One of the most important battles during the Irish War of Independence took place 100 years ago this week. A look at a famous episode in Mayo history by Joe Gannon, for thewildgeese.com.
It was late afternoon of a warm day in June in Carrowkennedy, County Mayo. Irish Volunteer Jimmy O’Flaherty heard the warning cry, “HERE THEY COME!” and pushed the butt of his Lee-Enfield .303 into his shoulder, flipped the safety off, and tilted his head to the right to line up his sights. He could hear the two RIC Crossley Tenders approaching from the south. A bead of sweat dripped down his back as he saw the lead truck come into view. Jimmy had served with the Connaught Rangers in WWI. He felt the familiar nervous tension of impending combat, but his training took over. He lined up his sights on the driver of the first truck.
Sitting behind the wheel of that first truck was RIC District Inspector Edward J. Stevenson, a Belfast native. Stevenson’s father had also been an RIC officer. He was only 22 but he had served in the Black Watch regiment at the end of WWI and been wounded in October 1918. As he moved into a slight right-hand turn, the truck was not moving very fast on the slight uphill grade. He glanced at the high ground to the right and gasped as he saw what appeared to be armed men behind a wall. He had been transferred from Belmullet to Westport to help find the West Mayo Flying Column and he had just succeeded. At that moment, Jimmy O’Flaherty squeezed the trigger of his rifle. The Carrowkennedy Ambush, one of the most important battles in Co. Mayo during the Irish War of Independence, had begun.
The ambush at Carrowkennedy was carried out by Michael Kilroy and the Volunteers of his West Mayo Active Service Unit sometimes called the “A.S.U.” but usually described as a “flying column.” It was two weeks to the day since they had suffered a demoralizing defeat in an attempted ambush at Kilmeena, on the Westport to Newport road. Not only had they lost four killed and four wounded and captured, one mortally, they later found out that their dead and wounded had been put on display in the streets of Westport by the Black & Tans. The desire for revenge, already fueled by the mistreatment of many locals by the Black & Tans, some of them family members of Volunteers, was now burning white-hot deep inside all of them. For Michael Kilroy, it included the Tans attacking his home with his wife and children inside, then throwing them out of the house and burning it the day before the Kilmeena ambush.
The column had first retreated north after Kilmeena, as the British began scouring the area looking for them. They had another Volunteer, Jim Brown, of Kilmeena, fatally wounded four days later, when a portion of the column was nearly captured during more fighting around Lower Skerdagh, northeast of Newport. One RIC constable and one Black and Tan also died of wounds in the fight.
Kilroy had gone to school on the mistakes made at Kilmeena. He’d learned to do a better job protecting your flanks, concentrate fire on drivers of the vehicles at the start to stop them, and one that would be a key to the fight at Carrowkennedy, to concentrate suppressing fire on the machine gun if the enemy had one. The Black & Tans Lewis gun had wreaked havoc at Kilmeena. At Carrowkennedy he selected his best marksmen to target the lorry drivers at the start of the ambush and instructed everyone with a Lee-Enfield, which was only about twenty of his men, to keep watch for anyone emerging with a Lewis gun and ignore other targets until it was knocked out.
The flying column was on the run now. The British spent six days searching the area, including the use of aerial surveillance, but Kilroy and his men got away. They were helped by many locals and also by the fog so common to the boggy areas they were moving through. They moved southward and were in Aughagower, southwest of Westport, by the 27th. A few days later they burned the abandoned RIC barracks at Drummin, west of the main Westport to Leenane road (now N59). On the morning of June 2nd, they were near Claddy, just east of Carrowkennedy, a town on that road.
Around noon word came in that an enemy convoy of two Crossley Tenders and a staff car had traveled down the road from Westport headed to Leenane. They had stopped in Carrowkennedy and forced some men involved in turf cutting to fill in a trench the Volunteers had put across that road some time before, then departed to the Leenane area.
Kilroy knew there were only two ways back to Westport - the main road and a route farther to the west, through Delphi. Earlier in the month, however, the Volunteers had blown up the bridge over the Erriff River at Asleagh Falls, blocking the latter route. So it could be safely assumed they would return on the main road. Predictability is often fatal in guerilla warfare.
The flying column was billeted around the area, spread out in various homes. Kilroy ordered “mobilization at the double.” According to Kilroy’s rather flowery later recounting of the day, “Mayo of the welcomes never prepared a reception with such a fluttering of hearts, such anxiety for realization, such enthusiasm for accomplishment, such desire to have everybody in position, and such anxiety to obey.” How many men Kilroy had is uncertain. Most accounts say it was between 45 and 50, but some of the members of the unit placed it in the mid-30s. Most major ambushes during the War of Independence were planned and scouted days in advance. Kilroy was improvising this one with a target of opportunity. Getting all his men back together, scouting out a good ambush position and getting them all in position in a matter of a few hours was a daunting task.
By late afternoon the RIC and Tans were on their way back and would have arrived well before Kilroy had his ambush set up had they not stopped for “refreshments” at Darby Hastings Pub, just a short distance down the road. That stop would prove fatal for several of them. Kilroy and his column make good use of this extra time. He divided his men into three groups. The Westport men, under Brodie Malone, were put on the right, about 120 yards up on the high ground on the eastern side of the road. They had a stonewall there, which they rearranged to give them well-covered firing positions.
Joe Doherty commanded the 2nd group, made up of men mostly from the Newport area. Kilroy put them left of the Westport men, and a little further down the hill, behind another stonewall. Kilroy planned to put this third group, which was mostly made up of men from the Louisburgh unit under Jack Connolly, on the west side of the road. Around 6:30 PM, however, before he could get them in place, the lookout signaled, and the cry “HERE THEY COME!” rang out. Time had run out with Connolly’s men still on the east side of the road, so there would be no unit on the west side.
Joe Ring was with Kilroy near the road and volunteered to run to the hill behind the Widow McGreal’s thatched-roofed cottage to singlehandedly attempt to take the place of the entire group Kilroy intended to place there. If any fire came from that direction, the enemy would probably assume it was more than one man. It was a courageous act, and with little time to think it over, Kilroy agreed. No doubt he hoped he wasn’t sending a brave man to certain death.
The second of the two Crossley Tenders was towing the RIC car, which had broken down. Behind that was another car driven by civilian Gus Delahunty of Westport, who had been forced to join the convoy to carry some Tans and RIC back. By driving the lead lorry, DI Stevenson was violating regulations, which called for him to remain with his men. It was a mistake that would contribute greatly to command problems of the Crown forces at Carrowkennedy.
Stevenson’s glance at the Volunteers on the hill would be his last sight on this earth. O’Flaherty squeezed the trigger of his Enfield and then the rest of the group opened fire as well. The lorry slowly rolled to a stop in the middle of the road. Stevenson was slumped over the wheel with a small, clean hole in his forehead. The Crown forces had lost their commander in the first seconds of the fight. Some of the men in the rear of the lorry scrambled out and rolled behind a low wall on the west side of the road under a fusillade from the Westport men. The men in the lorry tossed out the dreaded Lewis gun. Others stayed in the lorry, which has some armor protection.
The second lorry then came under fire from the Newport men. The driver was also killed and the lorry went into the gutter about halfway between the first lorry and McGreal’s cottage. The men scrambled out and first took cover in the low ground at a small bridge. These men saw Joe Ring working his way to the hill behind the cottage and fired on him. They missed, but Kilroy believed this probably convinced them they were surrounded, dissuading them from attempting an escape to the west.
Most of them managed to make it into the McGreal cottage and began firing from the windows. Some of the occupants of Gus Delahunty’s car, which had stopped just past the bridge, made it to the cottage as well. The terrified Delahunty, having evaded the Volunteer’s fire to make it to the cover of the bridge, felt no need to vacate that spot and survived the fight there. Kilroy later wrote that he felt that entering the cottage was a huge tactical mistake on the part of these Crown forces, as they could not see or support their comrades in the first lorry from there. They were divided now and trapped in the cottage. He could concentrate on each group separately and defeat the two portions “in detail.”
Meanwhile, as the RIC and Tans outside the first lorry brought their Lewis gun into action the Volunteers followed their plan to suppress it. It barely got off a burst or two before the gunner was hit. Another man took his place, but he suffered the same fate. Kilroy says a third man tried it, and was also hit. His plan to suppress the Lewis gun had worked to perfection. No other RIC or Tan attempted to fire it during the fight. As Kilroy put it, “After that, poor ‘Lady Lewis’ was left all alone. There was no other man found with the nerve to embrace her. She was looked upon as one to be avoided rather than courted.”
On the Volunteers left, one Black & Tan had not scurried to cover in the McGreal cottage. Constable William French, a 25-year-old from Bristol, England, was a WWI veteran. He was in the ditch by the bridge with Delahunty. With the Volunteers occupied with the Lewis gun, French heroically attempted to singlehandedly get around their left flank. Unfortunately for him, the deadly marksmen O’Flaherty spotted him and badly wounded him. French managed to drag himself back to the cover of the bridge, but he was out of the fight for good.
The men trapped in the first lorry were being commanded by RIC Sgt. Francis Creegan. They had a grenade launcher attached to one of the men’s Enfield’s. The Volunteers up the hill were out of range of it, but it kept them from advancing on them. For two hours they had an inconclusive exchange of fire. Kilroy reported that at one point the Volunteers began singing “Kelly, the Boy from Killane” to taunt the men in the lorry. His men had limited ammo, however, and he was also worried that the enemy could be reinforced from Westport soon.
Kilroy could have retreated then and won a victory. They had inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy and taken none themselves, but Kilroy knew they could capture a large number of guns and enough ammunition to last them months if they could overwhelm the men left in the lorry. He sent a group including Johnny Duffy and his brother Paddy around to the right to flank the lorry. Their mother had been violently interrogated by Sgt. Creegan recently, and though they probably didn’t realize he was in the lorry, they were itching for payback on any police target.
As the flankers got in position and fired a few rounds into the back end of the lorry, suddenly there was an explosion inside. One of the constables had been hit in the wrist as he was holding a live grenade, and it went off on the floor. He was killed and two others in the lorry wounded, Creegan severely in both legs. A Black & Tan crouching in the brush by the side of the road surrendered unhurt. He was the only occupant of the first lorry not killed or wounded in the fight.
Volunteer Thomas Ketterick described the horrible carnage inside the lorry. He said of the dead man, “half his head was blown off, another man’s hands were gone and the complete woodwork of a Lee-Enfield rifle had been blown into the legs and stomach of another man, whom I recognized as a policeman named Cregan (sic).” Lying dead near the Lewis gun were Constables Sydney Blythe, James Brown, and John Doherty, all apparently killed while manning it. Tragically, Doherty was scheduled to retire shortly. Up the hill, a bit was the widow Sammon’s cottage. Kilroy asked her to take in Constable Creegan and the others, but she said, “no one wearing that uniform will enter this house!”
They now had a great haul of guns and ammo, but there was more to be had in the second lorry. The constables in the McGreal cottage could fire at anyone approaching it, however, so they had to be neutralized to get it. Assaulting the house would likely result in a good number of casualties, so Kilroy tried to get them to surrender. They refused the first offer, but they were low on ammo, as they hadn’t been able to take any extra with them from the lorry. O’Flaherty was familiar with the Lewis gun from his service in the British army. He put a burst into the cottage from “Mrs. Lewis,” as he had already christened the gun, and shortly the white flag was waving. Luckily Mrs. McGreal and her children, whom the constables refused to allow to leave, were unharmed.
Now Kilroy held the fate of all the prisoners in his hands. IRA General HQs had authorized commanders to execute prisoners in retaliation for numerous atrocities against civilians and executions of captured Volunteers. Killing the enemy in battle and shooting down unarmed men in cold blood are very different things, however. Kilroy did not have the stomach for it. “Oh, sure our nature isn’t hard enough,” he told his men, though for some who were urging him to do it, it was.
Five RIC and Tans were already dead and at least nine of the nineteen prisoners were wounded, some seriously. The Black & Tans among the prisoners were especially terrified of what might come next. But when Kilroy sent Head Constable Hanlon off toward Westport on a bike to get help for the wounded, they became more relaxed. In contemplating this decision by Kilroy, we should not lose sight of the fact that in addition to the Crown forces appalling mistreatment of the dead and wounded Volunteers at Kilmeena two weeks earlier, they had tossed his family into the street and burned his house down just a day before that. Many men would have used that to justify much harsher retaliation. Kilroy was, indeed, serving his dish of revenge “cold.”
After lighting the police vehicles on fire, Kilroy led his men away toward the east. Once they were out of sight, they circled around to the west to confuse the British pursuit of the Flying Column that he knew would surely follow this humiliating defeat. Sgt. Creegan and Constable French died later that night, and Constable Dowling died a few days later. In the final tally, eight were dead and a least six of the survivors were wounded, while the Volunteers had not suffered a single casualty. In addition to that, they captured over twenty-five Lee-Enfield rifles, over twenty pistols, over 5,000 rounds of ammo, a Lewis gun with eight drums of ammo, and some boxes of hand grenades. The pistol captured from DI Stevenson had belonged to his father and had an inscription from Unionist leader Edward Carson. A post-truce inventory showed the West Mayo Brigade had forty-six Lee-Enfields. Since over twenty-five were captured at Carrowkennedy, at best only about twenty of the Volunteers had these modern rifles during the ambush.
Carrowkennedy was one of the most complete victories of the war for the IRA. The West Mayo Flying Column was now one of the most well-armed units in Ireland, and most well supplied with ammunition. They posed a much bigger danger to the Crown forces now, exactly what Michael Collins hoped for earlier in the year when he had put pressure on units all over the island to become more active.
The British tried very hard to round up the column for a full month and came close several times. While evading them, the column posed for one of the most iconic photographs of the war in Derrymartin, with Mt. Nephin behind them. It’s been dubbed “Men of the West”. On July 2nd Kilroy hid their weapons and had them disperse to avoid capture. They scattered to safe houses to await the order to reform, but just nine days later the ceasefire began and the war was over. Their victory at Carrowkennedy, and the huge uptick in attacks in other parts of the island, had undoubtedly contributed to the British decision.
Kilroy fought on the republican side during the tragic Civil War that followed and was severely wounded and captured near the end of it but survived. The brave Joe Ring, who had singlehandedly held the west side of the road at Carrowkennedy, fought on the Free State side in the Civil War and helped found An Garda Siochana. He was killed by his former comrades at Drumsheen in September 1922. Jim Moran, who was in the same Newport Volunteer group as Ring at Carrowkennedy, was killed fighting for the Republican side in March 1923. Such was the “brother against brother” anguish that the “Men of the West,” and the rest of the Irish people suffered through in those years.
Michael Kilroy was elected to the Dáil in 1923 as a Sinn Féin candidate but didn’t take his seat as they were refusing to take the oath then. He was elected for Fianna Fáil in South Mayo in June 1927 and served as the TD for South Mayo until 1937. When he died in 1962, President de Valera and numerous government officials attended his funeral. It was said to be one of the largest ever in Newport. Edward Moane gave the graveside oration, and the firing party of old I.R.A. men that fired three volleys over the grave was commanded by Paddy Duffy. Both men had fought under Kilroy’s command that long-ago day at Carrowkennedy.