Tuesday, May 3, 1921 was a beautiful, sunny day in the nearly treeless Partry Mountains above the town of Tourmakeady, County Mayo, but Tom Maguire was in no condition to enjoy the weather. Maguire, the C/O of the South Mayo Flying Column, from Cross, was lying on his back, bleeding from a bullet wound in his right arm. There were about 30 members of the column spread around the hillside near him. Kneeling above him, his second in command, Michael O’Brien, from Kildrum, was pressing a bandage to the wound trying to staunch the flow of blood.
(Above: The South Mayo Flying Column. Below: The Partry Mountains west of Tourmakeady)
As Maguire looked over O’Brien’s shoulder, he saw a tall man approaching in his shirt sleeves. It looked like Michael Costello, a Volunteer from Srah. Thank God, he thought, hoping Costello had brought more reinforcements with him to fight off the British troops he knew were closing in on them. Suddenly he realized his error. This was not Costello at all. It was a British soldier who had removed his tunic. Maguire cried out “look out” to O’Brien and the rest of his men at the same time as the soldier, Lt. Geoffrey Ibberson of the 2nd Battalion, The Border Regiment, yelled, “Come, my Borders; Hands Up, Surrender!"
But it was a bluff, he had outrun the squad he was commanding and was by himself. O’Brien, his hands soaked with Maguire’s blood, grabbed his rifle and lifted it to fire. Ibberson lifted his at the same moment and the two fired almost simultaneously. As the supine Maguire looked on helplessly he wondered if what had started out as an ambush by the South Mayo Flying Column was about to end with its annihilation.
(Below: Tom Maguire)
Tom Maguire, from Cross, joined the Volunteers in 1913 and raised a Volunteer company there in 1918. Before the year ended, Ballinrobe was the center of a battalion formed by companies from Ballinrobe, Cross, Ballyglass, and Srah. At first, there was just one brigade organization for County Mayo, but in July 1920 it was divided into four brigades. Tom Maguire was appointed brigade commandant of the South Mayo Brigade with Michael O’Brien as brigade adjutant.
Michael Collins then dispatched Peadar MacMahon to County Mayo to help instruct the newly formed brigades. MacMahan, a native of Ballybay, County Monaghan, had taken part in the Easter Rising and had been interred afterward at Frongoch, sometimes called a virtual “school for revolution,” along with Michael Collins and other leaders of the Republican cause.
As was the case in many parts of Ireland, the Volunteer organizations in Mayo were slow to begin large attacks, but as the Black & Tans began to arrive in late spring and early summer and the Dublin GHQ began to pressure Volunteer organizations everywhere to organize flying columns, the conflict was about to enter a new, more intense phase. Collins wanted to compel the Crown forces to defend themselves all over the island.
After the “Order of Ireland Act” was passed in August, the RIC / Black & Tans, and later in the year the Auxiliaries, began to raid homes all over Mayo. This resulted in the destruction of many homes around the county, some belonging to members of the Volunteers or Sinn Fein, but others of totally innocent civilians. It also caused Maguire and most of the leaders and many other members of the Volunteer organizations to go “on the run.” The desired goal of the government policy was the destruction of the Volunteer organization and the suppression of public support for them, but as had been the case when they executed the leaders of the Easter Rising, it had the opposite effect.
Volunteers who were “on the run” became full-time soldiers in the flying columns forming around the island, and citizens who were outraged at the abominable conduct of the Black & Tans became the sea amongst whom Mao would later say the guerilla fighter must swim. As 1920 came to a close, however, there had been no major attacks in the county. The Crown forces in Mayo believed their tactics were working, but they were wrong. In late 1920, the South Mayo Brigade formed its “Flying Column.” The column moved from place to place by night and often stayed in Caher or in Mellett’s of Cloonenagh.
On January 6, 1921, the staff of the four Mayo Volunteer Brigades met and pledged to begin to attempt larger-scale attacks in their areas. It was easier said than done, however, as their armaments were limited, and knowing when an RIC or army patrol might be vulnerable and finding the right location to set up an ambush took intelligence information they often lacked. Maguire’s brigade, like the others, was at first mainly armed with shotguns, which were useless at long range. Their only fairly modern military rifles were six Mauser model 71 rifles (below), part of the Howth gun-running shipment in July 1914. The single-shot rifles were already obsolete but were cheap and better than anything else the Volunteers had.
In March, Maguire got information that two Crossley Tenders would carry a squad of the 2nd Battalion, The Border Regiment, north from Ballinrobe to Castlebar on Monday, the 7th. The main road, N-84 today, did not afford many good ambush sites, but Magure set one up about a mile north of Partry, at Kilfall. He gave Martin Conroy, from Gortnacoille, and two other Volunteers the Mausers and instructed them to target the driver of the lorry stopping it, where it would be surrounded. Conroy was a hunter and considered a very good shot. When Maguire asked Conroy if he could get the driver, he said, “I’d get him if he was a snipe.”
He did get the driver, stopping the Dennis 3-Ton Lorry (left), and the ambush was a rousing success. With the Volunteers being at close range behind the roadside walls, their shotguns were effective. The commanding officer of the soldiers, Captain Chatfield, was badly wounded in the knee and several other soldiers were hit, with one, Corporal Bell, dying of his wounds five days later. British casualties might have been worse, but one of the Volunteers had been given a number of grenades to throw, and did, but in the excitement of his first action he forgot to pull the pins. Maguire recalled how they were “rolling down the road like pebbles and not exploding.” Maguire's column had the British badly outnumbered and surrounded, and they shortly surrendered. None of the volunteers were hit and they captured 10 Lee Enfield rifles, the best infantry weapon the British army had. After they collected their weapons, Michael O’Brien did some first aid on the wounded, and they were left unharmed.
In some parts of the island by March 1921 prisoners were being summarily executed by the Volunteers in retaliation for the many Volunteers now being officially executed by the British. Perhaps because Mayo had not been very active in the war to this point, and the Volunteers there had not suffered as many losses, it did not happen at Kilfall, nor at Carrowkennedy two months later when the West Mayo Brigade captured a large number of RIC and Black & Tans. In the aftermath of Kilfall, however, a local farmer, Thomas Horan, who had nothing to do with the ambush, was shot and killed by a British soldier in his home in front of his young daughter.
For Maguire’s flying column Kilfall had not only been a boost for their morale, it had also increased their long-range firepower with the added Lee-Enfields. It would be another two months, however, before they were able to successfully ambush the Crown forces again. Though many outlying RIC stations had been abandoned, there was one at Derrypark, near the southwest shore of Lough Mask, that had been heavily fortified during the land wars and was still open. Knowing it was resupplied once a month and had not been in a few weeks, Maguire formed a plan to ambush the next resupply convoy. There is only one road along the western shore of Lough Mask (R-300 today). Maguire and O’Brien scouted it and chose the town of Tourmakeady, 6 miles north of Derrypark, expecting the column would likely go through there on the way out or the way back. It was unusual to set up an ambush in a town, and Tourmakeady was a mainly Protestant town, but perhaps Maguire thought the RIC would not expect an ambush there for that reason.
On Saturday, April 30th, Maguire began to move the flying column from the Caher area on the eastern shore of Lough Mask to the west to set up the ambush. This was a dangerous operation as Lough Corrib to the south and Lough Carra to the north created bottlenecks where the column could easily be intercepted if the British got wind of their movements. To make the group smaller and less conspicuous, half the men were sent by rowboat over Lough Mask while the other half went overland around the north of Lough Mask. The boat trip proved harrowing, as the boatman of the two boats lost their bearings during the very dark night. It took them three hours to reach their destination at the northern tip of Lough Mask, at the bridge over the Cloon River. There they reunited with the rest of the column that had traveled the perilous overland route without incident.
They stayed in the mountains near Srah for two days before moving out for an ambush at Tourmakeady that would remain one of the controversial of the war to the present day. One of the puzzling questions about the ambush was: How did they know to set up the ambush that day? Maguire said that Patrick Vahey, a Volunteer who worked at Birmingham’s and Co. wholesale shop in Ballinrobe, where the RIC picked up their supplies the day they went to Derrypark, was to bring them word as soon as that happened. It took at least two hours to fill the order, so he would have time. But Maguire’s column was already in position at Tourmakeady on Tuesday morning before Vahey headed to tell them the resupply column was loading up. All the residents of this loyalist village had to be rounded up and held under guard, both to prevent them from warning the convoy and for their own safety as well. They were placed in the Robinson’s house, south of where the ambush was set up. Their original force of about 25 was bolstered to around 60 by local Volunteers.
(Below: RIC Sergeant Henry Goulden)
The son of RIC Sergeant Henry Goulden, who later interviewed other constables in addition to his father, claimed that there was no plan to send the resupply column that day until they found out that their one Crossley Tender would have to make a delivery to Swinford that afternoon and would be gone for several days. So the decision was made to resupply Derrypark immediately. Yet Maguire made the decision Monday night to set up the ambush the following morning, and since this ambush would be in a town, they could only set it up once. How could they be sure they were coming that day? Some sources say the resupply went on the same day every month, but that sort of predictability seems unlikely and is disputed by RIC sources. It’s a question that was never really adequately answered by any of the participants, and likely never will be answered.
However it may have come about, as the resupply column departed from Ballinrobe perhaps a little after noon, Maguire and his flying column were in position in Tourmakeady waiting for them. Maguire divided his forces into three groups of about 16. Just past the road junction and the post office, he placed a section under Paddy May of Ballinrobe near the gate to Drumbane House on the east side of the road. Just north of them, in and around the Post Office, Maguire commanded the middle group, and north of him in an area called “Fair Green,” by Hewitt’s Hotel, Michael O’Brien commanded the northern group. The groups were about 200 yards apart with other Volunteers scattered between the two groups to keep them in touch. Patrick Vahey soon arrived to confirm that the convoy was on the way.
Willie Billington (the postmaster) was allowed to stay in the Post Office to answer his phone (under guard, no doubt) to avoid giving anyone the idea something was wrong. His wife, seeing Maguire giving orders to set up the ambush, asked Volunteer Jack Ferguson who that man was. In typical cheeky Irish style, Ferguson replied that it was Michael Collins. Mrs. Billington then offered “Mick” a cup of tea, and “Collins” accepted her kind offer.
(Left: Jack Ferguson)
Maguire did not have long to wait after his “cuppa” for the action to begin. His plan was to shoot the driver of the lead vehicle to stop it as they did at Kilfall, not set up a roadblock. It was a risky plan since they would continue on their way if the shot was missed. May’s southern group was to do that, which would stop the following vehicles in front of one of the other groups. The column only had a handful of rifles, perhaps 6 or 8, with most of the rest having shotguns, but if the fight was kept at close range those could be effective.
(Below: A Ford Model T Touring Car)
As the tense group of Volunteers lay in wait for the RIC convoy, the sunny, warm May weather belied the deadly conflict that was about to take place. As they waited, the Volunteers took custody of a number of who passed by or went to the post office. When a local priest came along in his horse and trap, however, he was allowed to pass by. Somewhere around 1 p.m., word was passed down that “they are coming.” Maguire had thought there might be three vehicles in the convoy, but there were just two: a Ford Touring Car leading and one Crossley Tender. As the Ford approached May’s men at the Drumbane gate, they opened fire.
The initial part of the plan succeeded, as the first volley killed the driver, Constable Christopher O’Regan. The car crashed and the other three Constables in the car attempted to return fire, but the shotguns were deadly at that close range and all three were quickly hit. RIC sergeant John Regan and Constable Hubert Oakes, a Black & Tan, were killed. Constable Pat Flynn survived by feigning death. The Volunteers collected their weapons, getting either three or four rifles, depending on the source.
(Below: O'Toole's shop and pub, formerly the Hewitt Hotel)
Meanwhile, things had not gone as well with the attack on the nine constables in the Crossley Tender. They stopped near Hewitt’s Hotel as they heard the firing on the Ford and immediately came under fire themselves. Constable William Power was killed and Constable John Morrow suffered a wound to his arm that would later cause its amputation. But the survivors were well-armed and led by Head Constable Frawley. They used rifle grenades to drive off the Volunteers who were behind the wall in front of the hotel, which allowed them to take cover inside the stone building. That building is still there and is now O’Toole’s shop and pub.
Once inside the hotel, the constables had a virtual fortress; making the decision by Maguire to retreat with the column an easy one. He told the local men to return to their homes as he retreated with about 25 men westward, into the Partry Mountains. They moved out on the only road leading west out over the mountain ridge. Most accounts agree on the basics of the ambush, but accounts diverge widely regarding the British attempts to capture Maguire’s retreating column that followed.
(Below: The road leading west out of Tourmakeady into the Partry Mountains.)
Maguire made one serious mistake as the column left Tourmakeady. He failed to cut the lines of the post office phone. Though some accounts of the aftermath of the ambush claim that the British in Ballinrobe were alerted to the attack by a wireless set at Derrypark, which RIC sources say didn’t exist, it seems most likely that the word was received in Ballinrobe from the surviving RIC members by the post office phone. Had he cut the phone line the day’s action probably would have been over. Around the time the column left the road, heading north, cross country over the Partry Mountains, members of the Border Regiment were getting ready to leave Ballinrobe under the command of Lt. Ibberson. He also sent telegrams requesting help from another company of the Border Regiment in Castlebar and the RIC in Westport. The escape route over the mountains was then, as it is now, quite tree-less and barren, affording little cover.
Ibberson split his force into three sections. He ordered Lt. Craig to move up the mountains from the Srah with 20 men and two Lewis guns to block any move of the Volunteers in that direction, while he and Lt. Smith moved down past Tourmakeady and swung around and came up from the south, hopefully sweeping Maguire’s flying column into Craig. From high in the Partry Mountains, Maguire claimed later, he saw “dust clouds” from an estimated 24 British lorries on the Srah – Tourmakeady road, but that seems very unlikely. It was a bit before 3:30 p.m. as Ibberson started his pursuit. He had guessed correctly on Maguire’s escape route; it was a good plan.
Like many good combat plans, however, it didn’t go exactly the way he laid it out. Part of that was Ibberson’s own fault. He was a cross-country runner and had much more stamina than the soldiers with him. Rather than slow down to allow them to keep up with him on that warm day, he left them panting behind him. He later said that seeing the bodies of the dead constables filled him with “anger and desire for revenge,” which may have caused him to make the mistake of leaving his men behind. He even stripped off his tunic and puttees as he hurried onward.
(Left: A mixed convoy of RIC and British Military.)
Meanwhile, Lt. Smith had been distracted by two men he found moving in a different direction, one of whom had a shotgun. Patrick King and Peter Hallinan were sent into Tourmakeady under guard, reducing his force, where they were severely beaten by the irate constables. But by going off in the wrong direction, Smith had lost contact with Ibberson’s group and took no part in action against Maguire’s column. The RIC was also holding another Volunteer at the hotel. Padraig Feeney, a 22-year-old Volunteer who had left Ballinrobe too late by bicycle while also thinking to alert the column that the RIC convoy was coming, arrived in Tourmakeady and was taken prisoner by the RIC survivors. Later that day Feeney was either taken from the hotel and “shot while escaping,” i.e., executed, like so many other Volunteer prisoners during the war, or else actually did attempt to escape and was shot. Which is true we shall never be certain.
Ibberson caught up with Maguire's column and fired some rounds at them, possibly wounding Maguire, though Maguire claimed he was hit by Lt. Craig’s Lewis gun, which opened on them shortly after that. Whoever fired the round, Maguire suffered a severe wound to the right arm. It was at that point that Ibberson, emboldened by the fact that Lt. Craig had the column pinned down with the Lewis gun, launched his reckless solo attack.
Seconds after he and O’Brien fired at each other, Ibberson watched O’Brien slump to the ground mortally wounded across Maguire’s legs. Ibberson’s round passed through O’Brien and hit Maguire in the shoulder. Though he had killed him, Ibberson would later praise the heroic actions of Michael O’Brien in exposing himself and sacrificing his life trying to assist Maguire. The young officer had little time to enjoy winning his duel with O’Brien, however, as one or more of the Volunteers opened fire with their shotguns, riddling him with buckshot in the arms and chest. His Lee-Enfield hit the ground, and he staggered down the mountainside.
(Right: Michael O'Brien)
While Ibberson’s actions were certainly heroic, they were also foolhardy, and his actions in leaving the rest of his squad behind and singlehandedly attacking the column probably harmed their goal of capturing or killing Maguire’s column. The rest of Ibberson's men never made contact with Maguire’s men and returned to the town, and that was certainly his fault. Ibberson stumbled down to the cottage of an elderly couple who took him in a jaunting car to one of Craig’s lorries and he was driven to Ballinrobe. He’d make a full recovery and was later promoted and awarded the MBE for his actions that day.
In the late afternoon, the lorries of reinforcements from Castlebar drove all the way down to Tourmakeady instead of moving up into the northern Party Mountains as Ibberson had requested. Nor did the RIC who came from Westport ever get into action against the Volunteers. Some of the activity of their vehicles driving down the Srah-Tourmakeady road may have given Maguire the impression there were hundreds of British soldiers surrounding them, as he would later say, but it does not seem as if any of them ever actually got up into the mountains to attack them.
Lt. Craig’s squad, with their Lewis gun, pinned Maguire’s column down into the evening. Tom Lally would eventually take command when Maguire became weakened from loss of blood. The column retained enough firepower to keep Craig from moving on them over the open ground of the ridge, however. As the sun went down, Craig withdrew.
Lally expected the Brtish would be swarming over the area in the morning, and so had most of the Volunteers stash their weapons on the hill and scatter to save the column. Maguire was carried down the mountain. He would spend the next few days in cottages at night, and then stashed under brush and bushes in gullies in the area during the day when the danger of cottages being searched was too high. During that time, reprisals were made against his family and the families of others in his column.
(Left: Tom Maguire while he was recuperating from his wound.)
In spite of hearing British searchers coming so close a few times that he could hear them talking, the brave Republican people of the area managed to save Maguire from capture at great risk to themselves, moving him from home to home. Maguire’s family home along with those of Michael O’Brien and Padraig Feeney were burned in official reprisals. The homes of anyone who had been caught helping him certainly would have suffered the same fate, and the occupants would have been in grave danger of torture or death. When RIC Sgt. Henry Goulden was ordered to command that his squad burn the O'Brien cottage, he refused and resigned from the force.
Maguire would not receive any medical attention until the following Saturday in Ballyglass. He not only survived his wounds, he would live to be 101-years-old, not dying until July 5, 1993. He would later marry Padraig Feeney’s sister, Christina. As an old IRA leader and the last surviving member of the 2nd Dáil, he became an icon of the Republican movement and remained a staunch opponent of partition to his dying day.
(Below: Tom Maguire in 1987, at 95 years old, with Ruairí Ó Brádaigh,
his biographer, and a Lee-Enfield said to have been captured at Tourmakeady.)
From the moment the action at Tourmakeady was over, the propaganda machines of both sides went into action. Maguire and the Volunteers exaggerated the number of British troops they had faced, saying they had fought off 600, and the number they killed or wounded. The British also exaggerated the number of Volunteers killed and wounded. The true figures would appear to be four RIC constables killed and one seriously wounded and one soldier seriously wounded and two Volunteers killed, if Feeney is included, and two wounded, one seriously.
In the overall scheme of the goals of both sides, the battle was certainly a victory for the Republican side, however. In the aftermath, the British exaggerated the size of the South Mayo flying column, but that had the effect of making the Republican forces seem even stronger than they were to the British government. The actual effects on the ground were that they closed the RIC barracks in Derrypark, Cuilmore, and Kinnury and reinforced the RIC in Ballinrobe, Westport, and Castlebar. This was all in line with the strategy Michael Collins was trying to put in place during the spring and early summer of 1921, putting pressure on the Crown forces all over the island. At Westminster, as reports of more and more Republican attacks came in that spring from areas of the island that had been relatively quiet, in which the army and RIC exaggerated the number of Volunteer attackers to mitigate their own failures, the impression that the war was not winnable was building. That was the ultimate success of attacks like the one by the South Mayo flying column at Tourmakeady.
“The Flame and the Candle: War in Mayo 1919-1924” by Dominic Price
"Dilseacht: The Story of Comdt. General Tom Maguire and the Second (All-Ireland) Dail" by Ruairi O Bradaigh
"The Men Will Talk to Me: Mayo Interviews" by Ernie O'Malley
“The Battle of Tourmakeady: A Study of the IRA Ambush and Its Aftermath” by Donal Buckley
“With the IRA in the Fight for Freedom: 1919 to the Truce” by Gabriel Doherty
"Raids and Rallies" by Ernie O'Malley
"Echoes of Their Footsteps, Vol. 1: The Quests For Irish Freedom, 1913 - 1922" by Kathleen Hegarty Thorne
More on the Irish War of Independence
The Carrowkennedy Ambush, June 2, 1921: Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold
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