Putting their lives on the line

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FOND MEMORIES Phil Brady has fond memories of her time spent with her aunt Mary Mulchrone.

Tom and Mary Mulchrone risked everything to shelter the West Mayo Flying Column

Anton McNulty

For the men of the West Mayo Flying Column, the rolling hills of the Nephin Beg range was a safe haven and a place of refuge. In the aftermath of the failed Kilmeena ambush in May 1921 and the more successful Carrowkennedy ambush a month later, Michael Kilroy took his men into the hills. There, they evaded capture – despite hundreds of RIC and Black and Tans combing the area in an attempt to hunt them down.
While the Men of the West had to endure miserable conditions in the open air, very often they were given shelter by many local people who risked their own lives to assist the men on the run.
One of the houses where Kilroy’s men frequently sought shelter was the home of Tom and Mary Mulchrone in the townland of Doontrusk, on the Mulranny side of Newport. Its location at the foot of the hills was ideal, allowing the men to emerge from the hills unnoticed and escape again early in the morning.
It was no surprise that the Mulrchrones made their home available, as Tom was a leading republican in the area and his nephew Jim Moran was a member of the Flying Column.
“They did help the young guys on the run, and they would talk openly to me about it and tell me all about it. I loved hearing those stories when I was young,” Phil Brady, a niece of Mary Mulchrone, tells  The Mayo News.
Born in 1929, Phil Brady (nee Chambers) spent a large part of her childhood with her aunt Mary, as Mary did not have children of her own and Tom, who worked as a ganger, would often be away during the week.

‘Kindness’
Phil describes her aunt as a very religious and devout woman. She has nothing but happy memories of her time staying with them, and she remembers well the stories they told her about that troubled period in Irish history.
“These poor kids, some of whom were only 17 or 18 years old, would be sleeping out on cold, wet, wintery nights with no food, and not that many people were prepared to help because they were frightened. But Tom and Mary did, and they did it out of kindness,” she said, speaking from her home in Kent.
“These guys would come during the night and would try to get a few hours of sleep. They fed them and gave them a little bit of whiskey to keep them warm. If their clothes were torn, Mary would sew their clothes and mend them, and they would just help as best they could.  
“Mary used to set the table for them and make it special because they were having such a terrible time. They could arrive at three or four in the morning and she would make toast for them on the fire, and she would always have boiled eggs.
“This young guy who was only 18 and I think from Louisburgh was eating his egg with the knife. Mary said to him there is an egg spoon there, but he said, ‘Oh I couldn’t eat it off the spoon, I hate the taste of an egg off a spoon’. I thought it was quite funny when I heard that story.”

Baby threatened
“There were secret places they would hide them because the house could be visited at any time by the British. Tom and Aunt Mary would have to be awake and keep watch. There were no lights so you had to listen for any sound and have them [the men] out as quickly as you could. They never told me anything did happen. They were raided, but never while anyone was there, so they were lucky in that respect.”
At the time, the Chambers’ neighbour, Johnny McNea, was one of the men on the run, and the family home was often raided by British forces. She said that although her parents were not involved with the IRA, they were not spared, and her mother was put through an awful ordeal shortly after giving birth.
“My mum had a terrible experience when the soldiers came in just after giving birth to their first born. Her husband, Pat, was in the kitchen when mum was in the room below. She was in the bed with the baby in a cradle by the bed. They came down with their guns. They asked my mother ‘Where is McNea?’, and she said ‘I have no idea where he is’.
“They threatened her and put the gun on my baby brother in the cradle. She was hysterical and then started to haemorrhage. Dad was held in the kitchen and wasn’t allowed to go into the bedroom with her. An officer stepped in and said to leave it.”
‘Horrible times’
A few months ago, Phil’s nephew, Pat Chambers found documents and letters belonging to Tom Mulchrone from that period in a jam jar hidden inside the walls of a shed. Among the items was letters between Tom and his brother John in America, in which they discussed the fighting and fundraising in America.
“I knew that Tom’s brother in the US was helping,” Phil said. “They had a framed picture of him in their house, a framed picture of him in his casket when he died. It was hanging in their sitting room. He did raise money as did a lot of local people in America, and without their help they would not have been able to carry on fighting.”
Looking back, Phil feels that people like the Mulchrone’s risked an awful lot in helping people on the run, and that people today should be grateful for their sacrifices and the risks they endured.
“I have lots of happy memories of the house and of Tom and Mary. They were involved in helping the guys on the run, but they were so good and kind and devout. I wouldn’t like anyone to think that Aunt Mary and Tom did anything wrong, because they never did. If there is anyone in heaven, they are in heaven. They were such good people.
“They didn’t believe in killing, but it was unavoidable at that time. We have to understand that or otherwise we wouldn’t be where we are in Ireland today. You have to admire them. They believed that we should get our independence and, thank God, we did get it.
“That was life in those days and I hope people today appreciate what they did go through. I don’t know if they do. They were horrible times.”