Late on Christmas night 1920, Irish Volunteers John Leen (24) and Maurice Reidy (25) stealthily made their way to the home of John Byrne, the creamery manager in Ballymacelligott, County Kerry. The cottage had been raided often, because Byrne was a well-known Republican who had been jailed for a time after the Easter Rising. Byrne himself was also on the run, and not there. So it was a dangerous place for any Volunteer to go, but like many young men before and since, they may have thought themselves to be immortal. They were not.
The weary lads fell into a couple of chairs, Leen at the table and Reidy warming himself by the fire. Mrs. Byrne and her sister, Hanna McEllistrim, probably busied themselves getting together some Christmas dinner left-overs for the hungry young men. Like all good Republican families around Ireland during the War of Independence, they would share anything they had with any “on the run” Irish Volunteer who showed up at their door. Now that same door suddenly burst open and a tall, well-built officer of the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary strode in, pistol in hand.
Major John Mackinnon (right) was now well known and very feared around the Tralee area. So John Leen may have recognized him as he tried to pull out his own pistol. If so, it was that last thing he would recognize in this world, as Mackinnon riddled his body with bullets. The stories vary as to whether Leen ever got off a shot. If he did it either went into the door frame above Mackinnon’s head, or into the roof. With the screams of the Byrne women no doubt filling the room, Mackinnon turned to the unarmed Reidy. Reidy was a large young man who had been a weight throwing champion.
(Below: An RIC Webley pistol, similar to what Mackinnon may have been carrying that Christmas night.)
According to the later statements by Mackinnon and the three Auxiliaries with him, both men resisted and were shot, but Mrs. Byrne and her sister said that after Leen was shot in front of them, they pleaded with Mackinnon to spare Reidy’s life. Reidy, however, no doubt knowing he was a doomed, asked only for time to pray first. The sisters were locked in another room and Riedy was put on his knees and executed. According to neighbor Bessie Cahill, a member of the Cumann na mBan, the two men’s bodies were then dragged from the house and as a final indignity, put in the outhouse. Then the women were led out of the house and Mackinnon and his men set fire to it. He announced to the neighbors who’d come out after hearing the gun shots that all homes where armed men were found would be burned.
The record of the Black & Tans and Auxiliaries in County Kerry was already quite infamous, but these killings and the burning of a family’s home, done on Christmas day, were considered particularly heinous by the people of the county. Some of the locals also spread a rumor that Mackinnon had been out stalking Republicans on Christmas night because he had made a bet in the bar of Benner's Hotel in Tralee, that he would kill some prominent Volunteer before morning. The Volunteers of the Tralee area vowed that Major Mackinnon would pay for this outrage with his own life.
John Allister Mackinnon was a true son of the British Empire. He was born in 1892 in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, India, where his Scottish father managed a factory. You will often see his name spelled “McKinnon” by Irish Volunteers in their accounts, and in various historical books about the war, probably because they repeated the spelling of those veterans, but on all his official British documents, it’s spelled “Mackinnon.” Like most of the Auxiliaries he was a former officer, but his military record was less than stellar.
MacKinnon graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in 1912. That should have been a path directly to a successful military career, but he very quickly ran into problems. He passed several bad checks and was AWOL for a time. He resigned his commission in 1913 to avoid a court martial and immigrated to Canada. Mackinnon enlisted as a private in the Royal Canadian Dragoons when WWI broke out. When the unit got to England he ran into more AWOL problems, but there was a war on and now he was just a private, so he was merely forced to forfeit some pay.
(Right: Mackinnon in his Canadian Army uniform.)
When his unit finally got to France in 1915 he was wounded in the back at Festubert just three weeks after they arrived, but was back in the trenches three months later. His record shows numerous incidents of sick leave, but he also eventually rose to rank of lieutenant, so he must have demonstrated some military qualities when he was fit for duty. In January 1917 Mackinnon was invalided back to England with “shell Shock & nervous myopia.” Once there he would return to his profligate ways, again being AWOL and once again passing bad checks.
He was back in the trenches in in October 1917. By September 1918 he had been promoted to the temporary rank of captain when he was seriously wounded, suffering a compound fracture of the right arm while leading a successful attack at Canal du Nord, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. That would end his combat career. Mackinnon married in late 1918 and was in and out of the hospital with continuing problems with his right arm over the next year. He was discharged in August 1919.
With all the veterans returning to the work force, it was a hard time to find employment. Mackinnon enlisted in the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary (ADRIC) in October 1920. The motivation for the enlistment was likely his continuing financial problems, as he had a bankruptcy receiving order filed against him in November. The Auxiliaries, virtually all of them officers who had seen combat during the war, were paid £7 a week, about twice as much as the Black & Tans.
The Auxiliary Division was theoretically under the control of the RIC, but the reality on the ground was that they usually operated as independent para-military units. Their uniforms varied, some wore RIC uniforms, others wore their former military uniforms, but they all wore distinctive Tam o' Shanter caps. They were commanded by Brigadier-General F P Crozier. He was a former officer of the loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteers, which might help to explain their reputation for brutality toward both the Volunteers, civilians, and their property.
The Auxiliaries had combat experience, were extremely well armed, and were highly mobile with Crossley Tenders and armored cars, but for many, as was the case with Mackinnon, their main motivation appears to have been financial gain. The Auxiliaries would also find their combat experience was of a far different type than the guerrilla war they were about to fight. The Volunteers had two things in their favor in this confrontation: the support of the vast majority of the population, and the absolute surety that their cause was right and just. It was a factor that has been decisive in many revolutions throughout history.
The ADRIC were organized in 100 man companies spread around the island, with most in the south and west, where the Irish Volunteers had been most active. Company “H” was stationed in Tralee, based in in Moyderwell Technical School, and Mackinnon was put in command of it. This seems rather surprising, given his history of AWOL incidents and chronic passing of bad checks that might have raised questions about his character.
Being a Sandhurst graduate may have been a factor in him being given command, but he was also impressive physically and had a commanding bearing. Even his enemies recognized this. Volunteer Pat Williams later described Mackinnon as, "A tall broad shouldered Scot; he walked with a confident swagger. MacKinnon always carried a pistol at the ready in a holster strapped loosely to his thigh. This together with the huge bearskin gloves that he always wore, gave him the air of ruthless military efficiency.” And he also had the ability to charm people, as Williams continued, “Yet he was quite suave, and could be very personable when he wished," so perhaps he talked his way into the command.
(Below: Auxiliaries arriving at their Tralee barracks with prisoners.)
Mackinnon quickly showed himself to be an energetic and dangerous enemy of the Irish cause. He began running “round-ups” of all men and boys in sections of large towns, or entire small country towns, sometimes in the middle of the night. He would have them searched and questioned and would detain all for hours, and some would end up in jail. He also threatened death to anyone who didn’t post the names of all occupants of their homes on the inside of their doors. Very soon when people in the area said, “The Major,” everyone knew who they meant. Some would later call him, “The Scourge of Tralee.”
As much as he was feared and despised for his terrorizing of the local population, even among those who hated him there was no question that he was brave to the point of being foolhardy. The Christmas night killings, moving through a Republican strong hold at night with just three other Auxiliaries backing him up, was just one example. He was known to sometimes walk the streets of Tralee alone, and would travel through the countryside in an open vehicle.
And yet, Mackinnon was wise enough to not be predictable, and that made the Volunteers vow of revenge more difficult to plan and carry out. John Joe Sheehy (left), the commander of the Tralee battalion, gave Volunteer John O’Riordan that assignment shortly after Leen and Reidy were killed. Con Healy and Denis Donoghue, of the Boherbee Company and Patrick O'Connor and Paddy Kelly of the Strand Street Company were assigned to help O’Riordan carry out any plan. O’Riordan enlisted the teenager boys of the Fianna Éireann around Tralee to try to keep track of Mackinnon’s movement.
Weeks went by without the Volunteers being able to predict a location to attempt an ambush. Finally, on March 4th, they got word that MacKinnon and some of his men were in Ardfert. An ambush was set up near their likely return route to Tralee at a bridge in Ballyroe, but the accidental discharge of a rifle caused them to call it off.
Shortly after that, Mackinnon somehow became aware that the young men of the Fianna were assisting in tracking his movements and he knew who some of them were. On St. Patrick’s Day, when he saw a group of them on a country road, he jumped out of the car and beat several of them. Not satisfied with that, he got a colt from field nearby and tied the legs of one of the injured boys, Moss Hogan, to it and drove the colt some distance, dragging Hogan down the road. Volunteer Johnny O’Connor recalled that “Poor Moss was in a devil of a way for a long time.”
On April 9th, though unrelated to their tracking of Mackinnon, the Auxiliaries shot two members of the Fianna, killing 16 year old Daniel O’Driscoll and wounding 15 year old John O’Sullivan in Liscahane, north of Tralee. The Fianna, however, had continued to stalk “The Major,” and in late March they finally had a break through. As the weather improved, they discovered the Achilles heel of their target. Mackinnon loved to play golf and began to regularly play the course in Oakpark in Tralee, sometimes with important locals. With this knowledge, O’Riordan and his squad scouted the course and found a good ambush location near the 3rd green.
They hid their weapons beneath some of the stones of Kenny’s Fort, which was near the 3rd green. Con Healy (right), a British army WWI veteran and considered one of their better marksmen, had been given their one rifle, probably a Lee-Enfield. It was a very accurate weapon in the right hands. The other three had shotguns and O’Riordan had a pistol. O’Riordan had his scouts around the course every day waiting for their chance.
A few days later it appeared their chance had arrived. They got word "The Major" was about to start a round and set up around the 3rd green. But when they realized his playing partners were women, O’Riordan called it off. After re-hiding the weapons they broke into groups to leave. Two of them were walking across the course when they suddenly heard a voice calling for them to “HALT!” It was “The Major.” As visions of capture and torture filled their heads he motioned for them to get to the left as he as playing a shot to the right and they were in his way. They moved quickly in that direction, with hearts no doubt racing.
They kept up their watch for “The Major” for two weeks. The likelihood of discovery was strong the longer they waited, and it’s probable that some “loose talk” did go on, because on April 13th the golf club increased their fire insurance from £786 to £2,900 and made plans to buy a civil riot and commotion insurance policy. It could have been a coincidence, but it seems unlikely.
Finally, after two weeks, on April 15th, they got word that Mackinnon was there. There were no women in his group this time. Con Healy set up in a tree with a clear view of the 3rd green. There was a rumor that “The Major” wore body armor, so Healy had told O’Riordan, "All I want to see is just a bit of his head and I will get him.” A young member of the Fianna named Mullally was near the clubhouse and gave the signal that “The Major” had started his round. Nerves were on edge as Fianna Percy Hanafin (left) finally got a signal from Fianna Jimmy O'Connor, who was scouting from a tree, that Mackinnon was approaching. Hanafin moved to the 3rd green to let the ambushers know. At last, after nearly three months of stalking him, and two weeks stacking out the golf course, they had their chance. They could see “The Major” on his way down the 3rd fairway. It was just after 4 PM as Mackinnon lined up to hit a putt on the 3rd green, with his adjutant Richard Ballantine standing by. At that moment he was motionless, a perfect target.
Healy took careful aim with his Lee-Enfield (below) and squeezed the trigger. The round entered the right side of Mackinnon’s head and exited on the left. The British army had trained Healy well, because according to the coroner’s report, he got off a second round which also hit “The Major” in the head. The others moved in and opened up with their shotguns, but it was unnecessary, Healy had been as good as his word. Ballantine later said he opened fire on the attackers, but the Volunteers said he ran and took cover in one of the bunkers.
O’Riordan and his squad, and all his Fianna scouts, beat a hasty retreat. After hiding their weapons, they took a circular route into Tralee in time to see Mackinnon’s body being transported to the town. He died there shortly after 5 PM. The killing of this ruthless leader of the H Company of the Auxiliaries was a tremendous boon to the morale of the Volunteers in Kerry and the rest of Ireland, but everyone knew by now that frightful reprisals would follow. In January reprisals against civilians had become official government policy, but they had been going on far longer than that.
(Right: A newspaper account of the shooting. Note: he had actually been awarded only the M.C.)
A rumor later circulated that Mackinnon’s last words were “Burn Ballymacelligott,” but given his two head wounds, it’s highly unlikely he had any last words at all. In any event, the Auxiliaries hardly needed any directions when it came to brutal reprisals. That night Ballymacelligott was raided by the Auxiliaries. They burned the creamery and at least fifteen houses including that of the parish priest, Father Trant. They burned the home of Volunteer Tom McEllistrim’s widowed mother. They raided the home of John Reidy, the uncle of Maurice Reidy, one of Mackinnon’s Christmas night victims, and shot and killed him and they burned the home of Maurice’s family.
The people of Tralee were sure they were next. Everything in the town had closed just minutes after “The Major” died and they remained closed all weekend, but the town was left alone. On Monday they reopened, hoping that perhaps the carnage in Ballymacelligott had satisfied the Auxies blood lust. But Mackinnon’s funeral on Tuesday morning at St. John’s Protestant Church on Ashe St. apparently relit the flames of revenge, though it would once again be on people who took no part in the assassination of Mackinnon.
Before this further orgy of destruction was over in Tralee, they burned two drapery shops on the Mall, a shop on Bridge Street, cycle shop on Pembroke Street, and the Railway Hotel. They also burned three pubs in Boherbee and they destroyed the printing presses and burned the offices of two newspapers, “The Liberator” and “The Kerryman,” when they refused to put a black mourning border on their next day’s edition in honor of Mackinnon. Both would be out of print until after the Civil War. They drove the elderly owners of Knightly’s Public House into the street and burned it down and mortally wounded Patrick Bell, a cattle buyer from Lusk in Co. Dublin, who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
If any of that was going to help cow the native population, another bit of destruction they wrought undid all that. They pulled down the “Croppy Boy” monument to the men of the ’98 Rising on Denny Street and knocked the head and arms off it. Pictures of the decapitated “Croppy Boy” were published in the “Irish Independent” and the “Cork Examiner.” The forces of the British crown in Ireland did not understand that desecrating a tribute to men who had been willing to die facing nearly impossible odds against British rule in the past only enraged and invigorated those who were fighting against those same odds in the present. The Auxiliaries and the other Crown Forces no doubt believed these revolutionaries were doomed to the same fate as those “Croppy Boys” of ’98, and all the other Irish revolutionaries going back centuries, but their own actions were increasing the chances that this time the past would not be prologue.
“Tans, Terror and Troubles: Kerry's Real Fighting Story 1913-23” by T. Ryle Dwyer
“The Men Will Talk to Me: Kerry Interviews” by Ernie O'Malley
“The IRA in Kerry 1916-1921” by Sinead Joy
More on the Irish War of Independence
The Carrowkennedy Ambush, June 2, 1921: Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold
The Forgotten Ten: