Local community to mark centenary of ‘night of terror’

To the Fields from Death' - the horrifying headline from the Freeman's Journal of June 24, 1921, paints a vivid picture of the burning of Knockcroghery just days before, as terrified residents rushed out of their homes to escape the flames through the fields in the early hours, clad only in their nightclothes.

While the dates vary in reports, it seems generally accepted now that it happened after 1am on June 21, traditionally the day of the Summer solstice, when a group of armed and masked men torched the village's mainly thatched homes leaving the occupants, most of whom would have been in their beds, to flee for their lives through the fields to the nearby macabre named Hangman's Hill, where they watched on horror at what was unfolding below.

Few villagers can have known why Knockcroghery was targeted in such a way, but perhaps word of what had transpired just hours earlier in Glasson might have made its way across Lough Ree. On the evening of June 20, as Brigadier General T.S. Lambert, then in charge of the 13th Infantry Brigade in Victoria Barracks, Athlone, was returning from a game of tennis in Glasson, his car was ambushed by local Volunteers. Historian Turtle Bunbury, in his article on the incident, says the car tried to outrun the Volunteers who then opened fire. The decorated World War One hero was shot and later died.

Misinformed British intelligence then seems to have led them to a belief that the killers of General Lambert had come across the lake on the Gailey Bay side, putting Knockcroghery wrongly in the spotlight for reprisal from a group including Black and Tans.

F. Coyne suggests that the original plan was to try and take General Lambert hostage in a bid to free Sean MacEoin, then facing a death sentence in an article in the Roscommon Historical and Archaeological Journal, a view also shared by Michael O'Callaghan in his book 'For Ireland and Freedom' in the 1960s.

A view of Knockcroghery village today.

In any event, and without warning, the village was burnt out bar three houses, those most likely spared the worst because of their slate roofs.

Patrick Curley, a pipe maker in the village, said he was aroused by the crashing of glass, during his testimony as part of a compensation claim later in 1921.

“His door was burst in, and two men wearing trench coats and trilby hats entered. They were apparently officers. Without getting time to dress he was put out at the muzzle of the revolver. The floor was sprinkled with petrol and the house set on fire,” the newspaper report says.

The village was unique in rural Ireland in that since the 18th century, it had a thriving pipe making industry, the first recorded person in the trade was Thomas Buckly in the 1700s. While the industry was in decline by 1921, it still employed around 20 people. But with the village ablaze, its only industry too had gone up in smoke marking an end of an era.

Parish priest Fr Kelly recalled when he was ordered to leave and refused, shots were fired over his head. He eventually escaped out a back window and concealed himself in a field of oats, a newspaper report stated.

Many initially sheltered in the presbytery before having to flee there too, finding shelter, help and clothes from Rev Humphries in the Rectory. He and his wife's kindness was praised in a report later that year entitled 'Night of Terror' in the Skibbereen Eagle.

Knockcroghery was left “a mass of smouldering ruins” and “in ashes” according to a report in the Freeman's Journal a day after the attack. Many had been left homeless and destitute, with all they owned gone. Local memory recalls many living in outhouses or with relatives and being assisted by local relief committees.

Famed All-Ireland winning footballer Jimmy Murray, who only was just four at the time of burning, was one of the lucky ones as his family home, pub, grocery and post office J.S. Murrays escaped major damage.

“All he said was that he remembered they were poking through ashes looking for stuff. That was a memory of a little boy,” his daughter Mary, recalls.

Another small pub and grocery owned by 'The Widow' Murray was left unharmed after local memory tells that she showed the Black and Tans her newborn baby and her plea for mercy was heard.

A limited edition Knockcroghery clay pipe has been launched to remember the burning a century ago. Retailing at €24.99 at www.oghamwish.com and at The Claypipe Centre in Knockcroghery. Some will also be available in The Bastion Gallery, Athlone.

Although questions were raised in Westminister, and there was a call for an inquiry, no one was held accountable for what happened in the village and it took some time for the rebuilding process to begin. Some homes were never rebuilt.

100 years on, Project Knockcroghery, set up with the aim of regenerating and enhancing the village and protecting its heritage, has unveiled a series of online events this weekend to commemorate its darkest chapter.

The Claypipe Centre, on the site of the last claypipe maker in 1921 – run by the Curley family – will also launch a limited edition commemorative Knockcroghery pipe for the occasion.

Ethel Kelly, who revived the craft in the 1990s, commented that it's really lovely to be able to work from the same building as the Curleys, making the pipes in the old way, and bringing history alive.

Commemorative events

Saturday, June 19 – book launch ‘The Burning of Knockcroghery’ by Annmarie Murray outside Mai’s Kitchen at 8pm.

Sunday, June 20 – launch of a new documentary ‘The Burning of the Village’ on knockcroghery.ie at 8pm.

A lighting ceremony of the green takes place at sundown.

Monday, June 21 A special commemorative Mass will be livestreamed on knockcroghery.ie at 7pm.