Biggs Ambush - Coolboreen

1921 May 14. The ambush was sprung by the IRA when a motor car containing 5 people was motoring near Newport :-

An article by P Ryan, that he sent me said. The rapid onset of darkness at 19.00 was a consideration at the ambush scene. A number of locals always contended that the IRA had prior knowledge of Biggs’ intended fishing visit to Ciamalta House, the residence of Major Kingscote . Kingscote and Harry Biggs had both served in France with the British Expeditionary Force and afterwards in Salonika. Salonika was a small confined theatre of war and I suspect, but cannot prove, that they knew each other. There was a local tradition that prior knowledge of the proposed trip came from Mount Rivers, the residence of Captain Gabbett . The Gabbetts were considered ultra Loyalist and their house had been one of the most secure safe houses for the IRA in the area and was often used as an arms cache. No military raids were conducted on the house until the arrival of Biggs. He was more thorough than his predecessors and, during a raid on Mount Rivers in January, 1921, captured rifles and ammunition. In light of what subsequently occurred it was ironic that at a Military Tribunal in Limerick, where Captain Gabbett was charged, Sir Charles Barrington testified to Mr Gabbett’s loyalty and army service. Sir Charles attributed the occurrence to carelessness on the part of Captain Gabbett, implying, probably correctly, that the staff members were responsible. Gabbett, however, was fined £75 . The real culprit, or more correctly, the scapegoat was Mary Fenton, the cook at Mount Rivers. She was imprisoned in Limerick and was still there in April, 1921, awaiting trial . Mary Fenton’s sister Nora was the parlour maid in Mount Rivers and it is possible that it was through her that the IRA became aware that Miss Barrington and her friend were to call on Saturday afternoon to Gabbetts to join Biggs and his friend and, together with Captain Gabbett, the entire party would visit Major Kingscote for afternoon tea. A possible explanation is that the local IRA unit misled Gaynor concerning their prior knowledge. By his own account, Gaynor did not have a good relationship with the Newport and Rearcross IRA. They, in turn, may have resented his interference and kept him in the dark about aspects of their operations.

On reaching Coolboreen Bridge near Newport the motor car was fired ambushed by a party of armed IRA men led by Sean Gaynor, Miss Barrington and the district inspector being fatally wounded, while Captain Gabbett surrendered and Lieutenant Trengrouse escaped down the road.

Biggs was undoubtedly the target in this ambush. A long article on Winifred Barrington in the Old Limerick Journal makes it clear that Biggs was not a popular man in Limerick. It says that Biggs was "one of the most hated Black and Tan officers in the South of Ireland. This Aldershot-born man was stationed in Newport, and had made his name synonymous with the ruthless treatment of local people with nationalist sympathies. "

A man of Newport who had served in the British Army apparently said :"The officers of the regular British Army were alright; but the commander of the police in Newport was altogether a bad man, I knew his people in Aldershot:. That man was to leave Ireland on Whit Sunday, 1921 He thought if he took Miss Barrington with him on his night walks he would be safe, because Miss Barrington had always been good to everyone. Some of the lrish Volunteers had sworn that the police Commander in Newport would never escape alive from Ireland, after all the evil he had done.

Some time before the ambush, inspector Biggs had figured in another incident. A few days after the Castleconnell Shootings (which were on 17 Apr 1921) at the Shannon Hotel, Castleconnell, Biggs was alleged by IRA sources to have searched every part of the hotel for surgeon Harrison Cripps, who was on a fishing holiday in Castleconnell and had been staying in the hotel. Apparently unknown to Biggs, Harrison Cripps had broken off his holiday, and was on his way to London, where he wrote a letter to his brother, Lord Parmoor, who read it in the House of Lords on 26th April, a full account of what had happened in Castleconnell, and of the conduct of the Auxiliary forces there. It is difficult to know what to make of this allegation as it is impossible to corroborate the facts. I would doubt that Biggs was looking for Harrison Cripps in an effort to kill Cripps, though Biggs may have searched the hotel..

Sean Gaynor, Divisional Adjutant, 3rd South Tipperary IRA Brigade, and Divisional Commander No. 1 North Tipperary IRA Brigade, gives an account of the ambush and the events leading up to it, . . . . In the Newport area the IRA organisation was up against the ruthless activities of District lnspector Biggs, who engaged in burning the houses of I.R.A. men, shooting volunteers and civilians, beating up men, and on one occasion at Silvermines, after Mass on a Sunday, he rounded up the congregation and ordered the people to sing "God save the King': which they made an effort to do after volleys having been fired over their heads. A favourite practice of this officer was to bring well known I.R.A. supporters in lorries as hostages through the country. Old Matt Ryan, father of the prominent I.R.A. man, Paddy Ryan (Lacken), was kept a prisoner at Newport for two or three months and was used frequently as a hostage. In addition, Old Ryan, while imprisoned, was threatened almost every day by Biggs, particularly in regard to the fate that awaited his son, Paddy, should he ever be captured. With the two-fold purpose of putting the Newport area into a properly organised state and of shooting D.I. Biggs, I went to the Newport district on the 15th of May, 1921.

I stayed that night outside the village of Newport, and was thinking of going to bed when Paddy Ryan (Lacken), Tom McGrath and Dinny Hayes arrived in the house, after coming back from a period of service with the East Limerick Brigade. In discussions I had with these three men, they agreed to come with me to a meeting of the 6th (Newport) Battalion which I had convened for the following night in the Ballinahinch country. Next day, on our way to Ballinahinch, we called at McGrath's, where we were told that a car had passed the house and they had recognised in it D.I. Biggs, two other men in civilian attire, and two females. Miss McGrath came back to tell us this news, and suggested that the car was on its way to the house of a Major Gabbitt, a well known loyalist, who frequently entertained D. I. Biggs and his friends. Our reaction to this news was to rise from the dinner and make preparations to ambush the car on its return journey, As there was two roads running between Killoscully (Major Gabbitt's residence) and Newport, we decided to collect about a dozen local volunteers who had shotguns to ensure that both roads would be watched and the car attacked to either road. Paddy Ryan (Lacken), Tom McGrath, Dinny Hayes and four of the Newport Volunteers took up positions at Coolboreen, four miles from Newport. While the other men went to the Rossaguile road.

At Coolboreen there is a bend in the road coming from Killoscully. Inside the fence, on the right-hand the road and on the Newport side of the bridge, myself, Paddy Ryan (Lacken) and Tom McGrath, both with rifles, and one of the local volunteers with a shot-gun, were waiting. Forty yards or so further on towards Newport but on the opposite side of the road, Dinny Hayes, with a rifle, was in charge of three local volunteers, equipped with shotguns. Two hundred yards to my left we had a scout posted in a prominent position to warn us when the motor car would be coming back. After we were signaled that the quarry was approaching and when the car had passed the bridge, all my party opened fire. The car went on for about twenty yards, and then came to a halt on the left-hand side of the road. Three people alighted from it. The local volunteer who was with us, and who knew the District Inspector, shouted, "That's the D.I.!" We reopened fire on these three people. One of them ran off towards Newport and escaped, one fell in the centre of the road and the third fell into the ditch. After a few minutes another man emerged from the car with his hands up, and he came towards us. He turned out to be Major Gabbitt. He informed us that Miss Barrington had been shot. She was the person who fell into the ditch but, being dressed in mannish fashion, she was mistaken for a man.

The IRA men taking part in the Ambush are therefore

McGrath, Ryan and myself went up to the car, where he found, unharmed, an English woman named Rivers [her name was in fact Coverdale]. She was by no means frightened, and proceeded to give us "dog's" abuse for having shot Miss Barrington. Miss River's language upset me somewhat, but Ryan quickly silenced her when he said "Only for the bitch being in bad company she would not be shot!" The car was searched but it contained nothing of interest to us. The man who had fallen in the centre of the road turned out to be District lnspector Biggs, and he was dead. Miss Barrington was badly wounded, having been shot through the lung. We got the women in nearby houses to take her in and render whatever aid they could. She died in a few hours.

Miss Barrington and Miss Coverdale, who was a guest at Glenstal Castle (the Barrington's home) went into Newport. Miss Barrington rode on a pony and Miss Coverdale cycled. In Newport, Miss Barrington and her friend met Mr. Gabbett, who was a friend of the Barrington family, Major Biggs, and Captain Trengrouse. The pony and bicycle were left in Newport, and five set out in a private car, they apparently went for tea in someone's house. On the return journey, and when between Killoscully and Newport, at about half past seven o'clock, the car was suddenly ambushed at Coolboreen bridge.

A military inquiry into the deaths was held at the New Barracks, Limerick. A report of the proceedings was published in the Limerick Chronicle, on Thursday, 19 May: '

[Miss Coverdale] stated that they motored to a house where they had tea. On the return journey, and when they got to Coolboreen bridge, fire was opened from both sides of the bridge and behind. Captain Biggs, who was driving, was hit in the throat, and the car stopped after going a few yards. The three men jumped from the car and ran up the road, Miss Barrington was thrown on to the road and remained there. The firing went on, and seven or eight shots struck the back of the car where witness was, and she was wounded. She saw Captain Biggs running about ten yards from the side of the car and then drop, with [Mr Gabbett] and [Lt Trengrouse] standing alongside him on his right. [Lt Trengrouse] then got through a hedge and fired his revolver at the attackers. She saw him then running away. The firing continued, and she heard [Mr Gabbett]say, "Stop, stop; there is a lady in the back of the car". [Mr Gabbett] then went to help Miss Barrington, who was lying on the side of the road, and witness stood up in the car with her hands up. She then saw about five or six men come up. The leader asked how many were in Biggs' car and who was lying on the road. Witness told him it was District Inspector Biggs. He then asked where the other was, and she replied that she did not know. She told him there was a girl lying on the other side of the road, and he said it served them right for driving with the military. At that time Miss Barrington was unconscious but alive. She asked for help, and the reply she got was that it served them right. She saw in all about a dozen men there, and some of them before they left went up to where Captain Biggs was lying and fired at him. Witness remained with Miss Barrington until the military arrived, and before the attackers left they fired over their heads.

A civilian medical practitioner gave evidence to the effect that Miss Barrington died from shock and a haemorrhage, caused by gunshot wound in the chest. She was also wounded in the leg.

[Mr Gabbett] stated he was in Newport on the 14th, when he was overtaken by Miss Barrington and the other young lady. Eventually they were joined by Captain Biggs and [Lt Trengrouse], and set out in Biggs's motor car for a house where they had tea. They left about seven o'clock on the return journey, and when they got to Coolboreen bridge, which was three miles from Newport, fire was opened on the car. The motor carried on for a few yards, and then stopped. Captain Biggs, who was driving, had Miss Barrington beside him, and he appeared to be hit. Witness saw Miss Barrington tumble out of the car on to the side of the road, and he thought that she must have been also hit then. Captain Biggs got out of the car and advanced about twenty yards up the road and then fell. Witness and [Lt Trengrouse], also got out, and he saw [Lt Trengrouse] on the road with his revolver in his hand. Witness started to crawl in the direction of Captain Biggs, the other lady remaining in the car. The firing was going on all the time on his right and left and from behind. Witness next heard [Lt Trengrouse] ask Capt. Biggs if he could help him, but he received no reply. [Lt Trengrouse] then turned Biggs over and eventually he thought he saw [Lt Trengrouse] fire two or three shots. Biggs and [Lt Trengrouse] were in civilian clothes. While the firing was going [Mr Gabbett]saw some men come out on the bridge, and he shouted to them to stop firing, that there was only a girl in the car. At this time he had his hands up, and he next saw about twelve men on the road. One of them said to witness "You have a pistol in your hand", and he replied that it was only a pipe. Witness then removed his gloves and was covered by two men with revolvers. The leader asked where was Biggs, and witness said he was lying on the road, and that the only person in the car was a lady. While on the roadway ten or twelve shots were fired from rifles into the body of Captain Biggs, one man remarking that he was the man they wanted. The attacking party could have seen that there were ladies in the car when fire was opened on it. The men then went back to the motor near where Miss Barrington was lying, and one said something about being sorry and another said it was better for them to disperse. All of the men had rifles except one who had a revolver. When Miss Barrington was being removed he noticed her right leg badly shattered, as if she was struck by an expanding bullet.

[Lt Trengrouse]stated he was in Newport with District inspector Biggs and met the other three. They all went to a house for tea at 4 o'clock in District lnspector Biggs private car. They left at 7 o'clock, Captain Biggs being driving with Miss Barrington next him. [Lt Trengrouse] and the other two were seated behind. All went well until they got to Coolboreen bridge. They had just got over the bridge and were at the bottom of the slope when twenty five to thirty shots rang out from both sides of the road on a level with the car. The car went on about five yards, and the ambushers could have seen who were in the motor that there were ladies in it.