Benbulben, Dartry mountain range
findings in 2005. The project was forensic, exhaustive and thorough, the first and only major investigation into the death of six anti Treaty soldiers on Benbulben mountain during the Civil War.
In addition to the review of the archival and published material, considerable effort was also given to collecting as many anecdotal accounts as possible. The following account covers the results of the research.
The interpretation of the material and the conclusions reached are an attempt to arrive at the best understanding of what actually happened on the day six IRA Volunteers, known as 'Sligo's Noble Six' died on the Dartry mountains.
Ireland's Civil War July – August 1922
The Civil War started on 28 June 1922 with the attack on the Four Courts building. During the month of July there were a number of military actions in the Sligo area. In early July the Irish Republican Army (hereinafter referred to as IRA) took control of Collooney, and two weeks later the Free State Army (hereinafter referred to as FSA) under General Sean MacEoin recaptured the town and took a large number of prisoners. On Thursday 13th July, a party of over 20 FSA troops was ambushed at Rockwood near Sligo town. In this action the IRA captured the armoured car Ballinalee. Three FSA soldiers were killed in the engagement.
August was a reasonably quiet month on both sides. One significant event that did occur was the escape of nine key Republican leaders from Athlone. Among them were several captured by MacEoin at Collooney a few weeks earlier. These included Frank O’Beirne, Harry Brehony, and Dominick Benson.
Ballinalee armoured car
September 1922 Attack on Rahelly House
In the first weeks of September there were major engagements in Ballina and on the Ox Mountains between Ballina and Tubbercurry and numerous local actions. The Military Archives contain a report dated 11 Sept 1922 of an FSA intelligence survey of North Sligo and Rahelly. The report includes information on the number of IRA men, their arms and equipment, the areas occupied, the tent camp at Castlegal in North Sligo, Rahelly house defences and road blocks. It is clear from reading this report, that the FSA were planning a major military action.
From Wednesday 13 Sept. it was reported that additional FSA troops were arriving in the town. Companies of uniformed and fully equipped soldiers were frequently seen passing along the streets. There was considerable military activity in Sligo during the weekend, and it was apparent, even before the actual advance did take place, that the move North was not too far off. Large bodies of troops with an 18-pounder gun with the inscription “Mc Keon’s Own Peace-Maker”, the armoured car 'Big Fella', three Lancia cars, transport trucks, ambulances and general equipment arrived in the Sligo area on Sunday night and the small hours of Monday morning. The FSA forces were in much greater numbers than the IRA expected. It can be estimated that the IRA were outnumbered by a ratio of at least 10 to 1.
On Monday morning, 18 Sept, the FSA troops advanced from several directions on Rahelly House, which had been the headquarters of the IRA since they evacuated Sligo town in July. With a major FSA force, supported by artillery, converging on Rahelly House, the IRA decided to withdraw to the area around the North of Benbulben. The position on Monday evening was that the main body of IRA troops was surrounded, and the Ballinalee armoured car cut off and confined with the main body. On Tuesday morning a skirmish took place lasting several hours between the two opposing sides at Clough and consequently the Ballinalee armoured car was abandoned at Carrownamaddow in North Sligo.
IRA Casualties; Brian MacNeill confirmed dead
From Wednesday afternoon and onwards reports began to emerge that there were many dead IRA troops on the mountain and that search parties were out looking for the bodies. Later in the afternoon the bodies of Seamus Devins, Brian Mac Neill, Patrick Carroll and Joseph Banks were recovered. Late on Wednesday night the four bodies were brought into Sligo town and taken to the Infirmary.
On Thursday the bodies of the dead IRA troops were laid out in the mortuary of County Sligo Infirmary. The removal of the remains took place at 7pm on Thursday evening to the Sligo Cathedral. High Mass was celebrated in the Cathedral on Friday morning at 11.00am. Recently I was talking with a man living here in Sligo. He was a choirboy in the Cathedral choir, and he was in the organ loft that morning well before the Mass started. He has a very clear memory that a McNeill man came in early, went up to the coffins and had one coffin opened so he could be sure that Brian McNeill was dead.
Immediately after Mass the coffins containing the remains of Devins, Carroll and Banks were taken to the waiting hearses. At the Gillooly Hall and the Courthouse FSA troops turned out and presented arms. The bodies were interred side by side in the new Republican Plot. After the last rites three volleys were fired over the graves. At the conclusion of the funeral ceremony at the cemetery, all those taking part marched back to the Cathedral and accompanied the remains of Mr. Mac Neill to the railway station from where the body was later removed to Dublin. The procession was the same and the guard at the Gillooly Hall again gave the salute. The chief mourners were Mrs. MacNeill (mother) as well as his brother and an uncle. The funeral in Dublin on Saturday was strictly private.
IRA Volunters shot on Benbulben mountain
Harry Benson and Thomas Langan found dead
The newspapers reported that the major operations, which began with so much surprise on Sunday night and Monday morning came to a close on Friday night. On Saturday morning large bodies of FSA troops returned to Sligo. There was little or no military engagement in the following week. On Wednesday 27th, according to the editorial in the Sligo Champion, the Dail took a drastic step towards the restoration of order. The new law introduced the death penalty for the possession of firearms and also set up Military Courts.
On Monday morning 2nd October the startling news reached Sligo that the bodies of Harry Benson and Thomas Langan had been found near Ballinatrillick. They had died from bullet wounds. The remains were brought to Sligo Cathedral on Monday afternoon. Following High Mass on Tuesday the remains were interred in the Republican Plot. A guard of the FSA turned out and gave the salute as the procession passed the Courthouse.
Details of the military actions preceding the deaths 17 - 23 September 1922
Sunday 17th FSA Movement
On Sunday night a party of FSA troops who were advancing in the North Sligo direction came across a body of IRA troops at Dromahair. A short but sharp skirmish ensued, and the IRA troops retreated to the hills.
Monday 18th FSA Action
An advance guard of FSA troops left Sligo for Rahelly in the early hours on Monday morning. The IRA outpost at Rathcormack school was first taken. Simultaneously with the advance guard leaving Sligo, the main force FSA troops operating from Bundoran, Manorhamilton, Dromahair, and Kiltyclogher cooperated in making an encircling movement, cutting off all the retreat routes. The main FSA force left Sligo later in the morning.
IRA Response, Ballinalee, IRA and FSA engage
With a major FSA force, supported by artillery, converging on Rahelly House from all directions, the IRA made the decision to withdraw. According to a plan adopted on Sunday night the outposts kept the enemy at bay while the main body, which had been split into three units, retreated to the mountains. This first part of the plan worked well.
The bridge at Drumcliff was the scene of the first significant action on Monday. There was no bridge in place so the only way across was by way of a ford beside it. This was passable when the river level was low as it was that morning. The Ballinalee and IRA forces were engaged by the FSA, and after an hour or so the bridge defenders retreated to the Rahelly house area. Being forced to abandon Rahelly House, the IRA troops retreated to a wooded area around the Glencar mountains. No further serious engagement took place on Monday. There was desultory firing between the FSA and IRA troops during the day. Most of the action was dominated by long range firing until night set in. The wooded heights under Benbulben were shelled by the 18 pounder gun. Eight shells were fired but no material damage reported.
IRA and Ballinalee cut off; Rahelly House captured
On Monday evening the Ballinalee was again in action near Cliffoney and retreated towards Ballinatrillick and effectively stayed out of the action after this.
On Monday, on the road to Manorhamilton, ten IRA troops with a motor car containing a large mine and a detailed plan for an attack on Manorhamilton Barracks on Monday night were captured. It seems they did not expect attack from Manorhamilton side. They were expecting advances from Finner and from Sligo but not from the East. Not anticipating the scale of the encircling movement the IRA most likely had planned a retreat towards the mountains and on to Manorhamilton. It can be concluded that by Monday evening their plan had been frustrated and their forces in disarray.
FSA took possession of the now empty Rahelly House on Monday evening. Rahelly House was burned out four months later on Tuesday night 16 Jan 1923.
By Monday evening the main body of IRA troops was surrounded and the Ballinalee cut off. Every effort was made by the FSA to prevent a successful dash through the cordon by the armoured car. During the week the S.S. Tartar patrolled the coast during the engagements in order to prevent the escape of parties by sea.
|Members of Third Western Division IRA with the Ballinalee
Front roe LtoR: Hary Young, Todd Burns, Fred Pilkington, John Johnston, Jim Keaveney, Willie Hand
Back Row: Tom McEvilly, Martin McGoldrick, Eddie Gunning, Joe Banks, Harry Sheridan, Seamus Devins, Martin Bernard Mc Gowan, Joe McLynnJim keaveney, Jack Pilkington, Peter Burns.
Tuesday 19th Capture of the Wild Rose of Lough Gill/Ballinalee
On Tuesday operations were continued in the Ballintrillick district and on the Glencar mountains. A party of FSA troops operating to the north of Clough came in contact with a strong party of IRA Troops. In the ensuing action, lasting several hours, fourteen IRA troops were taken prisoner, including several well-known leaders. In the Military Archives it is recorded that a column of the 1st Midland Division captured the prisoners in this action. The IRA brigade diary records that one section of men came down from the mountain for food and to get their clothes dried. While in the safe houses the FSA arrived. Fourteen IRA troops were captured. The remainder of the unit had to fight for over an hour before they successfully retreated. The main reason for covering this point in detail is that the Archive document records the name of the FSA unit that made the arrests. This is also the unit on the top of Benbulben on Wednesday.
The capture of the Ballinalee was one of the main objectives of the FSA troops and now it was surrounded near Ballintrillick. Two determined attempts were made to break through the cordon, but in each case heavy fire was encountered and the roads were completely blocked. The IRA adopted the only alternative available – they took the gun and ammunition off the armoured car and then put it out of action in the townland of Carrownamaddow. The damaged Ballinalee subsequently fell into the hands of the FSA troops.
The Irish Times of Wednesday September 20 carried an unconfirmed report that the Ballinalee had been captured. The Sligo Champion of Saturday 23 covered the recapture of the Ballinalee under the heading Tuesday’s Operations.
The primary members of the crew of the 'Wild Rose of Lough Gill', as the Ballinalee was called while in IRA possession, were Christy McGlynn as driver, and Jim Mulholland (better known as Dynamite Jim) as machine gun operator. Neither of these two were captured by the FSA during this week. The reason for covering this event in some detail, is that one version of the deaths of McNeill, Devins, Carroll and Banks states that it was the crew of the armoured car that was killed after the car had been captured. I will return to this issue later.
On Wednesday FSA operations were continued in the Ballinatrillick district and the Glencar mountains.
Heavy fighting developed during the closure of the encirclement movement by the FSA troops on Wednesday, and many casualties were caused among the IRA ranks. The action extended along the side of the Glencar Mountains and into the remoter districts of Benbulben. FSA reports stated that nine bodies were found by their troops. Reported among the dead were Seamus Devins, Brian Mac Neill, Patrick Carroll and Joseph Banks. By Wednesday evening FSA troops were reported as having complete control of the situation. On Wednesday evening the “Ballinalee” was towed into Grange.
There were about 50 IRA troops trapped around the bottom of the mountain in the Barnaribbon area their main objective being to reach the safety of their hideout near Glencar Lake. They realised that the military action was over.
On the lower side of the mountain there is a line of stonewalls, ditches and small scrub that runs all along the side of the mountain. This marks the boundary between the individual farms and the mountain commonage. During the Black and Tan times, the IRA had built a tunnel up the side of the mountain to the scrub land in Barnaribbon as an escape route. The IRA troops used this tunnel on Wednesday morning to get from the lower ground up into the cover of the scrub. From there they could get higher up the mountain and behind the cover of the boundary wall. All through Wednesday small groups of IRA troops used this headland cover to make their way along the side of the mountain to the safety of the Glencar Lake hideout.
|Sean Smith, Joe Mc Gowan and Chris Branley at Glencar Hideout|
The FSA troops patrolled along the road. Heavy machine gun fire was directed at anyone seen moving along behind the headland cover. In later years one of those involved made an audio recording his escape into the hideout. The FSA were on the top of the mountain firing down on him when he escaped into some trees near the hideout. From there he made his way to safety. The FSA troops came along through the same trees later, and although they passed within 50m of the entrance to the hideout they did not see it.
20 September 1922
The weather report for the day from the Markree Castle observation point states that it was a cloudy, overcast day. Only a half an hour sunshine recorded for the day. The afternoon was cloudy, turning later into steady rain that continued through the evening and night. A total of .48 in of rain were recorded until 9.00am the following morning. Anecdotal versions of the weather for the morning in the Benbulben all state that it was a foggy misty day on the mountain, and that this bad weather would most likely have been a factor in the events of the day.
It is clear from a review of the available information that there were two separate and distinct shooting episodes that day, one at Sliabh Mor (Kings Mountain) on the south side and the other on the north side over Ardnaglass / Lukes Bridge on Lyle Mountain.
Devins, MacNeill, Carroll, Banks
We can now move into the detail of the various accounts of what happened that day.
Firstly the various published accounts:
1/ FSA Version 1 Ambush
During the afternoon in the forward push of the troops into the mountains a fierce engagement took place near Ballintrillick, in which the irregulars sustained heavy casualties. An official version issued in Sligo yesterday says that troops came on a large party of irregulars engaged in the preparation of an ambush. When surprised by the first party the irregulars endeavoured to fight their way back to the hills. Whilst doing so they came into contact with another body of troops. It was here most of the casualties occurred.
2/ FSA Version 2 Engagement
A second official report was issued in Dublin on Thursday evening referred to several sharp engagements as having taken place and that nine bodies were found by the troops. The four found dead on Kings Mountain were brought to Sligo Infirmary. Many prisoners have been taken, thirty of whom were removed to Sligo. The captures made by the troops include numbers of rifles, with quantities of ammunition, mine supplies and stores.
3/ FSA Version 3 Ballinalee
The following information drawn from Carlton Younger's book Irelands Civil War Page 469 – 470 first published in 1968.
In the author’s note to the start of the book, he records his special gratitude to General Sean MacEoin and Colonel Tony Lawlor for the endless trouble they went to in order to assist the author. From this statement, I think it is fair to take Younger’s version as an official FSA account of the deaths:
'On Wednesday, Sept 20 MacEoin, who was at Grange almost on the coast had news of the Ballinalee. She had turned right, down along the Benbulben Mountains. The trail was still warm and to his astonishment MacEoin discovered that “the armoured car had taken a road which runs along in a horseshoe up, then down, going nowhere. We immediately blocked the two ends of the road" continued MacEoin. "If we lost the armoured car in a slipshod manner, they lost it even more reprehensively because they knew the operation was on. Anyway the five men in the Ballinalee left the car, dismantled the Vickers gun and took it with them. They went up the face of the mountain and reached the top but by this time a party of National Government troops under my command had come up from the back of Benbulben.”
Lawlor, acting within the framework of MacEoins overall plan had sent three men in a Model Ford to cut off any stragglers who found their way across the Benbulben Mountains . “One of our fellows told me that there was no way out for them unless they came down the waterfall” says Lawlor. “I sent my men up the mountain and what happened then no one really knows.” MacEoin believes that “when the crew of the armoured car appeared over the crest, my men opened fire and killed them all.” And that, he says, “was in accordance with my orders. We had most of the funerals up to then and I felt that when they were under arms and on the alert they couldn’t complain if they were shot at.”’
[Insert Note - From 1st July to 15 Sept FSA losses were 18 dead in Sligo and near by. On Sat 16th Sept another 4 FSA from Longford were killed in a mine explosion in Macroom. Of this 22 up to 9 were from Longford, some being members of MacEoin’s Flying Column during the War of Independence and one had been MacEoin’s driver. Most anecdotal accounts would say that the county was very shocked at the unnecessary killings – the feeling at the time was that it was retaliation for Rockwood.]
Grief of the day still lingers
’MacEoins view that the death of the five men was ruthless but fair may well be the right one. If it is not then only those who survive of the National Army party know the truth. Being the man that he is, whatever happened MacEoin will insist that his was the responsibility. Among the dead was Brigadier General Seamus Devins, and his Divisional Adjutant Bryan MacNeill son of Eoin, now Minister of Education in the Provisional Government. Bryan MacNeill's death was the most poignant because his brother was a captain in the National Army.
The killing of MacNeill, Devins and their comrades may or may not have been above board but the theft of a watch from one of the bodies certainly wasn’t. Years later, General MacEoin learned of it from the man’s bitter widow and did not rest until he had recovered the watch for her.
For Tony Lawlor, who sent the troops up the mountain, the grief of the day still lingers, for Bryan MacNeill had fought with him in the 6th Dublin Brigade during the Tan war. When, after the split, Lawlor had been sent to Athlone whilst MacNeill had joined Pilkington in Sligo the two men remained fast friends and corresponded with each other throughout the struggle.
“That was the end of the war in Sligo” says MacEoin and adds dryly “they had their funerals three days later and after that we had none and neither did they.”'
From the Military Archives: ' mangled by machine gun fire'
The only other written FSA account comes from an Undated Publicity Note in Military Archives. It is a Report from I/O 3rd Western Division, Sligo. The most likely date is Thursday Sept 21, 1922. It says that 'we have 23 prisoners, 4 Irregulars dead here in town. Div. Adj. McNeill shot through the forehead, Brig. Devins shot through the heart, while Banks and Carroll were absolutely mangled by machine gun fire.'
4/ IRA Version 1 Prisoners
'We are informed that Seamus Devins, Brain MacNeill, Patrick Carroll and Joseph Banks were taken prisoner at Ballintrillick on the night of 19th. In the “Freeman’s Journal” of the 21st the arrest of Carroll was reported and his transfer to Sligo Jail was described. Nothing official was heard of him or of the three others until Thursday when a FSA report was issued in Sligo announcing a desperate conflict in which many irregulars (IRA)were killed. They had not been killed in action but had been surprised, captured and murdered.' (Ref: Poblacht na h-Eireann 25 September 1922)
5/ IRA Version 2 (Pilkingtons Report dated 8 December 1922)
'Why were all the bodies so badly riddled with bullets...'
'To keep an appointment with me at a place north of Glencar lake, the Adjutant and the Brigadier with two others Lieut. Carroll and Vol. Banks started on the morning of 20th Sept from a house they billeted the previous night at the western end
Gully near where four IRA Volunteers were shot
of the Benbulben mountain. The route taken was along themountain top, as it was considered the safest. In the fog they ran into an ambush of enemy troops who they thought were some of our men. Midway between their starting point and destination they encountered a big party of FS[A] forces who had ascended the mountain at a southern point that morning, with the result that the four were killed.
What exactly happened we are not presently acquainted with. The FS version as appearing in the press from their Army Hdqrs. said that the four were killed in a big fight in which our men retreated, leaving their dead behind. This of course is untrue. The local FS version is that when the four were called on to surrender, Brigadier Devins opened fire, the answering fire killing the four. This does not fit the truth either. Why were all the bodies so badly riddled with bullets, practically all the wounds being fatal?
The true version which our suspicions dictate and have since been confirmed by friendly FS soldiers who had been speaking to some of those on the job is that the four men were surprised and surrendered, and afterwards murdered.'
6/ A Special Correspondent
A report on Thursday from their own correspondent in Sligo and published in The Freeman’s Journal on Friday September 22 stated
'It would appear, though the circumstances surrounding their deaths are somewhat obscure, that they were sighted ascending a side of the Glencar mountain on the Sligo side and fire was opened on the party. Later on the dead bodies of Devins, MacNeill, Paddy Carroll and Joe Banks were found.'
7/ An Poblacht na hEireann, No 146, 27 Jan 1923
Statement by an FSA soldier.
'decided to shoot the prisoners'
'I was one of the party of Free State soldiers, 56 in number, under command of Capt A and Capt B. The party ascended Benbulben on the morning of September 20. When the top was reached, a party of 4 men was sighted. Capt A, who wore an ordinary cap, went forward for some distance in front of his party and signalled to the four men, waving his cap, and shouted to them to come on. The four advanced and when about 50 yards away were halted by the main body who up to then had concealed themselves . The four men, apparently taken by surprise, halted and were ordered to surrender. This they did and were disarmed. The prisoners were identified as Mac Neill, Jim Devins Brigadier, Patrick Carroll Lieutenant, and Joseph Banks Volunteer.'
'Heard rapid machine gun fire'
'After some consultation between Capt A and Capt B they apparently decided to shoot the prisoners as the members of the party were asked for volunteers for a firing party to shoot them. This the men would not do. Capt A, when he saw the men’s reluctance for the task said it did not matter as he had a Lewis gun and would do the work.
Capt A then with Capt B and a small party of four ex British Army soldiers stayed behind, while we, the remainder of the party were sent further up the mountain, out of sight of the prisoners. After we were out of sight of the prisoners, we heard rapid machine gun fire. We went down the mountain again, and saw the dead bodies of the four prisoners. Mac Neill’s body was some distance from the others. I heard afterwards that he attempted to run away but was shot down after he had gone some distance. We were then ordered to continue our march across the mountain.'
6/ Anecdotal Versions
A few introductory remarks on the topic of anecdotal information .
I have visited a large number of people and all were helpful in sharing what story they had about the deaths of the six and the events surrounding the deaths. I would like to thank all those who helped.
The quality and level of detail provided by some people is very impressive. For a specific example I would quote the story of Joseph Banks and his breakfast on the morning he died. This story was told to me by a lady near Benbulben. Her husband was told many times by his own father that Joseph Banks stayed in their barn on the Tuesday night. On the Wednesday morning the mother made breakfast for Banks – tea, bread and a boiled egg. Her young son brought it out to the loft to Banks. The father and son saw Banks leave - he went out the gate to the back into the field and off up towards the mountain; they watched him until he was out of sight. It always stuck in their memory that Joseph Banks had his last breakfast in their loft.
'two specific anecdotal accounts'
I will go into the detail of two specific anecdotal accounts. These accounts come from independent and unconnected people, are quite detailed as to the events they describe, and are illuminating as to the version of events that the FSA had some knowledge of the location of the Devins, McNeill, Carroll, Banks group on the Tuesday night.
Most other anecdotal accounts are general in nature and I incorporate elements of these different stories into one short consolidated account. At various points in the remainder of this paper I note these elements as anecdotal where they occur. While most of these anecdotal accounts are consistent in the core of the story, in many cases there are also elements of the story that are at variance with the recorded version of events. For example a few people would have the misperception that deaths happened in War of Independence, at the hands of the Black and Tans. This could have come from the statement that four of the firing party of six were ex British Army from WWI.
Anecdotal 1 FSA Intelligence 'finish them off'
This version comes from an FSA sergeant who was in an office in Boyle Barracks that week. While a long stay patient in a Dublin Hospital, he told of his experience in Boyle Barracks to a Sligo man then working in the hospital and now living here in the county. This exchange occurred around 1950.
A message came in to the office to an officer in Boyle Barracks. The word came in that a bunch of key IRA men had been pinpointed; they were all together, and they knew where they were. The officer contacted MacEoin, gave him the names of those pinpointed and asked 'what do we do with them' and MacEoin said 'finish them off'. There then followed a furious argument between the officer and MacEoin. The officer argued for arrest, saying anything else would make martyrs of them. MacEoin argued that any arrest would be a joke, they had all escaped before and would escape again so why take the chance. The officer very reluctantly put the order through.
Anecdotal 2 Tuesday night Warning to IRA
From another person familiar with the area of south of Benbulben, I got a different perspective on Tuesday night. To the best of my knowledge the source for the FSA intelligence version and this version were and are unknown to each other.
On the Tuesday night there were 8/9 IRA troops staying around Scanlons in Lislahelly but not in the house itself. They were in a hide up the stream behind Scanlons. There is a small hazel wood 30 / 40 metres either side of the gully a few hundred metres up the hill. There was some sort of ruin or dug out there, covered in rushes. It had a number of trestles each with three boards and straw on which they slept. Food was brought up and left at a certain spot; they did not come down that much.
These 8 / 9 people were waiting for the word on what to do, where to go. Later that evening they got word that the FSA were after them and they should get out of there. The FSA knew where they were and their orders were to shoot to kill, no prisoners. Two men Harry Young and Eddie Wallace left and went back across the main road to the sea side, then on to Sligo. The following morning the others left their hideout, went up the gully which provided plenty of cover. Wednesday morning was misty and it rained.
An obvious escape route
The FSA knew that an obvious escape route would be the path up the mountain behind Scanlons. Approximately 40 FSA troops came up Glenniff side, across the top of Benbulben. Another group of about 12 FSA troops pulled into Scanlans at 8 am on Wednesday morning and went up after them. The four were shot immediately. They had walked into a trap.
Anecdotal 3 Consolidated
The four stayed in two safe houses in Lislahelly on the Tuesday night. The FSA also stayed in houses in the nearby townlands as well.
The alarm was raised and the fugitives forced to take to the mountain. From an account by the person who gave Carroll a cap before they set off that morning, they were warned not to go up the mountain. They were told that they should go back to Sligo town as the FSA were on the top of the mountain. They went up the gully anyway, the escape route had been betrayed, and they were confronted at the top by the party of FSA. Another party of FSA had followed them up the mountain.
|Cross on Benbulben mountain memorialising the place where Seamus Devins, Brian McNeill, Joseph Banks and Patrick Carroll were shot.|
'So many bullet wounds that they had to put his body into a bag to move it'
At the top of the path up the mountain, the main gully is joined by a smaller gully running down from the right. It was at the junction of these two gullys that the bodies were found. It is believed that this is also where they were shot.
Some locals were cutting oats at the bottom of the mountain in the Lislahelly area and heard the shooting on the mountain that morning. They went up to bring the bodies down. The bodies were first washed in the gully where they were found. Patrick Carroll had his rosary beads wrapped around his hand. Carrolls body had so many bullet wounds that they had to put his body into a bag to move it. It is recorded that the bodies were brought down on a door nailed to a wheel barrow. When the bodies were brought down from the mountain, they were laid on the ground at the point where Nicholsons lane meets the road. Canon Currid came out and administered the last rites.The body of Brian MacNeill was brought into Scanlons dairy. The other three bodies were brought to the Hibernian Hall by horse and cart and MacNeill’s body was brought over later. At Ballinagallagh Bridge, they were met by McKeon and his troops, When McKeon saw them carrying Devins and the others he said, 'I knew them from early on'.
At this point there are 4 FSA accounts of the deaths, 3 from the IRA, 1 newspaper account and 3 anecdotal accounts, a total of 11 altogether. In order to try and make a clear picture of what happened it is now necessary to review each of the written accounts.
FSA Ambush Version
This version has several serious practical limitations as no ambush site was ever identified. This first version was immediately followed by a second official version that did not make any reference to an ambush. Also the mid 1960’s account in Younger’s book makes no reference to the IRA side making preparations for an ambush. In summary the ambush version can be discounted.
FSA Sharp Engagement Version
This version states that after several sharp engagements (no place and no date given) nine bodies were found including those of Devins and Mac Neill. In a general sense this element of the statement cannot be said to be untrue. There was an engagement on Kings Mountain, and after it bodies were found. But the statement provides no useful information as to the circumstances of the deaths of the four.
The reference to the nine bodies requires clarification. All of the official accounts at the time, and also documents in Military Archives state that there were nine bodies on the mountain. The difference between the six bodies recovered and the nine reported has not been accounted for in any recorded source. An anecdotal account does however provide a possible explanation. On the Wednesday morning there were three IRA troops from the Gleniff area taking a short cut across Benbulben back to Calry. The three were Terry Leydon, Johnny Keaveney and the third was probably Harry Sheridan. Johnny Keaveney and Harry Sheridan were out in front. They heard shooting and then bullets flying past them. They looked back and they saw Terry Leydon falling and they thought he had been shot. They went back to him only to find that he had tripped in the heather and he was ok. The fog and mist rolled in again and they got away to safety. They came down the Glencar side and to safety in Castlegal.
Carlton Younger Version
To recall: this version of the deaths of four of the six was given by MacEoin and Lawlor to Younger in the mid 1960’s. The first two paragraphs of the account state that recapture of the Ballinalee on Wednesday and the deaths on the same day were both part of the one military action. With regard to the day the Ballinalee was recaptured by the FSA and the deaths, none of the September 1922 official accounts, or newspaper accounts make reference to any role for the Ballinalee in the deaths on Benbulben.
There are also two practical factors i.e. timing and geography, that points to there being no connection between the capture of the Ballinalee and the deaths of the four. From newspaper and anecdotal accounts it is clear that the Ballinalee was abandoned on Tuesday afternoon and captured by the FSA that evening, while the deaths occurred on Wednesday morning sometime around 9.30 AM. As for geography, the distance between where the Ballinalee was abandoned and the deaths occurred is 5KM as the crow flies across Benbulben. From a review of all the official, newspaper and anecdotal accounts, it is clear that the deaths on Benbulben and the recapture of the Ballinalee by FSA are not connected in any direct or indirect way.
A legitimate military action?
In my opinion the combination of the recapture of the Ballinalee and the deaths of Devins, McNeill, Carroll and Banks as two related events on Wednesday is a way to convey the picture that, in effect, after the recapture of the armoured car, there was a hot pursuit type of operation in progress, and that in the course of this continuing military operation, the FSA shot the four in a no warning ambush as they came up the mountain away from the area of the Ballinalee. In other words, the deaths of the four occurred during a legitimate military action.
Taking away the Ballinalee and its crew connection from this account does not, in my opinion, diminish the substance of the circumstances of the deaths of the four given in this version; to quote the third paragraph of the account – MacEoin believes that “when the crew of the armoured car appeared over the crest, my men opened fire and killed them all.” And that, he says, “was in accordance with my orders. We had most of the funerals up to then and I felt that when they were under arms and on the alert they couldn’t complain if they were shot at.”
Seamus and Robert Moore at cross memorialising Harry Benson and Tommy Langan
IRA Prisoner Version
This version relies on a statement in the “Freeman’s Journal” of the 21st Sept. where the arrest of Patrick Carroll was reported and his transfer to Sligo Jail was described. This report was then expanded to the conclusion that all four were arrested on Tuesday, taken to Sligo jail, and then found dead on the mountainside on Wednesday. This version of events was almost immediately dropped.
IRA Surprised and Killed Version
This version is the most detailed of all the versions documented at the time.
This version does address the possibility that one of the IRA group may have been part of the initiation of the shooting. The final statement of this version is that the four men were surprised, that they surrendered and then were shot.
An Obscure Jigsaw
The challenge in the research is how to take the report of the Special Correspondent that the deaths happened in obscure circumstances and try to make a picture from the remaining published material together with the anecdotal material and applying a measure of practical common sense to the situation. A Jigsaw is the best word to describe one way to try and fit it all together. A jigsaw has the idea of fitting a large number of different bits and pieces together to make a picture. Different people can make different pictures.
FSA Deployment on Wednesday morning
All along the mountainside road, the area to the West of the road and the road itself was in the effective control of the FSA, even to the extent that some FSA troops were billeted on this road from Tuesday evening / night. Their presence extended all around the base of the mountain to Castlegarron, and further around to the Horseshoe Road on the Northern side of the mountain, and to paraphrase Younger – Lawlor, acting within the framework of MacEoins overall plan sent men to the top of Benbulben Mountains from the Glenniff side.
What ever plan the IRA had on Monday morning, by Tuesday night it was irrelevant. The situation from their perspective was confusion. They were effectively encircled around Barnaribbon. There were up to 50 IRA troops on the move on Wednesday. Their military action was now over and their main objective to reach the safety of their hideout near Glencar Lake.
The four stayed in the Lislahelly area on the Tuesday night. On Tuesday night they were told that they should leave the area as the FSA had identified them and their location. On Wednesday morning they were told that the FSA were on the top of the mountain. For their own reasons they decided to take a route up the Sliabh Mor gully, along the top and down further East as a safer route than going along the valley. They were heading to the Glencar Lake area for a pre-arranged meeting with Pilkington and the safety of the hideout. They were met at the top by a party of FSA troops.
The FSA – Top Party
The FSA troops on the mountain were coming forward to reach a point where they could have clear view over the Glencar side of Sliabh Mor. At the top of the path up the mountain, the main gully is joined by a smaller gully running down from the right. It was at the junction of these two gullies the bodies were found. It is believed that this is where they were shot.
What happened is probably something we will never know for absolute certainty. The boundaries of the jigsaw are on the one hand MacEoins order that IRA troops under arms and on the alert couldn’t complain if they were shot at and on the other hand the version that the four were captured, disarmed and then shot.
Given the location high up on Benbulben where the encounter between the FSA troops and the four IRA troops occurred, and the weather that morning, it is a reasonable assumption that the FSA troops would not have fired on the four without clearly identifying them. The four could equally well have been FSA troops coming up from Lislahelly. Thus the identification of the four would be a prudent action for the FSA troops on the top.
Having captured and identified the four what would be the next FSA action? Given that the two captains identified as being in charge of the FSA troops on top of the mountain were young men, aged about 24 and 20 it is difficult to believe that they would, simply of their own initiative, decide to shoot a member of the Dail, and the son of the FSA Minister for Education, as well as the other two. More likely the decision to shoot the four came about, because they believed those were the orders for the day.
A solid and authentic account
A credible anecdotal account from a man living in North Sligo and which originates with a FSA soldier on the mountain that day states that one of the officers lost the head and could not be dissuaded from the shooting the prisoners.
On balance, the account given by the FSA soldier, as reported in Jan 1923 does come across as a solid and authentic account that fits well with all the circumstances of the shooting. From the anecdotal accounts it would seem that very few if any one in the county ever believed that the deaths occurred in a battle on or around Benbulben.
It seems clear that all four were machine gunned to death and that death for all would have been instantaneous. The FSA account of the wounds received by the four are described as:- McNeill shot through the forehead, Devins shot through the heart, while Banks and Carroll were absolutely mangled by machine gun fire. In the IRA account Devins had 14 wounds, and the other bodies badly riddled with bullets. Practically all the wounds were fatal.
FSA – Bottom Party
The four were observed by the FSA climbing the gully. The FSA troops followed them up the mountain, but were too far behind to order them to surrender. This scenario would make sense of the official statements that the four were trapped between two parties of FSA troops on the mountain that day.
Any troops coming up the mountain would not at any stage have been able to see the four at the place where the four died. The IRA group had a significant head start on any following troops, and could have stayed ahead and taken any one of several routes off the plateau had they seen the following FSA troops and their way ahead open. I think it more likely that the FSA troops coming up the mountain after the IRA group came upon the dead bodies of the four. They returned back down the mountain and gave the news to the locals who then organised an operation to recover the bodies and bring them back down the mountain.
Hand made card sent by Dominick Benson from Mountjoy Jail in 1923
Benson, Langan 1/ FSA Version
In very general terms we could say that the statement on the deaths of the other four also covers these two deaths i.e. when surprised by the first party the Irregulars endeavoured to fight their way back to the hills. Whilst doing so they came into contact with another body of troops. It was here most of the casualties occurred.
However there is no specific FSA version of the engagement in which Benson and Langan died, and no press statement was ever issued as far as I can find. However, I did find what I now take to be a very significant piece of information in the Military Archives in a letter dated Thursday 21 Sept, 1922 titled Report from HQ Western Command Headquarters in Athlone to Director Intelligence in Dublin. It states
'Re Operations in Sligo
Item (2) Enemy casualties were nine dead (bodies found) including
Col. Comdt. McNeill Div. Adjt. (Irregulars)
Brigadier T. Devins T.D.
Captain H. Benson
Full enemy casualties are not yet known but are heavy.'
The significance of this document to the deaths of Benson and Langan lies in the inclusion of the name of Harry Benson as the third of the four named dead in a letter dated the day after the shootings on Benbulben 10 days before Benson’s body was found. There are some possible explanations for the inclusion of the name of Benson in the text. The most likely option is that the writer of the report, in summarising the information available to him on Thursday, already knew that Benson and thus Langan had been killed on Wednesday.
2/ IRA Version (Pilkington’s Report)
It was the persistent reports from FS sources of their deaths that led to the search that found the bodies. The reason for the delay in finding bodies was due to our ignorance of their deaths because we did not know if they were shot or on the run.
Eleven days later the bodies of Benson and Langan were found two miles distant from the place of the former tragedy. At 3.30 am on Monday morning a group of 50 or 60 men, with two coffins, set off up the mountain. They found the bodies practically buried in two holes. The bodies were taken down the mountain and examined by a local doctor. The medical report was that Benson got six bullet wounds in the head, all mortal, in the arm and in the right and left shins. Langan got seven bullet wounds in the neck and head, one right through the heart and one through the right breast. He also had a bayonet wound through the right lung, coming out the back.
The IRA version of their deaths is very direct, stating that at 12 noon on the same day (as the other four) Benson and Langan ran into the very same party of enemy troops and after they had surrendered were also murdered by them.
On Thursday the military operations continued in the Ballintrillick district and Glencar mountains. FSA troops were reported as searching the mountains for dead bodies. There was no report that any were found. In the event, many IRA troops had melted away through the encirclement cordon and the remainder were safely hidden in their hideout at Glencar Lake. It is remembered that 34 men lived in this cave for the next 6 weeks.
The local newspapers gave some coverage to the funerals and apart from that there was no further reference to the circumstances of their deaths. An Poblacht na hEireann, No 146, 27 Jan 1923 carried a statement by an FSA soldier
'... About one mile distant from the scene of the [first] shooting, two men were sighted by Capt A who carried field glasses. Capt A, by waving his cap on his rifle attracted their attention. They appeared to think it was their own men, came back to the place where our party was concealed. When within a short distance from us, they were ordered to put their hands up. This one did, the other attempted to run away but was stopped by firing some shots after him.
The two were then disarmed and searched and identified as Harry Benson, Captain, the one who attempted to run away and Thomas Langan, Volunteer. These two men were brought along some distance after which two of the ex soldiers D and E dropped behind our party with them and that was the last I saw of the two men. I heard after D and E joined our party that the two prisoners were killed.
The above is all I know about the shooting of the six men. Signed ……………'
Harry Benson and Tommy Langan stayed in a house in Barnaribbon on the Tuesday night. On the Wednesday morning they were warned not to go up on to the mountain but to stay in the house. There is an easy route up on to the mountain from a point behind the house and a bit to the East – they could have gone up this way. Benson went up to see what was happening with his men, it is recalled that they were to meet on the top and go to Glencar.
It was a foggy morning and they ran into a group of the FSA troops. They were near them before they saw each other. It is a possibility that initially they mistook the FSA troops for their own men. The friend signal was one whistle followed by putting their cap on the top of the rifle. They surrendered and were taken prisoner. Some accounts give significance to the two bullet wounds to Benson’s shins to the effect that he was shot in each lower leg. They were forced to march to the back of the mountain where they were killed by machine gun fire where the bodies were found.
According to a man now living in Dublin, who was on holidays in Streedagh that week, he heard shooting on the mountain at about 12.30 in the morning.
The bodies of Benson and Banks were found many days afterwards on the Grange side, by a man out with his dog tending his sheep. The bodies were brought down the north side to the schoolhouse in Oughtagorey, on the Horseshoe Road where they were washed, examined by a doctor and coffined.
The presence of troops of the 1st Midland Division on the Bebulben plateau applies on the Northern side as it does for the Sliabh Mor side
There are any number of reasons as to why Benson and Langan might have gone on to the mountain that day. The IRA troops were in disarray. The most likely reason was they were all to re-assemble near Glencar Lake. Thus they probably set out to cross the plateau to Glencar Lake and to check if there were any others on the plateau.
The place where the bodies were found, and thus most likely where they were killed is located in the middle of an area of very rough terrain. The most notable feature of the area is the deep generally circular holes in the ground known as 'sink holes'. While there were groups of people out searching the mountain for bodies, it is also recorded that the bodies were actually found by a man on the mountain looking after sheep on Sunday evening.
That they were killed by machine gun fire at close range is a reasonable conclusion given the number and intensity of the bullet wounds to the head and neck for both of them. It is also reasonable to conclude from the doctor’s description who attended the bodies that they were shot while standing upright. The fact that one body had a bayonet wound points to very close contact at or after death. The fact that the bodies were effectively buried on the mountain would point to an intention to conceal the bodies and thus the deaths of the two.
An Obscure Jigsaw
They were heading across the mountain to reach the Glencar Lake meeting point. They were intercepted on the mountain. The account given by the FSA soldier, as reported in Jan 1923 does come across as a solid and authentic account that fits well with all the circumstances of the shooting. The shots fired after Benson as he made his attempted escape would account for the bullet wounds to the shins and arm. These wounds would in turn account for the statement that a group with the two prisoners fell behind the main body as they crossed the mountain top.
It can be stated with some certainty that they were killed by machine gun fire at very close range. The anecdotal version has the theme that the FSA tired of bringing them along as prisoners, and that they were put standing in a hole and then shot where the bodies were found.
Taking everything into account, it is concluded that the version of events described by the FSA soldier is the version that comes closest to the truth of what happened that day. This version was published in January 1923. I have not yet found any specific denial of this account from the period or afterwards.
Of the six that died, Seamus Devins was the only local who was familiar with the area. The other five were from outside the area. One anecdotal account would give significance to this factor. All other locals had melted away into the countryside, and Devins was taking the three to safety with him, when they were intercepted.
The precise detail of the orders for the day issued by Sean MacEoin we will probably never know. A reasonable conclusion from all the available information is that the orders were probably intended to convey authority for a no warning type ambush military action; in a modern day phrase - maximum aggression to any enemy combatants encountered where they were armed and alert. It is likely the orders did not envisage the situation that actually occurred on Wednesday morning, when the FSA and IRA encountered each other in the bad weather on top of Benbulben. In these circumstances, the FSA, not knowing if the men were their own or not, could not open fire when they first saw others coming towards them, so they captured and identified them.
If this explains how Devins, McNeill, Carroll and Banks were captured and identified, then how can their shooting as prisoners be addressed. Three factors could explain the shooting:
1/ the orders for the day, that seemed clear at Headquarters, were ambiguous and were misunderstood at field level
2/ the field officers had been living rough for three nights and were tired and under heavy stress
3/ the field officers were emotionally impacted by the deaths of their colleagues in an earlier IRA ambush at Rockwood.
It could be that all three factors came together leading to the shooting of the prisoners.
A final conclusion from those circumstances of the deaths of Devins, McNeill, Carroll and Banks is that military discipline had broken down among the FSA troops on the mountain that day. The later capture of Benson and Langan, and Benson’s inability to keep up with the main group as they crossed back across Benbulben probably led to their deaths.
In looking back at the week of September 20, 1922 a factor of the week that we can now understand, is that for all practical purposes, the FSA had achieved their military objectives by Tuesday and that there was little need for any military combat actions from Tuesday evening onwards.
The Civil War Deaths (from a leaflet printed on the occasion of the re-dedication of the Republican Plot in Sligo Cemetery 16 September 2012)
Silence to Silence is the title of an RTE television documentary about Samuel Beckett. As an epithet to the life and times of this great Irish writer, it uses just two words. And yet, when transformed into an arrangement of three words, it speaks eloquently to us of our common humanity.
Ninety years ago the country reverberated to the sounds of our Civil War. Ninety years ago this month the silence of the surrounding mountains was broken by the sounds of gunfire. When the silence returned, six on the Republican side lay dead.
For some in the Autumn of their years, to speak of our Civil War is to touch memories of a family member that rarely, if ever, spoke of that time. For others it is to remember an old and faded photograph; a young life suddenly ended. It was a short and brutal war. For those directly involved, family ties were cut and community relations were sundered. The military actions stopped after 11 months, and then, to use a W.B. Yeats line "the peace came dropping slow". It was a peace that came in silence; a long and painful silence.
It was a war and in war soldiers die in the course of military actions conducted by the rules of war. Many early morning deaths occurred on legal authority. A few early morning deaths followed a political decision. Some died in accidental circumstances. For other military and civilian deaths it is a struggle to find the right words to express, in all its complex awkwardness and imperfection, the truth of what happened.
What can we of this generation say, when the generation that fought the war, like the mortal casualties of the war, are all now dead and returned to the earth. Can we look over all those silent graves today with our humanity untouched and our voice also silent? We cannot undo the past nor are we responsible for the actions of an earlier generation. But in reflecting on this episode of our history, we can choose how to remember the deaths.
All who died as a direct consequence of our Civil War are as real as we are today. Each death was a tragic loss for family, community and country. For all of time, these untimely deaths make a demand on our capacity for courage and generosity. And so it passes to each generation to solemnly and formally acknowledge all the Civil War deaths.
We stand before a monument in solemn silence, the monument stands in its own inanimate silence, and yet in that personal silent space and time, much is said.
In remembering death we acknowledge life. For most of those who died in the Civil War, before they were divided, they were comrades united in the War of Independence. They were among the brightest and bravest of their generation. Together they had answered the call of the Proclamation of 1916. Together they had proven themselves worthy of the august destiny to which they were then called.
May this be the memory of our Civil War dead we honour and cherish.
For written material, one of the main sources for the above article is Carlton Youngers’ book Ireland’s Civil War. The definitive published narrative of the Noble Six incident in Sligo was written in 1988 by a Scottish University professor, Michael Hopkinson of Stirling University. Also worth reading, to get the full flavour and infill of the times, is a 1981 biography of the Army leader in the Sligo area at that time, The Blacksmith of Ballinalee written by Comdt Padraic O'Farrell, now deceased. Worth noting too is the fact that the biography of Richard Mulcahy, contains not one line on the Noble Six event. He was overall national commander of the Army on the day of the killings and Minister for Defence in that Fine Gael/Cumann na nGaedhael government
For anecdotal information all sources have been taken into account in order to ensure fairness and balance. Sources contacted include the families and relations of those who died and people who have taken an interest in the subject over the years. Also contacted, either directly or indirectly, were some of the names that have come up as being in the Free State Army (referred to as FSA) chain of command during the week of 20 September 1922 in Sligo.
SLIGO’S NOBLE SIX
All true men of this Irish nation
Who follow the tricolour fold,
Come and join in sincere lamentation
And pray for the true and the bold.
It is but a pitiful story
Unequalled in bloodshed and tears,
As bright as the stars in their glory
Shine the names of our dead volunteers.
Then pray for Banks, Carroll and Langan
McNeill, Benson, Devins, T.D.
Six hearts that were true to old Ireland
And died that their land might be free.
They died on a cold autumn evening
When nature its charms did unfold
Those heroes were crossing the mountains
Their number being six we are told.
They were marching to meet their brave comrades
Of danger they were not afraid
But out for the cause of freedom
They were followed and beastly betrayed.
The mist on the mountain was falling
While the rain in its torrents did spill
The Irish green and tans they were crossing
The side of Benbulbens big hill.
The mist on the hillside was heavy
And the sound of the rifles were low
As our brave lads they were marching onwards
And surprised by the approach of the foe.
They came in their fast Crossley tenders
And many a strong armoured car,
With lewis guns, Maxims and rifles
All Englands equipment of war.
God pity those brave Irish heroes,
The steel ring was closing in fast.
Although in the prime of their manhood
This evening, it was then their last.
From out their cars the staters poured,
Like lions swooped down on the fold.
Our brave lads were quickly surrounded
And driven from their little stronghold.
They took to the hillside for cover
While the state poured its merciless rain
They shot them like partridge in clover
And six of the bravest were slain.
Then pray for Banks, Carroll and Langan
McNeill, Benson, Devins T.D.
Six hearts that were true to old Ireland
And died that their land might be free.
Borne on the shoulders of comrades
Who mourned them silent and deep
In a republican plot in North Sligo
We laid them to take their last sleep.
Beloved, honoured, respected,
Forgotten ne’er shall they be
While the sun it shines over North Sligo
And the Shannon flows into the sea.
(Author unknown. Recited to Joe McGowan by John Gilmartin of Carnamadow