Wars and Rumours of Wars: Ballycorkey Bridge, May 1921

Ballycorkey Bridge, which crosses the River Inny about halfway between Rathowen and Ballynacargy, was the site of a May 1921 ambush of a Royal Irish Constabulary patrol.

On 7 May 1921, at Ballycorkey Bridge, which crosses the River Inny about halfway between Rathowen and Ballynacargy, a party of police was attacked by members of the IRA’s Longford Brigade, incorporating elements of ‘B’ (Ballynacargy) Company, 1 Battalion, Mullingar Brigade. An exchange of fire ensued, lasting an hour before the ambushing party withdrew due to the arrival of Crown reinforcements.

From contemporary newspapers and police files, we know that the IRA wounded at least one member of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Discharge papers for Constable James Clarke show that he sustained bullet wounds in the abdomen, left hip, right shoulder and right radius, with the latter wound causing muscular weakness and a loss of movement in his right hand.

Clarke (34), the son of a shopkeeper from Finea with fourteen years’ service in the constabulary, was deemed ‘non-effective’ on his return to work and was discharged at the recommendation of the RIC’s surgeon-general on 19 October 1921, receiving a pension of £140, 8s, 0d.

In the wake of the Ballycorkey ambush, Crown forces embarked on several raids around Rathowen and made three arrests, including two brothers by the name of Kelly. According to the RIC’s county inspector in Mullingar, documents presumably discovered in these raids revealed that IRA companies had been ‘ordered to appoint an Intelligence officer who is to furnish reports so that the activity of the company can be checked’. The Ballycorkey attack, the inspector concluded, was an effort to ‘galvanise the rank and file’ in the area into ‘greater activity’; for this reason, the storied Longford Brigade was drafted in to spearhead the action.

Ballycorkey, then, was clearly an effort to shore up IRA activity in north Westmeath, where there was no functioning flying column, and where several of the most active officers had been arrested. Also, unlike the Athlone Brigade area, no signature ambushes had been carried out. But even in south Westmeath, IRA activity had atrophied by April 1921 to the extent that the brigade OC, Seamus O’Meara, believed a ‘collapse of the movement’ was imminent, requiring an urgent intervention from the IRA’s general headquarters. GHQ could be scathing about inactive brigades, as they were about those in neighbouring Offaly, for example. There was, therefore, intense pressure on IRA officers, particularly at such an advanced and intense stage of the conflict, to produce results.

Fake news, 1921 style

This context is important when you consider a report of the Ballycorkey engagement which was relayed to a journalist working for the Press Association, and reproduced in various newspapers across Ireland, including the Ulster Herald of 10 May. Here, it was stated that near Ballynacargy, a ‘brisk fusillade’ had taken place between ten policemen and an IRA party numbering about fifty. While it was correctly reported that a constable was ‘dangerously wounded’, the PA dispatch also claimed that a police sergeant by the name of Murray had been shot dead, and that furthermore, the RIC barracks in Rathowen had been attacked and burned to the ground.

Murray’s “death” was among those recorded by the police historian Richard Abbott in his compendium Police Casualties in Ireland, 1919-1922 (Cork, 2000). Abbott’s painstaking research includes service numbers for each policeman, Black and Tan and Auxiliary among his catalogue of death, but not so for Sgt Murray; indeed, Abbott concedes: ‘No further details in relation to this incident or the Sergeant could be found’. While Murray certainly existed – he is mentioned in the Westmeath Examiner as a witness at a May 1921 sitting of Rathowen petty sessions – reports of his demise, and that of the barracks he worked in, were greatly exaggerated. It is feasible that, like Constable Clarke, he was wounded in the ambush; in August 1921, both men sought compensation from Mullingar District Council for ‘malicious personal injuries’, both of which were ignored by the council. But this aside, all details of the PA report, apart from the wounding of Clarke, were dismissed as unfounded rumours by the Granard correspondent of the Freeman’s Journal in its 10 May edition. Was the Press Association fed an embellished account of the ambush by the IRA locally, in order to give GHQ the impression that a deadlier action had taken place?

Efforts to play down what had happened at Ballycorkey and Rathowen on 7 May were led by the local parish priest, who emphatically condemned the ambush from the pulpit and stated, with confidence, that nobody from his parish was involved. However, IRA brigade activity reports compiled for the Army Pensions Board over a decade and a half later state that two Rathowen men, John Gannon and Daniel McNamara, took part in the action. McNamara, a captain of the Rathaspic company attached to the Longford Brigade, had turned eighteen just a few weeks before the engagement.

The brigade activity reports are not an unproblematic source for assessing key events in the War of Independence. Historian Marie Coleman has stated that ‘glaring inaccuracies’ in the Longford reports ‘raise serious concerns about the[ir] overall reliability’. Dr Coleman cites memory lapses and the ‘general confusion’ wrought by the conflict as possible causes, or at worst, political stroke-pulling designed to secure pensions for old comrades. In the case of Ballycorkey, however, the former scenario is the most plausible. For example, veterans mentioned nothing about either the actual wounding of Constable Clarke – which would surely have elevated the importance of the ambush in the eyes of pensions adjudicators – or the imagined killing of Sgt Murray. Notably, the number of men named as having taken part in the action – nineteen in all – varies substantially from the fifty cited in Press Association reports of the time.


Brigade activity reports for Longford Brigade IRA (file A/70, Military Service Pensions Collection, Irish Military Archives); membership rolls for Rathaspic and Streete/Rathowen companies, 4 and 6 Battalions, Longford Brigade (files RO/579 and RO/580A, Military Service Pensions Collection, Irish Military Archives); Royal Irish Constabulary county inspector’s report for Westmeath, May 1921 (‘British in Ireland’ CO 904 series, file CO 904/115, Maynooth University); discharge papers and pension records for Constable James Clarke (UK National Archives Royal Irish Constabulary service records, HO 184/218, available on FindMyPast.ie); 1901/1911 census records (http://census.nationalarchives.ie); civil birth/death registers at IrishGenealogy.ie; Bureau of Military History statement of Seamus O’Meara, WS 1504 (Irish Military Archives; Westmeath Examiner, 14 May/20 August 1921; Ulster Herald, 10 May 1921; Freeman’s Journal, 10 May 1921; Marie Coleman, ‘The Longford Brigade Activity Report and the reliability of archival evidence’, in Cécile Gordon et al. (eds), The Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection: the Brigade Activity Reports (Dublin, 2018), pp 124-49; Michael Hopkinson, The Irish War of Independence (Dublin, 2002), p. 146; Richard Abbott, Police Casualties in Ireland, 1919-1922 (Cork, 2000), p. 231.

Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 04/05/2021