Louis D’Arcy – “the Michael Collins of the West”

Home/Louis D’Arcy – “the Michael Collins of the West”
One hundred years ago today, on 23 March 1921, Louis D’Arcy was arrested at Oranmore railway station, while on his way to see Michael Collins in Dublin. Aged just 23, D’Arcy was the Commandant of the independent Headford Battalion of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and had been dubbed “the Michael Collins of the West” by British Intelligence. The following day, while being transported to Galway, he was shot dead, allegedly while attempting to escape.

Better known as Louis, Aloysius Raphael D’Arcy was born at Headford, Co. Galway on 20 June 1897. His parents, Nicholas Joseph and Mary (née Forde), were schoolteachers and Irish-language enthusiasts. D’Arcy was brought up on the Square in Headford, before the family moved to nearby Clydagh, where his parents taught in the local school. He attended his Clydagh NS from 1901 until 1913, before continuing his education at St Joseph’s College, Ballinasloe. Afterwards, he moved to Dublin to study law at university. When, in February 1917, his father died suddenly at school, D’Arcy’s mother took over as principal, and remained so until 1934.

 

While a student in the capital, D’Arcy became a member of C Company, 3rd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers, which had occupied Boland’s Mill during the Easter Rising of 1916. The company was drilling at the York Street Workmen’s Club, in June 1918, when it was raided by the Dublin Metropolitan Police. D’Arcy, along with twenty-two other young men, was arrested and charged with illegal drilling under the Defence of the Realm regulations. The prisoners, who refused to recognise the court, were sentenced to two months imprisonment, which they served at Mountjoy Gaol, Dublin and Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast. The Irish Independent reported that they cheered and sang “God Save Ireland” as they left the dock. D’Arcy was, apparently, refused re-entry to university on his release.

Having received a special commission from the IRA’s general headquarters, D’Arcy returned to Galway as an organiser in order to ‘stir up’ activity locally. He served as Commandant of the Headford Battalion IRA, an independent unit that was not, at that stage, affiliated with any brigade. By reputation, D’Arcy was a fearless and determined republican, who instilled loyalty in his men. One comrade wrote that ‘the music of the rifles have always been ringing in my ears since the day Cmdt Louis Darcy handed me his revolver and said “Hold this. Rather than part [with] it lose your life first.” This I was determined to do’.

In October 1920, acting on information, members of the Crown forces raided the D’Arcy family home. Louis wasn’t there, but they found gelignite and ammunition, including a large quantity of dumdum bullets. Afterwards, D’Arcy was forced to go ‘on the run’. Interestingly, Jack Feehan of the West Connemara Bridge IRA claimed that D’Arcy took part in the ‘Bloody Sunday’ attacks on the British intelligence network in Dublin on 21 November 1920, though this isn’t corroborated by any other sources.

Life as a fugitive was difficult, especially during the winter months, but it was made somewhat easier thanks to the efforts of local members of Cumann na mBan. One member, Florrie Quinn of Cregboy nursed D’Arcy when he was suffering from suspected pneumonia. Another, Julia Earnor of Annaghkeen regularly brought food and clothing to D’Arcy and other ‘wanted men’ who were staying in dugouts at Clydagh. Julia also carried out important intelligence work: ‘I used to go in and get in touch with girls who were keeping company with police and they used to find out for me who the police were after’. Recalling that ‘Louis was a man that they greatly wanted’, she gathered and passed on information about planned house raids, which prevented D’Arcy’s capture.

In January 1921, D’Arcy instigated an IRA ambush against a party of Auxiliaries at Kilroe, between Galway and Headford. Although D’Arcy didn’t take part in the actual attack, the British authorities were convinced of his involvement and regarded him a significant threat. Year later, in his autobiography, Ormonde Winter – head of British Intelligence in Ireland during the War of Independence – went so far as to refer to D’Arcy as “the Michael Collins of the West”.

On 23 March 1921, D’Arcy made his way across the fields to Oranmore station, accompanied by a man named Lally, to catch the 8.20am train to Dublin. The purpose of his trip was to make contact with Michael Collins about a shipment of arms that had gone astray – the IRA was desperately short of weapons and ammunition. Both men were dressed as farm labourers, so as not to attract any unwanted attention. Unfortunately for D’Arcy, however, Crown forces had been tipped off about his plans. It was afterwards rumoured that D’Arcy’s jilted girlfriend had turned informer.

Before they could board the train, they were stopped and questioned by local police. The men, who gave false names, were arrested and taken to Oranmore Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks for identification. In her memoir, Geraldine Dillon, sister of Joseph Plunkett, wrote that Lally ‘heard D’Arcy screaming with the torture all night from the next room’.

The following day, Holy Thursday, D’Arcy was handed over to the Auxiliaries for transportation to Galway. The official account of what happened next is that D’Arcy was travelling in the back of a Crossley tender when the car in front broke down at Merlin Park, near Galway, bringing the convoy to a halt. One of the guards, Cadet John Lowe, stated that D’Arcy ‘jumped onto the road and started running for a gap in the wall. We called out “Halt”; he did not halt and we fired at him. He dropped’. Coincidentally or not, four months previously, the same Cadet Lowe was one of those who shot and killed Michael Moran, Commandant of the Tuam Battalion IRA, when he allegedly attempted to escape custody.

By contrast with the official line, Geraldine Dillon wrote that ‘just outside the town, he [D’Arcy] was tied with a rope and dragged behind the lorry until a Tan kindly put a bullet in him’. Volunteer Thomas Hynes gave a similar version of events to the Bureau of Military History. Whether or not Dillon’s disturbing version of events was true, the official account was widely disbelieved. Many saw D’Arcy’s killing as revenge for the death of Martin Foley, a police constable stationed at Oranmore, who had been shot and killed by the IRA at Merlin Park seven months previously.

The verdict of the subsequent military court of inquiry was that D’Arcy ‘met his death from gun-shot wounds fired by the Police in the execution of their duty while he was trying to escape from arrest’. The Irish Independent reported that D’Arcy was the sixtieth person to be killed in such circumstances. Nevil Macready, the commander-in-chief of British forces in Ireland, noted on the file ‘that the death would probably not have occurred if the prisoner had been hand-cuffed or properly secured’. When the verdict was reported in the House of Commons, on 13 April, one Liberal MP asked ‘whether it is the case that this reason of “shot while attempting to escape” is not accepted in Ireland or in England to any extent, but is looked upon as simply a cover for cold-blooded murder?’ There was no reply. The silence was deafening.

D’Arcy’s body was returned to his family for burial at Cargin Cemetery, near Headford. According to local lore, the Irish tricolour which was draped over his coffin was hastily made from the flag of the local Corrib Shamrocks Gaelic football club as it was impossible to get suitable material elsewhere at such short notice. It was said that members of the Crown forces, who attended the funeral in large numbers, pulled the flag from the coffin and trampled on it before it was eventually wrestled back by the mourners. That same flag covered D’Arcy’s mother’s coffin in 1938.

In the aftermath, Archbishop Gilmartin of Tuam reiterated his appeal to the young men of the diocese ‘to continue to abstain from deeds of blood, no matter what the provocation’ and ‘to imitate the patience of Christ’, but his plea fell on deaf ears. Believing that two members of the RIC stationed at Headford had identified D’Arcy, the local IRA began plotting a revenge attack on the barracks. And so the cycle of violence continued.

There were, at least, two locally-composed ballads penned in memory of Louis D’Arcy – “Commandant Louis D’Arcy beside Clydagh Bay” by Willie McHugh of Ballycasey, near Headford, and “The Lament for Louis D’Arcy” by John Henihan, late of Tuam. The better known of the two, McHugh’s ballad was sung by Matt Keane Sr on the acclaimed Muintir Chatháin / Keane Family album. It concludes with the lines: “Farewell brave Commandant we ne’er will forget you / The bright ray of freedom now lights up our way / In spirit you are with us to comfort and cheers us / And hover forever round your dear Clydagh Bay”.

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. Sincere thanks to Paula McHugh Gallagher, Carmel Heneghan, John Heneghan, Matt Keane, Sean Keane, Ciara McHugh, Tim Murphy, Cormac Ó Comhraí, and Jackie Uí Chionna 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 museum@galwaycity.ie

D'Arcy Memorial Card

Memorial Card of Commandant Louis R. D’Arcy, 1921. Reproduced by kind permission of UCD Archives (Papers of Margaret & Father Tom Burke, P30/49)


Sources
Register of Births, Deaths & Marriages; Census of Ireland, 1901 & 1911; Bureau of Military History, Witness Statements (Thomas Hynes, BMH.WS0714, Gerald Davis, BMH.WS1361, and George White, BMH.WS0956), Military Archives, Dublin; Military Court of Inquiry (Death of Louis D’Arcy, of Clydagh, Co. Galway, WO 35/148 /79), National Archives, London; Military Service Pensions Collection (Julia Walsh, MSP34REF11690 and Florrie Brennan, MSP34REF36567), Military Archives, Dublin; House of Commons Debates (HC Deb, 13 April 1921, c1109).  Michael H. Carroll (2002) Of Beauty Rarest: A History of Clydagh National School, Headford, Co. Galway; James Joseph Gleeson (1962) Bloody Sunday; William Henry (2012) Blood for Blood: The Black & Tan War in Galway; D. M. Leeson (2013) The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence; Conor McNamara (2018) War and Revolution in the West of Ireland: Galway, 1913-22; 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; Nollaig Ó Gadhra (1999) Civil War in Connacht, 1922-1923; Eunan O’Halpin & Daithí Ó Corráin (2020) The Dead of the Irish Revolution; Cormac K.H. O’Malley & Cormac Ó Comhraí (eds)(2013) The Men Will Talk To Me: Galway Interviews by Ernie O’Malley; Ormonde Winter (1955) Winter’s Tale: An Autobiography.  ‘Awfully Sudden Death’, Western People, 3 March 1917; ‘The Dublin Raid. Prison for Students’, Irish Independent, 15 June 1918; ‘Merlin Park Tragedy’, Connacht Tribune, 2 April 1921; ‘An Archbishop’s Protest, Advice and Warning’, Tuam Herald, 2 April 1921; ‘Obituary’ [Mrs D’Arcy], Connacht Tribune, 23 April 1938; ‘Easter Commemoration at Claran,’ Tuam Herald, 11 April 1953; ‘A Ballad of the Clydagh Footballers’, Connacht Tribune, 23 January 1965; ‘Record of 1921 Attack on Headford RIC Barracks’, Connacht Tribune, 10 February 1978; ‘Clydagh Celebrates 150th Anniversary’, Connacht Tribune, 22 June 2001

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