The War of Independence in County Mayo
By Dominic Price
The War of Independence began on 21st January 1919 with the first public session of the new Irish Parliament, Dáil Éireann. The very same day a unit of the Third Tipperary Brigade of the Irish Volunteers including Seán Treacy and Dan Breen attacked and captured a gelignite transport shooting dead two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). The war or ‘Tan War’ as it became known in the west of Ireland, was to continue until a truce, agreed by the Irish and British Governments, came into effect on Monday 11th July 1921. The War of Independence was unlike previous Anglo-Irish conflicts throughout the centuries. During terms of imprisonment in Frongoch in North Wales and other English prisons after the 1916 Rising, members of the Irish Volunteers carefully discussed their experiences of conventional warfare. Their conclusion was that if they were to fight pitched battles against British forces superior in number, equipment and experience they would be defeated. Thus the War of Independence became a guerrilla war characterised by ambush and counter terror. The conflict was also conducted through secret intelligence and counter intelligence with each side seeking to out-manoeuvre the other. During the years 1919 to 1921 County Mayo was to experience political, social and military revolution as the guerrilla and intelligence war was fought out.
1. The Mayo Teachtaí Dála (TDs – Members of the Irish Parliament)
The Irish Revolution in Mayo first manifested itself in the election of Sinn Féin TDs for the county in the General Election of December 1918. The electorate had turned against the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) led by John Dillon MP. Its previous leader, John Redmond MP, had died in March 1918. County Mayo had been a strong supporter of the IPP and its local organisation the United Irish League. Together these movements had succeeded in securing landownership for many Mayo tenants. Despite this, many now turned to Sinn Féin to secure political and social freedom. Four Sinn Féin TDs were returned for County Mayo in the General Election of December of 1918. Éamon de Valera defeated John Dillon MP in Mayo. William Sears was elected unopposed for South Mayo, while Dr. John Crowley defeated Daniel Boyle MP in the battle for Mayo North and Joseph McBride, brother of executed 1916 leader Major John McBride, was elected for Mayo West defeating William Doris MP. Only Dr Crowley was present at the first meeting of the Dáil. The other Mayo TDs were recorded as ‘fé ghlas ag Gallaibh’ meaning ‘imprisoned by the British’. Mayo mirrored what happened elsewhere throughout Ireland as the Irish Parliamentary Party were decimated and lost 61 seats to hold on to only six. Sinn Féin became the dominant political force in Ireland winning 73 seats.
The Mayo TDs apart from being members of Sinn Féin were also members of a number of republican political and military organisations. These included a secret revolutionary movement, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), which was dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland by military means. They were also members of the Irish Volunteers founded in 1913 to defend Irish nationalist interests in counter measure to the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Éamon De de Valera was also President of Sinn Féin and the only surviving Commandant of the 1916 Rising, having been Commander of the Boland’s Mill garrison. William Sears TD was a member of the IRB and an officer in the Irish Volunteers. Sears was editor of the Enniscorthy Echo and also assisted in editing the Irish Volunteers magazine ‘An t-Óglach’. Joseph McBride TD was Officer Commanding of the Mayo Brigade of the Irish Volunteers. Dr John Crowley was also an officer in the Irish Volunteers. In selecting candidates such as these to stand for election, Sinn Féin looked for committed men and women capable of withstanding the hardship that was to come.¬¬ ¬The involvement of the Mayo TDs at national and local level in the struggle for National Independence¬¬ was defined by personal commitment to the centuries long struggle for national identity and brought with it much personal sacrifice and suffering for self and family.
2. Mayo County Council
1920 was defined in Mayo by the Local Government elections campaign in which Sinn Féin sought to establish the national crusade for independence at local level. Every parish in the cCounty was involved in selecting local candidates to stand as members of Sinn Féin. For people in County Mayo this was an opportunity for them to select and vote in an election to support the national movement for independence at local level. The RIC County Reports indicated interest in Sinn Féin slipping after the 1918 General Election. However, the interest in the Local Elections of 1920 was intense and revived Republican fortunes. The Sinn Féin movement achieved a tremendous victory which was celebrated at the inauguration of the Republican Mayo County Council at Castlebar on Monday 21st June 1920. Conor Alexander Maguire, a future Chief Justice, was elected Chairman of the County Council. The newly elected councillors worked efficiently and quickly to implement important changes in the administration of the county. The County Council worked closely with the Department of Local Government in Dáil Éireann. County infrastructure, medical care of the population, living conditions and education were among the issues prioritised by the new Council. The work of the Council involved the traditional intensity and hard bargaining of political action with Dáil Éireann, the British Government and local vested interests. Successes were forthcoming and the Mayo Republican County Council of 1920 provided clear and decisive leadership in uncertain times for a nervous population. The personal cost of the War of Independence was brought home to the County Council when Seán Corcoran, Commanding Officer of the East Mayo Brigade of the Irish Volunteers and County Counsellor for Kiltimagh was shot dead in an exchange with the RIC and British troops at Crossard (link to plaque) near Ballyhaunis in 1920. A commemorative plaque to Seán Corcoran (link to photo) commissioned just after his death in April 1920 still hangs in the County Council chamber. The plaque is a constant reminder of how tenuous life was for those committed to fighting for Independence and the price paid by many in achieving the long awaited freedom of the Nation.
The spring of 1920 saw a sudden outbreak of agrarian protest and violence in counties Mayo, Galway, Roscommon and Clare. Tenant farmers who had existed on meagre plots of land for generations were endlessly frustrated by lack of action on the part of the Congested Districts Board in selling on large estates sold under the various land acts since 1870. Believing fortune had passed them by, the people of Mayo inspired by the 1916 Proclamation of Independence reiterated by Dáil Éireann on 21st January 1919 took action into their own hands and began to take over farms rented to cattle barons who brought little benefit to local communities. Cattle and sheep were driven off rented farms, walls knocked and land occupied. The occupation of rented farms began to extend to locally rented farms causing considerable strife. The action of the people of Mayo alarmed the Sinn Féin Government into establishing Republican Courts (link to photo). The Sinn Féin Government’s main concern was to contain the spread of disorder while recognising the legitimate claims of citizens. The establishment of the Republican Courts led to the complete collapse of the British legal and administrative system in Ireland. The first Republican Court case which took place in Ballinrobe on 22nd May 1920 established the authority of Dáil Éireann. The judgement reached was enforced with the assistance of the local Irish Volunteers and eventually accepted by the local population. The Republican Courts began meeting throughout the County to resolve local disputes. The Courts were accepted by the local population and were seen as a real measure of Independence on the ground. The Courts were frequently raided by the RIC or British Troops but despite this continued to function effectively until replaced by a new Justice System established by the Irish Free State in 1923.
The Irish Volunteers/IRA
The Irish Volunteers were founded in November 1913 as a nationalist response to the founding of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The UVF was the military arm of the Ulster Unionist Movement and Orange Order. Both groups sought to import arms to defend their respective positions militarily in the event of Home Rule being declared in 1914. The UVF brought ashore 20,000 rifles at Larne while the Irish Volunteers landed 900 German Mauser rifles from the hold of Erskine Childer’s yacht ‘Asgard’ at Howth in broad daylight. The Irish Volunteers became the focus of a background power struggle between John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the more secret Irish Republican Brotherhood. Both organisations managed to achieve some level of control of the Volunteers but with the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 the division became more pronounced. A controversial speech made by John Redmond at Woodenbridge County Wicklow in September 1914 pledged the service of the Irish Volunteers to assist Britain’s war effort. This speech split the Volunteer movement irreparably. The majority of the Irish Volunteers, approximately 160,000, supported Redmond’s call to support Britain in her hour of need and became the National Volunteers. Most joined the British Army to fight in the trenches in France and Belgium or on the shores of Gallipoli in Turkey. The remaining 11,000 men remained under the nominal leadership of Professor Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers. Unknown to MacNeill, the IRB were to use the opportunity to declare a Republic by force of arms before the World War ended. The resulting Rising was a military disaster but the events of Easter Week in April 1916 and the execution of sixteen Irishmen in the aftermath lit the spark which ignited an Irish War for Independence.
West Mayo Brigade map: Hand-drawn coloured map showing the Castlebar Battalion area-West Mayo Brigade. The map shows the boundaries of the Brigade as well as the boundaries of the following companies: Glenisland, Burren, Crimlin, Turlough, Ballyvary, Castlebar (1 & 2), Breaghwy, Islandeady, Ballyheane, Ballintubber. (scale: one inch to a mile).
See more at: militaryarchives.ie
The split in the Irish Volunteers had a severe effect on the Volunteers in County Mayo. The vast majority sided with Redmond and joined up to fight in the First World War. The relatively few Volunteers who remained found themselves subjected to intimidation from National Volunteers and the RIC. The Irish Volunteers were seen as unpatriotic and shirking their national duty. This view was vehemently expressed in an open letter to John Redmond by Castlebar Rural Council in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Rising. By 1919 the Irish Volunteers fortunes had changed. They were seen as heroes representing a new Ireland optimistic about her place in the world. The Irish Volunteers were now to be called upon to fight and defeat the vastly experienced professional army of the British Empire. As young men in Mayo began to join the ranks of the Volunteers arming them was the most immediate problem. This was initially solved by raiding locally for arms. This led to the Mayo Volunteers being equipped with an unusual array of arms which included rifles from the Zulu Wars in South Africa, ‘1916 Mausers’ and former United States Army colt side arms. The majority were armed with shotguns. The Volunteers began collecting money to fund the purchasing of weapons in Britain through the Volunteers’ own General Headquarters (GHQ). After a number of failed attempts to obtain arms, the Mayo Volunteers, funded by local businessmen, turned to their own contacts in Britain and bypassed GHQ. The new initiative led to the Mayo Volunteers receiving the more modern and effective Lee Enfield bolt action rifles.
While the Mayo Brigade was struggling to acquire effective armaments the murder of Resident Magistrate (RM) John Charles Milling occurred in Westport. Milling had a reputation of imposing tough sentences against Irish Volunteers and members of Irish Volunteer Boy Scouts, Na Fianna. In the course of his duties Milling and had become drawn into rancorous conflict with the Volunteers in the court houses and sometimes spilling out onto the streets of Mayo towns. The Westport Company of the Irish Volunteers claimed Milling’s assassination was carried out by members of the IRB. John Charles Milling was the first of many. In March 1920 former RIC District Inspector Alan Bell RM, who had served in Mayo, was taken off a Dublin tram and shot dead on the street in front of horrified onlookers. These murders were intended to intimidate members of the RIC and judiciary from pursuing Sinn Féin members, their finances or members of the IRB and Irish Volunteers too closely. The response by the British to the murder of John Charles Milling RM was to impose tougher restrictions on the local population.
The training of the Mayo Brigade of the Irish Volunteers had in the early years been focused on the training of a conventional army. The experience of 1916 led to a radical initiative to train the future Volunteer movement for a guerrilla war against the British. Mayo Brigade Adjutant Dick Walsh asked Michael Collins to implement this new initiative in Mayo. Irish Volunteer Director of Organisation General Éamon Price met local Mayo Commandants in Castlebar in July 1920. The Mayo Brigade was reorganised into four Brigades: North, South, East and West (put in map from Ernie O Malley book). Commandants Tom Maguire (South Mayo), Tom Ruane (North Mayo), Seán Corcoran (East Mayo) and Tom Derrig (West Mayo) were chosen by Irish Volunteer GHQ to command the Mayo Brigades. Commandant Michael Kilroy (link to wikipedia article) was later selected to replace Tom Derrig after his capture by the British. The Commandants themselves chose their own Brigade Staffs. Commandant Peadar MacMahon arrived in Mayo to begin training of what became known as ‘Flying Columns’ or in military terminology as Active Service Units (ASUs). In 1920 the Irish Volunteers officially became known as the Irish Republican Army or IRA after taking an oath of allegiance to Dáil Éireann. In County Mayo they continued to be referred to as The Volunteers.
Alongside the Mayo Volunteers were the women of Cumann na mBan (link to article). The women secretly carried dispatches, food, weapons and ammunition to Volunteer Columns. Cumann na mBan also carried out reconnaissance work for the Mayo Volunteers, sheltered men ‘on the run’ and tended to the wounded. Anita MacMahon, a Gaelic scholar, writer and land reformer living in Achill, was a senior Mayo Cumann na mBan Officer who was captured while carrying dispatches for the West Mayo Brigade. She received a lengthy prison sentence. Alice Cashel, Vice-Chairperson of Galway County Council and also a Cumann na mBan Officer met up with Ms MacMahon in Galway prison whom she described as having been there for some time and was showing the strain of imprisonment. The Cumann na mBan provided a crucial role in keeping intelligence, communication and logistics moving when it was not possible for the IRA to do so. Their story is one of the least known aspects of the War of Independence.
Spies and informers were a constant problem for the Republican movement in County Mayo. Many wrote letters to British and RIC Officers. Some wrote to British Ministers and one captured IRA man turned King’s Evidence. From information gathered in British and RIC Intelligence files, one can see that the details could only have been received from spies or informers. There are quotes from speeches given at secret IRA meetings, amounts of money raised in voluntary collections and activities as well as command structures of the IRA and Republican Courts. The deeds of informers and spies put the lives of those in the Republican movement at serious risk. Some IRA men who were captured were dreadfully tortured, mutilated and murdered. Among them were Michael Tolan of the North Mayo Brigade IRA and Michael Coen and Paddy Boland of the East Mayo Brigade IRA. Members of the Republican Courts were arrested and imprisoned. The information in the letters from informers such as those described came to light in different ways. Some were intercepted by the IRA holding up trains and confiscating the post. Others were intercepted by Michael Collins’ Intelligence network in Dublin and sent to local IRA Commanders on the ground in Mayo to investigate the circumstances. The resulting activity by the Mayo IRA was usually a visit to the ‘spy’ who was questioned and then ordered out of the country. There were no revenge murders until the Truce when a group of IRA men murdered a number of retired RIC men as they came home to Mayo.
Training and operations for the IRA became increasingly difficult with the arrival of the Black and Tans during the summer of 1920. The Tans, as they became known, were mostly ex-British soldiers recruited into the RIC to fight an unconventional war in Ireland. A more elite unit named the Auxiliaries were recruited from among ex-British Army Officers. Accompanying the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries were additional British Army Battalions. The West of Ireland was completely reorganised with a Richard Cruise being appointed Divisional Commissioner of the RIC District of Galway-Mayo. Existing RIC District Inspectors were replaced with a tougher breed to implement the policy of counter terror.
In the autumn of 1920 the Mayo Volunteers suffered a number of blows. On Sunday 21st November 1920 Michael Collins’ Squad assassinated thirteen people in an attempt to incapacitate British Military Intelligence in Dublin. That afternoon, the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans retaliated by opening fire on the players and spectators attending a Gaelic football match at Croke Park shooting dead fourteen civilians and wounding thirty-six. This day has become known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. The British Military then received orders to arrest senior members of the local IRA movement throughout the Country. In Mayo this saw many local senior officers arrested. Claremorris for example lost their entire senior battalion staff. Most of these men were imprisoned in Ballykinlar County Down while those considered most dangerous were imprisoned in Britain.
By the spring of 1921, the Mayo Brigades were equipped and seeking action with the RIC and British troops. Initial ambushes prepared by the Mayo Volunteers were avoided by the RIC. The first successful ambush was carried out on a Border Regiment lorry travelling from Ballinrobe to Castlebar at Kilfaul near Partry by Commandant Tom Maguire’s South Mayo Brigade. The British policy of bloody reprisal became clear in the aftermath when farmer Thomas Horan was shot in the head and mortally wounded by Black and Tans armed with Lee Enfield rifles as they searched his home in Shrah.
Tourmakeady Ambush (link to monument)
On Monday 3rd May 1921 an RIC supply column of a Crossley tender and a Ford car were ambushed at Tourmakeady by the South Mayo Brigade of the IRA. Four RIC men were killed while another was so badly wounded his arm had to be amputated after the battle. After the IRA had withdrawn into the Partry Mountains, a young volunteer Padraig Feeney cycled into Tourmakeady. He was captured by Black and Tans and then ‘shot while trying to escape’. The RIC and British Army pursued Commandant Maguire’s Column into the mountains and pinned them down with machine gun fire throughout the day. Lieutenant Ibberson of the Border Regiment succeeded in killing the second in command of the Column Commandant Michael O’Brien and in also seriously wounding Commandant Tom Maguire. Additional British reinforcements arrived and opened fire on the IRA Column. The shooting continued all day. As darkness fell the British withdrew from the mountains. The South Mayo Brigade Column, leaving the body of Commandant O’Brien on the hillside, slipped quietly away into the darkness. Commandant Maguire was tended to at Derassa by Bridgie Lally. After desperately hiding out in the scrub on the hillside for a few days while over a thousand British troops assisted by aircraft searched in vain for the IRA, Commandant Maguire was eventually brought back to the safety of South Mayo. After the battle of Tourmakeady the RIC burned out many homes as a reprisal. This initiated a further reprisal by murdering young RIC Constable Thomas Hopkins who was home on leave visiting his father near Ballindine.
Kilmeena & Carrowkennedy (link to monuments)
The successes of the South Mayo Brigade encouraged other IRA units in the County to take action. On 22nd March 1921 a number of West Mayo Brigade Officers were scouting an ambush position near Carrowkennedy when they came upon an unsuspecting RIC Patrol. In the ensuing firefight RIC Sergeant John Coughlan was mortally wounded. A few days later the Westport RIC took their revenge by sacking and burning a number of homes and shops in Westport. This initial success by the West Mayo Brigade was short lived as two actions were now to cost a number of lives. An unarmed Volunteer detail was trenching a road at Clonkeen when he was surprised by Black and Tans who opened fire, killing Volunteers Thomas O’Malley and Thomas Lally. On Thursday 19th May 1921, the West Mayo Brigade carried out an ambush on an RIC patrol at Kilmeena. The IRA Flying Column was outflanked and caught in a cross fire. They suffered five dead and a number badly wounded including Castlebar Company Commandant Paddy Jordan who was shot through the head and died later in hospital. It was Commandant Michael Kilroy’s cool head in putting down covering fire which enable the badly shocked Volunteers to escape. In the following days the Column sought refuge in Skerdagh. Here they were located by the RIC and another engagement followed. As the Column escaped through Glenhest Volunteer Jim Browne was killed in action. The RIC lost Constable Joseph Maguire with District Inspector Munroe wounded.
The West Mayo Brigade Flying Column successfully evaded a large British encirclement and regrouped on the Westport to Leenane Road at Carrowkennedy. It was here on Thursday 2nd June 1921 that the West Mayo Brigade took their revenge for Kilmeena by ambushing an RIC Column consisting of two lorries and a car. Quite a number of the RIC Column were Black and Tans. They were also heavily armed with a Lewis Gun and rifle grenades, rifles and a plentiful supply of ammunition. Casualties for the RIC were heavy from the beginning as District Inspector and First World War veteran Edward Stevenson was shot through the head in the first volley. A number of RIC Constables were killed as they attempted to bring the Lewis machine gun into action. Constables from the second lorry eventually reached the cover of a local house where they remained until called on by the IRA to surrender after the battle. The surviving constables in the first lorry began using rifle grenades to keep the IRA Column back but after a number of hours Commandant Michael Kilroy ordered a number of his men to ‘fix bayonets’ and close on those in the lorry. As the Volunteers drew closer one of the RIC men firing the grenade launchers was shot and the grenade spilled out among his comrades. The grenade exploded among the RIC men killing a number and inflicting terrible injuries on Sergeant Creegan who died later. The West Mayo Brigade suffered no casualties. With light falling the lorries were set alight and the wounded RIC men tended by the IRA. One of the RIC men was sent off by bicycle to Westport to bring aid to the wounded and dying. The IRA Column then set off on what was to become a momentous trek through north and east Mayo miraculously avoiding contact with over a thousand British troops eager for revenge. The West Mayo Brigade eventually made it back to the Carrowkennedy district where they hid their arms and dispersed. The War of Independence for County Mayo was at an end. The Truce was declared and all IRA Units were ordered to suspend active operations from noon on Monday 11th July 1921. Tom Ketterick, Quartermaster of the West Mayo Brigade recalled the moments the war came to an end:
“The Truce to us was bewildering and we did not know what to make of it. None of us took it that the war was over for long and assumed that the peace would be only temporary. However, we were glad for the respite – glad to get home to see our people and to get proper rest and regular meals once again to fall asleep without a ‘gun’ in our hand”
Ketterick, Thomas. Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement 872, p. 52. Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin.
Republican Court Westport