It was decided to attack the convoy. The place chosen for the attack was in the townland of Monreal South, about three miles from Ennistymon. In that town, there was a mixed force of R.I.C. and Black and Tans, about fifty strong, while a military detachment of over a hundred men occupied the workhouse, a half a mile out along the road to Lahinch. While the site selected for the ambush was, without question, the best available for miles along the road used by the convoy, still it was not a suitable position for engaging more than two lorry loads of troops. At that stage, the enemy were getting 'cagey' and, when travelling in lorries, kept the vehicles well separated, at least a hundred yards apart and usually a good deal more.
From the positions which were at our disposal in Monreal South, troops moving in lorries along the main road would be exposed to effective fire for a stretch of not more than two hundred and fifty yards. It was a big advantage to be able to subject all the lorries to the opening volleys from our guns and, if any one of the enemy vehicles was outside range, owing to the superior armament and equipment which the occupants carried, the surprise element, in our favour at the outset, could be quickly counteracted. As well, if most of the enemy were not put out of action by these initial volleys, the survivors, by dismounting quickly and availing of the cover provided by the road fences, had a clear command of the ground that gradually sloped from the road southwards for about two hundred and fifty yards to the Inagh or Cullinagh river, which here ran roughly parallel to the main road. In that stretch of ground between the main road and the river, the only cover came from slight depressions and rocks which were fairly plentiful, apart from a low fence situated about thirty yards from the main road and more or less parallel to it. On the far bank of the river, the land rose rather steeply for about forty or fifty yards, and this slope was heavily covered with scrub and briers. From the top of the slope southwards, the ground was relatively flat for upwards of a mile but it was intersected a good deal by the fences of fields, varying in size from a quarter to a few acres. A by-road from the main road in Monreal South ran across Moanannagh bridge through the townland of Moanannagh.
The main road from Ennistymon runs fairly straight until it comes near a small bridge in Monreal South, and from there, for a distance in about six hundred yards, forms a curve until it comes to a bend, three hundred and fifty yards from the cross-roads in Monreal South, after which it runs straight for well over a mile in the direction of Ennis. At this bend, on the northern side of the road, the ground rose rather sharply for about a hundred yards and, for a stretch of over two miles northwards, forms a more or less undulating plain, broken here and there by hillocks. This country has the usual quota of stone fences, found in areas peopled by small farmers in this part of Clare. About twenty yards on the Ennis side of the road bend already referred to, a double stone wall, six or seven feet high, runs from the main road almost due north over the rising ground for about a quarter of a mile until it meets a stream which comes down from Cloona to the north-east. Also meeting this wall, about forty yards from the stream, is a narrow by-road which serves three or four houses in that part of Monreal South. On the right-hand side of the stone wall are two protruding cattle shelters, or 'mothans' as they are called in North Clare. They are approximately the same size, about twenty yards square, and are bounded by walls similar to that from which they protrude. The front wall of the lower shelter is about twenty yards from the main road at the left-hand corner, and about thirty yards at the right-hand corner.
The day picked for the attack was 18th December, 1920. On the previous evening, some of our officers had visited the selected site to inspect the ground, fix the positions and arrange for the disposition of the column. As they were so engaged, they were noticed by a detachment of military coming from Ennis in lorries. The military dismounted and opened fire, but no injury befell our officers, the only casualties being a few cattle killed.
Next morning, the column was roused early and, after breakfast, left their billets around half-past six. Including a dozen scouts drawn from the local Volunteers, I would estimate the total strength of the party as being close on fifty strong. Most of the men carried rifles but some also had shotguns and, as well, a number carried hand grenades taken from Ruan barracks. The ambush position was reached well before daybreak, perhaps round eight o'clock. The weather was bitterly cold and a heavy frost had made the four-mile journey from Lickeen across the fields and bogs very difficult. The column was divided into two sections which I shall call A and B. Section A was allocated the positions on the lower or the river side of the road, while Section B, was placed on the opposite or northern side.
I was with Section B which comprised about seventeen or eighteen men under the control of Sean Casey, O/C, 3rd battalion. Section A was under the personal control of the column commander, Joe Barrett, and comprised about twenty men. I have not much of an idea as to the personnel of that section, how they were allocated or, in fact, what happened to that section during the fighting which ensued. As things turned out, I and some of my comrades had our own hands full in trying to cope with the enemy, and I had no time to watch what was taking place elsewhere.
I may have forgotten the names of a couple of men who comprised Section B but the following is a list of those whom I can remember: -
|Sean Casey||- O/C 3rd Battalion|
|Patrick Costelloe||- O/C 2nd "|
|Tom Shalloo||- Vice O/C 5th "|
|Paddy Devitt||- 5th "|
|Sean McNamara||- 5th (later O/C 6th)|
|Joe Griffey||- "|
|Austin Geraghty||- "|
|Joseph McNamara||- "|
|Michael O'Loghlen||- "|
|Conor O'Donohue||- "|
|Sean Callaghan||- "|
|Ignatius O'Neill||- "|
|Stephen Wall||- "|
|Patrick Powell||(alias Cahill) a native of Birr|
|Myself||- O/C 5th Battalion|
This section occupied the cattle shelter nearest to the road, taking positions along the front wall and side wall which came up from the main road. I am now unable to fix the position of each man, but I'm definite that I was placed on the extreme right-hand corner and that Ignatius O'Neill was a few feet on my right. Pat Powell and Sean Callaghan were at the other corner with some hand grenades.
As soon as our places were pointed out to us, each man got to work, making a loop-hole through the wall for his gun. Gaps were also made at each of the corners, where the back walls of the two shelters joined and the side wall coming from the road, to enable us to get away in the event of a retreat being necessary. This proved to be a very wise move as, during the subsequent fighting, our men got out through these two gaps without being seen by the enemy. Had we been obliged to climb over the high walls surrounding the shelters, we would have been exposed to the enemy's fire.
At about a quarter past nine, our scouts reported that three lorries of enemy troops were on the way from Ennistymon. From our positions in front of the shelter, we had no view of the road on the Ennistymon side, and could only see the lorries as soon as they passed the point where the wall met the road. It was arranged as part of the plan of attack that the leading lorry would be allowed to come around the bend, and that fire would not be opened on it until it came under the cattle shelter, when it would be attacked by the men along the front wall of that position, and also by some of the men in Section A below the road who were behind a short stretch of a low stone wall facing the main road. This would allow the second lorry to be at least around the bend before the attack began, where it would come under the fire of the remainder of the men in Section A and from the portion of Section B whose positions were along the side walk of the shelter.
Things did not work in accordance with these arrangements because, as the enemy almost reached the site of ambush, a shot was accidentally discharged by one of the party on the other side of the road. Though the lorries did not stop, I could hear them slowing up. Almost immediately after this shot went off, all the men in Section A, opened fire on the first lorry which by then had come round the bend. The lorry accelerated speed. As it sped past the cattle shelter, it came under our fire, but the driver was not hit though several of his passengers toppled on to the roadside, either killed or wounded. This lorry, which contained military, drove on to the cross-roads where it pulled up.
In the meantime, the second lorry had rounded the bend and received a hot reception until it halted almost in front of a quarry on the roadside just beside the spot where the high wall from the shelter joined the road. The driver of this lorry had been hit, and his passengers were a mixed party of R.I.C. and Black and Tans. They were quickly off the lorry and took shelter underneath it and also in the quarry. They were not long in getting into action, using rifle grenades with good effect, and of which we had our first experience. The survivors from the first lorry also were not slow in making their presence felt as they brought a machine gun into action against our position. An attempt to dislodge the police from the quarry and from the vicinity of the second lorry was unsuccessful, as some hand grenades thrown by Powell and O'Callaghan from the shelter did not explode.
The rifle grenades used by the police began to prove effective. They concentrated on the corner of the shelter nearest to them, and gradually began to batter down the wall. Flying shrapnel and splinters from the stones compelled our men to vacate that post. O'Neill and myself were busily engaged in dealing with the machine-gun and snipers firing from the direction of the cross-roads. After some time, I happened to look behind and noticed that most of the garrison in the shelter were moving towards the rear. We then left our position and went to the other corner where we soon realised why the men were leaving. Bombs were exploding all around the place, and it simply could not be held. We then went after the others through the two gaps which had been prepared that morning. I would say, that, by this time, the fighting was in progress for about a quarter of an hour.
In the meantime, the occupants of the third lorry, which pulled up before it reached the bend where it would have come under fire, had dismounted and begun to advance from the road up the high ground on our right flank. This party had a machine gun also, but they were being held in check by a few of our section who had left the shelter before O'Neill and myself, and who had retreated under cover of the high wall coming up from the road. Our men had crossed this wall into a long field on the left, where there were a number of depressions in the ground that enabled them to move further away from the enemy by making short runs or crawling from one hollow to another. While one or two men were moving, another man remained behind, firing whenever he got a chance of seeing any of the enemy. In that group, I recognised Tom Shalloo, Stephen Wall, Paddy Devitt, Joe Griffey and Sean McNamara. I made my way after them and parted with O'Neill after having crossed the wall. Using the same tactics as the others, I reached within about fifty yards from the end of the field. I had good enough cover here, but the enemy had come closer. His machine gun post had now advanced about one hundred yards from the road and was not more than one and a half times that distance from me. Fire from this gun was sweeping the end of the field. I had seen Tom Shalloo and Stephen Gallagher making a dash which enabled them to get across the by-road and into relative safety, as beyond it there was good cover.
Between myself and the by-road, I knew that Paddy Devitt, Sean McNamara and Joe Griffey were pinned down by the enemy fire. The trouble with them was that McNamara had been badly wounded through the thigh, and he had to be helped along. Gradually, I made my way to the by-road and found the trio lying in a depression, Devitt firing an occasional shot whenever he saw a target. After joining them, we decided that McNamara and Griffey should continue their way towards the by-road, while Devitt and myself covered their retreat. We opened fire which was sufficiently effective to enable the retiring pair to reach their objective. I next went off while Devitt covered me. I too got clear, after which I was able to engage the enemy until Devitt made the journey.
There was more shooting to our left as we got across the by-road, and found that it was coming from O'Neill and a few others of the column who were with him. I sent off Griffey to tell them to wait as we needed assistance to carry McNamara who was after losing a lot of blood and was now in a weak condition. Devitt and myself helped him along for roughly a hundred yards when we made contact with O'Neill and the others. We now had all the men who had comprised Section B, in the cattle shelter except Powell and Callaghan. It seems the pair of them along with a couple of the scouts, had been among the first to retire and they had taken a different route to us. The only serious casualty which we had was Sean McNamara, though several men had received scratches from stone splinters.
There was now a danger that reinforcements might arrive who, by using transport, could avail of by-roads at our rear to cut off our retreat. In view of the small size of our little force, about fourteen men, nearly half of whom carried shotguns, we decided to continue the retreat as best we could through Cloona towards Lickeen. The enemy's machine and rifle fire was still being directed at us, but this advance has stopped. He had not moved more than one hundred and fifty yards from the main road. As we moved towards Cloona, the cover continued to be good, so his fire did not unduly worry us. After we had proceeded about three hundred yards from the by-road, we noticed that the enemy diverted his fire. Later, we learned the reason for this was because Powell and those with him had been seen. They were moving to the left of our party, towards Cahersherkin. We crossed the railway line near the level-crossing in the townland of Cullinagh, through the townland of Russa into Cloona.
As we were moving through Russa, reinforcements, comprised of R.I.C. and Black and Tans from Ennistymon, approached the scene of the ambush. Seeing the figures on the high ground behind the cattle shelters vacated by us, they opened fire. The fire was promptly returned. The exchange of shots lasted for several minutes before the reinforcements realised they were firing on their own men, the military, who had advanced a short distance after us. There were some casualties, and it gave rise to a lot of bad feeling afterwards between the military and the police. Perhaps it was just as well for us that this incident occurred, as it may have been the cause of the enemy failing to press home his advantage which he definitely had at that stage. Two or three lorry-loads of fresh troops, using fast transport, could, if intelligently used, have made it extremely awkward for us to escape.
On reaching McCaw's house in Cloona, we left McNamara there under the charge of the local volunteers. His wound received treatment and got a rough dressing. We resumed our way until we got as far as Michael Conway's, Knockavoulty, where we rested for an hour or so, and also got some food. After that, we made our way to Lickeen where the men remained for three or four hours. I had a discussion with the senior officers who were in the party, and we decided on taking defensive action against reprisals which we expected would follow that night. Most of the men, however, were in an exhausted condition and were not fit for future action, so the party was sent off into the hilly country in Doon, to the west of Kilfenora, where they were billeted for the night under the protection of an extensive scouting system set up by the local I.R.A. Company.
Under cover of darkness, Sean McNamara was removed in a donkey cart, filled with a bed of hay, by two volunteers named Mickey Vaughan and Michael Queally, to Daly's of Caherminane, and on the following night he was taken to Noughaval Company area.
About nine or ten o'clock on the night of the ambush, Sylvester Barrett, brother of the column commander, came to me in Lickeen to ascertain how he had fared in fighting. From him, I learned that all the men in Section A were safe but that Bill Carroll, Paddy O'Loghlen, Bill McNamara and Jack Hassett had been wounded.
The reprisals which we had anticipated came off. In the townland of Tullaha, O'Loghlen and Torpey's houses were burned, and also a couple of haystacks in the district. These burnings were carried out by police reinforcements which had come from Corofin. The troops and police from Ennistymon were involved in reprisals in other parts of the locality.
I have no accurate figures of the casualties which the British forces sustained at Monreal. From time to time, I have heard different estimates of these losses which varied very much. I am certain though that, in the first lorry, not many survived injury, and I also think that, in the subsequent fighting, a number of the enemy were hit.
My recollection of events after Monreal is that the Brigade column was reduced in size and that the men from the 4th and 5th Battalions were instructed to go back to their own areas.
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