Béal na Bláth ambush: Elderly nun ‘witnessed last moments of Michael Collins’ as a girl

Sr Isidore Kelly was 12 when the National Army commander-in-chief was shot dead near her home in Co Cork

There were no independent witnesses to the shooting of Michael Collins, at Béal na Bláth in Co Cork, on August 22, 1922, but one woman claimed to have been on the scene as National Army soldiers lifted the dead body of the commander-in-chief into an army tender.

Mary Kelly, who was 12 at the time, lived about 2km away, at Templemartin, Crookstown, in the parish of Kilmurray. She and her father, Michael Kelly, were bringing home a cartful of hay that evening when they heard shots being fired.

She recounted what happened next to Fr Jason Murphy, who is now a priest in the diocese of Kilmore, in Cavan, and had known Sr Isidore, as she became, since he worked as a student for the summer months at a nursing home in England run by the Sisters of Nazareth, the order that Kelly had joined after entering the convent in Mallow in the late 1920s and then being sent to Nazareth House in Hammersmith, in west London, in September 1929 to train for her novitiate.

Mary and her father stood in stunned silence as the soldiers, tears falling from their faces, placed Michael Collins’s body in the back of the car

When he visited her again at the nursing home, in the Essex town of Southend-on-Sea, in 2001, the elderly nun could recall the events of 1920, the arrival of the Black and Tans in the area, and the death of the lord mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, on hunger strike.


“As we spoke together in her room on the eve of the celebrations for her diamond jubilee, she recalled one August evening in particular, before they turned for home with a cartful of hay,” says Fr Murphy, who is also a columnist with the Anglo-Celt newspaper. “In the quiet of the evening they heard what sounded like shooting, one round of bullets after another.

Graphic of Béal na Bláth where Michael Collins was fatally shot 100 years ago

“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.”

Fr Murphy says Sr Isidore, who was born on December 28th, 1909, professed on August 15th, 1931, and spent the rest of her life in Britain, told him the story after he asked her to recall some of the salient events in her life so he could use them in his sermon at the jubilee Mass. She died three months later, on November 28th, 2001.

Fr Murphy says she was still emotionally affected by seeing Collins’s body and the site of the ambush almost 80 years later. He describes her as a humble, unaffected woman. “She didn’t think her life was of any importance, and then she came out with this nugget,” he says. “She wasn’t somebody who looked for attention. She was very unassuming and quiet: that’s how she lived her life. She never talked about it until that time.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times