Historical Biographies War of Independence

A Fearless Rebel

Bill Foley & The fight for west waterford

i. The Fight on the Western Front
It takes a rebellious heart for a mere teenager to leave the bosom of rural West Waterford and decamp to fight for the British Army in The Great War, especially considering the vast numbers of Irishmen who were falling at the ‘Front’. Nonetheless, this is what Bill Foley and his older brother Robert from Ballycurrane, Clashmore contended to do. They served with the Royal Munster Fusiliers and while in the forces they both qualified as proficient marksmen, a skill which would stand them in good stead for the challenges ahead closer to home.

Bill Foley, Ballycurrane

It was recalled by Bill that he joined the Irish Volunteer effort on May 20th 1917 at Clashmore, Co. Waterford while home on leave from British Army service. Following his desertion, he was by default ‘on the run’ from the authorities, a path which would shape his involvement considerably in the War of Independence ahead. In the absence of an army service record for either of them, we can only presume that his older sibling Robert may have taken the same exit strategy, but could equally have remained on until the end of the war and joined the volunteers later. Bill and Robert would later help to form the local Ballycurrane ‘G’ Company of the West Waterford I.R.A. Brigade. Their service experience also led them to attempt to make up for the lack of armaments amongst the volunteer companies by manufacturing their own. Bill was known for making ‘tin can’ bombs which were an improvised explosive device used extensively at the ‘Front’. Also at one point the brothers were reported to have refurbished an old gun or cannon and brought it to a location where they could shoot across the bay at Youghal with it, but the gun misfired when first used and exploded, thankfully without any casualties. Another story, well-known locally, goes that they created a large homemade bomb at home in Ballycurrane for the purposes of carrying out an ambush but it later turned out to be too heavy for the cart that was to transport it and so it remained on the home farm until it was re-discovered in the early 1980’s – it is not clear whether it was still primed or not!

Alice Colfer, N.T. Ballycurrane N.S.

An interesting sidenote to the brothers’ formative years is that as of 1911 an Alice Colfer from Waterford City was their Primary teacher at Ballycurrane National School and was recorded in the census of that year as being a lodger with the Foley family. Alice was a committed Gaelic Leaguer and within a few short years was instrumental in forming the Waterford branch of Cumann na mBan in 1914. We will never know for sure how much of a nationalistic spirit she may have imparted on the young Foley brothers, but one thing we do know is that she was vehemently opposed to the idea of Irish men fighting for a British cause so she likely would not have approved of their initial choice to go to war.

ii. The Fight for Freedom: Local Engagements
From its formation, Bill was attached to George Lennon’s ‘Flying Column’ or the Active Service Unit (ASU) of the West Waterford Brigade of which he was appointed it’s ‘Musketry and Drill Instructor’. The ‘Flying Column’ was an elite group of experienced men with ready access to any available weapons and would be the core participants in most of the engagements which took place throughout the area and indeed further afield in places such as Tramore and Kilmacthomas. Regarding local engagements, most people will have some awareness of the famous Piltown Ambush which took place on All-Saints night 1920, but much less is known about the other ambushes which took place there before and after.
One such engagement took place on May 20th 1920 when an RIC patrol was taken by surprise in broad daylight near the cross by members of the Piltown Company armed with shotguns and with Bill & Bob Foley in tow. The four RIC men were held up at gunpoint and after surrendering were forced to hand over their Webley revolvers and bicycles. One of the ambushers (the local Postman) was so delighted with his new acquisition that he showed it off at O’Sheas later that day, but was caught off guard when a Black & Tans raiding party entered the Post Office to find out about the ambush. Luckily the man was able to quickly hide the gun in a bucket of coal and concoct a cover story to throw the party off.
That August a minor ambush involving about twenty volunteers was laid at Piltown Cross by holding up the mail car and waiting for the British cavalry to come out from Youghal. The Crown forces didn’t take the bait on that occasion, although it is clear that plans were building for a much larger engagement there.

A Webley Revolver from the War of Independence

The next such engagement to take place at the Cross was the famous ambush on All-Saints night November 1st 1920. The Brigade and 3rd Battalion officers drew up a plan which would involve feigning an attack on Ardmore RIC Barracks to raise an alarm and draw out a party of the Hampshire Regiment stationed at Youghal Military Barracks on Cork Hill in an attempt to strip them of their rifles, ammunition and possibly even their transport. The engagement involved every available member of the 3rd Battalion and some extra men from the Dungarvan 1st Battalion. After the trap was sprung at Ardmore, eventually a single patrol of British soldiers did come from Youghal, albeit in a borrowed truck which explained their delayed arrival. Otherwise the engagement went according to plan with the ambush itself ending quickly due to the fact that it was said the soldiers involved, especially the Commanding Officer, were an inexperienced group and surrendered soon after one of their party (the driver) had been killed and a few others wounded. A large stockpile of rifles and ammunition was plundered and transported off to a secure location with the volunteers completing their mission with no casualties. Two RIC men, named Prendeville and O’Neill had accompanied the Army patrol on the night as ‘guides’ and both were taken up the Clashmore road and threatened to swear an oath to resign from the RIC, which they did and were then released. O’Neill apparently made good on his promise to resign as soon as he returned to his barracks, but Prendeville remained and this decision would come back to haunt him a few weeks later.

Old Steel Youghal Bridge & Bridgekeeper’s Hut from ‘Chocolate Hill’

Before noon on the 3rd December, Constable Prendeville was part of a patrol of six RIC officers who were crossing over Youghal Bridge to pay wages to a bedridden ex-RIC man named Frank Coughlan. Mr. Coughlan resided with the bridge caretaker Charlie Coughlan who was responsible for the opening and closing of the navigation swing section to accommodate river traffic. Bill Foley had been detailed to reconnoitre this attack and it was known that this police escort was a regular task carried out on the 3rd of every month. The Foley brothers, along with some other members of the Ballycurrane company, took position on the so nicknamed ‘Chocolate Hill’ overlooking the bridge. Anecdotally it was said that the bridge-keeper assisted the volunteers by covertly dropping a handkerchief on the side where Prendeville was walking to pinpoint him to the sniper group as his face would not have been identifiable at distance. Once the RIC cohort were approaching the end of the bridge a fierce fusillade of fire was directed at the RIC men, wounding three of them. A Sergeant McMorrow took cover at the Bridgekeeper’s hut while the other RIC men ran back towards town but by the time back-up from the Hampshire Regiment had arrived, the ambushers had fled the scene. A Lady Brown who happened to pass just after the incident in her pony and trap brought Prendeville into Torrens Chemist at 85 North Main Street for him to be treated by a doctor. He had been badly wounded in the abdomen and died a few hours later, leaving a wife and six children behind him. After this incident the British forces left the swing section of the bridge permanently open until the time of the Truce to quell any further I.R.A. attacks on the Youghal side, although this action probably hampered their own efforts in equal measure.

Bill and the same close cohort of comrades had also been involved in other similar missions such as the attempted assassination of Head-Constable Ruddock on August 1st 1920 after Sunday Service in Youghal. This mission was unsuccessful as the officer was merely struck in the leg and survived the attack but soon after left his posting at Youghal Barracks on the back of the incident. Bill gained a fierce reputation after some of these engagements and was later referred to as a ‘one-man flying column’ which goes some way to explaining why his name was rarely mentioned in dispatches as he certainly seemed to operate as a ‘lone wolf’ for much of the time. The renegade streak which was evident in Bill was clearly illustrated later in time when he himself explained that he had single-handedly undertaken to snipe at a British reconnaissance airplane which was circling the district of Clashmore. This rebellious action drew a swarm of Black and Tans around the district the following day to investigate the incident. This no doubt resulted in the inevitable harassment of the people in the area but also probably achieved exactly what Bill had intended by bringing the enemy out in the open.

Torrens Chemist, 85 North Main Street, Youghal

Finally the third and much less-known ambush at Piltown took place some months later when the Crown Forces were much better prepared for the resistance across the bridge. On June 30th 1921, the 2nd East Cork Brigade were carrying out an action in their own battalion area and had asked Pax Whelan to arrange for some men on the Waterford side to assist. Their task was to provide distracting fire to be directed at the Youghal Military Barracks from the usual ‘Chocolate Hill’ sniping position and a detail from the Piltown Company was dispatched to carry out this assignment. The range was over a thousand yards to the barracks so the firing would be merely ‘nuisance’ shots only. Later that night the British forces took some boats over to Ferrypoint and others crossed over in some lorries and closed the bridge swing section behind them. After landing, the seaborne party made a surprise contact with the still mobilized Piltown men near Piltown Cross. In the ensuing fight, one section of volunteers were isolated in the darkness and ran out of ammunition after the day’s sniping and were immediately surrounded while resting at a local farmhouse. The local section had no other choice but to surrender their arms and were arrested and later court-martialled by the British military authorities and imprisoned in Cork Gaol. The unfortunate captives included half-a-dozen Piltown men along with Bob Foley and thereafter the Piltown Company was rendered ineffective until the ‘truce’.

iii. Transition Period
By June 9th 1921, Bill Foley had fallen out of favour with the Brigade HQ as Jim Mansfield had warned the ‘E’ Coy Officer Commanding that some prisoners were not to be allowed to escape and should be shot and wounded if necessary to control them. Bill Foley was one of these prisoners as he stood accused of some indiscipline after being reported to have taken Salmon from the Fishing Weir of the Holroyd-Smyths (of Ballinatray House) on the River Blackwater. Court-martial proceedings for his offence were scheduled to be presided over by Mick Mansfield and to be held at Ballycurrane School. A week later, the two prisoners were mentioned in a dispatch by Jim Mansfield to the effect that they had avoided the arraignment by being given a tip off as to the findings of the tribunal and were now ‘missing’.

A group of volunteers in the field

Some days later, Flying Column leader George Lennon recalled some members back into the ASU and ordered that Bill Lennon, Clashmore should also report with the rifle and ammunition that were previously being used by the ‘missing’ Bill Foley. Despite Bill’s absence, the court-martial proceedings went ahead and Bill was found guilty of the unauthorized removal of fish from Holroyd-Smyth’s Weir at Ballinatray, with Jim Mansfield ordering that he leave Co. Waterford before 7pm the following Monday. His offence had been taken so seriously because of the fact that the Holroyd-Smyths had agreed with Brigade HQ to subscribe to the ‘Arms Fund’ with a £100 payment and that in return there should be no interference with the family or their property.

A timely intervention for Bill came in the shape of a ceasefire which was brokered with the British on 11 July 1921. The post-ceasefire talks led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December 1921. Despite this, it was reported the day after the truce that, in typically rebellious fashion, that a ‘returned’ Bill Foley and another man Gaffney had disarmed two Cork I.R.A. men in Clashmore over some confusion as to their identity. Either the truce had emboldened Bill to come out in the open again or else he was flying in the face of the verdict of the court-martial proceedings a few weeks earlier.
Post-truce, Bill joined the 4th Battalion of the Cork 1st Brigade as Battalion Training Officer and rose to rank of Lieutenant. He was first sent to attend a training camp at Coom Rua, Gougane Barra where courses were being given on machine guns, mine laying and booby traps, even though all these activities were in breach of the Truce. Some time after, Bill was reassigned to a training camp at Killeagh a few miles from Youghal in East Cork. His time there didn’t last long though as he was accidentally shot in September of 1921 by a Lt. P. Landers of Youghal after he had picked up Bill’s revolver from a table and accidentally discharged it which shot Bill in the right knee. This grounded him in hospital for a time and out of action for several months until early 1922 when he was well enough to travel to Dublin to begin the next chapter of his military service.

iv. The Irish Free State
On January 7th 1922, the new Dáil voted to accept the ‘Treaty’, after which British Troops began to withdraw from the country. By January 16th, Dublin Castle had been handed over to Michael Collins, as head of the Provisional government. The RIC were also disbanded in this month and recruitment of a new Civic Guard police force had begun. By January 31st, the new Irish Free State Army had been inaugurated. It was reported that Beggars Bush barracks, Dublin had been taken over by Paddy Daly, a one-time leader of Collin’s ‘squad’ along with a number of his former squad members. This unit was now referred to as the ‘Dublin Guard’.

Capt. Bill Foley, Free State Army

It was reported that Bill Foley was one of the first men from the South to visit Beggars Bush barracks, Dublin to see what the new regime had to offer. It was also reported at this time that Bill Lennon, Clashmore had thrown his lot in with the Free State Army at Youghal (although he soon after reversed his decision). On April 7th of that year, Bill Foley enlisted in the new army force at Wellington Barracks and was thrown in at the deep end a few weeks later at the ‘Battle of the Four Courts” which was the de-facto curtain-raiser for the ensuing Civil War. He was later engaged at the ‘Battle of Kilmallock’ at the end of July which consisted of ten days of intense fighting in the countryside around Kilmallock in County Limerick. By August 2nd, naval landings of Free State Troops were made at Fenit, Co. Kerry, including Paddy Daly and the Dublin Guard, amongst others, amounting to a total of about 800 men. On that same day they took control of Tralee and proceeded to annex various other towns in the County over the following days and weeks. After this time, it appears that Bill Foley was posted at Cahirciveen, South Kerry as Captain of ‘A’ Coy, 9th Battalion under the command of Paddy Daly, Major-General of the Kerry Command.

A fateful day in the history of the country occurred on August 22nd as the Free State Commander-in-Chief Michael Collins was killed in an ambush at Béal na Bláth. After this engagements and skirmishes intensified considerably, especially in Kerry and Cork, as Free-State Troops attempted to retain control of the larger towns. Bill was presumably involved in some of these engagements, but one incident which was recorded by Tom Doyle in his compelling book The Summer Campaign in Kerry was the ambush at Aughatubrid on September 4th 1922. It was written that Captain Bill Foley was commanding a convoy of four Model-T cars with four soldiers in each, to pay the wages of the garrison at Waterville. On their return journey to Cahirciveen, they were ambushed at Aughatubrid by members of the Kerry 3rd Brigade of the IRA under Jeremiah O’Riordan, totaling around 40 riflemen and a Lewis Machine Gunner. As they approached Aughatubrid, the locals tipped off the Free State troops that an ambush was planned for 6.30pm. They were advised to turn back as they were greatly outnumbered, but one of the officers reportedly replied:

“We never ran away from a fight and we’re going straight to Cahirciveen…”

The Summer Campaign in Kerry, Tom Doyle (2010), Page 93

It is not clear if this retort came from the mouth of Captain Foley or not. At 7pm they ran into the ambush position and immediately had to take cover as two soldiers were wounded. The patrol’s Lewis gunner Tadhg Murphy and Captain Bill Foley managed to to take cover behind piles of ballast and exchanged fire for about about half an hour. Foley’s immediate priority was to use a lull in the fighting to get the wounded Jack Kearney back to Cahirciveen, before he might die of his injuries. During a respite in shooting, one of the ambushers Batt Sheehan moved towards the Free State positions, whereupon Captain Foley jumped on him and took him prisoner. As the sun fell, the ambushers started to slip away. After one last firefight in which two ‘Free Staters’ were killed and one republican wounded, Foley gathered his men and they drove directly back to Cahirciveen with the wounded. Back in the town, the garrison was enraged by the casualties they had suffered. Captain Foley hid his prisoner Batt Sheehan lest the returning troops would kill him in reprisal for their two dead comrades and allowed the man to slip away later in the night. This gesture certainly showed a degree of empathy from Foley as it was a regular occurrence at the time for the ‘Free-Staters’ to use prisoners as cover and bait on future patrols.

v. Post-Civil War
On January 31st 1924 Bill resigned from the Free State Army and some time later he joined the Dublin Metropolitan Police force (which merged with An Garda Síochána in 1925) where he was initially based as a Detective at Pearse Street Station in Dublin. Later still, in one last foray into military service, Bill enlisted in the Irish Army Reserve Force in 1940 during the ‘Emergency’ and served as a Second Lieutenant in the ‘B’ Section (the Army Auxiliary group) of the 22nd Infantry Battalion. This group was also known as the “Regiment of Pearse”, after Padraig Pearse himself, and in 1940/41 was based at the Hibernian Schools building in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. There are no records of this battalion’s activities during that time, but by February 1941 Bill had been discharged from the Irish Army, ending a near-on 30 year association with military service.

Bill settled in Dublin for the remainder of his life until his death in February of 1975. His brother Bob Foley was to remain in National Army service for many years, being based for long periods at the Irish-speaking barracks at Renmore, Co. Galway where he rose to rank of Commandant. It was recalled later in time that on the rare occasion when Bill returned to his native Clashmore, that half of the social circle in the village would celebrate his visit with gusto….and that the other half wanted to kill him.

The fact that these divisions borne out of the Civil War could be so widely felt decades afterwards, and which, some might argue, still partly exist today, is a reflection of the deeply contentious nature of this period in Irish history, and indeed Bill Foley’s place in it.

Cry of the Curlew, Tommy Mooney; 2017
Irish Military Archives (Military Service Pensions Collection)
The Summer Campaign in Kerry, Tom Doyle; 2010
Torrens Family History, Richard Torrens (

Photo Credits
Youghal Photos, Torrens Photo Archive (
Foley Family Photos, Joe Kelly, CA
Republican Group Photo, Image Ref: UK2681, Waterford County Museum
Webley Revolver, Whytes Auction Catalogue

I wish to acknowledge and sincerely thank Joe Kelly, CA and Tommy Mooney, Old Parish for their assistance with this article.