The opening days of November 1920 affords us the chance to look at a hither-to unexplored part of the Irish War of Independence. The midlands region of Ireland was one that remained relatively quiet throughout the war, but there was a significant exception. That exception was Longford, and more specifically the north of that county, which up to November had seen raids for arms, harassment of the RIC and some of the earliest attacks on barracks buildings. This marked them out seriously in comparison to their neighbours. But in November, things were to take a much bloodier turn.
There were a few reasons why the coming ferocity of the war in Longford should not be considered too surprising. The county had a strong core of republican tradition dating back to 1798. The by-election campaign that had been fought there in 1917 had proved a potent avenue for recruitment to the reborn Irish Volunteers, and to Cumann na mBan. Michael Collins, and others, spent a disproportionate amount of time in the area too, linked to his courting of a woman named Kitty Kiernan, living in Granard at the time. And Longford also benefited from a number of energetic officers to propel things along, chief among them a young blacksmith named Sean Mac Eoin.
Mac Eoin was to leave a lasting impact on Ireland, in a military and political career that would continue until the 1960’s. Inheriting his father’s business, he had been a blacksmith in Ballinalee, Longford, since 1913. Already a committed nationalist, Mac Eoin joined the Volunteers the same year, and in short order was sworn in as a member of the local IRB. The Brotherhood largely controlled the Longford Volunteers, and Mac Eoin’s rise in that secret organisation afforded him later opportunities in connection with the IRB’s status in the later set-up GHQ. Mac Eoin formed a key friendship with Collins, and proved an able organiser and officer in his own right, with the IRA exerting a great deal of control in North Longford very quickly.
Under his leadership, Longford’s 1st battalion became the most active in the county, and Mac Eoin was later promoted to being the second in command of the Longford Brigade, and its director of operations, as well as the head of the Longford IRB and a member of the Supreme Council. Mac Eoin, often with another highly-regarded Volunteer based in Ballinalee named Sean Connolly, led several raids for arms, and this made the units he commanded some of the best prepared for a fight in the area. And eventually a fight found them.
The first instigating point was the assassination of RIC District Inspector John Kelleher. Kelleher had been involved in some brutal raids in the area and was marked for death quickly enough after his arrival in the county in July, though GHQ only endorsed the proposed killing if it were to take place after the expected death of Terence McSwiney. Kelleher was killed on the 31st October, shot dead in the Granard hotel of the aforementioned Kiernan family that he was staying in, ironically while he was drinking with members of the local Sinn Fein organisation.
The following day another RIC man was killed, Constable Peter Cooney, who was apparently returning from leave when he was shot between Ballinalee and Granard, though Mac Eoin would later claim that he was a target of opportunity after he was spotted near Ballinalee, possibly observing republicans. Numerous sources claim that Cooney was especially despised as a man who wore women’s clothing as part of his efforts to observe the IRA, though it isn’t really clear how true this is. Either way he was killed, another victim of GHQ’s desire to avenge Terence McSwiney’s death.
The IRA leadership in the area was well aware that the killings would inevitably inspire a reaction from the local RIC and Black and Tans. Reprisals were commonplace in Ireland, and on occasion there had been times when IRA units had attempted to ward against them, by stationing Volunteers near villages and towns close to ambush sites. Such tactics were dangerous, as the IRA of 1920 was not a force – and never really would be – that was designed for conventional defensive warfare, but such efforts were seen as necessary by some commanders, who felt that reprisals were too damaging to the morale of their fighting men if they went uncontested.
Of course the reprisals were a positive for the cause of the republic in terms of how they played out on the national and international stage, but it was hard for local men and women to accept this when it was their homes, businesses and churches being attacked. Mac Eoin was confident enough in the forces that he had to hand that he mobilised them after the killing of Kelleher and Cooney, with an eye for defending the main urban areas of his district, namely Granard and his own Ballinalee.
Granard was the first site of contact, as extra RIC and Black and Tans from surrounding areas entered it on the night of 2nd of November. The local IRA, commanded by Mac Eoin, was waiting for them. Mac Eoin had put the main body of his force in Ballinalee, but having obtained reports that Granard was the first town marked for reprisal, he had set-out in that direction with enough men to make a stand, doing so from positions in the south of the town. When a group of RIC left their barracks and were observed burning a local business, Mac Eoin and his men opened fire. No one was killed, but the RIC beat a hasty retreat from their actions, and no further reprisal attempts took place.
Mac Eoin retreated back to Ballinalee, around 10 kms to the west. There, he broke the men he had under his command into five sections, as he was unaware from which direction an attack would come, with forces of the RIC, Black and Tans and the military in Longford Town to the west, but also possibly coming from other avenues. They took positions in a few different places, like the local Protestant church, a school and the crossroads that formed the nucleus of the town. Mac Eoin had a mostly free hand to do so, as the majority of the locals departed Ballinalee, fearing reprisals and the possibility of being caught in a firefight. Mac Eoin’s general plan was not to try and attempt to keep enemy forces out of Ballinalee, but to allow them entry and then to open fire from multiple directions when their movement was limited. Specifically Mac Eoin set his men so that the four entry points to the town were covered.
That evening, with heavy rain falling, Mac Eoin received word from scouts that eleven lorries had left Granard heading in their direction, and that a red glow could be seen on the horizon. Granard had indeed been the subject of a successful reprisal, with the IRA stationed there withdrawing in the face of what was seen as too many of the enemy. Now that same enemy, a force of RIC and Black and Tans, was heading towards Ballinalee, along with a platoon of escorting military. They did not arrive until after 9PM, at which point Mac Eoin was prepared. After a brief stop to investigate Mac Eoin’s forge – unoccupied, naturally – the Crown Forces entered the village properly, with the majority of the trucks assembling near the Catholic Church of the town before their occupants dismounted. Mac Eoin had set up his command post at a building caused Rose Cottage on the crossroads at the centre of town, and from here he and his men were in a very favourable position. Mac Eoin called out an order to surrender. The RIC refused. A gunfight broke out almost immediately.
There followed several minutes of seemingly confused fighting. The RIC had turned off their lights so now the only illumination was the flash of gun barrels, including a Maxim and Lewis gun being fired by the Crown Forces. The Volunteers for their part, being reasonably armed, fired back with rifles, pistols and grenades. After a few minutes of firing a brief ceasefire afforded Mac Eoin the chance to offer the RIC the chance to surrender again, which was refused, whereupon firing broke out again. In all of this there does not appear to have been any key inflicting of casualties by either side, though IRA accounts claim the RIC mistakenly fired at their own men in the darkness.
Those immediately engaged could not keep up the fight forever, and Mac Eoin attempted to get the other detachments in Ballinalee to back him up, but without success. He claims that the firefight went on for the better part of two hours, at the end of which the RIC mounted back up into their lorries and left, one by one, heading in the direction of Longford Town. By that time, the Volunteers were down to a handful of rounds per man. The following morning, when daylight dawned, the IRA in Ballinalee were greeted with the sight of abandoned war material, including arms and ammunition, as well as household items seemingly looted from Granard.
Mac Eoin also noted pools of blood strewn about, but there were no bodies. The amount of people wounded or killed at Ballinalee that night remains clouded. Neither side reported much in the way of casualties, but both claimed to have inflicted many. Similar confusion surrounds the number of men who were actually engaged, with both sides making outlandish claims as to the strength of the enemy: even today, if you read around, you will see claims that 900 RIC attacked Ballinalee, and similarly that Mac Eoin commanded hundreds of men in his turn. Mac Eoin himself later gained a reputation of an exaggerator, especially when it came to enemy killed in Longford, so his account, though detailed, should be taken with a grain of salt. It seems more likely that a confused gunfight in the middle of a rain-soaked pitch-black night may have resulted in no deaths and maybe even no wounded to either side.
What was in not in doubt is that the RIC entered Ballinalee, and were then forced back out by the IRA, deaths or no deaths. In that, the performance of Mac Eoin and his men was to be commended. They had set-up some well-defended positions, lured the enemy into a weak position, and were then able to force them into a retreat. The IRA had taken ground and held it against a larger force of the enemy. In the process they captured valuable supplies, and demonstrated the weaknesses of the Crown Forces. For the part of the RIC, they appeared to have blundered into Ballinalee without a true inkling of what they were facing and may have been lucky to get out of the town relatively unscathed.
Mac Eoin and his men, enlarged by more Volunteers moved from Granard and Longford Town, continued to hold Ballinalee for the better part of two weeks, convinced that the enemy would not let their repulse stand. A delegation from Longford Town was permitted entry to retrieve the body of Constable Cooney and his family. Tensions remained high, even as the residents of the town slowly made their way back to their homes. Several days after the “battle”, Mac Eoin’s account relates an embarrassing incident where lights on the horizon in the darkness had he and his men convinced they were about to be encircled by thousands of Crown Forces, even though scouts and contacts in Longford Town assured them there had been no such movement of troops. Mac Eoin went as far as moving his men from Ballinalee and out into the countryside to avoid an encirclement, only to discover that the lights were “will-o-the-wisps” from neighbouring bogland.
The IRA presense in Ballinalee was a notable committeemen to a standing defence in the context of the larger war. Journalists visited Ballinalee to interview its defenders, and Collins was able to maintain contact with Mac Eoin, who had breastworks erected and trenches dug to improve his position. But the Crown Forces did not return. Impatient after all of this waiting for an expected attack that never seemed to come, Mac Eoin eventually left. It remains a fairly extraordinary episode in the history of the Irish War of Independence, one where, for a short time and in a small area, the IRA operated more as a conventional standing army than the guerrilla force they are popularly remembered as being. Mac Eoin’s reputation, already high enough, was also essentially made.
Within a few weeks, and while Mac Eoin’s men were preparing to ambush Crown Forces elsewhere, Ballinalee was occupied by the RIC, who belatedly got to initiate their reprisal. This included the burning of Mac Eoin’s home and forge, along with several other buildings. Mac Eoin did attempt to interfere, launching a series of attacks on RIC positions in the town in late November and early December, but was unable to drive them from Ballinalee this time, though they were able to inflict some casualties despite the terrible weather, which was always cold and frequently snowy. These subsequent operations are less well-remembered than the “battle” of the 2nd November, but form part of a running series of minor engagements that Mac Eoin and his men were involved in, almost for the rest of the war. We may look at some of those in more detail before this series is over.
So the war in the countryside was continuing apace, but now we must turn back to the war in the Irish capital. A fateful date was fast approaching, but before we get to the events of Bloody Sunday, we must discuss the finer details of the intelligence war in Dulin in the days, weeks and months leading to November. Michael Collins and his Squad had been the men dictating so much of the war there, but in the summer of 1920 the British had attempted to fight back.
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