Shortly before 8am on the morning of Sunday, 12 June 1921, fifty-three-year-old Royal Irish Constabulary head constable James McElhill was on duty at the local police barracks in Kilbeggan.
McElhill (b. 1868), a Catholic and a single man from a farming family in Co. Tyrone, was the first of a number of policemen to leave the barracks for morning Mass. Also getting ready to leave were Sergeant John Prunty and Constable Patrick Gibbons. At around 7.50am, McElhill called into the dayroom of the barracks and asked Prunty for the time, before heading on his way.
Moments later, Prunty and Gibbons, having left for Mass, heard the sound of ten to twelve gunshots in rapid succession, coming from the direction of St James’s Church. ‘We could see no Police but people running in all directions,’ Prunty recalled. Perhaps unarmed and unwilling to walk into a firefight, Prunty – only recently promoted to sergeant, and transferred from Rochfortbridge – went straight to the local courthouse, where a detachment of 1st Battalion, the East Yorkshire Regiment was based, under the command of Lt Arthur S. Bultitude. Gibbons, meanwhile, returned to the police barracks to alert his colleagues.
On reaching the church, Prunty and the soldiers found McElhill lying on the ground wounded in several places and ‘in great pain, with a crowd of women and children round him trying to assist him’. Prunty sent for the local doctor, Walter Mooney, who on arrival found Head Constable McElhill to be in ‘severe shock caused by multiple gunshot wounds... fired from four or five yards away’. Dr Mooney also found a copper-sheathed expended bullet near the wounded constable’s thigh, which had shattered his right femur. A correspondent for the Weekly Freeman’s Journal stated that McElhill had been ‘hit in six places, including the leg, chest and back of the head’.
McElhill, questioned by Constable Peter R. Jack, told his colleagues that he had been attacked by about ten men who had fired at him from a laneway on the approach to the church. He could not recognise his assailants, and did not know if they were masked.
The police moved McElhill to a nearby house where he was attended to by Dr Mooney and the last rites administered by Rev. Frs Cassidy, P.P., and Glynn, C.C., Kilbeggan. He was removed to hospital in Mullingar, where he died around 10am the same morning.
The following day, a court of military enquiry was convened by the 1st East Yorkshire Regiment in its Mullingar headquarters, with Major G. S. Douglas presiding. After hearing evidence, the court concluded that McElhill had died as a result of an internal haemorrhage caused by gunshot wounds, and proclaimed a verdict of wilful murder against ‘some Person or persons unknown’.
Kilbeggan was the final stop in a thirty-two-year career for Head Constable McElhill. He first joined the force as a twenty-year-old in November 1888, and was posted to Limerick (1889), before moving to Monaghan in 1896. He was stationed in Antrim when he made sergeant in 1906, and received his promotion to head constable in June 1920. On 7 November of that year, he was reassigned to Kilbeggan under the direction of District Inspector Victor Corbett, as part of police reinforcements in what was viewed by Crown forces as one of Westmeath’s most disturbed districts.
McElhill’s claim before his death that he had been attacked by at least ten men is noteworthy in light of the release by the Military Archives of the brigade activity reports (BARs), as part of the Military Service Pensions Collection. The killing of McElhill is documented as part of an account of activities of the Irish Republican Army’s Offaly No. 1 Brigade, under the command of which the Kilbeggan Company fell. IRA veterans recalled that five Volunteers led by Offaly No. 1 Brigade officer and Kilbeggan man Sean McGuinness were involved in the shooting, four of them directly so.
With McGuinness was fellow Kilbeggan man Christopher Bastick and Tullamore Volunteers Martin Connell and Thomas Berry, with Patrick Crowley, Kilbeggan Company, functioning as a scout. McElhill was shot by the IRA party from close quarters before being disarmed by Berry, who had to cut a lanyard to remove the policeman’s revolver. Curiously, the brigade activity reports state that McElhill was en route to 11am Mass when he was shot, whereas contemporary reports suggest that the shooting took place shortly before 8am Mass. This illustrates the care which must be taken when employing the BARs as a primary source, and underlines the need to combine them with other sources.
The shooting came weeks after a British cavalry sweep of the Kilbeggan area, during which McGuinness – a battalion-level IRA officer who was active across the entire Offaly No. 1 Brigade area during the War of Independence – managed to avoid arrest. Both Offaly brigades were under intense pressure from the IRA’s General Headquarters (GHQ) for their perceived lack of activity in the war against Crown forces, and it is against this backdrop that the targeted killing of McElhill took place.
McGuinness (1899-1978), the son of a schoolteacher and a native of Main Street, Kilbeggan, was one of three brothers involved in the IRA. He took part in the unsuccessful ambush of RIC and Black and Tans at Newtown Cross, between Kilbeggan and Tyrrellspass, in March 1921, as well as a number of other Offaly No. 1 Brigade operations. Having survived the war and evaded arrest, he took the anti-Treaty side in the civil war, and was later elected as a republican TD for Leix-Offaly.
McGuinness’s Kilbeggan comrades also involved in the shooting, Bastick (23) and Crowley (19), were from farming and labouring backgrounds, and hailed from the townlands of Clongowly and Tonaphort. Bastic later went to Australia, and died at a young age.
Brigade activity reports for Offaly No. 1 Brigade, IRA (file A17, Military Service Pensions Collection, Irish Military Archives); court of enquiry into the death of Head Constable James McElhill (Courts of enquiry in lieu of inquest files, WO 35/154/42, UK National Archives; available at FindMyPast.ie); Westmeath Examiner, 23 Mar. 2019; Weekly Freeman’s Journal, 18 June 1921; Richard Abbott, Police Casualties in Ireland, 1919-1922 (Cork, 2000), p. 255
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 16/06/2021
This article was published on: 16th June, 2021
Filed under: Decade of Centenary