An effect of developing military doctrine during the Irish War of Independence
Kilkenny Military Heritage Project.
The story of the Friary Street ambush starts in Delaney’s Tailoring shop Watergate towards the end of 1920. A much depleted Brigade HQ staff meeting was taking place. The recent arrest of Ernie O Malley at James Hanrahan’s farm close to Inistioge and the capture of his classified note book filled with critical information had led to wide spread arrests of prominent IRA commanders. Peter Deloughry the Brigade Commander, James Roughan Officer Commanding the very active 7th battalion and many other active volunteers were arrested and imprisoned, this was being hard felt locally.
George O Dwyer the newly appointed Brigade commander had recently received a dispatch from Army Headquarters requiring more action to be taken in his area of operations.
A number of options were discussed at the meeting but no final decision was made regarding what the target would be or how soon it would happen.
In early January O Dwyer along with Patrick Bryan St Kieran’s Street who was the Brigade Quartermaster had a meeting with Timothy Hennessy in Bryans home. O Dwyer was annoyed about the tactical situation and he wanted more offensive action and soon.
O Dwyer came to realise that the situation in Kilkenny had become very complex with fragmented leadership issues. He then developed a Mission command style of military leadership, which was derived from the Prussian-pioneered mission-type tactics doctrine, promoting relatively decentralised command, freedom and speed of action, and initiative, within certain constraints. Subordinates, understanding the commander’s intentions was imperatave. In Other words O Dywer gave Hennessy the what (to do) without the how (to do it).
Tim Hennessy knew he was required to activate the members of his 1st Battalion, select a suitable target and implement a plan to attack some part of the Crown Forces in Kilkenny City. He was informed that a ration party of the Devonshire Regiment brought fresh rations to the military guard at Kilkenny Jail every day. He decided that this would be a good target for a planned future operation. Tommy Nolan Outrath was selected to assist him with all the planning and like Hennessy; Nolan was a veteran of the Hugginstown attack.
As the plan was being developed Martin Mulhall Danville was tasked with reconnoitring the patrol route and observing the deportment and drills used by the soldiers when they were carrying out this routine daily patrol.
Mulhall reported that the patrol consisted of seven soldiers deployed in three groups the advance guard was made up of two private soldiers, the main guard was made up of three soldiers two privates one being the driver of the cart and one Nco. The rear guard was made up of two privates.
. The patrol route never changed, the patrol left the barracks at the Ballybought Street gate moved down onto Johns Street over Johns Bridge up Roseinn Street unto the Parade turning up High Street and then turning left onto Friary Street veering right at the top of Friary Street up the Jail Road arriving at the Jail entrance. He also reported that when the advance guard was in line with Hackett’s pub at the top of Friary Street the main group were in line with Garagan’s stone cutting yard and the rear party were in line with the Friary church.
These positions were selected to be the locations of the attacking Volunteers when the final plans were made for the attack at Battalion HQ. Three rural companies were selected for the attack, Tim Hennessy appointed Martin O Brien from Kells as the operation commander. Volunteers from Kells, Threecastles and Bennetsbridge were chosen for the attack.
It was decided that the objective of the mission would be to apprehend the troops gain possession of their arms ammunition and documents, disable the soldiers and withdraw to a safe area where they would disperse into the local population ( like fish swimming in the sea of the population). At the same time the rules of engagement enforced on the day prevented the attackers from using lethal force except for self protection.
It is important here to discuss the implication of this most important mission hinging restriction placed on the attacking force. It is a tactical imperative that attackers triggering an ambush use the element of surprise to neutralise the enemy with lethal force. The limiting of the ambush party to use of force for self protection only would have very damaging effects as will be seen.
Members of the ambush party a few days before the attack where elements of the action were rehearsed at Shines hill on the Callan road. Tim Hennessy was happy about the chances of success after the rehearsals.
The final Order of Battle was as follows
In all 18 volunteers were on active service on the morning of the 21st February 21. However only fourteen were on Friary Street, which gave the attackers a 2:1 numerical advantage over the Devonshire patrol. This might sound like a good advantage but a good rule of thumb is that attackers should plan to have at least a 3:1 advantage and it is very preferable to have an even higher advantage when planning an urban operation 9built up area). In fact when Thomas Treacy attacked the Hugginstown RIC barracks on the he had a tactical advantage of 10:1.
All of the ambushing party arrived in the City by bicycle that morning. The Threecastles men parked their bikes at St Mary’s Cathedral. The Bennetsbridge and Kells groups parked their bikes at the bottling store (Now Brennan’s Public house Walkin Street).
The Threecastles men deployed at the Friary. Thomas Hennessy and Michael Dermody took up position in Garden Row laneway, McEvoy and Dunne took up position in the Friary Porch.
The five Bennetsbridge men positioned themselves at Hackett’s pub. Ned Gooley and Danny Murphy were lying in the doorway of the pub with Dick Fitzgerald standing behind them. Tommy Murphy and Johnny Greene were on the street one reading a paper and the other pretending to be fixing his bicycle.
The Kells group were in position in Garagans stone cutting yard Jim O Brien checked and confirmed that all of the groups were in position. The ambush would be activated from his whistle blast which he would give when the main party were in line with his position.
Martin Mulhall was already performing his task reconnoitring the location of the Devonshire patrol that morning he cycled through the patrol confirming that they were deployed in as normal. He then doubled back and noticed that the patrol looked relaxed and were just a little behind time. He then cycled up Friary street At around this moment Dick McEvoy noticed two things firstly a lady was emerging from a house directly across from Garagans also a man was leaving the friary and heading down the street past the soldiers.
The advance guard and the main party passed the friary.
Dunne and McEvoy were tense and ready for the signal to launch the attack. Suddenly they noticed Hennessy and Dermody moving from their position unto the street. They moved and met in the centre of the street. Hennessy then made a snap decision to send Dunne and McEvoy back to the porch of the Friary, while he and Dermody would move to disarm the rear guard that looked relaxed and were chatting to each other.
They walked passed the soldiers then turned and attacked them from the rear.
There was still no whistle blast as the main party were not yet in line with Garagans yard. Jim O Brien at this time didn’t know what was going on down the street as he was concealed from view of the ration party.
The lady on the street screamed “Soldiers you are being attacked”. Immediately the two soldiers from the main party turned around and took cover in a doorway and the friary wall they took aim and fired at least four shots in quick succession.
Dermody and Hennessy who were struggling to disarm the rear guard fell to the ground wounded. The remainder of the attacking force became aware for the first time that the attack had gone wrong. The Bennetsbridge group then fired a number of shots at the cart which had bolted up the street. One of the mules dropped somewhere in line with the fair green. The attackers managed to escape into the country side during the confusion that followed.
On Friary Street Tom Hennessey lay dead and Michael Dermody was badly wounded but a further 30 yards down the street lay a Mister Thomas Dullard a corporation worker and farther of four whom just happened to be in the wrong place in the wrong time. He would die shortly of his wounds shortly after the attack.
The fact that the Threecastles men attacked the Devonshire rear guard with no numerical advantage meant that the struggle was always going to be protracted and the early warning given by the lady on the street compounded the situation. Well trained soldiers engaging targets from less than twenty five yards with modern rifles meant that there was no doubt about the outcome of the action.
Jim O Brien made the hard but right decision not to sound the whistle blast and activate an already compromised action. The early triggering of the rear group meant that all of the Devonshire soldiers were on high alert and it would have been tactically unsound to attempt an attack when all of the advantages now lay with the soldiers. The engaging of the ration cart by the Bennetsbridge men allowed the attackers to escape during the confusion.
The dead and wounded were all searched and pistols were forum in both Hennessy and dermodys pockets both were loaded. Father Patrick from the friary anointed all of the men as they lay on the street. Doctor John Mitchell came out of the dispensary and administrated first aid to the wounded men before they were removed to Kilkenny military hospital. Thomas Dullard would die shortly afterwards and Michael Dermody would die of his wounds in military custody on 04th March 1921.
Tom Hennessey was buried in Tulla Church and adjoining cemetery, his brother Tim the overall commander of the operation was arrested at the funeral and a British officer removed the Tricolour from Tom Hennessey’s coffin as it was carried from the church. Michael Dermody would be interred along Hennessy less than two weeks later.
While it is easy to pass judgement on the actions of volunteer soldiers fighting for the noble cause of Irish freedom . The bravery involved in accosting well trained soldiers professional soldiers armed with modern firearms cannot be over estimated. Thomas Hennessy and Michael Dermody are rightly remembered with a plaque in Friary Street.
There were many follow up operations carried out by the Crown forces over the following days. All sections of the RIC were involved as well as soldiers from the Barracks.
Jim O Brien was not found to be responsible for the failure of the operation and as already recounted it was a combination of many things which accounted for the outcome. There was an IRA inquiry which found no fault in the commander he followed the plan and was never in a position to launch the attack.
A few words now about Thomas Dullard, his wife was called Mrs Bridget Dullard they had four children aged fifteen, five, two and six months. He was a corporation supervisor at the sandpits on Wolfe tone Street; he had returned home for breakfast after an early start and was seen by Dick McEvoy leaving the church just before the action started.
The armed struggle would continue in Kilkenny around three weeks later there was an attempt to assassinate County Inspector F Whyte just off Friary Street close to the Thoslel. Actions in Uskerty, Garryricken, Sinnotts Cross, and Coolbawn would exemplify the planning and offensive spirit at Brigade level and the quality of leadership at Battalion and Company level as well as the determination of all members of the Kilkenny Brigade IRA.
Tom Hennessy planned the operation having being at the receiving end of a number of severe beatings from the Auxiliary division Royal Irish Constabulary. Major Bruce who was known as a loose cannon appointed as a platoon commander in A Company Auxiliary Division had threatened to shoot him during one search of the premises he managed in Ennisnag. He probably imposed the rules of engagement on the operation because he had very real concerns about what would happen to the city should any of the crown forces have died on Friary Street.
Kilkenny Military History Project.
Bibliography to follow not finished
Bureau of Military History, Cathal Brugha Barracks – Witness Statements
- Thomas Treacy, document no. 1,093.
- Edward J. Aylward, document no.908.
- James Leathy, document no. 1,335.
- Edward Halley, document no. 1,642.
- Denis J. O Driscoll, document no. 1,159.
- Nicholas Whittle, document no. 1,105.
- Seán Kavanagh, document no. 524
Maher, Jim, The Flying Column: West Kilkenny and East Tipperary (Dublin: Dublin Geography Publications, 1987).