'The Blacksmith' Hammers the Auxies at Clonfin, Longford

Irish Volunteer Paddy "Bug" Callaghan and his two comrades stared up the road to the east as the cool, crisp air of February 2, 1921, caused their breath to fog the air around them. The three members of the North Longford Battalion of the Irish Volunteers were tasked with the most critical job of that day's attempt to ambush a convoy of the hated Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) at Clonfin, County Longford. The three men were stationed to the north of the road, which is now designated R194. Callaghan had the detonator connected to a mine in the road that was the key to the ambush.

(Below: A group of Longford Volunteers: Front row - E. H. Moran, M. Heslin, S. Conway, Bernard Masterson. Back row - Bernard Garraghan, James Mulligan, M. F. Reynolds, Paddy "Bug" Callaghan.)

Leading the brigade flying column was the "Blacksmith of Ballinalee," Seán MacEoin. MacEoin and eight other Volunteers were hidden in an ancient ring fort in a field on the south side of the road. The column had been in their positions since 5 or 6 a.m., depending on whose account is correct. By midafternoon, there was still no sign of the Crown forces. One of the Auxies, as the Auxiliaries were often called, later called it "a cold, bleak day." Waiting in place in such cold weather would have been very hard on MacEoin's men. Many planned ambushes ended with the enemy never appearing, but MacEoin elected to wait longer.

Around 3 p.m., MacEoin's patience was rewarded as the sound of lorries was heard in the east, toward Granard. MacEoin waved across to "Bug" Callaghan to get ready. The mine had to work, and the performance of mines made by the Volunteers had been spotty at best. MacEoin had ordered no one to fire until the mine exploded under the lead lorry. So the mine exploding was vital to the attack.

Behind the wall in the field north of the road, Callaghan waited anxiously, fingering the detonator's trigger, knowing a faulty detonator had thwarted their last attempted ambush. Then, as the front end of the lead Crossley Tender moved over the mine, "Bug" pressed the detonator, hoping the next thing he heard would be a massive explosion to begin the Clonfin Ambush.

When the 1st Battalion of the Longford Brigade of the Irish Volunteers began to form in late 1918 into the beginning of 1919, MacEoin was its commanding officer, and Seán Connolly (right) was its vice commander. MacEoin was born in Ballinalee, County Longford, on September 30, 1893, in the home of his mother, Katherine's grandparents, the Treacys. His father, Andrew, was a blacksmith, like most male family members 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."

Seán Connolly was born in 1890 in France, not the country in Europe, but the small town just southeast of Ballinalee, County 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 Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), and both were original members of the Clonbroney Circle of the IRB.

Though it was one of the smallest counties in Ireland, Seán MacEoin and his comrade Seán Connolly had kept the North Longford Brigade very active in the first part of Cogadh na Saoirse (the Irish War of Independence). They were doing what every other Volunteer unit around the island had to do: gather enough weapons and ammunition to become a viable fighting force. Like the other units, they first tried gathering as many hunting rifles and shotguns (below) as they could from the local gentry, but that was never going to allow them to meet the forces of the Crown on anywhere near equal footing. To do that, they needed modern, long-range military-quality rifles.

By the start of the War, according to member Michael Reynolds of Killoe, they had "a few Winchester rifles, about a dozen revolvers of different pattern and a large number of shotguns – about 70 all told." Shotguns, however, are only good for close-quarters fighting. And the various different weapons meant they needed numerous different kinds of ammunition. What they needed was what the Crown forces had, lots of standard military rifles that all took the same ammunition. So they had to acquire the .303 Enfield rifle (below), and the place to get them was from the RIC and the British military.

The first significant attempt to take arms from the RIC in the county was in January 1920 at Drumlish Barracks. This attempt was foiled, as so many Volunteer attacks would be, by the failure of a bomb to explode. In this instance, that was caused by having let their gelignite get damp.

By the summer of 1920, most of Longford's more rural RIC barracks had been abandoned. Those left open were at Granard, Longford, Edgeworthstown, Drumlish, Lanesboro, Ballinamuck, and Ballymahon. So the Volunteers in County Longford had to look at those targets to obtain arms.

They mobilized over 100 men in an attempt to capture the barracks at Edgeworthstown. But as they got in place to make the attack, they got word that the 9th Lancers had left Longford on horseback and appeared to be headed toward Edgeworthstown. It turned out that they were merely exercising their horses, but the danger was too great to take a chance. The operation was called off.

(Left: Two members of the 9th Lancers in France during World War 1.)

MacEoin and Connolly were frustrated but began planning another attempt to obtain arms. Their next target was the very formidable stone RIC barracks at Ballinamuck. On the night of June 19, Connolly led a group that surreptitiously made their way to the back of the barracks, using a ladder borrowed from Reilly's Pub to attempt to set the barracks on fire. This time their gelignite was not wet, and their bomb exploded to ignite the fire on the roof. Connolly tossed a few bottles of gasoline on it to feed the flames.

(Below: Ballinamuck RIC barracks.)

Their bomb-making had improved, but their luck in obtaining arms had not. The constables were able to retreat to an outbuilding that had a clear field of fire around it. This gave the Volunteers no way to approach and attack it. So once again, they had to withdraw without capturing any weapons. They did have two more gelignite bombs, which they knew worked now. They would put them to good use.

Before that happened, they were able to obtain some rifles from the British army through a bit of serendipity. One of the Volunteers became acquainted with a soldier from the 18th Lancers stationed in Longford. He was known as "Jordy" and was willing to sneak rifles and ammunition out of what was called the Upper Barracks. He managed to pass two rifles out of a loophole in the wall one night and also smuggled some ammunition. The missing rifles and ammunition were noticed immediately. He was not able to smuggle out more rifles but attempted to smuggle out more ammo and was caught.

MacEoin (left) had plans to use "Jordy" for something bigger and arranged to have him broken out. His plan was a bold one. Using inside information from "Jordy" about where the weapons in the barracks were stored and how they were guarded, MacEoin planned to steal the arms in the guard shack.

MacEoin picked five reliable comrades -- Harry Flaherty and John Duffy from Ballinalee, Ned Tynan from Clonbroney, James Brady from Gaigue, and John Clarke from Killoe -- for this daring operation. On the night of August 18, using the information from "Jordy" that packages were often delivered to the quartermaster at the main gate at night, MacEoin walked up to it with an empty box.

"I have a parcel here for Quartermaster Upton," MacEoin told the guard. That got them entrance where MacEoin, when asked for "a pass," immediately pulled his pistol on the soldier, saying, "Here's my pass!" In minutes they had the soldiers in the guard house held prisoner, though MacEoin had to thump one on the head with his pistol. The Volunteers quickly cleaned out all the rifles, ammo, and grenades held there. The soldiers upstairs of the barracks managed to get off a few shots at the escaping raiders, but none were hit.

The daring 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 three 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 to sit on their laurels; they intended to put their new arms to use the next night. So with those added weapons and their two bombs, MacEoin set their sights on Ballymahon RIC barracks.

(Below: The former Ballymahon RIC barracks.)

They could do this quickly because they had already planned the attack on Ballymahon before obtaining the rifles from Longford. 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 24 hours previously. He said that he expected them to use them now in a manner befitting themselves as soldiers of Ireland."

They attacked the barracks by occupying the building adjoining it, then getting on its roof and chopping a hole. Their bombs once again exploded, and the barracks was soon on fire. The Volunteers did not have to wait long for the acrid smoke to fill the rooms and get the desired outcome. Cries of "WE SURRENDER!!" soon rang out. They captured 10 rifles, 500-600 rounds for them, and four revolvers with about 50 rounds for those.

MacEoin and his men added 21 modern Enfield rifles to their arsenal in just two days. Suddenly they had gone from being a poorly armed, tiny county guerilla unit to a force to be reckoned with -- and one with aggressive leadership. Then, in October, they captured another barracks just over the border at Arva in County Cavan, getting another 10 rifles. They now had the arms, ammunition, motivation, and experience to make Longford a thorn in the side of the occupation forces. Using these arms, they formed their first flying column in November. MacEoin was put in charge of the column. Connolly was sent to County Roscommon by GHQ, hoping to invigorate that county's resistance.

On November 3rd and 4th, MacEoin and the flying column put the British on notice that Longford was ready to fight. A large Crown force arrived in MacEoin's hometown of Ballinalee on the night of November 3rd, likely intending to burn it in retaliation for the killing of RIC Inspector Philip Kelleher on October 31st. Thus far in the war, the Crown forces were used to showing up in force and carrying out reprisals with impunity. But not this time. MacEoin and his well-armed column were waiting for them.

(Left: RIC Inspector Philip Kelleher.)

They repulsed the British that night. With the advantage the British had in mobility, there was no way for the Volunteers to always be in position to thwart them, however. On November 14th, the crown forces returned to Ballinalee and wreaked havoc on the town. Seán MacEoin's home and forge were among the buildings burned that day.

For outnumbered guerilla fighters, protecting a static position is impossible. Instead, they depend on movement and stealth to hit hard and run before reinforcements arrive. As the new year started, MacEoin was ready to put that plan to work with his flying column. He was nearly captured before he could do that, however.

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 behind McGrath. He escaped, but Martin's cottage was burned down in retaliation.

(Right: The now rebuilt Martin's Cottage.)

In January, MacEoin attempted an ambush with his flying column at Terlicken. It failed, as did so many planned attacks during the war because the mines they set on the road failed to explode. In this case, faulty detonators had been sent to them from Dublin.

Shortly after that, Mick Mulligan from Willsbrook suggested Clonfin as a suitable location for an attack on one of the contingents of Auxiliary forces that moved regularly between Granard and Longford. Seán Mac Eoin and Seán Duffy inspected the area and picked an exact location.

The North Longford Battalion was now making mines for themselves. They planned to use one at Clonfin that was built at Fenney's in Ballymore. Stories vary on how the bomb was transported to Clonfin. According to one, Volunteer Tom Burke transported it in a wheelbarrow that night. Another says it was delivered in an ass-drawn cart by young Matt Farrell. However it got there, the big question was whether the detonator would work this time.

(Below: A map of the Clonfin Ambush.)

Before dawn on February 2nd, the mine was buried just east of the bridge over the Camlin River that marked the border between Granard and Clonbroney parishes. Paddy "Bug" Callaghan (Clonbroney), Jim Sheeran (Killoe), and Mick Kerry (Clonbroney) buried the detonator wire to the side of the road and then unrolled it up to a spot behind a stone wall. This "bombing group" was only about 40 yards to the north of the road. Callaghan, fearing a passing vehicle might damage the wire, cut off the barrel of a Queen Anne shotgun and ran the wire through that to the edge of the road.

(Below: A post-War of Independence photo of the North Longford Flying Column. Includes many of the men who fought at Clonfin.)

To the south of the road, in an old ring fort, MacEoin had his command post. Seán Duffy (Ballinalee) commanded seven other Volunteers in the fort, Tom Brady (Cartronmarkey), Paddy Finnegan (Molly), Mick Mulligan (Willsbrook), Mick Gormley (Killoe), Jack Hughes (Scrabby), "Bun" McDowell (Clonbroney), and Séamus Conway (Clonbroney). They were to be the main attacking force.

Also, on the south side of the road, further to the east, MacEoin stationed six men in two houses to cover the route from Granard. Michael Reynolds (Killoe) commanded that group. It included Seán Moore (Streete), James Brady (Ballinamuck), and Paddy Lynch (Colmcille), who were with Reynolds in the Brady house, and Seán Sexton (Ballinalee) and Larry Geraghty (Ballymore) were in the Farrell house. Finally, on the north side, further to the west, on some high ground near Callaghan's group, McEoin stationed Séamus Farrelly (Purth), Hugh Hourican (Clonbroney), and Pat Cooke (Tubber). They were ordered to watch for any reinforcements from the Ballinalee direction and to help protect Callaghan's group.

His force of 21 would likely be close to the number of Auxiliaries in the two lorries they expected to ambush. In most successful ambushes during the war, the Volunteers outnumbered the force they attacked. MacEoin depended on the mine to put at least some of them out of commission, and unlike most other Volunteer ambushing forces, all of his men had Enfield rifles. They also had 150 rounds of ammo per man; the Volunteers were prepared for a long fight.

(Left: Members of the Cumann na mBann with their vital bicycles.)

When the convoy had not arrived by noon, MacEoin had Kate Anne Mulligan, a member of Cumann na mBan and a sister of Volunteer Mick Mulligan, cycle into Granard to check on enemy activity. She returned with news that there had been no movement of any Crown forces in Granard all day.

It was beginning to look like this would be another of the many futile attempted ambushes by the Volunteers. MacEoin had the men go around the local houses to get food so they could remain in place longer. As was usually the case, the local people were ready to support the Irish rebels. The nearby Duffy, Brady and Conroy homes donated food and tea.

At one point, two civilian gentlemen came walking toward Granard and stopped, noticing the disturbed ground where the mine was buried. The Volunteers held their breath as the men paused and debated the cause of this disturbance. Luckily, they moved on without doing more than talking about it.

(Below: Members of the Auxiliary Division in a Crossley Tender.)

Not long after that, the lorries were finally heard approaching from Granard. The Auxiliaries had been patrolling around the Granard area and were returning to their base in Longford. According to Auxiliary Cadet Thomas Wilford, they had been drinking in Granard before departing and were singing "Swanee" in the lead lorry as they approached the ambush area. And, as if the Volunteers needed more incentive, the Auxies had confiscated an Irish tri-color flag somewhere, and orne of the tenders was dragging it behind them.

When "Bug" Callaghan squeezed the trigger of his detonator, not only did the mine explode this time, he timed it perfectly as the lorry passed over it. The lorry, with the Auxies in the 2nd verse of "Swanee," was blown into the air. It tossed many of the Auxiliares out into the road. The lorry came to a halt in the middle of the road, causing the 2nd lorry to halt as well.

Making all the vehicles stop was a crucial element in such ambushes. Many failed because the vehicles were able to speed away. Once halted, they were usually at a distinct disadvantage if the attackers had chosen their location well. Clonfin was well chosen, with little cover for the defenders and open fields of fire for the Volunteers.

As the echo of the mine explosion died away, the Volunteers opened fire on the two lorries. One of the Auxiliaries from the lead lorry managed to get a Lewis light machine gun (below) into action, Getting a machine gun firing often proved critical in allowing the Crown forces to suppress fire during a Volunteer ambush. But the man was on the road, exposed.

MacEoin had placed Jim Sheeran in the closest position, with Callaghan in the "bombing group" for such a situation. Sheeran was a veteran of the British army who had helped train many of the Volunteers in the early days of the North Longford Battalion. He was an excellent marksman, and that paid off now as he hit the man firing the Lewis gun. When a second Auxie attempted to fire it, he was also shot. No one tried to get to the gun again after that.

(Below: Volunteer Jim Sheeran)

The Auxies were in a terrible spot. Their only cover was from the two lorries and ditches on the side of the road. But the ditches were full of water, and movement to the west was blocked by the Camlin River. Many of the Auxies were injured in the mine blast or wounded before they reached any cover. Their commanding officer, District Inspector Francis Craven, was hit in the leg at the start of the ambush but refused to take cover, limping up and down the line of his men, encouraging them. However, their position was desperate, and MacEoin called out for them to surrender several times, but they refused.

Cadet Thomas Wilford and a few other Auxies took cover in the river, under the bridge. Wilford later recalled that his marksmanship faltered "from the chill by immersion in an Irish river in the month of February." Cadet Thomas Richardson was one of the other Auxies in the river with Wilford. Richard had been wounded in the leg or foot but told Wilford, "Carry on, old boy, I'm off to get help from Ballinalee." He then crossed over to the river's west side and ran for it. The Volunteers spotted him and fired on him, but he got away.

MacEoin knew every minute the fight went on increased the possibility of enemy reinforcement. So he sent three men from the fort, Seán Duffy, Tom Brady, and Mick Gormley, down to the road east of the lorries, using a farm wall for cover. That put them closer, and they could fire down the road at the Auxiliaries, putting them in a three-way crossfire. Shortly after, Craven was hit in the neck and brought to the ground.

Francis Worthington Craven was born in Manchester, England, in 1889, had been a Royal Navy officer during World War 1. While commanding the destroyer HMS Moursey in October 1918, he had won the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) from the British and the U.S. Army DSM (Distinguished Service Medal) for his actions in going to the aid of the sinking HMS Otranto. He saved over 600 men that day, including over 300 Americans.

(Right: Craven in his navy uniform.)

With Craven now on the ground, mortally wounded, the Volunteers had broken the will of his men. Finally, one of the Auxies waved his hand and yelled, "WE SURRENDER!" Wilford tossed his Enfield and pistol into the river and crawled out with his hands up. However, the muzzle of his Enfield was protruding over the water, and it was recovered. The pistol, he later suggested, must be there still.

One of the Auxies asked for his rifle back, but only so he might shoot "the fecking deserter," i.e., Richardson. Later events would show that Richardson did, indeed, return with help. MacEoin congratulated the Auxies on putting up a good fight and immediately had his men give first aid to the wounded Auxies. Wilford said that when one Volunteer suggested shooting him, perhaps for tossing his weapons in the river, MacEoin said, "Don't touch him; it has been a fair fight."

(Below: A group of Black & Tans at the ambush site the next day, standing in the hole where the mine exploded.)

Craven was still alive and spoke with MacEoin before he died there. MacEoin later said they engaged in a short debate about the justification for the Irish revolt. He claimed that he explained to Craven that he and his Auxiliaries were an "alien force" and the Irish had a right to attack them. He stated that Craven admitted, "I believe you are right; I wish you success," just before dying. It was undoubtedly a remarkable pro-Irish story but perhaps more propaganda than fact.

There is no doubt that MacEoin treated the captured Auxiliaries with sympathy and respect. The Volunteers tended their wounds, and MacEoin even allowed them to use the undamaged lorry to travel back to Granard while setting the damaged lorry on fire. Only five of the 19 Auxiliaries who were there were listed as "unwounded." Craven and Cadet John Aldridge Houghton died at the scene. Cadets George Bush, a former Black & Tan who transferred to the Auxiliaries in November, and Harold Clayton died two days later in the hospital.

(Right: Cadet John Aldridge Houghton)

Unfortunately, MacEoin spent so long taking care of the injured Auxies that they were very nearly captured themselves. Seán Duffy had been urging MacEoin to hurry for some time. Cadet Richardson had been good to his word. He had commandeered a vehicle at gunpoint and gotten a force of Back & Tans to help. As they approached from Ballinalee, MacEoin, Duffy, Séamus Conway, and Tom Brady were the only Volunteers left at the ambush scene. The bulk of the group, loaded with weapons and ammo, had departed to the north, toward the Clonfin bog. As the four men on the road opened fire on the Crown forces to the west, they hurried off the road to the north. Part of the Black & Tan force moved up a boreen to the north, hoping to cut them off.

(Below: Seán Duffy, one of the Volunteers who stayed behind with MacEoin.)

What was the best day of the war for the North Longford Volunteers was now in danger of becoming their biggest disaster. Hearing the firing from their rear, the main body of the flying column reversed course and engaged the Black & Tans that had moved up the boreen. That attack allowed MacEoin's group to reach them, and they all moved off together. But the Black & Tans continued to pursue them. Finally, they arrived at a small wooden footbridge over the Camlin River, where it would be dangerous to try to cross. They turned and attacked the pursuing Black & Tans as darkness was falling. With the Volunteers knowing the terrain far better than the Crown forces, the Black & Tans retreated.

MacEoin and his flying column had averted disaster, and they had captured 18 rifles, 20 revolvers, ammunition for both, a Lewis machine gun, and 800 rounds of ammo for it. Moreover, they had defeated the vaunted Auxiliaries, the elite fighting force of the RIC. If they did not know it before, the British in Dublin Castle now knew that the Volunteers in County Longford had to be taken seriously.

The Auxiliaries had suffered four killed and at least 10 wounded, along with the embarrassment of surrendering to the Irish Volunteer amateurs. The Volunteers had suffered only one man slightly wounded, Tom Brady.

The Black & Tans returned to the ambush area the following day and murdered 70-year-old Michael Farrell, whom they said was "attempting to evade arrest." They set the Farrell home alight, but it went out. The nearby Duffy home was not so lucky; they burned it down, making Tom Duffy and his wife watch.

(Right: The monument to the Clonfin Ambush.)

MacEoin now had enough Enfields to arm a huge flying column, but he would never have the chance to employ it. MacEoin was captured on March 3 in Mullingar, County Westmeath. He was severely 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.

While he was being held, he got the news that his old comrade Seán Connolly was killed in a raid at a Volunteer training camp at Selton Hill in County Leitrim on March 11. In addition, some of the Volunteers were reported to have been executed after being captured. Had this occurred before Clonfin, one wonders if MacEoin would have been as magnanimous.

In June, MacEoin was tried for the killing of DI Thomas McGrath during his escape from Martin's cottage. While it was going on, he was elected TD for Longford / Westmeath. The trial included one of the most unusual occurrences of any trial in Irish history. Three members of the Auxiliaries who were captured at Clonfin were called as character witnesses for MacEoin. But, of course, the verdict in any British military trial of an Irish prisoner was never in doubt. MacEoin was convicted and sentenced to death.

Luckily for MacEoin, the truce and subsequent treaty would save his life. He was released in August 1921. He married Alice Cooney on June 21, 1922, with Mick Collins and Arthur Griffith in attendance.

Unlike the famous Volunteer leaders from the west of Ireland, 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, MacEoin was a TD from the Longford area for many decades. He served as a Minister for Justice twice, as Minister for Defense and ran unsuccessfully for president twice. Today there is a statue of the "Blacksmith of Ballinalee" in his hometown. In 1971, a monument commemorating the ambush was unveiled on its 50th anniversary. Several participants, including the 77-year-old MacEoin, attended. MacEoin died in St. Bricin's hospital in Dublin on July 7, 1973.

Seán MacEoin, Seán Connolly, and the other Volunteers in County Longford went through a tremendous struggle to build the Volunteer organization and bring the fight to the Crown forces in their small county against extreme odds. County Longford can be proud that when the future of its nation was in peril, its sons and daughters answered the call.

RELATED LINKS:

"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

Ballymahon Barracks Attack: Arming the Boys of Longford

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Sean MacEoin's Wedding (Silent Video)

Colorized Version of MacEoin's Wedding (Video)

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'The Battle of Ballinalee, 4 November 1920' a talk by Bernard Sexton (Video)

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Tags: Black & Tans, History of Ireland, IRA, Irish Freedom Struggle, Irish Volunteers, Irish War of Independence, Longford, War


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Comment by Joe Gannon on January 28, 2023 at 2:14pm


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Comment by Joe Gannon on January 28, 2023 at 3:08pm

This film tells the story of the Clonfin ambush and the North Longford Flying Column through a combination of interviews with historians and relatives of those who took part in the action; the use of images and archival footage; and dramatic reconstructions. Professor Marie Coleman of Queen’s University Belfast, an expert on County Longford in the revolutionary period, was the historical advisor on the project, and Dr Mel Farrell (Royal Irish Academy) and Professor Diarmaid Ferriter (UCD) also contributed to it.


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Comment by Joe Gannon on January 28, 2023 at 3:11pm

The General Sean Mac Eoin

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