The Ballyfermot troop train ambush
Published on 5th July 2022
The Ballyfermot troop train ambush. The last major action of the War of Independence.
Friday 8th July, 1921 a train carrying British troops; members of the Gordon Highlanders; and military supplies; cars, donkeys, horses, as well as civilians was ambushed as it passed under the railway bridge near the small hamlet of Ballyfermot.
This incident occurred hours before the formal announcement of the Truce and was to be the last major conflict of the War of Independence.
In the 1920s, Ballyfermot was a rural area just outside of Dublin with local interest centred on the canal and the railway line. Most locals were employed as farm labourers, mill or railway workers, lock-keepers, and also in the local municipal waterworks.
The area was closely associated with the 4th Battalion IRA. Until December 1920, this, and other battalions, operated on a voluntary part-time basis. This was all to change after Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers opened fire on civilians at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park in November 1920. The British followed up with mass raids and internment, prompting the IRA to set up full-time battalions, with a consequence rise in serious incidents throughout the country in the months that followed. Many were associated with attacks on the railway system, culminating in the incident at Ballyfermot.
The packed-train had left Kingsbridge (Heuston) Station at 1pm with the planned final destination, the Curragh army barracks in Kildare. The route would take it through Inchicore, Ballyfermot and Clondalkin, before it left the Dublin county boundary.
Unknown to those onboard, members of the 4th battalion of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – made up of locals from Ballyfermot, Inchicore, Drimnagh, Bluebell, and The Liberties - were waiting on what is now known as the Le Fanu Road Railway Bridge Ballyfermot. Others, armed with small hand guns and grenades, locally made in the Inchicore Railway Works, had taken up positions on the hilly embankment along the railway tracks. A Thompson submachine gun was set up on the bridge itself. This would be the first occasion that the IRA had successfully used such a weapon.
This group had earlier assembled in The Tenters area in The Liberties and cycled out to the ambush site. The Thompson gun was brought from Abbey Street. Their plan was simple but effective. Petrol would be poured as the train went beneath the bridge. This would be ignited on the other side by lighted rags and sacks. The train would also be sprayed with combined fire from the machine gun and small arms. The grenades completed the operation.
Following the ambush, the burning and badly damaged train continued to Clondalkin Railway station for assessment. The injured and the traumatised civilians, many of whom had sought refuge under train seats and on the floor were disembarked. The military section of the train continued to the Curragh army barracks, where the burned-out shell was stored pending an investigation into events.
The well-planned and executed operation at Ballyfermot was over in a few minutes, with one known civilian casualty, and many more injured. It is generally agreed that the actually casualty figure may have been under-reported and greatly downplayed, in light of subsequent events later that day. The evening papers of the 8th July 1921 presented a split headline, much to shock of those involved. One side announced ‘Train Attacked Near Dublin’ but the other, dominant headline stated that ‘Peace Conference Resumed – Mansion House’.
The War of Independence began with an incident at Soloheadbeg quarry in Tipperary with an ambush on RIC officers on 21 January 1919. The last major conflict of this war was the Troop Train Ambush at Ballyfermot Railway Bridge.
The Truce was formally declared the following Monday, 11 July, 1921.
Cathy Scuffil, Historian in Residence, Dublin South City Areas.
4 July, 2022.