The Grange Ambush
MB grew up in the village of Grange in an old farmhouse next to the Camogue River. A stone bridge spans the river some 100 yards south of the farmhouse, and a similar distance on the other side, sits Bulfin’s farmhouse (now in different ownership). In 1920, MB’s family home was in the ownership of the O’Neill family, and Bulfin’s house was a pub in the ownership of the Clancy family.
On 08 November 1920 an ambush of British Crown forces took place approximately between Clancy’s & O’Neill’s. A number of witness statements are available from ambush participants. MB’s favourite version is that of one Edmund Tobin, who was lucky to escape with his life. There is some conflict, it must be stated, between the version of Tobin and that of another volunteer, one Morgan Portley. MB considers Tobin’s version to be very accurate in every respect of which MB has knowledge, such as the layout of the ditches around the farmhouse as they were in MB’s younger days and as they similarly were many years previously at the time of the ambush. They are now much changed, following the demolition of an old hay barn and the construction of a new one by MB’s dad many years ago, and the demolition of various ditches around the new larger barn. So for the reason of Tobin’s accuracy in the telling, in as much as MB can deduce, MB goes with Tobin’s version.
Another participant, one James Moloney from the nearby village of Bruff, claims to have come up with the idea of the ambush, along with a number of others. Moloney featured in MB’s posts of recent weeks and MB starts this week’s post with an extract from Moloney’s statement.
MB can remember meeting Moloney as a young kid hitching lifts home to Grange after football matches in Bruff. Moloney liked to tell tales from his fighting days to anyone who would stop and listen. MB and pals liked to stop and listen. MB remembers one particular line from the descriptive Moloney – “we hid in bushes to attack the Brits, bushes the birds had to get out of, such was the amount of lead flying in both directions”.
The column remained in billets in Lough Gur and during that time Martin Conway, James Maloney (Kilcullane), Edward Tracy and myself approached D. Hannigan and Thomas Malone and suggested an ambush at Grange. A meeting was held within a few days at the home of Robert Ryan, Lough Gur, the Company Captain. Present were: D. Hannigan, Thomas Malone, Robert Ryan, James Maloney (Kilcullane), Martin Conway, Edward Tracy, James Maloney (Meadagh, Bruff), Seán Clifford (Fedamore), Richard O’Connell, O/C of Mid Limerick Column, myself and David Cremins. J.P. O’Connor, our Battalion O/C, was not present. He was known as “the man with the fainting wife”. If O’Connor was summoned to anything that spelled danger, his wife fainted and he had to remain to mind her. O’Connor had a motor car and the car was found burned near Bruff Bridge in October, 1920. Sean Wall compensated him by having him appointed Rate collector under Limerick County Council.
Grange ambush took place on November 8th 1920. The previous night Thomas Malone had dispatched the Battalion Commandant to present himself at Count de Salis’s gate at 5.50a.m. November 8th. He did not come, his excuse later being that he had had a headache and, having taken some tablets, had overslept. This ambush is dealt with in detail by me as “Seamus” in “Limerick’s Fighting Story” to which please refer. Let me add that whilst we lay in ambush for one lorry, we attacked a convoy of ten lorries, including an armoured car – steel lined cars. One lorry had a machine-gun on a tripod.
Martin Conway was in charge of local preparations. He was plucky to a fault but had no head for details. It was faulty scouting which signaled one lorry instead of the convoy. The outpost south of Quilty’s quarry, under Dick O’Donnell, had been at fault in allowing themselves to be observed by the British. Consequent on this latter, the British sent one lorry into the first suspicious position (the ambuscade) whilst the main body remained outside on elevated ground. The fight took place from Clancy’s public house and post office to O’Neill’s house and yard to 100 yards north this house.
We moved with the Colum to Kilkilane a place between Herbertstown and Lough Gur. After a few days rest we took up ambush positions at the village of Grange which is situated at a left-hand bend on the road from Bruff to Limerick. In a public house situated on the right hand side of the road as one looked towards Limerick, which was owned by a man named Clancy, four men – Bill Burke, Phil Fogarty, Owen Keeffe and another man were placed, all rifle men. The windows in the gable end of this pub commanded a good view of the bend which was approximately in the centre of the village. On the same side of the road but nearer Limerick was a high wall surrounding the grounds of a large farmhouse owned by a man named O’Neill. In the wall was a large wooden door which gave access to the front of the farmhouse. The pub and the farmhouse were separated by a small bridge over a river and were about 200 yards apart.
Inside the wall on the Limerick side of the bridge we erected a platform to enable us to see over the wall which was about ten feet high. The platform adjoined the gable end of O’Neills farmhouse which faced Clancy’s pub. To erect the platform we rolled a number of porter (beer) barrels across the bridge from Clancy’s and through the big doorway, closing the door later.
When we had the barrels in position we placed planks on them. Morgan Portley an officer of the Mid Limerick Brigade and I got on to the platform to open the attack with bombs. Behind the big door, which was a few yards to the left of the platform, Martin Conway in charge of six men was placed with instructions to open the door at a given signal and push out a horse cart into the road as a block or barrier. Away back behind Conway were posted a further six men armed with shotguns to cover the doorway in case the enemy would try to retreat through it. In extended formation around the bend and on the right hand side also, were posted the Lough Gur Company with a number of Mid Limerick men all armed with shot guns, in charge of Bob Ryan. Across the road from Clancy’s pub on the left hand side of the road and on the Bruff side of the little river were Donnchad Hannigan
and Sean Ford in charge of a number of the Column men. They all had rifles.
Around the bend on the left hand side but a short distance nearer Limerick than the shot gun men on the opposite side, were posted the remainder of the Column men, all with rifles too. All of the Column men were well experienced by this time and had several engagements to their credit. Before leaving me, Hannigan and Ford told me not to attack any lorry coming from the Bruff direction as there may be prisoners on it but, within half an hour, they were back to me again to tell me that they had just received a signal from a hill beyond Clancy’s which, as I have said, was on the Bruff side of the ambush position saying there was one lorry approaching from Bruff which was not carrying prisoners. They told me to open the attack on the lorry. As Ford left me he said “Give it the bombs Ned and we’ll finish it off”.
They returned to their positions and we waited. What a surprise for Morgan Portley and me, looking from our position on the platform to a bend in the road from Bruff to see one, two, three, four lorries and I think one armoured car included among them, with more behind. I had to think and be quick about it. I was going to let them “What will we do?” As he did o an accidental shot went off, fired by one of our men on the other side of the road. There was no mistaking the sound of that shot; it was that short, sharp bark of a Peter the Painter. Because of that shot I decided to attack. Without answering Portley I pulled the pin and he did likewise. We peeped over the top and let fly.
The two bombs went right into the first lorry. After the explosion it swerved to the left and stopped. In a matter of seconds the enemy’s machine guns and rifles were spraying the area with bullets. I turned to look for Martin Conway at the door. In my rage I forgot to tell him not to open the door. He had it open and he and his men were retreating past O’Neill’s house.
I jumped off the platform and was about to lay my hands on my rifle which was standing at the gable end of O’Neill’s house when I saw a British Officer and one soldier coming in through the gate, but thanks to the quick action of the six men covering that door with their shotguns – I only knew one of them; his name was Murnane of Lough Gur – they let bang and down went the two men in the doorway. With that, the retreat was sounded by one of our men in charge on the other side of the road. As I was in charge of the men on our side of the road I got my whistle and gave the signal to retreat to the men on the right hand side. As I looked across the river I saw Bill Burke. By the way he was using his leg I knew he was wounded. I also saw Phil Fogarty as he came out from the back of Clancy’s; one of his hands was very dead looking.
I had to make some attempt to get away myself, but I had a haversack with about 300 rounds of .303 ammunition, the weight of which was too much for me to jump over a wire fence at the back of O’Neill’s house as Morgan Portley had done. I went to the front of O’Neill’s, but the enemy were firing a machine gun on it. All my own men were gone too far to call on them to cover that doorway; I was like the boy on the burning deck. During a lull in the firing I got safely across the farmyard and over a low wall where I got down to draw my breath, travelling about ten yards at a time and using all the military training I had learned from the little field big exercise books. I had gone about 100 yards across a field and was about to take it easy thinking the enemy had ceased fire – the weight of the ammunition was telling on me – when all of a sudden it started up again; the bullets were going into the ground all around and very close to me. I surmised they were by this time firing from O’Neill’s haybarn. First to the left and then to the right and lying down flat for a while, I kept going for another 100 yards. The land was very flat; I hardly knew where I was going by the time they eased off firing. All the men of that section situated on the right-hand side of the road had by now gone out of sight. I saw a fence to my right where I took cover and had a smoke and there I decided that the only thing to do was to go back to the house which I had left early that morning – Moloney’s of Kilkilane.
When I got there it was getting dark. Peg Moloney told me that the Column had passed by quite close some time earlier, but she did not know where they had gone. Nick O’Brien, a cattle dealer who lived nearby, came in. After I had a good meal, O’Brien suggested that I should sleep in his house that night. I accepted the offer and went to bed in good spirits. Next morning O’Brien and I went across the fields to Paddy Kennedy’s of Kilballyowen, who was an old man but a great worker in the Sinn Féin cause. I guessed he might know where the Column had gone to, and he did.
View of O’Neill’s house from the bridge