EXTRAORDINARY Kiltimagh’s Jim Ruane, pictured here in his military uniform, had a remarkable life.
Jim Ruane featured prominently in the Easter Rising, War of Independence and Civil War
For most people, being the only person to receive a medal for Easter Rising activity in Mayo would be what they would be remembered for.
But for Kiltimagh’s Jim Ruane it comes well down the list in an action packed life and a most tragic death.
Ruane was one of the many ordinary people the length and breadth of Ireland who played an extraordinary role in the fight for freedom and in the years that followed.
As the centenary of those wars approaches, more and more will become known about those ordinary people who played such key parts and risked their lives – and, in many cases, paid that ultimate sacrifice – for the cause of Irish freedom.
Jim Ruane and his family were among such people.
In April, 1941 the 25th anniversary of the Easter Rising was marked by a presentation of medals in Collins Barracks, Dublin to those who played active parts in the Easter Rising.
Jim Ruane was the only person to be awarded a medal for actions in Mayo during and after Easter of 1916. The Rising was largely concentrated in Dublin where resources of the Volunteers were most concentrated but the incident Ruane was involved in showed that the Rising was not without firm supporters in the countryside too.
The incident in question showed remarkable ingenuity and persistence on the part of Jim Ruane, who was 19 at the time.
It was Sunday, April 30, 1916, and the Easter Rising in Dublin was over. Down the country it never got going, partly due to confusion over Eoin MacNeill’s countermand advising Volunteers not to take part but also because Volunteers around the country were very poorly equipped for launching any insurgency.
Jim Ruane and his friend Dan Sheehy were acutely aware of the weapons shortage, and it was known that there was a consignment of rifles in the area.
So when they saw an unattended car whilst walking up Main Street in Kiltimagh, they put two and two together – the car contained arms.
Their instincts were correct – the car was carrying 14 rifles that were being brought to the authorities in Castlebar by two Redmondites, TS Moclair and T Quinn, who had shown a certain disregard for their cargo by adjourning to a local hostelry.
The two young men saw a glorious opportunity to help to arm the local Irish Volunteers.
There was one snag. Neither Ruane nor Sheehy could drive. The opportunity to speed away with rifles looked like it could pass, but the resourceful duo were not giving up that easily.
Anticipating that the car might stop at Balla on the way to Castlebar, they hot-tailed it on their bikes to the village, some seven miles away.
There, they told leading local Volunteer Dick Walsh of the possible arrival. Walsh, Ruane, Sheehy and another man decided they would act if the car stopped.
There was another problem, however – the weapons shortage meant they had no gun to hold up Moclair and Quinn.
Though only 19 at the time, Jim Ruane was prepared for this particular eventuality. He had a brass beer tap from the family pub in Kiltimagh. Held the right way, it did not look unlike a gun.
Their instincts were right. The car stopped at McEllin’s Hotel in Balla, and the four men, armed with a beer tap, relieved Moclair and Quinn of their 14 rifles. It was the only Rising event in Mayo that April.
Jim Ruane was awarded an Easter Week medal for his role in this incident – the only person to receive a medal for action in Mayo that Easter.
War of Independence and Civil War
Though not without risks, it was a quaint, amusing tale compared to what would follow for Jim Ruane and people like him in Mayo in the War of Independence and Civil War.
The Rising was the spark that lit a people and Ireland headed for war with the British. Jim Ruane had shown his willingness to get involved before most. His father, Simon was a member of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood, and The Western People in 1924 reported that in 1913 Jim Ruane and his brother Tommy were at the helm of some ‘sterling supporters’ in Kiltimagh of Padraig Pearse.
The same report went on to describe the ‘burden of misery’ borne by the Ruanes whose house was frequently ‘raided and ransacked’ without ‘a murmur of complaint’ at their plight.
Jim Ruane served as Battalion and later Brigade Chief Signaller with the Irish Volunteers and the IRA. During the War of Independence, he took part in various activities, including IRA attacks on RIC patrols and barracks at Bohola and Ballyvary, as well as arms raids and the manufacture of munitions.
That Western People report of 1924 recounts one ‘never to be forgotten’ escape from authorities who had encircled his home after the Ballyvary attack. Ruane ‘got onto the roof of the house and passed on six or seven houses ahead where he hid until the danger passed’.
In April, 1922, he joined the National Army, and it was after this that an infamous incident took place in Kiltimagh, an incident that would cast a long shadow.
The Ruane brothers took the pro-Treaty side that year. One man on the other side was another Kiltimagh man, Martin Lavan. In his book ‘The Road to 51, The Making of Mayo Football’, James Laffey describes Lavan as a ‘combustible individual’. The Ruanes would find out just how combustible on Thursday, June 28, 1922.
Lavan had previously attempted to target the Ruanes after Sunday Mass, but he had been foiled. On that Thursday evening in June, Lavan and some colleagues stormed into Ruanes’ Bar.
Jim Ruane and his brother Tommy were shot, while Willie Moran, one of Lavan’s group, was shot dead in the ensuing chaos. Both Ruane brothers were critically wounded. Jim would live, but Tommy died in hospital one week later.
Lavan fled to the US, but when he recovered, Jim Ruane and another brother, Paddy, went after him.
“They never found him though,” Pat Ruane, Jim’s son, told The Mayo News in 2016. “It’s probably fortunate they didn’t, because they would have got the electric chair or would have been hanged if they did get him.”
When life started to return to normality after the Civil War, Jim Ruane continued to run the family business in the town which incorporated a pub, grocers and farm supplies store. He was actively involved in many groups in his hometown. A report in The Western People in 1926 reveals he was on the committee of the Kiltimagh Races, a horse racing event which took place in August of that year, where there was a prize of 30 sovereigns for the winner of the feature race, the Kiltimagh Plate.
In 1939, the same newspaper carried a fulsome review of Kiltimagh Dramatic Group’s production of Shaughraun, a play set in 1867 which touches on common themes of the time such as the land struggle and fenianism.
The Western People reviewer said Jim Ruane, fittingly, played the part of a Fenian leader and ‘gave a very faithful rendering of his part. His acting was natural – the best tribute that could be played to it’.
Sometimes, the best performances are where people play a version of themselves and after his struggles during the War of Independence and the Civil War, it would not have taken much for Jim Ruane to get ‘into character’.
But little did anyone who knew Jim Ruane and watched him on stage in Kiltimagh in 1939 know that the most dramatic – and tragic – episode in his life was still ahead of him.
‘One of the most shocking and heartrending tragedies to ever occur in Mayo’
‘Eight die in Mayo holocaust’ screamed the headline in the Irish Independent of May 19, 1944. With World War II dominating the world landscape, the use of the word holocaust undoubtedly caught the eye then as now.
But while the Jewish Holocaust is beyond comparison, the technical definition of ‘holocaust’ is fitting – a destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, especially caused by fire or nuclear war’.
The Connaught Telegraph of May 27, 1944 described it as ‘one of the most shocking and heartrending tragedies to ever occur in Mayo’.
There was no doubt this was a huge tragedy, almost beyond comprehension. When that awful night had passed, eight of the ten people who lived in the Ruane family home on Main Street, Kiltimagh had perished.
There were only two survivors – Jim Ruane’s 18-month-old son Patrick and Patrick’s aunt, Margaret Byrne.
Patrick survived in the most dramatic of circumstances. Margaret threw him from an upstairs window to neighbours on the street where he was safely caught by Andrew Ruane, no relation.
Margaret then went to jump where a group of people held a blanket to break her fall. However, she caught telegraph wires on the way down and suffered a heavy fall … but, despite serious injuries, she survived.
By the time that wretched night had passed, Jim Ruane (47); his wife Mary Margaret (33); three of their children, Thomas (7), Maura (6) and Seamus (5); and three of their staff, Kathleen King (20), Kathleen Murtagh (20) and Michael Stritch (35); were all dead. Heroically, Michael Stritch had escaped onto a flat roof but went back into the burning building in an attempt to save others.
The death of eight people that night in Kiltimagh was one of the greatest tragedies of the century to befall Mayo.
Pat Ruane was reared in Castlebar by his mother’s uncle. He passed away in 2018 having lived a very full life after his miraculous escape in 1944. He spoke to The Mayo News in 2016 about the tragedy. He was not convinced the fire was an accident.
“There’s a big question mark over that. My aunt said she heard a commotion outside. Politics was very hot at the time, meetings were being broken up. The official line was that something electrical was left on. I have my doubts,” he said.
“There was a lot of tragedy. It must have been devastating. We still have my father’s Sam Browne belt and his cane. His revolver was in a safe when the fire happened. He was keeping that for Lavan!
“I am very proud of my father. I got his 1916 medal when I was 21, and it means a lot to me.”
A proud legacy indeed, to shine through from so much tragedy.