HISTORICAL SITE The ruins of Derrypark RIC Barracks, south of Tourmakeady.
Tourmakeady – fact or fiction
EIGHTY-SEVEN years ago this month, the first serious Mayo engagement in the War of Independence took place at Tourmakeady.
An ambush party of the South Mayo Brigade IRA, lying in wait on Tuesday, May 3, launched a surprise attack on a detachment of RIC men and Black and Tans, inflicting severe losses on the enemy before making good their escape through the Partry mountains.
That engagement has gone into folk history as an unquestioned success for the IRA volunteers, whose battle achievements were exceeded only by their escape from certain capture and death by a force of several hundred British troops combing the mountains in search of the rebels. In so doing, the Flying Column of the IRA claimed that it had been surrounded by up to 600 troops, but that the volunteers had fought their way out, inflicting up to 50 casualties.
Those accepted facts, however, have come under severe scrutiny in a new book about to be published and written by a Mayo author. ‘The Battle of Tourmakeady – Fact or Fiction’, from the pen of Captain Donal Buckley, is certain to raise serious debate about the entire episode and the conflicting versions of what really happened on that May day in 1921.
Captain Buckley, a retired Irish army officer with service of 22 years, is nothing if not thorough in his research and field work. His conclusions raise serious doubts about our understanding of the War of Independence and, equally, of the reliability of the sources so often used as definitive records of what actually happened.
Buckley claims that while the undisputed facts of the Tourmakeady ambush speak for themselves, the accounts given by each side leave more questions than they do answers. The facts tell that a 60-strong Flying Column of the South Mayo Brigade, under the command of Commandant Tom Maguire of Cross, ambushed a police patrol in Tourmakeady. The patrol was a supply detail bringing provisions from Bermingham’s shop in Ballinrobe to the isolated Derrypark RIC Barracks, seven miles south of Tourmakeady. After the ambush, the Flying Column withdrew into the Partry mountains, where a further engagement took place with British troops.
But it is from here on in that Captain Buckley finds it hard to reconcile the accounts of events as given by each side. Fact, fiction and propaganda were subsequently mixed to give conflicting and false pictures of the event.
Much of the misinformation, he says, is a result of deliberate spin. Dublin Castle and British Army GHQ were quick to issue statements that bore little reference to the facts. Citations for decorations awarded for action on the day were, Buckley says, conflicting , inaccurate and misleading.
But, controversially perhaps, ‘The Battle of Tourmakeady’ also examines the accuracy of statements issued by the IRA, and in many cases, it finds them equally wanting and questionable.
“This is not to cast aspersions for the sake of it,” says Buckley, “but after 87 years it is good to look at these events with an open mind and, bearing in mind the intense propaganda war that was raging in those years, to separate the fact from the fiction.”
The main problems in studying the Tourmakeady ambush, he says, is that the available secondary sources are rarely definitive and are quite often contradictory. And it is in separating the fact from the fiction, the potentially inaccurate from the proven facts, that ‘The Battle of Tourmakeady’ strips away the veneer of nine decades to come face-to-face with the stubborn truth.
The conflicting accounts are sometimes so distorted as to defy belief. One British intelligence report on the engagement states that “the successful round-up of a large body of rebels in Toumakeady, in which two were killed and 13 seriously wounded, was the result of an agents’ information that the rebels were lying in ambush at the spot.”
Another author, Michael Hopkins, makes the totally inaccurate claim that the “West Mayo Brigade arrived too late to help anyone in the ambush.”
Even Ernie O’Malley recounted that a radio transmitter at Derrypark RIC Barracks had been used to summon reinforcements when in fact no such transmitter existed.
“To date, nobody has published an accurate factual account of the events of May 3, 1921, or has addressed the inconsistent versions that the published sources contain,” explains Buckley. “In the interests of presenting an accurate account based on the available evidence, I have outlined in detail the ambush in Tourmakedy and the subsequent action in the Partry mountains.
Buckley examines the sequence of events, the numbers and weapons involved, and the casualties that both sides suffered, as well as the number of reinforcements that were summoned.
“I also explain why various versions of these events emerged and why they were given a deliberate spin given the intense propoganda war which was also being conducted,” he says.
‘The Battle of Tourmakeady – Fact or Fiction’ will be available in June. It can be ordered from the author, Captain Donal Buckley, at Woodfield, Derryhick, Castlebar, on 094 9031344.
Ansbro, our man in Oslo
IN A week taken up with talk of new high-level appointments, word comes through of the nomination of Ballinrobe native Gary Ansbro as Ireland’s new Ambassador to Norway.
A long-serving career diplomat, Gary moves to Oslo after several years as joint secretary of the main North-South body in Belfast. In that position, he represented the Irish Government in the complex, detailed nuts and bolts of giving effect to the Good Friday agreement
A man who has remained close to his Ballinrobe roots, his promotion to ambassadorship rank has been signalled for some time, and his posting to Norway is indeed a watershed mark in his career. A product of Ballinrobe CBS and UCG, Gary becomes one of only a small number of Mayo people to make their mark in the diplomatic service, most career civil servants contenting themselves with the more mainstream departments of State. He follows, however, in the distinguished footsteps of Foxford man, Noel Dorr, one of Ireland’s best-known ambassadors and a key player in the development of Anglo-Irish relations over some very difficult years.
Ballinrobe folk meanwhile will wish their native son well in his new appointment. Gary’s brother, Noel, continues to ply his trade at the teaching profession with which his family has been long associated in the past. The new ambassador will be assured of a warm welcome when next he pays a visit home.
And, of course, for any Ballinrobean who might find himself stranded in Oslo with nowhere to lay his head, there is now a fallback position – just seek directions to the Irish Embassy!
Comhaltas goes Argentinian
THE PHENOMENAL success of Comhaltas Ceoiltóirí Eireann (CCE) since its foundation in 1951 surely represents an immense source of pride for Irish people all over the world. Founded at a time when the future of Irish culture was under serious threat, CCE took it upon itself to nurture and protect that flickering candle that had become close to being totally extinguished.
It was a time when Irish music and dance were being dismissed by ‘smart’ society as being out-of-date, old fashioned, and almost an embarrassment in the modern world. Our unique traditions were at best a minor irrelevance, to be ignored or, preferably, discarded as hastily as possible.
How all that has changed in 50 years. The standing of Irish music is today celebrated across the globe, hailed by millions who come to watch and listen and admire. Traditional Irish music is played and enjoyed by people of Irish descent in every country of the world; its leading practitioners saluted and honoured wherever they perform.
Today, there are 4,000 branches of Comhaltas in 15 countries across four continents; the all-Ireland Fleadh Ceoil attracts up to 230,000 people each year over nine days; and a thousand classes of music and dance are conducted by qualified teachers every single week in venues throughout Ireland. Our culture is truly alive and thriving.
Now comes news of the latest country to form a branch of Comhaltas: Argentina. It is the first branch in South America to be registered with the national organisation. Set up by descendants of Irish emigrants living in Buenos Aires, the new River Plate branch of Comhaltas owes much of its origins to 27-year-old Fernando Marcos. Fernando discovered a passion for Irish dancing after watching a performance of Riverdance, and he went on to become South America’s first Irish-dancing teacher.
Given the Foxford connection with Argentina, it is no surprise to find a very direct link with the new River Plate branch. Another founding member, Augustin Brown, a seventh-generation descendant of the famed Admiral William Brown, has discovered yet another exciting aspect of his Irish heritage by way of Comhaltas. The ties with Ireland and Foxford, he says, are being further strengthened every time the musicians of River Plate Comhaltas assemble for their weekly session of Irish music and dance.
The Minister’s legacy
WHATEVER fallout there might be for Mayo in the Government’s cabinet reshuffle, and however the changes may affect matters of local concern, the departure of Mary Hanafin (pictured) from the Education Ministry surely spells bad news for a number of local projects.
It may well be good-bye now to the long-awaited Davitt College Sports Hall, dangled on ministerial strings for over 30 years and promised by Minister Hanafin with a persuasive tone of conviction less than a year ago. Summoning teachers, pupils, parents, management board and Fianna Fáil stalwarts to the front door of the school, she promised that the long wait was over.
She departed her office last Wednesday with the Sports Hall – the football of so many electoral promises – as far away as ever.
So too are projects like Midfield NS and Gaelscoil na Cruaiche in Westport, both of which have been waiting patiently on the strength of the ‘live, horse, and you’ll get grass’ dictum of Minister Hanafin.
Unless the new Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe proves to have a softer spot for Mayo than his predecessor, the wait for delivery of the promises is set to go on and on.