The university man, the Headford ambush, and the 'Day of Rage'

January 1921 saw the British Army carry out several murders around the Headford area

For most of December 1920, Thomas Hynes, quartermaster of the Galway IRA, was in Queen’s College Galway - today's NUIG - hiding from Crown forces, sleeping on top of bookshelves, and assisting in the making of grenades.

Hynes, who worked in QCG, considered it a perfect place for bomb making and storing of weapons. The sourcing of bomb making materials was left to Hynes’ good friend Isaac Conroy, brother of writer Pádraic Ó Conaire. Conroy worked for McDonogh and Sons as a buyer, travelling to Britain regularly. Conroy had worked for a time in Wales as a miner where he met his wife Margaret, whose brother was a miner and became his contact.

Arrangements were made in early 1920 for the supply of gelignite, fuses, detonators and cables. Conroy gave instruction on the assembly of various explosive devices in QCG which had its own IRA Company. One Engineering student from Slyane, Tuam, Michael Walsh, quickly became chief bomb maker in Galway. Walsh and several other students would travel across the county teaching Battalions how to assemble and use these weapons for maximum effect. The bombs were assembled on campus and then left in Woodquay close to the railway bridge, where they would be picked up and distributed.

Ambush outside Headford

Thomas Baby Duggan

On January 3 1921, news spread of the death of Mountbellew footballer Michael Mullin, who died from pneumonia while being detained in the Town Hall Theatre Internment Camp. Louis D’Arcy, officer in command of the Headford Battalion IRA, along with Thomas ‘Baby’ Duggan [pictured above], of the Castlegar battalion IRA, were planning an ambush. Intelligence gathered suggested members of D Company Auxiliaries were to attend the fair in Headford looking for persons of interest. The location for the ambush would be a stretch of road which ran through Gunnin’s Wood, Kilroe, just outside Headford.

'D company continued on to Ballinastack, arriving at the house of James Kirwan, a suspect in the Gallagh ambush. Kirwan’s father tended to them and pleaded with them to spare his son’s life but Kirwan was found shot to death lying face down in a nearby field'

The attack group would consist of 40 men from Headford, Castlegar, Annaghdown, Claregalway, and Cregmore IRA companies. The men were to embed themselves along both sides of the road taking full advantage of the stone wall which ran along the right hand side, and snipers were to position themselves on the high ground. The signal to commence would be the lobbing of one of Walsh’s grenades. On Tuesday January 18 1921 at 09:40hrs a lorry carrying eleven Auxiliaries under the command of Lt Tom Simmonds drove into the ambush spot.

A farmer's intrusion

RIC and British Army Ireland 1920s

Unfortunately, a farmer in his horse and cart and his son who was on horseback also drove into the ambush site. This caused confusion and delay, and when Duggan stepped out of the shadows and offloaded his grenade the element of surprise had been lost. The Auxiliaries were given time to take up defensive positions and set up their heavy machine gun. The battle lasted thirty minutes. Ten of the Auxiliaries including Officer Simmonds were wounded as well as some of the IRA men. The medic treating the IRA wounded was Paddy Mullins from QCG.

'At 11pm, Crown Forces arrived in Headford and went on a rampage burning eight houses with petrol. Locals were intimidated and made to walk down the streets with their hands in the air'

The order was given to retreat. The ambush party was no match for the Auxiliaries, not because they lacked experience but because they lacked the firepower needed for such a manoeuvre. One of the Auxiliary Officers, Harold Dawkins, managed to escape on horseback and signal the alarm. Reinforcements arrived quickly and the 11 men from D company were evacuated back to Galway.

British rampage and revenge

British Army in Ireland early 1920s

In the debriefing that followed, Simmonds gave a detailed report of the ambush to Lt Col FHW Guard. RIC Sergeant Charles Joseph Keeney along with several vehicles full of men left Salthill for Headford. Around 4pm, Guard and his men called to the house of Thomas Collins in Keekill, who they believed was one of the ambushers. He was taken outside and handed over to Keeney and executed. Ten bullets were found in his body.

At 11pm, Guard’s men arrived in Headford and went on a rampage burning eight houses with petrol: O Malley’s Public House and Grocery, the village hall, and the house of Fr Morley, the local priest, among them. Locals were intimidated and made to walk down the streets with their hands in the air. Meanwhile as news of the ambush circulated in the local newspapers, D Company planned another “Day of Rage”.

Murders carried out by British forces

Black and Tans in IrelandSaturday January 22 at 9:30am, D Company returned this time to the house of Willy Walsh in Clydagh outside Headford. He was taken outside and executed. He was 32. Keeney stated later at Walsh’s inquest, that Walsh was arrested for his role in the murder of Constables Burke and Carey at Gallagh in July 1920 and was “shot while trying to escape”. By 11pm D Company was now at the door of Michael Hoade’s house in Caherlistrane.

"There is no crime in detecting and destroying in wartime the spy and informer. They have destroyed without trial" - Michael Collins

Hoade was also suspected of involvement in the ambush at Gallagh. Two men went in and dragged him out, took him down a field and killed him, seven gunshots were found in his body. Next they made their way to Tom Nohilly’s house in Corofin. Nohilly managed to hide in the loft and his brother convinced the callers that he was not home. Undaunted, D company continued on to the village of Ballinastack arriving around 2.30pm to the house of James Kirwan, also a suspect in the Gallagh ambush. They demanded food and drink and Kirwan’s father tended to them and pleaded with them to spare his son’s life but to no avail. Kirwan was found shot to death lying face down in a nearby field.

Informers

Saturday January 22 had seen D Company seek a bloody revenge. By January’s end it was not just a lack of weapons that was hindering the work of the Tuam IRA but also the fact that someone had been informing on the actions and whereabouts of these men. On January 26 and 27, several well known republicans were arrested in Tuam at various locations and brought to the Workhouse for interrogation and torture later to be interned in the Curragh.

Michael Collins 1919

The war in the west now hung in the balance and the identification of informers and spies was fast becoming a priority. Michael Collins was now openly encouraging their demise while absolving those that had to deal with them when he stated: “There is no crime in detecting and destroying in wartime the spy and informer. They have destroyed without trial.”

Damien Quinn is a military historian specialising in Irishmen in the service of the British Crown Forces. He studied politics and history as an undergraduate, and gained a Masters of Literature in History from NUI Galway.

 

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