Escape to victory

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THE KILROYS Michael and Nan Kilroy. Nan appealed for her husband’s life after he was arrested during the Civil War.  Pic courtesy of the Kilroy family

In the first of our new mini-series, we profile the celebrated leader of the West Mayo Flying Column, Michael Kilroy


Edwin McGreal

It could have been all over before it had even begun for Michael Kilroy.
One hundred years ago tomorrow, his West Mayo Flying Column suffered a disastrous setback at Kilmeena.
Their attempt to ambush a convoy of British forces on May 19, 1921 backfired badly. By the time the ambush was over, four IRA men lay dead on the fields, one more would die subsequently in hospital and seven were wounded.
But as bad as that was, it could have been much, much worse.
Flanked on both sides by British forces armed with rifles, the IRA had to retreat across open country. Kilroy and Paddy Jordan provided cover fire. Kilroy survived, Jordan did not.
Seán Gibbons was one of the Volunteers who escaped with his life. He believes Michael Kilroy was the difference between disaster and a total wipeout.
“I think, were it not for Kilroy’s activity at this point, that the disaster would have been of overwhelming proportions. With his rifle he more or less kept them (RIC) at bay,” said Gibbons in his statement to the Bureau of Military History.
Local historian Sean Cadden will provide much more fascinating detail of the Kilmeena Ambush itself in our upcoming supplement but suffice to say this much: Kilroy would learn greatly from events of the day.
From that disaster in Kilmeena, his stature and success grew and grew.
By the time of the Truce at the end of the War of Independence, Cathal Brugha, Chief of Staff of the IRA, was describing Michael Kilroy as ‘one of the three guerrilla leaders who won the war’.
Renowned historian Conor McNamara described him to The Mayo News thus: “I would put him up there with the greatest commanders of the era, unquestionably the best leader west of the Shannon.”
One hundred years on from Kilmeena and the War of Independence, just who was Michael Kilroy and what led him to be so highly regarded in the Irish war effort?

‘Indispensable’
A blacksmith by trade, Michael Kilroy was born on September 14, 1884 at Derrylahan, Newport, a town with a strong Fenian tradition.
By the time the summer of 1921 came around he was, at 36, something of an outlier in age terms in the West Mayo Flying Column.
Indeed, of the 31 men in the iconic photo of the West Mayo Flying Column in June 1921, Kilroy is not only the oldest, only two other men are in their 30s. Most are in their early 20s or late teens with the youngest, Tommy Heavey, being only 16 at the time, 20 years his junior.
It’s of little surprise, therefore, to find Kilroy was imbued with a republican passion before some of his men were even born.  
Kilroy said the 100th anniversary commemorations of the 1798 rebellion stirred something in him as a 14-year-old.
He was involved in various nationalist organisations in the Newport area as a young adult. He joined the secret organisation the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1914 and was also a member of the Irish Volunteers and was one of the officers of the Mayo Volunteers after the Easter Rising. Indeed he was the only Mayo officer not to be arrested after the Easter Rising.
Crucially it would appear his experience in the IRB was showing him the importance of discretion and secrecy – he stayed largely under the radar.
Michael Willie Moran wrote an account in The Mayo News in 1966 of spending Easter week 1916 as Kilroy’s bodyguard. Even then Kilroy was ‘considered indispensable’, wrote Moran, whose primary task was to ensure Kilroy did not fall into the hands of the RIC.
Moran details how Kilroy was one of the IRB leaders in Mayo and they were planning a daring simultaneous capture of RIC barracks at Newport, Westport and Castlebar. They would then take an armoured car from Newport to ‘blow up the bridge at Athlone’.
In Newport, Kilroy was waiting for arms, the arrival of a leader for the local men and the order to attack. None came.
Moran recalls Kilroy saying that if instructions did not arrive, he would try to ‘find a capable person willing to lead the Mayo men into action … badly armed though they were’.
“It was our tragedy that not one of us there that night, least of all Michael himself, realised what became obvious a few years later, that in our midst was the man who in these few years was to become the greatest military leader west of the Shannon,” wrote Moran.
The Rising passed Mayo by, with the exception of the seizure of guns in Balla, and as far as British authorities went, Kilroy’s name was not up in lights for them for quite some time after. He escaped arrest until the Civil War.
The arrest and subsequent life changing torture meted out to Ned Lyons, Officer Commanding Newport IRA led to Kilroy’s promotion at local level in 1920.    

From Kilmeena to Carrowkennedy     
When the Mayo IRA was split into four brigades in September 1920, Kilroy was appointed Quartermaster of the West Mayo Brigade, under O/C Tom Derrig. Derrig was arrested in January 1921 and Kilroy took over as O/C for West Mayo.While his age gave him greater experience to lead the West Mayo Brigade, there was another by-product of his age which ought to be remembered.
With a wife and a young family (Nan and Michael Kilroy would have eight children), Kilroy was taking a greater risk than many of his colleagues with the reality of reprisals an ever-present fear for flying column members.
They were all on the run by March of 1921 as the War of Independence in Mayo began to take off.  
So while Kilroy was hard to pin down, his home and his business was an easier target for British forces.
In May of 1921, the Kilroy family coachmaking business had been burned down while his family home and that of his brother John were ransacked by British forces.
While the disaster at Kilmeena was the nadir of Kilroy’s leadership, the pinnacle arguably came exactly two weeks later with a spectacular reversal in the Carrowkennedy Ambush, outside Westport.  
He had successfully managed to evade pursuing Crown forces after Kilmeena and regrouped for another attack on June 2.
Again, local historians Vincent Keane, Sean Cadden and James Kelly will delve into the fascinating detail of the Carrowkennedy Ambush in our supplement of June 1. By its end, seven men on the Crown side were killed while the IRA had no casualties. 
They left with considerably more weapons than they started with.
The battle was big news nationally and internationally and the leniency Kilroy’s men showed to the wounded and surrendering Crown forces meant the IRA came out well of the Ambush in more ways than one. It chimes with many of the recollections of Kilroy.
In a profile of Kilroy in Remember Us, The People’s War, Newport Area, 1914-1924, Sean Cadden observes that while Kilroy was a ‘tough military man’, he was ‘saddened by the brutality of war and resigned to it, but not hardened in his humanity’.
Kilroy was known to lecture surviving RIC men about their unpatriotic stance and ordered not to be found in enemy ranks again before being left alone.
Kilroy’s men were still on the run at the time of the Truce on July 11, 1921. Considering the large numbers of Crown forces in pursuit, with air support, it is testament to their wherewithal that they evaded capture as they led Crown forces on a chase through north, east, south and back to west Mayo.

Civil War
Michael Kilroy took the Anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. That may be a subject for another day but his leadership skills continued to shine. Sean Cadden observes in Remember Us that Kilroy had ‘a fearful reputation among the Free State forces who did not know where he might strike next’.
Dominic Price writes in The Flame and the Candle, War in Mayo 1919-1924, about how Kilroy had captured over 330 National Army soldiers, all of whom were released unharmed. While Free State forces had taken control of much of the country, large parts of Mayo and Connemara were still in Republican hands, under Kilroy’s leadership, and the National Army found Kilroy and his men most elusive foes.
He was captured, eventually, after being shot in the battle for Newport on November 24, 1922. The execution of Anti-Treaty prisoners had started in the weeks beforehand. Fearing the worst, Kilroy’s wife Nan went to Free State General Anthony Lawlor in Newport that night, asking for his life to be spared.
Lawlor assured her he was safe, on his word, to which Nan Kilroy was sceptical.
When Lawlor heard that Kilroy was moved from Athlone to Dublin, Lawlor feared he may, indeed, be executed, and an intercession was made. Lawlor’s word carried weight after all.
General Lawlor recounted the story to renowned Westport sociologist Fr Micheál Mac Gréil, when Micheál was a young cadet in the army in the 1940s. General Lawlor added that he received a Christmas card every year from Nan Kilroy after her husband’s life was spared.  

‘One of Ireland’s greatest soldiers’
Michael Kilroy subsequently became a Fianna Fáil TD from 1923 until 1937, the redrawing of electoral boundaries led to him losing his seat, not the first time the map has been unkind to Newport. He was a big supporter of Éamon de Valera, indeed it was Kilroy who was given the task of nominating de Valera for Taoiseach in 1932.
He was chairman of Mayo County Council from 1934 to 1945 and was subsequently a member of the Hospitals Commission.
He was a very religious man and did not drink. Indeed, he had little time for those who did.
The aforementioned Tommy Heavey summed up his leader.
“A very religious type of man, very proper … and a great dislike of those who drank,” said Heavey. He went on to recount he and Kilroy visiting a house where a woman offered them poitín. Kilroy said they didn’t drink but he had barely finished the sentence when Heavey took the poitín and threw it down the hatch. He reckons he was in Kilroy’s bad books for a while after that.
Michael Kilroy lived in Newport until his death on December 23, 1962. His funeral was described in the following week’s Mayo News as the largest ever seen in Newport. President de Valera was there along with several ministers and no fewer than 27 priests officiated.
Seven Old IRA veterans were in the firing party at his graveside. The oration at the grave in Burrishoole Abbey was given by Ned Moane, who served under Kilroy at Carrowkennedy and Kilmeena and would also go on to become a Fianna Fáil TD.
He recounted how Kilroy was ‘an exemplary Catholic’ and recalled how ‘there was never a night we returned from the hills, no matter how late, during the troubled times that he did not make us kneel down and say the Rosary’.
Those gathered were paying a last tribute to ‘one of Ireland’s greatest soldiers’, Moane said.
“Michael Kilroy set a headline which we will always remain in our hearts. His honesty and sincerity will always remain in our hearts. He had always hope and confidence in the welfare of the country. No words of mine could cover the life history of Michael, who became a legend in his time throughout the nation and he has left us something we will always cherish.
“He made us citizens and helped us face up to life and fight for the freedom of the nation.”
A leader who led by example and would not ask any man to do something he would not do himself, as evidenced 100 years ago in Kilmeena.