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4 January 2007 Edition

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Remembering the Past

Meenbanad railway ambush

BY MICHELLE BOYLE

The start of the Tan War  is generally put down as 21 January 1919, when a group of Volunteers led by Sean Treacy, took part in an ambush in Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary. However for many years in the Rosses in West Donegal, people have believed differently as 12 months prior to the attack in Soloheadbeg, a daring ambush took place in a sleepy area nestled between Donegal’s sweeping hills.

Amongst tens of thousands of Irish men serving in the British Army in France and Belgium during the First World War, were two Rosses men, James Duffy and James Ward. In 1917 both men returned home on leave to realise, in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising and the execution of the leaders, that they were fighting on the wrong side. Both men joined the local Irish Volunteers company.

On New Year’s Eve 1917 the local RIC received information that the two deserters that they were pursuing were at a dance in Kincasslagh. They surrounded the  hall and arrested and handcuffed both men. The two prisoners were detained in nearby Burtonport barracks. On 4 January 1918, Sergeant Shaw from the Beresford Regiment in Derry accompanied by eight RIC officers arrived to convey the prisoners to Derry where they would be court martialled and executed for desertion.

With time to spare, the officers took a local publican’s offer of a drink. Aware of plans by the Volunteers to rescue the prisoners, he was trying to stall the RIC. The train departed with prisoners on board but two Volunteers ran along the railway track ahead of the train to Meenbanad Station and hid close by until the train was approaching.

It was fair day in nearby Dungloe and the platform at Meenbanad Railway Station was thronged. Four miles after the journey had commenced the train pulled up at the platform and the RIC started to load up.

As someone shouted ‘open-fire’, the soldiers feared an attack but didn’t know from where, their vision limited with so many people on the platform. Three volunteers jumped onto the train while six others on the platform overpowered and disarmed the military escort. Onboard the train the volunteers moved quickly through the carriages to arrive at the carriage in which the prisoners were held. The prisoners were freed and disappeared into the mass of people.

At a local house their handcuffs were cut with steel cutters. The escapees were split up and departed the area. James Ward made his escapee within hours of his release. By the time James Duffy was to leave the area, the scene had changed enormously. British forces began a widespread search, drafting in reinforcements from nearby RIC stations while they awaited further troops from Derry by train. A decision was taken that Duffy should lie low until the escape could be made without fear of re-capture.

Eventually the crown forces surrounded a local co-op where Duffy and local Volunteers had congregated. The sergeant entered the building but didn’t find Duffy who stood only a few feet away. The premises were thoroughly searched and all wooden crates were stabbed with bayonets. Frustrated with not finding anything the Sergeant turned at the door and leaned on a wooden crate next to him issuing a severe warning to the people of the area. Unknown to him James Duffy was inside the crate he was leaning on.  When the coast was clear, Duffy re-appeared.

Fearing the recapture of their comrade the Volunteers moved him to a nearby house. They constructed a tunnel over 100 yards in length from the house to the centre of a tree-enclosed garden. The RIC surrounded the house during the night. Duffy lowered himself down the tunnel and made his escape. The woman of the house then covered the mouth of the tunnel and with an old heather brush had brushed some turf mould over the escape route, making it unnoticeable. While the soldiers stood around the house James Duffy had made his escape, right under their feet. After this incident Sergeant Shaw received the final insult when he was court-martialled and taken down a rank.

A monument to commemorate this action was erected at the main road close to the railway station in 1968. The inscription reads: ‘To commemorate the first action in the Tan War when the Irish Volunteers rescued two comrades James Duffy and James Ward from British Troops at this place on 4 January 1918.’

 

 

 

 

 

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