The Burning of Granard by the Tans and Lancers and legendary defence of Ballinalee by the IRA

Seán Ó Súilleabháin

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Seán Ó Súilleabháin

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The Burning of Granard by the Tans and Lancers and legendary defence of Ballinalee by the IRA

Granard Market House and the Greville Arms Hotel: This whole block was destroyed by the Tans and Lancers.

Seán Ó Súilleabháin, renowned local author and historian, has been researching Longford’s part in the War of Independence for the past four years, for a book which he hopes to publish next year. This year marks the 100th anniversary of some key events in the War of Independence. Indeed, 1920 and 1921 were momentous years in Longford’s history and the deeds of Seán Mac Eoin and his Flying Column were legendary. We are delighted that Seán Ó Súilleabháin is sharing some of his research with Longford Leader readers as he looks back on that era, and this week he looks at some of the fiercest engagements, The Burning of Granard by the Tans and Lancers, and legendary defence of Ballinalee by the IRA. The author would welcome any feedback or comments at sosuilleabhain9@gmail.com

Between October 31 and November 4, 1920 there occurred some of the most momentous events of the War of Independence in Longford.

The burning of Granard hit international headlines, as the Tans set shop after shop ablaze. On the other hand, Seán Mac Eoin and a handful of his men made a heroic defence of the village of Ballinalee, which culminated in eleven lorry loads of Tans and Lancers retreating from the village, under fire.

RIC Inspector Killed in Granard

In August 1920, a new District Inspector of the RIC was installed in Granard. The man had the grandiose name of Philip St Johnstone Howlett Kelleher, a native of Macroom, Co Cork, and he soon nailed his colours to the mast by declaring “he was sent to Longford to spill blood and that blood would be spilled”. Little did he know that the first blood to be spilt would be his own.

Philip Kelleher didn’t endear himself to the people of North Longford, and especially to the IRA, by some of his actions. By the end of October, the IRA had decided that enough was enough and they got sanction from GHQ to take decisive action against the District Inspector.

On the Sunday night of October 31, 1920, Kelleher was drinking in the Greville Arms Hotel in Granard, in the presence of a number of prominent IRA men who were unaware of a plot to kill the town’s top RIC man. Two other IRA volunteers entered the bar and shot Kelleher dead.

All of those who were present in the bar, including the owner, Larry Kiernan, were arrested the following day and charged with various offences connected with the killing. However, none of the charges were proceeded with, but Paul Dawson Cusack and Seán Cawley suffered internment as a result. Cusack spent twelve months behind bars and didn’t see Granard again until the general release of prisoners, after the Treaty was agreed.

On November 1, 1920, an undercover RIC man, Peter Cooney, was shot dead at Clonbroney Chapel. The Tans were raging for revenge after these two blows inflicted by Seán Mac Eoin and his men of the new North Longford Flying Column.

Reprisals Expected

Given the reputation of the Tans, and what had happened in other counties, the people of Granard expected the worst and most of the inhabitants cleared out of the town on Monday morning. On Tuesday, November 2, 1920, reinforcements were observed making their way to Granard and information to hand suggested that an attack on Granard was imminent. On that night, a major operation was mounted by Seán Mac Eoin to defend the town, with over 70 IRA men posted at eight locations.
About 11pm, a group of enemy forces moved out of the barracks and stopped at Markey’s shop at the corner of Main St and the Edgeworthstown Rd. As they attempted to set fire to the shop, Mac Eoin ordered fire. The Tans/RIC (remember they were all the one force) cut their stick fairly quickly back to the barracks and Granard could breathe a sigh of relief, for that night at least.

Granard in Flames

The following night, Wednesday, November 3, 1920, Mac Eoin decided to protect both Granard and Ballinalee, as both places were equally likely to be attacked by the Tans. He placed Seán Murphy in charge of a group to defend Granard, while he himself took on the defence of Ballinalee.

At about 11pm that night, eleven or twelve lorries of Black and Tans and Lancers descended on the town of Granard. Initially, they fired bullets through shop windows on Main St but, fortunately, there were very few people left in the town. They then proceeded to loot shops and set fire to buildings, causing total devastation. The regular RIC were as culpable as the Tans, by pointing out houses with Republican connections. House after house was set ablaze, while the IRA, who were charged with defending the town, offered no resistance.

The Anglo Celt of the following Friday described the total destruction of the town:

“Today the once prosperous town of Granard is little better than a ruin. Up to Friday it presented the sorriest spectacle imaginable – smoking ruins, weeping children, and distressed women, expecting the worst. Moving about the ruins were men in uniform, some smoking cigars, and all armed to the teeth.”

Twelve prominent business houses were raised to the ground, as well as the town’s Market House. At least nine other properties suffered lesser levels of damage.

Tans Deny Involvement

One of the bizarre outcomes of the destruction of Granard was when English newspapers reported that the County Inspector of the RIC denied that police, military, or Black and Tans had any part in the burning of Granard. They had, he maintained, all left before the fires broke out. It took years before the streetscape in Granard was restored.

The Battle for Ballinalee – A Heroic Hour for the IRA

With Granard ablaze, the Tans and Lancers thought they had one good job done and they set their sights on Ballinalee for the second half of the action. While the IRA in Granard decided not to get involved, it was a different story in Ballinalee, where Seán Mac Eoin and three others made a legendary stand against overwhelming odds.

Mac Eoin’s plan was to place groups of IRA men on the four approach roads to Ballinalee with a small pivotal group at Rose Cottage, in the centre of the village. If the English forces arrived, he would allow them into the village, where they would be hemmed in from all directions. The officers in charge of the groups were as follows:

Granard Road (National School): Seán Duffy
Edgeworthstown Road (Protestant Church): Hugh Hourican
Longford Road (Doherty’s Cross): Michael Francis Reynolds
Aughnacliffe Road (opposite Catholic Church) Frank Davis
Rose Cottage: Seán Mac Eoin

Early in the afternoon of November 3, 1920, Mac Eoin’s men converged on Ballinalee for what was expected to be a deadly battle. Fr Montford, the local curate, was called upon to hear the men’s confessions and this he did as a general confession, with general absolution. As with Granard, most of the residents had already abandoned the village, except three families; P J Heraty’s, Patrick Murtagh’s and the postmistress, Mary Ann Kiernan.

It was a wet, dark and foggy night with visibility no more than 15-20 yards. At a late hour, news came that Granard was in flames. It could only be a matter of time before Ballinalee would face a similar fate. With all the groups bedded in, Seán Mac Eoin took up his position at Rose Cottage, where he stood in the “bearna baoil” with just three other IRA men: Seán Sexton, Séamus Conway and Séamus Mac Eoin.

Eleven Lorry Loads of Tans and Lancers Arrive in Ballinalee

At about 2am, the sound of the lorries could be heard approaching the village from Granard. To Mac Eoin’s surprise, the eleven lorries took a right turn at the crossroads and turned in the Aughnacliffe direction, stopping along the road down towards the Catholic Church.

As the Tans and Lancers dismounted, Seán Sexton recalled hearing a Cockney voice shouting:

“Get the petrol cans ready.”

Mac Eoin then called on them to “Surrender to the IRA”

“Never to you, you bastards” was the reply.

At that, Mac Eoin and his three comrades opened fire.

Within minutes, the British had a Hotchkiss machine gun in action. Séamus Conway managed to jook down behind a wall and he threw a grenade which put paid to the Hotchkiss. The battle raged for an unknown length of time, some say two hours, as the four men kept an estimated 100 enemy troops at bay.

Ammunition was running dangerously short, to the point where the men had no more than four or five rounds each. Mac Eoin was contemplating how he could retreat safely from Rose Cottage, when, to his astonishment, the engines started revving up and, one by one, the lorries moved off in the Aughnacliffe direction.

As a new day dawned, some of the men from the other outposts came into the village. There they found the street littered with groceries, bottles of whiskey and items of hardware, including an accordion, all looted in Granard. There were also some rifles, revolvers and ammunition left behind. Blood was splattered all over the road where the lorries had been, but the British never admitted any casualties. There were no casualties on the IRA side.

The defence of the village was one of the most amazing stories of the entire War of Independence. How four men could fend off one hundred well-armed British troops was an extraordinary feat. Indeed the Irish Independent reported that Crown forces believed they had engaged 300 IRA men in Ballinalee.

Questions were asked as to why none of the other IRA groups placed around the village came to the assistance of the men at Rose Cottage. It was accepted that Michael Francis Reynolds was located too far away to be of assistance, but there were about twenty other armed men located very close to the village, but none came to the assistance of the “Rose Cottage Four”.

Burning of Ballinalee

For about five weeks, the IRA stood guard in Ballinalee, but the British never appeared, choosing to take the Edgeworthstown route when travelling from Longford to Granard. The IRA then set up an ambush to intercept them at Ardagullion and they waited three days and nights there for the enemy to appear. The British must have received news that Ballinalee was no longer being defended and they arrived to the village in force and took over Farrell’s shop, where they established a barracks.

Seán Mac Eoin decided to mount an attack on this new garrison and, about midnight on December 12, 1920, groups of IRA were placed to the front and back of the building. Seán Duffy and Mac Eoin crawled up to the gable with a 56lb bomb and placed it on the window sill. The bomb blew the gable out of the house. A fierce battle raged for hours, with one Black and Tan killed; eighteen-year-old Frederick Taylor from Newcastle-on-Tyne, England. The building was all but demolished, but the garrison didn’t surrender.

A day later, Ballinalee was destroyed in a frenzy of destruction by the Tans, somewhat similar to Granard. Half of the houses in the village were burned, but they also set fire to Seán Mac Eoin’s house and forge at Clooncoose and Seán Duffy’s house and shop in the townland of Cavan. Sean Connolly’s house at France was burned and there they even shot the cattle and geese.

Yes, this week one hundred years ago saw some of the fiercest engagements of the War of Independence in Longford and some of the most awful reprisals from the dreaded Black and Tans. Granard and Ballinalee were deserted towns and villages for some time; indeed they didn’t come into their own again until the Truce of July 1921.

Sources used:
l Witness Statements from Seán Mac Eoin, Séamus Mac Eoin, Frank Davis, Seán Sexton and Séamus McKeon.
l Information from Jimmy Donohoe and Sr Maeve Brady, Granard.
l Longford Leader, Anglo Celt and Irish Independent

Seán Ó Súilleabháin’s opening two articles in this ‘The War of Independence in  County Longford’ series entitled ‘Ballinamuck RIC Barracks attack – one of the most daring operations during the War of Independence’ and ‘A significant step in the War of Independence as Ballymahon RIC Barracks surrendered to the IRA’ can be viewed online at www.longfordleader.ie