Historians Revisit the Ballyfermot Troop Train Ambush of 1921

A train carrying British soldiers, civilians, cars and donkeys left Heuston Station at 1pm on 8 July 1921, and chugged in the direction of the Curragh army barracks in Kildare.

The 4th battalion of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – made up of locals from Ballyfermot, Inchicore, Drimnagh and Bluebell – waited on the Le Fanu Road Railway Bridge.

“The plan was that when the train went underneath the bridge they would pour petrol and when it came the other side they would throw lighted rags down,” says historian Liz Gillis.

Soldiers waited on the banks of the train tracks and opened fire. Others threw grenades, she says. Local Jimmie McGuinness took a position on the bridge with a Thompson submachine gun.

Unknown to the soldiers at the time, this was to be the last major conflict of the War of Independence, says Gillis, who along with Dublin City Council historian Cathy Scuffil, gave a recent online lecture on the Ballyfermot troop train ambush.

The ambush did not go quite as they expected.

Ballyfermot and the 4th Battalion

In the 1920s, Ballyfermot was a small village just outside of Dublin, says Scuffil, the council’s historian-in-residence for that part of the city. “It would have been very rural.”

Trade grew around the canals and the railway line that ran through Ballyfermot, she says.

Most worked as farm labourers, or mill or railway workers, she says. “And a few lough keepers.”

The 4th battalion of locals made grenades and fixed up guns in a foundry in Ballyfermot, she says. “They were used to working with metal and machinery. They were very skilled men.”

Before December 1920, these battalions operated on a part-time, unpaid basis for the IRA, Scuffil says.

“But after the events of Bloody Sunday” – when British soldiers opened fire on civilians at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park in November 1920 – “the British carried out mass raids and set up internment camps,” Scuffil says

Gillis says the British thought they had the IRA on the run. “So the IRA thought, we need to up our game now.”

From December 1920 onwards, IRA battalions became full-time soldiers, Gillis says, “So these guys, every day, were to hit the British in some form.”

Troop-Train Ambush

“These guys knew the area like the back of their hand,” Gillis says.

The plan was to ambush the train as it passed through the bridge where Le Fanu Road, the long road that sweeps north to south through Ballyfermot, lined with pebbledash homes, is today.

Photo by Joe Corrigan.

The target was not troops but supplies, Gillis says.

“This was part of a new tactic that the IRA had developed in 1921 to attack troop trains and to attack supplies. They had discovered that supplies were costing the army more than soldiers,” Gillis says.

Everyone involved in the attack was from the local area except for Pat McCray. He was in charge of bringing the Thompson submachine gun.

“There was only two Thompson submachine guns, I think, in the country at the time. So they guarded it with their life,” Gillis says.

McCray drove the Thompson up from Abbey Street, where the IRA held their guns, to the bridge, where local Jimmie McGuinness used it to fire down on the train.

“It was a massive train. They had 1,700 troops on this train as well as civilians and horses,” Gillis says

“It was literally a few minutes, the operation,” Gillis says. Historians are unsure how many died.

“It’s the last major engagement undertaken by the Dublin brigade of the IRA before the War of Independence ended,” Gillis says.

“It happened three days before the truce and it happened hours just before the truce was going to be announced,” Gillis says.

The Commander

“To me, he was a nuisance,” says Diarmuid O’Connor on the phone last Thursday.

His uncle, Pádraig O’Connor, was commander of the battalion.

Diarmuid O’Connor remembers walking around Ballyfermot with him as a child. His uncle was so well-known in the area that many locals would stop to chat.

“That was one of my pet hates. He spoke to too many people while I was trying to get from A to B,” he says, jokingly.

Pádriag O’Connor was involved with the War of Independence from the start, Diarmuid says.

“In 1919, in Inchicore, he had a shootout with British soldiers,” he says. He was 18 years old at the time.

There were many republicans living in Inchicore at the time, he says.

Pádraig O’Connor’s neighbour, Nellie Bushell, was an Abbey Theatre usher who stored guns for the IRA in the theatre.

“Peadar Kearney [lived] four or five doors down and he wrote the national anthem,” Diarmuid O’Connor says.

There was an awful lot of loyalty to Pádriag, Diarmuid says.

“All ten men, bar one, of the number four [battalion] followed Pádraig into the army,” Diarmuid says, about the Irish Civil War.

An Unexpected Aftermath

After the ambush, the train continued on to Clondalkin Railway station, to assess the damage and let off civilians.

The military section of the train continued onto the Curragh army barracks, according to Pádraig O’Connor’s witness statement in the military archives.

Back in Inchicore, the 4th battalion awaited the evening newspapers to see the effect of their ambush on the train.

It was not the reaction that they had expected, says Gillis.

“They see the headline ‘Troop Train Ambush’. They were shocked because there is that headline but the first headline is ‘Peace Negotiations to Be Resumed’,” says Gillis.

The peace negotiations between the British government and the IRA dominated the news that day.

The Inchicore soldiers’ surprise did not stop there.

“They were more shocked that [the newspapers] did not report any casualties,” says Gillis.

Pádraig O’Connor went down to the Curragh army barracks to look at the damage on the train.

In his written statement, he said: “I examined the railway carriages afterwards, and it would seem to bear out that the shooting was very low, concentrated and effective.”

“From reports received from the Curragh Hospital, the military casualties were greatly downplayed,” Pádraig O’Connor said.

Diarmuid O’Connor says, “My view is that the British didn’t want any publicity of this at the wrong time.”

With peace negotiations looking promising, the British government wanted to avoid any hostility, Diarmuid O’Connor says. “It was completely overlooked.”

The War of Independence began in Soloheadbeg in Tipperary with an ambush on British soldiers on 21 January 1919, Scuffil says.

The Ballyfermot ambush was the last major conflict. “The War of Independence went from Soloheadbeg to Ballyfermot,” says Scuffil.

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Donal Corrigan: Donal Corrigan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. He covers transport, and the southside. To get in contact with him, you can email him on [email protected]

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