April Fools and the valley of death - Galway 1921

Galway town appeared to be quiet during that month, but the War of Independence raged on in Connemara

The men of the IRA West Connemara brigade flying column. They proved 'well equipped, well armed, well disciplined' and deadly in the fight against the RIC and Crown Forces.

The men of the IRA West Connemara brigade flying column. They proved 'well equipped, well armed, well disciplined' and deadly in the fight against the RIC and Crown Forces.

Major General Henry Tudor arrived in Galway for the weekend on April 1 1921. On Saturday morning he inspected the RIC, then made his way to Lenaboy Castle to inspect the D Company Auxiliaries.

“In the determined stand you have taken in lifting the terror of the gunmen," Tudor proclaimed, "I assure you that you have my fullest support.” In addition, he spoke of how it pleased him to hear of the praise that was being heaped upon D Company as a result of their ability to maintain “excellent discipline”.

When reflecting on the actions of D Company and considering their “excellent discipline” surely this was an April Fool’s joke? Nevertheless, the men from D Company basked in his generosity and gave him three cheers. Meanwhile across the bay in Kinvara, the body of ex-soldier Thomas Morris was found at the side of the road. It is believed he was a spy and was court marshalled by the IRA for his involvement in various reprisals and attacks in the Kinvara area. He was executed, having been found guilty.

On April 6, as the morning tide retreated, the naked body of IRA volunteer Patrick Cloonan, 3rd Battalion Galway, lay washed up on the beach at Maree, Oranmore. Cloonan had been on the run but was finally captured and executed by Crown Forces. Later that day, the West Connemara Flying Column under the command of PJ McDonnell ambushed a patrol of RIC officers at Screebe, just outside Oughterard.

This resulted in the death of RIC officer William Parson. In the reprisals, five houses were burnt as well as the agricultural co-operative in Rosmuc. Attacks on co-operatives and creameries began in 1920 with most of them taking place in the Golden Vale, as well as several along the west coast.

Crown forces destroy the co-ops

Burnt out creamery 1920 Co Kerry

The co-operatives and the formation of creameries had grown from the Irish Agricultural Organisation established in 1894 by Sir Horace Plunkett. Its main objective was to modernise and secure the future of Irish farming, a remarkable ambition considering the near extinction of rural Ireland during the Famine years.

By 1920 the co-operatives had established rural banks, and made available agricultural supplies and machinery at a fair price. They were totally owned by the farmers with “one man one vote” being their mantra. The socio-economic existence of rural Ireland was intertwined with these organisations and when they became targets for Crown Forces there were serious consequences for surrounding communities. By January 1 1921, 42 co-operatives had been attacked resulting in many being completely destroyed. It is estimated that each co-operative supported 800 farmers.

“You are nothing but a damned gang of assassins, the whole damn lot of you” - Labour MP, John Henry Jones to the Chief Secretary of Ireland

In early 1921, a delegation arrived in Ireland from the Irish White Cross, a charitable Irish-American foundation set up to raise money for those affected by the burnings and destruction during the war. As part of its work, it gathered information on 57 creameries and co-operatives which had been attacked. It concluded that a total of 15,000 farmers had supplied these centres and 60,000 people were now left destitute. In addition, it claimed that £250,000 was needed to revive the sector and by August 1922, £240,000 had been distributed. The co-operative in Rosmuc received £500 to rebuild and reopen as quickly as possible.

'Three cheers for the Chief Assassin'

Westminster II

Mid-April saw the arrest and detention of Geraldine Dillon. The Dillons had been on the radar of the Galway RIC for some time and their house had been raided on several occasions. Mrs Dillon was found with documents destined for the attention of Michael Collins at the time of her arrest. Her solicitor asked that she be given bail as she was nursing a six month old baby. However, bail was refused and she was detained in Galway Gaol.

Later when the question of Mrs Dillon’s detention was raised in the House of Commons by Labour MP John Henry (Jack ) Jones, she was released without charge. Jones was a fierce critic of British Government policy in Ireland at the time and was once thrown out of the House of Commons for greeting Sir Hammar Greenwood, Chief Secretary of Ireland with “Three cheers for the Chief Assassin”, causing uproar.

Undaunted while leaving the chamber he added: “You are nothing but a damned gang of assassins, the whole damn lot of you.” Galway had now been brought back into the fold as a journalist with The Morning Post, a conservative paper published in Britain stated: “Here in Galway it is as peaceful to all appearances as in Bournemouth. Police go about singly and the families of officers live in the city without molestation."

Fighting in Connemara

However, in the Maam Valley this was most definitely not the case. The West Connemara Flying Column struck again at dawn on April 23 when an RIC cycle patrol was ambushed at Kilmilkin. This was the column's third attack in a matter of weeks. The Freeman’s Journal reported that the flying column was well equipped, well armed, well disciplined, and had the advantage of high ground, and had been assisted by heavy showers of sleet and rain.

After the initial attack, the IRA had pinned down the RIC and were now sniping at will from the high ground. One officer stated that “the bullets whizzed all around us like hailstones”. Officer John Boylan was shot through the neck and was in a critical condition. Two other officers were also wounded. At noon, a local priest, Fr Cunningham, was sent to tend to the wounded officers.

“We have been fighting for 750 years for Irish Independence, and I see no reason why we can’t go on for a long time still. But seriously, we are going on until we win” - Michael Collins

As he attempted to administer last rights to officer Boylan he was shot at several times forcing him to retreat and take cover. Soon after an officer managed to commandeer a car and return to Galway for reinforcements. A few hours later, members of D Company and various Crown Forces arrived at the scene with heavy machine guns and opened fire on the hillside where the IRA had been positioned. A search that followed yielded nothing. The flying column had flown and disappeared into the landscape after 11 hours of fighting. Officer Boylan lay dead. He was number 290 in the ledger of RIC officers killed since the start of the war.

Michael Collins gave an interview to an American journalist in early April 1921. He was asked how long the IRA could continue the fight? Collins replied: “We have been fighting for 750 years for Irish Independence, and I see no reason why we can’t go on for a long time still. But seriously, we are going on until we win.” This war was far from over. Galway town might resemble Bournemouth but the Maam resembled the valley of death, courtesy of the West Connemara Flying Column.

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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