“Ní neart go cur le chéile.” – “There is strength in unity.” – Irish Proverb
The above saying translates as “There is strength in unity.” or as “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” In Headford, County Kerry on March 21, 1921, the Kerry IRA needed every link they had to overcome the Royal Fusiliers. The Headford Ambush was led by Dan Alman and Tom McEllistrim. Dan Allman was the head of the Flying Column and McEllistrim was the Deputy Leader. McEllistrim was well known in Kerry for shooting spies. A spy during the 20th century in Ireland was looked upon as vermin. However, in Kerry during the War of Independence they were considered far more abhorrent than even that. McEllistrim gained notoriety for disposing of spies. They seemed to be drawn to him, he was akin to the Pied Piper but his tool was the gun.
One such example of McEllistrim’s prowess occurred just prior to the ambush. The local IRA were already holding two British deserters and were suspicious of a travelling man named Sardy Nagle, because he had been seen in the company of Captain O’Sullivan, a British intelligence officer stationed in Killarney. Sardy was in his thirties, about average height with a heavy build and a dark drooping moustache. He was seized and questioned on March 20 but he protested that he was not a spy. Sardy was tied up with the two British deserters and left in a cowshed next morning, while preparations were made for the Headford Ambush. Eventually the IRA received information confirming that Sardy Nagle have been liasing with the British authorities. Tom McEllistrim shot him dead. His body was dumped near the roadside at Claidy Cross roughly two miles outside Kenmare, where it was found on Good Friday morning. He was blindfolded, his hands were tied behind his back, and there was a card tied around his neck with the words: ‘All spies beware — IRA’ He had been shot five times, three bullets to the head and two to the heart.
In late March IRA intelligence learned that a detachment of troops from Tralee had been active in the Kenmare area but were due to return to Tralee via rail and would be switching trains at Headford junction on March 21. Kerry no. 2 Brigade was the Flying Column tasked with disposing of the Fusiliers. The column hoped to wipe out all the British troops before the second train arrived. The first train was due at Headford at 4pm, and the column approached the station coming up to the hour.
They were just taking up positions when they discovered that the train was in fact due to arrive at 3.50pm, ten minutes before schedule. Confusion commenced as to what positions to occupy. Allman, with Jim Coffey took cover in the lavatory, on the western side of the station, and McEllistrim established his HQ in the stationmaster’s house. The rest of the column was divided in two. Johnny O’Connor’s section on the northern Killarney side on an embankment looking over the station, and another section under Peter Browne on the southern Kenmare side of the station, McEllistrim’s H.Q was also on the southern side.
A detachment of the 1st London Royal Fusiliers exited the train expecting to continue their journey to Tralee on a train coming from Mallow. Civilians, mainly farmers and livestock merchants, coming from a fair in Kenmare also disembarked. A British soldier stepped off the train and walked to the lavatory and was shot dead on the spot by Allman. On hearing the shot, the other IRA sections opened fire. An intense fusillade began and the commander of the British troops Lieutenant C.F. Adams was killed in the initial moments, as were most of the other British fatalities. In a chaotic scene, British troops and civilians rushed for cover. After recovering from the shock, and still under heavy fire, the British troops on the platform took cover beneath the train itself.
A problem now posed itself for both the British and the IRA – beneath the train and blocked by the platform the British could not effectively see their opponents or lay down a steady base of fire, instead being reduced to intermittent and effective sniping. A Vickers machine gun was also mounted on the train itself, but the gun failed to work. O’Connor’s section, similarly, found it hard to find a clear line of fire as their opponents were now well concealed beneath the train and had the extra protection of the raised platform itself. Allman left the lavatory to reconnoitre with the section of the column on the Killarney side of the embankment and find a better position from which to fire on the train, but was shot dead by a sniper in the process. Johnny O’Connor managed to throw a mills bomb amidst the troops under the train and Jim Baily, another Volunteer in O’Connor’s section, was shot dead whilst in the act of throwing another Mills bomb. McEllistrim reported that his group in the stationmaster’s house were also throwing grenades. The fighting went on for just under an hour.
According to McEllistrim, the British troops were called upon to surrender but refused, and he accordingly had hoped to rush the remaining troops under the train. However, before he could attack the surviving soldiers, British reinforcements appeared from Mallow. The early arrival of the second train with another party of military caused all sections of the IRA Flying Column to withdraw, in good order, towards the river Flesk and then onto the Paps Mountains, under heavy fire from the reinforcements. It could be argued that the IRA should have made preparations for the early arrival of the train by arriving at the station sooner and not having to rush their deployments. However, once the engagement began both sides displayed considerable ingenuity – the British in terms of their creative use of a covering position, in the form of the train, together with sniping, while the IRA by occupying positions on both sides of the train prevented the British from retreating from the scene.
Seven British soldiers were killed and 12 wounded – two more later died from their injuries – but there were also a number of local casualties. Dan Allman and Jimmy Bailey died at the scene while three civilian passengers, John Breen and Patrick O’ Donoghue from Killarney and Michael Cagney of Liscarroll also lost their lives.