Ballinrobe and South Mayo's Fight for Freedom 1916

Photo:Ballinrobe Parish Magazine - The Bridge Magazine. There was the red and a green and purple issue but we do not know what colour the cover from which this article was printed!

Ballinrobe Parish Magazine - The Bridge Magazine. There was the red and a green and purple issue but we do not know what colour the cover from which this article was printed!

Red Cover c. 1966

Twelve men who fought in 1916

By John Colleran (past Principle of Cloonliffen School) Extracted from the Bridge Magazine

In a report from The Bridge (Ballinrobe's Parish Magazine) it states that in 1966 there was a celebrated of the golden jubilee of the Easter Rising.

There were celebrations in Dublin and in various centers through the country. The government sent each school a large, framed copy of the faster Week Proclamation, and asked that it be unveiled and displayed, and a talk given to the children about the Easter Rising.

Pat Kennedy

In Cloonliffen National School, Ballinrobe it was known that a past pupil, Pat Kennedy, living in the school district, had fought in Tourmakeady, and he was asked to unveil the copy of the proclamation, and give the children the -story of the fight, as he remembered it.  As the story went on the children were astonished to find that not only was there one past pupil who fought in Tourmakeady, but that there were at least twelve whose names can still be remembered, and that one of them, Michael Mellett lived in Ballinrobe, as indeed, he does still (written c. 1966).

Twelve who fought beside them

This story is written to honour those twelve men and the men from other districts who fought beside them, and in the hope that it will bring to mind the names of the latter, many of whom are now forgotten. It is as factual as it can be at this distance in time from the event, but is not written for the student of guerilla warfare. Rather is a story of high endeavour against great odds by men of principle and noble purpose who did not count the cost, and asked for no reward; and little or no reward they got

Ballinrobe 1916

The republican movement began in Ballinrobe in 1916, probably soon after the rising. A branch of Fianna Eireann was set up by Michael. Farragher, painter, New St., Tom Coyne, Abbey St., and Henry Flynn, New St, Pat Kennedy, Rahard remembers seeing in 1916 these three men going up Main St, each with a lighted torch. They went round by Cornmarket, New St, Glebe St. and back to Abbey St. He found they were honouring the men of Easter Week.  Next time they went out Pat Kennedy joined them and there were four troches.

During the 1914-18 war years recruiting meeting for the British army were often held in the town, and in 1918 there was a strong threat of conscription. This was opposed by priests and people, and was a powerful force in bringing about the formation of local companies of the Irish Republican Army, soon to be known by everyone in the country as the I.R.A.

Sometime in the first half of 1918 Joe Forde; shop assistant in Curley's Drapery, and George Bell addressed a meeting of men in Donnellan's Wood, on the Carnalecka Road, past the graveyard.  Joe Forde was a native of Athenry, and may have had some connection with Liam Mellows 1916 men. George Bell was from Roundfort. They asked any man who was prepared to fight, against conscription to meet them there a few nights later. Only three men turned up Pat Kennedy, Michael Jennings and Anthony Doordan, a1l of Rahard. These were the first men in the Ballinrobe Company, which before the end of the year grew to the strength of over thirty men. Joe Forde and George Bell were the first to wear volunteer uniform in Ballinrobe and were arrested for doing so.

Second Company Formed

Soon a second Company was formed in Cross by Tom Maguire and before 1918 ended, Ballinrobe was the centre of a battalion of four Companies - Ballinrobe Company, Cross Company, Ballyglass Company and Shrah Company. During 1919 recruiting and training continued. Arms were collected or taken in raids. Most households gave £I to buy arms and ammunition. Till 1920 there was only one brigade in all Mayo, but in that year the country was divided into four brigades.  Each Company elected its own captain but the higher officers were appointed by the Headquarters Staff in Dublin. At that time Dick Mulcahy was chief of staff. Tom Maguire was appointed Brigade Commandant or Brigadier of South Mayo Brigade Adjutant.  But it is not by their military titles these are remembered by a grateful people, but by the more intimate Tom Maguire and Michael O'Brien.

Early Plan of Attack

One of the early plans of the South Mayo Brigade was for an attack on Cross Police Barracks. It might well have succeeded, and only misfired at the last moment.  For their part the police began to be more active. They discovered arms buried in the graveyard in Ballyholly. Some volunteers were arrested and beaten to try to get information from them.  Prominent men in the I. R.A, began to feel it was not safe to sleep at home, and so, in late 1920 began the ‘flying column’. These men moved from place to place by night.

Safe Heavens

They often stayed in Cahir and in Mellett's of Cloonenagh, and indeed, anywhere they thought they might be safe and welcome. Michael Mellett of Cloonenagh remembers being awakened at home in bed by police prodding him with rifles. The house was surrounded.  At the time a man from the mountains was employed as a helper on the farm. This man wore, a, bainin [an Irish designed wool jumper, often white] and when the police saw this they thought they had a capture….after a while he said he should go out to look at the sheep, and the police, let him go to look at the sheep. It was a ruse to go across to Cahir and warn the flying column.

Conference 1921

On the 6th January 1921 the staff of the four Mayo brigades held a conference. It was agreed that until that time no major operation had taken place in the country against the Crown forces, and it was decided that each brigade should mount such an operation as soon as possible.

First Engagement sine 1798

Ballinrobe was then garrisoned by the Border Regiment, and a lorry of these troops used to go on a routine journey to Castlebar. A plan to ambush this lorry was prepared, and on the 7th March 1921 men of the Ballyglass and Shrah Companies went into position on the Pantry Road at a townland called Kilfaul just north of Portroyal. The lorry under the command of Captain Chatfield came along. Fire was opened, the driver was hit, and the lorry stopped. Many of the soldiers got out by the back of the lorry and returned the fire. After a short, sharp engagement -they retreated towards Ballinrobe leaving their lorry and its contents behind. This was the first engagement against British military in Mayo since 1798.

Intense Activity by Police and Soldiers

Following this there was intense activity by police and soldiers in the district. They shot a man in Shrah sitting by his own fireside; a man who had nothing to do with the ambush.

Besides the Black-and Tans the A.I.C. was also strengthened by a group known as the Auxiliaries. These were ex-British army officer and good fighters, but under little discipline. They had done some terrible deeds in Galway. It was thought that they would come in to Ballinrobe after a fair in Shrule. Men were put in position but the Auxiliaries did not come.  Police in small outlying stations began to feel unsafe, and some of these barracks were closed.

Derrypark Police Station

One isolated station which was not closed was Derrypark at the south-west of Lough Mask. It was built like a fortress in the time of the land troubles. The ground on which it stood was elevated, commanded the approaches on all sides, and was most difficult to attack, especially with such weapons as the I.R.A. then had. Once a month, on the first, second or third day of the month, supplies were brought out from Ballinrobe to Derrypark. The R.I.C. and Black & Tans brought the supplies and usually travelled in three vehicles, a car in front and two lorries following.

Convoy Attack at Tourmakeady P.O.

The staff of South Mayo Brigade made plans to attack the convoy. The route to Derrypark was surveyed, and a stretch of road with its centre point at Tourmakeady Post Office was chosen for the attack. The post office would be occupied, and as soon as the lorries came, telephone communication could be cut. Lines of return for the men to their homes were mapped out. Usually, the Ballinrobe police, on the morning of their run to Derrypark, placed an order for rations in a wholesale shop in Ballinrobe. It took at least two hours to fill the order. As soon as the order came in a volunteer, in the employment of the firm, would send word out town, and a scout would bring the message to those waiting in Tourmakeady.

Saturday 30th April, 1921

On the night of Saturday, 30th April 1921 men, arms and equipment were assembled in Cahir.     At nightfall they went across to Cushlough. Boats were waiting at Pete Burke’s and eleven men from the Cloonliffen school area were roared over from there. These men were Tom Burke (in command of the boat party) Tom Healy, and Tom Cahalan, each from Cahir, Pat Kennedy, the brothers Edward and John Jennings and John Sullivan from Rahard, Michael Mellett, Cloonenagh, Edward Cameron, Corthun and the brothers Jack and Jim Duffy of Clogher. The twelfth man from the area went on foot with the rest of the column, as it was called. He was Paddy May of Kilkeeran, Captain of the Ballinrobe Company and third in command of the group who volunteered for action. The O.C. was Brigadier Tom Maguire and Commandant Michael O’Brien was second in command.

 The party in the boats took about three hours to cross the lake. The boatmen found it very difficult to get their bearings in the dark, and a light which should have been shown to guide them in was missing. The boatmen who were from the north-west side of the lake thought there might be Black-& Tans about. They landed near Derryvore Bridge on the Party Shrah Road.

Meanwhile, the main body crossed the River Robe at Cushlough and went through Creagh, across country towards Keel ridge. This was the most dangerous point of their march and the road each side of the bridge had been well scouted. The all clear was given, they crossed the bridge, and left the main road at the by-road for Aughnish. From there they again travelled cross-country, over very rough going, especially at night. They came out on the Party-Shrah road near Derryvore Bridge, and met the party who had crossed by boat.  Scouts from Shrah told them that the road to Shrah was clear, and they marched by road to Shrah. From there they went to houses higher up the mountain overlooking Shrah, and went to bed. It was then dawn on Sunday, 1st May, and a beautiful morning.

Next day Sunday 1st May

During Sunday they lay low for fear of their presence becoming known to the  police and military. On Monday guns and ammunition were inspected, and each man's cartridges were fitted to his gun. These shot gun cartridges had been re-filled with buckshot and some of them would not fit the guns. Pat Kennedy remembers seeing a man on the mountain-side drying cartridges in the sun on a sheet of corrugated iron. Nearly all the men were armed with shotguns which, of course, were only useful at short range. The officers decided to go into ambush on the next morning, Tuesday the 3rd day.

Tuesday 3rd May

At one or two a.m. the men fell in on the Shrah Tourmakeady road near the bridge south of Shrah Post Office. They marched to Tourmakeady and reached the fair green before daybreak.

Besides his equipment each man had a small ration of food. This they decided to eat before going into position. The men were divided into three sections, one unit of sixteen men for each of the expected vehicles, and spaced apart at the distance usually between the lorries and the car. The plan was to let the car through till it reached the most southerly group, any by then it was hoped that each of the other two groups would have a lorry in position to be attacked.

The centre group took up position in and around Tourmakeady Post Office. The men south of them were at Drumban Gate on the east or lake side of the road, behind a double wall, with a wood at their backs. They had a good view of anything approaching from the north or Shrah side. The men in the most northerly position were on the west side of the road behind a fence on the south side of the fair green.  Across the road on the lake side was a double wall and a policeman stood a poor chance of getting over it if within range of the guns of this unit. Three men were placed inside the wall at the road  junction opposite Hewat’s Hotel, as it was then.  It is now Thomas O Tools’ shop.  A  few contact men were placed between the groups, and that was all little more  than fifty men.


The guests in Hewat's Hotel, among them the local doctor (Dr. Murphy, later of Cong) and his wife, and some policemen's wives were taken to a safer place, and put under guard in the house of P. Moloney.  It was essential that none should escape, especially any of the policemen’s’ wives, and the guard was ordered in their presence to shoot anyone who tried to get out before the fight started. These prisoners were joined by others who happened to come to the post office or who saw any of the volunteers along, the road. The local curate is came along in his horse and trap, was not stopped, and noticed nothing unusual.


Tom Maguire, as officer in command gave first pick of his sixteen men to Paddy May, the youngest of the three senior officers; Michael O’Brien got second choice, and the O.C. took the remaining men to the centre position at the post office. Mrs. Billinton was postmistress at the time. One of the men placed inside the post office was Jack Ferguson, on the run from his home in Leitrim. Seeing Tom Maguire going about among his men outside, the postmistress asked Jack Ferguson who was the man outside.

"Michael Collins " he answered. "Do you think Mr. Collins would like a cup of tea? she asked: and "Mr. Collins" did have a cup of tea.

Pat Kennedy and Michael Mellette remember the names of most of the men picked by Paddy May for his position on the south end at Drumban Gate.  Besides the two of them were the Duffy brothers, Clogher, the two Jennings brothers, Rahard. Tom Fahy and Terry O’Brien, Ballinrobe, Michael Shaughnessy, Cross (the only man with a riffle), Edward Cameron, Corthun and Patrick Hennell y, Cloongowla. They went into the shrubbery behind the wall at Drumbawn or Mitchell's Gate, as it was also called and waited and waited.

Their outposts took passers-by who came the way and put them with the other prisoners. The expected car came about noon. The driver and most of the passengers were probably killed in the first volley. The car crashed into the wall almost opposite Michael Shaughnessy the man with the rifle. There was some return fire from the car but it was quickly silenced. The driver, a black& tan and the other three or four police were dead. Six rifles and ammunition were taken from the car and the volunteers withdrew. Instead of the usual two lorries only one lorry came that day.

When the police in the lorry heard the firing ahead of them they pulled up, and jumped out almost opposite the group under Commandant Brien at the Fair Green.  Fire was opened on them, and they returned the fire from behind the lorry and whatever cover they could get. The police then made a dash along the road towards Hewat’s Hotel.  There they came under fire from the three men posted behind the wall at the road junction. These men were driven out of their position by rifle grenades and the police slipped into the Hotel. Tom Maguire came up with help from the centre position, but the police were now safe in the Hotel.  

After examining the Drumbawn Gate position he withdrew his men up the mountain, making northwards along the upper slopes towards Shrah. In the heat of the moment the telephone in the post-office was either for-gotten or not properly put out of action, with the result that the police and military in Ballinrobe and the other towns around were on the Road for Tourmakeady within the hour.

The men on the mountains could see the lorries passing the Keel Bridge; and the clouds of dust rising from the then untarred roads as the British soldiers drew nearer.  After some had reached the foot of the mountain, twelve lorries were counted coming over a rise on the Party/Tourmakeady road. High on the mountain in a fold of the ground, overlooking Shrah the volunteers waited for them. About twenty-five or thirty men with Tom Maguire at one end of the line and Michael O'Brien at the other lay in cover waiting to come down the slopes.

Padhraig Feeney

That morning in his father’s shop in  Glebe St., Ballinrobe, young Padhraig Feeney got word that the police had ordered their supplies for Derrypark Barracks. There was hardly enough time to get word to the volunteers in Tourmakeady, but he set off on his bicycle.

It is thought that the police convoy must have passed him on the road, and that he must have known his message was too late. Perhaps he wanted to join his comrades and help them, but ran into the police instead. At any rate he was a prisoner in Hewat’s Hotel soon after the ambush.  After a time police came into the room and called him out. A woman asked them where they were bringing the boy and they told her he would be alright. A few moments later shots were heard and Padhraig Feeney lay dead. It is likely that he was the first volunteer to lose his life that day. He was only twenty-two.

When the action at Drumbawn Gate was over some half dozen men, among them Pat Kennedy and Michael Mellett withdrew towards the lake through the wood and set off northwards by the lake. Soon they came under fire from police in Hewat’s Hotel. They got through safely and crossed the road towards the mountains at the Franciscan Monastery, which was there at the time, opposite where Tourmakeady Convent is now.

They moved north along the mountain till they reached a village above Shrah called Tur na bFord where they had slept the night before.  Here they met a man with a rifle named Michael Costello, a native of Shrah and an ex-British Army man.  They not know him at the time, but he had fought as a member of Shrah Company in the ambush at Kilfaul, Partry on the 7th March’ two months before.  A lorry of soldiers stopped at Shrah on the road below and the soldiers began to climb the mountain. A man in shirt and trousers was in front of them as they climbed past the volunteers up the mountain side.  The volunteers who had taken cover in the bed of a stream moved up the gully and crossed the ridge to the west side of the mountain.  Michael Costello brought them to a police barracks called Kinuiry in which there were eight police.


They lay in cover around the barracks till dusk in the hope of attacking the police if they came out, but none did.  After dark they made their way along the mountain till they reached the Ballinrobe/Westport road near the Goat’s Hotel.  About one or two a.m. they called to a farmhouse that had light showing. The woman of the house gave them a meal of bacon and eggs which they will never forget.

Escape Route for some

From there they went across bogs and fields to Ballintubber and went on north of Lough Carra till they came to Ballyglass.  By this time one man was falling asleep on his feet.  Three of them stayed in a house there; the other two Pat Kennedy and Eámon Jennings went on to Newbrook Cross, through Newbrook, Robeen, across the Robe River at Robeen Bridge and on to Cloonacastle to the house of a friend. It was a remarkable feat of endurance by any standards.

Back in Tourmakeady soon after Pat Kennedy and party had seen the soldiers going up the mountain Tom Maguire and his men came under heavy and accurate fire from rifles and machine guns.

Attack and Wounded

So heavy was it, that their coats were covered by bog mould thrown up by bullets ploughing into the mountain in front of them. Tom Maguire was hit and badly wounded in several places. The wound most in need of attention was in his upper arm which was broken and bleeding dangerously.

Michael. O'Brian came across, from his end of the line to apply a tourniquet and bandages. At the same time the wounded leader saw a man in shirt and trousers, without a cap, with a bandolier over his shoulder, and carrying a rifle coming towards them. He looked like Michael Costello, even, to the colour of his hair. When quite close it was seen he was a stranger.  The stranger shouted "hands up"; Michael O'Brien reached for his rifle, and was shot dead by the man, Lieutenant Ibbotson of the Ballinrobe Garrison.

Almost in the same instant the rifle dropped from the lieutenant's hands, the bandolier was cut from his back and his arms torn with buckshot. Despite this he made his way back to his men.

Holding position

All the long evening the volunteers held their position' against attack by the military. Even after dark search lights were used but at last the soldier were called back to their lorries and returned to barracks. Tom Maguire was carried on the back of a comrade to the nearest house.  The men who were carrying the body of Michael O'Brien lost their way and had to leave it behind where it was found the next day by the soldiers.


A message was sent to Dr. Murphy in Hewat’s Hotel and he came to attend the wounded man, but could bring on instruments or medical supplies for fear of exciting suspicion.

He set the broker arm using pieces of board from a box, strips of what suitable cloth he could find and broken wool for wadding.  Next day, Wednesday, the patient was carried out of the house and put lying on straw in the dry bed of a stream under some overhanging bushes. That night he was taken to another house farther north on the mountain and next day, Thursday a holiday, he was placed in a hollow on top of a sharp hillock. It rained all day, and during the day he heard soldiers passing underneath on the mountain. He was hidden in the open again on Friday and Saturday.

On Saturday night volunteers took him on an improved stretcher across country to Ballintubber, and to the house of a herdsman named O’Toole on the estate of James Fitzgerald Kenny of Clogher. Next night he was brought to the home of jerry Cochrane in Castlecarra. On Tuesday night a week after he was wounded, Dr O’Boyle from Balla came to attend him.

The wounds, which by now were in a bad way, were cleaned and dressed.  After a few nights the doctor returned with a support for the wounded arm.  Part of it was a bread grater, and part a sort of iron elbow the doctor had got made in the forge. It worked well, and with the help of his sister who had come to nurse him the wounded man was soon past danger point and on the mend. To-day he is happily, still alert and active.

Cloonliffen School Men

And what of his men of the twelve men from Cloonliffen school area? One man died young at home. Only three of the rest found a living in Ireland. The story of the other forty, or so of the column may be much the same.  What of the land for which they risked so much?

 To-day the country is torn by selfishness and greed. Almost everyone wants more money for less work.  It is too much to hope that we may be led to give more of our time and energy to build a nation worthy of those brave men who fought that we might be free?

John Colleran.

Extracted from a typescript copy (no cover - colour of this issue unknown at the moment) of The Bridge (Ballinrobe Parish Magazine.  Edited by Kathleen Ryder with her permission.

Assistant Editors: William Horan, Edward Crosby,

Treasurer, Raymond Ansbro,

Secretary, Paddy Donnellan.


This page was added by Averil Staunton on 11/04/2013.
Comments about this page

My father was Thomas Leyden and I understand from family lore that Paddy May was his cousin.

I got this connection from Father Tom Leyden from Abbey Street Ballinrobe, now in Nairobi with the Divine Word Missionaries. My father came to live in Cookstown Co. Tyrone in 1925 and through family stories I understood that at one stage he and Paddy May had been involved in some activity.

I was told that my father had on one occasion been with Paddy May when Paddy was injured. There was some indication that my father left Mayo and came to N. I. as a result of this “incident” and/or because he wasn’t allowed employment as a teacher after independence. I have no way of confirming this story as my father died in 1965. I have a copy of The Bridge magazine in which my father is mentioned as playing a role in a play. Great to read all the background history of the times in Mayo all those years ago. Thanks. Grainne Mc Cafferty (nee Leyden)

Thank you Gráinne for this information.

By GrĂ¡inne Mc Cafferty
On 21/04/2022

Have you any further information about Michael Shaughnessy?

Editor: Perhaps some of our readers could answer this query for Clive please?

By Mr Clive Baker
On 20/10/2021

My grandfather Lawrence Keane was from Drimcoggy, Srah. He was a volunteer in the South Mayo Brigade.

He participated in the Tourmakeady Ambush as part of Lally’s section that day. He said Pat Feeney was a friend. I believe some of his brothers were volunteers too and took part in the ambush. My cousin Peggy Conway and her husband Pardraig.  

By Lawrence Keane
On 07/12/2020

Hi Marian,

Terence Francis O'Brien was my grandfather, let's get in

By Michael Terence O'Brien
On 02/11/2019


Just wondering if there is any information about my grand uncle Terence O'Brien? He was part of the Flying Column of South Mayo. He was involved in the Tourmakeady ambush as were many others, my great grandaunt was a teacher in Clooniffen school.

Kind regards, Marian

REPLY: I will contact you if anybody replies with information. Just wondered what your Great Grandaunt name was? It would be great to have it for the records and thank you for contacting us.

Averil - Editor 

By Marian
On 09/04/2015

I have a copy of "The Bridge" in question. It was the 2nd issue produced sometime after 1968 as it lists 1966-1968 deaths in Ballinrobe.

 Unlike Issue No.1 Easter 1966 (Glossy Blue cover) and Issue No.3 Christmas 1972 (Glossy Red Cover)

Issue 2 does not give date of publication and has a Yellow/Brown cardboard cover with 3 staples. I have a 4th issue with no date and a Glossy Green cover.

By the way Paddy May in the story above was my Grandfather.

Reply: nice to hear from you Barry and thanks for your support

By Barry O'Sullivan
On 06/06/2013