The Kerry No.2 Brigade Flying Column organised the Headford Ambush 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.
The 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 men 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 ambush occurred when a group of up to 30 IRA men were attacked by Black and Tan forces in the village. Several days before, the IRA had been planning to ambush the Tans who passed through the village on patrol every Sunday. However, the British forces became aware of the IRA presence and surrounded them. IRA man Tom Hawley died at the scene and local man Tom Ashe was wounded and died later from his injuries. Another man, Maurice Fitzgerald, died earlier on the same day in a related incident.
According to the memorial stone the ambush happened on 21 March 1921, but local historians believe it happened a day later than that. Thomas Ashe died in what was Horgan’s house in Acres and was buried secretly in Ballinacourty but later reinterred in Kinard.
Photo: Headford Ambush Memorial (L), Lispole Ambush Memorial (R)