Part of the Castlecomer Company (pre-Truce IRA), 1921
War of Independence: With the centenary approaching, Maurice Shortall looks back on what happened that fateful day in Kilkenny
It’s almost 100 years since the Coolbawn Ambush, the last action against Crown Forces before the Truce, took place at 11am on Saturday June 18, 1921.
At the time, General Headquarters were urging Brigadier George O’Dwyer to put on more ambush action in Kilkenny.
By the end of March 1921, ambush action was urgently needed to take the pressure off the Cork and Tipperary Columns.
At 2am on June 18 the Flying Column who were in the area since Wednesday in safe billets in the Lotts and also a number of men from the Coon and Muckalee IRA Companies assembled in Johnny Somers’ yard in Coon East, and prepared to march to Coolbawn. Column
Captain Michael O’Carroll called the roll while Brigadier George O’Dwyer and Column Commandant Sean (Jack) Walsh looked on.
In the silence of the night, they were given a blessing by Fr McNamara, Clogh. After speaking a few cheerful words and putting on his Stole he gave a General Absolution and sprinkled Holy Water, with the parting words, ‘God Bless you boys’.
This was an official IRA operation carried out by the Flying Column Active Service Unit of the Kilkenny Brigade, Irish Republican Army.
The column was assisted by some other IRA men who were selected from most of the 11 IRA companies that made up the 3rd Battalion of the Kilkenny Brigade.
Castlecomer was the Headquarters of the 3rd Battalion. The men who answered ‘present’ for the march to Coolbawn were:
Kilkenny Brigade Commandant George O’Dwyer, Coon; Column Commandant Sean Walsh, Graignamanagh; Column Captain Michael O’Carroll, Newtown, Graignamanagh and later of Thomastown; Captain Padraig (Pat) Quinn, Graignamanagh and Column Quartermaster; Christopher Doyle, Tinnahinch, Graignamanagh; James Doyle, Tinnahinch, Graignamanagh (a brother to Chris); Michael O’Hanrahan, Inistioge; Robert Doyle, Ballymurphy, Carlow; Martin Bates, The Rower; Nicholas Mullins, Thomastown; James Purcell, Paulstown; John Hartley, Glenmore; Edward Holland, Tullaroan; Kieran Tobin, Ballinaboulagh, Gowran; Kieran Cody, Parliament Street, Kilkenny; Sean (Johnnie) Keane; Michael Ruth, Patrick Street, Kilkenny; James (Matty) Delaney, Green Street, Kilkenny; Michael McSweeney, Irishtown, Kilkenny; John Wall, Kilkieran, Johnswell; Jack Farrell, Muckalee, Castlecomer; Gerald Brennan, Castlecomer, Commandant of the Third Battalion (Castlecomer) Kilkenny Brigade.
The men from Coon IRA Company who lined up with the Column that morning and proceeded with them to Coolbawn were James Comerford, Coolraheen; Frank Clear, Coolcullen; Big Paddy Brennan, Monganvaw, Coolcullen; Little Paddy Brennan (The Jingler), Monganvaw, Coolcullen; James (Jim Jackie) Brennan, Croghtenclogh; Richard (Dick) Somers, The Lotts and Clogh; James (Daisy) Shore, Coon West.
The men from Muckalee IRA Company who lined up with the Column and went to Coolbawn in addition to Jack Farrell of Croghtenclogh were Thomas Comerford, Cloghrinka, Muckalee; James (Mike) Coogan, Uskerty; James Conway, Muckalee, Captain. The Company reached the Coolbawn Ambush Site directly from Muckalee shortly after daylight.
The Roll Call showed that a total of 31 men answered “present” in Somers’ yard and all began the march to Coolbawn. Twenty-three of the 31 had rifles ; the other eight had shotguns. As they marched from Somers’ Yard to Coogan’s Cross they remained on the alert all the way through. Coon Company men were on sentry duty all the way to Barry’s Cross. On the way they tested one of the grenades which had been sent to them by Tim Pat Coogan’s father Eamonn, who had sent the box of grenades to Attanagh Station, Co Laois.
Shortly after dawn they reached Barry’s Cross where they were met by scouts Big Patrick (Pake) Healy and Little Martin Healy both of Coon Company, who assured them the way to Coogan’s Cross was clear.
They then proceeded in single file along the road to Coogan’s Cross. There they stopped in the safety of a rebel sympathetic house where Brigadier O’Dwyer outlined the plans for the Ambush.
They posted some of the riflemen as sentries. Two men Jim Brennan and Dan Brennan brothers, from Castlecomer were there as scouts. With them were six men from the Muckalee Company. There were four from Uskerty, namely Paddy Shea, John Coady, Martin Phelan, and Michael Coogan as well as two from Coolraheen, Denny Brennan and his brother Tommy Brennan.
Thirteen men from Coon Company were there as scouts and sentries. These were Jack Haughney of the Strand, Pat Moran of the Pike Road, Jim Kinsella of Coon and his brother Mickey Kinsella, Tommy Griffin of Uskerty, Joe Poole of Coon, John Kelly and Jim Kelly of Croghtenclogh, John Brennan of the Salmon Pool, Tommy Brennan (Eddie) of Baileach, Bill Coogan of Coolraheen, Bill Byrne Blacksmith of Coolcullen, and Jim Grey Coogan of Uskerty.
Jack Haughney carried on his back a large knapsack containing fresh laundry and socks sent by Cumann na mBan of Graignamanagh to the Column.
Here at Coogan’s Cross Gerard Brennan, who had British Army experience, outlined the workings of the road mine which was intended to blow up the first of the two lorries taking gelignite to the rock mine.
Central to the Ambush was the preparation of a road mine. Gerald (Garrett) Brennan of Kilkenny Street, Castlecomer who was a brother of Con Brennan and Frank Fogarty of Chatsworth Street, Castlecomer assisted by Jim Doyle also of Castlecomer gathered material from which to make this road mine. Frank Fogarty in Fogarty’s Engineering Shop constructed a trigger device with a spring which, when pulled by a wire, was capable of exploding a detonator cap which, in turn, would explode a charge of gelignite.
Gerald Brennan supervised the work, the idea was to make a road mine out of this material by putting a quantity of gelignite together with a couple of detonators into a skillet pot. The IRA men from the Upper Hills Company under the command of Captain Martin Byrne were to supply a quantity of gelignite on the morning of June 18 at the Coolbawn Ambush site. They were to put it in the pot, tamp it properly and prepare it for explosion as a road mine.
These men from the Upper Hills being Coal Miners were expert in handling gelignite. The Army regularly escorted loads of gelignite to the mines.
In addition, the men from the Upper Hills were to dig a hole in the Coolbawn Road at the ambush site and conceal the pot in this hole and also conceal the wire extending from the pot, through an opening in the ditch.
Bob Boyle, Upperhills and Nicholas Clancy, Smithstown did the priming and laying of the mine.
The landmine was positioned at the end of Wright’s Lane, which led from the old Dublin Road (Ardra) to the new Dublin Road, Coolbawn. The plan was to blow the first truck with the landmine and for Commandant Sean Walsh, Graignamanagh Flying Column, to shoot the driver of the second truck.
One of the few places landmines were used in the War of Independence was Coolbawn. The mine was set, and Gerald Brennan took charge of it as previously planned.
An interesting thing about this road mine was that the Crown Forces did not discover it when they unexpectedly surrounded the Ambush men.
Later, on Sunday evening, the road mine was removed by Castlecomer IRA men and Bob Boyle brought it to safety, apparently to the Rock-a-Foyle.
From Coogan’s Cross they then proceeded to Coolbawn via the fields adjacent to Kealy’s Lane and gathered at the old disused Wood House. (Coach House). This was to be the general Hheadquarters for the ambush and also used as a detention centre for any passers-by so that word of the ambush would not leak out.
At the Wood House Brigadier O’Dwyer, for the first time, outlined their firing positions and sentry positions to the men. These positions had been prepared by the Upperhills Volunteers the previous night.
Paddy Brennan, the Jingler of Coolcullen and Dick Somers of the Lotts were placed in charge of the headquarters, including the detention centre.
One of the few places where landmines were used in the War of Independence was Coolbawn
On what was a fine summer morning the nearby River Brocagh was almost dry. Horses and carts were detained in the centre while nine women were detained in John Comerford’s Shop, Coolbawn.
Sentries were placed at Coolbawn Cross to detain any passers by. In command was Big Paddy Brennan, Coon. Among others there were brothers Jim and Joe Doyle, Castlecomer.
By now the men from the Conahy Company had arrived under their Captain Nicholas Maher. With him were Bob Walsh, Jim Downey, Nick Harding and Ned Healy.
Shortly afterwards the Ballyouskill Company arrived under their captain Michael Gough. The others were Jack McKenna who was Battalion Quartermaster of the 3rd Battalion, Bill Phelan, Pat Kavanagh and Mick Brannigan.
The Column Officers, after lining up the Ambush Unit, quickly assigned the men to ambush positions. Owing to a head wound he received in an arms raid in Bilboa, Captain James Comerford, Coolraheen was ordered to return home as the wound was bleeding profusely. At this stage Comerford handed over his rifle to Nicholas Mullins, who then had only a single shot Snyder Model rifle.
Jim (Jackie) Brennan of Coon Company had taken the rifle from an English soldier in Ballyragget in 1920 and passed it to the Coon Company.
Later that day Nick Mullins used and fired that rifle before receiving fatal wounds. When the Crown Forces later examined the serial number of the rifle, they found that it was a British Army rifle which had been previously taken from one of their men in Ballyragget and harangued the Mullins family numerous times about it.
While the IRA were occupying ambush positions in Coolbawn, Sandy Bradley arrived on his way to work but was detained in the Woodhouse.
He created such a fuss, claiming he would get the sack if he were not allowed to work, that it was agreed to release him when one of the Volunteers vouched for him.
When he reached his place of employment, Florrie Dreaper’s large farm in Finsboro she berated him for being late and threatened to sack him. He was forced to tell her of his reason for being late that he had been held up by armed men and was detained at Coolbawn. She immediately sped on horseback to warn the military in Castlecomer.
Crown Forces had been expected to come along the Coolbawn Road from the military barracks by the ambush site that morning in two lorries on their way with gelignite explosives for the rock mine.
Having been warned, the Crown Forces and Black & Tans led by Captain Bauville (known locally as Bovril), did not come by lorries. They did not bring explosives to the mines — instead, they came out from the military barracks on foot.
They marched to the Blue Gate where they divided. The Tans proceeded north along the Brocagh River and the others proceeded by the Old Road (Ardra) to encircle the west of the Ambush site, while the Tans would encircle the east of it.
Meanwhile the ambushers had received a ‘square’ of bread from Comerford’s Bakery and were enjoying a much-needed meal. Lieutenant Tom Duffy, on lookout, suddenly observed Military and RIC coming down Wright’s Lane. He ran back and the information was hastily conveyed to George O’Dwyer, who was then at the ambush site.
Military Auxiliaries and Tans were now observed sneaking into surrounding positions. George O’Dwyer blew three long whistle blasts, the signal for retreat.
The Mass cards printed for Nicholas Mullins and John Hartley, who were killed at the Coolbawn Ambush 100 years ago
At the same time John Hartley stood up, to check what was happening. He was spotted by a group of Tans who had not yet completed their circling from the river. Hartley was mowed down by fire from the river. His colleagues at the south post jumped the wall to get protection from the river fire, but ran into fire from a machine gun on the high ground over the road.
Mullins was shot on the road and Jim Doyle was badly wounded when he went to his aid. The others succeeded in escaping through the fire and were joined by the volunteers at Coolbawn Cross and escorted by scouts to Loon and Moyhora. All the others escaped in the opposite direction through Glenmullen Wood to Ryan’s Cross and Monegore Bog to Tyndals of Ballagh and on to the Lotts.
The Rock Colliery buzzer blew at 11am when the firing commenced. The buzzer blew again at 11.30am after the turmoil ceased.
As a result of the ambush John Hartley was killed instantly. Nicholas Mullins was fatally wounded. Jim Doyle was very badly wounded – but survived.
Mullins, who was wounded by gun fire from the Crown Forces died of these wounds later that day. A native of Thomastown and a member of the Thomastown IRA he joined the Flying Column with the ‘Graigmen’ when it was first formed.
James Doyle, who had gone to the assistance of the wounded Mullins, was then himself wounded and was stabbed in the thigh by a bayonet to ensure he would not escape which caused him a limp for the rest of his life. He was held prisoner until January 1922.
Later the military stopped a passer-by, Edward Healy, Raheenduff, with a horse and car and took the body of the dead Hartley and the wounded Mullins and Doyle to the Barracks in Castlecomer where they were treated very harshly and thrown into a locked room.
They received no medical treatment whatsoever. Dr Farrell went to the barracks but was refused permission to visit them.
The Coolbawn Ambush was the last engagement with Crown Forces in County Kilkenny before the Truce call of July 11, 1921.
A few weeks after the planned ambush the residence of Florence Dreaper was burned down by the IRA as revenge for the deaths of the two men and her perceived treachery of informing the military. She and her sister left for England shortly afterwards. Her large farm was eventually taken over by the Land Commission.
The ambush at Coolbawn was well constructed and planned and a credit to the brave men who were prepared to lay down their lives.
For help with my research into the Coolbawn Ambush I am indebted to Tom Lyng’s book Castlecomer Connections.
Thanks also to Eamonn Brennan, Kilkenny formerly of Kilkenny Street who was Organising Secretary of the 50th anniversary commemoration in 1971, at which many of the survivors attended, who made historic material sent to him by the late Judge James Comerford, New York available. Thanks to Eoin ‘Swithin’ Walsh and Jim Maher, noted Kilkenny author of many books on the War of Independence. Jim’s uncles were Michael McSweeney, a member of the Flying Column, and Nicholas Maher, Captain of Conahy Company.
COOLBAWN MASS ONLINE
A Commemoration Mass will be celebrated on Friday, June 18 at 6pm in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Castlecomer. It can be watched at the following links:
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