Bray and the War of Independence: 1917 to the Truce by Henry Cairns

Excerpt from Wicklow County Council Minute Book 18th June 1920 - oath of loyalty to the new Dail Eireann following landslide Sinn Fein victory in the 1920 local elections.
Image: Courtesy of Wicklow County Archives
Volunteer Willie Owens, shot dead on 11.12.1920
Source: Henry Cairns
Bray R.I.C. August 1921
Photo: Henry Cairns
Laurence Brien. Shot dead at Bray Town Hall May 1920
Photo: Henry Cairns

The fall in the number of the R.I.C combined with the increased attacks on the police and the general breakdown in civil authority caused the British government to look for police reinforcements in Britain. In early 1920 advertisements appeared in the British newspapers for recruits for police service in Ireland. The pay was 10 Shillings a day. These men began to arrive in Ireland in late March and because of a shortage of police uniforms were dressed in a mixture of army trousers and R.I.C. tunics, hence their nicknames ‘Black and Tans’. By October there were over 2000 of these men in the country. A second force was recruited from ex-British officers and were paid £1 a day. They were divided into companies of 100 men and were sent to the most troubled areas. This force became known as the auxiliaries and they were not amenable to trial by civil courts. Both these forces were recruited from battled hardened men and their notoriety stemmed from the ferocity of their reprisals to I.R.A. actions.

The Attacks Begin

The Bray Company continued to parade weekly and in the spring of 1920 at a parade held in the Shankill Volunteer Hall, members took the oath of allegiance to Dáil Éireann administered by the Dublin Brigade O.C. Dick McKee. At this parade the company O.C. Michael McGarry resigned in favour of Lawrence O’Brien a more experienced man. McGarry was then elected 1st Lieutenant. Thomas Mooney, a pawnbroker’s assistant was elected 2nd Lieutenant. Jim Brien; Bray Adjutant, Jim Toole; Bray Q.M. and Mick Brien, Abbeyview, Intelligence Officer.  In May 1920 an attempt was made to attack a military lorry at Crinken on the Bray Road and throughout the Company area, telephone, telegraph and post office equipment was destroyed. While in Newcastle a raid for arms was carried out on the home of a British Officer, the captured arms being transported to Bray by rail on a commandeered railway truck[1].  On May 19th, the ‘Evening Mail’ reported that a Flying Column of the 11th Hussars had been posted to the Powerscourt Estate in Enniskerry. Consisting of armoured cars and lorries, this unit immediately began to patrol the mountainous district of County Wicklow which had previously been patrolled by the R.I.C. in a motor lorry. It was also stated that the military were to take over the workhouse at Loughlinstown for military purposes, the inmates having been transferred to the Dublin Union.  Sergeant John Brady of the R.I.C,  a 50 year old Bray man, was killed in an I.R.A. attack on Rush barracks.

Local elections 1920

Extract from Wicklow County Council Minute Book June 1920 – oath of loyalty to the new Dail Eireann following landslide Sinn Fein victory in the 1920 local elections.  (Source: Wicklow County Archives).

The local elections on 1st June 1920 was a landslide victory for Sinn Féin. Out of 12 seats Sinn Féin won 11 with the 12th going to Lord Powerscourt, a Unionist. The first meeting of the new County Council took place on the 18th of June, the elected members were

  • Robert Barton, Sinn Féin, Annamoe.
  • Christopher M.Byrne, Sinn Féin, Glenealy.
  • Joseph Campbell, Sinn Féin, Enniskerry.
  • William Grainger, Sinn Féin, Carnew.
  • Patrick Healy, Sinn Féin, Rathdangan.
  • Bernard Kelly, Sinn Féin, Tinahely.
  • Andrew Kinsella, Sinn Féin, Tinehely.
  • Joseph Lynch, Sinn Féin, Bray.
  • Patrick Murphy, Sinn Féin, Bray.
  • Felix O’Rafferty, Sinn Féin, Arklow.
  • John Redmond, Sinn Féin, Greystones.
  • Lord Powerscourt, Unionist, Enniskerry.

Robert Barton was proposed for the chair, his imprisonment was deplored and his release demanded. He was unanimously elected in his absence. The Vice-Chairman, Joseph Campbell unfolded a tri-colour and placed it on the table amid scenes of great enthusiasm. A resolution supporting Dáil Éireann was passed unanimously and Christopher Byrne who was ‘on the run’ was accorded a warm welcome. By the end of 1920 Roundwood and Ashford R.I.C. Barracks had been abandoned and in early June the I.R.A. in Wicklow Town felt obliged to warn off the local girls against fraternising with members of the Crown Forces. In September a party of Volunteers from the Bray Company were engaged in felling trees on the Killarney Road in preparation for an ambush on the ‘curfew’ car, when they were surprised by a military patrol. In the ensuing engagement Volunteer Joe Cullen was wounded.

Death of Volunteer Willie Owens

On the 4th of December, Crown Forces raided the Sinn Féin rooms in Sunnybank, Little Bray. The premises were ransacked and the following men arrested, Patrick Waldron U.D.C. Nicholas Mulvey, Patrick Sutton and Thomas Martin. The homes of these men were searched and they were removed to Dublin. On the evening of the 10th of December a raid was carried out on the Volunteer Hall in Shankill, Co.Dublin, C Company area. The raiding party was composed of members of the Cheshire Regiment under Major Shore, based on the Powerscourt Estate. A meeting of C Company officers had just finished and some of the men were playing cards when the military arrived. The men were placed against the wall with their hands up and searched. A shot was fired from another room and section leader Willie Owens fell dead with a bullet in the head. Originally from Shankill, Owens had been working in New Ross and was on the run from there. Two other members of the company were arrested, Dan O’Rourke and James Murphy. O’Rourke was found in possession of a revolver, while volunteer Tom Brien of Bray managed to escape.

Volunteer Willie Owens, shot dead on 11.12.1920.  Photo: Henry Cairns

The funeral of Volunteer Willie Owens took place on 21st of December from St.Columcille’s Hospital to St.Peter’s Cemetery Little Bray. On the previous day a secret military enquiry was held into the killing. The relatives expressed dissatisfaction at the decision to hold the proceedings in camera. Afterwards, the military issued Mr. Thomas Owens, father of the deceased an order permitting the burial of his son. A further order was issued to him warning him against any procession or demonstration connected with the funeral. Despite the above order, no attempt was made to interfere with the funeral which was one of the largest held in the locality in many years. The coffin was carried by volunteers, carriages and cars formed a long procession and there was a large gathering of mourners waiting at the church. At Shankill Village and at Little Bray there was a further addition to the throng.

Shortage of weapons

Because of the chronic shortage of weapons, C Company began raiding houses again. A list of people licensed to have fire arms was hanging in Bray Post Office. This list was copied and the houses raided, but in the majority of cases it was found that the weapons had already been handed in to the police. However, a few more shotguns were added to the company’s arsenal. The company’s arms were distributed between 3 dumps. The first was in Lord Plunkett’s moat near Old Connaught. The second was a large wooden box buried in Shanganagh, the third, a temporary dump, was in the disused railway tunnel around Bray Head which had been constructed to take some shotguns and revolvers handed over by the Wicklow Town company. Soon afterwards these weapons were moved to a new dump in an empty cottage near Shanganagh. This operation was carried out by Tom Sutton, Seamus Mac Sweeney and Tom Brien.

C company raided Bray Town Hall and took the Council’s books which were handed over to P.J. Farrell, Clerk of the Rathdown Board of Guardians. About this time the company commandeered a stock of picks and shovels and crosscut saws from the council stores. These tools were used for trenching roads and felling trees etc.

After the death of Volunteer Willie Owens, members of the Enniskerry section including Stephen Barry, Mick Dunne and Tom Fox[2] made several attempts to get Major Shore but to no avail.

Three Crossley Tenders belonging to the British Army were stolen in Dublin and driven to Enniskerry where they were burned. Raids for arms continued in the C company area but with little success, however a few revolvers were purchased from G.H.Q. and the year closed with the battalion O.C. Andy McDonnell and Vice O.C. Brian MacNeill cycled to Bray with some hand grenades which they handed over to ‘Steenie’ Mulvey whom they met walking along the Dargle Road eating a bag of chips. On being told that the H.Q. men were hungry, Mulvey gave them his chips.

January 1921 to the Truce.

C. Company organised several ambushes on the roads leading to Bray in January and February 1921 but none of them came to anything.  In early April two British army ambulances arrived on goods wagons at the goods yard in Bray, Tom Sutton, Seamus Mac Sweeney, ‘Lukey’ Leggett, Peter Ledwidge and Tom Brien went to burn them on the orders of the Company O.C.  They climbed the railings carrying tins of petrol and commandeered a large drum of oil.  The petrol and oil mixture was poured over the vehicles and within seconds they were a mass of flame.  The following week the Bray section cut down 6 telephone poles on the Dublin Road, starting at Woodbrook.

Attack of R.I.C. barracks

The Bray section of C. Company wanted to attack the R.I.C. barracks and eventually the Brigade staff agreed. First conceived as a modest affair, but when it was presented to the Battalion Council for approval it was decided to make it into a much bigger operation in which the whole Battalion would take part.  The plan provided that the Bray section would play the major role while the other companies would take up positions around the outskirts of the town to prevent reinforcements reaching the enemy.

Bray R.I.C. August 1921.  Photo: Henry Cairns

R.I.C. strength in Bray at this time was about 40 men with a detachment of 20 Black and Tans in the Courthouse and a contingent of the Essex regiment occupying the Royal Hotel.  These three positions were surrounded by barbed wire entanglements with sandbag emplacements in strategic positions and steel shutters on all the windows.  The defenders were equipped with revolvers, rifles, Lewis light machine guns, hand grenades and as much ammunition as they required.  In addition they had rockets to fire to summon help.

The volunteers on the other hand had 6 good revolvers, 3 Lee Enfield service rifles and a small supply of hand grenades. However when the occasion demanded, weapons could be moved into the area by battalion.  Saturday April 11th was selected as the most suitable day for the attack.  The company was mobilised and additional arms and ammunition were transported into the area.  About an hour before the attack was to commence, Brian McNeill the battalion Q.M. called on the Company O.C. and cancelled the attack.  The reason given was that someone was working on a small cannon and it would be better to wait until it was available.  The cannon never materialized and permission was given for the original plan to be put into effect on the evening of Saturday 18th albeit on a much more modest scale.

The personel involved were:

  • Bombing party: Jack Sterling and Mike McCarthy
  • Riflemen:  Laurence O’Brien 1st Leiut, Tom Sutton, Pat Brien, ‘Lukey’ Leggett and Tom Brien.

The attack began at 10pm when Vols. Sterling and McCarthy moved into position at the wall under the Courthouse.  They lobbed their hand grenades at the door of the barracks and beat a hasty retreat down the Mill Lane. They were seen by a Black and Tan from the Courthouse who opened fire on them but they escaped unhurt. The door of the barrack was usually left open but on this occasion it was closed and the grenades exploded harmlessly on the footpath outside.

Laurence O’Brien, the Company O.C. takes up the story.

“After the bombs were thrown a few minutes were allowed to let our commerades and any civilians in the area to get clear.  We had taken up position at 9.55pm under cover of the low wall on the Dublin side of the Dargle River, within 50 yards of the barracks.  There were only 3 service rifles available for the attack and these were used by Vols. Tom Sutton, Pat Brien and myself.  After our bombers were safely away we opened fire on the police who had come out of the barracks to investigate the explosions, they beat a hasty retreat and concentrated fierce fire on the Main Street and Bray Bridge.  The firing continued unabated for about half an hour.  After our first volley we ceased firing but remained in position until the firing from the barracks died down.  We then directed a second volley at the barracks, this resulted in a second fierce fusillade similar to the first one again directed up the Main Street.  We again held our fire until the enemy fire died down and then gave them a third volley.  Rockets were sent up summoning help and firing continued unabated until re-enforcements arrived 2 hours later”.


The rifle section men had arranged to sleep away from home, but the arrival of the Auxiliaries made this impossible as they were firing wildly along the Quinsborough Road and roads leading off it.  Laurence O’Brien made his way to his home in Duncairn Avenue.  On arriving home his wife noticed that he was bleeding freely from the chin and that his shirt was soaked in blood.  The wound was quickly dressed and the blood soaked clothes burned in the kitchen range, just in time as the Auxiliaries kicked in the door and arrested him.  The men who were arrested that night stated that they were beaten with rifle butts by the Auxiliaries but O’Brien was at pains to point out that no local police took part in the beatings.  All 8 men arrested were taken to Arbour Hill prison.

The following evening Brian Mac Neill Battalion Q.M. held a meeting of company officers and appointed Tom Sutton O.C. and Jack Sterling, Adjutant.


Extensive damage was caused to the town centre with almost every shop window in the lower Main Street and the west end of the Quinsborough Road, broken.  The report on the attack in the ’Wicklow People’ on Monday April 18th 1921 stated that the Barracks, Courthouse and an 8 man police patrol who were in the vicinity of the picture house, Quinsborough Road, were attacked at about 10.45pm.  People leaving the cinema were terrified by firing.  The police returned fire and an engagement took place in front of Duncairn Tce. until the police succeeded in reaching the house of Detective Inspector. Lowndes where they took cover.  Later that night the following were arrested: Johnny McCaul (Town Clerk), P. O’Brien U.D.C., Owen Brien, Laurence O’Brien, P. Martin U.D.C., Tom Martin, Jack Martin, J. and P. Hoey, J. Kenny and J. O’Toole.

Report to G.H.Q. on the attack

“Subject of the report:  The attack of Bray Barracks on 18th April 1921: The O.C. of C. Coy sent two men armed with bombs as near to the barrack as they could safely go, these two men landed the grenades at the door of the barrack both exploding simultaneously.  The enemy made no reply.  The O.C. then took up a position on the golf links with six men, across the river from the barracks and opened fire.  The enemy then replied with volleys of rifle and machine gun fire and sent up a verey light.  The O.C. then withdrew his men and dismissed them.  Military reinforcements arrived later from Enniskerry camp.  Ammunition expended – 24 rounds of .303.  Casualties – NIL”

A second attack

On May 6th Bray barracks was attacked again, the ‘Wicklow People’  reported that alarming bursts of rifle and machine gun fire were heard in Bray when a sustained I.R.A. attack on the barracks and Courthouse took place.  The assault began when 2 grenades were thrown at the rear of the barracks followed by a volley of rifle fire.  The courthouse was struck by rifle fire from St. Pauls churchyard and the Mill Lane, no casualties resulted on either side (C. Company always denied using St. Pauls churchyard to attack crown forces)

Report to G.H.Q. on the May 6th attack

“On the evening of May 6th 1921, 6 men of C. Company carried out an attack on Bray R.I.C. barracks. 6 picked men under the command of the 1st Leiut Tom Sutton, (Laurence O’Brien was in jail) took up positions on the Quinsborough Road and the Golf Links.  Our men opened fire on the barracks and threw 2 hand grenades.  The action was not sustained.  The enemy replied with machine gun fire, rifles and grenades, concentrating on the Main Street and the Golf Links, verey lights went up and reinforcements were called for. Our men withdrew having gained their objectives. Ammunition expended: 16 rounds of .303 and 2 hand grenades.”

After this attack the troops strength in the Royal Hotel was raised to 100 men and barbed wire entanglements and sandbags were reinforced.

Ambush of army lorry

Having received information that a British Army lorry passed regularly along the Dublin Road, it was decided that C. Company should ambush it.  The site chosen for the ambush was Claffey’s Grove. Claffey’s Grove was the name given to a row of cottages and a pub situated roughly where the entrance to Shanganagh Cemetery is now.  Two weeks were set aside for this operation.  The first week would be taken by the Shankill section under section leader Josie Faulkner and if nothing happened the second week could be taken by the Bray section under Pat O’Brien.

Nothing happened during the first week, so the Shankill section pulled out and the Bray section took over.  The Bray men taking part in this operation were: Pat O’Brien, Tom Sutton, Steenie Mulvey, Seamus MacSweeney, Mick Brien (Abbeyview) Jack Sterling, Tom Brien, ‘Lukey’ Leggett and Mike Scarff.  They were armed with 3 Lee-Enfield service rifles, an assortment of double and single barrel shotguns loaded with buckshot, revolvers and a few hand-grenades.  Tom Brien in his statement says that they waited 9 nights before the enemy lorry appeared.

On the Thursday evening at about 9pm a military lorry was observed travelling at high speed in the direction of Bray.  When it was about 30 yards away from the ambush position, the riflemen, Mulvey, Brien and Sutton, opened fire.  The lorry began to zigzag and fire was returned.  As it passed the ambush site the shotgun men opened fire and Seamus MacSweeney threw a hand-grenade which exploded immediately behind the lorry.  All the while the enemy’s bullets cut thorough the trees above the Bray mens’ heads.  As the lorry passed the ambush position, Tom Sutton jumped over the wall, took up a firing position on the roadway and continued to fire at the enemy until they disappeared out of sight.  The Bray section then withdrew and dumping their weapons at Plunkett’s moat made their way home[3].

G.H.Q. intelligence reported that one soldier was killed and two wounded.

Mistaken identity

Laurence O’Brien was released form jail a month after his arrest and took command of C. Company again.  He was not long free when a man named Laurence Brien was shot dead in Bray.  On 13th May 1921, Brien, a gardener was entering his home at School Lane beside the Town Hall when he was shot by Black and Tans.  He died at 2am the following morning. Laurence O’Brien believed that Brien was shot in mistake for himself.

Laurence Brien. Shot dead at Bray Town Hall May 1920. Photo: Henry Cairns

Roads impassable

During the month of June roads around the county were made impassable.  Trenches were dug, trees felled, telephone poles cut down and telephone equipment destroyed.  These activities were carried out on a large scale and imposed a heavy burden on the Crown Forces.  They reacted by rounding up large numbers of civilians especially republican sympathisers and forcing them to fill in the trenches.  Some of these people made a resolute stand and flatly refused to work, leaving the British powerless to act.

Attack on Enniskerry barracks

On 27th May 1921 the Enniskerry men attacked the R.I.C. barracks in Enniskerry.  The attacking party consisted of a rifleman and a bomber armed with a revolver and 3 hand-grenades.  The military camp was 140 yards away and the barracks was covered by a machine gun from there.  When the attack began the bomber threw a grenade at the front of the barracks. When the bomb exploded the rifleman fired 2 rounds at the front of the barracks while the bomber went to the rear and threw another bomb.  The rifleman fired 3 more rounds and the bomber threw his last bomb. When this exploded both men retreated safely.  The military replied with volleys of rifle fire, which continued for hours.  It was concluded that the barracks was impregnable to grenade and rifle fire and because of the commanding position of the nearby military camp the situation of an attacking party would be extremely hazardous.

Other attempted attacks

Several other unsuccessful operations were mounted on the run up to the Truce, including an attempt to ambush a Military Despatch rider on Ballymahon Road, an attempt to ambush an R.I.C. patrol at the top of the Putland Road, an attempt to ambush an Auxiliaries patrol at Crinken and an attempt to shoot Black and Tans on the railway line at the back strand.




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