Under fire in Ballymacandy: How ‘The Troubles’ came to an Irish village
Under Fire in Ballymacandy: How ‘The Troubles’ Came to an Irish Village Ballymacandy: The Story of a Kerry Ambush by Owen O’Shea (Irish Academic Press, €14.95/£12.99)
In his latest book, Kerry historian Owen O’Shea provides an unbiased account of the details surrounding the deadly ambush at Ballymacandy on June 1, 1921, dealing impartially with all involved.
Ballymacandy is just a mile from the village of Milltown in central Kerry, which is 16 miles from Tralee, the county town. It is a story to ponder.
A group of 12 police officers were returning to their barracks in Kilorglin after attending the monthly assizes in Tralee. Three were constables of the Royal Irish Constabulary, nine were members of the recently recruited Black and Tans. Led by District Inspector MacCaughey and Sergeant James Collery, they cycled two abreast into the ambush.
Police came under a hail of fire from over 60 members of the IRA’s No. 1 and No. 2 Kerry Brigades which were under the joint command of Tom O’Connor and Dan Mulvihill.
When the shooting stopped, four of the policemen had been killed and one was lying mortally wounded. Seven of the officers escaped the ambush, with three reaching the safety of their barracks in Kilorglin and four that of their barracks in Tralee. Jerry Myles, one of the attackers, was seriously injured and was carried on an improvised stretcher to a safe place in the mountains between Glencar and Sneem, where he was treated by members of Cumann na mBan.
The author recounts how the residents of Milltown reacted to the incident. Hearing the shot, Father Alexander O’Sullivan, the local vicar, rushed to the scene. He was no stranger to gunfire, having served as a British Army chaplain in Greece during the First World War. He administered the last rites to the dead and dying. Thereafter, he ensured that the bodies of the dead were properly cared for and placed with reverence before the altar of the parish church.
Dr Daniel Sheehan, the local GP, also rushed to the scene and treated the injured. He ordered an ambulance to take Constable John MacCormack, the most seriously injured officer, to Tralee Hospital. In the event, this was not possible, as the roads in the area had been rendered impassable with trenches dug across them, and he became the fifth victim of the ambush.
The murderous ambush made the inhabitants of the village fear the worst. It was a time when the forces of the crown retaliated harshly against the inhabitants of the places which were the scene of ambushes.
Anticipating this, Tom O’Connor, the local IRA leader, had a letter delivered to Major Markham Richard Leeson-Marshall, the area’s leading loyalist, stating that his residence Callinafercy House would be burnt down if that was the fate of one of the houses. in the village. This prompted him to talk to the military authorities at Ballymullen Barracks in Tralee.
This, it seems, and the respect shown to the bodies of the deceased police officers saved the life and property of the villagers. Nothing, however, spared the grief of the bereaved families of the deceased police officers.
Mr. O’Shea’s monograph is much more than a Truman Capote-style retelling of the details of the Ballymacandy ambush. Delving deep into witness statements and pension claims at the Office of Military History, he provides a comprehensive account of the conduct of the Revolutionary War in mid-Kerry.
It also describes the members and activities of Cumann na mBan in the region at that time. And it records how Paddy Cahill was “removed” by IRA GHQ as OC, Kerry No. 1 Brigade, and replaced by Andy Cooney.
(The book contains a number of very informative appendices. Appendix I is a list of participants in the Ballymacandy ambush. Appendix II is a list of members of the Milltown District Council of Cumann na mBan in July 1921.)
By the way, Owen O’Shea, of Milltown, County Kerry, is a local historian who has written several books exploring aspects of Kerry’s history. An Irish Research Council-funded PhD student at University College Dublin, he is currently studying election campaigning and politics in Kerry during the first decade of the Free State, a subject that is still controversial.