Kilcommon Ambush: In Search of Safe Houses & Reprisals

A key element of the Landscapes of Revolution Project has been the identification and mapping of Safe Houses. These civilian homes and premises became increasingly important networks as 1920 progressed, and more and more volunteers were being forced “on the run.” Their central importance only accelerated following the formation of IRA Active Service Units (“Flying Columns”). The risks to the individuals and families who ran Safe Houses increased exponentially as the conflict drew on. 1920 had seen RIC forces supplemented by Black & Tans, Auxiliaries and increasing numbers of British military. It is apparent that the homes of prominent IRA volunteers- which often doubled as Safe Houses- were frequently well known to these groups. Time and again, these homes were targeted in official and unofficial reprisals following IRA actions. This is a pattern the Landscapes of Revolution Project has encountered on a number of occasions. When it came to the Kilcommon Ambush, the standing threat of reprisal against the homes of the local IRA had a significant impact on both the development of the plan of attack, and on its aftermath. Identifying these homes, and exploring the story behind them, has been a central aim of the Kilcommon Project.

The area where the Kilcommon Ambush was initiated. The RIC patrol was advancing along the road away from the camera when it came under the initial IRA fire, which originated behind the hedgeline at the bend in the road (Landscapes of Revolution Project)

Background to the Reprisals on the Kilcommon Safe Houses

The Kilcommon Ambush was carried out by the Flying Column of No. 1 (North) Tipperary Brigade. Kilcommon itself was located within the Brigade’s 5th Battalion area, but despite this the attack was carried out without that Battalion’s official cooperation (although the intelligence that led to the attack had been provided by local IRA). Indeed, after the ambush, which led to the death of four RIC Constables, the Flying Column commander Ned O’Leary recounted that the 5th Battalion O/C, Paddy Doherty, was incensed by the action:

After the Kilcommon Ambush, the Battalion O/C, paddy Doherty, abused me strongly in Meehan’s yard in Glastrigan over having attacked the police patrol in his area. In this case I only learned about the patrol from some of the men in Doherty’s battalion because they wanted to see this patrol attacked and were aware that the battalion commander would not approve of such an operation. (Edward O’Leary: WS1459).

As historian Seán Hogan relates it, Doherty told O’Sullivan to “go back down to Nenagh and have your ambushes there” (Hogan 2020: The Kilcommon Ambush). Doherty’s Adjutant in the 5th Battalion was William Hanly of Reiska. His account of what happened after the ambush offers some insight into why Doherty was so concerned that the attack had gone ahead:

Swift reprisals followed this ambush. As soon as the police reinforcements came from Newport my own home and also those of Pat Doherty and of the Caplis brothers went up in flames. Our fodder was also burned, and four head of cattle belonging to my father which were out in the fields near the house were shot dead. Just a fortnight before the Kilcommon Ambush the police had raided my home in search of my brother, Michael, and myself. On that occasion they told my people that they intended to burn out the place. (William Hanly: WS1368).

The ruins of the Doherty home, destroyed in reprisal for the Kilcommon Ambush of 16 December 1920. With thanks to James Hanly. (Landscapes of Revolution Project)

The first attempt by the RIC to destroy William Hanly’s home had been driven off, when he other IRA volunteers had opened fire on them as they approached. But the building would not escape following the fatal Kilcommon Ambush. Men like Paddy Doherty and William Hanly knew that their homes and families would be targeted in the event of a local incident. After the death of the four RIC constables, they were proved right. It is little wonder then that Paddy Doherty was reluctant for attacks to be carried out in such close proximity to his home in December 1920. Unfortunately for Paddy, in addition to losing his home, shortly after this incident he was replaced as the 5th Battalion O/C (Hogan 2013: 298).

Locating the Kilcommon Reprisal Landscape

A major part of our aims during our work at Kilcommon was the identification and mapping of the Safe Houses destroyed in reprisal for the ambush. With the assistance of historians John Flannery and Seán Hogan, thus far we have identified and visited the sites of both the Doherty and Hanly farmhouses. We hope to identify the Caplis home on our next field visit. We are very grateful to James Hanly, who now farms the land on which the 1920 Doherty home is located. James kindly showed us around and shared with us some intriguing detail about the reprisals. The Doherty home is a particularly striking remnant of the War of Independence. The building that was burnt in 1920 was never re-occupied, and still stands in silent testament to the violence of the period. Rather than rebuild it, in the years that followed the Doherty family decided to construct a new home, just a few dozen yards away from the building they had lost. James related to us how, on the day of the reprisal, the military had moved in on the home from a nearby ridgeline. There they had begun the event by opening fire on the yard outside the house. The family dog and a pig were killed during this shooting. Thankfully- in another common theme associated with reprisals- the Doherty’s had been forewarned that the troops were on their way, and much of the family livestock had been taken off to avoid it being shot.

The Hanly home which survived one attempted RIC reprisal in late 1920, only to be destroyed following the 16 December 1920 ambush. The Hanly family repaired the building after the event. With thanks to Tom Ryan. (Landscapes of Revolution Project).

Tom Ryan now occupies the home where William Hanly lived in December 1920, and is William’s nephew. We are grateful to Tom for allowing us to view the house and for sharing some of the family memories with us. Tom related the fact that the family furniture had only just been moved back into the house at the time of the Kilcommon Ambush reprisal, as it had been taken out in October in anticipation of the earlier RIC effort to torch their farmhouse. At the time of the reprisal itself most of the family had already left the premises, and William and a few volunteers who were there moved into a hiding place further up on the farm. A number of cows and sows were shot during the event. In contrast to the Doherty home, the Hanlys decided to repair the damage, and as a result, Tom still lives in the same building today- albeit with a new roof.

The reprisal carried out against the Hanly home resulted in a successful compensation claim, where the damage to the building was recorded. Details of the judgement were carried in the Nenagh News of 15 January 1921.

Plotting the network of Safe Houses across the landscape greatly assists in “visualising” the War of Independence in places like Kilcommon, and also brings home the risk that was inherent in operating these vital cogs in the IRA operational wheel. More than that, discussing the story of what occurred at such sites with people like James and Tom reveal new detail about the events such as reprisals, and the long-term trauma they could cause. We with to thank James, Tom and all the locals in the Kilcommon area for their assistance thus far with the project- we look forward to discovering more with them as it continues!

The Kilcommon Mapping Project is funded as part of Tipperary’s Decade of Centenaries Programme financed by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. It is being delivered by Abarta Heritage as part of the Landscapes of Revolution Project.

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