East Galway Volunteers Overwhelm Bookeen Barracks, Kilconieron, 4 July 1920

Revolution in County Galway, 1918-23

Dr Conor McNamara, Historian-in-Residence, 2022

This hand drawn map of the attack at Bookeen was produced by former senior officers in 1934 for the purposes of military pension applications.
Courtesy of the Military Archives (MA/MSPC/A20-1)

Due to the prevalence of feuding over land division in the district, a large party of police maintained a barracks at Bookeen in the parish of Kilconieron. A party of Volunteers from Kilconieron and surrounding districts attacked the barracks during the early hours of 4 July 1920, completely destroying the building. The group was led by Patrick ‘The Hare’ Callanan of Craughwell and Laurence Burke of Loughrea, and was carried out by Volunteers from the New Inn, Craughwell, Leitrim, Killimor, Kilconieron, Kilnadeema, Bullaun and Clostoken Companies.

 

The barracks was a large two-storey structure, with steel shuttered windows and a two-meters (seven-foot) high wall surrounding the garden of the building; it was usually manned by a sergeant and nine constables. The attack was the first large-scale assault on the police in the east of the county and, as in previous attacks by the Volunteers in the north of the county, the attackers attempted to blow a hole in the gable wall of the building with gelignite. The Volunteers attempted to set off the gelignite by placing a ladder against the gable, pouring petrol into the building and shooting at it, setting the building alight. Verey lights were sent up by the police stranded within the building in an attempt to alert the Cavalry stationed in Athenry. The beleaguered policemen withstood a prolonged siege lasting several hours, returning fire with hand grenades and rifles, before making their escape unhindered. Volunteer Daniel Kearns of Kiltulla recalled:

 

We left my house when it was nearly dark. We met Volunteers from Clostoken, Kilnadeema, Bullaun and Killimordaly Companies at Dunsandle, less than half a kilometre (a quarter of a mile) from the barracks. Altogether, about 38 men took part in the attack, roughly 14 riflemen at the front of the barracks and the remainder armed with shotguns nearer the building towards the gables.

Two men were detailed to watch the back. Shotgun men controlled the window at each gable. I myself was at the front of the building armed with a Lee-Enfield rifle. The range would be about 30 to 40 yards. When we all had our positions taken up, Captain Burke with four men put a ladder up to the gable at the Kiltulla side. Captain Burke mounted the ladder and broke slates on the roof at the back with a stone hammer. He then threw in a bucket of petrol through the hole he had made. The petrol had been poured out of the tins into the bucket to save time. There may have been two buckets. Captain Patrick Coy of Clostoken Company, afterwards a brigade staff officer of Galway South East Brigade, and Volunteers Stephen Lawless, Michael Hanlon and Hubert Dillon of Killimordaly Company, helped Captain Burke. Someone handed up a torch with a long handle to Captain Burke so that he could descend a few steps of the ladder and have some protection when he ignited the petrol. It seemed to me to be about ten minutes before the flames sprang up after Captain Burke had applied the lighted torch. No firing took place in that time. Comdt. Morrissey said to me that they must have left the barracks. I said: “They were there yesterday anyhow”. No sooner had I the word out of my mouth than we heard a loud explosion at the Kiltulla gable, through which the garrison had hurled a grenade. That was the first action by the garrison, but Capt. Burke and his assistants had completed their task and had taken cover by the time the grenade exploded. We opened fire immediately, concentrating on the windows and doors at the front of the building. All the five windows at the front (two on the ground floor and three on the first floor) had steel shutters. Fire from the garrison, who numbered 12 or 13 (all RIC) was very heavy and very accurate. We had to keep well down for a while until we got some fairly big stones and with them formed some improvised loopholes. The fire from the garrison continued heavy and accurate for at least half an hour until they were forced down to the ground floor by the heat of the roof on fire over their heads.

The attack went on for at least two hours until the roof caved in. Before it finally caved in, we could hear very explosions inside. Some of the explosions were light, others heavy. One particularly heavy explosion shook the ground where we were about 35 yards away. It could have been caused by a box of grenades.

The garrison got two chances to surrender. About five minutes after firing was opened ‘The Hare’ blew one blast on a whistle. This was a pre-arranged signal for cease fire. He called on the garrison to surrender. The only reply he got was a blast of rifle fire. Later on, in the course of attack, there was another cease fire and the garrison were again asked to surrender but they did not do so. Some of our men were shouting threats at them which did not help as far as the surrender was concerned.

At one time during the attack there was a withdrawal by the IRA of about 200 yards owing to a belief that cavalry were about to attack us. It was learned in a few minutes that this was not correct. What really happened was that some horses nearby took fright at the firing and galloped along the road. That is what gave rise to the cavalry rumour. The truth of the matter was learned very quickly and I would say that the withdrawal did not affect the position in the least. The attack was called off when the roof fully caved in and the building was a complete wreck. It was then believed that the garrison all had perished in the flames. No approach was made to the ruins by the Volunteers.

Patrick Callanan later explained the decision not to detain the police:

“I decided that our objective had been achieved and withdrew, leaving the barracks in ruins.”

The building was destroyed with the roof collapsing in flames and the RIC were fortunate not to have burned to death before making their escape. The barracks was not rebuilt and left in ruins with police withdrawn to larger fortified barracks.

 

Primary Sources

Bureau of Military Witness Statement, Daniel Kearns, Kilconieron Company (1,124).

Bureau of Military Witness Statement, Gilbert Morrissey, Athenry Company (1,138).

Bureau of Military Witness Statement, Michael Healy, Bullaun Company (1,064).

Bureau of Military Witness Statement, Patrick Connaughton, Clostoken Company (1,137).

Bureau of Military Witness Statement, Patrick Callanan, Galway Brigade (448).

South-East Galway Brigade, 1st Western Division (Brigade Activity Report: MS/MSPC/A20 1); Military Archives.

 

Further Reading

William Henry, Blood for Blood: The Black and Tan War in Galway (Mercier Press, 2001).

Conor McNamara, War & Revolution in the West of Ireland: Galway 1913–22 (Irish Academic Press, 2018).

Conor McNamara, The Loughnane Brothers, Beagh and Terror in Galway, 1920–21 (Galway County Council, 2020).

Conor McNamara, The Independence Struggle in County Galway, 1918–21, A Research Guide (Galway County Council, 2021).

Timothy McMahon (ed.), Pádraig Ó Fathaigh’s War of Independence (Cork University Press, 2000).

Cormac Ó Comhraí & K.H. O’Malley (eds), The Men Will Talk to Me, Galway Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Mercier Press, 2015).

Cormac Ó Comhraí, Sa Bhearna Bhaoil: Gaillimh 1913–1923 (Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 2016).

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