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Unveiling the Forgotten Hero: Bill Foley’s Role in Waterford’s Fight for Independence

While researching the War of Independence in Waterford, I realised the struggle was frequently told by the descendants of those who were opposed to the treaty. The dissatisfaction of not securing a thirty-two county Ireland has been multi-generational, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree effect. To continue to seek a united Ireland required of them a need to recall their family history. However, thinking of our history in present day terms and reflecting backwards, we are not accurately recording the events of that time. When I read witness statements of those involved in Irish independence, certain names come to the fore. However, many of the individuals who did not record a personal statement and who no longer have family locally have been forgotten. Men such as George Lennon of the west and Jim Heylin of the east of the county never recorded their war-time experiences. George Lennon’s son has done an excellent job in reminding us of his father’s experiences, but what about all the others? 

It was in June of 2022 when I was contacted by Joe Kelly, the grandson of Bill Foley. I was aware of Foley as I had come across his name previously, however, I was unaware of the extent of his involvement in the struggle. Considering his endeavours, I realised he along with others, who by no fault of their own, deserved to be remembered. 

Bill Foley, considered one of the outstanding soldiers in the fight for freedom, was born in a one room farmhouse in Ballycurrane, Clashmore, Waterford in 1899. After his father died, his mother, who lived with her seven children, took in Alice Colfer as a border. Alice was from Waterford City and the primary teacher at Ballycurrane National School. She also was a committed Gaelic Leaguer and instrumental in forming the Waterford branch of Cumann na mBan in 1914. No doubt she influenced the young Foley. At the age of fifteen Bill joined the British Army and qualified as a sniper and first-class marksman. During the early stages of World War I, he returned home from the Western Front and joined the Piltown Company, 3rd Battalion of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He became a Volunteer organizer and started drilling the small number of Volunteers in the parishes of Clashmore and Piltown. He soon became known as one of the most fearless fighters against the Crown Forces. 

In the early stages of the Irish War of Independence, the IRA targeted houses of the gentry and the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks in search of explosives and weapons. Bill was committed to the struggle; raiding for arms, holding up mail trains and vehicles and cutting telephone lines between Dungarvan and Youghal. As expected, a price was placed on Foley’s head. In January 1920, following the recruitment of the Black and Tans, Bill took part in many engagements and when required, he operated as a one-man unit challenging the enemy. 

In July 1920, Bill along with Mick Shalloe, went to Youghal to shoot Head Constable Ruddick, although Ruddick survived, he left Youghal and never returned. In the following month, Bill was responsible with three other men for holding up and disarming a Sergeant and his constables of their three revolvers and ammunition one mile outside Clashmore Village.  Bill, forced by the events, went on the run and with violence intensifying, the British government introduced the ‘Restoration of Order in Ireland Act’ which allowed for the non-judicial internment and court martial of civilians and led to the arrest of a large number of IRA officers. After the Act passed, more IRA men were forced to leave their homes to avoid arrest. These fugitive Volunteers banded together for safety and became the nucleus of an elite IRA active service unit (ASU) or flying column. In September, West Waterford Vice O.C. George Lennon, formed the West Waterford Flying Column under Brigade O.C. Patrick (Pax) Whelan. The first man to be sent for by Pax Whelan was Bill Foley. The column was formed initially from a dozen men with a secure base of operations in the Comeragh mountains. Being a sniper and first-class marksman, Bill was appointed musketry and drill instructor of the column. 

In November, Bill was ordered along with Andrew Kirwan and another soldier to assassinate an RIC Officer in Dungarvan. The witness could not identify the officer, so the mission was aborted. The following night, Bill was in Cappoquin during the shooting of RIC Constable Isaac Rea. Bill took part in every operation carried out in West Waterford, from the Kilmacthomas train hold-up to solo missions to being in charge of the riflemen of the column at the Brown’s Pike, Piltown, Burgery, Pickardstown, Ardmore or Ballylynch ambushes. Along with being a marksman, Bill was also an excellent runner which allowed him to be a great sniper getting in and out of areas quickly. Apparently, he didn’t like to kill but did his job effectively. He always took someone with him, so he didn’t mistake the identity of the attended target. This was demonstrated during the assassination of Constable Maurice Prenderville on December 3, 1920. When captured at the Piltown Ambush, Constable Maurice Prenderville was made to give a commitment that he would resign from the force in return for his release unharmed. He reneged on his promise and was subsequently killed by a shot when he was crossing over Youghal Bridge to pay wages to a bedridden ex-RIC man named Frank Coughlan. Bill had been detailed to reconnoitre this attack. Bill along with his brothers and some other members of the Ballycurrane company, took position on the so nicknamed ‘Chocolate Hill’ overlooking the bridge. 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 was approaching the end of the bridge a fierce fusillade of fire was directed at the RIC men, wounding three of them. 

By April 1921, weeks after the Burgery Ambush, Bill Foley had fallen out of favour with the Brigade HQ. He stood accused of taking 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. Given a tip off as to the findings of the tribunal, Bill went ‘missing’. Despite his 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. 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. 

Although removed from Waterford, Bill didn’t slow down. He crossed the Blackwater and joined the 4th Battalion Cork, No. 1 Brigade in Youghal with which he served until the Truce. In May 1921 he took part in an attack on Youghal Military Barracks. One month later, he was appointed Battalion Training Officer. Bill remained committed to the cause of independence until the final truce was agree to. 

A hero, a determined man of conviction, it’s not surprising that two of Bill’s closest friends were Dan Breen and Tom Barry, but bearing this in mind, the question remains how was his legacy lost and how many more men and women of Waterford’s struggle remain forgotten. Perhaps a greater effort can be made to remember the men and women of this time. It is our hope over a series of articles and small videos to recall those who were involved with Ireland’s path to independence. However, researching witness statements alone will not provide a full picture of who was involved. As we have seen, many chose not to recall the events at all. Should you know of someone who has been forgotten, we encourage you to contact us.

In memory of Jack Foley, son of Bill Foley who passed away quietly on 10th of October 2022. Thank you for the stories and our history. 

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