Selective recall – Frank McNally on the forgotten history of Leitrim

An Irishman’s Diary

Leitrim is sometimes said to be Ireland’s “forgotten county”. And if it is, this might help explain why things that happen there also seem to have a way of eluding recall.

It is little remembered these days that the last serving TD to be killed anywhere was a Leitrim deputy, Paddy Reynolds, one of two men shot dead near Ballinamore in 1932, during the fraught general election campaign that brought Fianna Fáil to power.

Reynolds had won the seat for Cumann na nGaedheal in 1927, the year of Kevin O’Higgins’s assassination. And the continuing tensions in Irish politics were such that on the fatal day, he was accompanied by an armed bodyguard, who was also killed.

But circumstances were complicated as well as tragic, so that by the end of a sensational trial in Dublin, the gunman had won sympathy from the jury that convicted him. He escaped with an extraordinarily light sentence.


Joseph Leddy was an ex-RIC man who, crucially, resigned from the force in 1920 and thereafter rendered services "in the national movement". He donated his revolver and ammunition. He also "instructed young fellows in drill".

This earned him a Free State pension, around which the murderous dispute hinged. Leddy credited Gen MacEoin, the “Blacksmith of Ballinalee” and later government minister, with securing it. Reynolds insisted it was he who had swung the pension and he expected loyalty in return.

When he heard that Leddy was instead canvassing for a rival independent, he considered it betrayal. Hence the fatal showdown on February 14th, St Valentine’s Day, when after a rally in Ballinamore, Reynolds visited Leddy’s home.

There were angry words, jostling, and an exchange of threats, which continued as the Cumann na nGaedheal party left the house. Then Leddy, still a crack shot despite a decade’s retirement, fired twice with a shotgun, both times to lethal effect. The bodyguard, a Detective McGeehan, died first, Reynolds a month later.

The trial heard that as a policeman in Belfast, Leddy had suffered a serious head injury that made him “short in the temper”. He hadn’t meant to kill, he said, and fired in fear of his own life.

He duly pleaded guilty to manslaughter but after confirming the verdict, the jury made “a strong recommendation to mercy”. The judge agreed, and revised the sentence from three years’ penal servitude to only 12 months, without hard labour.

In the constituency's postponed election, the Reynolds seat was instead retained by his widow Mary, part of a Fine Gael dynasty that continued into this century via Gerry Reynolds, a grandson.

But somehow those extraordinary events were forgotten within decades, outside Leitrim at least. When Monaghan senator Billy Fox was killed by the IRA in 1974, he was (and still is) widely described as the first member of the Oireachtas shot dead since O'Higgins.

Before visiting Ballinamore last week, I had also never heard of the man described by Michael Davitt as the "first martyr of the Land War".

Until seeking directions for Drumcroman Wood, scene of the Don Tidey rescue in 1983, I might have assumed that nothing else had ever happened there, so I was astonished to be asked if I was looking for the place "where Phil Meehan was shot".

But then the friendly jogger who directed me was probably too young to have lived through the events of 1983 and maybe those are not much spoken of locally any more, if they ever were in an area infamous, as we mentioned yesterday, for people saying “no comment”.

In any case, Phil Meehan is now immortalised outside Corraleehan Church, on a monument erected in 2003 by Sinn Féin, whose local cumann is also named after him. Sinn Féin are good at memorials. They have also erected one in Ballinamore to John Joe McGirl (1921-1988), a former chief of staff of the IRA and a TD in the 1950s.

Whenever there was militant republican activity in this area during his lifetime, 1983 included, it’s fair to say that McGirl would have been what gardaí call “a person of interest” to their inquiries. His monument is not universally liked in a town of less radical politics than some of its hinterlands. But it stands there nevertheless, proudly declaring McGirl “an unbroken and unbreakable Fenian”.

By contrast, during my visit to Derradda and Drumcroman, I was struck by the absence of any monument, or even a plaque, to my friend Gary Sheehan. Private Paddy Kelly, killed alongside him in December 1983, is equally unmentioned. Wilfully or otherwise, Leitrim appears to have forgotten the two young men, one unarmed and only half-trained, who gave their lives to save Don Tidey.