I first travelled the road from Castlecomer to Athy in 1945 when the Taaffe family were on the move from the Garda Barracks in the mining town to take up tenancy of a small terraced house in Offaly Street. The Castlecomer Garda Barracks was a fine old building, originally part of an army barracks complex which now stands unoccupied since the new Garda Station was opened in Castlecomer some years ago. As we travelled on the road to Athy we passed just two miles out from Castlecomer through the townland of Coolbawn where today a monument stands on the side of the road commemorating two young men who were killed during the Coolbawn ambush on Saturday morning, 18th June 1921.
The late James Comerford, a Judge in New York City, published privately in 1978 an account of his Kilkenny I.R.A. days in which over more than 1,100 pages he gave a detailed, even exhausting account, of activity in the parish of Muckalee between 1916 and 1922. Comerford’s book devoted many pages to the Coolbawn ambush, with much information not hitherto in the public domain, even though Comerford was not himself involved in the ambush. Two men who however were involved, John Walsh and Michael O’Carroll made statements in 1957 which were recently made available on the opening up of the Bureau of Military History. Coolbawn was the chosen site for an ambush of British soldiers by local volunteers under the command of George O’Dwyer, I.R.A. Brigade Officer who was a native of Castlecomer. British soldiers frequently escorted gelignite as it was brought from Castlecomer Military Barracks to the Wolfhill coal mines. The route in the direction of Athy, passed through the Coolbawn area where the road twisted and weaved between bends. It was a most suitable terrain for an ambush and it was the place chosen by local man George O’Dwyer to attack the soldiers who were expected to set out from the Castlecomer Barracks.
The local I.R.A. battalion was augmented for the occasion by members of the Flying Column and by six o’clock on the morning of Saturday, 18th June the men, armed with a mixture of shotguns, Lee Enfield rifles and at least one German Mauser automatic pistol were in place. The soldiers were expected to travel in three lorries and so the volunteers were divided into three sections of approximately 12 men each. Michael O’Carroll, Captain of the Graiguenamanagh Company I.R.A. was in the first section which took up position on the left hand side of the road as one approaches Castlecomer. The intention was to allow the army lorries pass the first two sections of volunteers and to explode a mine when the first lorry reached the volunteers in section one. The second section of volunteers would attack the second lorry and the third section would take care of the British soldiers in the third lorry. That is how it was planned, but somehow or other the plan unravelled. The lorries were expected to arrive at 10.00 a.m. but almost an hour after that time there was no sign of them. I.R.A. scouts were located some distance from the ambush party, keeping a watch-out for the military, while the Army Barracks itself was kept under observation with field glasses. I understand that Saturday was a market day in Castlecomer and as horse and carts came along the road at Coolbawn they were stopped and diverted down a side road. Volunteers had been detailed to guard any civilians who were so stopped to ensure that they did not leave the area until the planned ambush was over. However, at least one man who was stopped that morning was allowed to proceed onwards and it was his employer, Miss Florrie Dreaper, who is believed to have warned the military of the planned ambush.
Sometime after 11.00 a.m. shots rang out from a party of British soldiers who had silently crept up on the volunteers comprising the third section as they lay waiting on the ground overlooking the Athy / Castlecomer road. John Hartley was killed in that first volley and two of his companions, Nicholas Mullins and James Doyle, received serious wounds as they tried to cross the road to reach the safety of the nearby woods. Both were captured by the British soldiers and Mullins later died from his wounds.
After the first shots were fired confusion reigned amongst the ranks of the volunteers. Apparently I.R.A. scouts brought news of the police and military advancing on the waiting volunteers just moments beforehand. Michael O’Carroll claims that George O’Dwyer issued orders to withdraw, but at the same time the soldiers opened fire, killing John Hartley. O’Carroll and some of his companions retreated to the shelter of a grove of trees about 300 yards from the ambush position where they were joined by many of the other volunteers. They remained there until darkness fell, surprised at the failure of the soldiers to surround the grove or to enfilade it with machine gun fire. As a result the volunteers managed to escape under the cover of darkness.
John Walsh who was the adjutant of the Graiguenamanagh company and Officer commanding the Fifth Battalion Kilkenny Brigade was with John Hartley when he was shot. With them was Patrick Quinn, James Doyle, Michael O’Hanrahan and Nicholas Mullins and their position was near where the roadside memorial now stands. They were all members of the Flying Column and John Walsh when making his witness statement nearly 36 years after the event claimed that George O’Dwyer, having become aware that the British soldiers had been informed of the I.R.A. ambush, decided to withdraw the volunteers “but through some hitch in the arrangements, the decision to retire was not conveyed to my party”. Walsh’s small group suffered the only casualties of the day. The bodies of the two dead men and the wounded James Doyle were left lying on the side of the road for a few hours until Edward Dooley’s horse and cart were commandeered to bring them to the nearby Military Barracks. James Doyle was subsequently tried by Court Martial and sentenced to death. He was under sentence of death when the Truce was declared a month later and remained a prisoner until January 1922. For the rest of his life he suffered the physical effects of the injuries sustained in the shooting at Coolbawn. The mine with which the I.R.A. had planned to blow up the first Army lorry remained undetected at the scene of the Coolbawn ambush for almost two days until it was removed under the cover of darkness by a local I.R.A. man.
John Hartley was buried in Glenmore on Tuesday, 21st June and Nicholas Mullins was committed to his grave in Thomastown on the following day. On the night before John Hartley’s funeral the big house occupied by Miss Florrie Dreaper and her sister Rebecca, located at Finnsborough was set on fire. The fine old house became a blackened ruin and a few years thereafter the Dreaper farm extending to over 350 acres was taken over by the Land Commission. The effect of the Coolbawn ambush was far greater than anything imagined by those who had set out early on the morning of 18th June 1921 intending to attack British soldiers protecting a consignment of gelignite for the Wolfhill colliery.
Now when I pass the Coolbawn Ambush Memorial on my frequent journeys to and from Kilkenny I recall the Military Barracks from where the soldiers set out to surprise the I.R.A. ambushers and to where the bodies of John Hartley and Nicholas Mullins were brought later that day. It was in that same Barracks I was born 21 years later.