by ehistoryadmin on January 31, 2018

The Graney Ambush

James Durney

On 24 October 1922 an IRA column ambushed a National Army tender at Graney crossroads on the Castledermot to Baltinglass road. Three National Army soldiers were killed and five wounded, one mortally. The attack was the most lethal ambush of the revolutionary period in Co. Kildare. It was a well-planned and violent attack that demonstrated the nastiness of the Civil War.

Since that fateful day, ninety-six years ago, the full story of the Graney ambush was never told. On the night of Tuesday 30 January 2018 James Durney addressed a 100-strong audience at Teach Diarmada, in Casteldermot in an event organised by Castledermot Local History Group.

The War of Independence effectively ended with the signing of the Truce on 11 July 1921. Nine people had died in the low level of violence in Co. Kildare, in 1919-21.

On 6 December 1921 the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed giving twenty-six counties of Ireland ‘a measure of freedom’ while six north-eastern counties remained within the United Kingdom. The treaty immediately split the Irish republican movement and a ‘civil war’ between the new Provisional Government of the Free State and anti-Treaty elements of the IRA began in June 1922.

The IRA in Kildare, and in many surrounding counties like Wicklow and Carlow, had only began to be effective in the spring of 1921 with the creation of the republican army into divisions, brigades and battalions. These units were beginning to act as a cohesive army when the Truce was signed. Because of this, and on going training during the Truce period, the IRA was in a more suitable military position in 1922 than it had been previously.

Because of this violence in the Civil War increased dramatically. Forty-five people lost their lives in an eleven-month period in Co. Kildare from June 1922-May1923.

The ambush took place at a sharp bend in the road, at a spot where four roads converge, known as Graney Cross. The attacking party used Richard Thorpe’s house on the right hand side of the road as their main position. (Mr and Mrs. Thorpe were held in one of the occupied cottages.) Men were also positioned at Hunt’s cottage at the cross; behind a low wall and at old ruins at Paddy Doyle’s forge.

For about an hour before the ambush occurred people passing along the roads in the locality were held up and ordered to take cover in some of the houses nearby. A number of men who were working on the roads in the area were also held up and taken to a place of safety. A wedding party was also recorded as among those imprisoned. All the roads had been blocked by trees and the small group of soldiers were caught in a virtual deathtrap. The attackers outnumbered the National troops by over two-to-one and they fired on the car using grenades,  rifles, Lewis guns and revolvers.

There is little doubt that the anti-Treaty men who carried out the ambush were from the locality and that the action was planned after the National Army troops were first seen immobilised on the Athy/Castledermot road sometime between 12.00 noon and 1 pm. The ambushers had over two hours to put their men in place. In charge of the detail were Commandant Hugh Kenny and Lieutenant Edward Nolan, both of Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow. The driver of the Crossley tender was James Hunt, while the other occupants were Sgt. John Scully, Volunteers (Privates) James Murphy, Edward Byrne, Patrick Allison, John Nolan and James Martin.

A tender with nine soldiers left Baltinglass around 12 noon to travel to Athy, but ran out of petrol between Castledermot and Athy. Comdt. Kenny sent one man with dispatches to Athy on a bicycle and a motor brought out fuel. They abandoned their original trip and having refuelled decided to return to Baltinglass through Castledermot. The tender stopped at the Post Office for about five minutes and then proceeded towards Baltinglass.

The soldiers had spent over an hour on the roadway between Athy and Casteldermot and their presence was undoubtedly noted by anti-Treaty supporters. When the National troops began their journey back to Baltinglass upwards of twenty republicans were already in position in and around Graney Cross waiting to ambush the unsuspecting soldiers. As the tender was passing Thorpe’s house on the right side a volley of shots was opened on it from the cottage, with no effect. A second volley quickly followed. The driver, James Hunt, was hit and he lost control of the tender, which ran up on the ditch at what was known as Cassidy’s garden between ten and fifteen yards from the cottage. Comdt. Kenny, probably sitting in the front with the driver, was thrown out of the tender to the right into the ditch where he crawled to safety. The rest of the occupants fell out onto the left side, on to the road. Comdt. Kenny was wounded when he attempted to return fire and crawled up the hill to Knockfield Lodge.

Lt. Edward Nolan gave this description of the ambush to the inquest the following day at the Workhouse, Carlow. ‘On Tuesday 24th October, I left Baltinglass about noon with Commandant Kenny, five men and the driver in a Crossly tender. We were going to Athy. Between Castledermot and Athy we ran short of petrol and the car stopped on the road. Comdt. Kenny sent one of the men with dispatches to Athy on a bicycle, and a motor brought out petrol. We then proceeded to return to Baltinglass through Castledermot. We stopped at the Post Office for about five minutes, and then proceeded towards Baltinglass. When we came to Graney Cross and as we were passing by the cottage on the right side fire was opened upon the troops from the cottage. The first volley had no effect. A second volley was fired quickly. The driver lost control of the car and it ran up on the ditch between ten and fifteen yards from the cottage. Fire was opened on all sides, from the cottage; a house at the cross; a low wall called the pound and the old ruins to the left in the field. The second volley knocked out the whole party. Three men fell out of the car on to the road dead. The others were all wounded. I was wounded myself and dropped down flat on the road and crawled along the edge of the ditch, and when I got up, about seven yards in front of the cottage, I was covered by three men with revolvers. I was lying on my back in the ditch when I was ordered to put them up, and one man took the rifle and ammunition from me. I asked him to get me a drink of water in the house opposite. He promised to do so, but did not come back. About twenty men came out from the cottage and behind the ditch. They were all armed. I recognised amongst them three men. They were all armed. I cannot tell who fired the shots that killed the three men. After this they set fire to the lorry and then marched off in the direction of Knocknacree. Most of the firing was at close range and it was impossible to escape and the roads were barricaded. The car was standing still from the time it ran into the ditch and was bending over towards the road. The fire was opened up on us suddenly and without warning and we were not called on to surrender. I did the best I could for my wounded comrades with the assistance of neighbours. We were afterwards removed to Carlow. The firing came from revolvers, rifles and bombs. While the men were lying on the road the firing was kept up.’

The first volley fired on the tender had no effect. The second volley, however, inflicted the fatalities. Privates Edward Byrne, James Murphy and Patrick Allison were hit and fell out of the lorry on the road. Whilst on the road they were hit by more bullets. Pte. Edward Byrne, Bagnelstown, was hit four times and died from a wound above the heart. He was sixteen and had only joined the National Army three months previous. James Murphy, Kilkeegan, Baltinglass, had been in the National Army for ten months. He was aged forty and had been shot in the shoulder. Patrick Allison (31), Harristown, Co. Kildare, was hit twice, in the head and stomach. All the rest of the troops were wounded and with the exception of Lt. Nolan all were seriously injured. He was wounded in the back and face. Ned Nolan, was a well-known Co. Wicklow footballer.

The IRA column burned the tender and took away all the arms, eight rifles, except Comdt. Kenny’s revolver. When the ambushers had left some of those who had been held up hurried off to Castledermot and Baltinglass bearing the sad news.

Mrs. Hunt brought water to the injured. It was said that the Cassidy’s refused to provide water to the injured, but this could be taken from Ned Nolan’s statement which said ‘I asked him [one of the ambushers] to get me a drink of water in the house opposite. He promised to do so, but did not come back.’ A young lady dressed the wounds of the injured soldiers before Dr. D. P. Kenna arrived at the site.

When the news reached Baltinglass troops were immediately dispatched to the scene. Very Rev. T. O’Neill, parish priest of Baltinglass, and Fr. Murphy and Fr. Mahon, quickly arrived at Graney and administered the last rites of the Catholic Church to the dying and wounded men. Brigadier General Niall MacNeill proceeded to the ambush scene from Carlow Barracks. He found one dead man, Patrick Allison, on the road, and the dead bodies of Edward Byrne and James Murphy in a house on the Cross. He said it was absolutely impossible for the troops to escape the ambush and maintained one of the wounded men was shot while lying on the ground.

The bodies were brought to the Carlow Workhouse where the Coroner’s report returned the verdict that the men ‘were wilfully and brutally murdered by an ambush party’. Brigadier General MacNeill said, ‘All I have to say is that on behalf of headquarters of the Third Eastern Division of the army and General Headquarters I wish to tender my sympathy and the Army’s sympathy with the mothers, and relatives of the three good soldiers who had died doing their duty towards their country.’

Mr. Duggan, on behalf of the Jury said, ‘I beg to tender their deepest sympathy to the mother and friends of these young soldiers and also to their relatives. We also trust that if the occasion arises the military authorities will look after the relatives of the deceased.’

Note: The identities of many of the ambush party were revealed on the night. James Durney is working on an academic paper on ‘The Graney ambush’ to be soon published.

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