The Kilmeena Ambush, May 19, 1921: Seeds of Victory in a Defeat

In the early part of the Irish War of Independence there had not been any major ambushes of Crown forces in County Mayo, unlike several other counties, notably County Cork. However, in May 1921, the Irish Volunteers began to escalate their attacks there. First, on May 3rd, Tom Maguire and the South Mayo IRA flying column, along with some members of the East Mayo flying column, ambushed a British convoy at Tourmakeady. And then on the 19th the West Mayo flying column under Michael Kilroy attacked a Black and Tan convoy at Kilmeena, on the road between Westport and Newport (N-59 today). The Kilmeena Ambush, as is the case with several other actions in that war, is remembered as much today for what the Crown forces did in the aftermath of the fight as for what happened during the fight.

Above, the West Mayo Flying Column, with Michael Kilroy standing on the left.

Thirty-six-year-old Michael Kilroy (left) was a blacksmith in the town of Newport. In February 1914 he was one of the founders of the Volunteer company in Newport. Tom Derrig was the commander of the West Mayo Brigade when the War of Independence began, but after he was arrested in January 1921 Kilroy assumed command. Kilroy was said to be “puritanical and ascetic,” and he was determined to lead the group into heavier action. Kilroy organized a flying column of 40 to 50 men to accomplish his plan, but his first attempt to lay an ambush went appallingly wrong, albeit by sheer bad luck.

They were attempting to set up an ambush on the Westport-to-Castlebar road on May 6th, when a British patrol that was searching the area for Michael Saunton, a republican judge, came upon a group attempting to set up a blocking force on a side road in Islandeady. Taken by surprise, the group had two men killed and two others captured, and the ambush had to be called off. The Volunteers also had one more man killed while making their escape from the area.

It was a disaster for the flying column, but Kilroy was not about to give up. And the truth was that Michael Collins and the people at the Dublin GHQ wanted attacks all over the island, because even failed attacks in the type of guerrilla war the vastly outnumbered Irish Volunteers were fighting served the purpose of keeping the pressure on the Crown forces. Politically, as well, widespread resistance to British rule kept pressure on the British government to find a solution. And so, in Mayo and across the island, the Volunteers continued to receive pressure from Dublin to launch as many attacks as possible.

Two weeks later Kilroy and his flying column were ready to try again, this time on the road between Westport and Newport. On the 18th, Kilroy had his men launch small attacks on the British in both Westport and Newport to draw them out of the protection of their fortified barracks. They managed to kill one RIC sergeant in Newport. This occurred near Kilroy’s home, and the Black and Tans burned it down the following morning.

The view the Black and Tans had approaching Knocknabola Bridge from the south.

The next day, Kilroy set up an ambush in Kilmeena at Knocknabola Bridge on the main Westport-Newport road at 3 a.m. with a flying column of 41 men, hoping the British would send help from one town to the other. But additional Volunteers from Newport and Westport, who had many of the group's rifles, never arrived. Only 22 men of the flying column had rifles. Three had pistols and 16 were armed with shotguns, whose restricted range rendered them useless except at very close quarters. So the flying column’s firepower at anything other than a short-range fight was far less than their total strength. In addition to that, only Kilroy and one other member of the flying column had ever been under fire.

They had been in place for several hours, with Kilroy contemplating withdrawing, when word came that two Crossley tenders (left) and a Ford car were approaching from Westport. However the first truck managed to by-pass the ambush and the other two vehicles stopped well short of the main ambush position and unloaded. There may have been as many as 50 RIC and Black and Tans, probably more than Kilroy expected to confront. They also had a Lewis (machine) gun, along with a large number of rifles, and a supply of rifle grenades that they used during the battle. The Volunteer force was totally outgunned.

Kilroy and his men were quickly put on the defensive. Some later hinted that several may have run, which would not be unusual for men under fire for the first time. The Volunteers were able to hold their own for about two hours, but the Crown forces managed to find cover in the house of the parish priest, Father Conroy, and launched a counterattack from there. The continuous rattle of the Lewis gun may have been especially unnerving for the inexperienced members of the column. One of the lessons Kilroy learned that day was to have his men concentrate their fire on the man with the Lewis gun if one was present. In addition to that, the Black and Tans from the first Crossley tender had stopped, and they were working their way back into the fight, flanking the Volunteers on their right.

Any time the Volunteers engaged the Crown forces they always had to worry about how long they were engaged, fearing enemy reinforcements reaching the action because of their advantage of motorized transport. Fearing that, and having little prospect of overwhelming his foe, and a real possibility of being surrounded themselves, Kilroy ordered a retreat. He had already had four men killed: Seamus Mc Evilly, Thomas O'Donnell, Patrick Staunton and Sean Collins. Four others were badly wounded and captured, including Paddy Jordan of the Castlebar battalion, who died ten days later at Bricens Hospital in Dublin. Kilroy succeeded in getting three other wounded men off the field, and the rest of the column was able to exit the area unscathed. One other Volunteer, Jim Brown, of Kilmeena, was fatally wounded three days later when a portion of the column was nearly captured during more fighting around Skerdagh. One RIC constable and one Black and Tan died of wounds in the fight.

If Kilroy’s plan and execution of the ambush had been poor, his performance in keeping the column from being destroyed in the aftermath was much better. And, as Tom Barry had once said of IRA flying columns, a commander's first goal at all times was to keep his force intact and able to carry on, even more so than attempting to inflict casualties on the Crown forces. For as long as they continued to exist in the field, presenting armed resistance to the British, they were winning. The British tried very hard to surround and capture the flying column, but they failed. Still, with their limited manpower, Kilroy and his flying column could not afford to lose 10 percent or more casualties in every fight. 

Kilroy recalled hearing the Black and Tans cheering as he retreated from the ambush, but when they got back to Westport their “celebration” of their victory took a decidedly vindictive turn. The dead and wounded Volunteers were tossed into the road in front of their barracks. Locals who attempted to come to the aid of the wounded were driven off by the Tans.

So horrendous was their conduct that when word of it got back to George Browne, of Westport House, the Marquess of Sligo, he was incensed, perhaps as much at their stupidity as their inhumanity. Browne, the leading citizen of the town and a unionist, went to the barracks and severely reprimanded the forces there for their barbaric conduct. At that point, they brought the wounded and dead into the barracks, but it was yet another example of how the merciless conduct of the Black and Tans all over the island rallied the vast majority of the Irish population against British rule.

Right, the monument commemorating the battle at Kilmeena.

Surely, Kilroy and his men had to be demoralized by the defeat and the hardships of being on the run in its aftermath, but the dauntless Kilroy refused to be cowed. He kept the column together in the field, avoiding several columns of enemy forces sent out to find and destroy them. The men of the Irish Volunteers were for the most part amateurs at warfare, with a few exceptions like World War 1 veteran Tom Barry, while most of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries were combat veterans, many having been NCOs or officers. But many of the Volunteers were quick studies, and Kilroy was one of them. He applied what he learned in his next action.

Exactly two weeks after the defeat at Kilmeena, Kilroy and his flying column would get their revenge in an ambush at Carrowkennedy, south of Westport, killing eight Crown forces and capturing 16 more without a single loss among the Volunteers. They captured numerous firearms, not the least of which was a British Lewis gun.

Michael Kilroy, standing left, with Captain Willie Malone and J.A. Madden. The reclining soldier is most likely posed with the Lewis gun captured at Carrowkennedy. The photo was probably taken during the Civil War as they all are in uniform and the Thompson submachine gun seen on the right didn't appear in Ireland until late in the Irish War of Independence.

All over Ireland the pressure on the British had been intensifying for several months, and Kilroy and his West Mayo Volunteers had done their part. With the resistance spreading and no apparent way to control it, the British were forced to reconsider resistance to the republican movement in Ireland. Barely a month after Carrowkennedy, the British would agree to initiate negotiations and the truce would begin. 

Kilroy fought on the republican side during the Civil War and was severely wounded and captured near the end of it, but survived. He was elected to the Dáil in 1923 as a Sinn Fein candidate, but didn't take his seat as they were refusing to take the oath then. He was elected for Fianna Fáil in South Mayo in June 1927 and served as the TD for South Mayo until 1937. When he died in 1962 President de Valera attended his funeral. which was said to be one of the largest ever in Newport.

Read about the Carrowkennedy ambush here: The Carrowkennedy Ambush, June 2, 1921: Revenge is a Dish Best Serv...


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Tags: Black and Tans, Irish Freedom Struggle, Irish Volunteers, Kilmeena, ambushes

Comment by philip kelly on May 22, 2016 at 4:10pm

Comment by philip kelly on May 22, 2016 at 4:14pm

today I attend the annual memorial service for these brave soldiers of Ireland at the old cemetery kilmeena Co Mayo  the service was attended by the descendent of those who died and those who survived  a humbling experience 

Comment by Joe Gannon on May 22, 2016 at 9:11pm

Thank's, for sharing that, Philip. Looks like a very moving event. And just an FYI for anyone looking at the photo, if you click on it you can get a version big enough to read a lot of the stuff on the markers.

Comment by Kevin Martin on May 21, 2017 at 2:43pm

 Great article.

Comment by Joe Gannon on May 21, 2017 at 3:33pm

Thanks, Kevin. I just posted an article on the following battle in Carrowkennedy that I mentioned in the Kilmeena article,  that would probably interest you. 

The Carrowkennedy Ambush, June 2, 1921: Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold.


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