Burning of Knockcroghery recalled in new book

The burning of Knockcroghery in a mistaken reprisal by the British back in 1921 is detailed in a fascinating book, re-released for the first time since 1964. For Ireland and Freedom - Roscommon's Contribution to the Fight for Independence by Michéal O'Callaghan uses many first-hand accounts of the guerilla war to show that from Athlone in south of the county to Boyle in the north west, Roscommon was site many critical engagements during the War of Independence. Raids, ambushes, reprisals and daring escapes all over the county are recalled in the classic account of a tumultuous time of Irish history, also shining a light on the major figures of the era, such as Fr Michael O'Flanagan, Paddy Moran, Fr Malachy Brennan and Joe Tormey, along with the most prominent members of the brigades operating in the north and south of the county. The burning of Knockcroghery village on 19 June 1921 happened after wrong information gleaned by British intelligence agents in Athlone, the book claims. It goes on to say that at that the time Séan MacEoin, 'the Blacksmith of Ballinalee' - was under a death sentence and a plan was concocted by volunteers in Westmeath to capture General Lambert, then the Athlone-based chief officer commanding all British troops in the Western Command, hold him hostage, and then bargain for MacEoin's release. After watching General Lambert's movements, an ambush was laid near Glasson village on June 17, where he often visited friends and paid social calls. As the officer travelled in a car, driven by his wife, a group of Westmeath volunteers lie in wait for the couple. One volunteer then stepped out on the road as the approached and signalled to the driver to halt. The vehicle slowed but obviously realising the danger suddenly gathered speed and attempted to get through the cordon of volunteers. Shot fire rang out in the locality and General Lambert was killed instantly. His wife, who somehow escaped unscathed, drove on towards Glasson and the volunteers dispersed to the four winds. In the aftermath of the ambush British intelligence agents were apparently mistakenly told that the volunteers responsible for the ambush and death of General Lambert had come across Lough Ree from Gailey Bay, close to Knockcroghery. However, this information was incorrect, the re-released book claims, and in the early hours of June 19 four lorry loads of Black and Tans, police and Auxilaries arrived to the South Roscommon village from Athlone. All of them "were under the influence," the book alleges. Afterwards, the terror began in earnest as they fired shots in the air, banged on the doors of houses in the village and ordered inhabitants to get out. "The residents of Knockcroghery - men, women, and children - in their night attire, were driven out into the street. The raiding forces then spilled petrol on the vacated houses and set fire to them. Many of the houses had thatched roofs and in a very short time the little village was ablaze from end to end," author Michéal O'Callaghan, a former editor of the Roscommon Herald newspaper writes on the torching of the village. Interestingly, the publication, first published in 1964, explains that one of the first houses visited on that night was that of the parish priest Canon Bartley Kelly, who was in bed at the time and refused to budge. They set the dwelling alight, and but for the assistance of neighbours who rescued him from an upstairs window the cleric would have surely perished. Those left homeless by the fires were given shelter in the houses of friends, family and neighbours, while in an intriguing twist of ecumenism Canon Kelly was put up by his Church of Ireland counterpart, Rector Humphries. Though the worst incident to happen in Knockcroghery, it was not the first time the village was targeted according to the book, published by Mercier Press, with a new foreword by historian Gabriel Doherty. Just the previous November as a RIC Constable Potter cycled with a colleague from Roscommon to Kiltoom, where he was stationed, he was shot dead on the Athlone side of Knockcroghery. Some days later, a group of Black and Tans arrived in the village as a fair was in progress. They rounded up the men and herded them into the ballalley which stands in the centre of the village, where they beat them with bullwhips. They then forced them to paint over a tricolour in the alley and put their paint covered hands in their pockets. The book also recounts that two days after the burning of Knockcroghery in 1921, a lorry load of Tans from Athlone surrounded the house of the Murphy family at nearby St John's, the reason being three of the male members of the family were on their wanted list. Two of the brothers, Hubert and Thomas were in the house but fled under a hail of gun fire, but a third, Thomas was arrested and interned. Sitting in the house at the time was a old man Pat Coyle of Clanduff, known as a horse doctor and blacksmith in the area, who rose as the Tans approached and was shot where he stood. One of the Murphys, Hubert was captured by crown forces some time later and interned in the Curragh, but in a daring escape later that year made his getaway through the so-called 'Brady's Tunnel'. For Ireland and Freedom - Roscommon's Contribution to the Fight for Independence is published in paperback at €14.99 and is also available in eBook from all the major outlets.