and to convey to the officers and men of the brigade as a whole our congratulations that the fighting material in the brigade promised to be so very fine.”

Tom McEllistrim and Johnny O’Connor would both survived the war, and also the Civil War that followed fighting for the Republican side. Johnny O’Connor would be elected a TD in 1954 but would tragically die in a car accident near Castleisland a year later. McEllistrim was elected a TD right after the Civil War. and held office from 1923 to 1969. He died in 1973. His son and his grandson, both also named Thomas, have also both represented the Kerry North constituency.

And still the din of battle rings, my column lads are true,
I leave their fate and guiding now, to Tommy Mac and you,
I bid you ne'er to mourn the fate, or pause at Allman's name
'Till you have helped to raise the cry, "A Nation Once Again."

-- From "How Allman Fell" by Paddy Breen of Beaufort


The Tureengarriffe Ambush: Cork & Kerry Strike a Blow

“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 Men Will Talk to Me: Kerry Interviews” by Ernie O'Malley

“Kerry's Fighting Story 1916-21: Told by the Men Who Made It”

“The IRA in Kerry 1916-1921” by Sinead Joy

Tom McEllistrim (1894–1973) (video)

Headford ambush by Derry Healy (song video)

A flask of Holy water (song video)

The 1st. Battalion Royal Fusiliers

The War of Independence in Kerry

An Irishman's Diary: Tom McEllistrim

Andrew Cooney (Wikipedia)

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Views: 6278

Tags: County Kerry, Dan Allman, Headford ambush, IRA, Irish Volunteers, Irish War of Independence, Kerry No. 2 Brigade, Tom McEllistrim, flying column

Comment by Joe Gannon on March 14, 2018 at 12:25am

Irish Volunteer participants in the Headford Ambush

Dan Allman (C/O - KIA) of Rockfield; Tom McEllistrim (Vice C/O), Jack Cronin, Jack Herilhy, Moss Carmody, James Baily (KIA), Moss Galvin and Jack Burke all of Ballymacelligott; Johnny O’Connor of Farmersbridge; Tom Fleming of Currow; Peter Browne, Jack Shanahan, Denis Prendeville, Dave McCarthy, and John Brosnan all of Castleisland; Michael O’Leary of Farranfore; Tom O’Connor of Scarteen; Dan O’Sullivan of Morleys Bridge; Sean Flynn of Bonane; Paddy Lynch of Kenmare; Pat O’Shea of Laugath; James Coffey of Beaufort; Dan Healy, Tim O’Mara, Tim O’Donoghue and Neilus MacCarthy all of Killarney; John Lenihan, Peter O’Sullivan, Denis O’Sullivan and Denis Cronin all of Rathmore; Giles Cooper of Droum; and Con Cahill of Gortdarrig.

Comment by Joe Gannon on March 14, 2018 at 12:29pm

Comment by Joe Gannon on March 14, 2018 at 12:37pm

Irish war ballad about the ambush at Headford railway junction in Kerry on March 21, 1921 by Derry Healy.

Comment by Joe Gannon on March 14, 2018 at 2:10pm

Comment by Joe Gannon on March 14, 2018 at 7:26pm


I'm dying, said a warrior bold, for my dear native land,
I'm dying, gallant comrade, let me grasp your hero-hand,
This day at Headford Junction, you've proved yourself to be
A model of the faithful band, in the fight for liberty

A flask of Holy Water, in my pocket you will find,
The only thing I brought from home, when I left all behind,
Sprinkle o'er my body, then my spirit shall be free,
And tell them all how Allman fell, in the fight for liberty

The long sought hour has come at last, I dreamt of o'er and o'er
I knew that fate ordained that I should share my country's gore
Your rights, Dark Rosaleen, I loved, your wrongs I vowed they'd rue
I face the Throne of Mercy now, my duty's done to you

Across that fence Jim Baily lies, but 'ere the twilight's fall,
At Heaven's gate we both shall wait, the dread Tribunal's call,
"The greater love that no man hath," shall be the angel's plea,
They stood to save their fellow-man, they died their land to free.

Adn still the din of battle rings, my column lads are true,
I leave their fate and guiding now, to Tommy Mac and you,
I bid you ne'er to mourn the fate, or pause at Allman's name,
'Till you have helped to raise the cry, A Nation Once Again.

-- by Paddy Breen of Beaufort

Comment by The Wild Geese on March 21, 2018 at 12:41pm

Headlines from a New York Times story about the Clonbanin Ambush.


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