News Irish News

Monday 15 July 2019

Those first fatal - and fateful - shots fired in the War of Independence were not at Soloheadbeg

Centenary: President Michael D. Higgins meets John Collins, son of Sinn Féin politician Con Collins at the Mansion House. Photo: PA
Centenary: President Michael D. Higgins meets John Collins, son of Sinn Féin politician Con Collins at the Mansion House. Photo: PA

Tim Pat Coogan

Contrary to popular belief, the first fatal shots in the War of Independence were not fired at Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary, by Dan Breen and Sean Treacy, on January 21, 1919, the same day that the first Dáil opened, but in Kerry several months earlier.

Though it is true that, coupled with the opening of the first Dáil, this action - unsanctioned by the Volunteers' GHQ - helped to bring the term IRA (Irish Republican Army) into general use. It also initiated such fierce fighting in Tipperary that, after the Bloody Sunday massacre in Croke Park, the Auxiliary officers told their captives that they could blame the slaughter on Tipperary.

But in fact the first attacks on the RIC involving fatalities had begun in Kerry on April 13 the previous year, with an arms raid by Ballymacelligott volunteers on nearby Gortatlea Barracks. In this instance it was the two RIC men, Sergeant Boyle and Constable Fallon, who surprised the raiders and fired through an open door without warning, killing Volunteers John Browne and Richard Laide.

In reward for their actions, Boyle and Fallon were promoted to the ranks of District Inspector and Sergeant respectively.

But the repercussions in Kerry were huge. The funerals of Browne and Laide elicited massive sympathy and were attended by some 6,000 people. However, the most significant response came in the form of British reaction to an armed reprisal attack by the Ballymacelligott Volunteer leaders, Tom McEllistrim and John Cronin.

Both were of farming stock. McEllistrim, a famous GAA footballer, had been interned in Frongoch after the 1916 Rising, and would later become OC of the Kerry Brigade's Flying Column, and Cronin would command the Ballymacelligott IRA unit.

McEllistrim learned that the trial in Tralee on June 14 of a young man accused of perjury at the coroner's inquest into the deaths of Brown and Laide would necessitate the attendance of the RIC men Boyle and Fallon.

Accordingly, he and Cronin waited in the snug of Harty's pub overlooking Main Street, with two shotguns in a sack. When the RIC men appeared heading for lunch, he and Cronin dashed into the street, weapons drawn. But McEllistrim bumped into someone, slipped and fell. A woman screamed. The policemen were alerted and took evasive action as the shotgun fired.

Fallon was wounded in the neck but recovered. Boyle escaped unscathed as did Cronin and McEllistrim, who dropped their shotguns in the middle of the street, dashed back into Harty's and escaped out the back door of the pub.

In the climate of the time - politically febrile, but not violent - the attack, which like Solohedbeg was unsanctioned by GHQ, created a sensation. The 'Cork Examiner' described it as: "One of the most daring outrages in the whole history of the trouble in Ireland."

British reaction was stronger and more tangible. Tralee was placed under martial law and for weeks all the roads leading in and out of the town were barricaded and people passing through were searched.

Cronin and McEllistrim went on the run and fought throughout the course of the War of Independence to such effect that Ballymacelligott became one of the most hated, and feared, areas in Ireland to the eyes of some British military personnel, notably those of the redoubtable Auxiliary Major John McKinnion, Commander of Tralee Auxiliary unit.

McKinnion had a chequered career, having to leave the army over bouncing cheques. On the outbreak of World War I he rejoined the army as a private. He had further trouble with cheques and displayed a tendency towards going Awol, but managed to attain the rank of captain before being wounded and discharged, suffering from what the army termed "nervous myopia".

The fact a man suffering from what would nowadays probably be termed "post-traumatic stress" should have been given a commanding role in what were officially termed the Auxiliary Police Cadets says much for the exigencies of British policy at the time.

McKinnion, a tall, strikingly handsome man, was noted for both his courage and his ruthlessness; a man who shot first and asked questions later. As with many Auxiliaries the use of torture and the burning of farms and creameries as reprisals were his trademarks.

The Ballymacelligot area seems to have obsessed him in his pursuit of McEllistrim and Cronin. On the night of Christmas Day 1920 he burst into a farmhouse and shot dead two unarmed Ballymacelligot Volunteers who were visiting for the night. Sometimes he went about alone in a car, armed with a machine gun, in an attempt to draw out Cronin and McEllistrim.

In the event it was neither of the pair, but a Tralee unit of the IRA under the command of the serial winner of All-Ireland football medals, John Joe Sheehey, which ended McKinnion's career on the Tralee golf links on April 15, 1921. McKinnion was thought to be wearing body armour so a head shot was required from the marksman Connie Healy, lying behind a ditch some 30 yards away. But McKinnion kept his head down until a scout, John O'Riordan, stationed in a tree alongside the green, let out a piercing wolf whistle causing McKinnion to jerk his head upwards and into the path of a bullet. After he fell face downwards some of the ambushers jumped onto the green and fired further shots.

His golfing partner, who was also his adjutant, escaped unscathed but McKinnion died in Tralee military hospital approximately an hour later.

At the inquest, Dr AA Hargrave said that apart from McKinnion's fatal head wound, his buttocks and lower back had been sprayed with "large shot". So it looks as though a Kerry version of the coup de grace was administered.

McKinnion's last words were said to be "Get McEllistrim and Cronin. Burn Ballymac".

After his death the Auxiliaries did attack Ballymacelligott, burning 12 farm houses, a creamery, a presbytery and shooting a young man dead in the process. Tralee town was also attacked and the offices of the 'Kerryman' newspaper were bombed. However, neither McEllistrim nor Cronin was captured. They survived both the War of Independence and the Civil War.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News