Before daybreak on 23 April 1921, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) attempted to raid the home of Pádraic Ó Máille at Munterowen East, in the Maam Valley, Co. Galway, where the West Connemara Flying Column was billeted. A twelve-hour gun battle followed, which resulted in one death – that of RIC Constable John Boylan, a widowed father of five young children.
From the summer of 1920, as a result of British counter-insurgency measures, increasing numbers of Irish Republican Army (IRA) officers and men were forced to go ‘on the run’ to avoid being arrested, or worse. These fugitives banded together, spontaneously at first, to form mobile fighting units, which began to target Crown forces in hit and run attacks. Soon, realising the potential of a fulltime guerilla force, the IRA’s general headquarters recommended that flying columns, officially known as active service units, be established across the country.
In late 1920, the unwieldy district west of Lough Corrib was divided into two new IRA brigade areas, East and West Connemara. The West Connemara Brigade, under the command of Petie McDonnell, consisted of four battalion areas – Clifden, Leenane, Rosmuck and Roundstone. From the outset, McDonnell was keen to establish a flying column, explaining: “that we were at war with England, that they had no right here and we were fighting to get them out. That the police and military of England were roaming the country to try and exterminate anyone who stood for the freedom of the country; that they pulled men out of their homes and shot them on the street, sometimes before the eyes of their families, and that any man who had a chance of fighting was a fool if he waited to be pulled out and shot without making an effort to fight back”. The men of the brigade immediately began fundraising for weapons to arm a column.
Early in 1921, a brigade meeting was held in the home of Pádraic Ó Máille, a member of Dáil Éireann, at Munterowen East, between Leenane and Maam. Known as Pádraic Mór, on account of his stature, Ó Máille was a keen Gaelic Leaguer and a founding member of the Irish Volunteers, who was elected as a Sinn Féin Member of Parliament for Galway-Connemara at the 1918 General Election. He had been ‘on the run’ since May 1918, when the RIC failed in their attempt to arrest and deport him. Since that time, he rarely slept in his own bed, often staying in a remote, man-made cave in the nearby valley of Glenglosh. At that meeting, the brigade officers, having acquired a small supply of arms, decided to form a flying column immediately and a training camp was established in the shadow of Diamond Hill – a mountain popular with walkers today – near Letterfrack.
With limited accommodation and a scant supply of arms and ammunition, the column was limited to twenty or so men. Although remotely located, the camp was within striking distance of the main town – Clifden – and its two main roads, which were regularly used by Crown forces. By day, the column trained in the use of arms, though without expending any precious ammunition, and scouted the district for potential ambush sites.
In more ways than one, Connemara was a tough environment for a flying column. The landscape, once described by Oscar Wilde as a ‘savage beauty’, was inhospitable, and the weather was often inclement and changeable. To the south were vast bogland plains dotted with peaty lakes, with few trees or stone walls for cover, and to the north were the high, bare mountains of the Twelve Bens and Maumturks. The district had a poor road network, which meant that the column had to travel great distances on foot, rather than by bicycle, often across trackless bogs and over mountains in the dark of night. There were also the logistical difficulties of housing and feeding the column in an area where the houses were widely scattered and the people were poor, often with barely enough to feed themselves, let alone twenty young men.
The first attack by the West Connemara Flying Column was prompted by the hanging of Thomas Whelan of Clifden, on 14 March 1921 in Dublin, for the Bloody Sunday killing of Captain Baggally, despite the fact that eye-witnesses testified that he had been at mass in Ringsend at the time of the shooting. One member of the column, Jack Feehan, recalled that they “felt it their duty to avenge his death”. Two days after Whelan’s execution, the column killed one policeman and mortally wounded another on the streets of Clifden, and laid siege to the RIC barracks, before withdrawing to the mountains. That evening, Crown force reinforcements arrived from Galway and laid waste to the town as a reprisal.
Three weeks to the day after the Clifden attack, the flying column ambushed a party of police at Screebe Cross, near Rosmuck. Constable William Pearson, a native of New Zealand and former soldier, was seriously but not fatally injured, despite some claims to the contrary, and an RIC sergeant was captured, disarmed and released unharmed. Again, Crown forces retaliated by burning a number of homes in the locality, including Patrick Pearse’s former summer residence at Rosmuck.
In the meantime, the flying column had moved its headquarters to the Munterowen residence of Pádraic Ó Máille. His two-storey farmhouse, backed by rock and heather covered hills, stood on a small rise, offering commanding views of the Maam Valley. In anticipation of a rumoured attack by Crown forces, the column prepared sniping positions in the surrounding hills, drilled in preparation for a sudden assault, and posted sentries day and night to keep watch.
On 23 April, around 3am, one of the sentries noticed some movement in the valley. He notified Commandant McDonnell and, through the darkness and early-morning mist, they realised that there was a party of police gathering on the road. The fourteen policemen from Oughterard and Maam had travelled by lorry, but had used their bicycles for the final leg of the journey so that they wouldn’t be heard approaching. The column was immediately mobilised and quietly assumed their pre-arranged positions. Pádraic Ó Máille and his brothers – Tomás, professor of Irish at UCG, and Éamonn – joined them, while the women and children of the household moved to the outbuildings for safety.
The police had to cross a river using stepping stones, before reaching the exposed path that led to the Ó Máille home. The column was ordered not to fire until the raiders were across the river, gathered in a cluster, and within firing range. Suddenly, a premature shot rang out from the raiding party and someone in the column immediately replied. The element of surprise was now lost and the RIC took cover wherever they could, behind sod fences, turf stacks and sandpits – even in the river itself – but they were trapped. The sound of gunfire echoed throughout the hills as the two sides exchanged shots in what would become one of the longest battles in the War of Independence. After two hours of sniping, Constable John Boylan was hit in the neck and legs and died almost immediately. Sergeant Hanley and Constable Ruttledge were also injured.
Around midday, a car carrying some workmen unwittingly drove into the fray. One constable jumped aboard the car, amid a hail of bullets, and ordered the motorist to “drive like hell”. Having escaped, he raised the alarm and very soon an armoured car and a dozen or so lorries, carrying police and military, were on their way from Galway. In the meantime, Fr Cunningham – the curate at Leenane – arrived on the scene to attend to the injured policemen. Because of his dark clothing, some members of the flying column took him to be a member of the RIC and fired on him, but missed.
By the time the reinforcements arrived, around 3.30pm, the battle had been raging for almost twelve hours. The flying column, now running low on ammunition, began to move to higher ground and out of sight. The armoured car sprayed the Ó Máille home with bullets, while swarms of police and soldiers converged on the house, firing rifles and machine guns. The Ó Máille women and children were then taken into custody and the house and outbuildings were razed to the ground.
Having an intimate knowledge of the surrounding terrain, the flying column moved northwards across the mountains, before crossing Killary Harbour into south Mayo, and setting up camp in a hidden corrie beneath Ben Gorm. In the days ahead, Crown forces attempted to sweep the district and capture the column, but to no avail.
On the evening of the gun battle, Constable Boylan’s body was brought back to Oughterard, where he was stationed. A native of Co. Leitrim, Boylan had joined the RIC in 1902 and served in Kilkenny, East Galway and Kerry. While based in Kenmare, he married Mary Anne Spillane from Templenoe, Co. Kerry. In the summer of 1914, soon after the birth of their first child, Boylan was transferred to Oughterard, where they welcomed four more children to the family, including twins. Tragically, Mary Anne became a victim of the Spanish Flu pandemic in November 1918, and died aged just 27.
It seems that Republicans looked upon Boylan, described by Commandant McDonnell as “a policeman […] who was good”, as a kindly or sympathetic figure. Some of the flying column believed that Boylan had been forced to join the raiding party and that he had fired the premature shot as an advance warning to the rebels. Others believed that he had volunteered to be part of the raiding party in order to prevent excessive revenge against the column.
When Boylan’s body arrived home, one of his children – not realising what had occurred – came forward and said “That is my Daddy’s bicycle. Where is Daddy?” The Boylan children, now orphaned and ranging in age from four to six years, were unable to comprehend their loss. They clung to the coffin throughout the wake and one child was heard to say “Daddy, why don’t you speak to me?” A sibling replied “he is asleep yet”. This tragic and moving scene is a sobering reminder of the human cost of the struggle for Irish independence. Constable Boylan was buried, with full police ceremony, alongside his wife at Kilcummin Cemetery, Oughterard.
This post is part of a series researched and written by Brendan McGowan, Education Officer at Galway City Museum, to mark the Decade of Centenaries. If you have any information, stories or photographs relating to the War of Independence in Galway, please contact Brendan by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Register of Births, Deaths & Marriages; Census of Ireland, 1901 & 1911; Bureau of Military History, Witness Statements (John Feehan, BMH.WS1692; John C. King, BMH.WS1731; William King, BMH.WS1381; Peter McDonnell, BMH.WS1612; George Staunton, BMH.WS0453), Military Archives, Dublin; Military Court of Inquiry (John Boylan, RIC, Oughterard, WO 35/146A/50), National Archives, London
‘Twelve Hours’ Galway Battle’, Freeman’s Journal, 25 April 1921; ‘Mountain Battle’, Connacht Tribune, 30 April 1921; ‘Sad Funeral Scenes’, Connacht Tribune, 30 April 1921; ‘Battle in Connemara’, Connaught Telegraph, 30 April 1921; ‘Desperate Battle at Maam’, Tuam Herald, 30 April 1921.
William Henry (2012) Blood for Blood: The Black & Tan War in Galway; D. M. Leeson (2013) The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence; Conor McNamara (2018) War and Revolution in the West of Ireland: Galway, 1913-22; Honor Ó Brolcháin (ed.)(2006) All in the Blood: A memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence by Geraldine Plunkett Dillon; Colm Ó Gaora (2008) Mise (first published in 1943); Eunan O’Halpin & Daithí Ó Corráin (2020) The Dead of the Irish Revolution; Cormac K.H. O’Malley & Cormac Ó Comhraí (eds)(2013) The Men Will Talk To Me: Galway Interviews by Ernie O’Malley; Tomás Ó Máille (2007) An tIomaire Rua (first published in 1939)