28 Nov 2021

99th Clonfin Commemoration: Remembering brave fighters at a time when Longford needs new visionary leaders

John Connell's address at the 99th Anniversary commemoration of the Clonfin Ambush in 2020

99th Clonfin Commemoration: Remembering brave fighters at a time when Longford needs new visionary leaders

The 99th Anniversary commemoration of the Clonfin Ambush took place on Sunday, February 2, 2020, and the keynote speaker at last year's ceremony was best selling Longford author John Connell.

Unfortunately, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, a virtual commemoration ceremony is being recorded to mark the 100th Anniversary and this will be broadcast via YouTube next Sunday, February 7, 2021 from 3pm. READ MORE HERE

Here is the text of John Connell's address from last year's commemoration;

"Reverend fathers, Reverend sister, elected representatives, members of the defence forces, to the family members of the North Longford Flying column, our pipeband and pupils of Granard national school. Beannacht agus failte romhait.

As the grandson of a Volunteer fighter John Connell the man whose name I bare I am deeply honoured to be asked to give this years memorial lecture. Clonfin has been a part of my life since childhood when my father regaled me with the heroic tales of the North Longford flying column and all the men and women who took part in the struggle for Irish freedom. I have travelled this road many times over my 33 years and reflect each and every passing on what occurred here this day.

Clonfin occupys a special place in the landscape of my life as a farmer too for our lands lie just up the roads from here where my own family relations the Gorman’s came face to face with the British in the wake of the Clonfin ambush. That event would lead to the tragic death of Dolly Gorman’s father Thomas and so I remember them today as I do all who took part in the ambush here 99 years ago.

We gather here to make known our rememberance to those who have gone before, to those who helped shape this nation we now call home. But today I talk to you not of military deeds, not of battles lost or won. I come to talk of the inner life, the quite that shaped these people but so too that shaped and shapes all of us.

In this the 99th year since the ambush it is time to remember all the lives and to understand our place within this history.

I want to make a special reference to our dearly departed friend, neighbour and fellow farmer Tommy Forester. Tommy’s family have lived in Longford longer than many of us and it is important to acknowledge that the Protestant community of Ireland enduring suffering during the war years. This community felt adrift in this time and though relations were good in Longford between Protestant and Catholic for the most part it is important now that we remember their fears then too. 

This lecture is an address to the dead but also too to the living and a eugoloy to peace and understanding. At a time when our politics leans ever more to the fringers of our society it is a time to think that we are all one, we are all the people of this land, and in its spirit we have all been made and forged.

The American writer and Nobel laurete William Faulkner wrote that the past is never dead, its not even past. 

This statement is a confronting of the past. Our past has been one that has seen division for over a century, religious, political, personal. As we live through the decades of remeberance, now is the time to remember the meitheal of the spirit that power that has brought us all together from time ememorial to work together for the power of good to the power of unity.

To our politicians we say represent us, work together inspire us with your actions and deeds. To our neighbours we say the past is over the civil war has come and gone there is no green or blue nor orange there is but people to live and work alongside. To those who died on all sides we remember them.

In this year of rememberance we are faced too with remembering our former enemies and already the words have begun of who betrayed and who remained. But I say now to you all. We must remember all sides. That horrors were done, and done to my own family I say yes but we must not have anger towards these forces any longer, rather we must show pity for they too were victims of war, so many traumatised by the experiences of the Great War that it made monsters of them. They were men who should never have been sent here but they were like the RIC part of the story of this place. 

They were broken and like many of the men who served so bravely in the Irish war of independence were broken by the horrors of our war. Both were and are our brothers searching only for a long sought for peace. They were not to find their peace in this life, nor on this bog road. Perhaps in the place where violence is ended, where weapons have ceased, where soldiers become men once again they could rest. We remember their atrocities and their violence towards us but we so often forget their own humanity. 

All my life I have known the fields and farms that make up this land we call Longford. It is our well spring as a people, land has shaped our history in this place from dispossesion to attainment it has been the constant of our people.

In talking with Sister Maeve Brady we reflected this week on what made the men and women of Longford take action, what inspired them to take up arms and fight for our freedom, in a way I feel it finds its roots in the dispossesion of a people from its heart; the land. 

Many of the people of this area a hundred years ago were but tenants to landlords and the greatest transition that the war of independence achieved was to return the land to the people who it rightly belonged to.  Land is something we Irish understand, it is the earth that has made us and which in the end will reclaim us. 

Why the men rose up has many reasons but as Heaney said perhaps it was a time where hope and history rhymed, where we took the chance of independence before the oppurtunity and the spirit of freedom disapated forever. 

As Nelson Mandela said “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.” 

That was the choice that faced these young men and they took it not just for them but for us.

When I look around the farms of our county  they form a landscape. A cumulative thing, that we call our home. The landscape is Irish or to the outsider it would seem that way and yet when I think now it is a landscape formed of history.

If the books of the past were torn down and our memories of this place removed what then would it be? Would I know it only as the animals do? For its folds and bends, it’s rivers and ditches. 

It has been in this way of thinking that I began to research the lives of the men who made up this column, the men who knew this land who worked it longer with ploughs than with guns. In the soil all things were broken and remade anew.

For the men of the North Longford Flying column they were all young with an average age of 25, idealistic and all rooted in the soil of Longford coming from the towns and villages that we know so well; Ballinalee, Grandard, Aughnacliffe, Ballinamuck, Gowna, Edgeworthstown and Drumlish. Places we pass through each day in our lives but places that were very different over 99 years ago.

Of the core members of the Flying column 8 men put their parents occupations as farmers and so it can be understood that these 8 men at the very least were all farmers themselves too.  I can understand their struggles, chores and duties the fields they walked as farmers are ones I know and understand. 

The work of the cow or sheep has not changed greatly in one hundred years and so in the ever giving ritual of birth and death the seasons bring we carry out the same actions as these young men did. They knew the joys of the land and the sorrows too.

Their insights into our home would prove too to be invaluable for who better than a son of the land to use it as a weapon to evade, ambush and vanquish enemies. By roads and tracks, trees and bogs they moved across our drumlin and esker filled lands stopping by safe houses to rest. It was the knowledge of the tire, the land that would prove to be the winning stroke in this the last and final bid for Irish freedom.

Its striking too to note that after the war many of column members returned to the land, its rituals had not changed even if they had.

In understanding the sons of freedom I came to discover their past and future lives. Looking now at the vantage of history none would know what lay before them what sadnesses and joys what roads life would bring them on.

Of the columns past some of the men had already lived through the horror of one war, Mick Gormley, Jack Hughes, Frank Martin and Jim Sheeran had all seen action in the Great War. Their military experience was of course invaulable and their skills were to help the other volunteers in the use of ammunition and explosives. Had those men not seen action in the war our military tactics might not have been so effective here in Longford. 

Of course having lived through that war and this one it would be clear that what these men wanted more than anything was peace and the ability to live this life in harmony and freedom. In my time as an investigative journalist overseas I was to meet many dispossed peoples from across the world who never got to enjoy what we now take for granted. 

MacEoin himself too was a man of the land working in his fathers forge taking up his apprentiship in 1908. His father was to die in 1913 and the duty of taking care of his family fell on Sean. John McDowel’s father was also to die before his heroic actions in the war and so we had two men charged with taking care of their families and of their country.

The spirit of freedom spurred on the men of column and it was their membership of the Volunteers and in parts the IRB that helped educate them in the unstopable movement of a people towards that long sought for goal; indepdence. 

As a writer too I am aware of the role the literary and cultural revival played in the formation of that generation nationwide. 

Here at last after centuries was a celebration of our culture, our language our music. And it must be remembered that that cultural revival gave us a centre point on which to build the spirit of Irishness. If it had not been for the local actions and national actions of the keepers of the flame of culture so much would have been lost. In this we must thank our Anglo Irish community leaders who rescued so much and let the world understand that our culture was unique, special and unreplaceable.

Sean MacEoin himself said in an interview on RTE decades later that he could still recit the songs that he had learned in Bunlahy as a young man, songs that stayed with him throughout his life. On wet dark nights on the run whose to say that those songs, poems and stories did not fire the flame within these young men.

Of the war it has been well documented the actions of the flying column, that Longford became a stronghold in the war but what is perhaps not so well known or studied is what became of the men after the action.

In compliling the later lives of the column it was a wonder to discover each and every man’s life course, some would join the national army, some would go into politics, farming and some too would emigrate. None knew this weekend 99 years ago where the road of life would take them. They did not even know if this ambush would be a success.

Of some of the men I have been able to glean an understanding of their future lives.

JJ Brady of  Gaigue, Ballinamuck was to emigrated after the war and work in real estate in New York. He would die in 1958 with full military honours and is buried on the otherside of the ocean.

Sean Duffy a volunteer and committed freedom fighter whose home was burned by the black and tans would return to the land and become an auctioneer and farmer.

Hugh Hourican of Ballinalee would also emigrated and come to live in Pennsylvania. In his move he was aided by Padriac Colum the poet who would become a friend. 

Larry Geraghty would return to the land after much action glad of the peace of nature.

Sean Sexton would also emigrated to Australia to make his fortune and returned to Cloncoose and bought a farm.

Paddy Callaghan the only married man of the column would join the national army as did many of the men of the column, sadly Callaghan would later lose his life in the civil war. We remember him especially as we do all the other men today.

Time passes, memory fades and we that remain are tasked with understanding what has gone before. In this the 99th year of rememberance we honour our brave fighters but now we are called to our own battles, the battle of peace, of understanding, of reconciliation and an ending to our old views of this country.

Now at a time when Longford needs new visionary leaders more than ever I ask will you take part in the next chapter of Longford. Will you help?

The road of life is the same road everywhere and it can point to the salvation of ourselves from our histories.  It was that road that brought the flying column members together and that same road that brought the empire into our lives. 

Like the disciples seeing the wounds of Christ after Easter we must make peace with our scars. This landscape heals us as I know their own lands do for others. We must be as the murmuration of starlings seeing the soul of the world for what it is, our history washing over us enriching us, no longer a place of hurt, like the wings of the dove bringing beauty and tenderness making us ultimately better people.

Today we remember The Volunteers, the Flying Column and those who took part in the ambush, we remember our enemies and our friends. We remember.

May they all rest in peace – Amen."

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