The most devastating incident of the War of Independence in Carlow was the ambush of the Carlow Flying Column by Crown Forces in Ballymurphy, which resulted in the deaths of four people, including three innocent civilians, and decimated the IRA active service unit. Carlow historian Dr Shay Kinsella provides a vivid account of that fateful spring day in 1921. Last week we left the story as the unarmed Farrell brothers were shot dead by a detachment of RIC and Black and Tans, while the IRA flying column retreated …
BOTH sections of the advancing Crown Forces now joined up and in desperation the Carlow Flying Column left its cover and crossed a lane heading towards the river. In the words of 33-year-old Lieutenant John Edward Grundy, who commanded the British forces on that day: “Good targets were presented, when rapid fire was opened, with good effect, compelling the rebels to take cover. Two men were seen to fall about this time.” Grundy was a veteran of the First World War who had been awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in action in France in 1917.
One of the two men whom Grundy saw fall was Laurence O’Neill, wounded in the side, while Mick Ryan suffered a much more serious wound in the back. With all attempts at strategy now falling apart, the Carlow active service unit (ASU) now split into two parties. One section soon accepted the hopelessness of the situation and threw their rifles to the ground. Lt Grundy heard them shouting and saw four men lying on the ground holding up their hands in surrender; he would later describe them ungraciously as “lying there, huddled together like sheep in a pen”. Grundy’s accompanying soldiers found wounded Laurence O’Neill and the column’s commander Thomas Behan caught in a hedge about 50 yards further on, also with their hands up.
Tensions were high and there was a danger of discipline breaking down. Despite his surrender, the wounded Laurence O’Neill was approached by a ‘young and excited soldier’ who raised his rifle and took aim to fire until he was waylaid and knocked aside by a colleague, a much larger man – most probably his senior officer, Lt Grundy. A total of six rifles were found in the vicinity of these six prisoners, but not a single round of extra ammunition was found in their clothing.
The second section of the column had by this stage managed to cross the narrow river, but were captured in a hedge further on, badly-wounded Michael Ryan among them; they also surrendered. The British had now captured eight members of the column.
At this point, the enemy was closing in on volunteer Michael Fay, who was to be the only fatality among the combatants that day. His mother Margaret appears to have been a native Carlovian, but the family lived for a time in Wicklow and Dublin. The family had recently moved to Ballyoliver in Rathvilly. Michael, aged 22, had previously served in the Royal Army Service Corps for three and a half years, and had seen action in France during World War I.
In 1920, he was working as a chauffeur until the RIC took his permit from him around Christmas 1920 when he became a full-time member of the Carlow ASU. On that fateful day, he had made it further east than any of his captured comrades and had reached a marshy patch of land in the townland of Mohullen, known locally as Joyce’s Bog. Although wounded in the right arm, he continued to flee. A single Black and Tan pursued Fay into the marsh, unseen by any of the other combatants on the Crown side.
The only details we have of how Fay met his death comes from this individual, as there were no other witnesses. Lt Grundy was told that when the Tan closed in on his prey, Fay “was seen to clutch his rifle with one hand endeavouring to fire”. He met with a hail of gunfire and died instantly. If accounts are to be believed, he was then savagely bayoneted.
Evidence at the trial of the prisoners suggested that there were three deep bayonet wounds on the wrist, elbow and upper section of his right arm. According to one report, “several parts of his hands and his teeth were scattered around”.
The IRA believed that the perpetrator of this deed was the Black and Tan Sergeant Farrelly, a notoriously ‘bad merchant’ who was stationed at Borris and who had allegedly taken part in the murder of Cork Lord Mayor Tomas MacCurtain in 1920.
A month later, an order from GHQ came for his execution. He was shot several times on the Main Street in Borris in June 1921 but survived.
Fay was to be the only column fatality of the day. Only one of the column managed to escape: Liam Gaffney. Lt Grundy observed him running in the distance and fired three shots at him from about 700 yards, but they did not reach their target. The sounds of these shots echoing across the countryside brought an end to the gunfight at Ballymurphy, which had lasted approximately 45 minutes.
Each of the 15 members of the Crown Forces had begun with 50 rounds of ammunition, and official military files record that ‘Grundy’s party ran short of ammunition’. Given these figures, it is possible to surmise that something above 500 rounds were fired at the Carlow Flying Column during the attack. They met with a reply of less than 20 from the IRA side. On a subsequent search of the billet house that afternoon, Lt Grundy’s party captured all the firepower of the Carlow ASU: 11 rifles, five revolvers, a double-barrelled shotgun, four bombs, over 500 rounds of ammunition, with other equipment and maps.
It was a devastating blow, with an estimated loss of about half the Carlow Brigade’s total arsenal.
The eight IRA prisoners were then collected and searched. After their captured rifles were unloaded, they were marched to the Crossleys and taken to Borris RIC barracks “as quickly as possible”. As they pulled away with their prisoners, the Crown Forces left four dead bodies behind them: elderly Michael Ryan in his house, and three young men in the fields of Mullaunagaun. When they had gone, Timothy Farrell ventured out of his house in search of his sons.
He found them just 300 yards away, lying in the earth close beside a plough. James and Peter’s bodies were lying side by side with obvious gunshot wounds. A short time later, John Ryan returned home with Fr Michael Doyle, then the curate of Borris parish. While attending to the body of Michael Ryan, the priest heard the devastated cries of Timothy Farrell over the bodies of his dead sons and he went to assist him. The bodies of the brothers were brought back to the Farrell homestead and carried upstairs. It was the beginning of a period of incredible trauma for the Farrell family, from which it is said that Timothy never recovered.
Eleven-year-old Molly Farrell was called home from Ballymurphy National School very shortly after her brothers were killed, and to her impressionable mind, it seemed that there was blood flowing down the stairs from the bedroom above. The bodies were prepared for the wake (where they were placed side by side in the one bed) and the family were adamant that they had been bayoneted.
The body of Michael Fay was also recovered by the local people and placed in a coffin in Ballymurphy chapel overnight. Simon Donnelly, the man from GHQ, came to pay his respects that night and would later tell other units of the Carlow Brigade about “the way the soldiers butchered poor Michael Fay”.
Early the following morning, Lt Grundy arrived with a detachment of military to retrieve the ‘rebel’ Fay. The coffin was opened to ascertain its contents and it was then brought to Carlow Barracks for a court of inquiry. Fay’s funeral was subsequently held in Carlow cathedral followed by burial in the new Republican Plot in St Mary’s Cemetery, his tricolour-covered coffin carried by a mix of IRA volunteers and ex-servicemen.
In Ballymurphy, Lt Grundy also made it known that the bodies of Michael Ryan and the Farrells would be required on the following day for courts of inquiry. Ignoring this instruction, the funerals of the three men were arranged for 11am on the morning of Wednesday 20 April.
Incredibly, Crown Forces arrived in great numbers as crowds of mourners gathered at the chapel and the coffins were brought into the yard at 11.30am. The British forces included RIC, Black and Tans, soldiers and officers of the court of inquiry. Although the officers of the court acted in a humane manner, the fact that all three coffins were unscrewed in the graveyard for purposes of identification was insensitive and aggravating in the extreme.
Adding insult to injury, the bereaved relatives were then interviewed over the remains of their loved ones. John Ryan gave a statement under protest and the British files note that Timothy Farrell “was disinclined to give evidence”. While the funeral was on, the members of the court visited the pump yard where Michael Ryan had been shot, and also the field where the Farrell brothers fell.
Poignantly, the president of the court noticed that someone had placed two bunches of gorse on the plough at the spot where the Farrells had been discovered: a tribute of wild flowers from the local community in Mullaunagaun for two of their own.
THE LEGACY OF THE AMBUSH
So what was the ultimate legacy of the Ballymurphy ambush? It devastated not only the Carlow ASU but also the morale and confidence of the brigade as a whole. Commandant Eamon Malone’s reaction on hearing the news – “My God, this is nearly the end!” – was indicative of the sense of loss and helplessness felt by the local volunteers. All eight arrested men were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, although they were found ‘not guilty’ of endangering the lives of Crown personnel.
In the aftermath, while the brigade had sufficient manpower, it had lost a huge proportion of its firepower. The brigade staff tried to hit the ground running by immediately attempting to reorganise the ASU.
Within a week, Vice O/C Thomas O’Connell had recruited seven new members for a new column which gathered late one night in the Coon area to begin training. As local Kilkenny volunteers looked at the new recruits standing in a haggard on a cold, wet April night, “we had a vision of the new Carlow ASU rising in Phoenix-like manner […] determined and ready to follow through with the task which their comrades in Mullaunagaun had to leave unfinished”.
However, without the guns, the men were powerless to take any meaningful initiative. With the announcement of the Truce on 11 July, attempts at energising a new Carlow Flying Column stalled.
Another direct consequence of the ambush was the sole case of an alleged spy being ‘disappeared’ by the IRA in the county. In the days after the ambush, the IRA attempted to account for the fact that they were taken unawares so easily. Certainly, the lack of scouts was a fatal error but there was also a deep suspicion that they had been informed upon. In several witness statements to the Bureau of Military History and in military pension applications, members of the Carlow Brigade mention the execution of a suspicious individual named ‘Finn’, allegedly caught with £100 in his pockets.
However, in fact the real individual shot as a spy was a 27-year-old Catholic ex-soldier named Michael Hackett from Bagenalstown. The Carlow IRA later stated – reluctantly and under pressure from the Free State government – that Hackett was one of a “gang of spies organised and paid by the RIC” operating in the Bagenalstown and Borris areas who regularly supplied information on the IRA and pointed out suspects to the police and military.
At a meeting of the Carlow Brigade a fortnight after the ambush, Hackett was tried by court martial and found guilty of espionage “which was directly responsible” for the capture of the ASU at Ballymurphy. Whether or not this was accurate may never be known, but Hackett was sentenced to death.
He was abducted on his bicycle on 15 May at a sports event at Fenagh, was executed and quickly buried on the mountainside at Coolnasaughta, Myshall on 1 June by members of the 4th Battalion IRA, some from the Ballymurphy company. His body was subsequently recovered and reburied by the Hackett family. The surname ‘Finn’ was probably invented and disseminated both to protect that family’s identity and to cover over an ugly killing and secret burial in unconsecrated ground.
And what of Lieutenant Grundy, the man in charge of the Crown Forces that day? Although committed to apprehending the flying column, it is clear that he was no bloodthirsty zealot. Indeed, one of the arrested IRA men, Michael Behan, credited Grundy with saving his life by protecting him from two vengeful Black and Tans in Carlow Barracks that night.
Nevertheless, the events at Ballymurphy proved to be a major highlight of Grundy’s military career. In June of 1921, he was awarded an MBE from King George V for services to the Crown at Mullaunagaun on 18 April. For several subsequent decades until his death in 1969, at military commemorations and regimental reunions in England, he sported the medal with pride. It was cross-shaped in design, proclaiming the Crown’s appropriation of divine endorsement, even divine assistance, in the actions of its military forces.
Back in Carlow, God’s assistance was also implored, but this time by a grieving community in shock and disbelief at the carnage which had spilled out into their village from two Crossley Tenders on a mild April day.
(From the poem ***Mullannagaun***)
‘And oh to Heaven let a prayer be given
for those who were shot by the crown,
But the memory of that day will ne’er pass away
In the homes of Mullannagaun’.
With sincere thanks to Trish Walsh, Mary Molloy, Tom Joyce, Michael Behan, Martin Nutty, Ciarán O’Reilly, Jacob Bower, Pamela Goodwin and the Delany Archive, Carlow for their help with information.