The war had less than two months to run at the beginning of June 1921, with the process of getting to the point of a truce already well underway. But the actual warfare was continuing, and in certain areas it was actually being carried out with greater fervour than ever before, a sometimes grim reversal from previously quiet periods of little to no IRA activity. In the summer of 1921, the war had suddenly exploded in the area of West Mayo, one of the most isolated parts of the country, in which several key, and larger-scale ambushes were to take place in the final months ahead of the truce. Today, in what will be one of the last posts to look at a specific ambush for the War of Independence, I want to take a closer look at the largest of these ambushes, whose death toll came as an unpleasant surprise to the Crown Forces, and served as a suitable redemptive moment for the IRA involved.
The man at the heart of it was Michael Kilroy. Born in Newport, County Mayo in 1884, Kilroy had been brought up, like so many others, in an environment with a heavy emphasis on Irish nationalism, not least in his education. A blacksmith by trade, the heavily religious Kilroy had become involved with the Volunteer movement early, and also the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and thus was a key figure in the movement in West Mayo right from the start. The accounts are a bit confused about in what role Kilroy served with the West Mayo IRA, and when he held certain positions (not unusual: GHQ is on record as not knowing who was leading the North Mayo Brigade in this same period), but what is clear is that he was in a leadership role of the brigade in 1921, certainly after the arrest of the previous, part-time, holder of the position in January of that year.
He inherited an unenviable job. The IRA in Mayo in a general sense had not been at the same level of activity as other units in the country. There was many reasons for this, not least the sparse population, but perhaps more important were highly localised divides, with nationalists in towns arraigned against each other on a wide variety of issues, whether it was the primacy of agrarian agitation, arguments over performance in the Easter Rising (or lack there of: Castlebar’s surrender of arms that year was a highly controversial topic) or even older divisions involving the Hibernians and American-based nationalist organisations, and even the Parnellite divide. There were also relatively less arrests in the area in the aftermath of 1916, and thus less opportunity to gain access to republican networks and radicalisation in places like Frongoch. The east of the county saw its IRA units beset by ill-feeling and ill-discipline, successfully attacking only one RIC barracks in the entire war, and the north and south were only a little better.
That left the west, and it was there, in the areas closest to the Atlantic, that Mayo found its primary contribution to the conflict, but even there it took a long time to arrive. There, as elsewhere in Mayo and Ireland, there was often dissension between and older, more cautious, cadre of leading officers, and the younger, more eager, rank-and-file. The IRB naturally favoured the later, and the killing of a magistrate in Westport in March 1920 was probably carried out by members of that organisation without orders, and similar actions were to take place in the area over the following year, often carried out by the youngest of the brigade members. By the following Spring, GHQ was adamant that Mayo, and West Mayo, had to be more active.
So pressured, Kilroy started to organise columns and ambushes, but with decidedly mixed results initially, and that’s using the term in the most generous manner. A short exchange of fire near the townland of Carrowkennedy in early May was prelude to a more formal ambush enacted at Islandeady, roughly halfway between Westport and Castlebar. The intended target, a mobile RIC patrol, did not take the expected route and avoided the ambush altogether, and then surprised a group of IRA cutting the road on the reverse journey, killing two and capturing two.
Mishap turned to tragedy a few weeks later at Kilmeena. On the 18th May two attacks had taken place aimed at RIC barracks in Westport and Newport, where one RIC member was killed. The small-scale strikes were meat to lure the Crown Forces out of the towns and their barracks, and in this they succeeded in their aim. The following day, a force of RIC traveled through Kilmeena as part of the British response, and fell into the ambush zone of a sizable IRA force of over 40 men, led by Kilroy himself. They had been waiting all day for their quarry, and had actually been on the verge of giving up when the convoy arrived. That was as far as things worked out for the IRA though: the leading lorry forced its way through the ambush position, which was not properly blockaded, and the other two, warned, stopped short, and thus they were able to bring their considerable firepower advantage to bear while negating the IRA advantage in position.
The subsequent firefight and IRA withdrawal was a bitter affair: five Volunteers were killed, and seven injured, and another killed when a safehouse was attacked later. There were accusations of Volunteers fleeing the scene in a blind panic, and the bodies of those killed were later dumped on the streets of Westport by the victorious Crown Forces. Leaving aside this bit of unnecessary brutality, the British were rightfully able to trumpet Kilmeena as a massive success for their counter-insurgency operation, taking no casualties themselves.
A badly stung Kilroy, himself the subject of criticism owing to unhappiness with the Kilmeena ambush site, determined to both try again, and to gain a measure of revenge for what had happened. A column of West Mayo men, of a strength of around 50, remained in being, and on the 2nd of June, they got their chance. That day, Kilroy was informed of another RIC patrol travelling between Westport and Leenaun, which had been forced to stop owing to cut roads. Kilroy knew that other roads and bridges had been similarly cut, so the return journey of the same patrol would have to go back on the route they had already taken. As such, the IRA had a great opportunity.
Kilroy rapidly moved his men into an ambush position along the road, near Carrowkennedy again. He subsequently divided them on company basis: Wesport men placed on high ground overlooking the road, Newport men to the west of them, closer to the road and with the cover of a wood and Louisbergh men on the other side of the road on another height overlooking a nearby junction (that was the plan at least, but some accounts claim this last section never got the chance to get into position). Kilroy, having learned at least one lesson from the disaster at Kilmeena, hand-picked the best shots in the column for the vital task of eliminating the drivers of the convoy vehicles quickly.
Things went even more in the favour of the IRA before a shot was fired. The Crown Forces – a mixture of “regular” RIC and Black and Tans – were indeed forced to travel the expected route, and suffered a car breakdown, which then subsequently had to be towed by one of the lorries, which would have reduced its speed significantly. Worse, the overall commander of the RIC detachment, a District Inspector Edward Stevenson, broke regulations to serve as the driver of the lead lorry, when he should have been in the back of the trailing one. Finally, they gave the IRA ample time to prepare for their arrival, by stopping into a pub on the way for “refreshments”.
The ambush began late in the evening, with a scout signalling to the column. As the lead lorry entered the kill zone, Stevenson was shot dead by Jimmy O’Flaherty, a Volunteer who had once been a member of the Connacht Rangers. Somewhat ironically, both men were veterans of the First World War. In an instant, half of the convoy had become immobilized and the overall force had lost its commander. The second lorry was similarly incapacitated further down the road, drifting into a roadside ditch. The remaining IRA opened fire on both vehicles from both sides of the road.
The trapped RIC men had few options. Most of those in the first lorry disembarked as well as they were able and took cover behind a nearby embankment, seeking to bring their Lewis Gun to bear on the enemy, but to little effect: without sufficient protection, any man who tried to use the gun became an easy target, and several of the RIC may have been hit in the process of trying, unable to defend themselves from the IRA on the heights. At the same time, the men of the second lorry disembarked and ran into a nearby thatched cottage, to the alarm of its civilian occupants. Too late, they realised they had left most of their ammunition in the lorry, and they used up their own limited supply firing ineffectively at the Volunteers, who had decent cover behind stone walls. They were unable to support their comrades further up the road, and seemingly thought they were surrounded, as they attempted no withdrawal themselves.
Efforts by the RIC to break out of their positions or to flank the IRA were futile, and the only way they could have safely extracted themselves would have been with the arrival of reinforcements. Foe two hours, the firefight went back and forth, with the RIC attempting to make use of a special rifle grenade launcher. In the end, this weapon proved ineffective, and ultimately disastrous: when Volunteers made a move on the first lorry, a mis-aimed grenade landed in the RIC perimeter, killing one man and wounding another.
This was the signal for what was left of the first lorry to raise a white flag, much to Kilroy’s relief: he too was running low on ammo, and with night falling had begin to consider his options. The Volunteers immediately requisitioned the captured Lewis Gun and trained it on the occupied cottage. Having used up most of their ammunition and with nowhere to go, the RIC there quickly surrendered also. Eight of the overall RIC force had been killed or fatally wounded, and several others injured. The prisoners were rounded up, but not harmed, despite GHQ directives and the feelings of some of the Volunteers, who would have vividly remembered their own previous defeats and the treatment of the bodies of their dead comrades. The IRA distributed the substantial amount of captured guns, set fire to the lorries, and dispersed. They had suffered no casualties.
Carrowkennedy was a total IRA success, and a dismal Crown Forces failure. The Volunteers had been able to herd the target effectively by cutting roads. They had chosen a suitable ambush site, with elevation and cover for the attackers. They had eliminated the Crown Forces’mobility and leadership in the opening shots. They had silenced the enemy advantage in firepower with the first lorry, and isolated the men of the second lorry. They had kept the enemy pinned down until surrender was inevitable. They had made casualties of most of the enemy force, taken none of their own, and made off with more than enough guns and ammo to fight the war for another year if they had wanted to. As such, redemption for previous failures was well and truly achieved, and Kilroy would now have a level of notoriety he was probably not expecting when he took over the Brigade.
On the British side, proper convoy procedure had not been followed, and the RIC had blundered into an ambush without requisite care. In the ensuring ambush, they had allowed themselves to become pinned down in two different areas, and proved unable to better their situation through a breakout attempt or a flanking attack. Given that the Kilmeena ambush had been held up as a great counter-insurgency success, Carrowkennedy must have come as an almighty shock.
The West Mayo column was on the run for the rest of the war, evading several British search parties until the truce came into effect. Their success at Carrowkennedy undoubtedly contributed somewhat to British pivots to embrace a political solution over a military one, as yet another example of the IRA continuing to inflict damage when they were supposed to be on the backfoot. Ultimately many of the guns captured there would be used in the Civil War, where the West Mayo column would split apart: some of the men at Carrowkennedy would end up killing the others within a year.
While there would be plenty more deaths before the war came to an end, Carrowkennedy constitutes the last major ambush of the conflict in terms of casualties, bar one that I will discuss in a few weeks. But it remains somewhat of an exception: as noted, the war in Mayo was not a terribly active one, events like Carrowkennedy aside. But where the war was extremely active, and in fact would remain so after the truce, was in the north. There, in July of 1921, another explosion of sectarian violence would occur, and it is this violence, dubbed the second “Bloody Sunday” of the war, where we go next.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.