The Major of “Monemohil” by Austin Harney
My great – uncle, Michael Kelly, was an IRA Volunteer, hailed from Monemohill near Shanagolden and two miles from Ballyhahill in County Limerick. He was one of many heroic fighters in the War of Irish Independence (1919 to 1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922 to 1923).
Michael Kelly was born on 10th August 1901 and was nicknamed “The Major” as he was the first volunteer to march down the hill to Newcastle West in uniform. He would have marched to the first parade of the West Limerick Brigade of “The Volunteers” in Newcastle West on St. Patricks’ Day, 1916. Ernest Blythe had established this brigade in 1915. During the day of the parade, there was a platform in the middle of the Town Square. It was draped in the Tricolour Flag. The three main speakers were the Parish Priest, Ernest Blythe and Sean MacDermott. Mac Dermott was to be one of the well known seven leading men executed after the Easter Rising. The Volunteers did not know anything about this planned rising but Sean’s passionate speech stirred many a true young heart. My great – uncle Mick would have been enlisted in the Fianna at this time, as he was, only, fourteen years of age at this event. He was too young to fight in the First World War but like all Volunteers in Shanagolden, he was influenced by Cornelius Colbert, who was another of the seven leading men to be executed following the Easter Rising. Con Colbert encouraged all the Volunteers in Shanagolden to oppose Britain’s war with Germany.
After the Easter Rising of 1916, the tide of events changed. Many Irish people were eager to fight for complete independence instead of Home Rule. At the age of 17, Michael Kelly, was encouraged to join up in this revolution. He was a good friend of Joseph O’Connor (later to be a professor) in Ballyhahill. Joseph’s brother, Jack Tom O’Connor (leader of the Ballyhahill Division) encouraged Michael Kelly to attend the meetings in Ballyhahill. By this time, Michael joined the newly formed Irish Republican Army.
Sadly, very little information can be obtained about Michael Kelly’s activities during the War of Irish Independence. His family, hardly, saw him as he was, constantly, hiding in different parts of the South West during the war with the Black and Tans. However, I managed to trace some detail. He is remembered in Monemohill for being s killed marksman. From Kelly’s Cross, he fired a crack shot, a quarter of a mile down the hill hitting a tree past the river. He was practising shooting with another Volunteer known as the “Tureen Man” who had a wooden leg. Practically, Michael Kelly was a farm labourer, although a farmer by status. His dwelling was on a small field at Kelly’s Cross but the house is no longer in existence. The reason can be explained later. There was, also, a hole in the field where he hid from the Black and Tans. There is a photograph of Michael Kelly taken when he was eighteen years of age between 1919 and 1920. He is sitting on the grass in Volunteer’s uniform with a local girl. We do not know the name of this girl but assumptions have been made that she was Chrissie McCarthy, one of the local nurses during the war. She, later, wrote to him after he had immigrated to London. This picture would not have been pleasing to his wife, Margaret, and may explain the crease on the photograph. There is, also, documentary evidence written by his sister, Mary. “The Major” had a first cousin named Michael Geoghegan (the maiden name of Michael Kelly’s mother). During the War of Irish Independence, Mr. Geoghegan played the piano in celebration in the Walsh’s pub of which is now known as the Shannon House in Foynes. “The Major” walked through the door with his comrades after the Knocklong Ambush.
Another incident occurred on 30th March 1920 near Loughill. It is believed that Michael Kelly was close to Sean Finn, the Commander of the West Limerick Brigade. But one evening, Sean Finn was hiding in Woodcliffe near Loughill. He sought refuge in the house of Patrick Danaher, my great grand uncle. The following day, the Black and Tans arrived following a tip off from an informer. Not far from the house, a battle took place. Jack Tom O’Connor was there and he could have saved Sean Finn’s life, but this was not the case according to my sources. The Commander of the West Limerick Brigade was killed by the Black and Tans. It is safe to presume that Michael Kelly, who was based in Ballyhahill, would be in the thick of the fighting. The Ballyhahill Volunteers retreated to Kerry after the fighting ceased. During his hide out in Kerry, Michael met his future wife, Margaret. Relatives of the “Major” including Tom Walsh from Foynes and a distant relative named Captain Tim Madigan from Shanagolden were, also, killed by the Black and Tans.
Other anecdotal evidence can be found on his activities in the Irish Civil War. “The Major” opposed the Treaty and joined the Anti – Treaty IRA, soon to be known as the “Irregulars.” There are many reasons for his decision on this matter but he was known in the family as a proud Communist and even sang songs like “We keep the Red Flag flying here.” According to our information, there were many Communists in the IRA at that time, especially since the great strike in the local city known as the “Limerick Soviet” in 1919. Many of the creamery workers were unionised and there were dairy co – operatives, particularly, in Shanagolden, Monemohill and Ballyhahill. With such workplaces becoming unionised, Communist feeling became very strong amongst the workers in the countryside of Limerick including the majority of farmers and farm labourers who lived in squalid conditions. Michael Kelly is remembered as a colourful character and popular with the local community. As he lived the hard life of a farm labourer, it is not surprising that he chose to be a Communist. He could not accept the idea of swearing an oath to the King and recognising the six counties as part of the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, he was later to be denied the right to Holy Communion as the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated those “Irregulars” who refused to lay down their arms. However, Michael, always, maintained that he was excommunicated, mainly, for his Communist beliefs. There is a well known quote in Ballyhahill. When the anti – treaty forces were declared “Irregulars” by the Irish Free State government, Michael was drinking with his friends and raised a glass with one of his closest fighting comrades, John Nolan, stating that “We are the regular irregulars!”
As soon as the British troops started with drawing in January 1922, the IRA took up positions in the barracks. Limerick was the first county to attempt insurrection against the newly Irish Free State Army in January 1922 but a ceasefire was maintained by the new leader of the Anti – Treaty forces, Liam Lynch. In Foynes, the Irish Free State Army Barracks in Foynes (next to Shanagolden) was set on fire. All the key towns in West Limerick were captured by the anti – Treaty forces before the Civil War started in June. The Republic of Munster was declared and the many of the so called “Irregulars” took up positions in Limerick City. By the end of June, there was a fierce battle in the city, itself. According to the pension application records, my great uncle was there in the thick of the fighting. After much shelling from the field guns borrowed from the British Army, sniping and loss of lives, Limerick City was captured by the Free State Army General, Eoin O’Duffy (future leader of the Fascist Blue Shirts). The West Limerick forces retreated through Adare, Rathkeale and Newcastle West where Michael Kelly was stationed in the Castle Mansion. By August 7th, the Irish Free State Army attacked Newcastle West. The Castle Mansion was shelled by an eighteen – pound field gun, a mile away. Michael Kelly used to refer to this event during emotional moments after a few drinks. He would explain with mournful eyes that he was trapped in the castle with his comrades.
His commanding officer at this time was Lieutenant Jim Collins who later became Fianna Fail TD and was father of Gerry Collins (a cabinet minister to Charles Haughey and Albert Reynolds) as well as Niall Collins (the current TD for West Limerick/North Kerry). They managed to escape from the Castle Mansion in which they became fugitives. Michael Kelly was, eventually, captured in November and was imprisoned in Limerick Jail of which, still, exists today in the city. He spent 7 months in this jail with John Nolan who managed to escape by tunnel in May. After this particular escape, Michael was transported to Tin Town Prison Camp. This prison is now the military barracks of Kildare and was often referred to as “Ireland’s Gulag.” The names of Michael Kelly and his closest comrade, Jack (John) Dowling are recorded in the ledger of Tin Town Prison Camp which is held at Cathal Brugha Barracks. Jack Dowling is one of the many prisoners who escaped on October 15th 1922. According to the family, Jack escaped by tunnel and fled to the United States. But the historical records provided some very interesting information. 73 people escaped at that time. Peadar O’Donnell, the leader of the Communists in the Anti – Treaty Irregulars and future IRA Chief of Staff, planned the escape. The tunnel was secretly built in his hut. But Peadar was moved to Kilmainham Gaol before the escape took place. It is possible that Jack and Michael were followers of Peadar O’Donnell, especially as “The Major” was a devoted Communist.
Conditions in the Curragh of Kildare were squalid and harsh. The prisoners were promised an early release if they signed a declaration renouncing Republicanism forever. Many of them including Michael Kelly refused to do this. During October and November 1923, Michael Kelly joined the many prisoners in resorting to hunger strike. According to the records, he did not eat for 15 days. Although this tactic failed to achieve the Republican aim of a 32 county Irish Republic, the vast majority of prisoners were released without signing the declaration. According to the ledger, “The Major” was released on December 20th 1923. There is another photograph that illustrates this event. He is looking distraught and standing beside a soldier in Irish Free State uniform. On the back of the photograph, is a sarcastic message in red: “This is your Christmas card, Mick Kelly.” As photographs were a rarity in those days, it is obvious that Michael was a marked man. The message could be a hint that if he dared to defy the Irish Free State again, he would be executed.
The agony in Ireland was still to continue after the Irish Civil War ended. Michael was to return home to Monemohill to mourn the death of his younger brother, John Kelly, who was drowned swimming in the River Deel. This death occurred in 1922 and Michael did not receive the news till a year later whilst he was in prison.
More disastrous news was on the way. Kellys’ house caught fire and the family moved to another house, half way down the road. According to rumours in the village, the fire house was the result of a revenge attack. We do not know if it was the work of Irish Free State sympathisers after the IRA had burnt many houses during the guerrilla phase of the Irish Civil War. Times in Monemohill became very bad. We can guess that Michael Kelly was being constantly watched by the authorities and would have been questioned of his whereabouts if a Republican incident occurred. It was not until 1926 that he, finally, left Ireland for London. My grandmother and my great – aunt, Mary Kelly joined up with Michael in 1927. According to Michael’s daughters, he had enough of “brother killing brother” in Ireland, which prompted him to emigrate. No doubt, this emigration was during the time of a failed insurrection by the IRA, resulting in the death two policemen and the later assassination of the Irish Taoiseach, Kevin O’Higgins.
Sadly, Michael and his wife, Margaret had very bitter memories indeed since they left Ireland after the Civil War. Many Irish people from the South West of Ireland could not forget the tragedy of the Ballyseedy Massacre in Kerry (home county of Michael Kelly’s wife) as well as many examples of the brutal treatment inflicted by the Irish Free State troops. This massacre occurred when a number of IRA prisoners were tied to a landmine in 1923 and blown to pieces. In addition, the Irish government was hiring a hit squad killing Republicans till 1928. It is no wonder that Michael Kelly fled from Ireland!
Although Michael spent the rest of his years in London as a resident of Camden, he applied for the medal and war pension, three times. During the first two occasions, his first two applications were rejected, even by Eamon De Valera’s administration in the 1940s. But finally, he was awarded the medal by the President of Ireland, Sean Thomas Kelly in 1958. However, the award was two and a half years before he died of stomach cancer and, sadly, did not receive the war pension.
On June 19th, 1961, Michael Kelly died. His wife died many years later in 1995. They are both buried in St. Pancras Cemetary, London. In spite of everything else, “Major” Kelly should, always, be remembered as one of the most brave and formidable fighters who laid the foundations of an independent Ireland. Without courageous people like him, where would Ireland be today? It is for this reason that I am proud to descended from one of the many heroic men in the Ballyhahill Division who fought for Irish freedom.