THE TAKING OF WESTPORT Brigadier-General Joe Ring (standing with crossed legs) with National Army officers and their armoured car, ‘The Big Fella’, at Westport Town Hall, 1922. This was just after Ring had led National Army troops to Westport by sea to take it from Anti-Treaty forces. Ring and his troops used Westport Town Hall as their headquarters but in a matter of weeks he would be killed in a battle outside Ballina. Pic courtesy of Michael Ring
The death of Joe Ring was a major event in the nascent Civil War in Mayo 100 years ago tomorrow
It was telling that in May 1922, Joe Ring felt the need to think about getting his affairs in order.
That a 32-year-old man felt the pressing need to do so speaks volumes of the climate of the time.
The British may have been liberated from Mayo but discontent was fermenting across the plains and all over the island.
Joe Ring had been one of the leading soldiers in the west of Ireland in repelling the British in the revolutionary years.
He had served time in 1916 in the aftermath of the Easter Rising and it did not put a halt to his gallop.
He went onto become a key figure in the War of Independence in Mayo, with his bravery during the Carrowkennedy Ambush a key moment in an ambush which many historians feel was a vital turning point in the war.
He was a marked man and was sought after by the British. But they could not get their hands on him.
The Truce came into place in July 1921, one month after the Carrowkennedy Ambush. The Anglo Irish Treaty was signed at the end of the year with the Treaty debates taking place in early 1922.
On February 12, 1922 the barracks in Castlebar were officially handed over with the 2nd Battalion Border Regiment travelling by rail to Dublin the following day.
As Dominic Price notes in his excellent ‘The Flame and the Candle: War in Mayo 1919-1924’: ‘after centuries of occupation the British were finally gone from the plains and mountains of Mayo. It was a staggering achievement for an Irish Parliament, a guerrilla army and a committed people’.
But it was far from the end. Joe Ring’s will three months later told you as much. As Price remarked, ‘the distant thunder was drawing ever closer’.
A civil war was looming.
Joe Ring found himself in a very difficult spot. ‘The Men of the West’, the members of the West Mayo Flying Column he had fought with in Carrowkennedy and the rest of the IRA in Mayo were almost all Anti-Treaty.
Joe Ring was Pro-Treaty. He was one of the key men in the establishment of the Civic Guard (the precursor to An Garda Siochána) in February 1922. He gained the rank of Chief Superintendent. But as Newport native Michael Staines, the first garda commissioner, noted after Ring’s death, he was better suited to the field than an office role.
While the British may have departed, there was a growing chasm in beliefs on how good the terms of the Treaty were.
People like Joe Ring and Michael Collins felt it was a starting point, something to work with. Others, like Éamon de Valera and Ring’s old commanding officer in the West Mayo IRA, Michael Kilroy, felt an oath of allegiance to the Crown and the partitioning of Ireland was heresy.
Slowly Ireland descended towards civil war and when it started in June, 1922, Joe Ring joined the Pro-Treaty National Army as a Brigadier-General.
While the majority of his old IRA colleagues were fighting against him, Ring’s own popularity around his native Westport saw a National Army unit there given the sobriquet ‘Ring’s Own’ as it was Joe Ring who drew many of them in.
Slow descent to war
The civil war was becoming increasingly inevitable that spring.
Law and order in Mayo was breaking down and Mayo County Council meetings, where Pro and Anti-Treaty councillors sat side by side, were becoming increasingly hostile.
Michael Collins’ visit to Castlebar on April 1, 1922 for an election rally became very fractious and shots ended up being fired. That night Joe Ring was arrested in Westport by IRA officers and charged with recruiting for the National Army. He went on hunger strike and was released on April 13.
Matters were getting hotter and the first Civil War death in Mayo showed just how, as Dominic Price recalled.
“James and Honoria Kelly, a married couple, stood outside their house in Sonnagh, near Charlestown. They got into a row over the Treaty with a neighbour, Michael McIntyre, son of Anti-Treaty County Councillor, John McIntyre. Mrs Kelly made some comment to McIntyre who turned and fired a shotgun at her. Mrs Kelly was hit in the face, neck and chest and died within 15 minutes … an innocent mother and civilian was thus the first victim of the Civil War in Mayo. Killed because of her stance on the Treaty, she died in her husband’s arms with her daughter helplessly looking on.”
The war officially begun on June 28, 1922 when the National Army opened fire on Republicans in the Four Courts.
Leading the IRA in Mayo were two highly regarded commanders of the War of Independence, the aforementioned Michael Kilroy and Tom Maguire.
Maguire later reflected on the sadness of it all.
“You could not bring yourself to want this sort of warfare. There was a different feeling altogether. The British were the enemy, the old enemy; there was a certain pride in having the ability to attack them. That feeling was entirely absent in the Civil War. It was very disheartening … When I heard of the deaths of people on the Free State side like Griffith, Collins, Seán Hales, I could not be glad. You felt these are the people who fought the British and now they are gone. Britain is really the victor,” he recalled in his latter years in an interview with Uinseann Mac Eoin.
Brize, Westport and Ballina
The war ensued though and was fought all over Mayo. Kiltimagh was the scene of the first deaths of National Army and Republican soldiers in the Civil War in Mayo. Captain Willie Moran, a Republican from Bohola; and the Pro Treaty Vice-Brigadier Thomas Ruane were both killed in an clash in the town on June 29.
There was a battle at Brize, between Claremorris and Balla. Slowly, but surely, the IRA lost their positions in the large towns in Mayo. Joe Ring lead an effort from the sea to relieve his native Westport on July 24, described in The Freeman’s Journal as a ‘well-planned and brilliantly successful operation’.
It forced Anti-Treaty forces into the countryside all over the county.
Ballina was taken from the Republicans on July 29. The Republicans retreated to Bonniconlon and the Ox Mountains. Such retreats were not alien to them after the War of Independence.
They bided their time and came back to take Ballina on September 10. Among their number was Phelim Calleary, grandfather of current Mayo TD Dara Calleary.
By this stage Michael Collins had been killed in Cork but, as Dominic Price noted, the grief in Mayo at his death was ‘soon to be surpassed in Mayo by the death of one of its own real heroes, Brigadier General Joe Ring. It would bring home to people the real cost of civil war’.
General Anthony Lawlor, in charge of the National Army’s campaign in the west, organised a counter strike against the Republicans in Ballina on September 14, 1922.
Joe Ring’s unit from Westport were among the reinforcements.
Led by ‘The Big Fella’ armoured car, the National Army headed from Ballina for Bonniconlon on September 14.
A firefight took place at Drumsheen which lasted three hours. ‘The Big Fella’ taking on the Republicans’ ‘Rose of Lough Gill’.
During this engagement, Joe Ring moved forward to call on the Republicans to surrender. Whilst clearing a ditch, he looked down to see a Republican Volunteer with a rifle. Ring took the full force of the shot fired at him.
The impact of that shot echoed all over Mayo, with the body of one of the west’s most respected commanders lying dead in the Ox Mountains. He was 32 years of age.
“I find it difficult to realise that the fearless and impulsive, generous and warm-hearted friend of long standing has passed out of my life forever,” said Michael Staines.
In The Connaught Telegraph in Castlebar, Ring was described as ‘one of the best-known soldiers in the west, and the news of his untimely death has been received with consternation and regret all over Mayo’.
The loss was felt most keenly in Westport, a town in mourning, particularly Ring’s family and by his fiancé, Nan McAllister.
The day Joe Ring was killed was market day in his native Westport.
The news filtered through the heaving town and stopped everyone in their wake.
Immediately, businesses in the town closed their doors while the blinds on private residences were drawn.
Down on James Street, PJ Doris was putting the final touches on that week’s Mayo News when he got word that his close friend had been killed.
At the eleventh hour, he penned a grief-stricken but eloquent tribute that conveyed not just his own sense of loss but that of the town and beyond at Ring’s killing.
“As we go to press on Thursday evening, news reaches us that in a fight between National troops and Irregulars at Bonniconlon, Ballina, today, General Joseph Ring was shot dead. The news has caused the most poignant grief here in his native town of Westport. During the recent reign of terror (War of Independence), the enemies of Ireland like sleuth hounds pursued him, but they failed to get him. Is it not melancholy to think he should have gone down at the hands of his own countrymen, many of them his former friends and fellow fighters on the hills of Mayo?”
The tragedy of the Civil War had one of its most sorrowful chapters.