The Hill of Allen Ambush: ‘Twenty minutes saved the Black & Tans from destruction’

Historian James Durney on the Hill of Allen ambush, Kildare’s contribution to one of the bloodiest months of the War of Independence 100 years ago

The Hill of Allen Ambush:‘Twenty minutes saved the Black & Tans from destruction’

In this photo recreating the Hill of Allen ambush, Edward Tracey leads the Prosperous Company across Mylerstown bog. Photos courtesy of Prosperous Historical Society Reenactment Group

The month of March was originally called Mars, after a Roman god of war. Mars persona represents prowess in battle, fighting for a cause (kin and country) and courage.

In March 1921, the god of war was particularly active in Ireland, making it one of the bloodiest months in the War of Independence. On March 5, 13 British soldiers, including Brigadier General Cumming, were killed and fifteen wounded in an ambush in West Cork. The following night the Mayor of Limerick, George Clancy, and former mayor Michael O’Callaghan, were shot dead in their homes by crown forces.

In Dublin, March 14 was the fiercest day since Bloody Sunday: six IRA volunteers were executed that morning at Mountjoy Jail; in the evening, seven people died in a gunbattle at Brunswick Street.

On March 19, Cork No 3 Brigade, led by Tom Barry, fought a series of actions against 1,200 British troops at Crossbarry, Co Cork, in which three volunteers and 10 British soldiers died. Two days later, the Kerry IRA attacked a train at the Headford junction near Killarney in the largest single engagement between the IRA and the regular British army in the War of Independence. Nine British soldiers were killed along with two IRA volunteers and two civilians.

In County Kildare, events were not as bloody but for a quiet county they were significant. On March 1, an internment camp opened at the Gibbet Rath, adjacent to the Curragh Camp. Many prisoners were transferred from Arbour Hill Prison and Mountjoy Jail to the new camp. They were escorted by lorry loads of Auxiliaries with an aeroplane flying overhead to prevent a rescue attempt.

Rath Camp would become home to 1,500 political prisoners over the next 10 months.

On March 4, Kildare IRA units damaged bridges over the Lerr River near Castledermot and two bridges near Monasterevin. They were also busy trenching roads at Kilcrow and Burtown. The destruction of bridges and the trenching of roads was part of a new offensive by Kildare republicans termed as ‘small jobs’ by IRA General Headquarters (GHQ) in Dublin.

On the night of March 15, the newly built Ulster Bank in Kilcock was burned as part of the Belfast Boycott — a retaliatory campaign in response to attacks on Catholics by loyalists. The following day, after several roads were trenched and blocked by trees and bridges damaged, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) ordered a curfew from 9pm to 5am in Athy No 1 District and banned the Tuesday market in Athy.

Five days later, on Sunday, March 20, in an ambitious turn of events, some 55 IRA volunteers from the Prosperous, Allen and Robertstown companies, armed with seven rifles and 30 shotguns, gathered to ambush a police patrol near the Hill of Allen.

An RIC tender, containing a reported 12 policemen, was expected to pass from Kildare that afternoon to visit licensed premises in the Robertstown district to enforce the Sunday Closing Act. It was decided by Prosperous Company, IRA, to ambush this tender on its return journey at the Hill of Allen.

The operation was commanded by Dick Harris, 2nd Kildare Battalion Vice-Commandant, and Ned Tracey, OC (captain) of Prosperous Company, with Mick Fitzgerald, OC Allen Company, as second-in-command. At the time Dick Harris was only 20 years old and already had helped to set up the republican administration in the county.

Ned Tracey was 25, and a commanding force in the area. He had been elected as officer commanding Prosperous Company on its formation. During the Civil War, he was ant-Treaty OC 4th Kildare Battalion, and spent two years in prison camps where he was listed as a ‘dangerous’ operative.

Mick Fitzgerald was 24, and was appointed OC (captain) Allen Company in early 1920. Most of the other volunteers involved were in the same age group.

Ned Tracey’s Prosperous Company was the better armed unit. They moved their arms, consisting of seven Lee Enfield rifles, 12 bombs (possibly home-made grenades) and 12 shotguns, to an empty house on the roadside near where the ambush was to take place on the date planned.

The Prosperous men met at Newtown, Donore, at about 11.30am and crossed about four miles over the bog to Allen, where they met with the volunteers from Allen and Robertstown Companies.

A reenactment of the meeting of the OCs on March 17, 1921. Picture courtesy of the Prosperous Historical Society Reenactment Group

Two grenade-throwers and several men armed with shotguns were positioned behind the farmhouse wall, while the best-armed men, those with Lee-Enfield rifles, were positioned on the opposite side. The assumed plan, according to local historian, Joe Murphy of Landenstown, whose father Tom Murphy was one of the riflemen, was that the RIC men would take cover from behind the tender after being attacked from the farmhouse wall. Anticipating this the IRA commanders had positioned the rifle men on the opposite side and below the road for cover.

According to Captain Ned Tracey in a written statement to the Bureau of Military History ‘...a farm house on the side of the hill [of Allen] was taken over by our men and the men with shotguns placed in position. Two men who had hand grenade practice were placed behind a wall, beside which it was proposed the lorry should be halted by rushing two farm carts across the road suddenly.

‘The seven riflemen were placed on the roadside under the hill about 100 yds back from the place where the lorry was to be halted. They could from that position enfilade the road, and also prevent the enemy taking cover on that side of the road. A man had been put in position high up on the Hill to signal the approach of the enemy.

‘All men were in position about 12.30. The enemy usually passed between 1.30pm and 3 o’clock, and as our position was unconcealed from civilian passersby, we had to hold up everyone who went by and put them under guard at the back of the farm house. We had to take this precaution to prevent the news of the event from reaching Kildare Town or the Curragh Camp which places were only four miles away. We remained in our position until about 6 o’clock and as at that time we had some dozen civilians held up and detained, and the residents of Kilmeague village, about a mile distant, knew what was occurring, we decided to abandon our positions.’

Tracey said that the Allen and Robertstown men were first dismissed and then the Prosperous men were demobilised, but as they left the scene, about 6pm (the newspapers recorded the event happened at 5pm), they heard the sound of a vehicle motor in the distance. The Prosperous men ran back towards their positions and were within 500 yards when they spotted the police tender.

Fire was opened as, according to Tracey, the policemen dismounted to move a tree which was blocking the road. He claimed the RIC returned fire, jumped back into their vehicle and sped away. Tracey said over 100 rounds were fired from the seven riflemen, but that would mean each man firing one full ten-round magazine clip, reloading and firing at least three bullets from another charger clip – the Lee-Enfield .303 held two five-round charger clips. A well-trained rifleman could fire 20-30 aimed rounds per minute, but the Kildare men would not have an abundance of ammunition to perfect such expertise.

Tracey said his men with shotguns ‘fired a volley also, but at that range shotguns were useless’. The police admitted that a tree had been felled across the road and that ‘about twenty rifle shots were fired from the Hill of Allen’. A more plausible story is that the approaching volunteers fired several shots at the tender as it raced towards Kildare town after the police moved the tree.

Denis Fitzgerald recorded that his father Captain Mick Fitzgerald said that there was one spotter positioned at Pluckerstown Bridge and another on the Wheelan Road, who were to signal to another volunteer at Allen Tower which way the police tender was coming. The volunteer at the Tower was then to signal to the men in position at the ambush site near Allen Cross.

Mick Fitzgerald recalled that when the tender arrived, the volunteer at Pluckerstown Bridge was gone. He said that when the police tender approached the fallen tree the volunteer designated to push the two carts out onto the road to block the tender from turning had also disappeared.

According to Fitzgerald the police in the vehicle threw up their arms in surrender when the tender came to a halt, but there was no one there to take their submission. Regaining their composure, several RIC jumped out, quickly moved the tree, and hopped back into the tender which sped away, just as the Prosperous men were returning to the ambush site.

The well-planned ambush had great potential and could have been on par with the West Cork or Headford attacks. However, the pivotal factor was the decision to demobilise the volunteers when the police tender did not show up at the appointed or presumed time.

In his statement Capt. Tracey said, ‘a matter of about 20 minutes saved the Black & Tans from destruction. Nobody could be blamed for the failure of a well planned ambush, laid within sight of the Curragh Camp’.

But the inexperience of the commanders involved was clear. By the beginning of 1921, the crown forces knew that the IRA could conduct sophisticated ambushes and their intelligence network was competent enough to avoid such a simple error as using the same route or similar time on a return journey. Another of the countermeasures employed by crown forces was higher driving speeds and a reluctance to stop.

IRA Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy was not happy with the outcome and did not want to see large groups of men, like those at Allen, becoming involved in confrontations with the enemy before the necessary training had been undertaken. He wrote to 2nd Battalion Commandant Michael Smyth:

‘I am glad to see you are developing officers who are not afraid to handle such a large body of men as 55, but the idea of this sudden development makes me rather nervous. I would prefer to see your men trained on jobs that would require not more than half the number… It would be very bad if such a force got themselves, through want of training or want of [?] into a position into which they got a big defeat.’

Mulcahy understood that the focus of Kildare’s activity should be less on military confrontation than containing the enemy by the destruction of communications. As a result of this and several more communiques from Mulcahy, activity was stepped up in Kildare.

In the month of March, roads were trenched on 22 occasions; on the night of March 23 alone, six out of the nine companies in Kildare 2nd Battalion were particularly busy.

Naas Company damaged the canal bridge at Naas and trenched the main Dublin road at Johnstown; Athgarvan Company felled trees on the road to the Curragh; Two-Mile-House Company trenched the main road to Kilcullen; while Ned Tracey and Prosperous Company were active again and damaged the canal bridge at Blackwood and trenched three roads.

The breaking of communications by the Kildare IRA was crucial to the national campaign, as it prevented effective British army action from the Curragh Camp and disrupted military travel to the south and west.

However, there was a price to pay. The military and police were active after these events and a number of volunteers were arrested, including Mick Fitzgerald, who was interned at the Rath Camp, where he remained until after the Treaty was signed.

Leader editor interned

On March 24, Leinster Leader editor, Michael O’Kelly and reporter, TJ Williams were arrested in Naas and interned at the Rath Camp.

Michael O’Kelly had taken over the editorship of the paper from his brother Seumas in 1912. Seumas was known as a ‘gentle revolutionary’, while his brother was of a more militant republican bent, which was reflected in the tone of Leinster Leader coverage at the time. Michael had previously been interned for several weeks following the 1916 Rising.

Meanwhile, six of the 14 or so members of Two-Mile-House Company were arrested within a week of felling trees on the Kilcullen Road.

Dick Harris was arrested at an aeridheacht at Donore, Caragh, on June 28, 1921 and imprisoned at the Rath Camp, the Curragh. He was released on parole from Rath Camp in late November 1921, due to ill-health.

— Kildare County Council Historian in Residence and author James Durney is a member of the Kildare Decade of Commemorations Committee

The ambush site

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