The Ambush

A Mine On The Road

On Friday afternoon, July 28,1922, Irregular forces ambushed Free State troops on the main Portlaoise to Abbeyleix Road with fatal effect when a soldier was killed. During the subsequent rounding-up operation that was carried out by the national forces, three officers were shot. Two of these officers died later from their wounds.

A report had been received at Portlaoise barracks that a mine had been laid between Tunduff Cross and Abbeyleix town. Captain Joubert Powell was sent out in charge of a party to remove it. The party consisted of riflemen in two lorries preceded by a Lancia car bearing a Lewis gun team, with whom was Brigadier Mick Gray.

At a point closer to Portlaoise than was indicated in the report, a mine was exploded under the Lancia car, which was then attacked with rifle fire and hand grenades. One man. Volunteer Thomas Grace of Mountrath, was killed while trying to retrieve his rifle from the road. Brigadier Gray and the driver, George Greene, along with Privates Laurence Hennessy and George Taylor were wounded. 

The Irregulars also fired upon two stretcher-bearers, Vols. MacShane and Lawler of the Medical Corps both of whom were wearing Red Cross vests. Captain Powell deployed his men from the lorry. A party under the command of Commandant Berry captured two men with their weapons in a house ten yards from the explosion but the remainder of the ambush party were able to make a retreat.

Once word of the ambush reached the barracks in Portlaoise, reinforcements were sent out under the command of Colonel Commandant Austin MacCurtin and Commandant Michael Gantley.

Colonel Commandant John Collison of Roscrea Command, who happened to be in Portlaoise, joined the party. These forces were deployed across country in the direction of Abbeyleix. Commandants MacCurtin and Collison, and Captain Powell, were moving along the rising ground at Coole, Raheen, the main body having gone another way, and Commandant Gantley with another party were some distance away moving in a circle to join Commandant MacCurtin. Hearing a burst of fire in Commandant MacCurtin's direction, Commandant Gantley moved in that direction and found eight Irregulars in a field with their hands up.

Behind a ditch nearby there were ten Irregulars who had already surrendered, and close to them Commandants Collison and MacCurtin and Captain Powell lay on the ground wounded. It appeared that the Irregulars behind the ditch waited until the party was close up, fired a volley into them and then, abandoning their guns, raised their hands and came forward calling for mercy. Some of the men protested that they had not fired a shot.

A photo of a mine on the road at the ambush site
The Lancia armoured car was extensively damaged in the blast.

Commandant Gantley sent for the local clergy and Fr. Coyne P.P., Raheen, and Fr. Dunne promptly attended and administered the last Sacraments to the wounded officers. Commandant MacCurtin expired after receiving the Sacraments. Commandant Collison died on arrival at the Leix County infirmary in Portlaoise. It was reported that the Irregulars had fired him on as he lay on the ground wounded.

Extract from 'The Quiet County' by Michael Rafter. Republished by kind permission of the author.