Long day’s journey into Leitrim – Frank McNally on revisiting the scene of a 1983 tragedy

An Irishman’s Diary

In all the years since my friend Gary Sheehan died violently in a wood near Ballinamore, I had never got around to visiting the place it happened. It took his belated conferring with a Scott gold medal for bravery this autumn to remind me of unfinished business. So one day last week, leaving Dublin later than ideal on a December afternoon, I finally set out on the lonely road to Leitrim.

The drive there was itself an education. From the jumble of possible routes north of Edgeworthstown, Google Maps sent me first through Ballinalee, recently immortalised by a Bob Dylan song, but before that synonymous with a hero of the War of Independence, Seán MacEoin, "the Blacksmith of Ballinalee".

MacEoin represents the winning side of republican history. His local memorial depicts the Free State general he became, before a successful political career as Fine Gael TD and minister. The statue is grounded, however, by the symbol of his humbler, earlier vocation – an anvil – and he stands on a plinth bearing the names of the "North Longford Flying Column" he once commanded.

Next there was Ballinamuck, where I had to stop again to take pictures. This is the other side of republican history, where Gen Humbert’s early successes in 1798 came to a crushing end, with disastrous results for his poorly armed Irish followers.

A tourist map delineates the sorry story through various locations: “Gunner McGee’s last stand”; “Humbert surrender and Croppy grave”; “Many Pikemen killed here”.

From Ballinalee and Ballinamuck, I continued onwards to their near namesake, Ballinamore.

But by the time I reached the outskirts, the December sun was already setting, so I bypassed the town and, a mile or two farther on, on the road towards Enniskillen, turned left into the hills.

Up ahead was a young woman in a hi-vis vest, running with her dog. She stopped to face the car and hug the dog close. But I slowed to a crawl and, with a reassuring wave, gave them as much space as possible in passing. The GPS informed me that Derradda – my presumed destination – was 2km ahead, then 1 km. Then suddenly, it was behind me, even though I hadn’t noticed anything. So I turned wondering if I had missed an entrance to the woods.

When I stopped the jogger and her dog again, with apologies, she told me I hadn't. Derradda was just a "post office" location, she said. Then I remembered the name of another wood, never mentioned in reports of the Don Tidey kidnap but featured prominently in Gary's medal citation, and inquired the whereabouts of "Drumcroman".

"You're looking for the place Phil Meehan was shot?", she asked. "Eh, no," I said, puzzled. "But I'm looking for where a friend of mine was shot." She paused a moment as if wondering whether to say something, then instead gave me precise directions for Drumcroman: past the church and left at the crossroads.

The church turned out to St Brigid's of Corraleehan, picturesquely located on the low side of the road. It was there that in an infamous news report of 1983, RTÉ's Brendan O'Brien attempted to interview locals about the Tidey kidnap. The way they said "No comment", stressing the last syllable, became a pre-internet meme, echoed all over Ireland.

I was still wondering who “Phil Meehan” was. But just beyond the church, there is a monument to the man in question, first victim of the Land War, shot dead near this spot in 1880 while trying to prevent a landlord fencing off property at Drumcroman.

The landlord pleaded self-defence and was acquitted. Before the shooting, witnesses claimed to have seen him and his bailiffs running “very fast” towards Ballinamore, while being chased by a group led by Meehan, who was carrying a “graip” (a three-pronged fork).

The monument is illustrated, however, with the picture of a pikeman. And what is remarkable about it is that it also mentions Meehan's unnamed grandfather, "killed at the Battle of Ballinamuck 1798", and a grandnephew, John Joe Martin, a veteran IRA man who was interned by de Valera's government during the 1940s and, having been a militant republican to the end, died in 1972.

Three members of one family, spanning six generations and implying an unbroken link between 1798 and, however tenuously, the modern Troubles. You could see that version of history's attraction for the Sinn Féin members who erected the memorial in 2003. So I added another picture to the ones from earlier. Then I continued the short distance to the crossroads and, in the gathering gloom, turned left for Drumcroman Wood. (Continued tomorrow).