A local account of the 1921 Sinnott’s Cross ambush, a small but successful operation of the Kilkenny IRA in the War of Independence, by Clogga Ireland.
Michael Collins along with Richard Mulcahy were the main driving forces behind the Irish Independence movement after 1918. Michael Collins was the IRA Director of Intelligence and was actively involved in providing funds and arms to the IRA units that needed them.
In early 1921 Michael Collins sent a dictate to the commanders in Kilkenny City ordering them to proceed with ambushes and other activities in county Kilkenny. The reason was the fact that a lot of the British army resources, including the Black and Tans, were being focused on Cork, Tipperary and Dublin. So Collins needed the British to start spreading their resources more widely, so to take the pressure off other areas. In this vicinity, most of the activities during the War of Independence were focused in west Kilkenny and east Tipperary (with the 7th Kilkenny Battalion in Callan being the most active). In light of this order by Collins and others in high command in Kilkenny, an ambush occurred near Sinnotts cross, Mooncoin, Co Kilkenny in June 1921.
It is with great credit to these Mooncoin men that they actually proceeded with an ambush. Many battalions around they county did very little. It would have been easy and less dangerous to do noting and just sit on their hands and wait for others to do the ‘dirty work’. But these local men felt it was right and the most just thing to do. Not for themselves, but for their children and grandchildren. Remember, they had noting to gain in the short term, but perhaps had a lot to lose. These losses could have included their farms, their jobs, their freedom or most likely their own lives. This was because Marshall law was running in Kilkenny at this time in 1921 which meant they could be executed without trial.
In fairness to these Mooncoin men, they were ordinary people. They did want war or killing but just like, Nelson Mandela some decades later, war was a necessary evil. No country had freed itself from an Imperial ruler up to that time by peaceful means. War was their only option. Sometimes its hard for people to understand the need for this by looking through the lens of the Ireland today. But it was because of their sacrifice that we now live in a thriving republic with its own parliament, culture and identity. As bad as some people like to give out about our Taoiseachs, it was worse in the 1800’s when the Prime Minister of the UK was the Prime Minister of Ireland, and as had happened a few times, had actually never even set foot in ireland! Imagine having a Taoiseach who had never set foot in Ireland, so it could be worse!
And now, we have achieved what Douglas Hyde had called for at the beginning of the 1900’s, in his essay; ‘the Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland”.
Now just to set the national scene as it was in June 1921 when the Sinnotts Cross ambush occurred. The country was in turmoil for nearly two years at this stage due to the ‘Tan War’ as it was called, or what we now call the Irish War of Independence. People in Mooncoin would have been glued to the daily newspapers. And in general, the tide of sympathy was turning towards the Irish revolutionaries even from people that would previous have had moderate views. If we flash back just 8 months before the Sinnotts Cross Ambush, the world was following Terence McSwinneys hunger strike in England. His subsequent death was an international sensation reaching the front pages in the U.K. and America. Then just a few weeks later (7 months before Sinnotts Cross), the Croke Park Massacre occurred, where 12 civilians were killed (Bloody Sunday mark 1). This was a response to Michael Collins’s assassination of British detectives. Then to make matters worse, the Black and Tans burnt down the majority of Cork city centre, just 6 months before Sinnotts Cross. As a quick summary, the Black and Tans were a mercenary force setup by the British. What this meant is that they didnt have to follow the general rules of the army, or for that matter the rules of general warfare. They basically had a licence to ‘do what they liked’ with no repercussions from their superiors. History would show that this backfired badly on the British, as the majority of people that were affected by the Black and Tans, were law abiding, innocent people. The Black and Tans enemy was basically all Irish people which is why they burned down creamerys and farmhouses or killed innocent people without trial. This ironically was beneficial to Michael Collins and the leaders as people really started backing them when they saw what their prime minister in the london had allowed these Black and Tans to do. So in a nutshell, the Irish Republicans had declared war on anyone in a British uniform (or their associates), the British had basically declared war on everyone Irish or Catholic as they trusted no one. That was their downfall.
To focus on the Mooncoin area during the War of Independence; the 9th Battalion of the Kilkenny Brigade IRA (mostly from the Mooncoin area) consisted of local farmers and labourers, mostly in their mid twenties, and few of whom had any military experience. Indeed, before the ambush at Sinnott’s Cross, in June 1921, possibly the only two rebels with any experience of warfare, guerrilla or otherwise, were James ‘The Solider’ Walsh (a signal officer) and Phil Henebery, both of whom had fought with the British army during the Great War. The Battalion Quartermaster, Ted Moore (Rathcurby) would often recall that, if it hadn’t been for Henebery’s military experience during the ambush, all would have been lost for the rebels. As we shall see later, both of these men (Moore and Henebery) played a particular role in the ambush, although we cannot say with any certainty just what it was that Henebery did, to deserve the accolade.Although ‘Big’ Pat Walsh (Clogga) was generally regarded as being the O/C of the Battalion, and although many later thought that either himself or Dick Brennan (Knockanure) was in charge at Sinnott’s Cross, it would seem that it was actually Ned ‘na Coille’ Walsh (Portnascully) who led the men on that day. Our information comes from an interview with Martin Murphy (Grange), done some time in the 1960’s, when he said “The man in charge was Ned ‘na Coille’ Walsh although some others thought later that Dick Brennan was in charge. Ted Moore was Quartermaster”.
Build-up to the Ambush
The seeds of the ambush were sown some six months earlier, when the Dublin High Command (as mentioned, led by Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy) made efforts to increase republican activity all over the country. They were concerned at the pressure that was being put on Cork and Tipperary and wanted to force the British to spread their resources. This resulted in a visit to Mooncoin by the legendary Ned Alyward of Callan. Aylward was a veteran of the Hugginstown and Nile-Mile-House ambushes and had taken part in the dramatic escape from Garryricken House a month earlier. In April, and following the Moonarch Wood ambush, Aylward travelled south where he encouraged the 9th Battalion to ambush a cycle patrol of Royal Irish Constabulary and Black & Tans. At the time, there were two patrols in the area. The first came from Lower Kilmacow, passed through Upper Kilmacow and continued on to Clogga Creamery. Here, they would meet a similar patrol, which came from Fiddown, through Cloncunny and Sinnott’s Cross. The two patrols would stop and talk to each other for a while, swapping stories and sharing cigarettes, then return to their respective barracks in Kilmacow and Fiddown. It was the ‘Kilmacow’ patrol, which Aylward suggested they ambush and he inspected a site between Upper and Lower Kilmacow.Several of the local IRA refused to carry out this ambush however, on the basis that they needed more time to prepare. Aylward promised that they could keep any arms that they captured, but Ted Moore and Jack ‘na Coille’ Walsh in particular, were adamant in their refusal. Aylward left the area shortly after and returned to the fight in West Kilkenny. He would not have to wait long for the Mooncoin men to act however and they must have begun their preparation shortly after. The local IRA certainly needed time to prepare. They had little or no ammunition and only a few shotguns to take on the heavily armed Crown forces. To make matters worse, they would have had only the barest of military training.As can be imagined, the first priority was to secure ammunition. They made buckshot cartridges by mixing powder from rifle bullets and cut up nails and steel. In order to hide the ammunition, Jack Larressy (of Larressy’s Shop in Clogga) constructed a timber box within which the ammunition was placed and subsequently hidden in the bogs in Clogga. In later years, Jack would recall that the timber he had used was from his shop, and had the words ‘Laressy’s Shop’ printed on it. If the British ever found the box, they wouldn’t have had far to look to know who had made it.
A further problem was to ensure that the British troops would actually arrive, as the rebels did not want to wait for several hours in a ditch, before realising that there would be no one to ambush. As has been said earlier, there were two established patrols in the area. However, the British would frequently alter their routine, sometimes not coming at all. As Jack ‘na Coille’ recalled some forty years later ‘the military and RIC were stationed in Fiddown and in Kilmacow. A patrol passed occasionally from Piltown to Clogga. That was their route. We knew the times they passed. Sometimes it would be at 6 or 7 a.m. but it was always before dinnertime or earlier’. As things turned out, the British did not arrive ‘before dinnertime or earlier’ and the men had to wait until approximately 3 o’clock that day.Whatever about the time, it was vital to ensure that they did actually arrive. In order to ‘draw out’ the patrols, the IRA caused various disturbances in the area. This was (and remains) a common feature of guerrilla warfare, where the rebels would give the enemy some reason to leave the safety of their barracks, and venture out into the countryside. Here, the rebels could attack them with impunity and with better chances of escape in the labyrinthine mix of fields and boreens that makes up the south Kilkenny landscape. We are aware of two such ‘disturbances’, which the IRA caused. It is known that they stole a teapot from the house of a woman with pro-British sympathies in Ardera, and clock from the Menels family of Clogga, knowing full well that the theft would be reported to the British. The Menel family were Quakers who subsequently left the country in 1924, having had enough of Irish political unrest. Some effort has been made to track them down and it is known that they left Ireland for Tasmania, surely the furthest possible place on earth from Sinnott’s Cross.Indeed, one old man recounted a humorous story to me about the Menels and the clock, which the IRA had stolen from them. It would seem that there was a particular IRA man who, at subsequent meetings of the Battalion in the months following the ambush, would declare (to the chagrin of his colleagues) ‘Ah lads, it is all over now. Would you ever give the clock back’…Needless to say, his comrades were not so keen on the idea and the Menel family may still wonder how some people in Mooncoin are telling the time.
On the evening before the ambush, Jack Larressy was assisted by a young Mick Shea (Clogga) in bringing the box of ammunition from the bogs to a safe place close to the ambush site. At the age of 17, Shea must have been one of the youngest to have such a direct involvement in the ambush, although several of the scouts would also have been in their teens. The men themselves were mostly in their mid twenties, although Ned Foran (Ardera) was only twenty and ‘Big’ Pat Walsh had just turned thirty-one.As the Friday night drew on, the men must have been full of nervous energy. They would have been dressed and ready to go shortly after the clock struck twelve, as they had to be at the ambush site at 3 AM. The reason for their early arrival was to ensure that no one would see them travelling to Sinnott’s Cross. They went, for the most part, through the fields and, when they eventually arrived, every man who had volunteered for the ambush was there.They immediately held a meeting to finalise their strategy. We know very little of what was said here but we do know this; Jack ‘na Coille’ wanted to station some men down a small boreen, which ran approximately 100 yards away from the ambush site. He wanted men there in order to broaden out the ambush area and to ensure that the British would have no-where to run once the shooting started. In his own words, ‘we put our scouts out. We neglected one position. It was a boreen going up from the road but they left this position unoccupied although I wanted to occupy it when we arrived at the ambush site. The others were afraid that someone up this boreen could be seen by people passing the way’.This fear of being seen governed much of IRA strategy as there were many people living in the area who would have been firmly in favour of the British presence. Secrecy was all-important therefore and the boreen was left unoccupied. It was to prove a costly decision.Following the meeting, the men began their long wait. We know that Patsy Fitzgerald (Cashel) and Jim Malone (Kilnaspic) brought buckets of tea down to the men at some stage of the morning.
Such a manoeuvre would have been risky and required the scouts positioned along the roads to keep a vigilant eye for anyone passing. Even with the scouts, the men would have had to keep deadly silent in the ditch. They could not smoke or laugh as any sound would give them away and the British would be alerted to their presence. The only factor in the men’s favour was the mild weather. Newspapers of the time report that this period was in the middle of a long draught, which wasn’t to end until the following month. Thus, even if they were cold, tired and hungry in the ditch, they were not wet.In later years, Jack ‘na Coille’ remembered that, as the day wore on, they began to suspect that the British were not coming. It is difficult to establish with any certainty, the exact time that they did arrive, primarily because different people have given different accounts over the years. Whatever time the British arrived, the IRA would have been notified by the scouts, well in advance. It must be recalled that south Kilkenny had not seen much activity during the War of Independence and the British would not have expected any trouble. Indeed, they may have been playing mouth organs as they cycled along, pleased to be out of the confines of the barracks. If the cycle patrol passed someone on the road, they would most likely have pleasantly tipped their hats at the passer by, certain that they would not see fighting of the sort that was taking place in other parts of the country.The soldiers cycled along in pairs. They travelled from Fiddown, up through Cloncunny and over the little stream that still runs through Sinnott’s Cross. As they rounded the bend, the IRA began to steady their weapons, and prepared to fire.The ambush was meant to go like this: The IRA would wait until the British cycled into the ambush bend. When the last soldiers was in sight, one of the rebels (more than likely Dick Brennan of Knockanure) was to fire the first shot, thus giving the signal to the rest of the men to shoot.
Brennan was stationed with two other men, in a small boreen (not to be confused with the boreen that Jack ‘na Coille’ had wanted staffed earlier on). This second boreen ran onto the road, just as it turned into the ambush bend. If all went to plan, the British would be surrounded on all sides.It might be said that the inevitable happened and, the one thing that could have gone wrong, went wrong… Brennan’s gun jammed, possibly as a result of the ammunition getting damp in Jack Larressy’s box. While he was desperately trying to fire the weapon, the British cycled into the ambush area…and casually through it, oblivious to the shotguns pointed at them from behind the ditch. After a few moments of uncertainty, Pat ‘The Fox’ Walsh (Swithin Walshs, Clogga) realised that Brennan was unable to fire and so he took the initiative. He raised his shotgun and fired, thus giving the signal to the rest of the men and a hail of bullets flew over the ditches at the unfortunate British on their bikes. Although there may have been anything up to twenty-five rebels, it is likely that many of their guns jammed, either because of the ammunition they were using or simply because the guns themselves were old and untrustworthy. In any event, the vital seconds, which had been lost by Brennans gun jamming, saved the lives of many of the Crown forces.When the British realised that they were being ambushed, they knew enough to keep on cycling. They kept their heads down and sped through the ambush area, hoping that they would not be hit by one of the bullets flying at them from behind the ditch. When they got past the ambush site, they noticed the boreen which Jack ‘na Coille’ had wanted staffed earlier. They went up the boreen and established a defensive position.While the British were settling into the boreen, the IRA saw that one soldier was lying on the road, hit by a republican bullet. Phil White John and Ted Moore jumped over the ditch and ran to him. He had been fatally wounded but had not yet succumbed. As he struggled to free his legs from the frame of his bicycle, the two rebels cut the rifle strap from his shoulder and captured his rifle. They made their escape as the British began to shoot back from the defensive position that they had established. Both the men escaped unharmed.The same could not be said of the British soldier, who was to suffer a massive heart attack, brought on from the trauma of being shot and the loss of blood. His name was Albert Bradford and was only 21 at the time, having served less than 10 months before being shot at Sinnott’s Cross. He was born in Essex and had served as a soldier and labourer before coming to Ireland but it has proven impossible to trace any of his family. It is unlikely that he was married and so it will depend on him having had a sister or brother at the time, who may have family living today.Furthermore, and although the IRA was unaware of it at the time, a second soldier had been hit. His name was John Stuart and he was injured in the left arm. There is no mention of Stuart in the RIC records although we do know that he was sent home to England following the ambush.
After Moore and Henebery had captured Bradford’s rifle and made their escape back over the ditch, it became clear to the rebels that their shotguns and buckshot ammunition were no match for the powerful British rifles and rifle grenades. The British could not see the exact position of the rebels as a result of the thick scrub which covered them but they had no lack of ammunition and so they simply peppered the area with gunfire. The rebels realised that retreat was the only option, and they began to withdraw. They had planned their retreat well in advance and so it was that, some of the men travelled south to Mooncoin, others (under the command of ‘Big’ Pat Walsh) escaped to Kilmacow and more again travelled up the Glen to Kilnaspic and the safety of its hills. Much as the retreat was planned however, there was to be a sting in the tail for two of the retreating groups.For the men who travelled up the Glen to Kilnaspic, they suddenly found themselves fired upon by a British soldier who had been straggling behind the rest of his patrol. He had heard the shooting and hid while the fracas continued. However, when the shooting stopped, he came out of hiding and spotted the IRA men making their escape. He travelled up the road, which leads to Kilnaspic, shooting down at the men travelling up the Glen, along by the stream. He was too far away to be effective however and soon gave up the chase.For the rebels under the command of ‘Big’ Pat Walsh, there was to be an even greater shock.
As I have mentioned above, the British had two patrols in the area, one of which travelled to Clogga from Fiddown and the other from Kilmacow. This particular group of rebels were making their escape to Kilmacow from the ambush site and happened upon the second patrol making its way to Clogga. In the words of Martin Murphy, “All our lads got away in different directions. Some went in the direction of Mooncoin. I went in the Kilmacow direction under Pat Walsh. We had to cross the Kilmacow police patrol’s track that was taking them to Clogga and we had only barely crossed when the police patrol swept along and we had to throw ourselves down”.Following the retreat of the IRA, the British emerged from the cover of the boreen. They commandeered a creamery lorry, which was travelling from Fiddown to the Creamery and brought Bradford back to the Fiddown Barracks. It would seem that Bradford’s funeral escort was ambushed in Carrick-on-Suir the following day, although not by the Mooncoin Battalion. This ambush resulted in the death of another soldier; Private Smith of the Devon Regiment.There is also a report that, when the IRA made their escape, the British came out of hiding and began firing large amounts of ammunition underneath a nearby bridge. Is it possible that the British began firing into thin air in order to use up ammunition, and be in a position to claim that they had put up a bigger fight than they actually had? Whatever the likelihood of this, it has proven impossible to verify the story.
After their long wait and the gun battle, the IRA escaped from Sinnott’s Cross without anyone being captured or injured. They may well have stayed on the run for some time after, but there is no record of any of them being badly maltreated in reprisals. Today, the remains of the IRA underground hideout can still be found a few hundred yards off the Affady road. It is extremely unlikely that the IRA holed up here for it is no more than a mile from the ambush site, and couldn’t have held any more than a handful of men for any length of time. Wherever the rebels went, they hardly returned to their homes. Many of them would have been known as Republicans and the British were furious at the death of their colleague. It would seem that Mr. Menel, who had been so badly treated by the IRA, managed to persuade the soldiers to refrain from burning Clogga down. He promised them that none of the local Clogga men were involved in the war, and that any reprisals would only play into republican hands.Nevertheless, the soldiers were not going to take it lying down and they swept the area for information on the IRA men. The following story was related to me by one of Moonoin’s oldest inhabitants, who has since passed away. He was only 11 years old at the time, but I cannot forget the clarity with which he told this story:
“About a half an hour after the ambush the soldiers came into our house in Cloncunny. My father had a man painting a hay barn. He was standing on some scaffolding.The soldiers came in and shook him down from the scaffolding and hit him with his rifle. Then a soldier (possibly the same one) hit my brother Mikey in the mouth with a grenade and broke his lip and some teeth.There was a girl in the house at the time called Mai Walsh. She was visiting from England and had a slight English accent. When she saw how the soldiers were behaving towards the men, she shouted at them “Oh you pig, you mustn’t hit him, he is only 16”. Then she told the soldiers “We are English and we will complain about you when we get back”.
The (English) soldier replied, “F**k you and England”. He grabbed her by her ponytail, swung her around and then hit her on the back of the neck with his rifle.”
As this story illustrates, the soldiers who fought and died for the Crown had little knowledge or interest in why they were there. The Irish War of Independence was an opportunity for many of them to escape meagre economic conditions at home in England, and they travelled across the Irish Sea to do a job and nothing more. Few who wore the infamous uniform of the Black & Tans had either education or financial means. They came to Ireland, and many of them never went home.
The men of the 9th Battalion also fought, but not for financial gain. In all likelihood, if the war had not occurred, they would have remained anonymously working on their farms in rural Ireland. Instead, they took part in an epic struggle for freedom and brought the worlds most powerful empire to its knees.