One hundred years ago today, on 18 January 1921, a group of Irish Republican Army (IRA) Volunteers ambushed a party of Auxiliaries at Kilroe, about 7 kilometres southwest of the town of Headford, Co. Galway. That night, infuriated by the attack, Crown forces responded by burning houses, barns and crops in the vicinity of the ambush, firing indiscriminately at civilians, and killing one man. Four days later, Crown forces rampaged through north Galway, killing another three men in separate incidents near Headford, Caherlistrane and Ballyglunin.
At the close of 1920, the Royal Irish Constabulary’s (RIC) deputy director general reported with confidence that “the firm manner in which the Crown Forces are performing their duties has subdued the disloyal spirit of the people”. It was more wishful thinking than reality.
The IRA had been relatively inactive in Galway since the Castledaly ambush, near Gort, on 30 October 1920. Since then, Ellen Quinn, Father Griffin, Michael Moran, the Loughnane brothers, and Joe Howley had died at the hands of Crown forces. In order to reignite activity in the county, the IRA’s general headquarters had sent organiser Louis Darcy to Galway. Dubbed “the Michael Collins of the West” by British intelligence, Darcy was a Headford-native who abandoned his university studies in Dublin to become a full-time revolutionary. In January 1921, Darcy contacted Michael Newell, Commandant of the Mid-Galway Brigade, in order to press for an ambush in the Headford area.
Following a meeting of the heads of the Castlegar, Claregalway and Cregmore companies, it was decided to attack a party of Auxiliaries, which travelled from Galway to Headford every Tuesday to patrol the market. The location of the ambush was to be Gunning’s Wood, on the Galway side of Kilroe Cross, about sixteen kilometres north of Galway.
On the night of 17 January, thirty or so men from the three companies marched to Aucloggeen, near Corrandulla, where they were joined by a party of Volunteers from Annaghdown. Cold, wet, and without food, they slept on concrete floors in an old disused house. Before dawn, they made their way to the ambush site, led by Michael Newell of Castlegar. Soon, a party of eleven Auxiliaries travelling in a Crossley tender drove into the trap. The Volunteers opened fire and threw bombs. In the melee, one wounded Auxiliary cadet managed to get a horse and rode bareback into Galway for assistance. It was a brief engagement, leaving ten Auxiliaries wounded – four seriously – but it would have far greater repercussions for the local population.
That afternoon, Crown forces scoured the locality looking for ambushers. They raided the house of Celia Collins, a widowed farmer in her 60s, at Keekill on the shores of Lough Corrib. Two of her sons had fought in the British army, one of whom – Private John Collins of the Connaught Rangers – died in Mesopotamia in 1917, and another served in the US Army. They arrested her 25-year-old son, Thomas, and took him outside. Some struck him, while others jabbed his back with rifles. When Celia tried to intervene, one policeman struck her with his revolver and told her he would blow her brains out. She then heard a man say “run, run, run you …”, after which several shots were fired. The RIC later claimed that Thomas was killed while attempting to escape. The following day, Celia revisited the scene of the shooting: “All his brains and everything were there and I picked them up and put them into my apron. And what more could I do?”
Later that evening, Crown forces torched a number of farm houses, barns and crops in the district. They arrived in the village of Headford and called to the presbytery looking for Father Michael Morley, a republican sympathiser who had previously been arrested for the possession of arms and ammunition. Having been informed that Father Morley was away, they police burned the building to the ground. They also burned down the village hall, William O’Malley’s grocery shop and bar, the house of postman Thomas Geraghty, and some nearby farmhouses. One eye-witness to the destruction said “most of the people affected have been deprived of all their worldly possessions, and now have nothing but the clothes they stand up in. When the lorries arrived most of the people were cleared off the streets. Petrol was used to set fire to the dwellings. It was a cold and, dry night, with a strong wind blowing, and the flames spread rapidly. The hapless owners looked on in dumbfounded amazement. Some of the womenfolk mourned, but all were too paralysed to speak or to do more than to protest their innocence of any crime”. The flames could be seen for miles around.
Worse was to follow. On Saturday, 22 January, Crown forces swept through the north Galway countryside. At Claran, near Headford, the Walsh family were having breakfast when two men wearing long black overcoats and armed with revolvers entered the house. Brothers Tom and Willie were ordered outside where four lorries were waiting. Walking ahead, Tom heard gunfire and his brother cry out “Sweet Jesus”. He turned to find Willie, aged 33, lying on the road. The shooter walked away without saying anything. The RIC later claimed that Willie ran and that they shouted “halt or we’ll fire”. Sergeant Keeney concluded, rather coldly, that “he took no notice and we opened fire and shot him dead”.
Less than an hour later, two lorries approached the home of Michael Hoade and his sister, Sarah, at Ballintleva, Caherlistrane. Michael, aged 31, was a “fine, healthy, active young man, unmarried, and kept a grocery and general shop […] in a house he had built himself”. Sarah, who saw the raiding party from upstairs, called to her brother “here are the Black and Tans”. “What do I care?” he replied indifferently. According to Sarah, two men in long black coats entered the premises and ordered Michael to leave the house and, as he walked away, shot him several times. The RIC carried his body back to the house, and one said “there will not be an ambush here for a long time again”. Again, the RIC gave a different account of the killing: “The front door of his house was closed and bolted. I proceeded to the back door of the house and entered. Then I heard the front door open and cries of ‘Stand or I fire’. I ran outside and Michael Hoade dashed past me and made off across the fields […] I then gave orders for my party to open fire. He succeeded in getting two or three hundred yards away before he fell. I ran up to where he was lying, he was still alive. I then got a door and had him carried to his house. He expired just as we reached the house”.
That afternoon, a raiding party surrounded the farm of John Kirwan of Ballinastuckaun, near Ballyglunin. They asked John about the whereabouts of his 22-year-old son, Jim, and he replied that he was unloading a cart of manure in a nearby field. John was ordered inside and escorted by two armed men. Having heard gunfire, John went outside where he met a soldier who said “your son was shot in the field”. As John went towards the field, he saw thirty police and soldiers, some of whom tried to screen their faces. One of the men said “your son was shot because he tried to run away, and through accident your horse was shot also”. The RIC later claimed that Kirwan was believed to be “armed and dangerous”.
In the aftermath, Archbishop Gilmartin of Tuam, an outspoken critic of Crown force and Republican violence, wrote that “the misguided criminals who fired a few shots from behind a wall […] have broken the Truce of God. They have incurred the guilt of murder – knowing, as they must know, the nature of the reprisals that are likely to follow such an ambush. Then have come from outside to do a foul and craven deed, and then, having fired their few cowardly shots, they beat a hasty retreat, leaving an unprotected and innocent people at the mercy of uniformed men.” He also directed his wrath at Crown forces, condemning the “inhuman barbarity of such reprisals”, and at the British Government: “If the full tale of flogging, burning, terrorism, and looting could be told the whole picture would make even savages ashamed. And yet there seems to be a majority in the House of Commons prepared to support this unchristian and hellish mode of government”.
At the subsequent courts of military inquiry into the killings, the RIC claimed that the four men were wanted in connection with the Kilroe ambush, and that Walsh, Kirwan and Hoade were further suspected of having taken part in the Gallagh ambush, near Tuam in July 1920, which resulted in the deaths of two RIC constables.
The evidence would seem to suggest that the allegations were fabricated in order to cover up the reprisal killings of four innocent civilians. None of the four men are mentioned in the Bureau of Military History witness statements in connection with either ambush, nor are they named in the IRA’s brigade activity reports, which include comprehensive lists of those involved in both attacks. In Kirwan’s case, his father and several neighbours could attest to his whereabouts at the time of the Kilroe ambush, while Hoade’s sister stated that her brother “always remained at home and minded the shop”. In each of the four cases, the court concluded that the men died while attempting to escape and that no blame could be apportioned to the RIC, who were merely carrying out their legal duties. Apart from members of the Crown forces, no other witnesses were called to testify about the killings.
In his monthly report, the West Riding’s county inspector downplayed the violence: “as a result of information received the police subsequently searched a large area of the country, and arrested 3 men on suspicion of being concerned in a previous ambush. 3 other IRA men were shot dead while attempting to escape from custody. This resolute action on the part of the Crown Forces is having an excellent effect on the peace in the locality”. This, too, was wishful thinking.
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 Seán Farragher (Donaghpatrick-Kilcoona Heritage Society), Irene McGoldrick (Annaghdown Heritage Society), Ester Kiely (Headford Lace Project), Margie McNamara, John Cunningham, William Henry, and Dr John Cunningham (NUI, Galway) 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; Military Service Pension Collection (Michael Newell); Military Court of Inquiry (William Walsh of Clydagh; James Kirwan of Ballinastack [sic]; Michael Hoade of Caherlistrane, Thomas Collins of Kilkeel [sic.]); RIC Inspector General’s Monthly Report, December 1920; RIC County Inspector’s Report, West Galway, January 1921; ‘A Mother’s Woe’, Connacht Tribune, 9 July 1921; ‘His Grace the Archbishop on the Shootings’, Tuam Herald, 12 March 1921; ‘An Execution. Sister’s Story of Dreadful Deed’, The Connacht Tribune, 2 July 1921; ‘His Grace the Archbishop on the Broken Truce’, Tuam Herald, 29 January 1921; ‘Ambush and Tragic Aftermath’, Connacht Tribune, 22 January 1921; ‘Tragedy and Fires in Galway’, Irish Independent, 20 January 1921; ‘Tuam Triple Tragedy’, Irish Independent, 25 January 1921; ‘Terrorism n the Tuam District’, Freeman’s Journal, 24 January 1921; ‘Harrowing Details’, Freeman’s Journal, 25 January 1921; William Henry (2012) Blood for Blood: The Black & Tan War in Galway; Eunan O’Halpin & Daithí Ó Corráin (2020) The Dead of the Irish Revolution; Conor McNamara (2018) War and Revolution in the West of Ireland: Galway, 1913-22; D. M. Leeson (2013) The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence.