In the early hours of 20 February 1921, John Geoghegan of Moycullen – a Sinn Féin member of Galway Rural District Council and Quartermaster of the East Connemara Brigade, Irish Republican Army (IRA) – was taken from his family home by unidentified armed men in uniform and shot dead. A military inquiry followed and his killing was raised in the House of Commons, but no one was ever held to account.
John Geoghegan was born on 6 June 1892 at Uggool, near the village of Moycullen, Co. Galway. His father, William Gahagan (later Geoghegan), was a career policeman from Queen’s County (now Co. Laois), who joined the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in 1857. He retired from the force in 1883, having spent much of his career in Co. Galway, serving in Galway town, Clifden and the Aran Islands.
William married a young widow, Margaret O’Connor (née Lee) in Galway in 1887. They and their first two children – Catherine and Sarah – moved from Lombard Street, Galway to Uggool, around 1891, where William turned his hand to farming. Though “rough and rocky”, the sixty-or-so acre farm, along with an RIC pension, provided his growing family with a comfortable life.
John Geoghegan was educated at Moycullen National School and St Joseph’s Seminary (‘The Bish’) in Galway. Afterwards, he spent three years training to be a teacher. When his father died in 1911, John abandoned his studies and – as the eldest son – took over the running of the family farm. In his free time, he played both Gaelic football and hurling with Moycullen, enjoyed handball, and was a member of the local branch of the Gaelic League.
In the mid-1910s, Geoghegan became a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and joined the Irish Volunteers, as did his younger brothers, Michael, William and Eddie. The Moycullen Volunteers were prepared for action in 1916, and awaited instructions, which never came. Morgan Davoren, the officer in charge of the Moycullen Volunteers, would later recall: “I understood that John Geoghegan would get the message from Moycullen and he was very disappointed he never got the word”.
Geoghegan campaigned for Pádraic Ó Máille – the successful Sinn Féin candidate for the Galway Connemara constituency – in the 1918 general election and, during the War of Independence, served as Quartermaster of the East Connemara Brigade IRA. Geoghegan was clearly held in high esteem by his commanding officer, schoolteacher Mícheál Ó Droighneáin from Na Forbacha. When the East Connemara Brigade gathered evidence that a local schoolteacher, Patrick W. Joyce, was passing information onto the British authorities, Geoghegan was entrusted with bringing the incriminating letters to the IRA in Dublin. And when Joyce was subsequently executed, Geoghegan was given the task of bringing a priest from the other side of Lough Corrib to administer the Last Rites. According to Ó Droighneain, Geoghegan was “was one of the most serviceable, unselfish and competent officers in the area, and carried out many useful activities”. Later, a Garda sergeant wrote: “it appears that Geoghegan was a very secret worker and although it was known he was a strong supporter of the national movement at that time, very few in the locality knew that he was an active member of the IRA”.
Geoghegan also became active in local politics. Following the Local Government Elections of June 1920, Galway Rural District Council, apart from one councillor, consisted solely of Sinn Féin members. At its first meeting, Geoghegan was unanimously co-opted as a member of both the Galway Rural District Council and Board of Guardians. At the same meeting, a deputation from the Gaelic League, which included Fr Michael Griffin and Prof. Tomás Ó Máille, persuaded the new council to conduct its proceedings entirely in the Irish language – it was one of the first to do so. The new council also pledged its allegiance to Dáil Éireann.
In time, Geoghegan’s republican activities brought him to the attention of Crown forces, and his house was raided on several occasions. Geraldine Dillon, sister of Joseph Plunkett, wrote that every fortnight Louis D’arcy, Commandant of the IRA’s Headford Battalion, would walk from Galway along the Clifden railway line to meet with Geoghegan. According to Dillon, they were watched by a member of the Crown forces, who hid in a big, bushy lime tree near Dangan House. This might explain why Geoghegan’s house was raided by in the aftermath of the Kilroe ambush, near Headford, on 18 January 1921.
On Thursday, 19 February 1921, John Geoghegan went into Galway to pick up an important dispatch sent from IRA headquarters in Dublin. He returned to Uggool and hid the dispatch in a haycock in the haggard. That night, John and his brother, Michael, slept in one room, while his mother and sister, Maggie, were in another.
In the early hours, they were awoken by the sound of loud knocking and breaking glass, and a voice shouting “Open the door, we want John Geoghegan”. John’s mother opened the door and two armed men entered the house and ordered John to get dressed. Maggie vividly recalled the intruders: “as we were lighting a candle I could see that one of them had a mask on, also that he wore a policeman’s cap and a black coat; the other man was in khaki and wore a tin hat”. Michael recalled that “the man with the black coat accused my brother of being a friend of Michael Collins [and] a traitor to Ireland and that he was going to suffer now”. John denied the charges, and the man in the black coat left the house to consult with others who remained outside. As John dressed, he quietly told Michael about the hidden IRA dispatch.
When the man in the black coat returned, he asked “are you not dressed yet, John?” When John replied that he had yet to put on his boots, the other man replied “You will want not boots; we won’t delay you long”. John was led away and shot several times from close range and left for dead on the western bank of the Lough Kip River, a short distance from his family home. His killers pinned a large card to the inside of his coat, with the words: “Yours faithfully, M. Collins”.
Later that night, unaware of what had happened, Micheál Ó Droighneáin cycled from An Spidéal to Moycullen to collect the dispatch from Geoghegan as they had arranged. On the way, he encountered the local priest and Geoghegan’s brother who broke the shocking news. Ó Droighneáin later recalled “I was horrified at the sad news, and I accompanied them to the house. There he was, stretched on the kitchen floor, his trousers and coat on, but no shoes. He was shot through the head.” Despite the traumatic circumstances, Michael Geoghegan retrieved the dispatch and gave it to Ó Droighneáin.
Years later, Ó Droighneáin recalled that “John Geoghegan was a wonderful man, the most unselfish I ever came across. […] I had given him orders not to sleep at home, but his answer to me was: “If they come looking for me and I am not there, they will shoot one of my brothers, and I cannot allow that to happen!”
In the aftermath, the RIC visited the Geoghegan house, questioned the family and took the empty cartridge cases as evidence, but did not interfere with the burial arrangements. The Connacht Tribune reported that “the funeral, which was attended by many persons from the outlying parishes, was the largest ever seen in Moycullen. Crown forces were not present”.
Michael and Maggie Geoghegan were compelled to give witness statements to the military inquiry, which was held at Eglinton Street RIC Barracks, Galway on 24 February. Another witness, RIC Sergeant Donegan, stated that “the Geoghegan family are mixed up in the Sinn Fein policy”, as if by way of explanation. The military inquiry concluded that Geoghegan had been shot “by persons unknown with murderous intent”. It is clear, however, that the authorities accepted that members of the Crown forces were the probable culprits as, following the military inquiry, there were extensive internal efforts to ascertain the location and movement of British troops in Galway on the night in question.
Ó Droighneáin believed that Geoghegan had been “shadowed in Galway” on the day the dispatch was collected. The secretary of the Military Pensions Board, who knew Geoghegan personally through his IRA activities, wrote “there can be no doubt but that Geoghegan was betrayed – by whom or by what number of people is a matter for conjecture. But certainly the English Officers – or spies – knew his worth and they made no mistake”.
In the House of Commons, on 30 June, the Chief Secretary of Ireland – Hamar Greenwood – was asked for an update on the continuing investigations into Geoghegan’s death. “I regret to say that no further information has come to light in this case,” he replied.
A memorial monument, commissioned by the East Connemara Brigade, was erected over Geoghegan’s grave in Moycullen on the first anniversary of his death. The large Celtic cross, carved by McWilliams of Nuns’ Island in Galway, depicted an Irish Volunteer wearing a slouch hat and carrying a rifle, underneath which were the words: “do thír agus do chreideamh” – for land and faith.
In the twelve months since Geoghegan’s death Ireland had become a very different place. The Truce had ended hostilities between Britain and Ireland, the Anglo-Irish Treaty had been signed and narrowly approved, and the Provisional Government of Ireland had been established.
On the day of the unveiling, all schools and shops in the local parish were ordered to close and all work was suspended. As many as three-hundred local volunteers marched in military formation from the village to the parish church for the commemorative mass. During the mass, Fr Connolly stated that “the celebration was one not of sorrow, but one of joy as well. Yes, it was a scene of sorrow blended with pride. Knocked down to terrorise his comrades and paralyse the IRA movement in his brigade, John Geogheghan’s death has produced a result different from that intended”. Afterwards, the memorial was unveiled by the local clergy and an emotional Mícheál Ó Droighneáin. The Connacht Tribune reported that Geoghegan’s “simple and unaffected disposition won for him hosts of friends, and never to living memory did a young man pass away in Moycullen so much lamented”.
His comrade, Colm Ó Gaora – Commandant of the IRA’s Rosmuc Battalion – wrote in his 1943 memoir Mise (Myself) that “Geoghegan was faithfully devoted [to the national cause]. The day never came when he was found wanting”.
This post is part of a series researched and written by Brendan McGowan, Education Officer at Galway City Museum, to mark the Decade of Centenaries. Thank you to Hazel Morrison and other members of Moycullen Heritage for their kind assistance with the article. If you have any information, stories or photographs relating to the War of Independence in Galway, please contact Brendan by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Register of Births, Deaths & Marriages; Census of Ireland, 1901 & 1911; Bureau of Military History Witness Statements (Mícheál Ó Droighneáin & Joe Togher); Military Service Pension Collection, Military Archives; Courts of Inquiry in lieu of Inquests (John Geoghegan), The National Archives (UK), WO 35/150/66; ‘Another Horror. District Councillor Shot Dead at Moycullen. A Ghastly Story’, Connacht Tribune, 26 February 1921; ‘Loyal to the Last’, Connacht Tribune, 25 February 1922; Colm Ó Gaora (2011) Mise; Tomás Bairéad (1972) Gan Baisteadh; Eunan O’Halpin & Daithí Ó Corráin (2020) The Dead of the Irish Revolution; Honor Ó Brolcháin (ed.)(2006) All in the Blood: A memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence by Geraldine Plunkett Dillon; From the Archives, 1916: Revolution & Recollections (an exhibition by Galway County Council Archives)