Two miles east of Strokestown on Spy Wednesday at the dawn
These Gallant men assembled 'neath the crest of ol' Sliabh Bawn
T'was called the Scramogue Ambush where Captain Peek was shot
But Ashbrook was the venue, right well I know that spot
They conquered their oppressors and filled their hearts with fear
They were from Roscommon South Battalion, the Kilgefin Volunteers
-- from “The Kilgefin Volunteers” by Maggie Cuffe of Clooncagh, Strokestown
Capt. Roger Grenville Peek, commander of the company of the 9th Queens Royal Lancers stationed at Strokestown House demesne in County Roscommon, looked at his watch, saw it was nearly 7 a.m., and sighed impatiently. Peek was in command of 100 soldiers of the 9th Lancers, 50 of the East York Regiment, and also had command of about 60 Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) constables in a police barracks there.
This morning, Wednesday, March 23, 1921, two (or possibly three), young RIC constables had to be transported to Longford for court-martial, one for robbing a store in Ruskey, the other for breaking the stained glass windows of Elphin Church. Peek had originally assigned Capt. Jack Colvin to command the convoy of two Crossley Tenders, then decided to command it himself. Colvin would be forever grateful he was relieved of that duty. Now Peek gave an irritated look down the road, as the RIC lorry was late for their planned 7 a.m. departure.
(Below: Strokestown House)
Peek got on the phone to the RIC and was told they were having trouble getting their lorry started. Leaving in just one lorry would be reckless, and might not have been done in many parts of the island, where Volunteer ambushes were escalating. In Roscommon, however, though there had been several attacks on RIC barracks, there had been few major ambushes. Peek, who had recently threatened to burn every house within five miles if one of his men were killed, may have arrogantly believed his threat had made ambushes even less likely. The Volunteers had recently intercepted a letter to his wife in which he had claimed that “all the Shinners of any note [in Roscommon] had been picked up or left the area.”
(Below: Capt. Roger Grenville Peek)
So Peek, with four of his enlisted men, one sergeant and his intelligence officer, Lt. John Tennant, along with the two prisoner constables in custody, decided to leave without the reinforcement of the RIC lorry. As they were pulling out, the RIC lorry arrived, but as they got onto the main road to Longford, now the N-5 road, the RIC lorry began to sputter and slow. Again, Peek recklessly decided not to slow down and keep the two lorries close together. His vehicle pulled far ahead of the RIC lorry.
Ahead he could see a sharp left-hand turn just short of the town of Scramogue. He saw a pony and trap not far ahead of them and noticed it was moving quite quickly, as the driver whipped the pony energetically. It seemed odd and might have served to warn him something was amiss. It would be his last chance to avoid a meeting with those men he claimed had “left the area.” The men of the North and South Roscommon brigades were dug in behind that corner and lurking in a farmhouse and barn to the right of it, watching him approach. That would be Peek’s last mistake on this day, or perhaps his next to last. All hell was about to break loose in what we now know as the Scramogue Ambush.
The North and South Roscommon Brigades of the Irish Volunteers, like many of the brigades around the island, were very restricted in the early part of the Irish War of Independence by a severe lack of modern arms. Still, Roscommon was prominent in the early history of the struggle for two incidents.
The first, in February 1917, was known as the “Election of the Snows,” for the inclement weather during the parliamentary election for North Roscommon. It was a special election brought about by the death of James J. O’Kelly of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), who has held the seat for 23 of the previous 26 years. The IPP had nominated Thomas Devine for the seat and he was the favorite, but the political winds of change were blowing.
Also running as an independent was Count (it was a Papal title) George Nobel Plunkett. He was the father of Easter Rising martyr Joseph Plunkett and had two other sons in prison for their parts in the Rising. Thus, though he wasn’t officially the candidate of Sinn Fein yet, he was clearly the favorite of radical Republicans.
Sinn Féin at that point was not running candidates, but as the campaign went on Plunkett became their de facto candidate. The Irish Volunteers and Na Fianna Éireann, the Irish Republican youth group, threw their support behind Plunkett and worked tirelessly around the region.
When Plunkett won, getting nearly twice as many votes as Devine, his victory sent shock waves across the island and all the way to the halls of Westminister. A report from Dublin Castle said, “... the principal features of the election is that many persons, including a number of priests, who had not hitherto shown Sinn Féin sympathies, identified themselves on this occasion with the Sinn Féiners.” Plunkett began the tradition of Republican MPs abstaining from taking their seat in Parliament.
By the time another seat opened up in East Clare in July, when Willie Redmond was killed on the Western Front, Sinn Féin recognized the political opportunity in front of them. Sinn Féin put up Éamon de Valera for the open seat, and he easily defeated the IPP candidate, Patrick Lynch, getting 71 percent of the vote. There was no longer any doubt that Sinn Féin was now a political power and support for an Irish Republic was ascendant. The people of Roscommon had been the first to show it.
(Below: Rockingham House)
The second significant early incident in Roscommon was one of the first arms raids on a manor house in Ireland. Early Volunteer training had often been done by men carrying hurley sticks rather than rifles, which were scarce everywhere. There were basically three ways for the Volunteers to obtain arms. Some small number were given or sold to them by Irishmen in the British army; later in the conflict they came from raids on RIC barracks or ambushes on RIC or military convoys or personnel on country roads and city streets; and a large early source was from the manor houses of the Irish gentry, who often had large numbers of shotguns and rifles used for hunting.
One of the earliest such raids was on Rockingham House, near Boyle, on February 19, 1918. This raid was run by the Irish Republicans Brotherhood (IRB), not the Volunteer units. Alec McCabe, who would later be a TD from Sligo, led the raid. The owner of the house, Sir Thomas Stafford-King, and his family were away at the time.
They quickly gathered up the butler and the rest of the staff and the operation went off without a hitch. They captured 2 or 3 rifles and perhaps as many as 10 or more shotguns, plus several thousand rounds of ammunition. It would have been a nice start at arming the Roscommon Volunteer units, but McCabe loaded them all into a car and the Roscommon men never laid eyes on them again. The Roscommon Volunteers would continue to be plagued by a lack of weapons.
(Below: The .303 Lee-Enfield rifle, the standard British infantry rifle at the time of the War or Independence.)
The British raided extensively around the area in the aftermath, arresting James Haran, Patrick Delahunty, James Turbitt, and James E. Feely of Boyle, all of whom had taken part in the raid, along with George Plunkett, son of Count Plunkett, who hadn’t but was in the area organizing for the IRB. All were released for lack of evidence except for Haran and Feely, whom the butler at first said he recognized. At the trial, however, this memory “faded” and they were also released.
Another unique incident of the war occurred in September 1920. During the spring and summer of 1920, the RIC was abandoning barracks in small towns all over the island because the Volunteers were making their defense untenable. Very soon after they were abandoned and their constables consolidated in barracks in larger towns or cities. The barracks were usually burned by the local Volunteers to deny the RIC the ability to ever re-occupy them. Often it was done within hours of them being abandoned.
(Below: Drombane RIC barracks, in County Tipperary, one of many destroyed in 1920.)
One of the greatest pieces of intelligence in the kind of guerrilla war being fought in Ireland at the time was knowing where your enemy might be and when. The Volunteers had the advantage of being able to gather information about when and where the RIC and army would travel and surprise them. The Volunteers rapid arrival to burn abandoned RIC barracks gave the Crown forces the ability to know where the Volunteers were going to be and when. Luckily for the Republican cause, the British did not take advantage of this at all through the spring and early summer. The first to do so were the RIC and 9th Lancers in Roscommon.
When the RIC barracks at Loughglynn, north of Castlerea, was abandoned in August, the British attempted to spring a trap on the Volunteers who showed up to burn it. The lorries carrying the soldiers and constables traveled a short distance and turned around and headed back. The Volunteers had scouts watching the roads, however, and they got word back in time for them to escape the area.
Perhaps that made the Volunteers too complacent. On September 14th, the barracks at Ballinlough was abandoned. Men from the 1st (Castlerea) Battalion of the South Roscommon Brigade, under commandant Pat Glynn, moved in to burn it. The British revised their plan this time, however, dropping off the soldiers and constables shortly out of town while the lorries continued on their way. They made their way through the Cashleive Woods back to Ballinlough. The scouts watching the roads saw nothing.
(Right: A childhood photo of Pat Glynn.)
It was a disaster for the 1st Battalion. The building was on fire by the time the British reached the edge of the woods near the barracks. A number of the Volunteers were easy targets, silhouetted by the fire. Glynn was up a ladder getting ready to bore a hole in the roof when he was shot down. Out in front of the building, Lieutenant Michael Glavey of Clooncan and Volunteer Michael Keane of the Ballinlough Company were hit and killed. It was fortunate for the Volunteers all over the island that the British had not come up with this sort of plan earlier in the war.
Shortly after that disaster, Sean Connolly, vice commander of the Longford Brigade, was sent by GHQ in Dublin to help the North Roscommon Brigade. Michael Collins was anxious to put the Volunteer brigades in every county to work ambushing RIC and military convoys to take the pressure off the areas in the southwest like counties Cork, Kerry, and Tipperary, where martial law would be declared in December.
(Below: Seán Connolly)
Though Connolly mainly worked with the men of north Roscommon, his time there also brought him into contact with the man who would bring the war to the British in south Roscommon with a vengeance in late 1920 and early 1921. Patrick Madden, who was from Ballagh, had been in the Volunteers since their start in Roscommon. He was also sworn in as a member of the IRB and was its leader in south Roscommon. He, like so many of the Volunteer leaders, spent time in British prisons for the crime of illegal drilling.
By 1920, Madden was the commandant of the 3rd Battalion of the South Roscommon Brigade. The battalion was made up of companies from Kilgefin, company commander Luke Duffy; Kilteevan Company, company commander Jack Brennan; Kilbride, company commander John Joseph Doorley; Athleague, company commander John Kelly; and Cloontuskert, company commander John Connor.
Luke Duffy, of Clooncagh, Strokestown, later recalled that Madden educated himself on military drills with books, then trained the company and later battalion from what he learned. This lack of practical military experience was a problem with all Volunteer units. Though many were suspicious of men who had served in the British army, Madden recruited several of them to help alleviate this problem. Most of them had been in the Irish Guards, and all proved to be valuable additions.
On October 12, 1920 (some sources say the 24th), Madden and his 3rd Battalion struck a heavy blow against the Crown forces in an ambush at Four Mile House. The ambush was on what is the N-61 road today, running north out of Roscommon town. The Crown Forces were using this main route from Roscommon to Boyle regularly, seemingly dismissing the threat of ambush that such predictability entailed in a guerrilla war.
(Right: Map of the Four Mile House ambush - click on image for a larger view.)
This would be the first major ambush by the Volunteers in Roscommon. The ambush was set up at a point where the road curves near St. Brigid’s Church. The position had raised banks on both sides, making it a perfect ambush position.
The Battalion was still “rifle-poor,” mustering just eight for this ambush with most of the other 40 or so Volunteers armed with shotguns or pistols. They had no specific time they were expecting the enemy and, unfortunately, they showed up at 8:30 a.m., traveling north. The preparations for barricading the road were incomplete. If Madden let them pass without firing, he would not know if they may have spotted them on the way by, making their position untenable. Madden ordered his men to open fire.
(Below: Pat Madden)
The volley of weapons from fairly short-range had a devastating effect. There were eight constables in the lorry, and two were killed and two others seriously wounded. Amazingly, since the driver was the one person who ambushing groups always tried to hit first, Constable Joyce, who was driving, was unharmed and pressed on the accelerator to escape.
The ambush had been a failure in so far as all such ambushes were designed to capture the desperately need arms and ammunition carried by soldiers and constables. But it sent a shock wave through the Crown forces in Roscommon and was another step toward the “all Ireland” sort of offensive that Collins and GHQ in Dublin were seeking.
After the ambush at Four Mile House, Madden’s 3rd Battalion had so many members “on the run” that they formed a “flying column.” It was a process that was going on all over the island and one that would pose immense problems for the Crown forces. Before he left Roscommon to help the Volunteers in County Leitrim organize their flying column, Seán Connolly had discussions with Madden about ways to utilize the 3rd Battalion flying column. One of the possibilities they discussed was ambushing Crown Forces near Scramogue on the Strokestown-Longford Road; a road that they utilized frequently. Connolly would be killed in Leitrim on March 11th at Selton Hill.
After word of Connolly’s death arrived, Madden and the leader of the 3rd Battalion of the North Roscommon Brigade, Seán Leavy, got together and planned the ambush at Scramougue at Leavy’s house, which was near the ambush position. The spot they had scouted with Connolly was at a severe left-hand turn, where any lorries using the road would have to slow down.
(Below: Map of the Scragmogue ambush - click on image for a larger view.)
There was a house and barn south of the turn that could be used as firing positions, and they panned to dig a trench behind a hedge where the road turned. They had the Slieve Bawn Mountains to the rear, offering them a secure escape route. Wednesday, March 23rd was set as the date for the ambush. Someone mentioned to Leavy that it was very likely all the nearby homes, including his own, would be burned after the ambush. Leavy said he didn’t give a damn. Such was the dedication of these Irish revolutionaries.
Connolly, who became very popular among the North and South Roscommon Volunteers during his time there, had been killed at Selton Hill as the result of an informer betraying the group to the British. The date picked for the ambush was Spy Wednesday on the Christian calendar, the date when Christ was betrayed by Judas. That was probably just a coincidence, but a few of the Volunteers noted it later. Connolly had promised to return and help them plan and execute the ambush. Now they would do it in his name.
The problem of the continued scarcity of modern arms was solved by borrowing some rifles from the Ballinaheglish Company and some from County Longford. In the end, they had 13 rifles. Of those only 11 were the desired Lee–Enfields. They also had one Winchester and one sporting rifle, 20 shotguns, some in bad shape, and two or three Webley revolvers. By the standards of many other counties, it was not much, but it was still the largest collection of arms that the Volunteers had assembled in Roscommon during the war.
(Left: A Webley pistol.)
There were 39 Volunteers involved in the ambush but only 14 directly involved in firing positions with the rest being in place to protect their line of retreat. The men at the ambush site included Volunteers from Kilgefin, Four Mile House, Kilglass, and Strokesdown. There were also dozens of Volunteers involved in cutting roads in the area to help stop any Crown forces coming toward the ambush area. Volunteers from Kiltrustan were blocking roads and also cut the telegraph lines out of the area.
The Volunteers arrived in their position around 3 a.m. Many ate hearty breakfasts prepared by ladies of the Cumann na mBan, who supported the Volunteers so well all over the island. There was much work to be done in preparation. A trench was dug behind the hedge to the east of the sharp turn. Spaces were cut in it to give men there a clear field of fire. The families were evacuated in the immediate area. The farmhouse near the turn was loopholed, and an escape hole was broken out in the back wall of the barn. Two excellent riflemen, John Gibbons and Peter 'Buzzer' Farrell, both of whom had served in the Irish Guards during the World War, were placed there and told to target the driver.
(Right: Peter "Buzzer" Farrell many years after the war.)
Patrick Mullooly, who would be captured after the ambush, later remarked that Madden laid out the plan to each man and, “He did this very efficiently and the result was that when the thing did take place the whole thing went like clockwork and there was no confusion.”
When the work was done, some of the lads went to Seán Leavy’s nearby house for tea and a wee bit to eat. One even played a few songs on the piano there to ease the tension while they waited for the tea to boil. They had barely finished their tea shortly before 7 a.m. when one of the Volunteers burst in to tell them, “the sound of lorry engines coming from Strokestown!” The ambush position was only a few thousand yards from the manor house. They could hear lorries starting up, but the 9th Lancers there would also hear the firing of the ambush.
As they got back to their ambush positions, they could see the first lorry moving down the straightaway towards them and then saw Pat Madden frantically screaming at a man in a pony trap some ways ahead of the lorry to go “faster … faster man!!” The men in the trench peered over the top, through the hedge, wondering if the lorry would be warned off and turn around, but on it came, ever closer. Then the pony and trap pulled into a sideroad, and still, the lorry continued on.
(Below: A British military lorry carrying soldiers and two RIC constables.)
As the lorry came up nearly even with the farmhouse, the shrieking sound of Madden’s whistle startled men in the lorry and put the Volunteers into action. The still morning air was shattered by the crack of the Enfields and boom of the shotguns. The lorry staggered then drifted into the wall on the left of the road. The range was so close that both the rifles and the shotguns were extremely effective. The driver, John Keenan of the Royal Army Service Corps, slumped over the wheel, soon to be dead. There was a Hotchkiss machine gun mounted on top of the lorry. The gunner, Corporal Hogbin, jumped up and got off one short volley then dropped to the floor, hit by numerous bullets.
Lieutenant Tennant, sitting in the cab with Captain Peek had his abdomen ripped open, probably by a slug from a shotgun as he exited the lorry. He would die later that day. Peek was also wounded and, though there were various stories from the Volunteers, tried to stagger back toward Strokestown, perhaps hoping to meet the RIC lorry. That was his final mistake. A letter home by Captain Peek that the Volunteers had intercepted some time before the ambush had contained his will. Now the Volunteers would make it executable, as one of the riflemen put a bullet through the back of his head.
The RIC lorry was stopped several hundred yards down the road. Rather than dismount and engage the Volunteers, they rapidly turned around and sped back to Strokestown. Had they attacked and held the Volunteers in position while reinforcements were deployed from Strokestown, they could have put the Volunteers in a very precarious position. This retreat put a strain on RIC / military relations in the area.
There was no decisive action from the Lancers either. Perhaps if Peek had allowed Colvin or Tennant to command the convoy, he would have rallied his men in Strokestown and quickly confronted the Volunteers, but luckily for them, he was not there. The Volunteers had suffered no losses in the action. They later spread rumors around the area that the RIC had known about the ambush beforehand to increase the tension between them. Some thought the RIC behavior so strange that perhaps they actually were aware of the plan.
(Right: Badge of the 9th Lancers.)
Madden called for the remaining soldiers, all of whom were wounded, to surrender and they did. They found one soldier under the lorry complaining that “me effin leg is broken.” Amazingly, the two prisoners, constables James Evans, 22, and Robert Buchanan, 21, were unharmed. They portrayed themselves as civilian prisoners at first. It was not until some time later, as they retreated, that it was discovered that they were RIC constables. Given that the wounded soldiers were left alive at the ambush site, the constables might have been left unharmed as well if they had immediately admitted who they were. One other constable, Edward Leslie, was wounded badly and later died. It’s never been clarified, but it seems likely he was also being transported for court-martial. Or perhaps he had transferred from the RIC lorry when it arrived for some reason.
The Volunteers quickly gathered up the soldiers' arms, which amounted to five Enfields, some Mills bombs, two revolvers, over 200 rounds of .303 (Enfield) ammo, and most significantly a Hotchkiss light machine gun and more than 700 rounds of ammunition for it. None of them knew how to operate it, however, not even the former British soldiers in their ranks. Still, it was such a prize that Madden gave the North Roscommon men all the Enfields in return for keeping the Hotchkiss gun.
Gas was sprinkled over the lorry as they got ready to burn it. As they were preparing to light it, Luke Duffy realized that Corporal Hogbin was still lying in the bed of the lorry and jumped up to carry him to safety. Though he was hit perhaps as many as seven times, Hogbin would survive. The fate of the two RIC constables would be different, however.
The British had recently begun executing Irish prisoners under their martial law “rules.” Six had been executed in County Cork on February 28th. GHQ in Dublin had authorized the execution of British prisoners in retaliation, but not all Volunteer units were complying with that directive, and, indeed, the wounded soldiers at the ambush site, who were effectively "prisoners" at that point, were not harmed.
When it was realized the two prisoners were Black & Tans, Madden, Seán Leavy, and the other Volunteer leaders discussed what to do with the constables. Moving along with the column for some time, they had heard names and other information and had time to memorize faces. The British were saying they would now execute anyone caught attacking their forces, or even with a weapon, and these two constables were able to identify all of them. The leaders were known and mostly “on the run” already, but not some of the other Volunteers. The decision was made to execute the constables. Buchanan was given to the North Roscommon group and Evans to the South Roscommon group, and both were executed when they got out of the area.
(Left: Seán Leavy)
Most of the Volunteers were out of the area before the Crown forces moved in and then spread out in all directions. Pat Mullooly and Brian Nagle, both from the North Roscommon Brigade, went into a pub on their way north, but as they came out an RIC lorry came upon them suddenly and they were captured. Both were beaten severely, but two months later Mullooly escaped. One of the South Roscommon men, Dick “Cushy” Hughes, a former British soldier, was picked up as he went to pick up his pension check.
The next day, Michael Mullooly (brother of Pat) was shot dead in his home by the RIC. So one could say Mullooly was the only Volunteers casualty from the ambush. Volunteer William Mullaney, who was a prisoner at Strokestown, recalled that he and several other prisoners there were severely beaten with clubs and rifle butts by soldiers over the next few days. The reprisals against civilians in the area were less severe than usual, luckily for local residents. Seán Leavy's house survived.
The first few months of 1921 would find more and more major ambushes in areas outside of Cork, Kerry, Limerick, and Tipperary, where martial law had been declared in December 1920. On January 1st, Volunteers ambushed an RIC patrol in Ballybay, County Monaghan, killing one officer and wounding others. On January 12th, Volunteers ambushed a British troop train carrying 150 soldiers at Barnesmore Gap, County Donegal, wounding a number of them. On January 20th in Clare, Volunteers ambushed an RIC lorry at Glenwood, killing six. On February 1st, the North Longford IRA attacked two lorries of Auxiliaries at the Clonfin Ambush, killing five. On March 4th, the South Leitrim Brigade ambushed an RIC convoy, at the Sheemore ambush, killing a captain in the Bedfordshire Regiment. On March 18th, the West Waterford Volunteers ambushed an RIC convoy at the Burgury.
(Right: War of Independence Commemorative Military Memorial at Shankill Cross near Elphon, County Roscommon.)
And then on March 23rd, the Volunteers in Roscommon added the ambush at Scramogue to that growing list. At Dublin Castle, the pins in the map for actions by local Volunteers were suddenly blossoming around the island. The military and the RIC were planning ways to counter the flying columns and some of them would, in truth, prove successful in the next few months, but in the halls of Westminister, more and more MPs were beginning to feel that only negotiations could end a war that was becoming an embarrassment to their nation. When those sentiments resulted in the ceasefire in July, the Volunteers of Roscommon could say they had stepped up and played their part.
Years and years have passed and gone, good and great men too,
But the memory of those Volunteers remains forever true.
Through all those years of woe and tears they bravely took this stand --
They fought against the Saxon foe to free our native land
They proudly fought and nobly died, oh they knew not any fears.
They were from Roscommon South Battalion, the Kilgefin Volunteers.
-- from “The Kigefin Volunteers” by Maggie Cuffe of Clooncagh, Strokestown
Easily the most valuable reference book I had in writing this article was Kathleen Hegarty Thorne's amazing accumulation of information and photos on the war in Roscommon that is linked below. I only wish someone would do the same for the other counties of Ireland, but few would undertake such a time-consuming task. Kathleen was inspired to do this after discovering one of her great-uncles was a member of the Roscommon Volunteers during a trip there in 1992. She then embarked on collecting the incredible research that you will find in this book. It's clearly a labor of love on her part. She has covered not just the major events and well-known participants, but the minor ones as well. She has a chronology of the war in Roscommon and an amazing alphabetical listing of hundreds of Roscommon Volunteers, many with biographical notes and some with photos. She has produced a wonderful tribute to her great-uncle and the other men and women of Roscommon who helped to "Put the Flag a-Flyin'."
"They Put The Flag a-Flyin: The Roscommon Volunteers 1916 - 1923" by Kathleen Hegarty Thorne
"For Ireland and Freedom" by Micheál O 'Callaghan
“With the IRA in the Fight for Freedom: 1919 to the Truce” by Gabriel Doherty
"Raids and Rallies" by Ernie O'Malley
“Who's Who in the Irish War of Independence and Civil War: 1619-1923” by Padraic O’Farrell
“Rising Out: Sean Connolly of Longford” by Ernie O'Malley
‘The Election of the Snows’: The North Roscommon by Election
The West’s awake!–Revolution in Roscommon 1916-1921 (podcast)
Michael Mullooly - shot 24 Mar 1921 at his farm near Strokestown
More on the Irish War of Independence
The Forgotten Ten: