The Ambush at Gallagh and Sack of Tuam

TIMELINE: War of Independence, County Galway: 19th & 20th July 1920

by Hilary Kiely

Tuam Town after being gutted by fire in the police riot of 20 July 1920
Illustrated London News [London, England], 31 July 1920
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TIMELINE: War of Independence, County Galway

19th July, 1920: Gallagh Ambush

Although the Irish War of Independence had begun both officially, with the meeting of the First Dáil which refused to recognise British authority, and unofficially, with a self-sanctioned ambush by the 3rd Tipperary Volunteer Brigade at Soloheadbeag that resulted in the deaths of two Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) officers, on 21st January 1919, Galway would stay largely out of the fray until July of 1920.  While there had been some violence and unrest, the agitation was often connected more closely to the ever-contentious issue of land ownership rather than nationalism[i].  The tinder would be struck in the County of Galway on the 19th of July.

According to witness statements taken and held by the Irish Bureau of Military History (particularly referenced here is Thomas Wilson, Captain Cortoon Company, Tuam Battallion)[ii], the Tuam Battallion had two assignments on that day:  to enforce the Sinn Féin boycott of the Crown Courts by preventing local men who had been chosen as jurors for the Galway Assizes that day from attending the court, and to capture arms from the RIC officers who would be attending those same court sessions.  The first proved a moot point as the prospective jurors made no attempt to journey to Galway City.[iii] The second, however, would prove to have significant consequences.

Approximately 25 IRA Volunteers gathered at Gallagh on the main Tuam to Dunmore road, along which the RIC constables would be returning from the Assizes. The men dragged a tree across the road just beyond a sharp bend in the road and laid in wait[iv].  The attacking party took up positions, nearly shoulder to shoulder, along only the right-hand side of the road and opened fire when the van came to a halt[v].  Two of the four officers came out of the van on the right side, presumably to attempt to remove the obstruction, and were stuck by gunfire. The other two exited the vehicle on the far side and returned fire until they exhausted their ammunition. These two surrendered and were allowed to return to Tuam Town on foot, where they reported the incident.[vi]

The Volunteers retrieved what papers and munitions they could from the van, which amounted to three rifles and a revolver, and then set it alight.

No Volunteers were significantly injured in the operation.

Neither of the two constables who had been shot were based in Tuam Town but rather in Dunmore. Both Const. James Burke of Birr, County Offaly and Const. Patrick Carey of Skibereen, County Cork, died at the scene.

 

20th July, 1920: Sack of Tuam

The search for the Volunteers who had been present at the ambush began immediately after Sergeant Beatty and Constable Brennan reported the events back at the RIC Barracks and continued through the night. Having returned empty handed and, upon seeing the bodies of their fallen comrades, the police took to the streets of Tuam. Some had taken to drinking during the “wake” and pubs in the town were forced to open or simply broken into and looted.[vii]

The RIC put to torch the Town Hall, which the week prior had held the first sitting of the North Galway District Court, a Sinn Féin “Dáil Court” of a type set up to undermine British authority, replacing the Assizes being boycotted. [viii] The building was gutted and was not rebuilt until 1926.

Local businesses, such as Canney’s Drapers, Fahy’s Drapery Store, and Burke’s Grocery, were also set alight. Many homes and businesses had their windows shot out and shops looted. Hand grenades were thrown into buildings, such as the home of James Casey, who acted as a clerk in the new court. Many homes were raided and known Sinn Féiners arrested.  The terror went on through the night resulting in an estimated £100,000 in damages but, remarkably, there was no further loss of life.[ix]

These were the first official reprisals to be carried out by the RIC in the county. Tuam would be targeted at least twice more in September of that year specifically in answer to the events at Gallagh.[x]

A detailed and lively account of these events can be found in Chapter 6 (“Ambush and Reprisal, July 1920”, pages 85-94) in Troubled Times: War and Rebellion in North Galway, 1913-1923 by local Tuam-based historian Dr. Jarlath Deignan.

 

To find out more about these events, please see:

Troubled Times: War and Rebellion in North Galway, 1913-1923 by Jarlath Deignan

War and Revolution in the West of Ireland by Conor McNamara

 

You can learn more about the revolutionary Sinn Féin courts here:

 

You can find more about land agitation in Galway here:

 

References:

[i] Burke, Johnny. “Land Agitation in Galway, 1920-1923”, http://annaghdownheritage.ie/land-agitation-in-galway-1920-23/  and

McNamara, Conor. “Politics and Society in East Galway, 1914-1921” (PhD Thesis, 2008, St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra), pg 97

[ii] Wilson, Thomas, Captain Cortoon Company, Tuam Battallion. Witness Statement 1183, Bureau of Military History, pp 9-12

[iii] Wilson, pg 9

[iv] Deignan, Jarlath. Troubled Times: War and Revolution in North Galway, 1912-1923, 2019, pg 86

[v] Wilson, pp 9-10

[vi] Deignan, Jarlath. Tuam Herald: “Ambush and Reprisal”, 15 July 2020

[vii] Deignan (2019), pg 88

[viii] Deignan (2020)

[ix] Tuam Herald: “Tale of Terror – Tuam in Ruins”, 24 July 1920

[x] McNamara (2008), p 209

 

 

Bibliography:

Burke, Johnny. “Land Agitation in Galway, 1920-1923”, http://annaghdownheritage.ie/land-agitation-in-galway-1920-23/

Deignan, Jartlath. Troubled Times: War and Rebellion in North Galway, 1913-1923 (Cork: Lettertec Publishing, 2019)

Deignan, Jarlath. Tuam Herald: “Ambush and Reprisal”, 15 July 2020

Dorney, John, “The Rise and Fall of the Dáil Courts”,  The Irish Story https://www.theirishstory.com/2019/07/25/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-dail-courts-1919-1922/#.XxF8DChKjIU

Kotsonouris, Mary, “Revolutionary Justice”  History Ireland, Issue 3, Autumn 1994 https://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/revolutionary-justice-the-dill-eireann-courts/

McNamara, Conor “Politics and Society in East Galway, 1914-1921” (PhD Thesis, 2008, St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra)

McNamara, Conor. War and Revolution in the West of Ireland. (Dublin: Merrion Press, 2018)

O’Riordan, Ann. East Galway Agrarian Agitation and the Burning of Ballydugan House, 1922. (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2015)

Tuam Herald: “Tale of Terror – Tuam in Ruins”, 24 July 1920

Wilson, Thomas, “Witness Statement 1183”, Bureau of Military History

 

 

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