Reflecting on a seminal time in Mayo’s history

Comment & Opinion

WAR MEMORABILIA The war memorabilia of Dr John Madden, one of the West Mayo Flying Column, is to be donated to the Jackie Clarke Collection in Ballina. A selection from the collection adorns the front of our 48 page War of Independence supplement in this week’s paper. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Edwin McGreal

One hundred years ago tomorrow (Wednesday), Michael Kilroy and his West Mayo Active Service Unit – or Flying Column as they were often known – were lying in wait between Westport and Leenane for an ambush that would arguably change the course of history.
Their spectacular military success at Carrowkennedy against Crown forces reversed fortunes after the disaster that was the Kilmeena Ambush, which had taken place exactly two weeks previously.
Then, it was Kilroy’s men who were reeling. Five of his men were killed. In Carrowkennedy, seven Crown forces were killed and all of Kilroy’s column escaped, with plenty of additional arms.
Kilroy and his men somehow managed to evade capture from there until the truce on July 11. Thousands of Crown forces were in pursuit, on the ground and even in the air.
They could not catch Kilroy’s men, and along the way, Kilroy’s brother-in-law, the celebrated photographer Jack Leonard, captured the column in the iconic ‘Men of the West’ photo in Lahardane.
The Carrowkennedy Ambush and subsequent failure to apprehend the column was a major blow to Crown efforts to win the war with the IRA. Indeed, Cathal Brugha, the IRA’s Chief of Staff, credited Kilroy as being one of the three guerrilla leaders who won the war for the IRA.
One hundred years on, it is fitting we remember what happened in the War of Independence in Mayo. So in today’s paper we have a 48-page supplement commemorating a seismic period in the history of our county.
We’ve been marking the anniversary of the War of Independence for six weeks now. Our three-part series on the Tourmakeady Ambush by Ultan Lally ran around the anniversary of that event (May 3). We’ve run a mini series, War Stories, since – and that will continue to run for the coming weeks also.

Ordinary men and women
What must it have been like for the young men of this county who put their lives on the line to take part in military operations against the might of the British Empire?
What must it have been like for the women of Cumann na mBan who put themselves at risk by supporting the war effort in every way possible?
What must it have been for the ordinary men and women in the county who were often quite literally caught in the crossfire as reprisals from the Black and Tans hit every corner of this county?
Regardless of your perspective, there can be no doubt that events of 100 years ago were absolutely transformative. Our supplement aims to recognise the War of Independence in Mayo for what it was – an extraordinary time in the history of this county we call home.
The aforementioned Tourmakeady Ambush, and its predecessor also by the South Mayo IRA, the Partry Ambush (March 6, 1921), were the first big offensives in Mayo.
Later in May and into June, the big engagements were taking place in West Mayo. Our supplement reflects that with forensic and enthralling pieces by local historians Seán Cadden, Vincent Keane and James Kelly on Kilmeena, Skerdagh and Carrowkennedy.
James Kelly has also compiled marvellous profiles of those in that famous ‘Men of the West’ photograph while we give pride of place in our supplement to that photograph, in a centre-spread poster, colourised with the advances that modern technology has allowed.
We examine what was going on around the county and get all manner of perspectives on events from the Republican Courts to the complexity of recollections to gun running to the mystery of an Erris RIC constable killed in Carlow.
As you read all these pieces, it becomes apparent that events of 100 years ago impacted everyone in so many different ways. There was nothing simple or straightforward about it. We’ve let a team of brilliant contributors bring their own expertise, depth and passion to these pages.

We are acutely aware when pulling this supplement together that we are only telling some stories, only talking about some people and some places. As much as we have tried to be thorough, it is an impossible task in 48 pages.
It is our hope that people will see the stories contained herein not as individual stories, but of stories of a collective group of people in this county, representing the stories of all.
Indeed, our stunning front page picture features a collection of magnificent mementos belonging to Dr John Madden, one of the Men of the West.
It is not an ode just to John Madden, but to all who fought and served for the tricolour, who earned their War of Independence medals, who were part of the story 100 years ago of a group of extraordinary men and women who put their lives on hold and lives on the line to try to create a better future for the generations that followed.
A century on, it is important we reflect, honour and remember that.