By Terry O’Reilly
In September 1920 a directive was issued that each brigade should concentrate its most experienced personnel and available weapons into full time Active Service Units (ASU), popularly referred to as flying columns. The West Waterford Brigade made a virtue of necessity by forming its column from men who had been forced to go ‘on the run’ due to pressure from Crown forces.
The West Waterford ASU was formed initially from a dozen men, although it was provided with a secure base of operations in the Comeragh mountains. Its leader was George Lennon, who although then aged 20, was already an experienced guerrilla who had taken part in the Fermoy ambush in September 1919 and in the major attack on Kilmallock RIC barracks in May 1920. Thereafter he was attached to the East Limerick flying column (the first to be formed) taking part in engagements at Bruree and Kildorrery. He had recently assisted Liam Lynch in the formation of the North Cork flying column.
Other personnel included prominent Volunteer officers Mick Mansfield and Pat Keating. World War combat veteran John Riordan provided military expertise and training while automotive skills (rare at the time) were provided by ‘Nipper’ McCarthy.
The new column’s first action took place on 9th October 1920, when a lorry carrying RIC men and Black and Tans was ambushed at Brown’s Pike near Dungarvan without losses to either side. On 1st November 1920 the flying column with the assistance of local Volunteers carried out a successful ambush at Piltown Cross on a unit of the Hampshire Regiment based at Youghal, as a result of which twenty military rifles were captured. One British soldier was killed and several captured of which six were wounded; the captured British troops were released unharmed and transport provided to bring the wounded back to Youghal. Two weeks later a unit of the West Kent Regiment was ambushed near Cappagh, and shortly afterwards, two RIC men were shot dead in two separate incidents in Cappoquin. On January 7th 1921, the west Waterford ASU travelled to Tramore in east Waterford to participate in a large scale ambush planned by the East Waterford Brigadier Paddy Paul. However the IRA force of nearly fifty had been badly deployed with the result that when a unit of the Devonshire Regiment from Waterford travelled into the ambush area, they were able to make a fierce counterattack inflicting two IRA fatalities and two wounded. Lennon extricated the column safely and they made a forced march cross country back to their base. On 11th February 1921, another unsuccessful ambush was attempted near the Gaeltacht village of Ring.
Although a few members of the original column were captured by Crown forces during the winter, by early March 1921 the column numbered thirty men including a doctor who accompanied them into action. On 3rd March 1921, a unit of the Devonshires was ambushed at Durrow railway station and kept pinned down there for several hours. A few days later, several British solders were captured at Kilmacthomas and were released unharmed. Shortly after this, the west Waterford column was was placed under the temporary command of George Plunkett, an IRA staff officer and veteran of the 1916 Rising. On the night of 18th March 1921, Plunkett led the column in an ambush of a British Army patrol at the Burgery near Dungarvan, as a result of which two British vehicles were destroyed, the troops scattered, and prisoners were taken, one of whom was Captain DV Thomas, the senior officer of the Dungarvan garrison. The British soldiers were released, but RIC Sergeant Michael Hickey was executed by firing squad. The following morning Plunkett led the column to the site of the ambush in an attempt to seize arms and ammunition abandoned by Crown forces there, but they ran into a British ambush during which Pat Keating was fatally wounded and Jack Fitzgerald killed. These were the only fatalities suffered by the column throughout the conflict. A Black and Tan was shot dead by Plunkett.
A chronic shortage of ammunition thereafter crippled column activities. On 20th April 1921 the column carried out an attack on the West Kents outpost at Cloncoskoran. On 29th April, Lennon led an ambush on a British troop train at Ballylynch.
On the 4th July 1921 the column carried out an ambush on a British troop train at Cappagh. Following this, the British garrison in Fermoy deployed over 300 troops into the Nire valley but the column succeeded in evading encirclement and hostilities ceased with the Truce on 11th July 1921.
During the Truce period, the east and west Waterford brigades were amalgamated and the flying column personnel were involved in training camps throughout the county. Several were involved in the bloodless ambush of a large convoy of Black and Tans at Dunkitt in Kilkenny in March 1922 as a result of which a large quantity of weapons and several vehicles were captured, and when the Waterford brigade took over Waterford city from Crown forces the flying column constituted the core of the Irish garrison.
When the Civil War broke out in June 1922, the Waterford brigade opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and were reinforced by troops from the anti-treaty First Cork Brigade. The garrison of Ballybricken prison, which fired the first and last shots of the Battle for Waterford City in July 1922, was formed entirely of former Waterford flying column men. Following the battle over thirty of these men, including George Lennon, accepted their cause as lost and resigned from the anti-treaty forces to prevent further suffering to the civil population. Others continued to fight on against the National Army until the end of the Civil War.
The casualties inflicted upon Crown forces by the West Waterford flying column were not high, but the activities of this ASU with the vital support of the local Volunteer units resulted in the British administration being forced to deploy nearly a thousand troops to a small county which had not previously boasted any significant military garrison. At the same time the number of RIC barracks in the county were reduced to a handful with police and judicial responsibilities becoming the preserve of the Republican forces.
Nice work and thanks to Terry O’Reilly