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Remembering the battle of Gortleatilla

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PICTURESQUE A section of the large attendance who gathered last Saturday to commemorate those killed in the firefight in Glenamoy during the Civil War in September 1922. Pic: Mary Meenaghan


Michael Gallagher

The gunshots had been replaced by birdsong, the yells and screams by music and song and the savagery of war by reconciliation. The picturesque village of Gortleatilla, Glenamoy, in the rolling countryside of north Mayo, was pristine and peaceful last Saturday afternoon. It had been decidedly different exactly a century earlier, when a firefight raged around the Irwin household and six National Army soldiers lost their lives.
That sorrowful day in Ireland’s Civil War was recalled poignantly and perfectly on Saturday last as Philip and Mary Irwin welcomed hundreds to their beautiful homestead on the sloping lands leading down to the river that twists and turns through Glenamoy on its way to the ocean.

Night-long siege
The event began with the lilting tones of local musician Tommy Maloney echoing across the fields. Ronan Kelly then introduced the speakers and outlined the timeline that led to the deadly battle between soldiers from the Republican and Free State armies.
A few days before the fight, the town of Ballina had been stormed by the Republicans. The soldiers then split in two with one group heading towards the Ox Mountains and the other making its way towards Erris through Ballycastle. The latter group was commanded by General Michael Kilroy. Later that week they reached the village of Gortleatilla, where they bedded down for the night in the old, disused hunting lodge just a stone’s throw from the Irwin homestead.
At that time, a company of Free State soldiers had also arrived in the area through Bangor and were just a few miles away. Two Free State soldiers went to Irwins to rest, and while there they encountered two Republicans. One of the Free Staters escaped and raised the alarm; the other was captured and taken to Kilroy, while Commandant Joe Baker remained in the Irwins’.
Soon, the farmhouse was surrounded by Free State troops and a firefight between them and Baker ensued. Members of the Irwin family were in the home as war raged all around them through the night.
Baker held off the attackers. By morning Kilroy and the Republicans had encircled the Free Staters outside Irwins. As dawn broke, the Free State troops were in a very vulnerable position. Six of them were dead: Sergeant Major Edward Crabbe from Dublin, Private Patrick Brey from Westmeath, Private Thomas Rawl of Leitrim, Quarter Master Seán Higgins from Foxford, Lieutenant William Joseph Gill of Westmeath and Captain Thomas Healy from Pontoon.

Family ties
These men were remembered in Gorleatilla exactly 100 years after they fell. There were many speakers on Saturday, recalling, reminiscing and retelling.
One young woman epitomised the impact the Glenamoy firefight had on future generations.
Megan Thorpe (21) had travelled from Huddersfield with her father, Christopher, to be present on the slopes of Glenamoy. It was her first trip to Ireland and she had come to honour her great-grand-uncle Patrick Brey.
“We’re very honoured to be here today. We knew about Patrick before this, but it’s only recently we found out the real story. He was the oldest of eleven kids, and the family were relying on his wages of one pound a week to survive. When they got the word that he was dead it was a huge blow and something they found hard to talk about.
“They were living in extreme poverty, but the pension his mother received from the army enabled the whole family to move to Wakefield in the UK. The entire family moved and never came back – until today, when my father and I came here to honour Patrick and his colleagues. We’ve learned so much, we’ve been blown away by the welcome we’ve received and are very happy to be here.”

Continuing journey
Other speakers included, Rose Conway Walsh TD, who said the cross-community event was a wonderful example of the continuing journey Ireland was taking towards eventual independence for the whole island.
Michael Ring TD spoke about the contribution made by his grand-uncle, Joe, who was a Brigadier General in the National Army. Sadly, he had been killed in action in Drumsheen, Bonniconlon, just days before the Glenamoy firefight.
Cllr Gerry Coyle told the crowd the story of his father, Henry, a Commandant in the National Army who was highly active in the War of Independence, carrying out attacks on infrastructure in Britain. Coyle was later one of the men who carried Michael Collins’s coffin during his funeral in Dublin.
Professor Seamus Caulfield gave a wonderful speech highlighting the events of a century ago and recalling the loss of life on both sides as young men who had fought alongside one another in the War of Independence fought against one another in the Civil War. His poignant and touching words were well received by the large attendance.
The main speaker at the event was Philip Irwin, who along with his wife, Mary, worked for years to prepare for Saturday’s event. He recounted the events of the firefight, which were handed down to him by his father and grandfather, and showed everyone the exact spot where the confrontation had taken place.
Philip and Mary’s efforts had borne fruit brilliantly, and they were rightly lauded by all gathered.
One hundred years after death and destruction reigned in Gortleatilla, the beautiful village was a happy, peaceful place where the past was remembered, the present embraced and the future imagined.