Irish Volunteer, athlete and poet Pat Keating (pictured) of Comeragh, according to younger sister Lena, "had a simple and homely manner that endeared him to all ... and was a great favourite wherever he went."
My father, George Lennon, related an incident in which he and Pat
"were walking along a road somewhere in West Waterford. George said to Pat, “Where will we stay tonight?” and Pat pointed to a light in a house upon a hill and said, “We will go there.” They arrived at the house and when they went in the family were saying the rosary. George and Pat knelt down and Pat said the next decade. The people in the house were in no way frightened and made them more than welcome, chatting about farming and other matters of interest. This was just one example of Pat’s friendly approach. (18)
Keating was a lover of all things Irish. He was a member of the Gaelic Athletic Association and represented the County Waterford team. According to Pax Whelan,
I never knew a more diligent footballer. ... I saw him star for Kilrossanty on many occasions ... a forward of outstanding merit, rarely beaten for a ball in the air and with a great aptitude for exploiting the open spaces. He was one of the most prominent players in the Kilrossanty team that won the 1919 Waterford senior football title, defeating Ballymacaw in the final. (19)
He was also a member of Connra na Gaeilge and a full-time organiser and secretary for Sinn Fein. "On the run" as a founding member of the flying column, he was wanted "dead or alive" with a 400-pound reward for his capture, per the police publication Hue and Cry (a.k.a., The Police Gazette). (20)
He felt a personal responsibility for all aspects of the lives of the men of the column and worried about reprisals against his family as a result of his fight for Irish freedom. Pat attended to the men's spiritual needs by arranging with Father Sheehy of Kilrossanty "to regularly hear their confessions at John Power's farmhouse in Coumahon and especially before going into battle". (21)
His humanity also extended to his employers at the Durrow Co-op. As a wanted man, he knew that if the authorities were to learn of his employment, reprisals would have followed and "the store would have been burned to the ground." He, accordingly, resigned from his position. (22)
The Keatings of Comeragh were totally involved in the struggle. Pat's father, Michael (1857-1931) and Uncle John did dispatch work. Sisters Margaret and Marcella took charge of the laundry for many of the men in the column. His mother, Margaret, mended their socks and "looked after the repair of their shoes, taking them to Tom McGrath in Kilmacthomas,” who "carried out all the repairs free of charge, saying that it was his contribution to the cause." Brother Willie participated in the Durrow train ambush, and another brother, Tom (right), was to die as leader of one of the three Waterford columns organised during the Civil War. Some have also mentioned a reputed attraction between younger sister Lena and my father, the young column leader. (23)
Pat was imbued with a revolutionary idealism, which was reflected in his poetry. With thoughts of emigrated Comeragh friends, including John (Sean) Fitzgerald, he penned the following in his poem "Comeragh's Rugged Hills":
It's long years since I bade farewell
For it is my sad fate
Our land oppressed by tyrant laws
I had to emigrate ...
When on my pillow I recline
On a foreign land to rest
The thoughts of my dear native home
Still throbs within my heart
When silence overcomes me
My dreams they seem to fill
Of my dear native happy home
Nigh Comeragh's rugged hills (24)
(Above: The Comeragh Mountains, northeast of Dungarvan)
Less well known than other men with longer active service was Sean Fitzgerald. Lena Keating remembered that ”in his youth he was a very quiet unassuming fellow who was never one to seek the limelight." Like close school friend Pat, he joined the Volunteers but, due to scarcity of work, he was forced to emigrate to England.
Being a good letter writer, Fitzgerald kept in touch with the people of the Deise. He was well aware of how the fight was progressing and "longed to return to give a helping hand." Erroneously informed of Pat's death at the Pickardstown ambush, his response was prophetic:
I was saddened to hear of Pat Keating's death and I'm sorry I was not alongside him. (25)
Relieved to hear, upon returning home, that the rumour was false, he joined Pat in the flying column and took a very active part in the prolonged engagement at Durrow Station and the adjoining Co-op.
Other individual Volunteers of note among the column men that night were Mick and Jim Mansfield, Ned Kirby, Paddy Joe Power, Nipper McCarthy, Mick Shalloe, Kelly Donovan, and returned U.S. Army soldier Jack O’Mara. In overall command was G.H.Q officer George Plunkett, along with Pax Whelan and George Lennon.
If anyone could be said to have an Irish republican pedigree it was Plunkett, a son of George Nobel Plunkett, the Papal Count. He had been in Waterford “a lot,” coming “first in 1917 to help re-organise Sinn Fein.” (26) With his brother Joseph Mary Plunkett, slain during Easter Week, he had fought with distinction in the 1916 Rising and, along with another brother, had been sentenced to death. The home of his parents had been ransacked and they had been jailed in different prisons awaiting deportation.
Plunkett was reckoned by Lennon to be a "thoroughly conscientious man." His humanity was in evidence during the Rising, when he dashed out of the Dublin G.P.O. to go to the assistance of a wounded British officer. A stickler for detail, he was the "personification of military efficiency.” In the words of the Brigade O/C, he “was very punctilious, always insisting that every rank in the company be filled, on paper anyway.” He did not countenance sloppy habits.
As an inspector from G.H.Q. and a believer in military protocol, Plunkett was not one to enquire as to the nature of Lennon’s just-completed trip to confer with fellow commander Liam Lynch at Ballyhooly, County Cork. It was not unusual, however, for there to be suspicion between G.H.Q. officers sent out from Dublin to rural units. Lennon remarked upon
a wearing tension between the two of us and there were times when we circled politely around each other while seething inwardly. (27)
Plunkett' professional appraisal of the Deise Brigade was less than laudatory. He viewed it to be "in a really poor state of organisation" and the flying column "in its present condition ... not fit to go into action for a long time to come." (28)
Pax Whelan (right, many years later), second in command, was a man with deep O’Faolain roots in the Deise. He was born to native Irish speakers in 1893 and his wife-to-be, Cait Fraher, attended Padraig Pearse’s St. Ita’s school. Her brother, Maurice, was the first boarder at St. Enda’s at the Oakley Road locale in Ranelagh. Part of the “element of opposition to Parliamentarianism around Dungarvan,"
Pax was an early member with Lennon, in autumn 1913, of the Volunteers and a member of the physical-force Irish Republican Brotherhood. He was well-acquainted with members of the Dublin G.H.Q. staff and other leaders throughout the country. Included in this group were Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Gearoid O’Sullivan, Harry Boland, Liam Lynch and Cathal Brugha. He noted “particular friend” George Plunkett and “a strong friendship” with Mick Collins. During Easter Week 1916 he and the 15-year-old Lennon had blocked the railroad line just outside Dungarvan in a futile search for “war material.” January 1918 found the two men “remanded to the jail in Waterford” for “taking a rifle from a soldier.” (29)
George Lennon, third in command, was the youngest flying column leader in the War of Independence and, most likely, one of the youngest to serve as Brigade Vice O/C. Born in Dungarvan, he was proud of his Ulster-rooted Crolly ancestors, of a “military caste” once aligned with Owen Roe and later with Niall O'Neill at the Battle of the Boyne. Perhaps of greater significance, in light of his eventual philosophical and religious outlook, were the more numerous family members of a “priestly caste," including Dr. William Crolly, a 19th century archbishop and primate of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.
Prelude to the Ambush
Seeking to keep active the "unfit” A.S.U., Plunkett and the column O/C acceded to a request by “the O/C, Dungarvan Company that the column should afford protection for a party of local I.R.A. men engaged in demolishing "Tarr’s Bridge,” also known as Old Pike Bridge. By doing so, the belief was, it would serve to disrupt communications between the military post at Cloncoskoran and Dungarvan, as the bridge “was in constant use by troops coming east from Fermoy or Cappoquin.” Perhaps more importantly, “its demolition would force the enemy to use bye-roads, thus leaving them open to constant ambushing”. (30)
The column duly left Ballymulalla just north of the Drum Hills and proceeded to Carriglea, Ballymacmaque, and then moved east on the Cappoquin Road to Ballycoe House to rendezvous with the local demolition squad from Abbeyside. The local company was to "provide twelve pick and crowbar men and eight shotgun men for its protecting party. In case of unforeseen trouble, the curate's (Father Tom Power of Kilgobnet) house, two miles back was to be a rendezvous." (31)
While “the demolition operation may not appear to have warranted cover from the column,” Mick Shalloe noted “that those engaged would be open to attack from (1) a British garrison stationed half a mile away to the north-east at Cloncookerine (sic) in the house of Charles Nugent Humble, a pronounced loyalist, (2) the military in Dungarvan ... and (3) the Marines in Ballinacourty coast-guard station, three miles to the east.” (32)
(Pictured, a typical Black and Tan raiding party.)
Earlier that day, members of the A.S.U. had gone to Dungarvan “to have a crack at a military patrol if it was out.” Meeting a group “twelve to fifteen strong,” shots were exchanged and the men, as had previously been arranged, left to take “up positions on the Ballycoe road, adjacent to Tarr’s Bridge.” (33)
After arriving about midnight the Volunteers found the bridge
to be a tougher proposition than we had bargained for and we had no explosives. The working party failed to make any appreciable dent in the solid structure, which must have been over a hundred years old and very solidly built. The headlights of a night raiding party were now observed coming towards us from the direction of the town.... (34)
These vehicles were headed east at about 8 p.m., reportedly to Clonea on the Ballyvoile road to make an arrest of John Murphy. Mick Mansfield noted “two lorry loads of military accompanied by a private car.” Other accounts only mention two vehicles – a car and a Crossley Tender. In the motorcar, to identify the Murphy residence, was Sergeant Hickey. (35)
The Volunteers informed Plunkett that, upon returning, the vehicles could return to Dungarvan by one of two routes once they passed Tarr's Bridge. It was the custom, in such circumstances, for R.I.C. and British forces not to return by the same route.
After a conference among the officers (Plunkett, Whelan, Lennon and Mick Mansfield):
It was decided to attack the British on their return to Dungarvan and to divide the column into two groups. One, under Plunkett, was to cover the Ballycoe road, which leaves the main Waterford road at Tarr’s Bridge. (36)
In this group, near Mrs. Dunlea’s at the crossroads, were Mick Mansfield, Shalloe, O’Mara, Keating “and 8 or 9 others of the column.” Included also was the demolition party, with tools and no arms. The balance of the men, some 10 in number under Lennon, took up positions at The Burgery on the main Waterford-Dungarvan road. (37)
The dogs of war were about to be let loose.
18. Lena Keating, “The Keatings of Comeragh” (unpublished).
19. Pax Whelan, “Pat Keating, Comeragh: A Tribute” (unpublished).
20. Keating, op. cit.
Lennon, Trauma in Time, pp. 67 – 68.
Lennon, Down by the Glen Side, p. 27.
24. Keating, op. cit.
26. Uinseann MacEoin, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 137.
27. Ibid., p. 138.
Lennon, Trauma in Time, pp. 34 ff.
28. Ibid., p. 34.
29. MacEoin, op. cit., pp. 135 - 137.
30. Lennon, Trauma in Time, p.43.
32. Michael Shalloe Witness Statement 1241 (Rathmines: Cathal Brugha
Barracks, 31 August 1955), p. 12.
33. Ibid., pp. 12 – 13.
34. Lennon, Trauma in Time, p. 44.
35. Edmond Keohan, Illustrated History of Dungarvan (Waterford: Waterford
News Limited, 1924), p. 32.
Shalloe, op. cit., p. 13.
Mansfield, op. cit., p.22.
James Prendergast Witness Statement 1655 (Rathmines: Cathal Brugha
Barracks, 24 July 1957), p. 11.
Jack O’Mara Witness Statement 1305 (Rathmines: Cathal Brugha
Barracks, 6 December 1955), p. 22.
36. Mansfield, op. cit., pp. 22 – 23.
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