The Irish Volunteers founded in Dublin in 1913, soon spread to most parts of the country. They were welcomed in Newport, as the old Fenian tradition was very much alive, and the I.R.B. was still very active.
Michael Kilroy is on record as saying, that the 1916 leader, Sean McDermott, once told him "that Newport-Tiernaur, Kilmeena, and a parish in Tipperary, where the best organised I.R.B. centres in Ireland in the early part of the century".
1916 came and plans were in place for Connaught to play a big part, as the arms from the German arms ship the Aud were to be siphoned through Limerick to the West. The Aud was lost and the cancellation of manoeuvres caused Connaught to take no part, except Galway under Liam Mellowes. The reorganisation of the Volunteers started in 1917 and now their aim was to carry on the fight started in 1916.
The companies were formed into Battle Battalions and Battalions into Brigades. Newport, Westport, Louisburgh and Castlebar formed the West Mayo Brigade. Michael Kilroy was appointed O.C. and Ned Lyons replaced Michael Kilroy as O.C. Newport. When he was arrested in October 1920, Josie Doherty replaced him.
The arrival of the Black and Tans made life very difficult for the people and a Black and Tan District Inspector named Fudge, stationed in Newport, went around with a group of Tans and terrorised the countryside. He usually operated at night and scarcely a village escaped his raids. Many houses in Glenhest were wrecked by his gang and in Cuilmore, Owen Keane, Tom Lyons and Stephen McGough were very badly beaten and had their homes wrecked. An ambush was prepared at Kilbride to kill him one night, but it failed.
During the early summer 1921 many ambush positions were held but the enemy never obliged. On the evening of May 18th 1921, Michael Kilroy sent a patrol of eight men into Westport, to attack any enemy in sight. At the same time, he sent Josie Doherty, O.C. Newport Battalion, with Jim Moran, Michael Gallagher and Jim Brown, into Newport. The Newport Patrol took up a position on Carrabaun, overlooking the R.I.C. Barracks, and during the day Sergeant Butler was killed. When Michael Kilroy heard the news he immediately moved the entire column of 41 men to Clooneen Cross in Kilmeena. He anticipated enemy troops moving from Westport to Newport. The column was armed with 22 rifles, 16 shotguns and 3 with shortarms. They took up positions in the early dawn and waited. At 3 pm two lorries and a car were sighted. The first lorry sped through the ambush position and was fired on without much effect. The second lorry and car halted at the priest's house, from where they directed heavy rifle and machine-gun fire on the IRA position. The IRA changed their position, to the fence at a right angle to the road, from where they fired on the Black and Tans.
The first lorry, which had gone towards Newport, pulled up at Rossduane School, and the soldiers made their way back up the railway line to O'Flynn's house, from where they had a clear view of the IRA lines against the fence. A machine gun at O'Flynn's was trained on the IRA column with devastating effect, and in a few minutes, several where killed and wounded. Seamus McEvilly, Paddy Jordan, John Collins, Tom O'Donnell and Pat Staunton where killed. The wounded included Paddy Connolly, Paddy Molloy, James Swift, Michael Hughes, John Chambers, John Cannon and T. Nolan. One Tan was killed and a number wounded.
The Newport men who fought at Kilmeena were;
While the battle was still on, Fr. Killeen, C.C. Mulranny and Fr. Walsh C.C. Kilmeena went on to the field and anointed the dead and wounded. Caught between two fires, Kilroy ordered a retreat, and carrying some of the wounded they reached Aughagowla village where Dr Madden and Nurse Lottie Joyce of Clogher tended the wounded. Later that night, the broken column made their way to Skirdagh village, where they were made welcome. Dr Madden took the wounded to McDonnells and Dyras of Upper Skirdagh and in McDonnells he amputated two toes of the wounded Swift.
The early morning of May 23rd found the men asleep in the houses of Lower Skirdagh, while sentries kept watch. Kilroy, Jim Moran and Jack Connolly where at McDonnells of Upper Skirdagh. Dr Madden was with the wounded in Dyras when a rapid volley of rifle fire broke the morning stillness. The sentry had seen a party of Tans and police near the village after making their way down the back road.
Kilroy immediately ordered Jim Moran and Dr Madden to remove the wounded to safety while he and Connolly made their way to the source of the firing, where most of the men were billeted. Before they got to the men, they were fired on by the Tans and police lining the fence. Caught in the open, with no cover, they replied to the fire and kept them at bay. The rest of the Column took cover but Jim Brown of Kilmeena was fatally wounded as he crossed the river.
Kilroy and Connolly where in a tight spot, as one of the Tans caught Pat O'Malley's horse and galloped into Newport for help. Kilroy and Connolly prevented the enemy from advancing but their ammunition was almost gone, when Dr Madden, from a better position opened rapid fire and gave the two men time to retreat. The fight continued and, as reinforcements came, the IRA men pulled back into the safety of the hills.
By now, 40 lorries of soldiers were at Skirdagh School, and others had gone to Shramore. Five hundred men advanced up the hill in extended formation, and at the same time, they raked the hills with rifle and machine gun fire. The IRA men watched from a safe distance until night fell and then they slipped through enemy lines and made their way to Glenisland and on to Aughagower.
After the retreat from Skirdagh, the entire Column came together again at Aughagower. On June 2nd at Carrowkennedy, they attacked two lorries of RIC and tans, numbering 25. The fight lasted for several hours, until the entire enemy force surrendered, after 12 were killed and a number wounded. The IRA had no casualties and they collected 25 rifles, 25 revolvers, a Lewis machine-gun, 5000 rounds of ammunition and boxes of bombs.
The truce came a few weeks later, the treaty was signed, and the Civil War was about to start.
Most of the West Mayo Column opposed the treaty and they seized most of the Mayo towns for the Republicans. Joe Ring and four Westport men from the old IRA column joined the Free State Army.
Kilroy, now a General and OC of the 4th Western Division, took over the Castlebar Barracks and made his headquarters there.
General Tom Maguire, OC of the 2nd Western Division was against the treaty, as was General Liam Pilkington of Sligo, OC of the 3rd Western Division.
he Republican forces held Castlebar and prepared to prevent General McKeon's troops from reaching the town. Word came that Free State troops had landed by boat at Westport and that the town was taken without a fight, as was Newport. When Kilroy heard that Mckeon's men had reached Claremorris, he pulled his men out and made his way back to the hills North of Newport. He set up headquarters in Anthony Gibbons house of Fauleens, while Brigade headquarters was in Thomas Morans of Callowbrack.
The IRA made life difficult for the troops in Newport and every day fired on the town from the hills. The logistics of feeding a large force of men was a problem, so cattle were seized from Lord Sligo's land. They were then killed and the meat was divided among the houses where the IRA were being sheltered.
On August 27, 1922 the IRA column assembled at Michael Gormans house in Doontrusk. Father Killeen C.C., Mulranny heard their confessions and each man received Holy Communion during the Mass that he said. He also did this on two more occasions. In October the Catholic Bishops meeting in Maynooth issued a Pastoral letter, which decreed that anyone taking up arms against the state would be denied the rights of the Church. The Republican army, from then on, did not attend Mass or receive the Sacraments, until late in 1924, when, during a mission in Newport and Mulranny, a priest heard their confessions. Tom Barry is on record telling of; "a priest who was called to an ambush scene, where Free State and IRA men were wounded. He anointed the Free State troops, refused the last rights to the IRA men, and only did so at the point of Barry's gun".
On Sunday, August 27th, 15 young women were arrested in Newport on their way home from Mass. They were held for several hours by the Free State troops and were only released after intervention by the priests. Among those arrested were the McNulty sisters of Glendahurk, Mary Agnes Reilly, Kilbride Nellie Feehan, Rossow and Agnes Gibbons. On that same Sunday a sortie of Free State troops attempted to surround an IRA post on Convent Hill which was commanded by Jack Connolly, Dan O'Donnell, Jim Clinton and J. Reilly. They where repulsed and seven of their troops were wounded, four seriously.
On September 12th a Republican force of 35 riflemen under Michael Kilroy, with an armoured car, attacked Ballina town. After a stiff fight, Ballina was captured, along with its garrison of one hundred and thirty seven men. The soldiers where released after all the arms and ammunition were confiscated. With twenty men, Kilroy set out for Newport by the North Coast Road. The North Mayo men left for the Ox Mountains, and in an engagement with the troops coming to the relief of Ballina, Colonel Joe Ring of Westport was killed.
When it became known that Kilroy had only 20 men with him, a force of one hundred soldiers was sent in pursuit, and caught up with him in Glenamoy. In the fight that followed, 15 Free State soldiers were killed and wounded, and the others surrendered. The IRA group continued towards Newport, where they met reinforcements under Dr Madden coming to their aid. Hearing that Kilroy and his men were on the way, the Free State troops hurriedly left the town for Westport. Newport was again in Republican hands.
At this time, Newport town was isolated, as the bridges at Rossow and Buckfield road and rail were blown up, as were the bridges on the Castlebar Road, Derryloughan and Glenhest. Supplies were very low in the area. Kilroy sent Commandant Joe Baker and a number of men out to the islands. They captured a boat containing 300 tons of flour destined for Westport. They brought it to Newport where it was distributed among the people.
On October 26th, a fully equipped IRA active service unit, comprising of 4 Ford cars, 3 lorries and 39 cyclists, with the armoured car, left Newport. They made their way to Clifden which had a large force of soldiers. The battle for Clifden lasted for eight and a half hours, before the garrison surrendered. The IRA where under the command of Peter J McDonnell and Jack Feehan, as Michael Kilroy was attending a meeting of the IRA executive in the Nire Valley in Waterford.
On November 1st, an IRA column of twenty men left Newport and in the Brockagh/Fahy area where engaged by about two hundred and fifty Free State soldiers, who were advancing from Westport. The IRA were under the command of Commandant Jack Connolly and seeing the strength of the Free State army, Connolly ordered a retreat. He himself, with two of his men, opened fire to enable his men to escape. In a short time he was surrounded and captured. Having been disarmed, he was fired on at point blank range by a Free State officer but luckily, he missed. The officer then turned his attention to Anthony Keane, who was shot in the stomach. Arrested that day were; Connolly, Anthony Keane, Mick Gibbons, Ned Murray and Pat Lyons. Pat Mulchrone, a local man, who was unarmed, was shot dead by the same Free State officer who shot Keane. Keane was taken to Castlebar Hospital, from where he escaped. Connolly and the rest were sent to Galway jail. Connolly later scaled the jail wall, and escaped.
Later a Free State column was ambushed at Cuilmore, at Martin Kelly's house, from an IRA position on Mullarkeys hill. A number of soldiers were wounded.
On the night of the 23rd of November 1922, General Michael Kilroy held a meeting of his divisional staff in Carrowbeg House. The meeting was to brief his officers on their strategy, for the expected advance of Free State troops. Michael Kilroy, Jack Feehan and J.J. Leonard where asleep when a messenger from Feehan's of Rossow awoke them to say that the Free State troops were advancing towards Newport. An IRA column, under Paul Reilly, was in position in Kilmeena, but the Free State troops had slipped through in the dark.
General Kilroy, Feehan and Leonard immediately ran to take up a position at Kilbride, at the fence between Frank Chambers and Peter McManamon's. When the Free State soldiers reached Ryders in Kilbride they were stopped by heavy fire from the three riflemen. The soldiers took cover and opened fire with a heavy machine gun on the IRA position which soon proved untenable. Leaving Feehan and Leonard to keep the soldiers from advancing, Kilroy crossed the road and railway line into Dyras field. He advanced further into Ryders which brought him to within 300 yards of the soldiers. From this position, he exchanged fire for some time before he fell back under heavy fire. He retreated down towards the railway line, where again he exchanged shots with the soldiers. Here his luck ran out and he was wounded and captured. 4 Free State soldiers were killed and a number were wounded. The dead soldiers were; Captain Joseph Ruddy, Captain Joe Walsh, Private Woods and Private McEllin. Joe Walsh had been a member of Kilroy's Flying Column in the Black and Tan War.
Ryders cart was commandeered to bring the dead to Westport. General Kilroy was also brought to Westport and on to Castlebar, before being transferred to Mountjoy Jail.
While the attack from the Westport side was being fought another column of 500 soldiers, under General Lawlor and General Symons, advanced from Castlebar. They were heavily armed, with several machine guns and an 18 pound field gun.
The IRA were expecting the attack and had in position 80 riflemen, with a Lewis machine gun. They took up a position on the hill overlooking the mill on the Castlebar Road, which stretched from Convent Hill to Bleachyard, with Peter Kilroy's house on Barrack Hill in the centre of the position.
The Free State soldiers advanced with great caution until they came to the mill bridge where they met a withering fire from the IRA lines. The battle raged from early morning until darkness fell. A sustained attack forced the IRA to pull back from their positions to the Workhouse Hill, where they came under fire from the field gun. The Free State troops crossed the river and took possession of Newport town.
The IRA suffered no casualties, while the Free State troops lost more than thirty five men, between dead and wounded.
On the 26th of November 1922, General Lawlor's report to Headquarters stated; "he had taken Newport town and occupied Mulranny, Shramore and Glenhest." He notes that he had two hundred and fifty six men in town, all wet to the waist, most to the armpits, from fording the river under fire. It was raining. There were few beds, so he gave every man a glass of whisky, a quarter loaf, a quarter tin of bully beef and he built big fires to dry the men. The IRA held their position until the following day when they fell back to McDonnells of Upper Skirdagh.
An IRA column, under Commandant Joe Baker and Jim Moran were resting in Buckagh on 23rd February, 1923 when word was received that a Free State force was in Shramore, and had arrested a number of Shramore men. Baker and his men set up an ambush position over Treenbeg School, and attacked the returning soldiers. The fight lasted several hours and a young soldier was killed and a medical orderly going to his aid was seriously wounded. The officer in charge, Captain Colleran, called a truce and sent a young schoolboy - Paddy McGovern, with a white flag, to the IRA position to ask if they had a doctor with them. He hoped Dr Madden might be with them but he was not and the young medic died. His name was McQuaid and years later his brother became Archbishop of Dublin.
On the 7th of March 1923, an IRA column, under Joe Baker, was billeted in Buckagh. They received information that Free State soldiers were on their way in large numbers. Baker and his men moved to the Skirdagh Hills, and here they found themselves surrounded, and under heavy fire from all sides. Jim Moran was killed, and after consultation, the Column surrendered, although a number escaped.
Baker and his men were marched into Newport, while Jim Morans body was brought in on a cart, and later coffined by Jack Quinn. The captured men were taken to Galway jail, where they were court marshalled, and sentenced to death. The death sentence would have certainly been carried out had not 60 prominent Free State supporters been warned that if any of Baker's men were executed, they would all be killed. Archbishop Gilmartin sent Dean Dalton to Furnace, where he met P J McDonnell and Jack Feehan in Mrs Noone's house, who assured him the threat was serious. A short time later, six young men from South Mayo were taken from Galway jail to Tuam, and executed. The Newport men, under sentence of death were; Tom Cleary, Mick McDonnell, John Tom Maloney, Mick Horan, Willie McNulty, Willie Burke, Willie Walsh, Paddy Conway, Jack Clarke and Jim O'Donnell. The war ended shortly afterwards and no more executions took place. The ending saved the Newport men.
In July 1923 Kevin O'Higgins Minister for Foreign Affairs, stated in the Dail. At that time there were 11,367 republican prisoners in jails, and among them where 250 women prisoners, also the Free State Army had 60,000 men under arms.
Conditions for the prisoners were very bad, and after unrest in Mountjoy, Michael Kilroy as senior officer in the Jail, called a general hunger strike, which lasted for 41 days.
Ernie O'Malley, one of the hunger strikers, gives a horrific account of the strike in his book "The Singing Flame".
The prison chaplain refused to give Communion to the prisoners, and after a visit to her husband, Mrs Nan Kilroy, on her husband's instruction, went to Cardinal Logue and complained about the Church attitude to the prisoners and immediately the chaplain gave the men Communion, although some refused to receive.
Michael Kilroy escaped from jail and in 1924 most of the prisoners were released and, as little work was available, many emigrated to America.