Ambush at Cloonacastle,1922: Michael Swift, Fountainhill, Kilmaine

Michael Swift, 24/8/1897- 12/8/1922, was the second youngest of a family of four, John, Bridget, Michael and Mary. He is described in the archives as being a very steady young man, which is portrayed by his army status, created First Lieutenant on his appointment in July, 1922 a matter of a few weeks before his death. His father was called Michael also and his mother was Ann, nee, O’Connor. Bridget, Michael’s older sister married Patrick Murphy, Kilkeerin, Kilmaine, a local builder, who built a new house across from the old home. Mary, his younger sister married William Molloy, Frenchbrook, Kilmaine.

To augment their income from the small family holding of just one and a half acres (according to ‘Griffiths Valuation’), the family operated a small shop at their home at Fountainhill. John had emigrated to America in 1914 and married a Derry girl named Hanna Askin. They had four children, two boys and two girls, with eight grandchildren surviving in the U.S. He applied for U.S. citizenship in 1922 of which he was awarded in 1927. He visited his old home and vicinity just once, many years afterwards.

Michael worked for the Congested Districts Board four days a week, for 4 shillings a day and the rest of his time assisted his father with the running of the shop and small farm of just 1.5 acres. He made the arduous journey once a week by horse and cart to the train stations at Claremorris and Ballyhaunis which is 24 miles away, to deliver eggs and to pick up provisions for the shop. Eggs were an important commodity at the time and a big part of the Swift family business. Their rural customers used eggs as credit against the purchase of the common items such as flour, tea and sugar. Existing ledgers in the possession of the Murphy family from the period support this fact.  The family also operated a travelling shop by means of the same horse and cart. It is suggested that Michael may have exchanged horses at Ballyhaunis, due to the distance involved and may have stayed overnight during the winter months.

From February 1922, Michael Collins, chairman of the Provisional Government and Minister of Finance began building a new National Army and a Police Force from Pro-Treaty members of Sinn Fein and units of the I.R.A., after a vote was taken across all units, during the first quarter of the year. They were in cease-fire mode since the Anglo/Irish Truce was signed on the 11th of July 1921. The majority voted against the treaty, claiming that it was unconstitutional, and it was a usurpation of the 1916 Dáil Constitution adopted in 1919, objecting mostly to the loss of the six counties of Ulster, the dominion status under Britain and the requirement to swear an oath of allegiance to its monarch. Eamon de Valera stepping down as President of the Republic was the main antagonist on the Anti-Treaty side, while Michael Collins was the principal signatory of the Treaty, later to become chairman of the Provisional Government and Minister for Finance. He became the chief of staff of the National Army as the new Free State Government was formed. Liam Lynch was the chief of staff on the Anti-Treaty side. Members who did not support the Treaty were branded ‘mutineers’ or irregulars but in the early days both groups got on, still regarding the British as the sole enemy. In fact, all three groups; The National Army, the Pro Treaty and Anti Treaty Forces fought together  against the British Army, R.I.C/R.U.C. and U.S.C. (Ulster Special Constabulary) during the Battle  of Pettigo and Belleek between the 7th May and 8th June 1922. However, when the ranks of the  National Army began to be filled with Irish born members of the British Forces and the R.I.C, the  comradeship that existed between the groups was severed and open warfare broke out.

During April, Anti-Treaty forces occupied the Four Courts in Dublin in defiance of the Provisional Government and the treaty. Collins who retained hopes of bringing these units on-side, tried to negotiate a peace, but, when a British officer, Sir Henry Wilson was killed in London, the British blamed the Anti-Treaty faction. (There are those however who claim that Collins himself ordered the killing). They threatened to attack the Four Courts with the 6,000 men still in the Country, unless Collins did.

Wilson was an ex-field marshal of the British Army and Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1918 -1922. In 1914 he led a mutiny of British Army Forces in the Curragh against ‘Home Rule’, claiming they would not take up arms against the U.V.F. in Northern Ireland, who had imported 30,000 guns and 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition from Germany. By February  1922, Wilson, who was acting M.P. for James Craig and the Unionists in Stormont and was their  military advisor was accused of encouraging pogroms (ethnic cleansing) against catholic enclaves  in the six counties.

Collins pleaded with the incumbents at the Four Courts, led by Rory O’Connor to abide by the democratic will of the people and to give up their position. (The Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified in Dáil Eireann on 7th January 1922 by 64 votes to 57). They refused, and on the 28th.June, he attacked using two 18 lb. field artillery pieces received from the British. The Anti-Treaty forces including Mayo man, Ernie O’Malley were routed from the building and after a few more skirmishes, Dublin was made secure. Before retreating, the irregulars mined the Four Courts destroying thousands of documents of an economic and historical nature. During these skirmishes, Cathail Brugha, a notable leader in the war of Independence, now an officer in the anti-treaty side, lost his life.

This event led the Anti-Treaty forces to wage a guerrilla campaign against the Free State like that as waged against the British. This campaign was most prominent in the Southern part of the Country but there were attacks, ambushes and engagements throughout the island, no less gruesome than which happened during the war of independence.

Mayo was no exception. Some units or parts of units of the I.R.A. answered the call to join the Free State Army, considering it the right thing to do. Others got the call to make up the country’s police force, called the Civic Guard, renamed “An Garda Siochana” by an Act of Government on 31st July 1923. The Catholic Church came our very strong against the Anti-Treaty side and vowed that anyone shooting at any member of the National Army, robbing banks or setting fire to homes or other buildings would not receive the Sacraments.

Among the men to join the National Army was Michael Swift. Michael was created First Lieutenant and was attached to the South Mayo Battalion. He had been a member of the South Mayo Brigade of the I.R.A., since 1918, but has not been mentioned as having been involved in the Tourmakeady ambush on 3rd of May 1921, or any other engagement during the War of Independence. He more than likely was the logistics officer for the I.R.A. as his weekly visits to the railway stations at Claremorris and Ballyhaunis carrying out his family business made him an ideal and obvious choice to convey messages from and to Dublin. Most, if not all his comrades, adopted the anti-Treaty stance and in so doing found themselves in open conflict with their erstwhile comrades in the Pro-Treaty Forces (National Army).

However, one of his comrades, Thomas Lally of Srah, Tourmakeady joined the Civic Guard later to become An Garda Siochana. Thomas was lauded for his part in conveying his injured commanding officer; Brigadier Tom Maguire across the Partry Mountain to safety, while being pursued by the British forces.

In August 1922, the South Mayo Brigade of the National Army was billeted at Ballinrobe town hall, which acted as a temporary barracks. The local British Military barracks had recently been burned by the Anti-Treaty I.R.A., after being vacated by the British Border Regiment.

Ballinrobe Workhouse apart from the infirmary was also burned around the same time to prevent these premises being used by their adversaries in the National Army. Ballinrobe Military Barracks like all the other such buildings in the 26 counties was handed over to the first force that turned up, which in this case, like many other instances was the Anti-Treaty Force. The Cavalry Barracks was handed over on the 10/2/1922, while the Artillery Barracks was handed over on the 17/2/1922. Two exceptions to this were Beggars Bush in Dublin, handed over to the National Army on 31st Jan.1922, which they adopted as their G.H.Q. and the Curragh in Kildare, handed over on 16th May 1922.

The National Army inherited many tonnes of armaments including 27,000 rifles, 250 machine guns, eight 18 lb. artillery pieces, armoured cars and even aircraft left behind by the British Forces.  Thousands of uniforms were also left behind, which they had dyed a dark green.

The Anti-Treaty forces had a deficit of weapons having just 7,000 rifles, the rest was made up of shotguns and handguns. In the early days the National Army was outnumbered by the Anti-Treaty I.R.A. by 12,000 to 8,000 but by 22nd of August the National Army grew to 14,000 men and by the end of the year had grown to 38,000 and in the following year it had grown to 55,000 men with 3,500 officers.

The Anti-Treaty Forces were sometimes called the ‘Irregulars’ or the I.R.A. while the National Army were called the ‘regulars’ or the ‘Staters’. Notwithstanding being adversaries, the two forces did get on in the early days, which was a surprise to some. There was a letter written to the National Army G.H.Q. by the great historian and Ballinrobe Parish Priest, Cannon D’Alton that members of the National Army were fraternising with members of the Anti-Treaty I.R.A. Forces at Ballinrobe.  He was more than likely referring to the covertly sharing of weapons, authorized by GHQ. in Dublin, for the Munster and Connaught regions, on the understanding by both sides that their old  weapons were given to the Northern Ireland I.R.A battalions. These battalions had some members aligned with the Irish National Army, which had a deficit of weapons to defend the catholic population in Northern Ireland.

On the 12th. August 1922, there was a report of a roadblock of felled trees at a bend in the road at  Cloonacastle which is two miles from Ballinrobe (on the Claremorris Road adjacent to the present  entrance to Ballinrobe Golf Club) and that a column of ‘irregulars’ was in the vicinity. Comdt.  Masterson, National Army Garrison O.C., Ballinrobe, proceeded to the scene with twenty men and two lieutenants, including First Lieutenant Swift. They began to clear the roadblock when they came under fire from members of the irregular unit, firing from the top of the castle. The Norman Fitzgerald built castle, erected circa 1235 was no stranger to violence. It was occupied by the De Burgos (Burkes) and afterwards the Binghams (Lords Lucan) for the previous 700 years. A  Thompson machine gun and rifles were used by the irregulars and according to local sources, most likely ones obtained from the Military barracks, some months previously.

The National or ‘regular’ army members returned fire towards the castle. After a short period of time the irregulars departed and fled towards woodland at Cloonark on the east side of the castle, with no casualties reported on either side. The regulars followed in pursuit and as a group led by First Lieutenant Swift approached the wood from a Southerly direction, a burst of shots rang out.

Lieutenant Swift dropped to the ground mortally wounded from an injury to his head. Private Stephen Coakley from Claremorris who joined just two weeks earlier with Michael Swift bravely carried his Lieutenant into cover and perceived safety. However, he was pronounced dead a short time afterwards. His sister Bridget identified the body at Ballinrobe. Another sad point of note is that a week afterwards, Stephen Coakley lost his own life through a firearm accident, while at base in Ballinrobe. Michael Swift and Stephen Coakley were not the only casualties of the Civil War at Ballinrobe.

A full list is outlined hereunder in chronological order.

Adjutant Michael Joseph Hynes, 23 yr. of age, Ballyglass, Claremorris, Co. Mayo – Anti-Treaty Force. Described as Company Adjutant and Divisional Police Officer of the South Mayo brigade of the I.R.A., since 1917, actively involved in the War of Independence and the Civil War. He was accidently shot by a colleague on the 7/7/1922, at the Military Barracks, Ballinrobe.

Lieutenant Patrick J. Moran, 21 yr. of age, Main Street Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo – Anti-Treaty Force. Died on 4/8/1922, as a result of being shot by National Army (pro-Treaty Force), while escaping from a house at Kilkeeran, Ballinrobe. It is said he had managed to crawl through a field of potatoes but when reaching the end, he had to climb a wall, when he was hit. He was a shop assistant and was described as the Brigade chemist, interned at the Curragh, pre-Truce but released  on the 8/12/1921, as a condition of the Truce. He was an only son.

First Lieutenant Michael Swift, 25 yrs. Of age, Fountainhill, Kilmaine, Co. Mayo – National Army – Died as a result of being shot by a member of the Anti-Treaty Forces at Cloonacastle, Ballinrobe, on the 12/8/1922. Circumstances already outlined.

Private Stephen Coakley, 30 yr. of age, Cloonconnor, Claremorris, Co. Mayo, – National Army.  Died as result of firearm accident at Town Hall, Ballinrobe on 20/8/1922, which acted as temporary barracks. He was in his billet when a comrade accidently discharged his Lee Enfield rifle, while unloading it in the kitchen below. He served in the Volunteers from 1917 until his attestation to the National Army on 3/8/1922.

Private John Killeen, 26 yrs. of age, Togher, Hollymount, Co. Mayo, – National Army. He was on sentry duty at Bridge Street, Ballinrobe on the 10/10/1922, when two members of the Anti-Treaty forces who are alleged to have been drinking in a nearby public house approached, as a result of a dare. The story goes that they tried to disarm him, but, when he resisted one of them shot him through the head with a revolver. The man to do this is said to have made his way by the railway line to Claremorris and from there to Dublin and then by ship to the U.S.A. He is said to have been a neighbour of his victim.

Private Michael Mulvihill, 18 yrs. Of age, Mantua, Castlerea, Co. Roscommon, – National Army.  Died on the 28/3/1923, at the Military Barracks, as a result of an accidental discharge of a firearm by a comrade, who was exonerated after a Court of Enquiry. He worked for The Congested Districts Board for 27 shillings a week, prior to enlisting in the National Army, on 25/5/1922.

Also, just ten days after Michael Swift’s death, his commander-in-chief, Michael Collins was shot dead in an ambush, at Beal na Blath, Co. Cork. He was visiting his home county, with a small detachment of his National Army troops, in a further attempt to make peace. Richard Mulcahy took over as Commander-in-Chief of the National Army in a war which became even more bitter as a result, with reprisals carried out by both sides

Why was Michael Swift the only member of the South Mayo Brigade of the I.R.A. to break ranks and vote for the Treaty and go on to join the National Army? 

Notwithstanding Michael’s courageous decision to exercise his democratic right, it appears that he may have been an unwilling member of the I.R.A. and coerced into doing logistics work due to his weekly journeys to Claremorris and Ballyhaunis railway stations in relation to his family’s business. (The railway system was the principal mode of transport for messages, orders and even guns and ammunition during the war of Independence and the Civil war). Michael delivered eggs to Freelys, Ballyhaunis, on a weekly basis, sugar, flour, tea and other domestic

provisions were also collected at the railway station from a supplier in Dublin. Ballinrobe railway station and even Claremorris would be much nearer but would be subject to more scrutiny from the local R.I.C. and military. This would have been a big imposition on Michael due to the distance involved.

Another reason why Michael Swift might not be enamoured with his ex-comrades in the I.R.A. was as follows; In 1919, during the height of agrarian agitation in Ireland, his family was among a group of nine local farming families including Molloys, Prendergasts, Monaghans, Brennans, Sullivans,  Hynes, Keadys and Reillys who occupied a 250-acre farm near them at Fountainhill. This farm was tenanted by two farmers named Hyland and Murphy. The group had from just 1-6 acres each while the Hyland and Murphy families had holdings of 24 acres each in the locality. These two were considered by the group as being ranchers and of the type to have their lands confiscated by the Congested Districts Board and subdivided among small farmers like themselves.

The British Chief Secretary, the Rt. Hon. A.J. Balfour was the main driving force behind The Congested Districts Board, set up in 1891, to alleviate poverty along the West coast of Ireland accentuated by the Great Famine, 70 years previous. The Board which was the forerunner of the Irish Land Commission was a great success and helped fishermen and small industries as well as farmers and was directly involved in the building of piers, roads, bridges, land drainage and other infrastructure works. The problem arose when the Board ran out of money.

In the early days it was funded by the Anglican Church from Church surplus funds. The Anglican Church became the Church of Ireland, (the sole Church recognised by the British establishment until its dis establishment in 1871) at the rate of 2.75% interest. The funds had been raised by tithes or taxes, (1814 – 1855) raised from Catholics as well as protestants, who owned more than one acre of land, even during the famine. These tithes, which was a tenth of farm income, led to the Tithe Wars of 1831-32. Records were kept in each parish in registers called ‘Tithe Applotment Books’ (recorded between 1823-1837). These books have survived to this day and may be examined in the National Archives and are a very valuable record of Ireland during the 19th century. The British Government funded the Board subsequently.

By 1912, the Board was funded to the amount of £530,000 and by 1919, to the amount of £10,000,000. It acquired land, occasionally through compulsory purchase from landlords mostly along the Western counties from Donegal to Kerry. Many of these landlords were in debt and happy to sell and to return to England to continue the lifestyle which they had been accustomed to, prior to the famine. There was also a period after the famine, when their farms, almost devoid of tenants, through death and evictions were producing beef, while the price was high, due to the war in Europe, but now in serious decline.

It was during a lull in the work of The Congested District Board, due to the lack of funds, that Michael Swift senior and his eight Fountainhill neighbours became impatient and decided to force action by putting stock on the neighbouring farm. They felt they were entitled to share the 250-acre farm which was tenanted by the Hyland and Murphy families. They became embroiled in a campaign of harassment of these two families being joined by other disenfranchised locals, which  included the driving off their animals and the firing of shots into their houses. Even the womenfolk got involved by attacking the families with stockings filled with lime, which was very painful when contacting the eyes. The local R.I.C. were forced to get involved in the case, apprehending some local youths who were lodged in jail. This however did not stop the harassment.

Since Sinn Fein having swept to power in the General Election of 1918, decided to form an assembly which they called Dáil Eireann, meeting for the first time on 21st Jan. 1919. In furthering their aim to usurp or undermine the British Government it was decided to set up a judicial system.  On 18th June 1919, considering the agrarian trouble sweeping the country, it was decided that arbitration courts be set up to settle the disputes. These disputes involved not only the landlord class but also large Irish land holders. It was not until 13th May 1920, that parish and district courts were set up. These were also called Sinn Fein or Dáil Courts. Solicitors sympathetic with Sinn Fein were nominated to adjudicate.

The first of these courts was held at Ballinrobe on 17th May 1920, in the Town Hall. The group of nine had agreed to appear but Hyland and Murphy were hesitant fearing favouritism. Fr. Healy, P.P. Kilmaine intervened, suggesting judges be brought from outside the area, which is what happened. Indeed, he himself had to defend the landholders as their council extracted themselves from the case in fear of being struck off the register for being involved in a court deemed illegal by the authorities, categorizing them as against the King’s Writ. He proved a very competent council as the ruling went in favour of the landholders.

Members of the I.R.A policed the court both inside and out with the R.I.C. looking on but not getting involved. By now the R.I.C. had lost their grip as regards law enforcement, which is why the I.R.A. had stepped in.  Due to ongoing harassment, shooting of police and burning of police stations, the R.I.C. had withdrawn to the larger towns, which had army garrisons. In June 1921, Sinn Fein organized a police force from units of the volunteers led by Simon Donnelly as their Chief of Staff, called the Irish Republican Police I.R.P.

When the Civil War started this force was ordered back to their units and each battalion was to police their own areas. The R.I.C. was finally disbanded on 30th August 1922, as part of the Anglo/Irish Treaty. During the Civil War the Anti-Treaty Forces carried out the task even though members of their group are alleged to be carrying out robberies of banks and other  businesses to raise fund to run their campaign.

The group of nine were very disgruntled and vowed not to adhere to the ruling, saying the court was not a legal one anyway. It was deemed imperative by Arthur Griffith, deputy leader of Sinn Fein and Minister of Home Affairs and the Minister of Defence, Cathail Brugha that the ruling of this first case be adhered to. Comdt. Tom Maguire of the local South Mayo Brigade of the I.R.A. was therefore directed to see to it that the Ballinrobe Dáil Court ruling was honoured, without any violence or imprisonment involved. As a result, three sons of the most prominent of the group were kidnapped and brought to an island on Lough Corrib until their fathers agreed to respect the court ruling. After a week’s captivity of the three young men on the

island, they agreed. Michael Swift is believed to have been one of these youths, even though he is recorded as being a member of the I.R.A., since 1918. The Dáil Courts system went from strength to strength to the extent that the  official court system became redundant. More and more solicitors went over as this was where the work was. Eventually the authorities decided to clamp down on the courts, leading them to go underground. Anyone caught attending were charged with an offence under The Defence of The Realm Act, 1914.

However, it was too late as these courts had taken hold as they were a powerful

way of undermining the British authority in Ireland. During the Civil War and afterwards these courts were not popular with the New Provisional Government, as they were predominately operated by anti-treaty members of the I.R.A. By 1925 they were phased out, in favour of the Irish High Court System.

There were more deaths caused by the Civil War in Ireland than there was during the War of Independence and more executions by either side than were executed by the British Forces.  According to the Archives 1,377 died, 662 Pro-Treaty and 415 Anti-Treaty members, with Mayo accounting for up to 100 of that number. Up to 300 civilians were also recorded as having died with many more seriously wounded. There were 72 Anti-Treaty members executed as a result of their actions against The National Army or the Free State Government. The War left an indelible mark on the Irish people, especially in Irish politics. Two of the most powerful parties which have run  Ireland over the last three generations, since the war are Fianna Fail which has its roots in the Anti-Treaty Forces and Fine Gael which has its roots in the Pro-Treaty Forces.

Fianna Fail was formed by Eamon de Valera in 1926, entering government for the first time in 1932, due to the party’s abstentionist policy, over the border and the oath of allegiance to the Queen of England. He was the former president of Sinn Fein and principal antagonist on the Anti-Treaty side.

The Pro-Treaty Provisional Government was formed by Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and W.T. Cosgrove in 1922 just before the Civil War began and with the deaths of Griffith and Collins the task of forming the Free State Government fell to W.T. Cosgrove. On 27th April, 1923 as the need for a political party was observed, he and his Pro-Treaty T. D’s set up Cumann Na nGaedheal, which party was to lead the government for the next ten years, until being ousted by Eamon De Valera and his Fianna Fail Party in the General Election of 1932.

On 8th Sept.1933, Cumann Na nGaedheal was changed to Fine Gael on the amalgamation of the Party with smaller similar parties led by Frank McDermott, James Dillon and Eoin O’ Duffy. The enmity between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael often re-surfaced, not forgetting the atrocities of the past, as almost all of them fought each other in the Civil War.

In the last few years these two parties have run the country together, so at last after 100 years, Michael Collins’s dream has been fulfilled. The Sinn Fein Party, which is now growing in popularity was formed by Arthur Griffith in 1905. He went on to be one of the principal signatories of the Anglo/Irish Treaty and first president of Ireland after the Free State was formed. The Party lay dormant for many years due to its abstentionist policy. Sinn Fein is the party which formed the first Dáil in 1919 and from which both other parties were spawned.

Much healing has yet to be undergone in Ireland to cure the wounds caused by the Irish Civil War, which some people are still unable to discuss. Our history taught us that all the evils were done to us by the Celts, the Vikings, the Normans and then the English. We were not informed much of the injuries caused by ourselves nor were we versed in the positives.

The Celts brought us their metalworking skills and our unenviable culture of art and music. The Vikings brought us their knowledge of trading and built most of our large cities and more than likely engendered in us the wanderlust for which we are well known. They plundered many monasteries in the early days but the more monasteries were plundered by other jealous monasteries and their minder clans than the Vikings plundered.

The Normans brought us farming skills and built boroughs and towns for trade including Ballinrobe which was one of the first towns in Mayo. The economy flourished after each wave of invaders.

The English too apart from Bingham, Cromwell, Trevelyan (famine) and numerous bad landlords, developed our infrastructure and built beautiful buildings in our cities and many individuals and families have experienced gainful employment in England, when nothing was to be had at home. After 100 years the Civil War should be discussed at length lest we ever go down that road again. History has a bad habit of repeating itself. As our great poet Seamus Heaney wrote in the first verse of his poem; ‘The Cure of Troy’

“Human beings suffer,

they torture one another,

they get hurt and get hard.

No poem or play or song

can fully right a wrong

inflicted or endured.”

After the death of her son, Ann Swift suffered ill health. She was to be found daily under a hawthorn tree, adjacent to her home, in tears of mourning. She eventually died of a broken heart.  Rev. Fr. Healy, P.P., Kilmaine, assisted the family in obtaining a gratuity of £100 from the State for the loss of their son.



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