Bullets over the Bunowen


REMEMBERING UNCLE JOHN Mary Ball pictured laying a wreath at the grave of her uncle John McNamara, Collacoon, Louisburgh, to mark the 100th anniversary of his death. Pic: Conor McKeown

Edwin McGreal

On Saturday, July 23 last relatives of John McNamara gathered at his grave in Kilgeever Cemetery, Louisburgh to honour the 100th anniversary of his tragic death.
McNamara was shot, aged just 19, on a July night when poaching for fish on the Bunowen River at Ballyhip, Louisburgh.
The death of the young farmer still casts a long shadow in the area.
It was a bright, moonlit July night when friends John McNamara, Michael Ball and Myles O’Malley set off along the Bunowen River to try to poach some salmon, close to a house belonging to Austin Carr.
Carr was a water bailiff for the Marquis of Sligo and on that fateful night he was laying in wait, watching the river for poachers when the trio arrived at about 1am on the morning of Thursday, July 20.
Remarkably, we have the deceased man’s account of events as he gave a deposition to a Justice of the Peace on his death bed later that day in the family home in Collacoon, Louisburgh. This deposition was used at his inquest the following day, Friday, July 21.
John McNamara said he and two others - he refused to give up the names of Ball and O’Malley – went to the Bunowen River at Ballyhip to poach for salmon.
While the other two men were ‘working the net’ in a pool under Austin Carr’s house – now known as Carr’s Pool – McNamara said he was on the river bank when he heard a shot.

‘I felt the bullet go through me’
McNamara said he ran across the river after hearing the first shot.
“Just as I was getting up on the bank of the river I heard a shot and felt the bullet go through me. It struck me in the centre of the lower part of my stomach,” McNamara said.
“I never said a word when I was shot. I did not feel much pain until I came near my own house,” he added. McNamara said he left for home after being shot and ‘ten seconds later’ heard a third shot.
Carr was present while McNamara made the deposition. He had the opportunity to cross-examine him but declined to do so.
Shortly afterwards Carr was arrested at his own house and gave a voluntary statement to a Sergeant Higgins of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
Carr said he left his house at 11.30pm and lay down at the back of his stables to watch the river. He saw three men go into the river with a net at about 1am. He stated that, sometime later, ‘I fired a revolver shot to frighten them’.
“I ran towards the net after firing and went into the river to my knees and caught hold of the net. There was a man on the other side who had a hold of the net. I shouted to him to let go and he did not. I then fired another revolver shot in his direction, but not with the intention of shooting him. After I fired he let go [of] the net and I pulled it into the green bank,” he said.
Carr went on to say how Myles O’Malley and Michael Ball came across the river and claimed the net from him. Both men said in their depositions they were unaware John McNamara had been shot and after searching for him, concluded he had went home. He had, but not in the healthy condition they imagined.
Carr said he subsequently fired the third bullet in the revolver. Myles O’Malley said of this: ‘I fancy I heard the whiz of a bullet pass close to where we were standing’.
John McNamara would die later on during the day of Thursday, July 20. In his obituary in The Mayo News on Saturday, July 29, the paper wrote of how he struggled home but his first thoughts were not of his own distress.
“Quietly and without perturbation of any kind, he told his father that he was shot, and not to awake his mother,” the paper reported.

‘Manliness and gentility’
The same obituary paid tribute to John McNamara’s character and the sense of shock locally.
“Never in the history of this district has any occurrence taken place so lamentable or so tragic as the death of this fine young man. Not yet twenty years of age, and possessed of fine health, manliness and gentility, his life was cut short unexpectedly,” the paper stated.
The paper reported that a Reverend J O’Dea spoke of John McNamara having ‘forgiveness in his heart’ on his death bed. It would appear that while he forgave Carr, locals were not so quick to forgive and forget.
Austin Carr was often shunned by the community in the years that followed. Extra police were brought into the area in the aftermath to try to manage tensions.
Indeed the fact that John McNamara’s grave was located at the highest point in Kilgeever Cemetery, and facing a different direction than those graves around it, led some locals to believe that the reason for this was that the headstone would be facing Austin Carr every time he came out the front door of his house, to serve as a reminder of the killing.
Carr was sent forward for murder and manslaughter charges and though there was no disputing by any side that Carr fired the fatal bullet, the issue at the heart of the trial that followed was that of intent to cause harm.
The Connaught Telegraph of December 16, 1916 reported that Carr was found not guilty of the two charges of murder and manslaughter.
The paper reported that counsel for Carr said the shots fired by him, one of which was the bullet which killed McNamara, ‘were fired to frighten the men who were engaged in poaching and not with the intent to cause them injury’.
John McNamara’s father, Michael, took an action against the Marquis of Sligo for compensation the following year. It was unsuccessful. The defence of the Marquis was that in firing the fatal shot, Carr was not acting within the scope of his employment.
The outcomes of the criminal and civil courts no doubt exacerbated the heartbreak felt by the McNamaras.
One hundred years on the tragic outcome of that fateful night still reverberates along the banks of the Bunowen.   

See Louisburgh Local Notes for details of the commemoration at John McNamara’s grave.