|Part of the Irish War of Independence|
| Irish Republican Army
(Second Kerry Brigade)
| British Army
(First Royal Fusiliers)
|Commanders and leaders|
|Danny Allman†||Lt. C.F. Adams†|
|32 volunteers||30 soldiers in first train, more arrive in a second train|
|Casualties and losses|
|2 dead||8 dead, 2 fatally wounded, 12 injured (at least)|
|3 civilians dead, 2 wounded in ambush, 1 alleged informer killed after|
The Headford Ambush took place on 21 March 1921, during the Irish War of Independence.
The Second Kerry Brigade (South Kerry) of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) ambushed a train carrying British troops at Headford Junction railway station (near Killarney, County Kerry). A total of at least 16 people died in the incident – 10 British soldiers, 2 IRA volunteers and 4 civilians (including an informer killed after the ambush).
The guerrilla war in Kerry escalated rapidly in the spring of 1921. The county was occupied by the British Army, Auxiliary Division and Black and Tan paramilitary police, as well as the Royal Irish Constabulary. In the months before the ambush, they had begun rounding up male inhabitants of nearby towns and villages and searching them to find IRA suspects. They first did this in Tralee on 11 January. On 23 January, in response to the assassination of RIC District Inspector Sullivan (who was shot while walking with his five-year-old son) by the IRA, 1,000 soldiers and armed police surrounded Ballymacelligott, arrested 240 men and marched them to Tralee for questioning. British forces, especially the Auxiliaries, also carried out a number of reprisal shootings on local civilians.
In response, the IRA set up full-time guerrilla units (known as flying columns), to avoid arrest and to assemble units capable of taking on British patrols. On 2 March, the Second Kerry Brigade set up its own flying column under Danny Allman and Tom McEllistrim. On 5 March, McEllistrim led 20 volunteers from the column to a successful ambush at Clonbanin, in which they co-operated with Cork IRA units, killing four British soldiers (including Brigadier General Cumming).
Buoyed by their success in Cork, the Second Kerry Brigade tried on a number of occasions to ambush British forces in Kerry itself. On 21 March, an IRA party was billeted around four miles from the Headford railway junction when they heard that British troops were returning by train from Kenmare to Tralee. As the train did not go directly, the British would have to change at Headford, making them vulnerable to ambush. Allman, commanding 30 volunteers, reached the junction only 12 minutes before the train, carrying 30 soldiers of the First Royal Fusiliers, arrived. The railway staff just had time to flee before the train pulled into the platform, where its passengers had to change trains for Tralee. Alongside the soldiers, the train was packed with cattle and pig farmers, on their way back from the market in Kenmare. Most of the civilians had already got off when the British soldiers began to disembark. Allman himself tried to disarm the first Fusilier but shot him when he resisted. This was the signal for the IRA to begin shooting at the unprepared British troops.
One of the first of the British casualties was their officer, Lieutenant CE Adams DCM, who was shot dead when he appeared at the carriage door, as were several other soldiers who were standing in front of the engine. The surviving British troops opened fire from the train, while those who had got off scrambled underneath it for cover. In the ensuing close-quarter firefight, conducted at a range of just 20 yards, three civilians and two IRA volunteers (including Allman) were killed. Two-thirds of the British force is estimated to have been killed or wounded. MacEllistrim called on the survivors to surrender and when they refused, the IRA began to move in to finish off those who kept shooting. Just as they were doing so, another train pulled into the junction, carrying another party of British troops. The IRA column had used most of its ammunition and was forced to retreat, escaping toward the hills in the south.
Allman and another IRA guerrilla, Lt Jimmy Baily, were killed in the ambush. One civilian was killed outright and two mortally wounded, with two others (a father and daughter) seriously wounded in the legs. In the immediate aftermath of the ambush, McEllistrim shot dead a suspected spy whom his men had captured. The British official report stated that one officer (Adams) and seven soldiers were killed and twelve wounded. The British Cabinet was told that two of the wounded later died of their wounds.
- T. Ryle Dwyer, Tans, Terror and Troubles, Kerry's Real Fighting Story, 1913–21; ISBN 1-85635-353-2, Mercier Press, 2001, pp. 289–295.