Headlines in the Evening Herald, 23 October 1920, describing an IRA ambush of a police convoy near Moate. Papers such as the Herald often received their first news of events from Dublin Castle’s official reports. These reports, however, were often inaccurate or embellished and they were seen as a dubious source by many journalists. In this case, the report stated that ‘one of the attacking party was seen to fall’, although none of the ambushers had been shot – a fact confirmed in subsequent reports. The Herald also carried reports from its own correspondent and the Press Association.
In a previous post, we discussed the first attack by the Crown forces on the Westmeath Independent and the following day’s IRA ambush of a British army patrol on Lough Ree. Fearful of further violence, a delegation of Athlone’s citizens attempted to meet with the senior British army officer in the locality, Brigadier-General Thomas Stanton Lambert. He refused to talk with them, delaying the meeting until 23 October.
On the day before the planned meeting, the IRA ambushed a police convoy near Moate leading to reprisals by the Crown forces in the town, as well as in Athlone and Kilbeggan. That ambush is the subject of this edition.
Around September 1920, following orders to brigades from IRA General Headquarters and in an attempt to counter the increased activity of the local police and military, a flying column was formed from the Athlone Brigade, numbering about fifteen men, mostly officers who were ‘on the run’. It was led by James Tormey, a 21 year old veteran of the British army, one of at least five former British soldiers in the column. The group had, Henry O’Brien recalled, ten service rifles with about twenty rounds each and their first proper engagement was on the 22 October at Parkwood on the road between Moate and Kilbeggan.
According to Seamus O’Meara, the flying column ‘were billeted in a shed, the property of Father McGee [John Magee, local parish priest] at Tober’ in the days before the ambush. Magee was not the only priest in the area to provide material support to the IRA. The historian Brian Heffernan has listed Thomas Langan of Moate as another member of the Roman Catholic clergy who provided such assistance. O’Meara was accompanied by: James Tormey, Thomas Costello, Brian Mulvihill, Henry O’Brien, George Manning, Richard Bertles, William Casey, George Adamson, Patrick Macken, Thomas Claffey, Patrick Claffey, Francis (Thomas in some accounts) Egan, Joe Chambers and Ned Johnson.
As discussed in earlier posts, IRA activity in Westmeath was driven by a small group of its most committed members. Many of the above volunteers had taken part in the attack on Streamstown RIC Barracks in July 1920 and the Lough Ree ambush three months later. The group that assassinated RIC Sergeant Thomas Craddock in August, an event which signified an escalation of the local IRA’s campaign, was made up of Tormey, Costello, Manning and Mulvihill. After Parkwood, Tormey would lead further attacks on the Crown forces, culminating in his death during a gunfight with Black and Tans at Cornafulla in February 1921.
On the day of the Parkwood ambush, Tormey was in command of the column, which was joined by a small number of scouts, one of whom was named John Hogan, according to Liam Cox in his 1974 history of Moate. In addition, it is possible that one or two local volunteers joined the ambush party. Tormey chose the site at Parkwood because the road was regularly traversed by the police in either a single lorry or a bicycle-patrol. There was little cover other than a small wooded area through which the road briefly ran.
Most of the volunteers were hidden among the trees on one side of the road with around two on the other side. They positioned themselves very close to the road since, according to Seamus O’Meara, some of the men had ‘no experience of using their rifles’ and needed to be placed within ‘practically point blank range’. Two scouts, at least one of whom had a whistle, were placed about 300 metres further down the road in the direction of Horseleap. Their job was to signal the approach of the enemy force.
There are differing accounts as to when the column took up its position but they had a long wait, being fortified with tea and sandwiches that the scouts brought from nearby houses. Around 1pm the ambushers were startled to see a police lorry pass their position and continue on towards Moate. Henry O’Brien stated that his group was about to leave the trees in an attempt to ascertain why no signal had been sounded when they heard a sharp whistle. Seconds later, another lorry came into view. O’Brien and his comrades opened fire and this vehicle swerved off the road coming to a halt on the grass verge.
One of the police later reported that he heard a whistle followed by ‘heavy firing’. It was in this volley that the driver of the lorry, a constable from London named Harry Biggs (Henry or Harry Briggs in some accounts), was hit. Biggs, who was in his early to mid-twenties, was gravely wounded and bled to death in the lorry as the fighting continued around him. The passengers of this vehicle were in a perilous situation but they were saved by the arrival of another police lorry. What the IRA had encountered was not the regular patrol but a convoy of Black and Tans and Auxiliaries who were being transferred from the main police depot in Gormanstown, County Meath, to Galway.
Each lorry, according to the subsequent inquest, contained ‘about nineteen auxiliaries and the drivers’, although it is not clear how many lorries were at the scene. Accounts from members of the flying column speak of several lorries with Thomas Costello stating that six vehicles stopped at the ambush site, although the subsequent inquest into the death of Biggs suggests that the occupants of only two vehicles returned fire on the ambushers.
Some lorries avoided the fighting. The first lorry, the vehicle which had surprised the column, continued all the way to Athlone, its occupants unaware of the ambush. Also, at least one lorry arrived at the ambush spot but immediately turned around and headed back towards Kilbeggan, its occupants leaving their besieged comrades behind. During the inquest, a constable stated that this lorry left the scene in order ‘to procure military reinforcements’ in Kilbeggan, a round-trip of over 25 kilometres. However, this may have been an excuse designed to cover the fact that they had abandoned their police comrades in the middle of an ambush – no military reinforcements arrived at Parkwood from Kilbeggan that day, nor did the escaping police lorry return to the ambush site.
Whatever the actual number of lorries, the flying column was outnumbered. A police constable named William Troy, whose lorry arrived after Biggs had been shot, later reported that he could see a small group of armed men on the left hand side of the road in a copse of trees behind a hedge. One of these men was Henry O’Brien, who described the situation as the police returned fire: ‘We realised quickly that we had hit up against something which we had not bargained for and that we were very much outnumbered, so we pulled out and retreated…’
The statements of those involved in the ambush attribute the escape of the column to the fact that some of the police panicked. While a section of the police laid down a heavy fire on their opponents, others ran into adjacent fields, away from the ambush. This afforded an opportunity for the flying column to withdraw and Tormey ordered his men to retreat. The fighting had lasted around twenty minutes.
The IRA column headed towards Tober and soon encountered a civilian lorry parked outside a house. According to Seamus O’Meara, the column ‘commandeered’ this vehicle, forcing the driver to take them to Doon. They eventually made their way to Coosan, a place where, in the words of Henry O’Brien, the ‘people were always very good’.
Liam Cox, who interviewed veterans of the flying column for his 1974 book, learned that the ambush was, apparently, merely the first half of a grand plan by the flying column. If the ambush succeeded, ‘it was intended to seize the lorries, arms and ammunition, put on the occupants’ uniforms and drive into the police barracks in Moate’, thereby capturing the barracks for the IRA.
That plan may have grown in complexity and ambition in the years after the Parkwood ambush and it is not clear that it was a genuine aspiration of the flying column before the ambush. If carried to fruition, it would have been the most remarkable operation carried out by the Westmeath IRA during the War of Independence. Consider Liam Cox’s depiction of Moate’s RIC barracks as it was in October 1920. Cox, who derived his account from interviews, described the building ‘as protected by sand-bags around the door, barbed wire entanglements seven or eight yards deep on all sides, and the windows sheeted with bullet proof steel.’
Certainly, the flying column’s volunteers were willing to risk their lives in engagements against the Crown forces but they were few in number and short of weapons. If we look at the July 1920 attack on the RIC barracks in Streamstown, discussed in an earlier blog, we can see how a similar plan had failed. On that occasion, the IRA used captured RIC uniforms in an attempt to gain entry to the building but the ruse did not fool the occupants and the attack – against a smaller and less fortified barracks than its counterpart in Moate – was quickly repulsed by the police. It is very doubtful that, even if the flying column had captured a police lorry at Parkwood, it would have succeeded in gaining control of Moate’s RIC barracks. Ultimately, as Cox notes, neither the barracks in Moate nor the nearby ‘military detachment, who guarded the railway station at the time …’ were attacked by the IRA during the War of Independence.
The flying column may not have succeeded in capturing a police lorry but it had survived its first proper engagement, while inflicting casualties on the Crown forces. That, however, was not the end of the day’s violence. As we shall see in our next post, the locality would soon suffer a spate of reprisals, one of which would lead to the fatal shooting of a civilian named Michael Burke.
Bureau of Military History Brigade Activity Reports; Bureau of Military History Military Service Pensions Collection; Bureau of Military History Witness Statements; RIC Chief Inspector’s monthly reports for Westmeath; Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Irish Times, Westmeath Independent and Westmeath Examiner. For more detail, see: Richard Abbott’s Police Casualties in Ireland, 1919-1922; John Burke’s Athlone 1900-1923: Politics, Revolution and Civil War (The History Press, 2015); Liam Cox, Moate – County Westmeath: A History of Town and District (Alfa Print Ltd, 1981); Brian Heffernan, ‘The Catholic Church and the War of Independence’ in the Atlas of the Irish Revolution, edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy, with associate editor John Borgonovo (Cork University Press, 2017); Ian Kenneally, ‘The War of Independence in Westmeath’ in the Journal of The Old Athlone Society, 2013; David M. Leeson, ‘The Royal Irish Constabulary, Black and Tans and Auxiliaries’ in the Atlas of the Irish Revolution, edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy, with associate editor John Borgonovo (Cork University Press, 2017); and Russell Shortt’s, ‘IRA Activity in Westmeath during the War of Independence, 1918-1921: Parts One and Two’ in Ríocht na Midhe: Records of Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, 2005 and 2006.
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 16/11/2020