THE MEN OF THE SOUTH A picture of the South Mayo Flying Column, taken after the Truce of July, 1921. A poignant space is left in the photo for the late South Mayo Brigade Adjutant, Michael O’Brien, who died on Tournavode Hill the previous May, in the aftermath of the Tourmakeady Ambush. This photo belonged to Lt Séamus O’Brien of Kilmaine who wrote an accompanying caption, describing South Mayo O/C Tom Maguire as Brigadier at the time as he was recovering after being shot in the aftermath of the Tourmakeady Ambush. Comdt Tom Lally took over after Maguire was shot and Michael O’Brien, Maguire’s second in command, was killed. Back row, from left: Brigadier Tom Maguire (Cross), Mattie Flannery (Ballinrobe), Tommy Fahy (Ballinrobe), Jack Collins (Drineen), Mick Collins (Drineen), John Butler (Ballinrobe), Terry O’Brien (Ballinrobe), Martin Conroy (Ballinrobe), Comdt Tom Lally (Srah) and Capt Paddy May (Ballinrobe). Middle row, from left: Paddy King (Glenmask), Tommy Cavanagh (Drineen), Seamus Burke (Kildun), Michael Shaughnessy (Houndswood), Michael Corless (Coolavalla), Lt Seamus O’Brien (Kilmaine), Tommy Carney (Drineen), Paddy Gibbons (Drimcoggy) and Tom Murphy (Drineen). Front, lying down: Michael Costello (Derassa) and Jack Ferguson (Ballinrobe).
In the first of a three-part series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Tourmakeady Ambush, we explore events leading up to May 3, 1921
The division of South Mayo into four battalions might be said to have had a bit of a shaky start. In mid July of 1920, there was some consternation at the Mayo convention held at Castlebar when Richard (Dick) Walsh of Balla announced that the four battalions of South Mayo were to be centred at Balla, Ballinrobe, Cross and Claremorris.
Some of the Volunteers present threatened a walkout as there had been an expectation that the Ballyglass, Partry, Srah and Glenmask Companies were to have a battalion of their own centred at either Ballyglass or Srah.
Tensions at the meeting were defused however when the O/Cs of the Ballyglass and Srah Companies stated at the convention that they had come to Castlebar for one purpose, to prepare for the struggle for independence.
It is perhaps significant therefore that the first attack against British forces in the War of Independence in Mayo took place eight months later in Partry on March 7, 1921, and was carried out mainly by Volunteers from Ballyglass and Srah, belonging to two separate battalions.
By the summer of 1920 therefore, Volunteers throughout County Mayo had been organised into four separate IRA brigade areas, South Mayo being one such area. South Mayo was headquartered at Cross with Tom Maguire as its Brigade O/C, and Michael O’Brien its Brigade Adjutant. The South Mayo IRA consisted of four battalions: the First Battalion of Cross; the Second Battalion of Ballinrobe; the Third Battalion of Claremorris and the Fourth Battalion of Balla. In turn, each battalion was made up of various companies from their respective catchment area, with the Ballinrobe Battalion, for instance, separated into companies at Ballinrobe, Cloonacastle, Robeen, Partry, Srah, Glenmask and Hollymount.
The same pattern was replicated in the three other battalions of Cross, Claremorris and Balla (with Balla including the abovementioned Ballyglass Company), just as it was all around Ireland, where Volunteers made up companies belonging to the various battalions of each brigade.
Countywide, Cumann na mBan were organised along similar geographic lines as their male comrades in the Volunteers. In the South Mayo area, C na mB had companies at Balla, Ballinrobe and Srah, and by 1921 were also organised around Glenmask. Cumann na mBan supplied a vital network of support to the Volunteers activities, notably in the provision of safe houses and the accumulation of intelligence; no less than the delivery of dispatches, and the preparation and distribution of food. Additionally, they were to provide critical treatment for their IRA comrades when wounded. The success or otherwise of the Volunteers’ endeavours still largely hung on the support received from the local civilian population, a population from which members of the C na mB and the IRA largely sprung themselves.
South Mayo’s Active Service Unit (ASU) or Flying Column was formed at the beginning of January of 1921. It would be shortly after the Partry Ambush later that March however, that the same Flying Column would be consolidated into a unit of some 25 men that were to play such a prominent part in the events of May 3. Headquartered at the home house of Lt Michael Moran of Kildun, the Flying Column did most of its training on Moran’s land. Kildun was likewise the home to Brigade Adjutant Michael O’Brien, as well as O/C of the Cross Battalion, Comdt Séamus ‘Sonny’ Burke. During the period between the Partry and Tourmakeady Ambushes, Kildun Republicans like Katie O’Brien and her cousin Mary Moran took charge of feeding the Column, a task which included baking some 19 loaves of bread each day.
All of the military action that took place in South Mayo during the War of Independence took place in the parish of Ballyovey, a parish that possessed one church at Partry and another at Tourmakeady. By 1921, Ballyovey was another notable centre of Republican activity in Mayo with 86 members attached to its Srah Company, 64 members to the Partry Company, and a further 44 strong membership belonging to Glenmask. At the same juncture, Cumann na mBan at Srah under its O/C Margaret Donoghue likewise possessed a formidable presence with over 40 women on its membership rolls.
The Srah Volunteers did much of their drilling at the Machaire, Drumcoggy and Tournavode Hill. Sometime around St Brigid’s Day of 1921, Tans went through Srah in search of its Volunteers. While in the vicinity, the same Crown forces stopped off at the home of Thomas Horan where they stole a goose and cynically killed most of the fowl on his farmyard. Mr Horan subsequently wrote a letter of complaint to the RIC at Ballinrobe outlining the actions of Crown forces that day. Thomas Horan would pay dearly for voicing such grievances.
Partry capture and ambush
Three weeks later, on Sunday, February 20, the Partry Company met to drill in a secluded field called Claideach near Kilfaul.
The following Saturday The Connaught Telegraph reported how ‘having got information that the Volunteers were in the habit of drilling in a secluded valley, practically surrounded by trees, soldiers and police from Galway, Ballinrobe and Castlebar’ with ‘machine guns mounted’ managed to capture some 37 men. The captured Partrymen were then taken to Ballinrobe, and soon after imprisoned in Galway.
Whether or not any shot had been fired at this event, the Partry Volunteers’ capture that day in effect provided us with the opening salvo of the Tan War in South Mayo.
A fortnight later, the Partry men’s fellow parishioners from the Srah Company, along with their near neighbours from Ballyglass, were to return fire on the British army at the very scene of their comrades’ recent capture, Kilfaul. Indeed the very choice of Kilfaul as to the location of the Volunteers’ first military engagement in the area might be said to have been a daring statement of intent, in and of itself.
Intelligence gathered by the Srah and Ballyglass Companies led them to believe that two lorry loads of British soldiers from Ballinrobe would be passing Kilfaul on March 7. As it transpired, only one Crossley of soldiers was to make it there that day. Apart from volunteers attached to Srah and Ballyglass, there were about six others present at the place of the ambush which included O/C of the operation Tom Maguire and Adjt Michael O’Brien. The group on the east side of the road consisted of about 21 Srah men and was headed by O’Brien, while Maguire was in charge of a similar amount of the Ballyglass Volunteers on the other side of the narrow road. A number of marksmen had been selected to bring the expected vehicles to a halt, one of whom included Srah Volunteer, Martin Conway of Gortbunacullen.
Capt Patrick Keaveney, Jack Murphy, Patrick Varley and Jim Reilly from the Ballyglass contingent had been given a similar task concerning the halting of the vehicle.
At about 11 am, Patrick Keaveney described seeing Joe Hynes walking and then sprinting towards the Volunteers position, before tumbling in over the west side of the road uttering: ‘Here they come’. The Crossley of British soldiers had evidently slowed down when about 60 yards away from the IRA position. Keaveney went on to describe how the lorry continued in a slow fashion towards the waiting Mayo men, whereupon the volunteers opened fire on it when it had reached about 15 yards distance from where they waited. A number of British soldiers then managed to escape from the lorry and retreated back up the road where the now stationary Crossley had come from. These included the then leading officer of the ‘C’ Company of the Border Regiment at Ballinrobe, Capt Herbert Chatfield, and Lt George Craig; as well as a number of other troops some of whom were also wounded. Chatfield was shot in the knee and was still out of action two months later when the same company of the British army from Ballinrobe would again engage with the Srah men and the South Mayo Brigade at Tournavode Hill; whereas Lt George Craig would again see combat against many of the same men in the engagement that was to follow a few months later.
The Ballyglass and Srah parties then rushed to the parked Crossley, apprehending ‘a number of rifles and ammunition’ whereupon they also found two seriously wounded British soldiers at the vehicle, Corporal Charles Bell and Private William Wardale.
After the firing had ceased, Michael O’Brien and Tom Lally of Srah attended the two injured British soldiers left at the Crossley. Anthony Joyce of Tournavode related how ‘Michael O’Brien and Tom Lally ordered us to hold our fire because some of the English soldiers were wounded and no Tans’ had been present. The wounded men requested a priest of O’Brien and Lally, telling them that they were each Catholics and wished to receive the Last Rites. Mick O’Brien continued to apply first aid to the men, while Tom Lally set off to the parochial house at Partry to fetch Fr Thomas O’Malley. Fr. O’Malley subsequently travelled by horse and cart to the scene of the parked Crossley where he subsequently anointed both men, and then brought the wounded Englishmen back with him by means of his horse and cart to the parochial house. Corporal Charles Bell was later to die in the County Infirmary at Castlebar.
A few hours after the engagement at Kilfaul, a lorry load of Crown forces travelled to Srah and to the home of Thomas Horan, who had previously written his letter of complaint to the Ballinrobe RIC concerning the behaviour of the Crown forces that had stolen his goose and killed other fowl on his farm.
Mr Horan’s daughter was with him when the Crown forces that killed him entered the family kitchen that day. Months later, Mary Horan was to describe in a Ballinrobe Courthouse how her father had been sitting by the fire when the men entered their family home. ‘Good day, Sir’, they saluted him three times. She then described how after he had replied to them a third time, ‘one of the men shot him, and he fell into the fire’. The Connaught Telegraph went on to report how, Mary Horan then ‘pulled him out without assistance, the men looking on and saw that his brains were out through his head. The men went out after a while and joined their comrades in a lorry outside and drove off”.
Mr Horan lasted a few hours after the shooting and both Fr Heaney and Fr Murphy arrived to anoint him.
When Mary Horan pulled her father out of her family’s hearth with Crown forces (amongst them, his killer) watching on, it is hard to fathom how the same body of ‘forces’ driving away from Srah that evening might ever be seen as having any standing or legitimacy in that area again. The implications of the death of Thomas Horan for the standing and legitimacy of Crown forces in the region cannot be underestimated. The shock waves that his death caused, not only received attention as far away as the Westminster Houses of Parliament but his cold-blooded killing was also certainly to the forefront of Mayo people’s minds in the intervening two months leading up to the Tourmakeady Ambush, not least of whom volunteers attached to Srah.
Two months after Mr Horan’s killing, the South Mayo Column met at Doire Mhór Bridge where they were then led in through the village of Srah on the Saturday before the Tourmakeady Ambush by local volunteers. The first house they past as they made their way up Srah Hill was that of the late Thomas Horan.
Ultan Lally is a history PHD candidate at NUI Galway and is bringing out a second edition of his late father Micheál’s book, The Tan War in Ballyovey, later this summer.