The North Galway Flying Column and the Moylough Ambush, 5 June 1921
Revolution in County Galway, 1918-23
Dr Conor McNamara, Historian-in-Residence, 2022
The North Galway Flying Column was formed in early 1921 and comprised young Volunteers from North Galway who were on the run from the crown forces and who could not stay in their home for fear of reprisals. The column was composed of over twenty Volunteers from the Barnaderg, Glenamaddy, Belclare, Tuam, Sylane and surrounding districts. The unit was led by men who had gained considerable experience, including Patrick Dunleavy of Tuam and James Maloney of Glenamaddy, alongside senior officers, Thomas Nohilly, Thomas Ryan and Thomas Feerick.
The unit was usually strengthened by local Volunteers as it passed through the north Galway countryside but kept together as far as possible, separating only occasionally due to lack of accommodation. From early 1921, the column was constantly on the move, taking up positions and waiting for vulnerable detachments of police. Volunteer Patrick Treacy recalled the hardships the men endured: “we were at least seven days without undressing and had only snatches of sleep during that time. To add to our hardships most of us suffered at that time from a severe attack of what was then known as Sinn Féin or republican itch, which was aggravated by very warm weather.” (BMH/WS 1,425; Patrick Treacy)
The Moylough ambush took place on the evening of Sunday 5 June 1920 and involved an attack by the North Galway Flying Column on a detachment of crown forces based at Mountbellew. The attack was preceded by the shooting of a local RIC man in the village of Moylough by a member of the column, as a means of drawing the crown forces to the ambush site. The ambush was the first major engagement between the North Galway Flying Column and the crown forces and was one of the biggest gun battles of the period in Galway. The column managed to escape from the scene without sustaining any casualties while a number of police were seriously wounded. Following the attack, the crown forces visited several houses in the village of Moylough, taking their revenge on vulnerable families.
The column had been on the move for several months by the time of the ambush and had become increasingly frustrated after a series of unsuccessful attacks. The Moylough ambush reflected their determination to engage the Black and Tans by luring them into a trap and ensuring they would not evade attack. In order to draw out the garrison based at Mountbellew, the column decided to attack a small party of police whom they had observed travelling from Mountbellew to Protestant services in Moylough each Sunday. Volunteer Thomas Mannion explained: “The non-Catholic members of the garrison at Mountbellew had to go to Moylough for Divine Service as there was no place of worship for them at Mountbellew. They travelled on bicycles. We saw the party going to Church on Sunday morning. There were ten of them. Knowing their strength, we decided to attack them on their way back from Mountbellew. While they were at Church, we took up positions about 100 yards from the road and waited. We waited in vain, as the RIC party went home by another route and we were unable to contact them.” (BMH/WS 1,408; Thomas Mannion)
Despite their disappointment at the failure of the police to appear, the column decided to remain in position due to the difficulty of retreating from the ambush site in daylight. However, as they waited for darkness to fall, a local RIC man from the Mountbellew Barracks, Constable Patrick Neilan, passed the ambush site on bicycle in the direction of his home in Moylough. Volunteers Patrick Treacy and Tim Feerick saw their opportunity and followed Constable Neilan to his home, where they shot and wounded him at close range. Mannion later wrote: “the idea was that when the RIC in Mountbellew heard that this man was disarmed or killed they would come to his assistance.” (BMH/WS 1,408; Thomas Mannion, p. 13)
Constable Neilan was seriously wounded in the attack and later told the Connacht Tribune: “I ducked to avoid the bullets and I don’t know how I had the fortune to make such a miraculous escape except by the goodness of Providence.” Wounded in the hand as he raised his arms to protect himself, Neilan managed to make his escape across fields to Mountbellew and reached the safety of his comrades in the police barracks.
As the column had anticipated, the police response was immediate and the heavily armed garrison at Mountbellew motored towards the ambush site in two lorries and a motor car. The Volunteers, however, let the vehicles pass into Moylough, intending to ambush them as they returned, having estimated their strength and how heavily armed their opponents were. Volunteer Martin Ryan noted, however, that all was not well at the ambush site: “Our position was poor. In fact, there was no good position in the four mile stretch of road between Moylough and Mountbellew.” Nevertheless, the column men were determined to launch an attack and Volunteer Martin Ryan remembered the initial moments of the attack:
The RIC returned from Moylough about an hour and a half after they had passed our position on the way in. Two lorries and a Crossley car. They were about 40 yards apart. We let the first one pass. It was a caged lorry. We opened fire on the other two when the first of these two came to about the centre of our position. The RIC rolled off the lorries very quickly and took cover in a dry trench at the far side of the road. It was a boggy area but very dry at that time. I would say that there were ten or twelve men in each of the two lorries and about ten in the Crossley. (BMH/WS 1,417; Martin Ryan)
Volunteer Thomas Mannion recalled:
The car came first, followed by the lorry at a distance of about 120 to 200 yards. We occupied only about 10 yards of a front, as the fence we manned was only that length. The car pulled up to the right of our position when fire was opened on the lorry as it came in the dead centre of our position. There would have been at least sixteen RIC in the party. I know for certain there was four in the car and I would say that there was at least twelve in the lorry. (BMH/WS; Thomas Mannion 1,408)
The column was divided into two sections, one under Patrick Dunleavy and one under Martin Ryan, who later wrote:
My section was at the Mountbellew end and nearest to the lorry we allowed to pass our position. The RIC in this lorry played havoc with us. They began to creep up to out-flank us. I saw them plainly and my section had to fight very hard to keep them back. My section had to fight two fronts, those immediately in front of us and those to our right. The RIC fire was very accurate and very hot at times. The fight lasted two hours and it’s almost dark by that time. Verey lights were thrown up by the garrison in Mountbellew close by and I could plainly see the RIC from the first lorry trying to flank us. These were the men who did all the damage as far as we were concerned. At the start, we had to let them pass our position, because if we had fired on them when they came opposite us, the men in the other lorry or in the Crossley might have outflanked us on the other side and hemmed us in between them and the RIC in Mountbellew. (BMH/WS; Martin Ryan 1,417, pp 17-18)
Column Commander Patrick Dunleavy also recalled the fight in his statement to the Bureau of Military History: “The leading driver was put out of action and the lorry pulled up, as did the private car and the next lorry, and they succeeded in getting cover in a drain on the opposite side of the road.” The column had another problem to cope with, however, as it quickly transpired that their ammunition was defective, as Dunleavy explained: “We had a lot of defective ammunition and I got five magazines of ammunition in which there were only a few good rounds. This ammunition had been buried in a bog hole in 1920.” Volunteer Thomas Nohilly concurred with this view of the ammunition in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History: “Immediately fire was opened by us, the RIC took cover on the far side of the road, and returned our fire without delay. Their fire was accurate, and our fire seemed much weaker than theirs. More than every second round of my ammunition was bad. In some cases, four out of five in a clip were bad.” (Thomas Nohilly, BMH/WS 1,437, p. 15). Likewise, Volunteer Patrick Treacy concluded: “I can definitely say that twenty-two of my rounds misfired.” (Patrick Treacy, BMH/WS 1,425, p. 9).
Despite bad positioning and defective ammunition, the column fought a running battle for two hours before seeking a retreat from the scene, in the knowledge that reinforcements would likely soon arrive from Tuam, Ballinasloe and elsewhere. Patrick Dunleavy concluded:
If we could have flanked the enemy from an elevation on the Moylough side, I have no doubt that we would have made a complete success of this operation. We had to wait on until dusk to get away, and then only in sections. We had to conserve our ammunition and had only five rounds for each rifle left after the operation. (Patrick Dunleavy, BMH/WS 1,489, p. 21).
Escape from the ambush site was problematic as Thomas Mannion recalled:
The road was a bog road and was well raised above the bog level. The RIC got good cover behind the grassy banking of the road on the far side. The firing lasted from half an hour to an hour. The fire from the RIC was very accurate. It was heavy and well sustained. They used rifle grenades, although at that time we did not know what they were. They made a peculiar noise and seemed to be bursting above our heads and behind us.
I heard later that the RIC boasted that it was the rifle grenades that caused us to withdraw. I think it was realised that we could not outflank the RIC and the column commander – Brigadier Commandant Patrick Dunleavy – gave the whistle signals for withdrawal which had previously been arranged. We succeeded in withdrawing without sustaining any casualty. When getting away from the fence, we had to cross a passage that was very exposed. I remember I was the last man out of our positions by the fence. (BMH/WS 1,408; Thomas Mannion, pp. 13-14)
The column had taken on a unit of around twenty heavily armed crown forces and fought for almost two hours despite an unfavourable position and faulty ammunition, and were extremely fortunate not to have been captured or have sustained heavy casualties. Martin Ryan concluded: “we were very lucky that someone had got the brainwave to cut the gaps in the fence, otherwise I fear there would have been many casualties (BMH/WS 1,417; Martin Ryan, p. 18). Almost out of ammunition, the column retreated through the countryside in a westerly direction and found refuge in the Barnaderg district where many of the column’s relatives lived. The column had proven that they were a match for the crown forces and were capable of standing their ground against a large and heavily armed force in the north Galway countryside; the crown forces would not be so fortunate in their next engagement with the column as the experience they had gained in the Moylough fight proved invaluable.
Participants in the Moylough ambush, 5 June 1921
The Brigade Activity Report of the Tuam Brigade contained in the Military Services Pension Records (Tuam Brigade Activity Report; MA/MSPC/A/28) provides the details of 28 men who took part in the Moylough Ambush:
Thomas Mannion (Dunmore); Peter Brennan, Thomas Feerick (both Milltown); Thomas Tarmay (Caherlistrane); Thomas Nohilly (Corofin); Martin Mannion (Brigade Adjutant from …..); James Maloney, Patrick Treacy, Jack Knight (all Glenamaddy); Peter Collins, Martin Kilmartin, Brian Cunniffe, (all Kilkerrin); Patrick Dunleavy, James Connell, Edward Naughton, Timothy Dunlevy, James Donnellan, James Hynes, Willie McDonnell, Michael McDonnell (all Barnaderg); Thomas Higgins, Patrick McHugh ( both Sylane); Patrick Crowe, Darby Mannion, John Fleming (all Abbey).
Outposts: Michael Gannon, Mark Ryan (both Cortoon); Martin Griffin (Corofin).
North Galway Flying Column, 1921
The North Galway Flying Column was formed in early 1921 in north-east Galway and was composed of young men on the run from their homes in the districts of Milltown, Glenamaddy, Barnaderg, Dunmore, Kilkerrin and surrounding parishes. Commanded by Patrick Dunleavy from Barnaderg, the column was involved in several lethal engagements with crown forces, including at Moylough on 5 June and Milltown on 27 June 1921. Several members left detailed accounts of the column’s activities with the Bureau of Military History. Details of the membership of the column is listed in the Nominal Membership Rolls of the Irish Republican Army held by the Military Archives (RO 240A) and are available to download online.
Core Members of the North Galway Flying Column included:
Commanded by Patrick Dunleavy (Barnaderg); James Moloney (Glenamaddy); Tim and Thomas Dunleavy (Barnaderg); Martin Ryan (Glenamaddy); Thomas Tarmay and Paddy Conway (Caherlistrane); Thomas and Martin Mannion (Dunmore); Thomas Feerick (Milltown); Brian Cunniffe (Kilkerrin); Patrick Treacy (Glenamaddy); Thomas Nohilly (Corofin); Thomas Ryan (Tuam); Jack Knight (Glenamaddy); Peter Brennan (Milltown); Patrick Noonan (Williamstown); Patrick McHugh (Sylane).
Bureau of Military Witness Statement, Martin Ryan, Ballymoe Company (BMH/WS 1,417)
Bureau of Military Witness Statement, Patrick Dunleavy, Barnaderg (BMH/WS 1,489).
Bureau of Military Witness Statement, Patrick Treacy, Kilkerrin (BMH/WS 1,425).
Bureau of Military Witness Statement, Thomas Nohilly, Cummer (BMH/WS 1,437).
Bureau of Military Witness Statement, Thomas Mannion, Dunmore Company (BMH/WS 1,408).
Jarlath Deignan, Troubled Times: War and Rebellion in North Galway, 1913–23 (Jarlath Deignan, 2019).
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).