Grandson returns to scene of assassinated RIC inspector

Death on a Summer’s evening: The deadly ambush at Ballyturin House on May 15 1921. District Inspector Capt Cecil Blake, two British army officers, and Blake’s lady companion were shot dead. Margaret Gregory survived. (London Illustrated News May 28 1921)

Death on a Summer’s evening: The deadly ambush at Ballyturin House on May 15 1921. District Inspector Capt Cecil Blake, two British army officers, and Blake’s lady companion were shot dead. Margaret Gregory survived. (London Illustrated News May 28 1921)

he car pulled up as one side of the gate had been closed by us for that purpose. A man left the car to open the gate. I didn’t know him. When he got to the gate he got the order “hands up” from Ryan and myself. Instead of complying he dodged for cover out of our sight. We concentrated fire on the car, doing our best to save the women in it. The men in the lodge killed the man who came to open the gate. Blake and the other man in the car were killed and one of the two women. Brigadier Stanford (IRA ) was on one knee. A bullet hit the stock of his gun, grazed the inside of his leg above the knee and lodged in the heel of his boot. It must have been from the .32 Colt automatic fired by the man who tried to open the gate. I heard afterwards that this man was Captain Cornwallis and that the other man killed was Lieutenant McReary.

“Lieutenant Ryan (IRA ) and I assisted the second woman to her feet. She was sitting at the back of the car. She asked if Mrs Blake was all right. We said she was. We linked her along the avenue for about 30 or 40 yards until we met Miss Molly Baggot to whom we handed over the lady. I learned that she was Lady Gregory, and daughter-in-law of the famous writer.

We got two Colt automatic .32 pistols, and a short Webley revolver in its holster fully loaded. The two automatics belonged to Blake and Cornwallis and the .45 to Lieutenant McReary. We left the scene of the ambush, went to Gortacornane and from there to Killeen about 10pm.’

This is the chilling description given by Patrick Glynn, a member of the Kilbecanty Irish Volunteers (IRA ) to the Bureau of Military History on November 7 1954.*

The shooting dead of the local RIC inspector, Captain Cecil Blake, his ‘wife’ Elizabeth, and two officers, Capt Cornwallis, and Lieutenant McCreery (both 17th Lancers ), was probably the most devastating blow to the British establishment carried out in the Galway area during the War of Independence.

‘Hands up’

The operation was meticulously planned. While Blake, his officers, his ‘wife’ and others attended a tennis party at Ballyturin House (off the Gort/ Kilchreest road ), the home of J C Bagot JP and his family, on May 15 1921, members of the local and Clare Irish Volunteers (IRA ) took up positions in its gate lodge, and in the bushes across the road, and inside the grounds. At 8pm that evening Captain Blake prepared to leave the house. He offered a lift to Margaret Gregory, the widowed daughter-in-law of Lady Gregory of Coole.

As the open car approached the end of the avenue, one of the gates was closed. The car stopped. Capt Cornwallis got out to open the gate. As he reached it men stood up and shouted ‘hands up’. Cornwallis ran through the gate out onto the road. The IRA opened fire. Blake was hit and fell out of the car. Lt McCreery was shot dead. Cornwallis probably managed to shoot one of the attackers (Stanford ) grazing him on his knee, before he too was shot dead. It is said that‘Mrs Blake’ refused to leave her husband, and was shot dead. Meanwhile Margaret Gregory got out of the car in full view of the ambushers, who did not fire at her. According to the statement above, she was led (we can imagine in a state of deep shock ) up the avenue to meet the younger Bagot daughter, May (Molly? ), who ran down to see what was happening.

Neither May Bagot, nor Margaret Gregory, ever attempted to identify the perpetrators to the RIC or during the inquiry held later in Renmore Barracks. The Bagots were warned that if any of the IRA involved in the incident were arrested Ballyturin House would be torched.**

‘Highly regrettable’

Recently a man with an Australian accent called into the visitors centre at Coole. He asked head guide Hilda O’Loughlin for directions to Ballyturin House. He was Paul Blake, the grandson of the murdered inspector. He was tracing the locations where his grandfather was.

A former British army officer, (Inspector Blake was discharged due to injury and ill health ), Blake was married to an Australian, Clytie Hunt, and father of two young children. However, he formed a close relationship with a wealthy woman Eliza Williams. They both had a passion for horses, and ran a successful stud farm near Chelmsford, Essex. When Blake took up duties as RIC inspector in South Galway in January 1921, they left the farm in the care of a partner; but grandson Paul has no idea what happened to the property since.

His grandmother remarried, and returned to Australia where Paul was born a generation later. There is no record of the inspector ever having married Eliza, so technically it was not his wife who was shot with him.

Paul is understandably intrigued at the circumstances and death of his grandfather. Apparently the inspector had a reputation for being a tough man. He would threaten people with his revolver when searching the homes of wanted men in the Gort area. It is said that Eliza also carried a gun for her protection.

On Paul’s website, where someone points out that Inspector Blake was‘responsible for much cruelty and wickedness to innocent bystanders,’ Paul replies: “ It’s always difficult viewing history from a modern perspective with our different beliefs, ethics and moral values. I would certainly not say I was ‘proud’ of what my grandfather did. I don’t believe the British should ever have been in Ireland. I can also understand how his attitudes and actions, in the struggle for self-determination, prompted others to take such drastic action as his murder. I think he was probably driven by a need to prove himself after being forced out of World War I due to injury and illness. It’s just highly regrettable that he chose this endeavour.”

Next week: What happened after the ambush.

NOTES: *The Bureau of Military History, was set up by Eamon de Valera to record military activities in Ireland from 1917 - 1921. Catherine Crowe, National Archives of Ireland, who was also responsible for putting the 1911 census on-line, told the recent Autumn Gathering that these were an invaluable background to the history of the War of Independence, and the Civil War. They are now available free on-line. De Valera, however, personally declined to contribute.

** John Bagot died on April 27 1935. His wife Anna lived until January 17 1963, aged 96. Ballyturin House was abandoned, and is now a total ruin.

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