First-hand accounts of rebel activity in County Longford during the War of Independence can now be accessed online, thanks to a joint initiative between the Bureau of Military History and the National Archives.
The activities of units such as the famous North Longford Flying Column, which was commanded by General Seán MacEoin, are covered in great detail, with submissions from several of the Volunteers available to read in the database. The records were compiled by the Bureau of Military History during the 1950s, when Commandant Matthew Barry travelled throughout the country to interview veterans.
One of those he spoke to was General MacEoin’s brother Seamus, who served as a Captain in the Irish Volunteers. He described how his unit drove back an attack on Ballinalee in what turned out to be the only successful defence of a town against Crown forces during the war: “We got into position and as soon as we opened fire we could hear the enemy running out of the plantation. We were just in time to stop them enveloping us. We fired until we had only three or so rounds left. We changed our position each time we fired to mislead the enemy into thinking there was a much bigger force there and this seemed to have worked.”
In another account, the Longford Battalion’s quartermaster, Francis Davis, recalled a daring arms heist from the artillery barracks in Longford town. It was carried out successfully with assistance from a British soldier by the name of Jordy, who had recently deserted from the garrison after falling in love with a local girl: “Jordy kept the sentry engaged until the gate was rushed and then became a raider himself. The guard put up no resistance. Eight rifles and some ammunition were secured and taken away by car. It was really a smash-and-grab raid. The raiding party got away safely.”
In total, 16 Longford men were interviewed about their participation in the conflict, which lasted from 1919 until a ceasefire was called during the summer of 1921 prior to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The records are available to view at www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie.
Some extracts from the files on each Longford man interviewed:
“During the General Election, in 1918 we were very busy checking up on the register of votes, canvassing voters and arranging transport of all sorts to bring the voters to the polling stations. On polling day we did protection duty on the polling stations and afterwards we escorted the polling boxes to Longford for final counting. The R.I.C. also provided an escort for the same purpose.” – Leo Baxter (IRA Commandant)
“On the 9th or 10th of June 1920 an attack was made on the Ballinamuck RIC Barracks. This was a part Brigade job. Ballinarmuck Barracks was a fortification consisting of a cut stone building with towers and loopholes. It was detached from all other buildings and surrounded by a high wall. It was a very strong position and garrisoned by about a dozen RIC. The plan was to scale the wall with ladders and throw home-made bombs made of cart boxes and filled with gelignite on to the roof. A large number of men were engaged on protective duties on the roads leading to Ballinamuck, which were blocked with trees, felled and covered.” – Seamus Conway (IRA Commandant)
“At this time Connolly had evacuated the residents from two houses adjoining the barracks. From the second house Connolly hacked his way into the house adjoining the barracks. He had the assistance of a small party for this job. From this house he broke a hole on to the roof and from this roof he broke a hole in the barrack roof. While this was going on rifle fire was kept up on the barracks to keep the garrison distracted. A few rifle grenadea were also fired.
Through the hole in the barrack roof Connolly threw bombs made up is 1lb tins containing sulphur and gelignite, fused and detonated.” – Francis Davis (IRA Captain, 1921)
“About this time the British Government brought in a Venereal Disease Act in their own country. They tried to introduce it into Ireland also by trying to compel the County Councils and Urban Councils to accept it and set up clinics and so forth. This Act was opposed by the Church and the people in general. A meeting of the County Executive of Sinn Fein was called for Longford and attended by delegates from an branches in the county to devise what action should be taken to oppose the Act. When all the executive officers had spoken on the matter, up gets a swarthy determined looking man from the body of the ball and spoke with such force and determination against the Bill that we delegates who did not know him were amazed. Quickly we learned that he was Seán MacEoin from Ballinalee, who afterwards proved himself so famous in the fight for freedom.” – Joseph Dennigan (IRA Captain)
“Before I became attached to the Flying Column I took part in raids for arms, raids for bicycles, road blocking etc. with other members of the Company and up to 1920 our house did not come under the notice of the British authorities – a fact which spoke volumes for the loyalty and discretion of the people; because on account of Captain Garrett being staying with us and other activities which involved our place, it was a wonder we hadn’t previously received attention. The first big raid at our house was carried out by Black and Tans on the eve of Christmas 1920, but they didn’t find any of us there. They did, however, steal various articles of silver and cutlery from the house which we have never seen since.” – Bryan Doherty (IRA member)
“I made my first contact with Sinn Féin when I came home from school in 1907. I then joined the branch of the National Council in Granard. John Cawley, who was manager of the local Creamery, was a member. Two others who I also remember were Cassidy and Kenny who were shop assistants in the town. At this time there was great opposition to Sinn Féin. This emanated from the United Irish League and the Hibernians. At the. head of the League was Mr. J.P. Farrell, M.P., who also owned the local paper, the “Longford Leader”. Very little headway or progress was made by the, local branch of Sinn Féin against this opposition until some years later when a man named William Ganley, who was a very prominent member of the United Irish League, broke away from that body and joined Sinn Féin.” – James Flood (IRA Commandant)
“The next event of importance was the Terlicken ambush in January 1921. This was on a lorry patrol of Tans that were wont to travel regularly between Longford and Athlone via Ballymahon. It usually consisted of two lorries of Tans. The Column from North Longford under Seán McKeon came down for this, and were assisted by men from our Battalion. A mine was placed in the road, being dug in. When covered over with the road material, a cart was run over it several times to cover up the marks and made the surface look normal.” – Bernard Garraghan (IRA Commandant)
“Having perfected the intelligence system by intensive training of the battalion and company officers, it became part of my life at the time and in this regard my memory and that of the men concerned with this branch of warfare was rarely at fault. It was surprising to find country people coming in on business to the town taking stock of enemy movements and conveying this information to people connected with the intelligence service. Hotels and husiness houses which the enemy visited or made purohaes in were all sources of information. Every little bit of information was pieced together to complete the ‘web’ to be made use of to baulk the British in their attempt to smash the organisation of the I.R.A. This secret service work was brought to a fine art in the Longford Post Office, where any letter addressed to any member of the British Forces was carefully scrutinised, opened, and its contents passed to my office.” – Michael Heslin (IRA Adjutant/Intelligence Officer)
“I joined the Irish Volunteers in June 1917 at Ballinamuck, County Longford. Michael Collins took me into the Volunteers. He was in the area organising at this time. This was the start of the Volunteers in Ballinamuck and a Company was started there then. As far as I can remember I did not then take an oath but made a declaration of loyalty, the form of which I have forgotten. James J. Brady of Gaigue was appointed Company Commander, Francis Reilly, 1st Lieutenant, and, as far as I can remember, Michael McNerney of Gaigue was the 2nd Lieutenant. John Joe O’Neill was the Company Adjutant. I cannot remember now who was the Company Quartermaster.” – Patrick Kiernan (IRA Commandant)
“After my appointment as brigade engineer, I attended a course of lectures for brigade engineering officers which was held in Dublin. This course lasted for a few days. The lectures, which were given by George Plunkett and, I think, Rory O’Connor, were held in various places; for instance, one lecture was given in a room at the back of a dairy shop in Camden St., and the next in a house somewhere on the quays. The lectures covered such subjects as the handling and use of explosives, preparation of road-blocks, etc. On one occasion we were addressed by Dick Mulcahy, Chief of Staff. On my return from Dublin I gave somewhat similar lectures to selected members of each battalion in the brigade area.” – Bernard Kilbride (IRA Brigade Engineer)
“We had very little in the way of arms now. I know we tad one Service rifle and one 22 rifle. By 1918 our strength had increased slightly. We had parades and training more often now - I think twice a week. We got an instructor from Dublin named Pat who Garrett, had served in the British Army and he gave us instruction on the Service rifle and bayonet fighting as well as in drill. He concentrated on musketry instruction and on Physical Training. We had: wooden guns for training with” – Seamus MacEoin (IRA Captain)
“I fell on my face and as I was rising up I was beaten all along with rifles on the back – perhaps ten strokes right on the back. I have no reason to disparage them in any way or to say anything that is not true, but they did that. I will not say that they did it according to their orders and I will not say that they did it without orders. But I am calling witnesses to prove that when they were prisoners of mine I did not at any time, whether they were wounded, or unwounded, ill-treat them myself or allow them to be ill-treated by any of our men. I was called a murderer in the Day Room of the Barracks. Anyone can understand easily that when I Went into the Day Room there was a hubbub – ‘McKeon the murderer is in’.” – Seán MacEoin (Officer Commanding, Longford IRA)
“In January, 1920, Drumlish R.I.C. Barracks was attacked. Our Battalion took part in this attack. The job allotted to us was to block the roads leading from Longford town to Drumlish and to cut the telephone and telegraph wires. Those demolitions were carried out successfully. The Barracks was not captured. After this, the R.I.C. evacuated Drumlish and also all the small outlying barracks held by them and concentrated their force in larger garrisons. On Easter Saturday night of 1920, all the evacuated stations were burned by the I.R.A. This operation took place throughout the whole country, and acted as an insight to us of the extent of the I.R.A. organisation” – Michael Murphy (IRA Commandant)
“I mobilised the whole Company. All. armed men were I put in positions ready to fight, and the men, for whom there were no arms, were used to block the roads. The main road was blocked at Doherty’s Cross-roads. All side roads were blocked further back towards Longford. By this, it was hoped to force the enemy to travel via the main road to Doherty’s Cross, where we could deal with them. We could hear the attack proceeding in Ballinalee and see the numerous Verey lights that the Pane sent up, but no enemy reinforcements came out. We remained there until the fighting in Ballinalee had ceased, and then dismissed. The men who were not on the run returned to their homes.” – Michael Francis Reynolds (IRA Commandant)
“About August, 1920, there were about twenty-five or thirty soldiers encamped on the banks of the Shannon opposite Lanesboro R.I.C. Barracks. Their duty was to guard the bridge over the Shannon at Lanesboro, which was of the swing type afford navigation on the Shannon. They had a general service wagon drawn by two horses which they used to get their supplies out from Longford. When the wagon was due to return from Longford a party of soldiers were wont to proceed towards Longford on cycles and escort it to Lanesboro. We had this movement under observation for some time and decided to ambush this party at Gowlan and capture their arms and ammunition.” – Michael Joseph Ryan (IRA Commandant)
“The following night we left and proceeded to Ballinamore near Clonfin in North Longford. Every night there was sniping at Ballinalee end Granard to keep the enemy worried. From the time of the big fight in Ballinalee the North Longford column might be said to have been in existence as it was these men who formed the nucleus of the column. The strength of the column was from eighteen to twenty-one men all armed with rifles of service pattern, with about 150 rounds per man and some bombs. We also had nine or ten good revolvers. Seán MacEoin was in charge. However it was not until after the Clonfin Ambush that the column was full strength at all times.” – Seán Sexton (IRA Lieutenant)