As we have been reminded in ceremonies over recent weeks, the month of August 1922 marked a tragic phase in the Irish Civil War, no less in Mayo than anywhere else. Countless lives were lost in the most tragic circumstances; many were killed in the crossfire of battle, but many more – civilians and combatants – died either in avoidable accidents or in cold blood.
Thus William Doherty of the Balla garrison of the national army was killed by a colleague in a freak accident; Stephen Coakley of Claremoris lost his life when mistakenly fired on at Ballinrobe Town Hall. But perhaps the most foul killing was that of young Lt Patrick Moran at the front door of his parents’ home in Ballina.
By way of background, Lt Moran had enlisted and had received prompt promotion in the new National Army. When the national forces took control of Ballina in early August, Moran was given responsibility for securing guard of the workhouse, where the troops were to be billeted.
On their arrival into Ballina, the national forces had commandeered the office of solicitor PJ Ruttledge – who had just been elected as an anti-Treaty TD – as a recruiting depot. It was claimed that over 100 young men had offered themselves for enlistment in the ensuing weeks.
The second major decree of the troops’ commanding officer was to declare that all public houses in the town were out of bounds for the soldiers, an order which all publicans were directed to comply with.
On the night of August 11, Lt Moran left the workhouse to pay a visit to his family on Hill Street. Shortly after his arrival, there came a knock on the door, which was answered by his father. The callers were two uniformed and armed soldiers, Sgt James Kavanagh and Pt Patrick Fagan, who were seeking lodgings for the night.
Mr Moran’s daughter came to the door to confirm that no rooms were available, at which point Lt Moran, hearing the commotion, came out to the front door. He ordered Kavanagh to return to the workhouse, taking his rifle from him. He then stepped out on the path to confront Fagan, who had moved away from the door, calling on him to surrender his rifle. At that stage, a shot rang out and Lt Moran fell, mortally wounded.
Fagan quickly disappeared from the scene, and was subsequently reported to have deserted the army. Bizarrely, he was next seen in Ballina a month later, this time in the company of the anti-Treaty forces who had taken advantage of the fact that the army personnel were attending a memorial Mass for Lt Moran, leaving the town unguarded.
At the inquest into the officer’s death, Kavanagh admitted that both he and Fagan had been drunk on the night in question, in clear breach of army orders. He also claimed that they had sought accommodation at Moran’s house, unaware that it was the home of their superior officer, and only did so having failed to get lodgings at the Moy Hotel or at another premises on Hill Street where Red Cross personnel were billeted.
Almost four years later, on February 13, 1926, Fagan, a native of Westmeath, was found guilty by a jury at the Central Criminal Court of the murder of Lt Moran. He was sentenced to be hanged on March 2, and leave to appeal was refused.
There followed a campaign of public protests and appeals for clemency from his former comrades on both sides of the political divide. The result was that the sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life.