Michael Sheehy, a leader of one of the republican columns that day, gave a vivid account of the ambush to Ernie O’Malley. He stated that the ambush was prepared for a Free State convoy of armoured cars travelling from Kilkenny through Abbeyleix and on to Portlaoise. The information, of which the Irregulars were in possession, was that the convoy was to pass through in the early hours of the morning.
About twenty riflemen and three engineers cycled fourteen miles from their base in the Slieve Bloom Mountains during the night to the ambush position on the main road about half a mile from Abbeyleix at Tunduff. The site chosen was at the road beside a house where there was a high walled garden. Tom Brady had examined the site and decided on a plan of action.
Two 14 pound mines were laid in the middle of the road, three feet deep close to both ends of the wall. Irregular John Scully was responsible for the conveyance of these mines from Portarlington to Tunduff. The convoy was to be allowed to pass over the first mine unhindered and when the armoured car was over the second mine, both mines were to be detonated thus pinning down the men in their vehicles.
The control point for the engineers detonating the mines was just forty yards away at the entrance gate but the high garden wall offered protection from the blast.
The morning wore on and there was still no sign of the convoy. People passed by on the road in horse traps but never spotted the riflemen lying in wait. A postman arrived at the house to deliver letters and had to be held by the ambush party. At about noon the men decided to eat. The people of the house made tea for the men and they took it in shifts to dine.
Whether the postman was missed or the Free State side got information, a convoy of two lorries led by an armoured car was sent out from Portlaoise to ambush the Irregulars. There were about twenty soldiers in each lorry and five men in the armoured car. It appeared that the Free State side had a fair idea of the position of the ambush party. The armoured car slowed down as it reached the ambush site and as it passed over the first mine it was "blown sky high".
Whether it was inexperience on behalf of the engineers or some other reason, the exploding this mine failed to disable the convoy. The two lorries were able to reverse around a bend to relative safety and allowed the soldiers to dismount unhindered. Meanwhile the five men in the armoured car were attacked by a man who was able to get into position close to the car and throw a bomb at them. The soldiers were able to take the machine gun from the car and make their way back to the lorries taking their wounded men with them. There were some shots fired at them from the Irregulars at the top of the wall. The Free State men from the lorries attacked the relatively unprotected flank of the Irregulars.
Sheehy stated that as they were not expecting a convoy from that direction, there were no men covering that flank The Irregulars were not at full strength because, according to Sheehy, "some of our men were actually asleep when this action began. They had had no sleep the night before."
Sheehy fired a few shots in the direction of the Free State column to halt its advance towards them. Lieut. Tierney was shot and wounded as he descended from the lorry. The Irregulars had a quick consultation and decided that it was better to make a retreat. Sheehy saw them retreating in file away and shouted at them to hang on.
He checked the positions to make sure there were no men missing and then went in to the house. He had a glass of milk and declined a drink of something stronger when it was offered. There were two men at the house and they, along with Sheehy, made their retreat.
From the top of a nearby railway bridge, they could see the Irregular column and were able to catch up with it later on.
After reaching the column, Sheehy talked to Lar Brady about men who were missing. Volunteer Joe Crennan and Sheehy went back once more to the exact spot where the men were posted when the first mine exploded but did not find anyone. It had been decided to retrace their steps of the previous night towards the Slieve Bloom Mountains and the relative safety of the Rosenallis/Clonaslee area.
Crennan and Sheehy went back to the spot where they had left the column but there was no sign of it. They travelled about three quarters of a mile away from the ambush site and went to a little house at the side of a wood that they had passed that morning. The people at the house said that the column had gone to an old sandpit nearby. The two men rested and cleaned up at the house.
While they were in the house, they could see five lorries full of Free State soldiers pass by in about fifteen minutes. They went into the next field and from there to the sandpit where the men of the column were. The Free State forces were deploying men all around.
Commandant Gantley had some of his men already in position. Michael Sheehy could see the soldiers "as clear as day" but the men in the sandpit could not. Sheehy knew that to fight was ridiculous because the men were beaten physically, and also vastly out-numbered. The Irregulars had been caught in a classic pincer movement, which made retreat from the ambush site virtually impossible.
Colonel James Ryan stated that "the approaches to Mountrath and Ballyfin were held by troops in Mountrath Barracks, and the other flank on the Abbeyleix side was covered by troops from Abbeyleix Barracks”.
Sheehy tried to get close to Nicholas Gorman, a Battalion Commandant, to discuss the situation. Gorman was not a member of the Flying column but took part in the ambush. While Sheehy was on the move gunfire broke out quite close to him. Sheehy said "bullets were coming around the two of us and at Crennan also. We couldn’t budge”.
During a lull in the fighting, Sheehy saw one young lad throw a bomb and wound himself in the behind.
An officer and Corporal of the Free State forces, along with two or three men, came up along the other side of the hedge. These men called out “surrender, surrender. Sheehy knew the game was up and shouted back “alright, I’ll surrender” and gave the order to his men to lay down their arms.
Once Sheehy and his men got out through the hedge, they saw the two downed officers. He stated “some of our advance party came up to that hedge and, when they were close up, firing started so that either party could have shot the officers”. The Irregulars were searched and then threatened by a Free State force who were clearly shaken.
Extract from 'The Quiet County' by Michael Rafter. Republished by kind permission of the author.