Seán Connolly and Leo Carter pushed a table into the corner of the upstairs bedroom of the Lloyd family in Ballymahon, Co. Longford. Carter, who stood 6’ 3”, jumped on the table and began to hack at the roof with an ax. It was just past midnight in the early morning hours of August 20, 1920. Connolly and Carter were part of a group of Irish Volunteers from the Longford Brigade under the command of Seán MacEoin that was attacking the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks next door to and connected to the Lloyds house.
(Below: Ballymahon in the early 20th century)
As Carter slashed a hole in the roof, Volunteers in front and back of the were firing into the barracks, helping to cover the noise of Carter’s chopping. When Carter had opened a hole big enough for Connolly to crawl out onto the Lloyds roof. Carter handed up the ax, then Connolly slid over onto the roof of the barracks. Connolly got to work chopping a hole in their roof with the firing still covering the noise. After making the hole wide enough to toss in a bomb, he called out for the constables to surrender and got no reply.
Connolly then lit the fuse of a 7 lb cart box bomb and tossed it in. These were large bombs in a wooden box that, like most of the Volunteer's bombs, often did not explode. This was not one of those times, however, as it went off and a huge roar and blew a hole through the 2nd story floor, making a large hole through to the 1st floor.
Down below the RIC men, now surely alerted to the danger overhead, had retreated to the far side of the barracks away from the Lloyd’s house. Often in these barracks attacks the Volunteers would try to set the barracks on fire after cutting a hole in the roof to compel the constables to surrender. This was occasionally successful, but it often took a long time to get a substantial fire going and time was always the enemy of the Volunteers, as Crown forces were usually on the way toward the fighting at some point. Calls on the garrison to surrender were refused, but this time the Volunteers had one more trick up their sleeves.
(Below: A vintage snuff can)
The Volunteers had developed a new weapon for situations like this. Nicknamed the “Black Bess,” it was like an early form of tear gas. This “bomb” used empty snuff cans, snuff being widely used in Ireland at the time, stuffed with things like sulfur, brimstone, flour, black pepper, red pepper, and gelignite with a fused detonator. If it worked correctly, it would spread noxious fumes throughout the confined area of the barracks and hopefully compel a surrender. Connolly lit the fuses and dropped several of those down through the hole to the ground floor. He could hear them explode and the smoke coming out of the hole down below him. Now they would wait to see if they would get to claim the real prize of all Volunteer barracks attacks of the Irish War of Independence, the arms and ammunition inside them.
Most of the incidents of Cogadh na Saoirse (the Irish War of Independence) that are well-known today occurred southeast of the island or in Dublin, but one of the more active areas of the island, though it is seldom mentioned now, was the little county of Longford. Though it was one of the smallest of the 32 counties in both population and square miles, it had many dedicated Republicans like Seán Connolly and Seán MacEoin, who led the raid on the Ballymahon.
When the North Longford Battalion of the Irish Volunteers began to form in late 1918 into the beginning of 1919, MacEoin was its commanding officer and Connolly its vice commander. MacEoin was born in Ballinalee, Co. Longford on September 30, 1893, in the home of his mother, Katherine’s grandparents, the Treacy’s. His father, Andrew, was a blacksmith, like most male members of the family had going back many generations. Though MacEoin did well in school, despite often missing time to help his father at his forge, it was no surprise that Seán also became a blacksmith. He would later often be referred to as "The Blacksmith of Ballinalee.”
MacEoin (left) had some Republican lineage on his mother’s side, a granduncle who was one of the lucky few Irishmen who survived that Battle of Ballinamuck at the end of the ’98 Rising. Young Seán was also friendly with an ex-Fenian in town named Thomas Kenny, who regaled the youngster with many tales of Irish Republican history and its heroes like Wexford’s Father Murphy, “Bold” Robert Emmet, the Manchester Martyrs, and others. It was no surprise then that MacEoin joined the nationalist United Irish League and later the Gaelic League. In 1914, MacEoin also joined the Irish Volunteers and was sworn into the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) by John Cawley of Granard.
Seán Connolly was born in 1890 in France, not the country in Europe, but the small town just southeast of Ballinalee, Co. Longford. His father, John, raised chickens and sold eggs. His uncle, Michael Connolly, was a teacher and taught Seán and many other future Republican leaders in the county, including MacEoin. Connolly, like MacEoin, joined the Irish Volunteers and IRB, both being original members of the Clonbroney Circle of the IRB.
Longford was the county where the combined Franco-Irish forces had come to their end at Ballinamuck in 1798. Ballinalee was less than 8 miles from Ballinamuck. Perhaps as many as 140 Irish rebels were “tried,” convicted, and hanged in Ballinalee after that final battle, and were buried in a mass grave in Bully's Acre. So the area where MacEoin and Connolly were raised had a long and well-known rebel history. Connolly, like MacEoin, was an early recruit to the Irish Volunteers.
(Right: Bully's Acre marker)
The local unit of the Volunteers was very small, with around ten members, until the threat of conscription and then the passing of the Conscription Act rapidly increased numbers during 1918. A North Longford Battalion was then formed, with MacEoin elected the commander and Connolly as vice commander.
Like every unit of the Volunteers, the North Longford Battalion was woefully short on any sort of modern firearms. Frank Davis of Ballinamuck later recalled that there was one modern rifle in the area that would be passed around for training. Seán MacEoin’s brother, Séamus, said, “we had one service rifle and one .22 …. we had wooden guns for training.”
Eventually, the main source of weapons for the Volunteers would be those captured from the RIC and the British Army, but their first source was to collect small caliber target rifles, hunting rifles, or shotguns from locals. The local Anglo-Irish gentry often had most of those. Once the Volunteers started collecting these weapons, the British began confiscating those same weapons to keep them out of Irish hands. (Below: An early 20th century shotgun)
MacEoin and Connolly, along with Seán Treacy (not the famous one from Tipperary) and Séamus Conway made one of these “visits” to collect weapons at the home of a Miss. Sheridan in Kilnaleck in nearby Co. Cavan in late 1918. When they arrived at Miss Sheridan’s house, she told them the British had notified her they would be coming to get her weapons in a day or two. “Your difficulty is solved, ma’am,” said MacEoin, “we’re taking them.”
When they had rounded up all the arms that could be found around Co. Longford they were still woefully short of having enough to be an effective fighting force. The first major attempt to take arms from the RIC in the county was in January 1920 at Drumlish Barracks. MacEoin and Connolly led the attack which was undertaken with just five members armed with rifles. They depended on explosives and in that they were disappointed as the Volunteers so often were all over the island. Connolly bravely moved directly up to the door of the barracks and threw a lit 14 lb bomb through the fan light. The detonator exploded but the bomb did not. Another large bomb was set again a side wall, but again only the detonator went off. It turned out that their gelignite as been stored wrong and gotten damp.
(Right: Seán Connolly)
With no way to breach the walls of the reinforced barracks, the attack had to be broken off. The attack was a failure, but the officers and men did at least game some experience in the planning and execution of the attack.
As 1920 went on, the RIC began to abandon their smaller, isolated barracks all over the island. In Co. Longford, the constables were concentrated in the barracks at Granard, Longford, Edgeworthstown, Drumlish, Lanesboro, and Ballymahon. So the Volunteers in Co. Longford had to look at those targets to obtain arms.
By June the battalion was still desperate to get some modern firearms. MacEoin and Connolly planned an attack on the Edgeworthstown barracks. Over 100 men were mobilized for the attempt, including those assigned to blocking roads. All was in place when suddenly a message came in that a company of the 9th Lancers had left the Longford on horseback and appeared to be headed towards Edgeworthstown.
(Below: Ballinamuck Barracks)
There was then a very animated discussion about what to do among the Volunteer officers according to MacEoin. No one could be sure if they were headed to Edgeworthstown, but a fully armed British Army company on horseback could do untold destruction to the lightly armed Volunteer force if they were. The decision was finally made to withdraw. The priority of every Volunteer unit during the war was to preserve itself as a threat to the Crown forces. It was later discovered that the Lancers were merely exercising their horses.
It was another bitter disappointment for the battalion, but they were determined to obtain the weapons they needed to become a formidable foe of the Crown forces. MacEoin and Connolly were far from ready to give up. They immediately began to plan to attack Ballinamuck barracks. If anything, Ballinamuck, a stone barracks, was even more formidable than all the other barracks they had attacked. Connolly led this attack and met with Volunteer Frank Davis, who lived in Shanmullagh, near Ballinamuck, to inspect their target.
There were two towers on diagonal corners from each other, front and rear. It did not need much added fortification, unlike so many other barracks around the island. It had been built as a fortified barracks. It had a weakness though. It had a double roof, with a valley in between them and if someone could get to the handball ally wall behind it with a ladder, bombs and incendiary materials could be thrown in there to set the roof on fire.
On the night of June 19th, they put their plan into action. A ladder was borrowed from Reilly’s Pub, which was being rethatched. Connolly volunteered to lead a group of eight men who carried the ladder to the wall along with four heavy bombs and two baskets with six bottles filled with gasoline. This was the key moment. If someone in one of the towers saw them it could be a disaster. One shot into one of the bombs and all of them might have been killed. Luck was with them, or perhaps there simply were no RIC guards in the towers. Whatever the case may have been, they reached the wall unseen. The other Volunteers in the front of the barracks opened fire on the windows to distract the constables
Connolly climbed the ladder and the other formed a chain from the ground to him passing up bombs and bottles of gasoline. Since the failure of their explosives at Drumlish, they had “cooked” their gelignite to dry it out. Now they would discover if that fix had worked. Connolly lit the fuse of a cart box bomb and tossed it and ducked his head back behind the wall. They all held their breath and waited, then suddenly heard a huge explosion. Connolly quickly threw the six bottles of gasoline to spread over the roof and then threw a second bomb. Within minutes the roof was blazing.
That was the good news for the Volunteers. The bad news was that the constables were able to retreat to an outbuilding that had a clear field of fire around it, giving them no way to approach and attack it. So once again they had to withdraw without capturing any weapons, but they had destroyed one of the most formidable RIC barracks in Ireland and they now knew their dried-out gelignite worked. With those two bombs, MacEoin set their sights on Ballymahon.
They all agreed they needed more rifles to do it, and ammunition which was nearly exhausted from their three unsuccessful barracks attacks. They knew of a soldier from the 18th Lancers stationed in Longford they called “Jordy” who was willing to sneak rifles and ammunition out of what was called the Upper Barracks in Longford. He managed to pass two rifles out a loophole in the wall one night and smuggled out some ammunition. The missing rifles and ammunition were noticed immediately. He was not able to smuggle out any more rifles but did attempt to smuggle out more ammo but was caught.
(Left: 18th Lancers hat badge)
That might have been the end of his story, but MacEoin arranged for him to break out, using an exterior window in the toilet of the prisoner area of the barracks. This was done with an eye for a very bold plan MacEoin was contemplating. He wanted to sneak into the barracks and steal all the rifles and ammunition they needed. “Jordy” could provide them with the information about where the rifles and ammunition were held and how they might get past the guards on the gate.
MacEoin picked five reliable comrades, Harry Flaherty, John Duffy, Ned Tynan from Clonbroney, James Brady from Gaigue, and John Clarke from Killoe. He also took “Jordy” with them. “Jordy” had related that parcels were delivered to the gate at night for Quartermaster Upton and also that sometimes soldiers would sneak into town and would whistle “Mademoiselle from Armentières” as a signal to the guards to let them back in.
(The British .303 Enfield)
So, on the night of August 18th, MacEoin, holding an empty package, and “Jordy” walked up to the guard post as Duffy, Flaherty, and Clarke crawled behind them up against the barracks wall. MacEoin, his heart no doubt pounding, began whistling “Mademoiselle from Armentières” hoping for immediate entrance but he was challenged by the guard. So he tried the backup plan, telling the guard, “I have a parcel here for Quartermaster Upton.”
That got them entrance where MacEoin, when asked for “a pass” immediately pulled his pistol on the soldier, saying “here’s my pass.” They quickly got the other three men in and pulled the two guards away from the gate. MacEoin and “Jordy” entered the guardroom where they were eight soldiers. One jumped up and MacEoin slammed the handle of his pistol into his forehead, not wanting to fire and alert the barracks. The rest of the soldiers stared at MacEoin in shocked disbelief.
The other Volunteers quickly entered and began removing rifles, ammo belts, and Mills bombs to the car now waiting by the gate. MacEoin would later save himself from capture or possibly death with a Mills bomb (right), perhaps one captured that day.
As they were getting the last of it, the soldiers on the 2nd floor of the barracks became aware of the theft going on below. They got off a few shots at the rebels as they all tumbled back into the car. MacEoin got a shot off with his pistol, believing he wounded one of the soldiers in one of the windows as they sped off with bullets flying after them.
The audacious operation had been a rousing success. None of the Volunteers were wounded or killed and they came away with 11 Enfield rifles, 550 rounds of ammunition for them, and 3 grenades. And for the Volunteers organization in Ireland as a whole, stealing arms from under the nose of the British military was a great propaganda coup. MacEoin and Connolly were not planning on sitting on their laurels, however, as they intended to put their new arms to use the very next night.
They could do this so quickly because they had already been planning the attack on Ballymahon before they obtained the rifles from Longford. For this attack, the north and south Longford battalions would be cooperating. Local men were sent out to block all the incoming roads but one to use for their escape and trees were half cut to be ready to block those behind them. Local Volunteers Andy Fox and Willie Duncan supervised the blocking of the roads. Those present that night, and in charge of small parties were as follows: Athlone road, Michael Ballesty; Longford road, M.F. Reynolds; front of barracks P. Ryan; rear and storming party Seán MacEoin, Seán Connolly, Leo Baxter, and Frank Davis.
(Below: The former RIC Barracks in Ballymahon today.)
The main attack force met at a house near the Moygh – Castlecore crossroads, where MacEoin passed out their new arsenal to the attacking forces. Frank Davis recalled that MacEoin told them, “The arms he was handing over to them were in the possession of the British Army twenty-four hours previously. He said that he expected them to use them now in a manner befitting themselves as soldiers of Ireland.”
Four men with rifles were positioned in the front of the barracks and four in the rear. Connolly led a group of about seven into Donohue’s saddler’s shop, two doors down from the barracks to execute the plan of breaking through to the Lloyd house that adjoined the barracks. He suggested they all say an “Act of Contrition” before they entered Donohue’s.
After breaking through the back of the fireplace in Donohue’s they raced up the stairs in Lloyds with pistols drawn. Running up the stairs they found the Lloyd family huddled in one bedroom, but more surprisingly, the wives of two of the constables. They were hurried down the stairs and out of harm's way as the Volunteers began the job of breaching the roof.
(Below: A group of RIC constables.)
After the “Black Bess” bombs had exploded inside the barracks, the Volunteers did not have long to wait for long for the acrid smoke to fill the rooms and get the desired outcome. Cries of “WE SURRENDER!!” were shortly heard and the constable tossed out their weapons and surrendered. The constables were marched over to the Protestant church and then locked in a building. No one on either side had been wounded. Because the barracks were connected to a row of houses, it was not burned. The Volunteers drove their two vehicles to the door of the barracks and loaded up a haul of ten rifles, five to six hundred rounds for them, and four revolvers with about fifty rounds for them.
In just two days they had added 21 Enfields to their arsenal. Virtually overnight they had gone from a county that posed little threat to any well-armed Crown forces in the area to one that had the arms and ammunition to make Longford a thorn in the side of the occupation forces. In October they captured another barracks just over the border at Arva in Co. Cavan, getting another 10 rifles.
In November they were able to form their first flying column using the rifles and ammunition they had captured. MacEoin was put in charge of the column. Connolly was sent to County Roscommon by GHQ in hopes of invigorating that county’s resistance.
(Below: The North Longford Flying Column)
MacEoin made a spirited defense of both Granard and Ballinalee in early November 1920 when the British attempted to destroy them in reprisals for the killing of RIC Inspector Philip Kelleher and an undercover RIC agent, Philip Cooney. The British returned to Granard in force on November 3rd, however, and burned most of the town. They did the same to Ballinalee on December 14th, but they are shown that the Crown Forces could not move at will anytime to destroy Irish towns. Seán MacEoin's home and forge were among the buildings burned in Ballinalee.
(Below: Martin’s cottage in Kilshrewley.)
On January 7, 1921, MacEoin barely escaped capture when the RIC raided Martin’s cottage in Kilshrewley. Getting a last-minute warning, MacEoin surprised them by opening the front door as the raiding party approached. As he opened the door he mortally wounded RIC District Inspector Thomas McGrath then tossed one of their captured Mills bombs into the group of constables coming behind McGrath. As the constable scattered, MacEoin ran to the left of the door and through a field with their bullet whizzing past his head. As he did, his comrades in the house escaped out the rear door. The Martin’s cottage was burned down in retaliation.
In January, MacEoin attempted an ambush with his flying column along with Volunteers from south Longford at Terlicken. It failed, as did so many ambushes during the war because the mines they set on the road failed to explode. In this case, it was the result of faulty detonators sent to them from Dublin. At this point in the war, even a failed attack away from the more active southeastern region of the island was welcomed by the GHQ in Dublin, but shortly the boys of Longford would do much better.
On February 2nd the MacEoin and his flying column would strike again at Clonfin, but this time there would be no failure of mines to thwart their plan. MacEoin got information that “a patrol of two lorries containing twenty R.I.C. and. Black & Tans regularly left Granard at 11 a.m. and proceeded to Longford via Ballinalee.” When they ambushed that patrol it turned out to be a patrol of the hated Auxiliares.
This time their mine, buried in the road, was successfully exploded under the lead lorry of the convoy. After a firefight of about a half-hour, MacEoin’s flying column, now amply equipped with modern military arms, overcame the resistance of the Auxies (as they were often called). Their haul of arms was the biggest yet. They captured 18 rifles, 20 revolvers, with ammunition for both, plus a Lewis machine gun, and 800 rounds of ammunition for it. They had proven they were now a force to be reconned with in this day, and now would be even better armed.
(Left: Monument to the Clonfin Ambush.)
MacEoin was extremely generous with the captured members of the Auxiliaries, treating their wounds and giving them water. Then, incredibly, he gave them the 2nd, undamaged lorry to drive their wounded to the hospital. At this point in the war that sort of mercy for the opposition was far outside the norm.
If this ambush had occurred a couple of months later, MacEoin might not have been as generous. On March 11th, his old comrade, Seán Connolly was killed in a raid at a Volunteer training camp at Selton Hill in Co. Leitrim on March 11th. Some members were also captured that day and then killed.
Connolly had been preparing to return to Co. Longford when he died. That was because MacEoin was captured on March 3rd in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath. He was badly wounded in the chest during an attempted escape after his original capture. Michael Collins valued MacEoin highly and made several unsuccessful attempts to rescue him.
In June, MacEoin was tried for the killing of DI Thomas McGrath during his escape from the Martin’s cottage. While it was going on, he was elected TD for Longford / Westmeath. One of the most amazing aspects of his trial was that three members of the Auxiliary force that had been captured at Clonfin testified on his behalf regarding his kindness to his prisoners there. The verdict, regardless of that testimony, was a foregone conclusion, however. He was convicted and sentenced to death.
The treaty would save MacEoin’s life. He was still on death row when the truce was announced. He was released in August 1921. He married Alice Cooney on June 21, 1922 with both Mick Collins and Arthur Griffith in attendance.
MacEoin sided with his good friend Collins and the pro-Treaty side during the Civil War and was a general in the Free State Army. After the war, he was a TD from the Longford area for many decades. He served as a Minister for Justice and twice was Minister for Defense and also ran unsuccessfully for president twice. MacEoin died in St. Bricin's hospital in Dublin on July 7, 1973. Today there is a statue of the “Blacksmith of Ballinalee” in his hometown.
(Right: The Seán MacEoin statue in Ballinalee.)
Seán MacEoin, Seán Connolly, and the other Volunteers in Co. Longford struggled mightily to arm themselves in the fight to establish the freedom of their nation. When they had, they stepped up and did their part in that successful struggle against extreme odds. When duty called, Longford answered.
"The Blacksmith of Ballinalee" by Padraic O'Farrell
"Rising Out: Seán Connolly of Longford" by Ernie O'Malley
“Longford's Republican story, 1900-2000” by Seán Ó Súilleabháin
The General Sean Mac Eoin (Video)
Sean MacEoin's Wedding (Silent Video)
'The Battle of Ballinalee, 4 November 1920' a talk by Bernard Sexton (Video)
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