Bearing witness to the War of Independence


LIFETIME OF MEMORIES  Jim McManamon, 101 years young, telling the story of the Skerdagh Ambush from the War of Independence. Pic: Karen Cox

Jim McManamon is one of the only people alive who found themselves in the midst of the War of Independence

Michael Gallagher

He sits at the kitchen table with playing cards gripped in his still-powerful hands. Jim McManamon is 101 years-old and his life is filled with fun, family and an unyielding love of place. There’s a glint in his eye which suggests a large modicum of devilment inhabits his thought process. This makes guests to his home immediately feel welcome – and of course there’s the cigarettes. They don’t define the man – nothing so frivolous defines Jim Mc – but cigarettes certainly are an enjoyable part of his life and a central part of this story.
“Some say I’ve been smoking since I was 12, but I think I had my first drag just down the road there when I was five,” he told The Mayo News as he swept his hand towards the lane leading to the family home.
Whatever age he was is now irrelevant, like many things in life, the tobacco sticks only contributed to Jim’s happiness.
That’s the type of man The Mayo News found in Skerdagh, outside Newport, on Wednesday last. Jim McManamon finds enjoyment everywhere he looks. He’s living his best life and his conversations are peppered with jokes, stories and laughter.
However, there’s a lot more to Jim Mc than meets the eye. He has worked extremely hard to provide for the large, happy family he raised with the love of his life, Mary (nee Mullarkey). He has watched Skerdagh, Mayo and Ireland change beyond all recognition before his very eyes, and he is one of the only people still alive who actually found themselves in the midst of war as Ireland fought for independence.
The second youngest of ten, Jim was a little over ten months old in May 1921 when, for a few pivotal days, the village of Skerdagh became central to Mayo and Ireland’s fight for freedom.
However, even now, 100 years later, Jim was wary about telling a stranger too much about those days. The value of secrecy to the struggle for independence was engrained in him from birth and still shines through, but eventually his sense of hospitality allowed him some leeway.
As dawn broke over the village set in the hills outside Newport on Monday, May 23, 1921, the McManamon household and 16 more nearby homes were harbouring guests. Four days earlier the IRA Active Service Unit had been involved in the ambush of Crown forces in Kilmeena and in the mayhem which followed, the rebels had made their way to Skerdagh.
There they regrouped, rested and tended to the wounded who were housed in Mary McDonnell’s home in the upper part of the village nearest the mountains. The McManamon homestead was lower down, nearer the river.
The commanding officer, Michael Kilroy was also billeted in the upper part of the village with Dr John Madden in the home of the Dyra family, but Kilroy was busy. He helped Dr Madden amputate two toes of one of the wounded men and on Sunday night paid a visit to his wife who was in hiding in Jimmy Keane’s home in Tawneyoogaun after Kilroy’s home and business was burned to the ground by the enemy.
Kilroy was accompanied by Jack Connolly and Jim Moran and in later years Kilroy recalled the wholesome tasty food they enjoyed that night including a packet of pink wafer biscuits they brought back to their hideaway in Skerdagh.
In McManamons’ the men seeking refuge there were well looked after.
“My mother gave them whatever we had. That was always the way things were. She was a great woman and knew they’d be gone soon, but she wanted to look after them while they were here,” Jim explained as that fateful morning was discussed around his kitchen table.
“The Tans came in over there,” he says, pointing towards the old road which linked Newport with Bangor and Crossmolina. “It was early in the morning, I think.”
It certainly was early in the morning when Crown forces swarmed towards Skerdagh – before 4am to be exact. In the upper part of the village, Kilroy, Connolly and Moran were just safely back from visiting Mrs Kilroy when all hell broke loose.
Sentries became aware of the enemy and as it was too late to relay the news on foot, they let off a shot to alert their sleeping colleagues. Chaos ensued for a few moments as blankets were thrown off and supplies gathered. In Dyras’ the perfect packet of wafer biscuits went flying and the hens immediately seized upon their unexpected treat.
In McManamons, the enemy was very close and IRA men needed every second possible to make their escape. The man of the house, John Mc, headed for the fields and set about tending to his chores. Crown forces approached with guns trained on him and demanded to know where the rebels were. McManamon said he didn’t know what they were talking about and immediately received the butt of a rifle under the ear.
His bravery had bought precious time for rebels and also allowed his wife to contemplate a hugely brave act. Nora McManamon realised that the IRA men had left in such a hurry that there were a number of bullets left on the table and the sideboard while the amount of cigarette butts present would give away the fact that she had harboured the fugitives for the previous three or four days.
John and Nora had nine kids in the house and were well aware of terrible reprisals meted out on those who helped the rebels. The Crown forces were coming up the lane. She had to act quickly. What would she do?
“She was a great woman. She would protect her family no matter what,” Jim recalled.
Quick as a flash Nora hatched a plan. She grabbed a bucket, swept all the bullets and cigarette butts into it and stepped out to face the police and soldiers who swarmed around her.
“Where are they?” the new arrivals demanded. “We know they were here,” they shouted as they burst past her to search the house.
Nora never flinched. She quietly and calmly made her way to the nearby river to get some water for the breakfast, holding the bucket tightly to her side. The police and soldiers were temporarily distracted in their hunger to search the house and outbuildings and Nora saw her opportunity.
She calmly placed the mouth of the bucket into the flowing water and tipped the bullets and cigarette butts towards the bottom. Moments later she returned with a nice bucket of water for her family as Jim and his siblings rubbed their eyes and wondered what all the fuss was about.
Last week, more than 100 years later, Jim Mc still saw his mother’s bravery as just something that had to be done.
“Shur she couldn’t leave the bullets and cigarette butts just lying there. She had to get rid of them,” he said, as if facing down a platoon of the enemy was just an everyday occurrence.
However, on reflection, Nora McManamon’s bravery and the courage and fortitude of her husband and their neighbours was an everyday occurrence in 1921. Ordinary people had to do extraordinary things in order to claim freedom for the 26 counties. Jim McManamon is a living, breathing example of the resilience, spirit and strength of character that defeated an empire. It was an honour to be in his presence.