The Modreeny Ambush was a major military engagement between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British Crown Forces at the closing stages of the Irish War of Independence (1919-1922).
The ambush occurred on June 3rd 1921 about a kilometer to the west of Modreeny, a townland in North Tipperary between Cloughjordan and Borrisokane, on what is now called the R490.
Background to the attack
Over the three years of the Irish War of Independence the insurgents made it impossible for the Crown Forces to move freely outside of their fortified barracks in large towns. Any movement of police and military was likely to be attacked if known about beforehand. The strategy was to make the country impossible to govern and force the British Government to negotiate with the rebel forces. It was against this background that plans were made in the summer of 1921 to step up the war.
Locally the plan was to ambush a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) convoy, scheduled to cycle from Borrisokane RIC barracks to a Petty Sessions Court in Cloughjordan. Information had been received that twelve RIC members would cycle the 10km between the two towns on the morning of Friday June 3rd. The purpose was to capture arms and ammunition which was in very short supply.
The Attacking Force
The ambush was set up by an IRA Active Service Unit (ASU) or Flying Column, led by Jack Collison (Moneygall), under the overall command of Nenagh native, Commandant Sean Gaynor, 1st Brigade. A local Volunteer, Jack Williams (Cloughjordan), was also in the ASU. Volunteers from C Company (Cloughjordan), 2nd Battalion, were also there – among them Bill Dwyer (Barnagouloge), Bill Brereton (Cloughjordan), Sean Kenny (Loughaun), Mick Maher (Clermont), Peter O’Neill (Clooneen) and Jim O’Meara (Farranmacbrien).
Total IRA strength was approximately twenty-seven men divided into three sections.
All the attacking force was in place by 8.30 am on the morning of June 3rd. Two men were on a hill on lookout duty to signal the details of the convoy as it left Borrisokane. The plan was simple – let the convoy pass the first bend and trap it before the second bend. The size of the convoy was important.
The attacking force was in place early (photo from re-enactment)
Unknown to the IRA, however, the RIC cyclists, led by Sergeant William Jones (Wexford) were accompanied by a motorised convoy from Roscrea consisting of three cars and a light truck. The latter was fitted with a Lewis machine gun. District Inspector Edmund Fitzpatrick (Kerry) led the combined RIC force of approximately twenty-eight men which included between twelve and fourteen ‘Black and Tans’.
When the lookouts, Bill Dwyer and Mick Maher, signalled the strength of the approaching RIC the IRA initially panicked and called off the ambush. A runner was sent to Sean Glennon (ASU – Redwood, Lorrha), with instructions to pull back his exposed section at C immediately. A heated argument then ensued at the command post (CP on map) following which, the order to abort was reversed and the men resumed their positions. The original plan to trap the RIC between the two bends and open fire from three sides was now impossible because the section at C had withdrawn, as ordered.
The first RIC men were allowed pass through the ambush site (photo from re-enactment)
The plan now was to allow the first group of RIC cyclists pass through the ambush area and wait until the motorised force was in range.
First shots were at the leading RIC car (photo from re-enactment)
The remaining IRA opened fire at point-blank range as the lead car reached the second bend – Constables William Walsh (Laois) and John Cantlon (Carlow) died instantly. Six cyclists ahead of the lead car were also fired on – Constables James Briggs (Scotland) and Martin Feeney (Roscommon) were killed. The remaining RIC men, now regrouped, took cover behind their vehicles and returned heavy fire on their attackers.
The fighting continued for about forty-five minutes until Sean Gaynor ordered the IRA to disengage – he was aware that two RIC men had gone to raise the alarm.
The local volunteers dispersed and the ASU withdrew and followed a pre-arranged circuitous route to a rendezvous point behind Knockshegowna Hill. They suffered no casualties other than a volunteer sustaining a slight ankle wound. However neither arms nor ammunition were captured.
It the follow-up to the ambush retaliations were carried out by soldiers from the Military Barracks in Nenagh. Five houses were burned to the ground: Dwyer’s (Barnagouloge), O’Neill’s (Clooneen), Meara’s (Farranmacbrien), Kenny’s (Loughaun) and Ryan’s (Knocknacree). Bowe’s house on Main Street, Cloughjordan had all its furniture burned.
The ambush and loss of life was raised in the British House of Commons in the days following the event. Within weeks of the ambush a cease-fire was negotiated and this was followed in time by the Anglo-Irish Treaty which gained independence for the 26 counties as the Irish Free State.
A booklet “The Modreeny Ambush”, produced by ‘Tipperary in the Decade of Revolution’, and authored by Ger Heffernan and Seán Hogan gives the complete illustrated story of the event. It is available from the www.MacdonaghMuseum.ie and www.SileNaGig.com
You can watch this comprehensive illustrated talk on the Modreeny Ambush presented by Ger Heffernan of the Cloughjordan Heritage Group as part of its Annual MacDonagh Weekend, 2021. It was commissioned to mark the centenary of the event with the support of Tipperary County Council and the Dept. of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.