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103 Years Ago and One Day: The Ashtown Ambush

On December 19, 1919, twelve selected members of the Irish Volunteers (the IRA) – the Dublin Brigade, and individuals working under Michael Collins’ Squad – attempted to assassinate Lord French, the Viceroy of Ireland.

Each resource I encounter offers different details of the events on December 19, which attests to the number of soldiers present on the day of, and how their experiences shaped the outcome. From what I have been able to gather, two different teams were present on the day, each responding to the leadership of either Paddy O’Daly or Mick McDonnell. Whether each knew that the other had also been tasked with leadership that day, remains to be seen.

Included in this array of Dublin soldiers were members of the South Tipperary Brigade, Dan Breen, Seán Treacy, Séamus Robinson, and Seán Hogan, whose actions months previously at Soloheadbeg marked the beginning of the War for Independence. It was Dan Breen who recounted in his memoir, after participating in months of removing “G-Men” from their posts, that:

“bigger game was needed…Why, we asked ourselves, should we not strike at the very heads of the British Government in Ireland? … There were thousands of peelers but there were only a few candidates for the Lord Lieutenancy and they would think twice about taking on the job if they had to risk their lives.”

– Dan Breen, My Fight for Irish Freedom, pp. 81.

It was rare, indeed, to have so many revolutionary powerhouses gathered to take down a target on one single mission, but the circumstances called for a full roster.

At this point in the revolution, Michael Collins and many of the Volunteers shared Dan Breen’s notion that they needed to up the ante. It was time to get the British–and the Irish– to really pay attention. The general public was still widely agnostic to the idea of revolution, preferring instead to wait for a solution through diplomacy and a Home Rule Bill. But the men who plotted for Lord French’s life knew that there would be no peace until Ireland secured her full sovereignty after 800 years of foreign tyranny.

The marked attempt is what makes this event really striking. This moment at the mouth of Phoenix Park was not an isolated incident, rather, the culmination of a series of twelve attempts over three months that resulted in the explosive and bloody encounter on Ashtown road. Let’s just say it: Lord French knew he was being hunted.

Lord French’s itinerary was kept private from the public eye and his contacts even reported false engagements to the press to keep the IRA off his trail. Michael Collins himself would partake in a stakeout on 11 November, when French was scheduled to attend a banquet at Trinity College Dublin to commemorate the Armistice of World War I. But French, perhaps sensing the danger, had cancelled his engagement. Another attempt was thwarted when Dan Breen and a troop of men held a stakeout Grattan Bridge, grenades in hand, ready for French’s motorcade to pass. Much to their disappointment, French had again changed his plans last minute, and Breen and the others were left to fend off defeat in the cold snowy evening.

In his official witness testimony, Vincent “Vinny” Byrne, the youngest of McDonnell’s Squad, details how he got a tip the night before that gave critical information for this Ambush plot. I have also read that it was Michael Collins who got the news of Lord French’s travel plans on December 19: to arrive to the city by train, and then take a motorcar to the Viceroyal Lodge. Either way, the date was set, and the Volunteers hoped French would be walking into the blind date unaware of what the morning had in store for him. In the early hours of December 19, the aforementioned soldiers hopped on bikes and rode north to Ashtown. This area is now widely regarded as Dublin City proper, but a century ago it was a lonely outpost, manned by a single pub – Kelly’s (now the Halfway House) – marking a waypoint to the Viceroyal Lodge in the heart of Phoenix Park.

While the Volunteers waited at Kelly’s, sipping soda and pretending to talk with locals about the farming jobs they didn’t have, they prepared for their two real jobs:

Block the road. Ambush the cars.

If they could prevent French’s motorcade from passing through, the Viceroy would run out of luck at last.

There are too many details about the setup and ultimate encounter to give full justice in this journal: a meddling police officer who spontaneously appeared as the soldiers moved a wooden dung cart into the road, miscommunications about which soldier would do what task, and ultimately, the battle itself. Of the latter, I will do my best to summarize.

French’s three-car convoy emerged right on schedule, and both Squads knew it was time.

The first motorcar flew through the trap before the soldiers could block the road with the wooden dung cart. This was just as well, because they succeeded in trapping the remaining two cars, whose occupants had no choice but to respond to the hail of gunfire raining down on them.

(Image: “A Dublin Metropolitan Police officer points out the bullet holes in the back of the lord lieutenant John French’s car.” Source: The Irish Times).

These IRA men from Dublin and Tipperary mostly traded crossfire with the third and final vehicle in the motorcade. An IRA man– unnamed to this day–threw a grenade from the trench and nearly took out Dan Breen, Tom Kehoe, and Martin Savage, who were barely finding shelter behind the wooden cart. Some British officers sought shelter from the gunfire by scaling over the Phoenix Park wall. Another attacker had shot Dan Breen’s hat clear off his head. The cart was being riddled with bullets and splinters of wood soared in the air.

A ruined hat would be the least of the team’s worries. Moments later, Dan Breen realized he’d been hit in the leg. Martin Savage, twenty-one years old and already a veteran to Easter Week 1916, fell to the ground after taking a bullet to the neck.

Dan Breen recalls holding Savage in his arms, and hearing his last words, clear as day: “I’m done, Dan, carry on!”

The IRA had no choice but to retreat. Nearly everyone’s revolvers were empty and all the grenades had been set off. The convoy had also ceased fire, so the men took their chance. As everyone had arrived by bicycle, there was nothing anyone could do to transport Martin’s body. They had no choice but to bring him to the side of Kelly’s, lie him down, and pedal for their lives.

In the retreat, Vinny Byrne served as rearguard to Paddy O’Daly and the injured Dan Breen. “Dame Luck was with us,” Byrne recalled, speaking to the nearly non-existent presence of the British military during their escape. He broke off to return home and later meet up with McDonnell, while the South Tipperary Brigade took shelter in the allied home of Mrs. Toomey to weather an evening of a city on high alert. A search-party would later trace the trail of Dan Breen’s blood from Ashtown to Cabra road, but they would lose the trail upon entry to the city.

The men wouldn’t discover that they had failed in their mission until that evening, when paperboys called the latest headlines down every Dublin street: “Attack on the Lord-Lieutenant – Sensational fight at Ashtown – One of the attackers shot dead!”

Lord French had escaped death by riding in the first car of the convoy. Until that morning on December 19th, French always rode in the middle car, something that the IRA had readily anticipated. But an uneasy feeling must have struck French, because he opted to change his routine yet again, and escaped the blockade that would have sealed his fate.

What really surprised me while researching this event was the extent of the backlash expressed by the general Irish public over the Ashtown Ambush. The IRA had expected slander from the Freeman’s Journal and The Irish Times, which were at the time British-allied publications. But the IRA’s actions were lambasted by the Irish Independent, the very publication that had also voted for the establishment of the Irish Republic. The Independent named the IRA ‘assassins’, and made their disdain known for poor Martin Savage, the ‘murderer’ – mind you, he had been the one killed!– before the official inquest of his body was even finished.

(Image: Martin Savage in the Irish Volunteer’s uniform. Source: Wikipedia)

The church and the press may have openly denounced the attack, but in equal measure, Dáil Éireann, the provisional Irish government, did not wish to associate itself directly with the actions of the IRA.

To quote General Mulcahy in his remarks from December 1923: “The IRA were left to carry on the war on its own initiative, on its own resources, without either approval or disapproval from the Government of the Republic.” My understanding is that the Dáil, lead by President Éamon de Valera, wanted to distance itself from these bursts of violence, using diplomacy instead to appear ‘civilized’ to sympathetic foreign superpowers, such as the United States.

Despite what seemed to be political opposition from all sides this ambush was regarded in private by countrymen in and beyond Dublin as the beginning of Ireland’s serious bid for freedom. Behind closed doors, the public started to entertain the idea of aligning themselves with the ideology that the Squad/s had laid out in the dust at Ashtown on December 19th. That no pro-British individual, not even the Lord Lieutenant him, would be safe on Irish soil.

Dan Breen would go on to say,

“We did not get any other chance of shooting Lord French. After the ambush he retired from public life. When he set out for England, armoured cars patrolled the roads that led to the mail boat, and armed detectives accompanied him all the way to London. His movements were kept a close secret from the press until many days had elapsed.”

- Dan Breen, My Fight for Irish Freedom, pp. 92

Most commemorative dates mark or celebrate major events that have come to pass. What intrigues me is that December 19th was a day of almost. Where the Squad almost took out the highest seat of British power in Ireland. Where 1916 veteran, grocer’s assistant, and light-hearted Martin Savage almost escaped with his life. But it also marks a turning point in the War for Independence, where organizing forces began to take seriously the grit and commitment the IRA had made in the bid for Irish freedom.

After the conclusion on the inquest to Martin Savage's death, he was laid to rest in his native home of Co. Sligo. His funeral procession was over seven miles long.

A fictional retelling of this assassination attempt occurs in my novel manuscript. I have saved this passage for last, simply for the sheer intimidation factor of the players involved, the outcome this event had on the War itself, and my desire to honor the memory of those present in a retelling as accurate as possible. With the 103’rd anniversary of this event in the rear-view, perhaps this will be incentive enough to tackle this unforgettable event once and for all.



*British Pathé recently posted on YouTube recorded footage taken by the British army in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Here you can see Kelly’s pub, the motorcar that saw most of the action, and a tree the British claim the IRA used as a lookout post. Dan Breen laughingly debunks this last claim, saying:

“Another writer, gifted with a high imagination, stated that a tree which grew by the roadside had been specially clipped to provide a lookout for one of our scouts. Just imagine the miliary genius of anyone who would have posted a man on a treetop–sure target for enemy rifles–in order to view a train which was clearly visible from the roadway.”

- My Fight for Irish Freedom, pp. 95

**The inquest that was finally released on Martin Savage’s body claimed that the British soldiers gave chase to the fleeing IRA. This was yet another claim that Dan Breen debunks in his memoir, saying, “I became almost hysterical with laughter when I read those words, remembering the British soldiers’ precipitate flight for the cover of the Phoenix Park wall.”

- My Fight for Irish Freedom, pp. 95

(Image: Ballad commemorating the ultimate sacrifice of Martin Savage on 19 December 1919. Source:

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