Laying the ambush in Tourmakeady

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Map Key

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Location of first IRA section under Brigade Adjutant Michael O’Brien at The Fairgreen, just north of where Halla Thuar Mhic Éadaigh currently is.

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Location of second IRA section under Comdt Tom Lally, adjacent to Hewitt’s Hotel, what is now O’Toole’s shop and post office.

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Location of third IRA section under Captain Paddy May at Drimbawn House gate.

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Location of IRA unit under Officer Commanding Tom Maguire at Tourmakeady Old Post Office, positioned there to move between sections two and three as needed. O/C Maguire led them to join in with the group at Drimbawn House gate.

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Location of first RIC car when they were shot at, approaching Drumbawn Gate. Three out of the four occupants, Sergeant John Regan and Constables Patrick O’Reagan and Herbert Oakes, were killed.

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Location of RIC truck when it stopped and came under fire, between The Fairgreen and Hewitt’s. Constable William Power was killed. Many of his colleagues managed to make it to the relative security of Hewitt’s Hotel, where they barricaded themselves in, and exchanged fire with the IRA for a time.

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The road west of Tourmakeady beside Hewitt’s/O’Toole’s, up which several of the Volunteers subsequently fled heading in the direction of the Partry Mountains, where further fighting would ensue. Others made a safer escape along the lake, with some crossing Lough Mask by boat to Ballinrobe.

In part two of our three-part series, we focus of the ambush of an RIC-led patrol by the IRA in Tourmakeady village, 100 years ago 

Ultan Lally

In the aftermath of the Partry Ambush (March 7) and before the Tourmakeady Ambush (May 3), most of the South Mayo Flying Column spent the bulk of their time in the vicinity of Moran’s in Kildun, The Neale.
Shortly after the Partry Ambush however, Tom Lally became Officer Commanding of the Ballinrobe Battalion. Lally and Pat Gibbons (Tady) of Dromcoggy were members of the Flying Column, as was Michael Costello of Tournavode. At this juncture the Ballinrobe Battalion’s headquarters likewise moved from Ballinrobe to Srah.
The three Srah men that left Audie Moran’s for their native Sliabh Phartraí that early April would have a busy and no doubt stressful month ahead of them.
By the end of April, many of the rest of the members of the Flying Column based at Moran’s began making shapes to join them at Srah.
Among the chief concerns those involved had was a shortage of weaponry.
Indeed, two days before departing his native Kildun for Sliabh Phartraí, Adj Michael O’Brien wrote a few home truths to IRA GHQ in Dublin.
He wrote they had a flying column ‘as good as any in Ireland but we have absolutely no stuff’ and asked rhetorically ‘under the circumstances how can GHQ expect big results here?’
The remaining members of the column departed for Srah on Saturday, April 30.
Before their departure, Fr Campbell began to hear the confession of the men in Moran’s house, while Fr Carney granted General Absolution to others gathered outside around the shed.
That Saturday evening, the Column began to be joined by additional comrades from Ballinrobe and Cross. The Column then made their way to the back of the Neale and crossed the River Robe at Cushlough where they likely joined forces with more Volunteers from Ballinrobe. The Column continued its progress through Creagh, and then cross country to the Keel bridge. It again then travelled cross country before reaching the Partry-Srah Road near Doire Mhór bridge where they waited for additional comrades who travelled by boat across from Cushlough.
Tom Maguire reported that 42 of the 60 participants in the Tourmakeady Ambush belonged to the Ballinrobe Battalion. The moving of the Ballinrobe Battalion’s headquarters from Ballinrobe town to Srah a month before the ambush at Tourmakeady brought with it distinct advantages.
Firstly, local knowledge and reconnaissance proved essential. Additionally, the practicalities arising from the move of the battalion’s headquarters to Srah must have certainly eased the logistics involved in the arranging of the accommodation of so many volunteers from outside the area on the nights before the ambush. Also, the ability of the Srah area to safely accommodate so many Volunteers from outside the area underlines the level of support locally for the Volunteers’ efforts.

Laying in wait
The engagement of May 3 took place on a Tuesday, and according to Shangort native and Srah Volunteer, James Heneghan, the volunteers first assembled behind Heneghans of Shangort around midnight were they were each allocated their arms. They then again gathered early Tuesday morning near Srah Bridge while it was still dark.
Intelligence gathered by the Srah Company led the Volunteers to expect three vehicles of Crown forces to be travelling to Derrypark RIC barracks via Tourmakeady on the day of the ambush.
The Column gathered at the Fairgreen at about 8am when Mick O’Brien gave each man his ration of food. This was the last morsel many would taste until 11pm that night.
Adjutant of the Srah Company, Seán Heneghan, described how the Volunteers were expecting three vehicles that day and were, as a result, waiting in three separate sections: Drimbawn Gate, Hewitt’s Hotel and above the Fairgreen. The section at the Fairgreen was led by Michael O’Brien; the section at the junction beside Hewitt’s led by Tom Lally, and the section at Drimbawn Gate was headed by Kilkeeran, Ballinrobe native, Capt Paddy May.
In addition to these three sections, the O/C, Tom Maguire, moved with a unit of volunteers to an area around the old Post Office, between Hewitt’s and Drimbawn, ready to go either way depending on how the ambush transpired.
As it turned out, Tom Maguire and a number of his men joined up with a section of men based at Drimbawn Gate after the shooting commenced.
At about 10am on the morning of the ambush, an order was placed at Bermingham’s shop in Ballinrobe by the RIC for their trip to Derrypark Barracks, via Tourmakeady.
Teenager, Patrick Varley was working at Bermingham’s when the order came in, and became aware that there was only one Crossley lorry and one Ford car now going to Derrypark that afternoon. Sometime between 12 noon and 12.30pm the same convoy left Bermingham’s with eight RIC men and five retired British soldiers that were either Black and Tans or Auxiliaries. On hearing about the RIC order, Patrick Varley quickly set off to Tourmakeady on his bike with the news. Another young man, Padraig Feeney, also set off on a similar mission.
The fact that two rather than three vehicles would be travelling through Tourmakeady obviously altered the plan of attack for the three sections waiting to ambush the convoy.
The sections at the Fairgreen and Drimbawn were now the only sections that were to initially fire on each of the two vehicles.
The section of Srah Volunteers under Tom Lally near Hewitt’s however, remained at their location, in case any of the convoy attempted to divert at this junction, though some of this group were assigned to other locations once it became apparent only two vehicles were coming.
Furthermore, the Srah men’s location near Hewitt’s was to provide support to O’Brien’s group at the Fairgreen if needed. This was a similar function Tom Maguire’s men at the Post Office would play with respect to the men at Drimbawn Gate.
In total, six Volunteers had rifles. As far as can be gathered, the remaining Volunteers had shotguns. A further three riffles and three revolvers would be seized by the IRA during the ambush.
The Ambush
The first of the vehicles to approach the village was a Ford car. The Ford was let pass the Fairgreen and fire was opened on the car at Drimbawn Gate. The Crossley lorry that followed the Ford was then fired on by Volunteers at the Fairgreen, having come to a halt between the Fairgreen and Hewitt’s Hotel when the Ford was being attacked at Drimbawn.
Mick O’Brien then ran out on the road and began to fire at the occupants of the Crossley. At this juncture, the two men with rifles at Hewitt’s Hotel (Martin Conway and Tom Lally) likewise ran onto the road, and fired at the Crossley from their position.
The occupants of the Crossley evacuated it, and found good cover behind the lorry. Those that travelled in the Crossley were held at this position until they began to throw grenades in the direction of the men near Hewitt’s.
The volunteers at this section were then all forced behind the wall near the hotel, when their opponents succeeded in gaining access to Hewitt’s, where they remained ensconced until the volunteers left the village.
By the time Crown forces had successfully made it into Hewitt’s Hotel, the exchange of gunfire seems to have lasted about a half an hour.
There were four members of the convoy that travelled through Tourmakeady killed that afternoon: Sergeant John Regan and Constables Herbert Oakes, Patrick O’Reagan and William Power. The traumatic events took a heavy toll on these men’s families, as fatalities caused by Crown forces took a similarly equal toll on families in the South Mayo region. Recent scholarship by Eve Morrison shines a light on RIC experiences during the Anglo-Irish War, and offers us a broader understanding of both sides’ experiences during those troubled times.
The RIC that travelled to Tourmakeady after the ambush from Ballinrobe apprehended Pádraig Feeney who had set off from Ballinrobe to Tourmakeady with similar news to that which had been brought to the Volunteers by Patrick Varley.
Young Pádraig Feeney was questioned at Hewitt’s Hotel by Crown forces. He was later shot dead by an unnamed Englishman at about 3.15pm near the Rectory Gate. A monument was later erected near the site of the teenager’s killing. The Tans would later raid and damage his grieving family’s home at Ballinrobe.
Immediately after the ambush, most of the Volunteers from the Ballinrobe area left the village for their home region. Some trekked cross-country while others went by boat across Lough Mask directly after the ambush had come to an end. 
Most of the rest of the Volunteers however made their way out of the village and headed north into the Partry Mountains.
The men who headed towards Ballinrobe had seen the end of their battle for the day; for the men heading for the mountains, their travails were only beginning.

MORE
See next week’s Mayo News for the final part of our three part series on the Tourmakeady Ambush where Ultan Lally details the chase and battles in the Partry Mountains.