The Ashtown Ambush
Planning by Breen
On 19 December 1919, Savage and 10 fellow Fenian paramilitaries, including Mick McDonnell, Tom Kehoe, Seán Treacy, Seamus Robinson, Seán Hogan, Paddy Daly (Leader), Vincent Byrne, Tom Kilcoyne, Joe Leonard and Dan Breen, met after planning to assassinate the then British Viceroy, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Supreme Commander of the British Army in Ireland, Lord John French, as he returned from a private party which he had hosted the previous evening at his country residence in Frenchpark, County Roscommon.
It was not originally planned that Savage was to take an active part in the ambush, however, after a chance meeting with Breen and Hogan, Savage insisted that he join the ambushing force. Sean Hogan initially attempted to dissuade him, but relented and gave Savage an automatic pistol. The unit’s intelligence operative had informed it that Lord French would be travelling in the second car of the armed convoy that comprised an outrider and three following cars, which would bring Lord French from Ashtown railway station to the Vice-Regal Lodge in Phoenix Park, Dublin.
Events of the day
On the day of the ambush, Savage attended work as usual and slipped away early in the morning to meet with the other men who were to take part in the attack who were gathered at Fleming’s Pub in Drumcondra. They departed Drumcondra in small groups to avoid raising suspicion as they cycled through Phibsboro and up the Cabra Road, and then regrouped at Kelly’s Public House (now called the Halfway House) in Ashtown. At approximately 11:40 a.m., as the train carrying Lord French pulled into the station, they left the pub and took up positions along the crossroads at Ashtown.
The plan was for Martin Savage, Tom Kehoe and Dan Breen to push a hay-cart halfway across the road and then, after the out-rider and the first car had passed, they would push it the rest of the way across the road, thereby completely blocking the path of the remaining vehicles. They had been informed that Lord French was to be in the second car and this car they intended to attack with Mills Bombs and rifle fire.
As they pushed the hay-cart across the road their plan was almost foiled as a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) disturbed them, telling them to move on. One of them threw a grenade at him, although it didn’t explode it struck the police officer on the head, knocking him unconscious. The police officer was then dragged from the road and the attack went ahead as planned.
Lord French’s car and the gun battle
When the convoy appeared minutes later the attack commenced, forcing the target second car in the convoy to swerve off the road. However, unknown to the attackers Lord French was travelling in the first car, which managed to drive through the blockade. The occupants of the second car, part of Lord French’s guard, returned fire. As the gun battle developed the third car of the convoy arrived on the other side of the cart, and its occupants began firing with rifles on the now exposed ambushing force. In the exchange of fire Breen was shot in the leg, and seconds later Savage fell mortally wounded after being hit by a bullet in the neck. He died in the arms of Breen and his last words to Breen were “I’m done, but carry on….”. Tom Kehoe and the wounded Breen succeeded in carrying Savage’s body from the road and back to Kelly’s Pub while the gun battle continued.
Two Royal Irish Constabulary police officers and a driver were also wounded in the gun battle. At this point the British military, including some wounded, began to withdraw from the scene and continued on towards the Phoenix Park. Knowing British reinforcements would be on their way, the IRA unit itself dispersing to safe houses in the Dublin area. Breen was helped onto his bike by Paddy Daly who helped him to a safehouse in the Phibsboro’ area, where he was medically treated to by the captain of the Dublin hurling team, Dr J.M. Ryan.
The next morning, the Irish Independent published an article which described the attackers as “assassins” and included other such terms as “criminal folly”, “outrage” and “murder.” Taking these terms as an insult to their dead comrade, it was decided to attack the newspaper’s offices. On Sunday, at 9pm, between twenty and thirty I.R.A. men under the direction of Peadar Clancy entered the offices of the Independent where they proceeded to wreck its machinery of production. Despite this, with the assistance of the other Dublin newspapers, the Independent was able to appear the next day, and the owners were awarded £16,000 pounds in compensation. According to Breen in his memoir, neither the Independent, nor any other Dublin newspaper, ever dared refer to the IRA as ‘murderers or assassins’ again.