Commemoration, the Piltown Ambush and Ireland 2016


Commemoration, the Piltown Ambush and Ireland 2016

When historians warn us to be careful with commemoration we must take heed. For Ireland 2016 community-based historical projects should be encouraged to aim for high quality research, data gathering, analysis and publication - a citizen researcher is envisaged, capitalising on digital toolsets to tell stories of the past in new ways. A broad community of local communities, families with their own stories to tell, historians, political activists and others will all participate in this Ireland 2016 project and it promises to be an interesting ride.


The Piltown ambushes came to mind when I read Anne Dolan's stimulating article on Commemoration and Ireland 2016 in the Irish Times this morning ( 

There were two ambushes in Piltown in West Waterford. The first was a success for the West Waterford Brigade IRA in November 1920 and the second a success for the British Military based in Youghal in June 1921.

The Piltown ambushes are remembered in three ways locally - in 2008 a commemorative memorial was erected to the first ambush with a broader reference to key people involved in the War of Independence. Local historian, Tommy Mooney has written two books on the War of Independence and the Civil War in Waterford which detail the various events at Piltown and stretching across much of West Waterford from Geosh bridge to the diversionary attack on Ardmore RIC barracks. The participants are not listed in the memorial, neither are the British Army soldier(s) who died there. Thirdly, the ambushes are remembered in family stories from the time.

The first ambush is commemorated in a recent (2008) memorial erected at the site of the ambush. The 2008 memorial measures approx 2m high x 10 m long approx 3.5 m in width. It sits on the old Dublin-Youghal coach road just south of the N25 (close to the Applegreen station between Youghal and Dungarvan). Part of the main inscriptions is as follows

Here at Piltown Cross on the night of the 1st of November 1920, Volunteers of the West Waterford I.R.A. Brigade took on the might of the British Crown Forces fatally wounded 2 of them, captured and injured many more. 

The I.R.A. captured a substantial amount of much needed arms and ammunition. And destroyed enemy vehicles, in what was one of the biggest ambushes of that era in this area.

This monument is erected in memory of those Volunteers who fought here and assisted in the West Waterford area on that night, and to all of those brave Irish men and women who fought in every generation up to the present day in the struggle for Irish freedom.

This is a fascinating text - how contentious was the final sentence amongst the organising committee? The silhouettes of the two volunteers depicted on the memorial are late 20th century in appearance (with modern machine guns instead of early 20th century rifles/guns) mirroring the reference ‘every generation up to the present day’.

The most detailed account I have found of both ambushes are in Tommy Mooney’s book Cry of the Curlew. Tommy writes his books based on long-running personal research and they are rich in content because he has the insiders ability to talk to people, to gather his own and other families’ lore and to check the stories he gathers against published accounts of the time. Tommy’s account of the first Piltown ambush lists a broad range of people who participated across West Waterford and he also names the young British Army Lieutenant Griffin who was captured, interrogated and released after the ambush as well as the driver who died in the ambush  - Private Anthony Leigh. It appears that the only clear target the ambushers had in the dark night was the front lights on the truck commandeered by the British Army for their late run to Ardmore and that the driver suffered for this. 

The commemorative memorial erected in 2008 cites two soldiers fatally wounded and O’Reilly (2011) in the summary of his book on George Lennon says two soldiers died. The use of the term ‘fatally wounded’ reminds me of the phrase ‘departed this life’ which we encounter on Irish headstones - softening the blow of bereavement, eschewing the less sensitive ‘died’ or ‘killed’. Tommy Mooney continues his account to record the repercussions of the Piltown ambush with anarchic scenes of riot and murder following in the nearby town of Youghal. Tommy’s wide-ranging chronological approach shows that many of the events of the War of Independence were interconnected- the diversionary attack on Ardmore barracks was not the first such attack - a pattern of activity was established which resulted in a predictable relief force coming from Youghal, albeit later than expected. Also the British Army reprisals in Youghal led to both soldiers and locals being killed (Mooney 2012, p?). When you ask a local historian to describe an event they often start sometime before the key event and in a different location; indeed this is one of the reasons it is a pleasure to talk to most local historians - they are unpredictable but always interesting.


In this video I cover a number of points relating to Tommy’s Cry of the Curlew

1. The first Piltown ambush

2. The second Piltown ‘ambush’

3. Fraternisation between Marines & locals in Ardmore and the value of local history

4. The Epilogue of the book - a stirring personal account of a 1967 commemorative event in West Waterford which involved many of the surviving veterans - as the son of a retired Irish Army soldier this made the hair stand up on the back of my head.

(Copies of Tommy's books can be bought in the Waterford County Museum in Dungarvan.)


How does this all relate to Anne Dolan’s article about history and commemoration? It relates because the Decade of Commemoration/Ireland 2016 is an opportunity for collaboration. Based on the community-led approach of The Gathering, Ireland 2016 puts history centre stage along with a desire to link local communities, tourists, the Irish diaspora and historians. Ireland 2016 will help popularise history with a huge audience - it is an opportunity for historians to write for a wider audience (not just for other historians) and to bring their experience and methods to the public. Ireland 2016 will also result in an explosion in the digital publication of local histories focused on 1913-1923. Families, communities, local groups can all contribute to the Decade of Commemoration as equal partners providing rich seams of information which can be mined by historians for generations to come. The question historians must ask themselves is do they want to participate now or are they happy to watch communities do it for themselves.

The tools for recording and publishing our histories are in most Irish household today - a laptop, smartphone and broadband connection now enable citizen researchers to research and publish independently - historians and Ireland 2016 need to work within and encourage this new democratised history and work with the same goodwill which was encountered during The Gathering.


Dr Dolan’s newspaper article about Commemoration ends with a warning though- 

We all have some sort of pride in a version of the past that swells our chests and sets our pulses racing to the beat of an anthem and, whatever comes of commemoration in 2016, both politician and historian might be mindful of that.”

From this I take the warning that just as Tommy Mooney’s account of the old comrades got my own heart racing (see video above), we can all be easily stirred by these histories and when emotion is at play it is easy to miss-step - to lose balance.

I am certain Anne Dolan is right when I visit the Piltown Memorial. The iconography used on the 2008 memorial is late 20th century, not early - the Volunteers who stand with bowed heads hold armalites not shotguns or Mausers and remind me of copies of An Phoblacht which circulated amongst us teenagers of the 1980s. What have armalites got to do with the events of November 1920 and June 1921? Not much, some would say and, everything, would say others. There are many who would agree with armalites being portrayed on the 2008 memorial and many more who think it inappropriate and therein lies the rub. As for me, I'd love to sit down with the committee who erected the memorial and get their take on how it went.

It is a hard history to tell when there was blood on the streets - but we must not shirk the telling just because it is hard. The challenge is to tell it well - with rigour and sensitivity - that is the challenge historians, families and communities have in the coming years for Ireland 2016.



Dolan, A 2015 (accessed Jan 2nd 2015)

Mooney, Tommy 2012 Cry of the Curlew. A History of the Déise Brigade IRA and the War of Independence. Dungarvan.

Mooney, Tommy 2014 The Déise Divided. A History of the Waterford Brigade IRA and the Civil War. Dungarvan.

O’Reilly, T. 2011 (accessed Jan 2nd 2015).