A fateful week – Ronan McGreevy on Leitrim and the War of Independence

An Irishman’s Diary

Selton Hill, Co Leitrim. Along with Sean Connolly, one of the ablest guerrilla leaders outside Co Cork, the five other IRA men who died were Seamus Wrynne, Joseph O’Beirne, John Reilly, Joseph Reilly and Michael Baxter

Selton Hill, Co Leitrim. Along with Sean Connolly, one of the ablest guerrilla leaders outside Co Cork, the five other IRA men who died were Seamus Wrynne, Joseph O’Beirne, John Reilly, Joseph Reilly and Michael Baxter

 

In March 1921 during the War of Independence, two ambushes occurred in Co Leitrim which are woven into the landscape and the folk memory of the county.

The first, the ambush at Sheemore Hill outside Carrick-on-Shannon on March 4th, was a success for the IRA; the second at Selton Hill, exactly a week later on March 11th, was a catastrophic failure which led to the deaths of five IRA men and their commander, Sean Connolly, one of the ablest guerrilla leaders outside Co Cork.

Sheemore, “that fairy hill where wild flowers grow”, is the dominant feature in this part of south Leitrim and ideal ambush country. The winding road around it is replete with rocky outcrops and clumps of woodland.

The North Roscommon Brigade files noted Crown forces intended to surprise IRA men attending the first Friday services at Gowel Church.

Arrangements were made to ambush the soldiers on the way to the church, but the ambush party was not in position when the soldiers arrived in a lorry.

They were present, though, when the soldiers surprisingly decided to return by the same route. The ambushers dug six rifle pits dug in behind a low wall at the edge of a wood. The ambushers were echeloned in the wood to account for the flanking party.

Ten IRA volunteers opened up on the three lorries carrying about 35 men.

The brigade activity reports of the North Roscommon Brigade claim that 10 British soldiers were killed in the ambush. However, the British only claimed one dead, Second Lieut Eric Wilson from Middlesex.

Contemporary media reports suggest that four soldiers and two RIC men were also wounded in the ambush.

The ambushers made good their escape. Vengeance was taken on the civilian population and the local creamery was burned to the ground.

Sheemore was conspicuous by the presence of a woman, Alice Gray (55), a nurse, who was with the British army convoy. She administered first aid to the dying Wilson and redistributed the rifles to the men. According to Patrick McGarty, the author of Leitrim: The Irish Revolution, she was given an OBE for her efforts and left for Canada in 1922 fearful that such an award would make her a target.

Another loyalist was to suffer a different fate as a result of Selton Hill.

On the morning of March 11th, an IRA active service unit of 11 was hiding out in a home belonging to James Flynn, a republican sympathiser.

Their presence became known to the military in Mohill, and 30 soldiers from the Bedfordshire Regiment arrived in lorries armed with rifles and Lewis machine guns.

Connolly did not heed a warning shot from a friendly RIC man as the convoy approached the house.

By the time the military arrived, it was too late.

At 4pm the soldiers deployed two Lewis machine guns capable of firing 550 bullets a minute on the gate post of the house and opened fire.

Along with Connolly, the five other IRA men who died were Seamus Wrynne, Joseph O’Beirne, John Reilly, Joseph Reilly and Michael Baxter.

“We had not a chance from the start,” said Bernard Sweeney, one of five survivors of the ambush.

Connolly was shot as he emerged from the safe house. He later died in hospital.

Two sentries, Paddy Guckian and P McDermott, managed to escape. The other three were injured.

William Latimer was also to die as a result of Selton Hill. He was a local Protestant farmer and Orangeman who was held to have informed on the IRA party at Flynn’s house.

He went into Mohill to prepare for the wake of his mother who had just died.

The IRA determined that he had informed a local doctor, Dr Charles Pentland, who had in turn told the military about the presence of the men.

Pentland fled Ireland after Selton Hill and died in a road accident in London in 1924. Latimer was shot dead on March 30th.

Michael Collins was reportedly furious about what happened at Selton Hill. He described Leitrim as “the most treacherous county in Ireland”, a comment which he made in haste and was later rebutted by the IRA.

Connolly’s funeral in his native Longford was one of the biggest the county had ever seen.

It also illustrates there was a degree of ambivalence among the Catholic hierarchy about the IRA even at that stage of the War of Independence.

The Bishop of Kilmore Patrick Finegan declared that he would officiate over Connolly’s funeral Mass because he had been “shot escaping, not ambushing”.

Had Connolly been the perpetrator of the ambush, not a victim, he would not have presided over it, he told his relatives.

In February 1921 in his Lenten pastoral he made his views known on the War of Independence. “I condemn, abhor and detest violence from whatever side or source it comes, and I earnestly appeal to all, especially our young men to be very mindful of the teachings of our Catholic faith and conform their conduct in all matters to the requirements of God’s law.”

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