During the war of Independence the West Connemara IRA brigade, under the command of Petie McDonnell, was an effective and disciplined force. It had moved its headquarters to the Muintir Eoin residence of Pádraic Mór Ó Máille, a two-storey farmhouse, backed by rock and heather covered hills, which stood on a small rise, along the Maam to Leenane road. It offered commanding views of the Maam Valley.
Ó Máille, one of the most prominent activists in the area, an elected Sinn Féin TD, and a keen Gaelic scholar, had fought alongside Liam Mellows in the Galway Rising 1916. He was imprisoned in England until the general amnesty at Christmas. It was well known locally that he allowed McDonnell’s men a safe house at Muintir Eoin, accepting that sooner or later crown forces would raid. In anticipation the column prepared sniping positions in the surrounding hills, drilled in preparation for a sudden assault, and posted sentries day and night to keep watch.
On April 23 1921, around 3am, one of the sentries noticed some movement in the valley. He notified Commandant McDonnell and, through the darkness and early-morning mist, they realised that there was a party of police gathering on the road. Under the command of Detective Inspector Sugrue 14 policemen from Oughterard and Maam, armed with rifles and bombs, had initially travelled by lorry, before transferring to bicycles so that they would not be heard approaching. The defenders, however, immediately mobilised and quietly assumed their pre-arranged positions. Pádraic Ó Máille and his brothers – Tomás, professor of Irish at UCG, and Éamonn – joined them, while the women and children of the household moved to the outbuildings for safety.
‘Little or no cover’
The police had to cross a river using stepping stones, before reaching the exposed path that led to the Ó Máille home. The column was ordered not to fire until the raiders were across the river, gathered in a cluster, and within firing range. Suddenly, a premature shot rang out from the raiding party (perhaps fired on purpose to warn the occupiers that an attack was imminent ), and someone at the house immediately replied.
The element of surprise was now lost and the RIC took cover wherever they could, behind sod fences, turf stacks and sandpits – even in the river itself – but they were trapped. As a misty dawn broke Sugrue’s men was widely scattered and pinned to the open road, with little or no cover.
The IRA were well concealed in the hills and heather. The sound of gunfire echoed throughout the hills as the two sides exchanged shots in what would become one of the longest battles in the War of Independence. After two hours of sniping, Constable John Boylan, who had taken cover behind a low sod fence on the roadside, was hit in the neck and legs and died almost immediately.* Sergeant Hanley and Constable Ruttledge were also injured.
The Connacht Tribune reported a constable claiming that ‘bullets whizzed all around us like hailstones… bullets ploughed through the bog and the road, while we lay there inactive except for an occasional opportunity to fire, knowing that if night came without relief, we were doomed’.
An immediate response
A chance to escape, however, came about midday when a car driven by Francis Joyce carrying some workmen, unwittingly drove into the fray. Constable Ruttledge jumped on to the running-board of the car, amid a hail of bullets, and ordered the motorist to “drive like hell”. Which he did. A long range shot, however, hit Ruttledge in the arm, but he clung on for dear life.
Having escaped, Ruttledge raised the alarm at Maam Cross, by phoning headquarters in Galway prompting an immediate response. RF Cruise, Divisional Commander, led an armoured car and a dozen or so lorries, carrying police and military, speeding to the rescue. Meanwhile Fr Cunningham – the curate at Leenane – arrived on the scene to attend to the injured policemen. Because of his dark clothing, some members of the flying column took him to be a member of the RIC and fired on him, but missed. He remained crouching by his car, afraid to get up.
By the time the reinforcements arrived, around 3.30pm, the battle had been raging for almost twelve hours. The IRA, now running low on ammunition, began to move to higher ground and out of sight. The armoured car sprayed the Ó Máille home with bullets, while swarms of police and soldiers converged on the house, firing rifles and machine guns. They found only Mrs Ó Máille, her two young children, an old woman servant, and a young girl from a neighbour’s house. Mrs Ó Máille expressed fears for the safety of the children. She was reassured that nothing would happen to them. They was taken outside, away from the house. Bombs were then placed under the four-corners of the roof, and the house was blown up. The outhouses were searched revealing bedding and food to accommodate about 40 persons. Several cattle and sheep were shot. Next day, Sunday, a search of the hills and moors all around revealed nothing. No arrests were made.
As a young boy Pádraic Mór Ó Máille** often heard the legend that among the Connemara hills would be fought one of the last battles in a successful struggle for Irish freedom. Ó Máille always recognised this battle fought on April 21 1921 was the fulfilment of that legend.
NOTES: * Constable Boylan, a widower, left five small children, each of whom received £600 compensation. Constable Ruttledge was awarded £312. Smaller sums were paid out to the police who had their bicycles destroyed in the battle.
** Ó Máille came from a well known sheep-farming and wool merchant family in the Maam valley. Home schooled, his family was outstanding in the medical and educational world. Reelected in 1921 and 1922 Ó Máille accepted the Treaty, and was appointed Leas Ceann Comhairle (speaker ) of the Dáil. On December 7 1922, during the Civil War, he was shot in the spine outside the Ormond Hotel, Dublin. He was accompanied by Seán Hales who was shot dead. Despite his injuries he drove Hales to the nearest hospital. As a reprisal four republican prisoners, Rory O’Connor, Dick Barrett, Joe McKelvey, and Ó Máille’s friend and comrade in arms Liam Mellows, who were anti Treaty, were executed. Ó Máille soon left Cumann na nGaedheal, started his own party, Clann Éireann, which was not successful. He returned to farming, and was appointed a senator until his death in 1946. He married Eileen, daughter of Martin Acton, a farmer from Clifden. They had two sons and three daughters.
Sources this week include Galway Museum, and Beyond the Twelve Bens - A History of Clifden and District 1860 - 1923 by Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill.