It was a full house at last week’s lecture in Castledermot organised by the Castledermot local history group. The lecture delivered by James Durney, author of several books and historian in residence with Kildare County Council, dealt with the Graney ambush in 1922. The events of that fateful afternoon, Tuesday 24th October, 1922 were part of the ongoing Irish Civil War which pitched Free State army recruits against those opposed to the Treaty, commonly referred to as the Irregulars.
96 years have passed since the Graney ambush and all those involved are now dead. Nevertheless the deadly ambush which resulted in the death of four soldiers of the Irish National Army has the potential to re-awaken old controversies. This was clearly in the mind of Michael Dempsey, Chairman of the Castledermot History Group, when in his opening remarks he referred to the emotive subject and requested restraint in any contributions from the large audience. The lecture went ahead without any controversy and many in the audience heard for the first time a detailed and accurate account of what happened that day at Graney Cross.
I had previously written of the ambush but was not aware that the Irregulars were part of what James Durney described as the ‘O’Connell Column’. The O’Connell in question was Thomas O’Connell, vice commander of the Carlow Brigade 1920-1922 and officer in command 1922-24. He was a native of Edenderry and worked for Betty O’Donnell’s father Thomas Prendergast in Carlow as a French polisher. I have written in a previous Eye on the Past of Thomas O’Connell and of the memorial cross erected near Maganey where he was killed in a road traffic accident on 31st August 1924. That memorial cross was presented by Mrs. Kearney of Brown St., Carlow to the members of the Old I.R.A. Carlow for erection at the Maganey accident scene. Regrettably the cross was broken and stolen about three years ago and now only the base of the memorial remains just a few miles distant from the Graney crossroads where O’Connell and his men ambushed their former comrades.
The place chosen for the ambush was where four roads converged at what is known as Graney Cross. Earlier in the day Free State soldiers under Comdt. Hugh Kenny travelled in a Crossley Tender from Baltinglass for Athy. Between Castledermot and Athy the Tender ran out of petrol and one of the soldiers went into Athy to get a supply. On his return the Comdt. decided to go back to Baltinglass and after stopping at Castledermot Post Office for a few minutes continued on the road towards Graney. Unknown to the Free State soldiers Thomas O’Connell, who with his comrades had taken the Anti-Treaty side, having learned of the soldiers earlier trip through Castldermot and their likely return, set up the ambush at Graney. All of the ambushers have not been positively identified but amongst those who have been were Laurence O’Neill, James Lillis, Christopher Murphy, Thomas Toole, John Shannon, James Rice, Mick Woods, Ned Kane, Hugh O’Rourke, Seamus O’Toole and Myles Carroll.
Three Free State soldiers were killed that day. They were James Murphy of Baltinglass, Edward Byrne of Hacketstown and Patrick Allison of Carlow. A fourth soldier, James Hunt, the driver of the Crossly tender, died the following Saturday.
Thomas O’Connell was subsequently captured and imprisoned, but he managed to escape and was on the run for over a year. James Lillis was later captured and imprisoned in Carlow Military Barracks where he was executed on 15th January, 1923. Lillis as adjutant of the Carlow Brigade was one of three officers who entered the Sinn Fein hall in Castledermot on 15th June 1922 to take the hall from Irregular troops. One of the Irregulars, Thomas Dunne, was shot that day. Ned Kane from Castledermot was also captured and imprisoned in Carlow and like Lillis was to be executed. However, with the help of Paddy Cosgrave, another Castledermot men and a high ranking Free State army officer, he was spirited out of the prison and allowed to go on the run. Seamus O’Toole and Myles Carroll were shot by Free State soldiers at Shean less than two months after the Graney ambush. O’Toole died at the scene of the shooting, while Carroll died soon afterwards.
Thomas O’Connell’s involvement in the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War and that of his brother Patrick’s service as a British soldier during World War I indicates the apparent and sometimes obvious conflict in allegiances which prevailed in Irish society and amongst Irish families of that time. Thomas O’Connell’s brother Patrick had joined the Royal Irish Regiment in December 1915 and was killed at Cambrai on 30th November 1917.
The Civil War was a ruthless cycle of ambushes, killings and executions which left a legacy of bitterness for years afterwards. Those involved have now passed on and today’s generation can look back at those years of war free of bitterness to hear the stories that for decades remained untold.