Republican News · Thursday 16 December 1999

[An Phoblacht]

Christmas week ambush

By Wayne Sugg

Martin Savage, Volunteer officer who was killed in the ambush at Ashtown, County Dublin, 19 December 1919

The IRA's campaign against the British forces gathered momentum gradually after the First Dáil initially met on 21 January 1919, the same day that the Soloheadbeg ambush left two RIC dead. By the end of the year, the IRA had demonstrated that it was capable of launching large-scale operations and that it had the support of the population in its actions.

The escalation of the armed campaign by the IRA was matched by an intensification of the British authorities' attempts to quell the rising tide of republicanism. The introduction of repressive measures against the Irish people did no more then strengthen the people's resolve, but it did hamper the IRA in some of its operations.

IRA Intelligence operatives were scouring the country for snippets of information which would be useful to the active service units as they planned against the British forces in Ireland. One such snippet allowed IRA General Headquarters to authorise an attack, which, if successful, would rock the British establishment and their forces in Ireland to the core. The intended target was the British direct ruler Lord French, who was also the British Army's supreme commander in Ireland.

Despite misleading reports being circulated in the media that Lord French had left the country to holiday aboard a cruise ship in the North Sea, the IRA knew otherwise. Its sources in Dublin Castle had informed them that Lord French was in fact hosting a private party at his `country' residence in Frenchpark, County Roscommon. They also knew that he would be travelling back to the Vice-regal Lodge in Dublin on the midland train. They knew that he would disembark at the isolated railway station at Ashtown, rather than travel to the terminus at Broadstone in Dublin city. He was to be met here by an armed escort consisting of three cars and an outrider.

A special IRA unit chosen for the operation reconnoitred the area for several days prior to the intended day and selected the most appropriate site for an ambush. On the morning of 19 December the IRA unit gathered at Fleming's of Drumcondra and in small groups cycled through Phibsboro' and up the Cabra Road, regrouping at Kelly's public house (the Halfway House) in Ashtown.

The unit consisted of some very experienced Volunteers. They were: Tom Kilcoyne, Mick McDonnell, Joe Leonard, Dan Breen, Sean Treacy, Vinnie Byrne, Martin Savage, Seamus Robinson, Paddy Daly, Tom Kehoe and Sean Hogan.

At 11.40am, as the train carrying the Lord Lieutenant pulled in, the unit left the pub and took up their positions along the crossroads at Ashtown. The plan was for three Volunteers, Tom Kehoe, Martin Savage and Dan Breen, to push a hay-cart half-way across the road. They would push it the rest of the way across the road when the out-rider and the first car passed them. Lord French was to be in the second car and this vehicle would be attacked with grenades and concentrated rifle fire.

As the trio pushed the hay-cart across the road a policeman, a member of the Dublin Metropolitan force, disturbed them, calling on them to move on. Another Volunteer lobbed a grenade at him, it didn't explode, but hit him on the head, rendering him unconscious. He was dragged from the road and the plan proceeded.

When the convoy appeared minutes later, each Volunteer fulfilled their role in the attack. As the second car careered off the road with its driver, McEvoy, slumped over the wheel, it became obvious that Lord French was not in fact one of the occupants. The occupants, part of Lord French's guard, returned fire. As the firefight continued the third car arrived on the other side of the cart and began firing with rifle and machine-gun fire on the now exposed Volunteers. They were caught between two lines of fire. Dan Breen was shot in the leg as he broke cover and seconds later Martin Savage fell mortally wounded by a bullet in the neck. Tom Kehoe and the wounded Dan Breen succeeded in dragging Martin Savage's body from the road while the firefight continued.

Luckily the British forces, including some wounded, began at this stage to withdraw from the scene, leaving one dead and the unconscious DMP member behind them. The IRA unit managed to disperse then to safe houses in the Dublin area. Dan Breen was helped onto his bike by Paddy Daly who helped him to a safehouse in Phibsboro' area, where he was attended to by the captain of the Dublin hurling team, Dr J.M. Ryan.

The audacity of the ambush focused international attention once again on Ireland and though it failed and had resulted in the death of young Dublin Volunteer Martin Savage, it gave renewed impetus to the war against the British occupation forces and its administration in Ireland.

The ambush on the British Lord Lieutenant and military commander of Ireland, Lord French, occurred on December 19 1919 at Ashtown, Dublin, 80 years ago this week.

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