MEMORIAL A stunning photograph at sunset earlier this month of the memorial on Tournavode Hill, outside Tourmakeady, to South Mayo IRA Adj Michael O'Brien who was killed in a skirmish in the area on May 3, 1921. Pic: Pádraig Ó hÉanacháin
In the final of a three part series, we hear how the Ambush in Tourmakeady was only the beginning of a dramatic day on May 3, 1921
As they took flight from Tourmakeady village, the IRA stationed at the Post Office failed to securely disconnect the telephone wires there.
This subsequently enabled requests for military assistance to be communicated soon after the Volunteers had left the village. Word soon got through to the Post Office at Ballinrobe, and soon after the ‘C’ Company of the Border Regiment were preparing to make their way to Tourmakeady. The ‘B’ Company of the same Border Regiment based in Castlebar were very soon to receive word of the same events from Ballinrobe at around 2.15 pm.
A description of the military that travelled to the region from Ballinrobe was given by Lt Geoffrey Ibberson as follows: ‘The strength of the party under my comd was three officers, including myself, and 36 OR (other ranks)’.
If the by then retired Major Geoffrey Ibberson is correct here, then the vehicles that travelled from Ballinrobe consisted of two Crossleys of military troops that landed in Tourmakeady village at about 3pm; as well as a three ton truck of troops under the command of Lt George Craig that arrived at Srah sometime around 3.30pm.
Judging by a previously unpublished British army source that will be engaged with in the upcoming edition of my late father’s book, when Smith and Ibberson arrived at Tourmakeady they were told by the RIC that the IRA had escaped into the hills. The same source then indicates that the party of troops under Smith and the party of soldiers under Ibberson left Tourmakeady village with Smith’s party heading in a southerly direction and Ibberson’s group travelling into the hills in a northerly direction. Ibberson’s party was following a similar path that the volunteers had previously taken out of the village. Smith’s party however, headed south and would later capture two Glenmask Volunteers, Paddy King and Philip Hallinan.
Meanwhile, British sources indicate that some six vehicles of trucks and lorries likewise made their way to the region from the ‘B’ Company of the Border Regiment at Castlebar. RIC and Tans from Westport in an undetermined number of vehicles seem likewise to have also travelled to the area in the ambush’s aftermath. Whether or not other Crown forces came to the Srah and Tourmakeady region the same day however, remains a matter of conjecture and continued dispute.
My late father, Micheál Lally, worked on a second edition of his The Tan War Ballyovey South Mayo in the years before his death but the project had to take a back seat at times to an illness that would not go away.
This writer co-wrote a second edition of the book with my father.
An additional epilogue hopes to cast new light on what took place 100 years ago, by means of the examination of previously unpublished English and Irish language sources.
Much of the focus of the forthcoming publication will concern the Mayomen’s engagement with the British Army in the hours after the ambush at Tourmakeady on Tournavode Hill.
There were only two ‘Witness Statements’ submitted to the Military Archives concerning the events of May 3, 1921, one of which was submitted by Tourmakeady native James Goulden. The only other statement submitted to the Military Archives is that given by Geoffrey Ibberson, who was the leading officer to travel to Tourmakeady from Ballinrobe on the day in question and, therefore, the only previously published account given by a British soldier in relation to May 3. There were however other accounts made by members of the British Army that were sent to Tourmakeady and Srah that day, accounts that will receive attention in the forthcoming edition.
What might be divulged prior to the upcoming book’s publication is that the Witness Statement made by Geoffrey Ibberson to the Military Archives contains erroneous statements that had no basis in what happened and is a decidedly compromised document.
The killing of Adj Michael O’Brien
By about 4pm, an exchange of gun fire had begun to take place between a body of British troops (which included Lt Craig) and the Mayomen on the mountain. This group of British soldiers had ascended the hills from Srah where the truck they travelled from Ballinrobe in was parked. This unit of troops positioned themselves just below where the group of some 30 IRA men had been resting in the aftermath of the earlier ambush at Tourmakeady.
During this exchange of fire, Tom Maguire was first shot and seriously injured. While this exchange was taking place however, another group of nine British army men led by Geoffrey Ibberson had been in pursuit of four volunteers, all whom seem to have been natives of Shangort.
They were Vol James Heneghan, Vol Patrick Casey, Vol Tom (Thomáisín) Lally and Vol Mike Lally.
Incidentally, there were four Thomas Lallys on Tournavode on the afternoon of May 3: Tommie Lally of Tawnagh; Tom [Thomáisín] Lally of Shangort; Lt Tom Lally of Shangort and Comdt Tom Lally of Srah.
In the course of this pursuit, Geoffrey Ibberson seems to have left his own party of eight other troops behind him, and made his way up around the group of IRA men that had been under sustained fire from the party of British troops positioned below the Volunteers.
Ibberson then found himself above a cluster of about ten volunteers that included the by then injured Tom Maguire lying on the ground. The same group also include Mick O’Brien, Michael O’Malley, Michael Shaughnessy, Séamus Burke, and James O’Brien, among others.
When the red haired Geoffrey Ibberson (who had by then discarded his army jacket) made it up towards these volunteers, the Mayo men mistook him for the similarly red haired local volunteer, and member of the Flying Column, Michael Costello of Tournavode. Michael O’Brien had been administering first aid to the injured Maguire when Ibberson approached this group from behind (that is to say from above) its position. Ibberson soon after shot at but missed Michael O’Malley, after which he then shot Michael O’Brien dead. While Michael O’Brien was giving first aid to his injured O/C, he reached for his rifle when Ibberson began to shoot.
Immediately after Ibberson shot Michael O’Brien, other IRA men in the same vicinity began firing at Ibberson. Kilmaine native, James O’Brien shot him twice; Ibberson was also shot by Michael Shaughnessy. In all, it seems Geoffrey Ibberson received some seven bullet wounds while racing for his life through the Volunteers.
Yorkshire native Ibberson somehow managed to escape down the mountain to safety. Word was also sent back to authorities in Tourmakeady of the whereabouts of the IRA on the hill.
At this point there were about 18 men from Cross on Tournavode as well as Flying Column members from the local area and from Ballinrobe.
Prior to the arrival of the British army, many local volunteers had been only recently sent home by Tom Maguire. Some of this number subsequently returned up Tournavode Hill on becoming aware of the growing presence of British soldiers in the area.
Sometime after 4pm, Mick O’Brien was dead and the O/C Tom Maguire was incapacitated. The IRA had little ammunition left; were hungry and thirsty on what was an unusually hot day, and yet, somehow they managed to survive sustained rifle and machine gun fire over the space of the next six hours before night fell.
A distance of some 100 yards was said by one British army source to have separated the Mayo men from their British army opponents for most of the duration of the military engagement. By the time Crown forces left their position at 10.30pm that night, the volunteers were covered in turf mould from the machine gun and rifle fire that had cut up the heather surrounding them. One of the Srah Volunteers, Martin Conway, emerged from a pool of water he had stood his ground on over the previous six hours, his feet were drenched and he could barely walk.
By about midnight, apart from the injured Tom Maguire and the deceased Michael O’Brien, all the volunteers left on the hill belonged to Srah, with volunteers from elsewhere managing to make their escape.
The Srah men then moved the remains of Michael O’Brien to a clearer patch of ground. The place the late Kildun man was moved to by the Srah Volunteers is the site where the monument to the South Mayo Brigade Adjutant would later be erected. The Srah Volunteers stayed and prayed with the remains of 22 year old after everyone else had gone, and laid him out that night as best they could. A consignment of guns was also left close by Michael O’Brien’s remains, thereby creating the impression that the IRA had left the area.
The action of leaving these particular weapons near Adj Michael O’Brien was taken primarily to safeguard the local community, being well aware that in the aftermath of Partry Ambush, their neighbour, Thomas Horan of Srah, had been shot dead by Crown forces.
The IRA needed to eliminate the possibility of a repetition of any similar reprisal occurring in their native locality. A repeat of the likes of the killing of Tom Horan was simply not an option for the local participants. Furthermore, the volunteers had to also divert attention of Crown forces from the presence of the ailing Tom Maguire, who also still needed to be removed out of the area as quickly and as safely as possible.
A house to house search of the area by Crown forces at this juncture would have certainly endangered the lives of those sheltering Tom Maguire, and likewise all but seal Maguire’s own fate if he had been captured. It might also seem a fairly obvious point to make but a nonetheless significant one, that Ballyovey (Partry/Tourmakeady) was the only parish where another ambush had hitherto taken place in South Mayo. The consequences for such a community that might be found to be also storing weapons are not difficult to imagine, and the action of the local volunteers in attempting to safeguard the lives of their own families and community certainly needs no justification in this respect.
Keeping Tom Maguire safe
The Srah Volunteers then made a stretcher out of an old door to bring Tom Maguire to safety. The injured Cross man however found this process acutely painful, and Comdt Tom Lally carried him on his back for the last 200 yards of the journey to Lallys of Derassa. The patient was then carried into a nearby shed and laid down on a bed of straw by Lally. Tom Lally and Tom Costello then made a splint from timber to support the Cross man’s shoulder. The two volunteers then got wool and other materials from Mrs Lally to dress his wounds.
Dr Edward Murphy was still at Hewitt’s Hotel the following morning when the premises had been packed with British army and other Crown forces in the aftermath of the ambush. It was Ellen Kavanagh that went into the hotel on May 4 and managed to convince Dr Murphy that his help was urgently needed for an injured woman in her own village up in the hills. On reaching this destination, Capt. Margaret Donoghue of the Srah Cumman na mBán then brought the doctor up to Derassa where Tom Maguire was being treated and hidden.
Tom Maguire remained in the area until the following Sunday. It was perhaps the women of the Mount Partry region that proved most instrumental in Tom Maguire surviving his ordeal. Some of these women include Mary Heneghan, Mary Meenaghan, Kate Costello, Julia Lally, Bridget Heneghan, Bridget Lydon and Bridget Lally; as well as Judy and Julia Joyce. On account of the weakened state that Tom Maguire had been in, Judy Joyce of Derassa made up a cure for him by mixing bainne buí or beestings with milk. Judy’s daughter, Julia Joyce, insured that the OC of the South Mayo Brigade received this nourishment twice a day until he was taken out of the area by Volunteers from Ballyglass, Mayo Abbey and Balla Companies.
One hundred years have passed since these men and women faced these trying set of circumstances in what was, a remarkably tumultuous time. Those that took part in the events that led up and include the Tourmakeady Ambush and its later skirmish on Tournavode Hill were part of a wider struggle for Irish independence that gripped Mayo and the country as a whole, in the years following the Easter Rising and the end of the First World War.
These young men and women diligently sought Irish independence, and did so willing to give up their own futures for what proved a catalyst for the Ireland we know today. The Ireland that came into being after the Truce and subsequent Civil War sadly continued to remain, for many of its citizens, a cold place in which to call home. Nevertheless the anniversary of events like that which took place around Tourmakeady on May 3, 1921, might offer us a poignant reminder that the Ireland we continue to make our home in, might as well be as warm a home for all as we can make it.
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.