Ballymacandy ambush descendants meet to mark centenary of incident

‘It’s hard to put it in words. But I am very glad to be here,’ says relative of RIC sergeant

Descendants of those involved in an ambush in Kerry during the War of Independence have met for the first time to mark the centenary of the incident.

The attack on an RIC bicycle patrol at Ballymacandy, just outside Milltown on the Castlemaine Road, took place on June 1st, 1921, six weeks before the truce.

Until then, Milltown, a peaceful thriving village with a mixed Catholic and Protestant community, had been spared the worst excesses of the war.

A new book by local historian Owen O’Shea has uncovered the facts of the incident. Two members of the Black and Tans and three RIC officers died, among them sergeant James Collery, a father of nine.


The son of a small farmer in Sligo, he had joined the RIC as a means to a well-paid and steady career. He was posted first to Clare and then to Kerry in 1907, while his family lived at the Square in Milltown.

The Collerys were well liked in the village, with the children going to local schools, but within days of the ambush they left forever.

James Collery’s granddaughter, Mary O’Neill from Malahide in Dublin, said her mother, Katherine, was 11 at the time and witnessed her father’s body being placed on a cart.


Speaking at the scene, Ms O’Neill said: “It’s hard to put it in words. But I am very glad to be here.”

Their family did not speak of the event over the years, but Ms O’Neill believes her mother and grandmother knew the identities of those who took part.

“My mother was very bitter about it all,” she said.

The ambush involved IRA, Fianna Éireann and Cumann na mBan units from Milltown, Keel, Callinafercy, Kiltallagh, and senior Kerry Number 1 Brigade members from Castlegregory and Tralee, who had spent months in a hideout in Keel on the Dingle Peninsula.

Meeting Ms O’Neill for the first time was Dermot Cotter from Tralee, a grandson of Jerry “Unkey” O’Connor who threw the grenade that killed Sgt Collery.

Unkey O’Connor left for America in 1925, not returning until 1938, and never spoke of the ambush.

“It’s a bit emotional,” Mr Cotter said of meeting Ms O’Neill. He found a visit to Sgt Collery’s grave at Killagha Abbey particularly affecting.

“My grandfather wouldn’t have taken any great pride in leaving nine children and a widow,” he said.

Paid tribute

Mr O’Shea, author of Ballymacandy: The Story of a Kerry Ambush, paid tribute to the generosity and co-operation of the descendants, saying boxes of medals were produced from cupboards, pictures taken down from mantelpieces and handwritten letters retrieved from shoeboxes.

Many descendants admitted they did not know the extent of the involvement of their relatives.

“There was a constant and enduring refrain, among the descendants of the IRA and the RIC men: ‘The participants didn’t really talk about what happened’,” Mr O’Shea said.

“I quickly discovered that despite repeated references to the deaths of five Black and Tans, not all of those who died were ‘Tans’ at all,” he added.

Also in Milltown this week was retired Army colonel Sean O’Keeffe from Naas, Co Kildare, grandson of Tom O’Connor who was the the IRA’s commanding officer on the day of the ambush.

He said 1921 was a very turbulent year in Kerry. “It was a totally different landscape.”

While such incidents were difficult to recall, there was an even bigger danger in repressing their memory, he said.

Ballymacandy: The Story of a Kerry Ambush is published by Merrion Press