Cumann na mBan and the deaths at Gortaglanna, Knockanure, North Kerry, May 12, 1921 – a centenary reflection.

On Thursday, May 12, 1921, in a field in Gortaglanna, in the parish of Knockanure in North Kerry, three unarmed IRA men, Jerry Lyons, Paddy Walsh and Paddy Dalton, were lined up and executed by a company of Black and Tans from Listowel. A fourth IRA man, Con Dee, managed to escape. May 12, 2021, marks the centenary of this event.

April and May 1921 in North Kerry had seen an uptick in violence. In late January RIC District Inspector Tobias O’Sullivan was shot dead in Listowel by IRA men Jack Ahern, Con Brosnan, Daniel O’Grady and Jack Sheehan. As noted by historian T Ryle Dwyer, Captain Watson, commander of the British military (the Oxfordshire regiment), stationed in Listowel, stated that there would be reprisals. On January 29, the Kerryman reported that ‘things are very quiet in the town [Listowel] a number of families having gone to country and the streets are practically deserted … for the past few nights and days the district has been overrun and searched by crown forces … a very uneasy feeling exists as to the infliction of official reprisals’. It appears Watson, unusually, managed to restrain his forces and Listowel was not attacked, although the drapery premises of T J Walsh, former chairman of the Urban District Council, was burnt out.

On April 7, 1921 members of the North Kerry Flying column set an ambush near Kilmorna House, for Watson and ten soldiers who were travelling from Kilmorna House, some four miles from Listowel. In the encounter IRA man Michael Galvin was shot and killed. He was taken back to Listowel where his body was photographed and he was buried by the authorities in the nearby Teampaillín Bán. Mai Ahern, of Ballydonoghue Cumann na mBan, was ‘involved in the retrieval of the body of Michael Galvin, killed in action, from a workhouse cemetery grave in Listowel, for burial in his own burial ground’. He was reinterned, by his family and Cumann na mBan, in his local Gale cemetery.

The body of Michael Galvin, shot dead at Kilmorna by Black and Tans, April 7, 1921

As a reprisal for the killing of Galvin, and as suspicions of passing information to the Crown Forces had fallen on its owner, Sir Arthur Vicars, Kilmorna House was raided by the Duagh company of the IRA on April 12. Vicars was taken out and shot in the garden and the house was burnt to the ground.

Kilmorna House, Duagh, north Kerry

On April 12, Auxiliary Commander, Major Mackinnon, who had been a target of several assassination attempts, was shot dead as he played golf in Tralee. The killing of RIC Head Constable Storey in Castleisland on May 8, led to assaults on people on the streets of Tralee by enraged Black and Tans. These continuing attacks and counter attacks, although at a lower level than elsewhere in Munster, did lead to atmosphere of fear. In the middle of this the North Kerry Flying Column had been forced to temporarily break up because of an outbreak of the ‘Republican itch’ (scabies), caused by the unhygienic living conditions the men endured while on the run. During this time some took the opportunity to visit family or to go to religious and secular events. It was coming from a Redemptorist mission in the area that local IRA commanders Patrick Walsh and Patrick Dalton along with Con Dee met Capatin Jeremiah Lyons (of the Duagh company, IRA) at Gortaglanna Bridge, and all four stopped for a chat. Three lorries of Black and Tans were, coincidentally, travelling along that road from Listowel – and on the morning of May 12, 1921 these four men and the Black and Tans met each other at this fateful spot in Gortaglanna, in the valley of Knockanure.

Gortaglanna

Newspaper reporting of the killings at Gortaglanna

There was Walsh and Lyons and Dalton boys,
They were young and in their pride.
In every house in every crowd
They were always side by side.
The republic bold they did uphold
Though outlawed on the moor,
And side by side they fought and died
In the valley of Knockanure’.

Walsh, Lyons and Dalton

As word spread of the killing of the three men at Gortaglanna, the newspapers began to report the story. Obviously, the Crown Forces wanted to control the narrative, as a killing of unarmed men, even if members of local IRA Brigades or Flying Columns, was not acceptable. In the Irish Times of May 14, 1921, under the headline of ‘The Listowel Ambush’ it was reported that ‘three police tenders were ambushed by 100 armed men at Kilmorna …at 1.15pm on Thursday. The dead bodies of three unknown rebels were found at the scene of the ambush and it is believed that the rebels suffered heavy casualties, the Crown Forces also captured a number of shotguns, revolvers, and ammunition’. This was a story the Crown Forces were to stick with, with a few variations, right through to the Court of Inquiry into the killings, which was held in Dublin Castle. The Court of Inquiry itself, held on June 23, 1921, reiterated this false narrative of an ambush; ‘The Court found that the deceased met their deaths as a result of the Royal Irish Constabulary returning the fire of persons unknown who attacked them and that no blame attaches to the Police’. The Irish Bulletin, the newspaper of Dail Eireann, stated in a report of June 16, that the ‘ambush’ narrative spun by the Crown Forces was ‘one of the worst examples extant of a false report issued for the purposes of concealing the facts of some dastardy murders is the [report] dealing with the so-called ambush at Kilmorna … issued by the Dublin Castle Publicity Department’.

However the story of the ambush continued to be reported in many local, national and Bristish newspapers. The Evening Echo of Friday May 13 reported that ‘a fierce ambush took place on the road between Knockanure and Kilmeaney … between a force of police and Republicans, where three of the latter were shot dead and several wounded’.  The encounter even made some of the British newspapers with the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of  Friday, May 13 reporting that ‘An ambush fight took place on the road between Knockanure and Kilmeaney, about five miles from Listowel, between a force of police and Republicans. It is stated that three of the latter were shot dead and several wounded. No casualties are reported among the police’.

On Friday 13, the Northern Whig reported that ‘it was reported last night that early yesterday morning an ambush took place the road between Knockanue (sic) and Kiloney (sic), about five miles from Listowel, County Kerry, a party of police being attacked by large number of rebels. It is stated that three Sinn Feiners were killed and several wounded. There were no casualties reported amongst the police’. On May 14, the Kerry People reported that ‘the dead bodies of three men were brought by Crown Forces into Tralee from the Knockanure District on Thursday evening’. The circumstances surrounding their deaths were not, ‘at the time of writing, too clear, it is however, stated that an attack was made on the Police and that in the attack these three men were shot dead, and others wounded’. By May 17, 1921, the dead men were being named in the Press. The Cork Examiner reported that ‘the names of the victims of the recent North Kerry ambush at Kilmeaney … [are] Patrick Dalton, Athea, Jeremiah Lyons, Duagh, and Patrick Walsh, Coolard … the bodies of the deceased young men were brought into Listowel Police Barrack after the terrible occurrence and thence conveyed to Tralee in motor lorries, pending, it is surmised, an investigation’. The Irish Bulletin did provide an early corrective to the ‘ambush’ narrative on May 25; ‘the men had, in fact, no connection with an ambush but were murdered without provocation or warning by Constabulary who overtook them while on their way home from a religious service at Athea’.

The events in Gortaglanna, morning, May 12, 1921.

In a report of May 17, 1921, the Crown Forces continued to stick with their narrative that the deaths of Walsh, Lyons and Dalton were the result of an IRA ambush.  General E P Strickland, Military Governor of Munster, wrote that a ‘small patrol of police’ from Listowel ‘encountered a gang of eighty rebels and put them to flight after killing their leader and two others … The operation’, the General wrote, ‘was doubly successful in that the dead rebel leader has been recognized as Jeremiah Lyons of Duagh, the commander of the flying column which has been active in north east Kerry for some time’. This was, of course, a complete fabrication. What the General had not reported on was that the Black and Tans had encountered four unarmed men on the road, arrested and beat them, took them into a field, lined them up and shot them. Unfortunately for them, one of the men, Con Dee, of Ballyline, Ballylongford, had managed to escape and provided an eye -witness account of what had occurred, shortly aften the actual events. Dee made a sworn statement in June 1921 before Thomas R Hill, J P, Tarbert.

Con Dee, Ballylongford (in later life)

According to this statement, early on the morning of May 12, Dee, accompanied by ‘Patrick Dalton and Patrick Walsh [Dee’s first cousin], left Athea unarmed, where [they] had been attending a mission given by the Redemptorist Fathers’. As they were walking towards Listowel, at Gortaglann Bridge, they met Jerry Lyons coming towards them on a bicycle, he dismounted when he saw them and the men stopped for a chat. They moved into a nearby field to continue their conversation, and as they did they heard the noise of lorries approaching, a noise that probably meant members of the Crown Forces were driving the road.

The noise was, in fact, the three lorries of a Black and Tan patrol from Listowel, who had spotted the men. The Black and Tans was particularly exercised by the recent shooting of Sir Arthurs Vicars at nearby Kilmorna House on April 14, 1921 by the IRA, and they accused Dee of being one of his killers. The men were arrested, searched, stripped and beaten, seperated, put in the lorries and taken to a field about a half mile along the road towards Athea, they were then beaten again, reloaded on the lorries, which turned back to Gortaglanna, where they were all ordered out. In Dee’s words what happened next was;

‘We were put standing in line facing a fence about forty yards from the road. I was placed first on the right, Jerry Lyons was next, Paddy Dalton next, and Paddy Walsh on the left. Then a Black and Tan with a rifle resting on the fence was put in front of each of us, about five yards distant. There were about ten more Black and Tans standing behind them. I looked straight into the face of the man in front of me. He delayed about twenty seconds as if he would like one of his companions to fire first. The second Black and Tan fired. Jerry Lyons flung up his arms, moaned and fell backwards. I glanced at him and noticed blood coming on his waistcoat; I turned round and ran. I was gone about twelve yards when I got wounded in the right thigh. My leg bent under me, but I held on running although I had to limp. I felt that I was being chased and I heard the bullets whizzing past me’.

Con Dee made good his escape, but Walsh (aged 30), Lyons (aged 24) and Dalton (aged 28), lay dead in the field. Dee was found by friendly locals and taken in. A Bureau of Military History report from James J. Enright, B.A., M.D., who, at the time, was working as a doctor in Listowel and who was called to tend to his wounds takes up the tale; ‘a young girl of the Cumann na mBan approached me, and asked me if I would come out to a farmhouse, about two miles from Listowel, to attend a young I.R.A. man who had been wounded that morning in an ambush at Gortaglanna, near the village of Knockanure, Listowel’. Dee had a taken a bullet to the thigh, but as the Doctor recounted, it was not serious, and he was able to patch him up. Dee was then moved into hiding where he was nursed back to health by Cumann na mBan women. Dr Enright reported that he ‘subsequently heard in the town [Listowel] that afternoon that these three young men were dead, and that their bodies had been brought to the town of Listowel, with a view to getting relatives to establish their identities, but nobody did so. The bodies were moved to Tralee where they were later identified’. The Irish Bulletin of June 16, reproduced the Con Dee eye-witness account in full as well as an eye-witness account from a priest who had met the four men earlier, on the road, and who then saw them being arrested. He said he ‘thought they [the Black and Tans] were taking the four lads off to prison … he was positive there was no sort or kind of ambush’.

Retrieval and Burial; the work of Cumann na mBan

The Dublin Evening Telegraph of May 17, 1921 reported that on Saturday May 14, ‘The parents and friends of the victims proceeded to Tralee from Listowel on Saturday, recover the bodies for burial in their respective districts’. This succinct account covers up the long and traumatic story of the recovery and burial of the three men, a story that has the women of several local Cumann na mBan branches at its heart. In the aftermath of the killings, the bodies of the three men had been brought by the Black and Tans in Crossley Tenders to Listowel, and then were taken on to Ballymullen Barracks in Tralee. Lady Albina Broderick, or as she was better known, Gobnait Ní Bhruadair, a well-known republican activist and a leading member of Cumann na mBan, was in Tralee when the lorries with the bodies arrived in the town. She described what she saw in a letter; They must have been one or two of them still alive for the blood was still running from the lorry as it came in. They were left for two hours in the barrack yard, by which time they were already dead. The face of one, a fine young fellow whom I knew personally, was all smashed in’.

Gobnait Ní Bhruadair

In his memoir, Victory and Woe, Mossie Harnett, O/C of the 2nd Battalion of the West Limerick Brigade, who knew Con Dee and the other men wrote that ‘the brave women of Cumann na mBan from Listowel and nearby districts travelled to Tralee barracks to demand the remains’. The febrile atmosphere of violence and fear of further reprisals and killings meant that the IRA comrades of Walsh, Lyons and Dalton could not appear in public, while the families, shocked and grieving, needed help in dealing with the authorities. As with so many Republican dead during the War of Independence it fell to the young women of Cumann na mBan to retrieve the bodies, prepare them for burial and make sure all rites, religious and republican, were carried out.

They often did this for young men they knew, and in an atmosphere of threat and violence from the Crown Forces. In Listowel, Norah Walsh, who was captain of the Ballydonoghue Cumann na mBan branch, went with some of the other members to Listowel Barracks to claim the bodies. According to oral histories this was a dangerous enterprise. Josie Kennelly (later Nolan)also of the Ballydonogue branch of Cumann na mBan later told her son that the women knew not to approach the Black and Tans as they were known to ‘molest and mistreat girls’ round the back of the Barracks in Listowel, rather they sought to find an officer and ask them about the bodies.  Despite this when they went to Listowel Barracks they were mistreated and mocked by the Black and Tans, who told them ‘yes we have the bodies, they are around at the back, come around and look’, but the women refused to search round the back for fear of assault.  Finally, a friendlier officer told them the bodies were in Tralee. 

The Cumann na mBan women then took the train from Listowel to Tralee and went to the barracks at Ballymullen where they had another rough encounter with the Black and Tans. The bodies of the men had not been treated with care and had been dumped in a turf shed. In Kerry’s Fighting Story it is reported that ‘maddened by the escape of Con Dee, the infuriated Black and Tans butchered his comrades, whose remains were a ghastly sight when handed over to relatives some days afterwards’. The sight of their dead comrades, beaten and shot, lying on top of a pile of turf, would not have been an easy one for the Cumann na mBan women. Once they were given permission to retrieve the bodies, they engaged a local undertaker to come with coffins for the remains, and then took the coffins, all draped in the tricolour, on the train back to Listowel.

Listowel

Here, the town was in uproar as news of the arrival of the bodies of the men spread. Hundreds of people gathered at the railway station to accompany the bodies to the local Church. The Crown Forces were determined that the funeral and burial of Walsh, Lyons and Dalton would not be turned into a propaganda event for the Republican cause. On arriving in Listowel, the Cumann na mBan women discovered that the station was surrounded and blocked off by the Black and Tans and a tense standoff ensued between the Crown Forces and the locals. As the Cork Examiner reported ‘previous to the arrival at Listowel of the train bearing the corpses of the deceased the blinds of windows and doors of the houses on the way to the railway station were drawn and closed but the police immediately after compelled them to raise their blinds and re-open the doors on the penalty of having them burst in forcibly’. Finally, the bodies were allowed off the train and escorted to the local Church for prayers. Later that evening all three coffins were ‘removed in hearses to their respective districts, each accompanied by a large number of sympathisers, friends and relatives’. Patrick Dalton was buried in Athea and Patrick Walsh was buried at Gale cemetery.

The Burial of Jeremiah Lyons in Duagh

Jeremiah ‘Jerry’ Lyons was brough back to his home village of Duagh (about 5 miles from Listowel) for his funeral and burial in the local cemetery at Springmount. Lyons, the son of a local shopkeeper, also named Jeremiah Lyons, and his wife Anne Corridan, was the youngest, at 20 years old, of those killed at Gortaglanna, and a popular commandant of the local flying column and Captain of the Duagh IRA. At the time of his death it is said that he was a medical student at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, although the application on behalf of his sister for a military pension states that he had been working in the shop with his father and was on ‘active service all the time in 1920 and 1921’. It is likely he gave up his studies when the War of Independence broke out.

Jeremiah Lyons

The funeral of Lyons in Duagh was attended by hundreds of people and organised by the local Cumann na mBan and his family. For funerals of IRA Volunteers during this period of the War of Independence the republican aspects were as important as the religious aspects and it was often the women of Cumann na mBan who organised both. This was the case during the funeral of Jerry Lyons. According to local history hugh crowds thronged to the funeral, and as the coffin was shouldered through the village to the place of burial at Springmount, Cumann na mBan women from the local Duagh branch smuggled rifles into the graveyard to provide a military salute over the grave, despite the fact that the Black and Tans had the graveyard surrounded and attempted to arrest those bringing in the guns as well as the firing party, although all managed to escape.  It is said ‘that the women hid the rifles in the confessionals in the church’ during the funeral mass and then on their person on the way to the graveyard, about a half mile away, and subsequently brought them back safely to a hidden, protected arms dump.

Jerry Lyons coffin being shouldered through Duagh (Dr Robert Corridan)

A young man happened to have a camera that day in Duagh, and the photos included here are rare visual images of a local Republican funeral. These were taken by Dr Robert Corridan and reproduced here with the permission of his son, Paul. These photos in Springmount show the mourners gathered round the flag drapped coffin of Jerry Lyons. It is interesting to see so many women in attendance, many of whom were members of the local branch of Cumann na mBan.

The funeral of Jerry Lyons in Springmount cemetery, May 14, 1921 (Dr Robert Corridan)

The mother of Jerry Lyons, and other women of Duagh at the funeral. (Dr Robert Corridan)

The killing of Walsh, Lyons and Dalton at Gortaglanna has long been remembered in song and story in north Kerry. Writer Gabriel Fitzmaurice has an interesting piece on the many versions of the song ‘Valley of Knockanure’; the most famous of the ballads commemorating this event is Listowel writer Bryan Mac Mahon’s “The Valley of Knockanure”, written in 1946. See ‘Where History Meets Poetry : “The Valley of Knockanure”’ by Gabriel Fitzmaurice here. https://moyvane.com/people/gabriel-fitzmaurice/where-history-meets-poetry-the-valley-of-knockanure/

I grew up with the story of Gortaglanna as I am from Duagh, the home village of Jeremiah Lyons. While I had always heard that the Cumann na mBan women had smuggled the guns into the graveyard during the funeral so that shots could be fired over the grave, it was not until I delved deeper into the story that I understood the central, incredibly courageous, and traumatic role the women of Cumann na mBan from several branches (Duagh, Listowel, Ballydonogue) in North Kerry played in this story.

The violence they faced as they retrieved the bodies, the stoicism they displayed in returning the coffins to Listowel and then on to the home places of the men, and the determination to see the proper religious and Republican rituals were carried out were a commonality with the activities of Cumann na mBan thoughout the country. The care and protection other Cumann na mBan women gave to Con Dee as he recovered also needs to be noted. In the songs and poems remembering Knockanure women play a passive role;

‘Twas on a neighbouring hillside we listened in calm dismay,
In every house, in every town a maiden knelt to pray,
They’re closing in around them now with rifle fire so sure,
And Dalton’s dead and Lyons is down in the Valley of Knockanure.

However, a close study has shown that Cumann na mBan were anything but passive bystanders in this, as in so many other events, during the War of Independence. A hundred years after the events of May 12, 1921, it is more than time to remember and acknowledge the central role of the women of Cumann na mBan in the story of Knockanure.

Headstone over Jeremiah Lyons at Duagh, presented by Con Dee
May 12, 2021, relatives of Jeremiah Lyons, and Fr Tom McMahon, lay a weath at his gravesite, Springmount, Duagh.
At Gortaglanna, May 12, 2021. Centenary Commemeration – Margaret Sheehan- grandniece of Paddy Dalton, Paddy Walsh-grandnephew of Paddy Walsh, Tom Fitzgerald – grandnephew of Jerry Lyons, and Caitriona Dee (laying the wreath) grandniece of Con Dee, and Jimmy Deenihan.

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