The Burning of Ballylongford, Feb,. 23rd, 1921

A Commemorative Reflection

Less famous than the burning of Cork but no less violent, Ballylongford, a small market village in North Kerry, with a crooked cross at its center, home place of poet Brendan Kennelly, was burned by the Crown Forces of February 23, 1921. As lockdown has prevented any public commemoration of this event, I offer a reflection on it here. Ballylongford is the hometown of my maternal family and I grew up with memories of the burning of the village by the ‘Tans’. Like many others this vison of the village in flames impacted on my understanding of the War of Independence, its victims, its heroes, and villains, etc.  Of course, research shows this to be a more complicated story, the killing of two members of the Crowns Forces in the village on Feb 22nd, immediately followed by violent reprisal in the early hours of Feb 2rd 1921. The story as told in memory is a battle between two groups of men, the Crown Forces and the North Kerry Flying Column of the IRA. It ignores for the most part the experiences of the militant women of Cumann na mBan, and of the civilians who were most impacted by the destruction in the village. In this blog I offer a corrective to that.

Unlike Cork, my research has unearthed evidence that Ballylongford was burnt twice, firstly in November 1920 and secondly in February 1921. As we move through the Decade of Centenaries, and particularly now as we commemorate the War of Independence, it is vital to remember the history of small places, places like the village of the crooked cross, for it is these places that national and local politics play out at their most intimate and often violent level.

Ballylongford ‘crooked cross’.

Like so many other towns and villages throughout Ireland, the nationalist politics of most inhabitants of Ballylongford had become more militant after the 1916 Rising. The revolutionary war in Ireland impacted on Ballylongford as early as 1916, when a native son – Michael Joseph Rahilly, The O’Rahilly, born there in 1875 – was killed in Dublin during Easter Week. Within two years, north Kerry and Ballylongford were active in resisting conscription into the British Army and had returned a Sinn Féin TD, James Crowley, in the 1918 General Election. A branch of Cumann na mBan and a branch of the Irish Volunteers (now known as the IRA) had also been set up in Ballylongford, and by this time, the local Irish Volunteers branches were attempting to arm themselves. In January of 1918, the Ballylongford, Ballydonoghue and Moyvane Volunteers, led by Brian O’Grady and Eddie Carmody, raided farmhouses around the area and twenty-five shotguns were collected. (Brian O’Grady, BMH, WS 1390).[i]


North Kerry Flying Column

The Ballylongford Company of the IRA was part of the 6th Battalion, Kerry No.1 Brigade. By 1919, there were over one hundred and forty members, under the leadership of John Enright (Captain, 1921), Roger Mulvihill (Captain, 1917), Brian O’Grady (Captain, 1918) Thomas Carmody (First Lieutenant), Eddie Carmody (First Lieutenant), John Creedon (Second Lieutenant), John Barrett (Intelligence Officer), John Creedon (Quartermaster), and John O’Sullivan (Second Lieutenant).  In his witness statement, Brian O’Grady described the re-formation of the Company in Ballylongford in October 1917 when a Dublin-based IRA organiser came and gave a talk to the local men. As O’Grady wrote: ‘with about fifteen men … I joined after the meeting. Each of us signed a declaration to be loyal to the Republic proclaimed in 1916. Among those who joined were Tom Carmody, Michael and Matt Brassil, Paddy Cox, Thomas Creed, Dan Finucane, Richard Murphy, Ger Hunt, Michael and John Moroney, Patrick McNamara and John Heaphy. I again became acting company captain, Eddie Carmody, 1st lieutenant, and Tom Carmody, 2nd lieutenant’. (Brian O’Grady, BMH, WS 1390)

 At the same time, Cumann na mBan was re-organising and expanding throughout the county. The Listowel District Council of Cumann na mBan included the Ballylongford branch which in 1920 had between fifteen and twenty members. These included the Captain, Mrs J. Harte (née Collins), Secretary, Mrs Jer Aherne (O’Brien) of Ballyline, Miss O’Sullivan, Treasurer, as well as members Hannie Carmody, Misses A. and R. Collins, Miss Josie Walshe, Ballyline, Mrs P. Moriarty (née Creedon), Mrs M. Heaphy (née Enright), Mrs N. O’Grady (née McDonnell). The women and men collaborated on operations over the course of the War of Independence.

Violence had broken out in Kerry in 1918. An attack by the IRA, while searching for arms, on Gortatlea Barracks near Tralee in April 1918 saw one RIC constable wounded, while two IRA men, John Brown and Richard Laide, were killed. In January 1919, what are generally accepted as the first shorts of the War of Independence were fired at Soloheadbeg, in County Tipperary. Violence continued to be sporadic in Kerry throughout 1919 and, by early 1920, it had reached Ballylongford. On 3 January 1920, RIC Constable Clarke was shot at by local Volunteers, Thomas Ryan, Mick McNamara and Thomas Carmody. The three held the Constable up at the bridge on Bridge Street. They called on him to surrender his weapon and, when he didn’t, they fired and wounded him. Clarke survived but the men involved had to go on the run. The Ballylongford Company now became very involved in the events in and around north Kerry. In March 1920, as part of the large-scale attack on Ballybunion Barracks, carried out by the Listowel, Ballyduff and Ballybunion Companies, the Ballylongford Company trenched all the roads leading into Ballybunion from Listowel, Tralee and Ballylongford.

As part of these activities, the women in Cumann na mBan served as dispatch carriers and intelligence gathers. They ran the safe houses and delivered and hid arms and ammunition.. Attacks and reprisals by both the IRA and the RIC were increasing, and in response to this, the Black and Tans were deployed in the county in July 1920. This led to an escalation of violence, in particular violent and intimidating reprisals on the civilian population. An incident, which led to the kidnapping the two RIC men took place on the last Sunday in October 1920. John McNamara, a member of the RIC, gave evidence to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland where he described the incident; ‘two men from the barracks in Listowel went to the church in Ballylongford while two or three hundred residents were at evening devotion. They stationed themselves at the gate of the church and, armed with batons, they beat the people as they came through the gate. Many women and children were beaten up that evening’.

St Michael’s Church, Ballylongford

The two RIC men were detained by the IRA and held overnight in Moyvane. While they were eventually released, their kidnapping was a humiliation for the local Crown Forces who were determined on revenge. This kidnapping was part of a county-wide response to violence and intimation by the Black and Tans.

The First Burning of Bally and the Killing of Eddie Carmody

In early November 1920 two RIC men (Constable William Muir and Constable Coughlan) were captured by the Ballylongford Company of the IRA, and held prisoner in the nearby village of Moyvane.  The Crown Forces issued an ultimatum that Ballylongford would be razed to the ground if two men were not released, and they were released on orders of the Kerry No. 1 Brigade HQ. Brigade HQ also insisted that the local IRA place their arms in an arms dump temporarily, which they did.  Early in the morning of 21 November 1920, however, the village was flooded with a large force of Black and Tans and RIC members, under DI Tobias O’Sullivan who travelled in five or six lorries to search Brian O’Grady’s house and elsewhere for arms. Their arrival heralded a day of violence, forced entries in homes, physical intimidation and beatings, interspersed with visits to pubs where alcohol was forcefully requisitioned from landlords. The local IRA, unarmed as their had put the arms in the arms dump,  and Cumann na mBan members, tried to shield the civilian population from the violence by moving them away from where the Tans were congregating. By evening, the Black and Tans were drunk and even more unruly, emerging from pubs and firing their guns in the air while also smashing in widows.

Eddie Carmody, one of the leaders of the local IRA unit, had been helping throughout the day and was stationed at the Doctor’s Cross just outside the village that evening. He was waiting there for the return of one of the IRA men – Hayes – who had gone to Rusheen to retrieve rifles from a safe house. Suddenly he heard footsteps. Thomas Carmody later described what happened at the Doctor’s Cross: ‘It was a moonlight night and they assumed that the footsteps were those of Hayes and other men of the company returning with arms. [Eddie} Carmody said: “They are the lads”, meaning that they were our own lads. Carmody advanced towards a bend in the road about fifty yards away. As he neared the bend. he discovered that the footsteps were those of a party of about six Tans. He turned and ran, the Tans opened fire, shooting him in the back. He managed to throw himself across a low wall in front of the doctor’s house. The Tans immediately raided the doctor’s house but found nothing there. As they were leaving they found Carmody behind the wall, pulled him out on the road and shot him dead on the spot’. (Thomas Carmody, BMH WS 996)
The Black and Tans took Eddie Carmody’s body back to the local barracks where they put it in a turf shed. They then proceeded to burn down Collins’ creamery and timber yard, a public house and some private houses; they also broke many windows. As Brian O’Grady later said, the people of Ballylongford ‘went through a terrible ordeal’ that night. Eddie Carmody’s remains were retrieved the next day by his father and he was laid to rest in Murhur Cemetery with full military honours

Grave of Eddie Carmody

The Secord Burning of Bally; February 23rd, 1921

This was not the end of the violence that the people of Ballylongford were to experience during the ‘time of the Tans’. The relationship between the people of north Kerry and the Crown Forces continued to be violent and on 22 February 1921, at 9.20 pm, Constable George Hewlett, aged 22, was shot in an IRA ambush in Ballylongford village. He had been in the company of Naval Rating Charles Wills, who was severely wounded but survived. Wills cried out that he could not use his gun as he had fired all his bullets, so the IRA men left him. This ambush had been carried out by the North Kerry Flying Column, led by Denis Quill. In June 1920 the RIC is Listowel, led by Constable Jeremiah Mee, had mutinied rather than follow orders to ‘shoot to kill’ IRA suspects from Colonel Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smyth, Divisional Police Commissioner for Munster. However, since the summer of 1920 violence and reprisals had escalated in Kerry. Now, in early 1921 no attack, especially a fatal attack, on a member of the Crown Forces could happen without an equally violent response.

For Ballylongford, that, that response came in the early house of the following morning 23 February, 1921 and the violence of the attack had been printed indelibly into local memory. Local IRA Commandant, Brian O’Grady reported that the Black and Tans ‘burned down the local hall, the private house of Tom Carmody, his mother’s private house and that of Eugene O’Sullivan, Mrs McCabe’s, Mrs Barrett’s, Martin Collins’, as well as Martin Collins’ public house, Michael Morris’ butcher shop and Mrs Enright’s sweetshop. Two houses on Well Road were also burned. All shops were looted, and barrels of stout and whiskey were machine-gunned. Shops looted included the drapery houses of Messrs. Lynch, Banbury and Finucane’. (Brian O’Grady, BMH, WS 1390).

The Freeman’s Journal reported that when the bakery of Mr Jeremiah McCabe was on fire ‘the occupants had a very narrow escape as eight children were sick in bed with the mumps. They had to handed out though the back window into the arms of their terrorised mother’. (Freeman’s Journal, Feb 28, 1921) Newspaper reports vary, with some reports of seventeen houses burned and some reporting over twenty or more houses burned. Many houses in Ballylongford were thatched cottages and fire spread easily between them, and many people on the Well Road were rendered complete homeless.

Thatched Homes in Ballylongford

In this attack what was obvious is the fear and intimidation that was visited on the people. Thomas Carmody, a Lieutenant in the Ballylongford IRA, reported that the Black and Tans: ‘… looted and raided almost every house in the village. They filled the lorries with groceries, whiskey, cigarettes and anything they could lay their hands on. They then went from one house to another setting fire to each. The women were terrified and many of them threw their children from the top windows into the street. In all, fourteen houses were completely burned out, while several others were partly damaged’. (Thomas Carmody, BMH WS 996).

The Manchester Guardian reported that seventeen properties had burned in Ballylongford and named the following properties: ‘John Collins’ licensed grocery stores and creamery, M. Collins’ public house, E. Sullivan’s hardware store, M. Bambury’s drapery store, S. Barrett’s grocery store, J. McCabe’s bakery, and the private houses of Edward Brandon, John Farrell and Mr Heaphy, John Moran, and Mrs Kennelly’s house, together with ‘several labourers’ houses’ that were also burned’.

Some premises were spared, including that of Mrs Barrett, as her late husband had served in the British Army. Edmond J. Walsh, in his witness statement, stated that the Black and Tans also ‘took out several residents and severely ill-treated them’. (Edmond J. Walsh, BMH, WS 1170) A report in the Irish Independent on 26 February 1921 had a stark headline, which read ‘Almost Wiped Out: Ballylongford Ruined’. It further read that ‘in the history of reprisals, no place has been proportionally visited with such wholesale destruction as the prosperous little town of Ballylongford. What was once the business centre of N. Kerry, the wealthiest district in the county because of its port, Saleen Harbour, is now little more than a smoking ruin’

Report on the burning of Ballylongford, Irish Independent, February 26, 1921

Later on, individuals did receive compensation for the destruction of their property, and the local parish Priest, Rev M Allman wrote to the White Cross in Dublin for funding to help ameliorate the suffering of the local people. The terror of that night stayed long in the memory of Ballylongford people. The village experienced no more large scale reprisals for the rest of the War of Independence, and the people of the area helped in the recovery of the village. In March, the Freeman’s Journal and the Kerryman reported that Rev Allman had collected £100 locally with farmers in the area contributing £1 each and ‘the more fortunate in the village, through seriously affected themselves’, also contributing to the fund, while the White Cross in Dublin contributed £50 towards reconstruction and ‘alleviation of distress’. (Freeman’s Journal, March 11, 1921, The Kerryman, March 19, 1921). On the other side Constable Howlett’s mother in Middlesbrough received £1,000 in compensation for his death

Unrest continued in Ballylongford after its burning. On June 10th 1921 a large force of rebels attacked the local RIC Barracks but were beaten back. On 11 July 1921, a nation wide truce was called. By then, over three hundred people had lost their lives in Kerry, and untold damage to homes, businesses and lives had been done. The men and women of the IRA and Cumann na mBan lay down their arms, only for many to take them up again in the subsequent Civil War. The Anglo-Irish Treaty caused bitter division between former comrades, and Ballylongford did not escape this. However, the village itself,  ‘the Phoenix of North Kerry’ (as the Listowel writer John B. Keane described it)  did arise again from its own ashes.

Ballylongford in the 1940s

In this decade of centenaries, it is vital to remember the experiences of small communities, many of whom borne the brunt of reprisals during the revolutionary war. Dozens of young men and women from Ballylongford joined the republican cause, their community suffered for their allegiances, and their business and homes were destroyed. One image from the Truce period shows how complicated these histories can be – as the Truce was declared the men of the North Kerry Flying Column were photographed at the crooked cross in the village speaking with a member of the local RIC, men they had known before the War, men they had fought during the War and now, men with whom an uneasy peace existed.  

Local IRA men speaking with an RIC Constable, July 1921

The memory of what happened in February 1921 stayed long with the people of Ballylongford. In the Schools collection housed in UCD children from the area told the story; ‘The only burning of any consequence in this locality happened in Ballylongford about … 1921. It was the year of the war between Ireland and England. This country was infested then with military and Black and Tans who carried out several murders and burnings. They visited Ballylongford in the early morning when people were in their beds and started to burn house after house until they had a lot of the village demolished. It was a very sad sight to look at from the country to see smoke and flames going up in the sky’. (Duchas.ie)

The histories of their small places add to the complicated narratives of the Independence struggles and should not be forgotten.

‘Life, if you wish, may not be worth

One passing game of pitch‐and toss;.

And yet a nation’s life is laid

In places like the Crooked Cross’.

Brendan Kennelly


[i] The Bureau of Military History Witness Statements which included several men who were active in North Kerry can be found http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/bmhsearch/search.jsp Thomas Carmody (Ballylongford Company)and Brian O’Grady (Ballylongford Company) gave statements and others from surrounding companies in north Kerry mention events in Ballylongford.

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