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The unsolved questions of the Cloonkeen killings

County View

County View
John Healy

THREE miles from Castlebar on the road to Westport is located a Celtic cross monument to a controversial event of the War of Independence. Set back on a layby of the road at Cloonkeen, the monument recalls the story of how young lives were lost in an encounter which many believe should never have happened.
The story began on a May morning in 1921 when IRA units from Westport and Castlebar were detailed to mount an ambush on a Black and Tan military lorry due to travel the road that morning. The ambush was to take place at the Big Wall, on the Westport side of the Halfway House, adjacent to the railway line at the bend where Gaiety Antiques is now located.
A vital part of the plan was that a special group would lie in wait at Cloonkeen. When the vehicle had passed on its way to Westport, these men would immediately set about cutting a trench across the road, thus preventing reinforcements from Castlebar reaching their ambushed colleagues at the Big Wall.
The Crossley tender of Black and Tans duly passed Cloonkeen, and immediately the road cutting party swung into action, The main ambush, at the Big Wall, waited the arrival of the enemy. But for some reason, never fully explained, the lorry never arrived. The Crossley got to the Halfway House, turned on the road, and sped back towards Castlebar. At Cloonkeen, the road cutters were caught completely by surprise. They had anticipated, at worst, the arrival of a vehicle from Castlebar, but now found themselves at the mercy of an enemy attack from the other side.
The Tans opened fire. Four men, who had been on sentry duty on the Castlebar side, got away. Four of the trenching party managed to escape, two were taken prisoner, and two - Tommy O’Malley and Tommy Lally - were shot dead. Their bodies were roughly thrown into the lorry and brought to Castlebar jail. As it arrived in the town, the lorry was met by Fr Geoffrey Prendergast, who had been a high ranking chaplain in the British Army, and who insisted that it stop to allow him to administer the Last Rites.
The question of why the army lorry never reached the High Wall, why it turned around and went back to Castlebar, is one which remains a mystery. In the wake of the killings, accusatory fingers were pointed at the sentries for dereliction of duty. But the real question remained - why did the lorry turn back? Did the Tans notice some suspicious movement which alarmed them, did someone tip them off, or had they ever intended to travel to Westport in the first place?
It was known that the lorry had stopped near Cloggernagh School to raid the home of Michael Staunton, a prominent Republican activist. Staunton was a marked man, as far as the authorities were concerned. Perhaps the sole purpose of their trip was to raid and harass Staunton’s house?
Among the many myths which arose from the incident - and which was later firmly debunked by the late Jarlath Duffy, teacher and historian - was that the mother of an IRA volunteer had forewarned the Tans of an impending ambush near the Halfway House. This she had done out of fear for the life of her son, who she thought was among the ambush party at the High Wall. Instead, the story went, her son has been assigned to help the trench cutting party, and so met his death as a result of his mother’s intervention.