Béal na Bláth ambush: Sr Isidore Kelly’s memory of seeing Michael Collins lying in a pool of blood

The elderly nun told me about running to the scene of the assassination as a local 12-year-old

We used to meet, the old nun and I, beneath the green light of the exit sign in the large kitchen of the convent and nursing home as she came at night to fill her mug with cocoa to carry up the stairs to bed. It was during the Grand Silence, and we weren’t supposed to be conversing, so the lights were never turned on as we whispered together each evening in the shadows of the kitchen. I was working as a student for the summer months in this nursing home run by the Sisters of Nazareth in Southend-on-Sea, in England.

Sr Isidore, by then in the order for nearly 70 years, was now bent over to one side, leaning on a stick as she stood talking in the half-light each evening. We spoke mostly about her religious life. She entered the convent in Mallow, in Co Cork, in the late 1920s, then travelled to train for her novitiate in Hammersmith, in west London. We talked about her decades traipsing the towns of England, Scotland and Wales, going from door to door to collect money to fund the children’s homes that the order ran, at a time when there was little or no state funding.

Mary and her father could see the body of Michael Collins lying face down, a gaping wound on the bottom of his skull, as soldiers knelt down in prayer, reciting the Act of Contrition

She recalled the years when there was very little to eat in the convent and some sisters, in the 1930s, died of scurvy and diseases associated with malnutrition. She stood on street corners in big cities, her eyes cast downwards as the convent rule dictated — keeping “custody of the eyes” — collecting pennies, sometimes facing ridicule and being spat at, she said, at a time of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish fervour. She attributed her gait to all the wettings she got over the years and now, in her old age, lamented the litany of abuse allegations against children’s homes such as Nazareth House.

She spoke little of her early life, and it was only when I returned, a number of years later, to celebrate Mass for her diamond jubilee as a Sister of Nazareth that I delved into her childhood. The young Mary Kelly grew up on a little farm in the parish of Kilmurray in west Co Cork, the daughter of Michael Kelly and Catherine Crowley. The second eldest of four children, she helped her father eke a living on the land in the impoverished years before the first World War.


The flame of nationalism burned brightly then, culminating in the death of Terence MacSwiney, the Sinn Féin lord mayor of Cork, in 1920, and the subsequent burning of the city during the War of Independence. Though she read to her father of the happenings written of in the Cork Examiner, their lives continued undisturbed bar the trundling of lorries carrying dreaded Black and Tans, which they lay watching from the hillsides opposite.

As we spoke together in her room on the eve of the celebrations for her diamond jubilee she recalled one August evening in particular — it would have been August 22nd, 1922 — before they turned for home with a cartful of hay. In the quiet of the evening they heard what sounded like shooting, one round of bullets after another. It came from below the hill, on the road at Béal na Bláth. After half an hour or so a deadly quiet had fallen. There then erupted what seemed like panicked shouting, and Mary and her father ran across the fields to see, from the hillside above, a frenzy of men running backwards and forwards.

Down the embankment they came, and here, only feet from where they stopped, they could see beside an armoured car the body of Michael Collins, lying face down on the ground, a gaping wound on the bottom of his skull as men knelt down in prayer, reciting the Act of Contrition. The two stood in stunned silence as the soldiers, tears falling from their faces, placed his body in the back of the car and drove at speed in the direction of Cooskstown and Cloghduff.

The father and daughter were left standing alone on the roadside in the drizzle, gazing at a pool of blood that was to stain the spot where Collins had fallen on the roadway.

As the old nun sat those 80 years later, looking out over the broad sweep of water where the Thames empties into the North Sea, far from the fields of west Cork, tears fell from her eyes as she remembered the August day when she, as a little girl, got caught up in a moment of history in the midst of the ordinary, a moment that was to change the course of Irish politics for the whole of a century to come.