THE AMBUSH ATSHANNOW BRIDGE
by Tom Shanahan
Shannow Bridge is situated less than three quarters of a mile from Abbeydorney Village at the junction of Abbeydorney / Lixnaw /Kilflynn roads. It was built by stonemasons in 1822, and could be said to be a compact solid structure with few equals in North Kerry at the time of its construction. The Kilflynn road side of the bridge faces the Stack Mountains range, while the Lixnaw road side of the bridge faces an open plain. The bridge is situated higher than the flat surrounding countryside. The Kilflynn road side of the bridge in the townland of Knocknagun will be the scenario for this article.
The bridge itself has been the meeting place for generations of local people from the nearby villages and surrounding townlands who would stand at or sit on the bridge to savour its bracing fresh air. Children who habitually congregated there, were enthralled by the leaping trout in its passing stream. During the years 1909 to 1915 open air dances were held there to the tune of local musician Jerry Brosnan, Shannow, fiddler, and Tim O'Brien , Keel, melodian player. During the years 1931 to 1933 similar open air dances were held in the summertime on Sunday evenings. The sound of the music and the tapping feet of the dancers on the timber platform , as they danced reels and polkas, could be heard on a calm summer evening over a wide area. Occasionally during a lull in the gaiety, a corn-crake in a nearby meadow could be heard making his own solo contribution to the proceedings.
During the year 1920 the name of Shannow Bridge was enshrined in modern Irish history not because of its past associations or its scenic location but because of the bravery of a man who, in its vicinity, laid his life on the line to allow his trapped comrades to escape from instant and unexpected death. The man's name was Timothy Lyons, from Garrynagore. Affectionately known as "Aero" he earned that name by his ability to appear unexpectedly at different places in a short space of time, and it is under that name he has entered the realms of Irish history.
During the month of November,1920, an unsuccessful attempt was made to blow up Shannow Bridge without serious damage been caused to it. After this attempt a patrol of Black-and -Tans, and R.I.C. visited the bridge to inspect the damage. The Volunteers surmised that if a second explosion was caused there perhaps the previous routine inspection by the Black and Tans and R.I.C. would be repeated. Accordingly, plans were made by the Volunteers to cause damage to the bridge by explosives, and then set up an Ambush there. In the selection of this ambush site the Volunteers were well aware of the risk they were taking. This was to be short, close quarters, intensive fighting with an enemy the majority of whom had World War 1 experience of trench warfare behind them. Communication could not be made by runners between the different sections of the Volunteers engaged in the ambush owing to the road network surrounding the ambush position, and each section had to act independently of the other. Worse still, if the battle was lost the Volunteers could be easily encircled by the enemy. It was the worst possible ambush site, one dictated entirely by the circumstances of this military operation. The Volunteers knew that if they were captured no mercy would be shown to them by the Black and Tans. They would be executed on the spot. Around 3.00 a.m. on the morning of the ambush a small crater was made in the roadway of the bridge. Georgie O'Shea, Kilflynn, was in charge of the column. He deployed his men in such a way that all roads leading into the ambush position were covered. Unarmed scouts from the Abbeydorney and Kilflynn Volunteers formed an outer ring on the Ambush site. By 8.a.m. all men were posted as dawn was breaking in the winter sky. Each man knew where his comrades were inside the roadside fences, and knew also the action to be taken by each group covering the roads leading into the ambush position. The ambush party prepared for a long wait. It was a calm cloudy morning. Around 12 noon a slight rolling fog made its way down the river. Suddenly a convoy of three lorries of Auxiliaries and Black and Tans, accompanied by an armoured car, screeched to a halt at the bridge. The speed of their approach prevented the scouts from giving the required signals. This threw the Volunteer order of attack out of gear. They immediately thought their positions were betrayed.
Georgie O'Shea now decided that his section of ten riflemen would engage in a "holding" operation to allow the trapped Volunteers to escape from their ambush positions. He ordered his section of riflemen to open a rapid fire on the lorries. He knew that the lorries and the armoured car could not cross the river to infiltrate his position on the Knocknagun side of the bridge. The enemy quickly dismounted from the lorries. They formed into sections. One section followed the armoured car along the Kilflynn road as far as Roches house in Aulaneduff (now O'Driscolls). Leaving the armoured car on the road the enemy went through an old boreen to the river where they took up positions apparently to cut off the escape of the Volunteers from the ambush position. A second section, led by an Auxiliary Officer, moved out from the cover of the lorries, and in single file in a crouched position approached the verge of the river with the obvious intention of crossing it to engage O'Shea's section in combat. A third section, equipped with a machine gun entered an old road known locally as the "bog road" to occupy a position on the left flank of O'Shea's section. This move put O'Shea on notice that the enemy intended to encircle him, while the section crossing the river would try to pin him down with rifle fire. O'Shea must also have felt a threat to his right flank by the enemy who had entered the boreen near Roches house.
It was at this critical moment that Aero Lyons made the move which has imortalised his name and that of Shannow Bridge. An excellent marksman, he crawled on his stomach from his own section in the direction of the section led by the Auxiliary Officer. When the Officer was ascending the bank of the river on Aero's side, Aero fired in his direction. The Officer was hit and fell back into the river, fatally injured. Aero's action enabled Georgie O'Shea's section to then open fire on the machine gun section on the bog road who were now forced to seek the cover of the fence and to lie flat against it. Then the unexpected happened. For some unknown reason the enemy section, now in the bed of the river and under fire from Aero Lyons, decided to withdraw to the lorries taking their dead Officer with them. They were quickly followed by the machine gun section on the bog road. On seeing this Aero Lyons crawled back to Georgie O'Shea's section apparently mindful of the threat posed to O'Shea's right flank by the enemy section guarding the river at the end of Roche's boreen. The armoured car and the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans, which accompanied it, was the last to withdraw. Before they did so the armoured car fired parting shots in the direction of the river Shannow shattering branches of Roche's trees and sending them flying in all directions, while excited dogs in the neighbourhood barked in chorous at the departing enemy. By that time all of the Volunteers had managed to escape from the ambush site despite the presence of about 60 enemy personnel, a machine gun and an armoured car.
The deaths of these two courageous, selfless and idealistic young Kerrymen, Georgie O'Shea, at Ballyseedy and Aero Lyons at Clashmealcon caves were among the most heartrendingly tragic events in the Irish Civil War which was to follow. Both now lie at rest in the Republican plot in the old cemetery in Kilflynn.
My grateful thanks are due to Julia Lyons, sister of Aero Lyons for material in connection with this article. Also I wish to thank the last four survivors of the Abbeydorney company of the Volunteers for their assistance in the compilation of this article namely, John O'Dowd, James Costelloe, Dan Shanahan and Jeremiah O'Connor. I wish also to thank Jack McCarthy, Lixnaw for his help and guidance. Paddy Browne, Kilflynn gave me valuable assistance for which I thank him.
The above photograph of the Volunteers was taken in 1922.
Front (L to r); Terry Brosnan, Lixnaw, John McElligott, Leam, Kilflynn, Danny O'Shea, Kilflynn, Timothy Lyons (Aero) , Garrynagore, Tim Sheehy, Lyre, Pete Sullivan, Ballyduff, Paddy Mahony, Ballyegan, Battalion O.C.
Back (L to r); Denis O'Connell, Lixnaw, Stephen Fuller, Kilflynn, William Hartnett, Mountcoal, Tim Twomey, Kilflynn.