Understated Insurgency: The Carlow Brigade in the War of Independence, 1917-1921


When Patrick Kane sat down to give his Statement to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) in 1957, he was a man who believed he had little to show for his efforts. He had served as an adjunct in the Carlow IRA Brigade during the War of Independence – no easy task considering the difficulties which faced the brigade and the setbacks that often frustrated the best of its efforts.

Carlow Courthouse

Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, he chose the losing side and was imprisoned, a misfortune which he had previously been able to avoid. Upon his release in 1924, his employment status was to follow the ebb and flow of Irish party politics. Kane had to resort to working abroad until his return to Ireland, two years after the election of his former Civil War comrades in Fianna Fáil.

For the next twenty years, he was able to work in several Irish industries until he was forced to retire. That a Fine Gael-led government was then in power made it unlikely that he would receive much support besides an inadequate pension, and so Kane faced the fraught prospect of seeking work again at the age of sixty-two. “And so, another of my ideals and ambitions has one down in dust and ashes under my feet” was the bleak verdict on which he closed his Statement.[1]

Implied Reproach?

Anyone looking at the activities of the Carlow Brigade can be prone to a similarly gloomy mood. William Nolan, a rare historian to have approached the subject, admitted that: “Carlow does not have a very active fighting story. This may sometimes have been adverted to by way of implied reproach.” As a counterbalance, Nolan reminded his readers of the leading role Carlow had played in the 1798 Rebellion, as if to reassure them that red blood did indeed run through Carlow veins, after all.[2]

Kane did not bother comforting himself with historical allusions when he retrospectively assessed the difficulties the brigade had faced: the constant flux within the Brigade leadership, the lack of weapons and ammunition, and the unfavourable nature of the local situation towards guerrilla activities, such as the intrusive presence of the Curragh Camp.[3]

Yet the grass is always greener on the other side, in war as with other things, and the difficulties that plagued the Carlow Brigade were not so obvious to its enemy. British captain E. Gerrard was in Carlow at the time of the Truce (or ‘the Armistice’, as he called it, muddling up his wars) and was struck by the level of preparation deemed necessary by the British soldiers stationed there. Every field the soldiers occupied was made into an enclosure by trees they had cut down.

Gerrard could not help but wonder what the rest of the country would be like if such defences were needed for only twenty miles from the Curragh. To Kane, the Curragh was an insurmountable obstacle for the Carlow IRA. To Gerrard, that the IRA could operate at all near the Curragh was enough to make him doubt whether the guerrillas could be defeated.[4]

British soldiers on parade, Carlow Barracks

Organising the Brigade

The use of the name of the ‘Carlow Brigade’ is something of a misnomer. The perimeters that defined the scope of its activities covered considerable chunks out of Counties Kildare and Wicklow, as well as a corridor of land from Laois along the Carlow-Kildare border, meaning that three out of the six battalion areas were outside of Co Carlow.[5]

The battalions and companies were expected to be to a degree self-sufficient. They could not turn to their parent Brigade for resources for the simple reason that there was little to give. At the same time a certain amount of discipline through the battalions was the norm, with Volunteers expected to wait for orders before acting on an idea, even if it had originated from them.

Cumann na mBan member

This was generally adhered to, however frustrating: Nan Nolan, a Cumann na mBan captain, was working as a nanny in the house of a retired British army general when her brother in the Ballon company asked her to leave open a window on a prearranged date for him and his colleagues to steal the guns kept inside. By the time official permission for this home-invasion materialised, Nolan had left the job, depriving the company of its inside-woman.[6]

Such policy bred a cautious attitude within the Brigade, discouraging risk that could lead to disaster. That two of the more ambitious attempts – the creation of a flying column, and an ambush on a RIC patrol near Barrowhouse – would result in heavy losses for those involved would serve to justify this conservative approach.

Relations between officers with their colleagues in the Kildare and Wicklow Brigades were cordial – something that could not always be said for relations between different Brigades – and they occasional worked in unison together. An attack on Auxiliaries posted at Inistioge by a Kilkenny battalion was to be assisted by men from the Carlow 4th battalion, though the plan was cancelled just as the main force had assembled. More successfully, Liam Stack, the intelligence officer for the Carlow Brigade, was able to sit in on a Kilkenny IRA military court in relation to a local dispute.[8]

Maintaining Intelligence

Carlow, Dublin St.

Volunteers recognised early on the urgency of knowing before the enemy knew, the key method of achieving this being control of the mail. Through surreptitious supervision of the post offices and the occasional direct intervention on the flow of mail through the county, Volunteers were able to forewarn other ones of impending arrests, head off leakage from spies, and allow the brigade to keep riding with the enemy punches. Without its members’ skill at information warfare, it is unlikely that the Brigade could have survived long as a functioning military force.

Kane was assigned by his Brigade superiors the task of collecting what information he could. The proactive Kane had himself been elected to the National Executive of the Post Office Clerks’ Association. This gave him the scope to travel and make contacts with sympathetic workers in other post offices around the country, and by early 1920, Kane was part of a cell operating in Carlow post office with access to postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications.

Four of them remained active up to the Truce, though the cell was not impregnable. The point-man for passing information onto GHQ in Dublin, Pádraig Conkling, was forced on the run in later 1920 after being threatened with shooting by Black-and-Tans. Another member, Michael Carpenter, was imprisoned in 1921 for being in possession of illegal wire-tapping equipment. His arrest led to raids on the homes of other post office workers including Kane’s, who from then on was frequently held up in the street by suspicious Crown patrols.[9]

Despite these setbacks and the increasingly straitened circumstances, the intelligence work continued on, leading to many a timely tip-off. Sometime in 1921 – conflicting accounts place the date in either mid-April or a few days before the Truce in July – a British army regiment entered Ballon with the aim of arresting the Volunteers in the company there. The wanted men were forewarned in time to stay away from their homes until the regiment and the danger had passed.

However, the Brigade was unable to achieve complete dominance over the flow of information. As part of the same series of raids that had unsuccessfully tried Ballon, British soldiers were able to net several arrests in the area around Rathvilly, indicating that not only did the soldiers know who to look for, but that there had been a failure in the Brigade’s early warning system.[10]

The Burning of the Barracks

The Carlow Brigade had not attempted anything of note until its enemy unexpectedly gave it an opening. As part of a countrywide policy by Dublin Castle to consolidate its police force into fewer, less exposed strongholds, a number of RIC barracks in Carlow were closed in April 1920.

Ballinree RIC Barracks, Co. Carlow

The abandoned buildings were razed by Volunteers when it became clear that their former garrisons would not be returning, giving the battalions their first taste of activity. That empty buildings make the easiest targets was an added bonus.

Even so, the campaign of destruction was not without incident: Richard Barry was badly burnt while helping to burn down Ballon Barracks. Craiguecullen Barracks was adorned by what Patrick Kane described as a “beautiful crest in cut-stone” which became a target for some Volunteers “with more enthusiasm than sense” who triumphantly hacked away at it.

A witness passed on their names in a letter to the police, though Kane, in his capacity at the post-office, was able to intercept the letter an hour later, after which the would-be informant was given twenty-four hours to leave the area. Kane described the culprit as a ‘loyalist’ though they may simply have been attempting to be civic-minded rather than political. Kane himself did not seem to have approved of the wanton vandalism but war was war.[11]



The Police Old and New


The official response was to increase police pressure. In Ballon, for example, the RIC increased their patrols to a daily basis, and were aggressive enough to threaten at gunpoint suspected Volunteers as they left Mass.[12] March 1920 saw the arrival of the Black-and-Tans into Ireland to buttress the RIC with their military experience. They were to earn a dark reputation: in one of many incidents, a group of them robbed a pub after being refused service and drove off threatening to blow the building up next time. Shots were fired over a passing civilian car on the road for good measure.[13]

Similarly, Black-and-Tans caused a scene demanding drink after-hours in a pub in Ballylinan; in the same edition of the newspaper covering this, it was reported that three RIC men had resigned, including one of three years’ service in Athy, with rumours of more to come. The RIC was a decaying force by late 1920, many of its long-standing members sloughing off and replaced by recruits of a very different temperament.[14]

In contrast, the Volunteers were thriving in the duties of an irregular police force even as the official one was forgetting its own. The Athy Battalion became the retrievers of stolen property from bicycles to timber, earning praise from the Carlow Nationalist newspaper for the “excellent manner in which they are protecting the property for the citizens.”[15] An opinion piece in the newspaper went as far as to criticise those who wanted to put “every kind of duty on to a body already overburdened by the honorary duties they have assumed.”[16]


September 1920

However excellently performed, police work was not what the Brigade had been intended for. September 1920 saw the Brigade finally stepping up its military efforts, albeit with mixed results.

Upon hearing of the Carlow DI visiting Tullow with only a driver to accompany him, a plan was hatched by the Tullow Company of the 3rd battalion to ambush him on his return route, but after two hours of waiting, the ambush team, including Daniel Byrne, was told that their target had prudently returned by a different route.[17]

Byrne was unclear in his Statement as to whether the intent was to kill, kidnap or rob the DI. The Tullow Company was able to launch an actual attack on an RIC patrol later in the month. According to Byrne, who was again involved, this was to rob the constables of their much-needed guns, though historian William Nolan was to claim that it was to kill two “particularly obnoxious” policemen.[18]

The ambushers had been forewarned that the RIC had been beefing up their security as of late, with four-strong units patrolling while armed. The advance party of the ambush also consisted of four men, with some others serving as backup. According to a witness, they numbered fifteen or more. This witness was Sergeant W. H. Warrington who provided a first-hand account of the ambush as part of his testimony at the resulting inquest.

War Comes to Tullow

Warrington had left Tullow Barracks with Constables Patrick Halloran, Timothy Delaney and John Gaughran, the first two at the front with the other pair following, when they encountered the ambush party waiting for them. There was a cry of ‘hands up’ from one of the party while simultaneously a shot was fired at the policemen, either from nerves or intent to kill.

Warrington promptly returned fire with his revolver, and in the resulting firefight, Warrington believed that between twenty and twenty-five shots were fired, the majority by the ambush party. If the ambushers had hoped that the element of surprise would overawe the policemen into surrendering, they were mistaken.

“For God’s sake, don’t shoot!” Warrington heard Halloran cry, his arm raised. When that proved futile, Halloran joined in instead with his own revolver. Warrington saw Delaney collapse, and one of the ambushers fall, rose and fell again, indicating a wound. The attackers retreated while Warrington and Halloran hurried to the safety of their barracks, from where they were reinforced by more of their colleagues.

Gaughan was found dead, his undergarments soaked in blood, in a nearby house where he had gone for cover before haemorrhaging to death from an abdomen wound. Delaney had died where he had fallen. Both revolvers of the slain men were found not to have been discharged and had remained fully loaded. Rumour was that one of the slain policemen had been in the last week of his job, having given in his resignation.[19]

Further proof of the “mischances of guerrilla warfare,” as William Nolan put it, was how the two dead men had been well-respected and liked, even by the Volunteers, while the intended targets had escaped with only minor injuries, a view supported by Nan Nolan, who remembered some of the shooters saying afterwards that the wrong men had been shot (although she was personally unsympathetic due to a earlier bout of comparatively mild questioning in the street by Constable Delaney).[20]

RIC men

A Hornet’s Nest

Byrne did not say whether the ambush party had taken the guns from the slain constables and thus could have something to show for their botched robbery, if robbery had been the primary motive. The resulting hornets’ nest astir may have made the ambush more trouble than it was worth. Two shops were burnt down in the middle of the night as a reprisal. Tullow residents heard a rifle crack, almost as if it was a signal, followed by a volley of about ten rounds in succession.

Then there was a bomb explosion, and the shop of the Murphy Brothers burst into flames, followed by the shop of William Murphy and Sons further up the road. The fire threatened to consume the rest of the street, despite the best efforts of a team of people using buckets of water, until the Carlow Fire Brigade arrived with fifty Volunteers in tow. Realising that the burning shops were lost causes, the Fire Brigade focused on containing the fire, operating the hose while the Volunteers pumped the water from the river.

Once the fires had finally died down and the damage could be assessed, it was found that in addition to the fire-gutted shops, another store had been robbed of £100 worth of goods. The damage to Tullow was more than just material: rumours of further reprisals drove almost two-thirds of the population to seek refuge in surrounding villages or country houses, making the following Friday fair the smallest on record.[21]

Numerous arrests by the RIC and British army followed, with suspects stripped to see if they had any wounds to indicate recent combat. Byrne threatened with a gun in his mouth by two constables before being released but forced to go on the run two days later upon hearing that he was still a wanted man. That was the effective end of Byrne’s time as an active combatant, for he remained a fugitive until the Treaty ten months later, and the rest of his Statement after the telling of his flight is brief.[22]

Fortune Favours the Bold?

The early months of 1921 saw another surge in Brigade activities. A flying column was formed which would be free to move through the territories of the different battalions, with the equipment necessary to take the fight to the enemy. On the 21st of April, however, the column was surprised by a Crown patrol and quickly overwhelmed with virtually all of its members captured.[23]

IRA members

Shortly afterwards, on 16th of May, an RIC patrol of four constables and a sergeant were fired at while cycling towards Barrowhouse, Co Laois, the territory of the 5th battalion. No one in that battalion would submit a Statement to the BMH, and all that Kane knew of it was that two Volunteers had been killed in what he described as a “badly sited ambush”, so we are dependent on the contemporary reporting of the Carlow Nationalist, which drew on the official reports from Dublin Castle and on what local people had heard.

Upon the first shots, the RIC patrol dismounted from their bicycles and returned fire. By the time Crown reinforcements arrived, the ambushers had been driven back, leaving behind two of their own: James Lacey and William Connor. From the nature of their wounds, death was judged to have been near instantaneous, Lacey having had a wound to his side, and Connor in the neck. Of the RIC patrol, one man had been wounded.

A number of weapons discarded by the fleeing ambushers were also found on the scene. The official version of events reported the number of ambushers to have been twenty, but people in the vicinity judged them to have been five to seven based on the noise of the guns heard.

The local mood was described by the Carlow Nationalist as having been one of consternation, as well it might. Shortly afterwards, a group of ten men, undoubtedly of the Crown forces, with their faces hidden under capes, descended on Barrowhouse, interrogating members of the Lynch family as to the identities of the ambush party, before burning down their home along with a Sinn Féin hall. That another Crown patrol would arrive later to ask for descriptions of the men involved would suggest that it had been an unauthorised action, unlike the one in Tullow the year before, where the DI displayed a marked disinterest in investigating.

The bodies of Lacey and Connor were released to their families for burial, leading the Nationalist to comment on the coincidences of two men who had been of the same age (26) and born on the same day, baptised on the same day, killed on the same day and were finally to be buried on the same day. The 5th battalion may have previously won praise for its honorary police work, but as a guerrilla force it had been a miserable failure.[24]

Lesser Battles

Both the formation of the flying column and the ambush on a decently-sized RIC patrol were risky gambits by the Brigade which showed an increasing confidence and a desire to accomplish as much as possible. However, their failures showed the dangers of pitting enthusiastic amateurs against trained soldiers, with the price paid in blood and lost weaponry.

Carlow Bridge

More successful for the Brigade were its lower-level forms of harassment. Blocking roads by felling trees across the road or damaging bridges was ideal in that it disrupted enemy patrols while avoiding dangerous contact with them. The men of the 3rd battalion were proficient at this type of work, managing one or two blockages a week, after learning when and where a Crown patrol was due to come by to maximise the frustration. Such activities were not always without consequences – the destruction of the bridge at Rathmore led to a big round-up and the arrest of a company captain – but it was preferable to the death or injury that a more direct form of warfare risked.[25]

Raids on mail trains or postmen during their rounds occurred throughout the early months of 1921 and up to the Truce, with authorities seemingly helpless to stop it. Such raids were done to check for any letters reporting to the RIC, with the bonus of police codes being found from one robbery. Often the mail would simply not be returned; in other cases, the letters would be returned after certain parts had been censored and marked ‘passed by the IRA’, helping to reinforce the sense that the guerrillas were one step ahead of anyone, whether the authorities or the public.[26]

Military barracks, Carlow

The RIC barracks remained a presence as long as their garrisons did. Outside their walls the Carlow Volunteers could be brazen, such as when a military truck waiting outside Carlow Barracks was hijacked and found burnt elsewhere. But while attacks were planned on various barracks, none were carried out. Considering the past times the Brigade had bitten off more than it could chew, that was probably just as well for it.[27]


Sergeant Boyle

Attacks on RIC personnel continued, preferably if they could be caught alone and by surprise. Even so, the targets had an inconvenient tendency to shoot back.

Sergeant Boyle was shot on the 23rd of March, 1921, while riding his bicycle back to Carlow Barracks from his residence in Graiguecullen. Boyle was hit twice, high in the back and in his left jaw under the eye, and while Kane believed that it was the wearing of a chain waistcoat that saved Boyle’s life, this armour obviously would have done nothing about the latter injury.

The wounded Boyle was able to fire back, driving off his attackers, and upon being found by sympathetic passer-bys, was transferred to Dublin Military Hospital where, so the Nationalist assured its readers, he had “every hope of a speedy recovery.” Sergeant Boyle was still alive by the time Kane submitted his BMH Statement in 1957, a tribute to either the skills of the Military Hospital doctors, the precaution of a chain waistcoat or the hardiness of Boyle.[28]

RIC men

James Duffy

A month later, thirty-year old Constable James Duffy, a Black-and-Tan, was walking with a friend, Harry James, when they were ambushed by three gunmen who had been waiting in a hedge. Two of them fired at Duffy, indicating that he was the primary target despite him being dressed in civilian attire, while the other fired at James, who fled despite receiving two wounds on his shoulder and hip. Duffy’s body was found to have been ridden with bullets, including one that had been fired under the chin at close-range, his assassins having left nothing to chance.

A son of a well-known horse-dealer, Duffy had served four years in the Royal Garrison Artillery in the First World War for which he had been decorated. The shooting occurred in the territory of the 1st battalion, during the time when the flying column was encamped in the same area, so the attack can be attributed to either of these two groups.

According to Kane, Duffy was shot because he was investigating the area, using James as his spy, while the fact that the two men had been returning from a pub when attacked would suggest that the relationship between the two was a social one – two ideas that are, of course, not mutually exclusive.[29]

Sergeant Farrell

The last attempt by the Brigade to strike a blow before the Truce was the shooting and wounding of Sergeant Farrell in Borris, June 1921. The task was assigned to John Hynes, the tough, hands-on Vice O/C of the 4th battalion. Farrell had been on the GHQ’s ‘black list’ for some time, as he was reputed to have been part of the murder of Lord Mayor Tomás Mac Curtain of Cork.

Hynes received his orders on Friday evening, giving him time to assess that the best opportunity for an attempt on Farrell’s life was in the morning when he left the improvised RIC barracks at the Protestant school, where he slept, for breakfast at his home in town. Hynes selected three men to accompany him as part of the hit squad. They were only just getting into position behind a wall when Farrell came into sight.

Hynes fired at Farrell, prompting the sergeant to shoot back before running into the cover of the wall and back towards the barracks. Farrell made to the barracks’ gate before collapsing in the road from his wounds. The ambush team retreated at that stage, either because the rest of the barracks’ garrison was returning fire at this point, according to Hynes, or because of the number of people who were heading to Mass made a clear shot too difficult (according to a second-hand account). Farrell was put on a motor car by his colleagues to the hospital where he recovered.[30]

Tough at the Top

The other casualty of the Farrell shooting was the position of the 1st Battalion O/C Pierce Murphy. He was demoted by GHQ for his “conscientious objections” in refusing to give orders to shoot Farrell, an awkward virtue in a guerrilla leader.[31]

The Carlow Brigade had a high turnover of its officers, either from insufficient aggression as with Murphy, internal politics (Patrick Kane believed Brigade O/C Eamon Malone had been retired following the Truce for not being a “complaisant yes-man”) or the ever-present danger of arrest.[32]

The last point was illustrated when the 3rd battalion O/C Michael Keating had to go on the run following the slayings of Constables Delaney and Gaughran. Keating left his Vice O/C William Donohue as the replacement O/C and promoting Matthew Cullen to Vice O/C accordingly. Both Donohue and Cullen were arrested a month later, forcing another round of rapid promotions to cover them. Little wonder, then, that Kane thought dimly of the quality of the officers left by the time the Truce came.[33]

Final Thoughts

In reviewing the Carlow parishes of Ballon and Myshall during the War of Independence, Nan Nolan felt confident enough to assert that: “Other people and places may have been lucky enough to get better headlines, but any man in Ireland who had been through these two parishes during the four glorious years spoke only the best of them.”

As an example of this, Nan Nolan related how the Ballow Company blockaded the village due to the arrival of over a hundred British soldiers in June 1921. The Volunteers were mobilised at night, and did not retire home in the early hours of the morning until all the roads had been blocked with timber and the bridges destroyed, denying entrance to Ballon by anything bigger than a bicycle. It was an undeniably impressive feat on the part of the Ballon Company in the swiftness, thoroughness and secrecy of its operation.[34]

However, it is also important to note that the blockade was done after the British convoy had already left Ballow. There was no suggestion at even a consideration to confront the enemy head-on. Going by the records of other units, it is hard to imagine any such attempt resulting in anything other than a bloody loss for the Brigade.

So there is more than a touch of the ridiculous to Nolan’s suggestion that the lack of fame for Carlow compared to that for other counties during this period can be attributed to opportune headlines. Nowhere was there anything to match the more dramatic actions undertaken by the likes of the Cork or Dublin Brigades, and nothing comparable to the Kilmichael Ambush, Crossbarry, the burning of the Customs House or Bloody Sunday.

Yet, by the time of the Truce, the Carlow Brigade was still a functioning force. How well it would have continued to be so is a debatable issue: Nolan’s optimistic take can be contrasted with Patrick Kane’s shock at the quality of the remaining officers. The Brigade had fought small, and when it had tried to fight big it had lost badly. But it had fought all the same, from the start of the War to the end, and in the most important area of accomplishment, it could boast of equal status to all the others: it had survived.

Carlow IRA veterans marching through Carlow, 1966


Originally posted on The Irish Story (24/09/2014)

See also: Bushwhacked: The Loss of the Carlow Flying Column, April 1921



[1] Kane, Patrick (BMH / WS 1572), pp. 27-9

[2] Nolan, William, ‘Events in Carlow 1920-21’, Capuchin Annual 1970, p. 582

[3] Kane, p. 13

[4] Gerrard, E. (BMH / WS 348), p. 8

[5] Nolan, Willian, p. 582

[6] Nolan, Nan (BMH / WS 1441), pp. 6-7

[7] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 1442), p. 10

[8] Brennan, James (BMH / WS 1102), p. 12

[9] Kane, p. 3, 6-7

[10] Nolan, Nan, pp. 11-12 ; Fitzpatrick, Michael (BMH / WS 1443), p. 6 ; McGill, John (BMH / WS 1616), p. 10

[11] Fitzpatrick, p. 2 ; Kane, p. 11

[12] Nolan, Nan, pp. 5-6

[13] Carlow Nationalist, 28/08/1920

[14] Ibid, 14/08/1920

[15] Ibid, 03/07/1920

[16] Ibid, 11/09/1920

[17] Byrne, Daniel(BMH / WS 1440), p. 3

[18] Nolan, William, p. 585

[19] Nationalist, 18/09/1920 ; McGill, p. 5

[20] Nolan, William, p. 585 ; Nolan, Nan, p. 7

[21] Nationalist, 18/09/1920

[22] Byrne, pp. 3-4 ; McGill, pp. 5-6

[23] Kane, pp. 16-18

[24] Ibid, p. 9 ; Nationalist, 21/05/1921

[25] Ibid ; McGill, pp. 6-7

[26] Ryan, p. 5 ; Nationalist, 09/07/1921, 02/05/1921

[27] Nationalist, 18/06/1921

[28] Kane, p. 16 ; Nationalist, 26/03/1921

[29] Nationalist, 09/04/1921 ;  Kane, p. 16

[30] Hynes, John (BMH / WS 1496), pp. 16-7 ; Ryan, p. 9

[31] Hynes, p.17 ; Kane, p. 9

[32] Kane, p. 21

[33] Ibid, p. 22 ; McGill, p. 6

[34] Nolan, Nan, pp. 11-12



Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Brennan, James, WS 1102

Byrne, Daniel, WS 1440

Fitzpatrick, Michael, WS 1443

Gerrard, E., WS 348

Hynes, John, WS 1496

Kane, Patrick, WS 1572

McGill, John, WS 1616

Nolan, Nan, WS 1441

Ryan, Thomas, WS 1442


Nolan, William, ‘Events in Carlow 1920-21’, Capuchin Annual 1970


Carlow Nationalist

Bushwhacked: The Loss of the Carlow Flying Column, April 1921


On the 21st of April 1921, Patrick Kane, an adjutant in the Carlow IRA Brigade, received news of the worst kind and hurried to where the Brigade O/C Eamon Malone was staying. Kane’s expression alone was enough for Malone, who had been settling down with a cup of tea, to ask: “What disaster has happened now?” It was an apt response to a catastrophic intelligence failure and a crushing defeat.[1]

From its formation in 1917 and the triggering of the War of Independence in early 1919, the Carlow Brigade had struggled with the same difficulties that had beset many of the others throughout the country: maintaining manpower and morale against constant shortages of weapons and ammunition, while surviving the attentions of an entrenched British army and the ever-present Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).

Auxiliary RIC on a Crossley tender

The Brigade responded with a cautious approach, with planned operations cancelled at the first hint of unexpected difficulty. For example, in June 1920 a three-man team from the Tullow Company was to meet up with their commanding officer before holding up the RIC at the nearby barracks, but when the officer failed to show, the attempt was called off.[2] Similarly, a proposed assault by several battalions on Bagenalstown Barracks in early 1921 was aborted when poor coordination and planning made the possibility of success unlikely.[3]

Crown forces adopted a wariness of their own: the men of the 1st battalion lay in ambush along the back road between Carlow town and Bagenalstown for an anticipated enemy patrol, but after hours of waiting the target never came.[4] Likewise, an attack planned by the 4th battalion in Borris in September 1920 was thwarted when the targeted RIC patrol broke its usual routine and did not come as expected.[5]

Forming the Column

It was to break this impasse that the flying column was formed as a small, dedicated body of men who would be well-armed and mobile enough to take the fight to the enemy. As many of its members were already on the run, they would not have had to adjust their lives by much. Leading the column was Laurence O’Neill, a Tipperary émigré who had already held a number of ranks in the Carlow Brigade and was thus considered experienced enough.

IRA members

The newly established column began its training in the area near Killeshin, on the borders of Leix and Kilkenny. The hilly and uninviting terrain would help deter unwanted attention while the column based itself in an empty farmhouse, relying on local people for food.

It was at this time that a Black-and-Tan named James Duffy was shot at while leaving a pub in plainsclothes and with a civilian companion, Harry James. Duffy was killed and James badly wounded. The assumption was that Duffy had been investigating the area with the other man as his guide and spy. It is unknown whether the men of the column had been the ones who had killed Duffy but, as they were residing nearby at the time, it is a strong possibility.[6]

Preparing the Column

The column had hoped to christen its campaign with an attack on Bagenalstown Barracks, which had only recently avoided an earlier assault without knowing it. The attack was to be in unison with men from the 4th battalion, with the 1st and 3rd battalions assisting in securing all roads to Bagenalstown in order to stave off any enemy reinforcements. As with many of the proposed operations by the Carlow Brigade, it was cancelled, this time due to the inopportune arrival of British reinforcements in Crossley lorries before the roads could be blocked, prompting the column and the battalions to prudently withdraw.[7]

According to Kane, the column planned another attack on Bagenalstown Barracks. But with the lack of explosives with which to breach its walls and in the absence of an expert to make them, the plan was yet again called off, making Bagenalstown one of the luckiest barracks in the War. However, it is uncertain as to whether Kane was confusing this foiled attempt in his Statement with the one above.[8]

The column moved north to the townland of Mullinagown on the 19th of April, in the territory of the 4th battalion of the Carlow Brigade, where it billeted in an unoccupied house. From there, the column intended to join up with its North Wexford counterpart, then in the neighbouring Blackstairs Mountains, and sent two scouts ahead to make contact, but fog made that task impossible and ensured that the Column would remain by itself.[9]

Losing the Column

What happened two days later was headlined in The Carlow Nationalist as: ENGAGEMENT IN CO. CARLOW – FIVE STATED TO BE KILLED. Quoting a report from the British military GHQ:

A patrol of Crown forces surprised an armed party of civilians drilling near Ballymurphy, County Carlow, on Monday evening. An engagement ensued resulting in some (believed to be five) of the rebels being killed, two wounded and six captured.

Eleven rifles, one shot-gun, several revolvers, a quantity of rifle and dun-dun ammunition.

The Crown forces suffered no causalities.[10]

In fact, four had been killed. One member of the aforementioned armed party, Michael Fay, had previously served in the British army for three and a half years, having seen action in France. He had lived with his parents in Rathvilly for some years after moving there from Dublin, and was described by the article as “very popular in the district.”

His funeral was to receive a considerable turnout by Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and ex-servicemen. In keeping with the diverse range of people Fay had known, his tricolour-draped coffin was borne by both Volunteers and ex-servicemen.

Fay was the only one of the dead who had been definitely connected with the day’s fighting. Of the other three, all unnamed in the article, one had been an old man of sixty-two. It was unknown if the remaining two had been with the armed party, but they had been running with them at the time of their deaths.

On a seemingly unrelated note, another article in the newspaper was titled: SHOCKING AFFAIR NEAR MOUNTRATH – YOUNG MAN SHOT DEAD – ROBBERY THE ALLEGED MOTIVE. It was not a story that was obviously related to that of the previously described engagement, and was treated by the Nationalist as entirely separate. Only decades later would there be a direct connection made openly between the two.[11]

The Court-Martial of the Column

It would not be until July, over two months later, that the court-martial for the prisoners took place. Held in the Curragh, it centred on the testimony of an (unnamed by the attending Nationalist reporter) British officer who had been leading the Crown forces in the capture of the column. It is the only first-hand account of what happened. As it was tailored to be heard in court, it is far from a complete source, but it does provide a solid, step-by-step version of events.

The eight men in the dock were facing six separate charges relating to possession and use of illegal firearms, and so the testimony at the court-martial took the time to focus on details such as when the suspects were believed to have opened fire, the number of weapons found on the scene, the state of the guns as to whether or not they had been recently fired, and other points relating to the charges.[12]

Unfortunately, no surviving member of the Column submitted a Statement to the BMH, depriving historians of an insider’s perspective. The closest we have are the BMH Statements of Patrick Kane and Thomas Ryan, an intelligence officer in the 4th battalion, which flesh out a number of details. Neither was present at the scene, and both were presumably reliant on hearing about it from the survivors afterwards.

However, the two of them match each other and the court-martial account in such details as the Column being surprised as it was drilling in a field. Incredibly, no one in the Column had thought to post sentries. Historian William Nolan felt the need to offer “extenuating circumstances for their apparent negligence,” in that the Column men had been anticipating the arrival of a GHQ representative “and could reasonably expect the whole area to be on the alert.”[13]

Reasonably or otherwise, the Column members were to be very much mistaken in their complacency.

The Fight of the Column

The Crown force consisted of six soldiers and seven Black-and-Tans along with two officers, one senior and the other junior. Driving in on the scene on two Crossley lorries, the patrol rapidly disembarked and opened fire on the Volunteers, about 200-250 yards away, who fled without returning fire.


The Crown forces gave chase in two squads and, after 100 yards, the squad with the lead officer spotted the Column men moving along a hedge, presumably for the cover, and opened fire again. The lead squad advanced up a laneway where they re-joined the other group, catching sight of the suspects from time to time who were making no attempt at that stage to shoot back.

Upon reaching a certain point, the senior officer saw the IRA men split into two groups moving in opposite directions, at which point the Crown forces followed suit and continued the chase, one squad for each half of the Column. The lead British squad opened fire again, and the officer was sure that the suspects were returning fire this time, for he “could hear the crack of rifles which [he] knew did not come from behind [him].”

Emboldened by the poor aim of the enemy, the lead squad pressed on, coming across four of the suspects – Patrick Gaffney, Patrick Fitzpatrick, James and Michael Behan – lying on the ground with their hands up, their rifles discarded nearby, with two more men – Laurence O’Neill and Thomas Behan – in a similar position of submission. Upon taking these six men prisoner, the squad met up with the other, who had two prisoners of their own: Michael Ryan and William McKenna.

Two other Column members, William Gaffney and a Fitzpatrick (first name unknown) were able to escape in the confusion, making the total number of the column at the time of its loss to have been eleven men: eight captured, two escaped and one killed.[14]

Webley pistol

The captives were transported under guard to Borris Barracks on the Crossleys where O’Neill and McKenna received treatment for their injuries. The victorious patrol then returned to the scene of the fight and uncovered a number of rifles, Webley pistols and shotguns with their accompanying ammunition in the house next to the field where the suspects had been found drilling. Explosive substances and an unexploded bomb were also found in the house. Clearly, the column had been hoping to make up for its past failed attempt on Bagenalstown Barracks.

Michael Fay

Three dead men were found on the scene, according to the officer’s testimony, two in a house and the other in a field, the latter identified in court as Michael Fay. He had been killed by shotgun wounds, according to an earlier Court of Inquiries, though Thomas Ryan was to describe in his BMH Statement that Fay had been bayoneted to death while on the ground, already wounded from gunshots, so that “several parts of his hands and his teeth were scatted round.”[15]

This was to become a sensitive point for the senior officer under testimony, with him denying that he had seen any bayonet wounds on Fay’s body, either at the scene or later, upon being asked about it by the counsel for the defence, A. Wood. Sensing an opening, Wood pressed the officer over whether the wounds on Fay’s arm were caused by gunshots or a bayonet, with the officer maintaining the former.

When it was his turn to testify, the junior officer denied seeing how Fay died, only that the squad under his command had found Fay when he was already dead, the implication being that he had been killed at a distance in the firefight, and not up close while already wounded as the counsel was clearly implying.

Counting the Dead

Of the three other dead men, none were mentioned at the court-material, presumably because their deaths were not relevant to the trail of the accused. According to Thomas Ryan, two of them had been brothers, James and Peter Farrell, and both had been shot and bayoneted near where the Column had been overwhelmed.

In Ryan’s version, they were sowing corn in their field when the fight began, and had been attempting to reach the Column in order to warn them – to Ryan, that was the only explanation, as they would have had no other reason to go in that direction, it being opposite from their home. According to Patrick  Kane, both brothers had no relation to the fight and were innocent victims of circumstances.[16]

In either case, there was no question as to the harmlessness of the third bystander, identified by Thomas Ryan as 62-year-old Michael Ryan (no relation, presumably). According to Thomas Ryan, Michael’s son John was a Volunteer who was leaving home with IRA dispatches to his company captain when he was chanced upon by one of the patrol squads, who opened fire and forced him back in. Ignoring his son’s warning to stay inside, Michael Ryan went out for a bucket of water and was found dead by John at the pump with a bullet-wound to the face.[17]

It is unclear as to whether the Farrell brothers and Michael Ryan were killed deliberately, perhaps mistaken for members of the fleeing Column whose lack of uniform would have made unlucky civilians indistinguishable from combatants, or if they were gunned down by soldiers whose blood was up. Either way, the testimonies of the two officers at the court-martial, which strove to portray the conduct of themselves and their men as models of cool, dispassionate efficiency, only told part of the story.

Memorial to the Dead

The Fall-Out from the Column

Two days after the disaster of the Column, on the 23rd of April 1921, Michael Byrne, a man in his early 30s, was shot to death while returning home from visiting neighbours. The best motive that could be guessed at for anyone wanting harm on a member of a “very popular” farming family was robbery, as he had recently come into possession of £100 and was known to have kept the money on him.[18]

Writing over thirty decades later, both Patrick Kane and Thomas Ryan told of the death of a spy they blamed for exposing the Column to ambush and defeat. In Ryan’s BMH Statement, his name had been Finn, and he had led the British patrol to the site of the Column. Finn had disappeared shortly afterwards and, after initial failed attempts to find him by the IRA, had been captured and taken to an old house. From there he had escaped, and was heading for the safety of Borris Barracks when he was caught again and finally executed after an improvised trial. A large amount of money was said to have been found on him, presumably the reward for his spying.[19]

Kane’s version is broadly similar, in that a spy had guided the British to the Column, and afterwards had been captured and detained near Borris. It diverges from Ryan’s in that there had been no escape or second arrest, the spy’s name is not given, and in how the spy had been shot dead while trying to overcome his guard as opposed to executed. Strikingly, Kane gives the value of the money found on the dead man as £100, the same amount the Nationalist reported as being in the possession of Michael Byrne.[20]

It is possible, then, that Byrne was killed on the 23rd of April 1921 as a result of being suspected as the spy who had doomed the column. There are a number of problems with that theory, however:

  • Ryan got his name wrong, unless ‘Finn’ was a nickname.
  • The two days in between the wipe-out of the Column and Byrne’s death seems rather brief to fit in the drawn-out tale of capture, escape, recapture, trial and execution that Ryan offers.
  • That Byrne was en route from a social call to neighbours would indicate he did not drop out of sight immediately, as Ryan described, after the column’s loss.

Kane’s briefer account fits better into what it is already known from the Nationalist, though his description of spies travelling the countryside while dressed as tramps seems overly outlandish, considering how Byrne was a local man and presumably would have needed no excuse to be in the area.

Neither Ryan nor Kane give a reason as to why Byrne would have been suspected so quickly after the column’s end, despite both being well placed to have known, given Ryan’s rank as a battalion intelligence officer, and Kane’s work as an IRA mole in the Carlow post office amongst the hub of police reports and official mail.

The exact circumstances over Byrne’s death must thus remain a mystery. He may have been a spy, or suspected as one at a volatile time for the Carlow IRA. Or his death could have been over a robbery as originally reported, with Kane and Ryan confusing a death from decades ago as a causality of their war by the time they gave their Statements.


Due to a spirited defence by A. Wood, the eight men from the column were found not guilty at their court-martial of the first two charges arrayed against them: endangering the safety of Crown personnel by the discharge of firearms, and the aiding of such an act. The other four charges, all relating to the owning of contraband such as guns and explosives, were to be announced later.[21]

According to Kane, the prisoners ended up receiving lengthy prison sentences, though the forthcoming Truce would nullify all such judgements. The erstwhile column leader, Laurence O’Neill, would go on to marry the former fiancé of Dick McKee, the Dublin Brigade commandant killed on Bloody Sunday, and raise a family.[22]

Kane would recall Brigade O/C Eamon Malone’s distress at the loss of the rifles rather that of the men in the column. Kane was not unsympathetic – he too agreed with Malone’s assessment that the Carlow Brigade had the men to spare but not the equipment, certainly not enough for a successor column. There would be no further attempt at a flying column for the duration of the War.

That the column had been crushed so effectively with no loss to the enemy, despite the two sides being roughly even in numbers and weapons, inadvertently justified the cautious approach taken by the Brigade battalions. The unspoken view had been that head-on confrontations with British army or RIC forces would invite disaster, and there could be no better illustration of this than how the Carlow Brigade risked much in forming a column and lost accordingly.


Originally posted on The Irish Story (03/09/2014)

See also: Understated Insurgency: The Carlow Brigade in the War of Independence, 1917-1921



[1] Kane, Patrick (BMH / WS 1572), pp. 17-8

[2] Byrne, Daniel(BMH / WS 1440), p.2

[3] Kane, pp. 13-4

[4] Doorley, Michael (BMH / WS 1509), p. 4

[5] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 1442), p. 9

[6] Kane, p. 16

[7] Doorley, pp. 4-5 ; Hynes, pp. 15-16

[8] Kane, p. 17

[9] Ibid, pp. 16-8 ; Ryan, pp. 7-8

[10] Carlow Nationalist, 23/04/1921

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid, 09/07/1921

[13] Nolan, William, ‘Events in Carlow 1920-21’, Capuchin Annual 1970, p. 587

[14] Ryan, p. 11

[15] Ibid, p. 8

[16] Ibid ; Kane, p. 17

[17] Ryan, p. 7

[18] Carlow Nationalist, 23/05/1921

[19] Ryan, p. 9

[20] Kane, p. 18

[21] Hogan, Louise (17/05/2012) ‘Relatives wear 1916 medals with pride at Arbour Hill’, The Irish Independent (Accessed 03/08/2014)

[22] Kane, pp. 17-18



Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Byrne, Daniel, WS 1440

Doorley, Michael, WS 1509

Hynes, John, WS 1496

Kane, Patrick, WS 1572

Ryan, Thomas, WS 1442


Nolan, William, ‘Events in Carlow 1920-21’, Capuchin Annual 1970


Carlow Nationalist

Online Article

Hogan, Louise (17/05/2012) ‘Relatives wear 1916 medals with pride at Arbour Hill’, The Irish Independent (Accessed 03/08/2014)