The Headford Ambush, Co. Kerry, March 1921

Published in Decade of Centenaries

The Headford Ambush was organized by the Kerry No. 2 Brigade Flying Column who, while billeted in the vicinity of Headford on 21 March 1921, learned that a detachment of British troops were due to return by train from Kenmare to Tralee later that day, and decided to ambush them. The attack was led by Dan Allman (who was killed in the engagement) and Tom McEllistrim (a future Fianna Fáil TD); perhaps as many as 30 members of the IRA were involved.

Headford ambush posterThe troops in question were members of the Royal London Fusiliers, who were obliged to change trains at Headford Junction as they made their way back to Tralee; consequently, the station was chosen as the natural venue for the ambush. The train in question, however, arrived earlier then expected, before the preparations for the ambush had been completed. Dan Allman and two others who had been on the platform as the train pulled in were forced to take refuge in a lavatory. The soldiers alighted leisurely, and as one of them entered the lavatory and discovered Allman, a scuffle broke out. Allman shot the soldier, and the ambush began.

The IRA fired on the train from both sides of the station. The British attempted to use a machine gun fastened to the front of the train, but this was specifically targeted by the IRA and played no major role in the ambush, which lasted for perhaps 50 minutes. The civilian passengers had disembarked from the carriages before the soldiers, but some were still in the station when the gunfire began: three cattle dealers were killed, and a three year old girl was badly wounded in both legs when a bullet passed through her fathers leg as he sought to shelter her. Two members of the IRA (including Allman) were killed, and the British recorded that they lost seven soldiers on the spot, though members of the IRA claimed that as many as 24 soldiers had been killed.

The ambush ended when the Mallow-Tralee train arrived; it had inadvertently brought British reinforcements, and the IRA withdrew from the vicinity of the station. They were then fired upon by British troops as they escaped across a cut away bog; some members of the column returned fire before splitting into two groups to slip away. The Flying Column was left desperately short of ammunition for days afterwards due to the duration and severity of the gunfire at the train station. The Headford Ambush was, according to Michael Hopkinson, ‘one of the largest engagements of the whole conflict’; certainly, it was the largest engagement between British forces and the IRA to take place in Kerry during the War of Independence.

John Gibney

Further reading:

T. Ryle Dwyer, Tans, terror and troubles: Kerry’s real fighting story, 1913-1923 (Cork, 2001).

Brian Ó Conchubhair (ed.), Kerry’s fighting story: told by the men who made it (Cork, 2009).

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