The Clonfin Ambush is carried out by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on February 2, 1921, during the Irish War of Independence. It takes place in the townland of Clonfin between Ballinalee and Granard in County Longford. The IRA ambushes two lorries carrying members of the British Auxiliary Division, sparking a lengthy gun battle in which four Auxiliaries are killed and eight wounded. The Auxiliaries eventually surrender and their weapons are seized. The IRA commander, Seán Mac Eoin, wins some praise for helping the wounded Auxiliaries. Following the ambush, British forces burn a number of houses and farms in the area, and shoot dead an elderly farmer.
The IRA’s North Longford Flying Column, twenty-one strong and led by Seán Mac Eoin, is formed in late 1920. In that year they kill four Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) constables. In November, a company of the Auxiliary Division – a paramilitary police force made up of ex-military officers – has been stationed in the county to put down the local IRA, and are reinforced in January 1921. Whereas previously the IRA had tried to operate in relatively large numbers, often attacking police barracks, from this point forward, their GHQ in Dublin orders smaller but more frequent attacks to be made.
The ambush site, on the road between Granard and Ballinalee, is well chosen. Mac Eoin selects a position where the ambushers have excellent cover and are barely visible to the British. The plan is to explode a mine as the lorries pass. The British assessment is that, “the ambush was most cleverly laid.”
The IRA detonates the roadside improvised explosive device (IED) as two British lorries are passing a bridge, killing the driver of the first lorry instantly. The IRA unit then opens fire on the lorries, triggering a fire-fight lasting two hours. One of the Auxiliaries gets away and manages to summon reinforcements.
During the fighting, four members of the IRA party work their way around the flank of the Auxiliaries, killing their commander, Lt. Commander Francis Craven. After his death, the remaining policemen surrender. A total of four Auxiliaries are killed and eight wounded.
MacEoin’s treatment of his prisoners is humane. He congratulates them on the fight they had put up and prevents his fighters from assaulting the Auxiliaries. He also has water brought from nearby houses for the British wounded. When he is later captured by the British, three Auxiliaries testify at his court–martial to his generous treatment of them at Clonfin. Mac Eoin’s humane treatment reportedly delays the IRA’s getaway and they are almost caught by 14 lorries of British reinforcements as they escape across Clonfin Wood. The IRA had captured 18 rifles, 20 revolvers ammunition, a Lewis gun and 800 rounds of ammunition.
In the aftermath of the ambush, British forces raid the nearby towns of Killoe, Ballinamuck, Drumlish, Ballinalee, Edgeworthstown, Granard and Ardagh. A number of houses and farms are burned. They shoot dead an elderly farmer, Michael Farrell, in reprisal for the ambush.
The IRA flying column lays low after the ambush and does not attempt any more attacks until the end of the month. MacEoin, the Longford IRA leader, is captured at Mullingar railway station in early March and charged with the murder of RIC DI MGrath. He is released in July under the terms of the Truce which ends hostilities. In his absence, the Longford IRA are not able to sustain the intensity of their campaign.
A stone monument is erected at the site of the ambush in 1971 to mark the 50th anniversary of the event. The IRA combatants are MacEoin (Ballinalee), Sean Duffy (Ballinalee), James J. Brady (Ballinamuck), Tom Brady (Cartronmarkey), Paddy Callaghan (Clonbroney), Seamus Conway (Clonbroney), Pat Cooke (Tubber), Seamus Farrelly (Purth), Paddy Finnegan (Molly), Larry Geraghty (Ballymore), Mick Gormley (Killoe), Hugh Hourican (Clonbroney), Jack Hughes (Scrabby), Mick Kenny (Clonbroney), Paddy Lynch (Colmcille), John McDowell (Clonbroney), Jack Moore (Streete), Mick Mulligan (Willsbrook), Michael F. Reynolds (Killoe), Sean Sexton (Ballinalee) and Jim Sheeran (Killoe).
(Pictured: The stone monument located at Clonfin, near the village of Ballinalee, County Longford, marking the site of the ambush. Erected in 1971 to mark the 50th anniversary of the event, the limestone monument features strong military, anti-British language and symbolism.)