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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Clonfin Ambush

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 courtmartial 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.)


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IRA Commander Seán Mac Eoin Captured at Mullingar

Seán Mac Eoin, Irish Republican Army (IRA) North Longford commander, is captured at Mullingar on March 1, 1921 and charged with the murder of a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) detective, dealing a severe blow to the IRA in that area.

Mac Eoin is born John Joseph McKeon on September 30, 1893 at Bunlahy, Granard, County Longford, the eldest son of Andrew McKeon and Catherine Treacy. After a national school education, he trains as a blacksmith at his father’s forge and, on his father’s death in February 1913, he takes over the running of the forge and the maintenance of the McKeon family. He moves to Kilinshley in the Ballinalee district of County Longford to set up a new forge.

Having joined the United Irish League in 1908, Mac Eoin’s Irish nationalist activities begin in earnest in 1913, when he joins the Clonbroney Company of the Irish Volunteers. Late that year he is sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and joins the Granard circle of the organization.

Mac Eoin comes to prominence in the Irish War of Independence as leader of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) flying column. In November 1920, he leads the Longford brigade in attacking Crown forces in Granard during one of the periodic government reprisals, forcing them to retreat to their barracks. On October 31, Inspector Philip St. John Howlett Kelleher of the RIC is shot dead in the Greville Arms Hotel in Granard. Members of the British Auxiliary Division set fire to parts of the town. The following day, Mac Eoin holds the village of Ballinalee situated on the Longford Road between Longford and Granard. They stand against superior British forces, forcing them to retreat and abandon their ammunition. In a separate attack on November 8, he leads his men against the RIC at Ballinalee. One constable is killed and two others are wounded.

On the afternoon of January 7, 1921, a joint RIC and British Army patrol consisting of ten policemen appears on Anne Martin’s street. According to Mac Eoin’s own testimony at his trial he is in the house in partial uniform, wearing Sam Browne belt and revolver with two Mills No. 4 bombs in his pocket. Owing to some females being in the house, he has to get out as to not endanger them. He steps out on the street and opens fire with his revolver. The leading file falls and the second file brings their rifles to the ready. He then throws a bomb, after which he sees that the entire force has cleared away, save the officer who was dead or dying on the street.

On February 2, 1921, the Longford IRA ambushes a force of the Auxiliaries on the road at Clonfin, using a mine it had planted. Two lorries are involved, the first blown up, and the second strafed by rapid rifle fire. Four auxiliaries and a driver are killed and eight wounded. The IRA volunteers capture 18 rifles, 20 revolvers and a Lewis gun. At the Clonfin Ambush, Mac Eoin orders his men to care for the wounded British, at the expense of captured weaponry, earning him both praise and criticism. He is admired by many within the IRA for leading practically the only effective column in the midlands.

Mac Eoin is captured at Mullingar railway station on March 1, 1921, imprisoned and sentenced to death for the murder of an RIC district inspector in the shooting at Anne Martin’s street in January 1921.

In June 1921, Henry Wilson, the British Chief of the General Staff (CIGS), is petitioned for clemency by Mac Eoin’s mother, his brother Jemmy, and the local Church of Ireland vicar, but passes on the appeals out of respect for the latter two individuals. Three auxiliaries had already given character references on his behalf after he had treated them chivalrously at the Clonfin Ambush in February 1921. However, Nevil Macready, British Commander-in-Chief, Ireland, confirms the death sentence describing Mac Eoin as “nothing more than a murderer.”

While imprisoned Mac Eoin is elected to Dáil Éireann at the 1921 Irish general election, as a TD for Longford–Westmeath. He is eventually released from prison, along with all other members of the Dáil, after Michael Collins threatens to break off treaty negotiations with the British government unless they are freed.

Mac Eoin joins the National Army and is appointed GOC Western Command in June 1922. His military career soars after the Irish Civil War. He is appointed GOC Curragh Training Camp in August 1925, Quartermaster General in March 1927, and Chief of Staff in February 1929.

Mac Eoin resigns from the Army in 1929, and is elected at a by-election to Dáil Éireann for the Leitrim–Sligo constituency, representing Cumann na nGaedheal. At the 1932 Irish general election, he returns to the constituency of Longford–Westmeath, and continues to serve the Longford area as TD until he is defeated at the 1965 Irish general election.

During a long political career Mac Eoin serves as Minister for Justice (February 1948 – March 1951) and Minister for Defence (March–June 1951) in the First Inter-Party Government, and again as Minister for Defence (June 1954 – March 1957) in the Second Inter-Party Government. He unsuccessfully stands twice as candidate for the office of President of Ireland, against Seán T. O’Kelly in 1945 and Éamon de Valera in 1959.

Mac Eoin retires from public life after the 1965 general election and dies in Dublin on July 7, 1973.


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The Carrowkennedy Ambush

carrowkennedy-ambushThe Carrowkennedy Ambush is carried out at Carrowkennedy, near Westport, County Mayo, by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) West Mayo Flying Column on June 2, 1921, during the Irish War of Independence.

The ambush is organized by Major General Michael Kilroy, later Commandant of the 4th Western Battalion of the IRA. He and his flying column of volunteers take up position between Widow Sammon’s House and that of Widow McGreal in Carrowkennedy and await a Royal Irish Constabulary patrol.

At 6:30 PM, a scout signals the approach of the patrol, which includes two Crossley tenders and a Ford motorcar. Jimmy O’Flaherty, a former Connaught Ranger, lines up his sights on District Inspector Edward J. Stevenson in the lead vehicle. Stevenson is killed by a bullet through the centre of his forehead. The lorry lurches forward and stops in the middle of the road and comes under heavy fire from the hillside above. Police tumble out quickly and get down behind a bank which gives them some cover. A Lewis gun is thrown out and trained on the third section of IRA men. After two short bursts of fire, the gunner lay dead beside his gun. A second gunner fires a burst of shots from the Lewis in the direction of the third section, then he swings the muzzle in the air to protect himself from the riflemen above. This is unsuccessful and he also falls dead beneath the gun. Four men in the lorry are now dead and the remaining men are led by Sergeant Creegan. They attach a grenade launcher to a Lee–Enfield rifle and keep the IRA at bay.

The second lorry is stopped by gunfire from both sides of the road as soon as shots are heard from the direction of the first lorry, killing the second driver. This lorry coasts to the ditch at the side of the road. After a while the men run towards McGrale’s thatched cottage facing the road. They poke rifles through the front windows and through a window high in the gable which looks down on the Westport road. They use up a lot of ammunition unnecessarily and then realize that they have left their spare ammunition in the lorry. They unsuccessfully try to persuade the Widow McGrale and her young son to fetch the ammunition.

The motorcar is some distance behind the second lorry and stops beyond the cottage. Three men jump off the exposed side and two remain on the sheltered side of the road which has a thicket beside it next to the cottage. One of the policemen advances towards the rebel position but is badly wounded.

Two hours later, Michael Kilroy is worried that if the first lorry does not surrender soon, the column might not have time to concentrate on the police in the McGrale cottage as enemy reinforcements could arrive at any time. A fresh assault on the lorry is made by Johnny Duffy and Tommy Heavey who have bayonets. A rifle grenade, which is hurled by the police, falls back into the lorry and explodes, killing the man who threw it and fatally wounding other police beside him. A handkerchief of surrender is hoisted on a rifle by Sergeant Creegan, who is fatally wounded in the legs and abdomen.

The captured Lewis gun is fired on the McGreal house from a covered position by O’Flaherty. The men inside come out with their hands above their heads.

The IRA column captures 22 rifles, eight drums for the Lewis gun, several boxes of grenades, 21 revolvers, and approximately 6,000 rounds of rifle ammunition. Petrol is poured over the two lorries and the motorcar and they are set ablaze.

Eight of the British are killed outright or die of their wounds and sixteen surrender. The Black and Tans who surrender are not killed, even though this policy has been endorsed by IRA General Headquarters due to the terror and mayhem they inflict on civilians. Many of the local people go into hiding to avoid the retribution of the Tans. The IRA volunteers escape arrest by sheltering in safe houses.