In the issue of the Western People, dated the 23rd of September, 1922, the Erris correspondent begins:- "The little barony of Erris, which hitherto has enjoyed comparative peace, if we might except a few skirmishes of scarcely any military importance in the early days of the Civil War, has at length become the scene of military activities, resulting in a three-hour battle at Glencalry between National forces and Irregular troops in the early hours of Saturday morning between 2 and 3 a.m., when the advance guard of the National forces, advancing cautiously, were encountered by the Irregulars."
The Civil War between pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty forces, also known as National Army and Irregulars, also as Free Staters and Republicans, had started at the end of June with the shelling of the Four Courts. The National Army moved vigorously in the cities and larger towns, and by early August were in control of the east and most of the south of the country. But along the west coast their activities were limited, and a state of considerable confusion prevailed, as a few quotations from the same issue of. the Western People will show:-
"The situation which has prevailed in Ballaghaderreen for several weeks past is likened to the ebb and flow of the tide. One day the National troops are the masters of the town, and then when they leave the Irregulars resume possession. "
"The continued inactivity of the banks is being felt more as the days go by, and there are few who are not hard hit thereby. The big business houses may make some shift to get over the difficulty, but there are others who are surely down and out. The suspension of business in the banks is reflected in the small amount of business transacted at market and fair."
"Though many of the leaders have been captured the Irregulars still at large in the inland parts of Mayo are showing considerable activity, and engaging the attention of the National troops. From the Irishtown district, where Commandant McDevitt was captured last-week, they entered Ballindine, destroyed the signal box at the Great Southern station, and across the street had a streamer spanned with their motto. All the roads are now impassible, and people have to take to the fields. Travelling by car is out of the question, and the highways are abandoned."
"Balla, from which the garrison of National troops have been withdrawn, is now in the hands of the Irregulars. Conflicts between the two forces had been of frequent occurrence. The other night the Post Office was raided and £39 taken. The National Bank, which fortunately escaped, is now closed, the funds and business being transferred to Claremorris... "
"Raiding is frequent in Knock, and bicycles are being lifted in the district . .."
Early in September the National forces began to concentrate on Sligo-North Mayo area, and there was sharp fighting, in which Brigadier-General Ring of the National Army lost his life. He was a veteran of the Black and Tan war, and his death must have been a severe blow to the Government, coming so soon after the death of Arthur Griffith and the shooting of Michael Collins in August.
The National forces were in possession of Ballina. They seem to have had a small garrison in the workhouse, which maintained a guard at the Railway station and sentries on the bridges. There seem to have been garrisons stationed in Crossmolina and Belmullet.
On Tuesday, l2th of September occurred what is called the Storming, also, the Invasion of Ballina. One hundred and fifty Irregulars travelling in lorries, escorted by the armoured car "Ballinalea" - captured and renamed The Wild Rose of Lough Gill - entered Ballina. Sentries on the upper bridge opened fire, and an exchange of shots took place, in which a young girl on her way to Solemn Requiem Mass in the Cathedral, was shot dead, and a sentry, named Lackey, severely wounded... The "Ballinalea" was used to persuade National forces in the workhouse and at the railway station to surrender. However, a party of National forces approaching from Crossmolina opened fire from Gurteen, and in the ensuing exchange of fire a man named Malachy Geraghty of Ballygar was accidentally shot dead.
But the lrregulars, evidently, had no intention of fighting a static fight or to use very large columns. They divided their forces in two, one moving east, the other - the one with which we are here concerned, under General Michael Kilroy, a veteran guerilla leader of the War of Independence - travelled in lorries west along the North Coast road, escorted as far as Ballycastle by the "Ballinalea", which then returned to Ballina, and continued out towards Bonniconlon.
The roads at that time were little more than what we now call "bohreens". They were repaired with pit or river gravel, and were rarely asked to carry anything heavier than a wing-board of turf. So, it was no great surprise when the Irregulars' lorries stuck in the road at Belderrig, and they had to spend Wednesday trying to extricate them. Was that why they stayed at Glenlossera? Very soon an event occurred which seems to have determined Kilroy to get out of there without delay.
The Erris correspondent continues:-
"Early on Friday morning a sharp and decisive engagement took place at Glenlossera between National forces from Ballina and the lrregulars, but it is said no casualties occurred on either side. Sixteen of the National forces were captured and the rest escaped."
The battle mentioned here by the Erris correspondent and the battle of Gortleetla (Glenamoy) seem to have been blended to form the main news item under inch-high headings:
BLOODY BATTLE NEAR BANGOR.
SIX NATIONAL SOLDIERS AND TEN IRREGULARS DIE.
PRESENCE OF WOMAN AND CHILDREN SAVES GUERILLA LEADER.
"After the Invasion of Ballina by Irregulars on Tuesday week they split up their forces, portion of them departing by way of Bonniconlon, while the other portion went by way of Killala, Ballycastle, and Belderrig to the hills. The latter detachment were in charge of General Kilroy, and were escorted as far as Ballycastle by the armoured car "Ballinalea", which then returned and passed through Ballina towards Bonniconlon on Tuesday night some of the lorries, which the lrregular forces seized, sank in the road near Belderrig, and Wednesday was spent in trying to extricate them. The Irregulars afterwards proceeded towards Glenamoy."
" Early on Thursday morning a force of National troops, numbering about 30, left Ballina and, arriving at Bangor about daybreak, arrested two men named Mills and Barrett. The latter was subsequently released. Mills, who was armed when captured, was detained. At l0 a.m. the troops left Bangor for Glencullen, and while on the way were fired at. Dismounting from their cars they surrounded a field of oats, and succeeded in capturing five Irregulars, three of whom were armed with double-barrelled guns, and two with revolvers and one rifle. They also were armed with a Mills bomb and a number of home-manufacture. These are some of the incidents leading up to what must be described as the most deadly encounter that has yet taken place in Mayo."
" Securing their prisoners the troops proceeded to Glenlossera lodge which they immediately surrounded. It was 9 p.m., and after reconnoitering the position, it was discovered to be strongly held by a large force of Irregulars. Not having sufficient men to attack the place Brigadier-General Neary, who was in charge of the National forces, sent a dispatch rider to Ballina for reinforcements, but owing to these not turning up in time, the positions taken up by the National forces had to be abandoned by daybreak. The troops then went to Crossmolina and, securing the necessary reinforcements, returned by way of Sheskin lodge and on beyond Glenlossera. It appeared that in the meantime forces under General Kilroy had appeared on the scene so that the Irregulars were now in great numbers and armed with several machine guns.
" In the particular place where the fight took place" the country is of an undulating character, intersected with deep valleys and ravines, and altogether an ideal country for an ambush. Proceeding down one of these valleys the National troops were all unconscious of the presence of Irregulars until a withering fire was opened on them from all sides, the ratatat of machine-guns dominating the air. With the first onslaught four of the National forces were shot dead, these being:- Captain Healy*, Pontoon, shot through the head; Lieut. W. J. Gill, Ballinalea, Longford, shot through the head; Volunteer Sean Higgins*, Foxford, shot through the heart; Volunteer Thomas Rall, Dublin, shot through the head. The National troops immediately got into extended order and replied to the fire with effect. Many of the Irregulars were seen to fall, and three men, occupying a position near a boghole, were seen to stagger, throw up their hands, and fall into it - never to rise again. (The only casualties ever admitted was one Ballina man wounded)."
"From this forth the battle raged furiously. The valleys and hillsides were ablaze with the flashes of machine-gun and rifle, and it seemed as if nothing could live in the area covered by the fight. The Irregulars, however, had the advantage, in as much as they were in superior numbers and were well supplied with machine-guns, of which the National forces had none."
(It is difficult to understand why Neary threw in his men without sufficient arms at this point. The Irregulars' state of preparedness had been displayed in Ballina. And they had the arms and ammunition captured in Ballina and Glenlossera).
"With this disadvantage they made a brave stand, and steadily replied to the Irregulars' fire. By this time the Irregulars had executed an outflanking movement, and succeeded in isolating a party of National troops, 17 in number, who were captured.
"A party of National troops got close to the house of Mrs. Kelly, and ascertaining that in it was General Kilroy, they surrounded the building. Owing to it being occupied by a woman and her four small children, they refrained from bombing the house. They, however, kept the building surrounded. Half an hour later, the lrregulars, ascertaining what was happening, opened intense fire on the troops that had the cottage surrounded. During this fusillade two more of the National troops were killed, Sergt. Major Edward Crabbe, Galway, killed by an explosive bullet; Volunteer Patrick Bray, killed by an explosive bullet.
"The wounds inflicted on these unfortunate men were frightful. In one case the back of the head was blown away, while in the other case a large part of the side was torn away. Captain Fleming, Crossmolina, also received a bad wound in the hip, but is doing well. Volunteer Barry had his arm shattered by an explosive bullet. It was quite evident, that Captain Healy and Lieut. Gill were killed by explosive bullets."
The account given by the Erris correspondent is much shorter. This is how he describes it:-
"The National forces, who fought bravely to the end, lost six men, and one seriously wounded, and a large number of prisoners. Some accounts say six were killed outright and one wounded. Some of the National forces escaped by car; 42 rifles, some revolvers, and a large store of ammunition was seized by the Irregulars. The prisoners were released from custody the same evening by Commandant Kilroy, who was in charge of the lrregulars, and marched in the direction of Bangor, carrying captured ammunition as far as Barroosky, where they were set at liberty with an undertaking of no further molestation. The wounded and dead were conveyed to Glenlossera lodge, where every possible attention and care was bestowed by the Irregulars on the wounded pending the arrival of Dr. Walsh, Ballina, and Dr. Kelly, Westport, with a corps of Red Cross nurses and ambulances for the conveyance of the dead and wounded to Ballina the following day."
(Here we take two sentences from the longer report, viz. "The Irregulars apparently were not content with the havoc inflicted. The mountain road, a bad one at its best, between Glenamoy and Bangor, was trenched for the Red Cross and the lorry carrying the six corpses."
One cannot but ask:
Is it possible that the Red Cross set out from Glenlossera through Glenamoy and Bangor to get to Ballina? Had they no map? Was there no one among them with a knowledge of the locality? And did they not realise they were returning into Irregular-held territory? At any rate this detour seems to have delayed the "sad pilgrimage" for hours").
"One of the wounded expired en route at Glenturk lodge." (That seems to have been a rumour that gave rise to the belief that the number of dead was seven, which was the figure I heard at the time. But Paddy Caulfield is quite definite about the correct number being six).
The Irwin family, whose house was in the line of fire and was occupied by a bomb-thrower of the lrregulars, had some very providential escapes from death, the father's eyebrows being grazed by a bullet as he was lying in bed. The rest of the family saved themselves by lying prostrate on the floor.
A few explanatory remarks may be of help at this stage. Belderrig is a school-district in the far-flung parish of Ballycastle, with Glenlossera at the point nearest Ballycastle. Glenamoy is a school-district in the even more far-flung parish of Aughoose, with Gortleetla nearest Ballycastle. My friend, Mr. P. Caulfield of Belderrig, recalls that at the time of this engagement he was ready to go to Mr. Tadhg O'Leary's Academy at Bofield, Ballina, to prepare for a career as a teacher. As he knew the district well he has many clear recollections of the event. He says there was an old disused lodge on the east, lower side of the road at Gortleeta, and two houses, Irwin's and a disused house called Ryder's on the west, higher side. This lodge, like that of Glenlossera, was beside the main road. There are two roads from Ballina to Belmullet, the first through Crossmolina and Bangor, the second through Killala and Ballycastle. There is a link road from Bangor north to join the other road west of Glenamoy. The action took place a long way from Bangor.
Now let us consider two nights, that of the l4th-l5th of September, and of the 15th-l6th of September, 1922, in the lives of two men, Kilroy and Neary round two lodges, Glenlossera and Gortleetla. At Glenlossera Kilroy controlled the road from Ballycastle to Belmullet. During the night of Thursday - Friday Neary led his forces through Bangor and Glenamoy to reconnoitre Kilroy's position. This led to a "sharp, decisive" but bloodless encounter, in which he lost 16 (or was it l7?) men. So, he returned via Bangor to Crossmolina where he assembled reinforcements, including 18 who left Foxford in high spirits, singing. Satisfied that his force was strong enough he returned via Bangor, arresting 5 armed Irregulars in another bloodless encounter in a field of oats in Glencullen. It was fair day in Belmullet, and two Irregulars who entered by car were hotly pursued by six car-loads of National forces, who opened fire. Six unarmed Irregulars were arrested and taken on the road to Ballycastle.
At some time during the day Kilroy moved his column from Glenlossera to Gortleetla. During the night Neary's men approached. The prisoners from Belmullet claimed they were made to march in front, but when contact was made they dived for cover, guarded by an armed soldier. The engagement is said to have lasted three hours. It seems likely that the first contact was perhaps a shot fired by a sentry. Captain Healy and Lieut. Gill, leading the van, "advanced cautiously" in the dark to a point held in strength by Kilroy's men. Fire was opened, most likely at very close range. Four of Neary's men died, three of head wounds. The one wound suffered by an Irregular was also a head wound. This, I believe, shows the National forces "fighting bravely" were advancing under what cover they could find, while the lrregulars, on the defensive, stayed put in their more secure positions.
At some point Neary and his officers became convinced that Kilroy was in Irwin's and determined to capture him. Accordingly a detachment, led probably by Captain Fleming, along with Sergt. Major Crabbe, carried out an outflanking movement, coming in over the high ground to the west. But Kilroy's men outflanked them, and another short, sharp exchange took place, in which two more of Neary's men were killed. Much emphasis is laid on the noise and din and the flashes of the guns. Most of this came from troops in fixed positions, firing at flashes in the darkness and was harmless. The real fighting occurred in these two short sharp bursts.
By now Neary realised his battle had collapsed. Those in the rear retreated to their cars and escaped. Those in the forward lines, outgunned and out-manoeuvred, surrendered... slowly the cold light of dawn spread over the sad scene. From Belderrig word was got out, first to Ballycastle. I remember hearing at the time that Fr. Joe Enright, then in his prime, and home on holidays in his native Ballycastle from the American Mission, had gone out to administer the Rites of the Church. And P. Caulfield remembers seeing Dr. Crowley, who in 1918 had been elected first Sinn Fein T.D. for North Mayo, in Belderrig that day.
The following extracts from the same issue of the Western People continues the story:-
"But last week Foxford was in mourning for the dead leaders. This week it is plunged in grief and mourns the untimely death of two youthful heroes of its own, captain Tom Healy, son of the late Mr. Healy, Pontoon, and volunteer Sean Higgins, Foxford, son of Mr. Wm. Higgins, who fell victim to a deadly ambush at Glenamoy, Erris, on Saturday last. "
"When no doubt could be entertained of their sad end a number of their comrades, headed by Dr. Dunleavy, went on their sad journey to lonely Erris some 50 miles distant, to recover their dead bodies with four others of the National Army, who fell in the same conflict.
"At an unearthly hour in their harrowing pilgrimage, about 4 a.m., the party arrived in Ballina, and conveyed the bodies to the hospital, where they were taken charge of by Nurse Hegarty and staff, who were very kind and attentive."
"The bodies of the dead soldiers were subsequently removed to the workhouse chapel, Ballina. Hundreds of people visited the place on Sunday to view the remains and offer up a silent prayer for the brave men who had given their lives in defence of their country. After Mass in the workhouse Father Greaney asked the congregation, which included many civilians, to offer up their prayers for the brave lads, and recited the Rosary for their eternal repose."
"On Sunday the remains of Captain Healy and Volunteer Higgins, enclosed in massive oak coffins, were removed on the shoulders of their comrades to the railway station, where a special train was waiting to convey them to Foxford. They were accompanied by a guard of honour, some of the relatives, and a few people from Ballina. The coffins, covered by the tricolour, were taken charge of by the volunteers of the 2nd Batt. I.R.A. and removed on the shoulders of their former comrades to their former homes, surrounded by a guard of honour of the National Army, and followed by an immense concourse of grieving people. Here the lids of the coffins were removed, and during the afternoon hundreds of mourners had a chance of having a last look on the faces of the "dear dead."
At 7 pm the remains were removed to the catholic church where they were received by Very Rev. Canon Henry, P.P., and Rev. J. Casey, C.C., and placed in front of the high altar. "
"On Monday, Solemn Requiem Mass was celebrated by Very Rev. Canon Henry and the church was packed to overflowing. The funeral, which was a military one, was a sight never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it. The Foxford Brass Band headed the procession, followed by a guard of honour and firing party of comrades who fought with them in Glenamoy.
At the graveside Dr. Dunleavy delivered the oration which the Editor promised to give in full in the next issue. There is a full list of mourners as well as those who sent wreaths with the messages enclosed.
Were there explosive bullets used by the Irregulars and, if so, where did they get them?
I have read in a school history that arms and ammunition supplied by Britain were issued to both sides before the outbreak of the fighting. This sounds ridiculous until one remembers Churchill's demand when speaking of the Treaty: "Will nobody die for it? Will nobody KILL for it?
To achieve the desired results why not arm both sides? And the more killing the better. After all, at that very time English and French leaders were implementing the Treaty of Versailles which was to lead to the "dissolution of Her Majesty's (and several other) Empires," and Ireland must have appeared as little more than "a cloud no bigger than a man's hand" on the horizon.
I was once shown a spot of ground near the top of a small hill where a target had been set up for target practice. The bullets hit the ground at a very oblique angle, and each ploughed up a furrow several inches deep and several feet long. It was truly frightening. If at a distance of hundreds of yards, a bullet from a "civilised weapon" could tear up the hard ground in such a manner what would it do to human flesh? It may be asked too, what difference it makes to a dead man if his wound is gaping? It merely shocks the susceptibilities of us, the godfathers and godmothers who have sent him out to fight to settle our differences!
Some of the Irregulars captured had shot-guns. Aren't these explosive weapons? And, at close range, capable of inflicting gaping wounds?
P.S. Very sincere thanks are due to the Western People whose records are used and to Mr. McMahon, County Librarian, Castlebar, who facilitated in every way.
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This picture of old Ballina, John Hughes of Bridge St., taken in the early years of this century with its impressive display of bacon, shows the great demand there was for bacon at the time. This bacon was not lrish but American known as 'Rochester Bacon.' Standing in the doorway is the manager, the late Patrick English; on the extreme right is the late Alec Kelly, next Charlie McNamara, Thomas Canavan late of Crossmolina. From left George Fleming, William O'Hora, Bridge St. The shop is now the drapery premises of Mr. Paul Howley.