During an IRA ambush at Kilmeena, County Mayo in May 1921 a Belfast man in the flying column of the IRA’s 3rd Battalion, West Mayo Brigade, John Collins, was fatally wounded. He was buried in the republican plot in Castlebar, but who was John Collins?
On 18th May 1921, a flying column of the 3rd Battalion of the IRA’s West Mayo Brigade opened fire on the RIC in Newport hoping to draw them out into an ambush. An IRA sniper killed RIC Sergeant Francis Butler during the attack. Commanded by Michael Kilroy, but minus some of its Westport contingent (and many of its rifles), the forty-one men of the flying column had then set themselves up in an ambush position along the main Newport-Westport road the next morning at Kilmeena to await any reinforcements from either the RIC itself or from its Special Reserve (i.e. the Black and Tans). The ambush anticipated Crossley Tenders appearing from the Westport direction. According to one account the first Crossley Tender that appeared was driving quite close to a carload of nuns and had almost passed the position before the IRA could open fire. A second had been maintaining a gap of about a quarter mile and so was in a position to observe the initial ambush and halt. I’ve included a map from The Flame and The Candle below, you can also view where the ambush unfolded here. The Military Archives have digitised a map showing the positions taken during the ambush (see here) and are in the process of releasing more details through its Brigade Activity series (keep an eye on http://www.militaryarchives.ie for more information).
Kilroy had positioned flank guards several hundred meters out on either side but the main body of the flying column was brought under fire by the RIC who had dismounted from both lorries, effectively pinning them to their position on the eastern side of the road. While the RIC were able to bring a Lewis gun into action, there was sufficient cover on the southern (Westport) side that the main threat was from the RIC to the north. That detachment managed to work itself and its Lewis gun into a position where it could enfilade the front line of Kilroy’s flying column forcing them to fall back to the cover of the field behind and inflicting at least one fatal casualty on the flying column.
The IRA unit had been pinned down here for an hour when John Collins was shot in the chest. Paddy O’Malley did his best to help him but as the RIC began to fire rifle grenades into their flanks and main position, Kilroy had his men retreat back field by field until they were able to make good their escape before the whole position was outflanked (Paddy O’Malley was wounded during the retreat – he also had to stay behind and was captured). When a local priest, who lived nearby, arrived at the scene to attend the wounded he found Seamus McEvilly already dead and John Collins and two others (Pat Staunton and Thomas O’Donnell) with what he called only ‘a flicker of life’. All three quickly succumbed to their wounds. A fifth IRA volunteer, Paddy Jordan, died from his wounds ten days later. One RIC man was killed and another badly wounded during the ambush.
All of the accounts of the Kilmeena ambush note that John Collins was from Belfast. The Irish Independent published his photo on 25th May 1921, noting he was an old Artane boy while the Connaught Telegraph on 28th May stated that he was “…a native of Belfast (one of the expelled Catholic workers) and had been working for some time in Westport, being noted for his industry, piety and uprightness.” It also described how he had been buried in the Republican Plot in Castlebar two days after the Kilmeena Ambush. Wreaths at the funeral read “To Jonie from his fond companions, RIP” and “In loving remembrance of dear Jonie, from his Westport friends – RIP.” The press (eg Irish Independent 24th May 1921) reported that his friends had wanted to bury him in Westport but as only half an hour was allowed by the authorities for the burial, which was also restricted to 12 mourners, he had to be buried in Castlebar.
Collins reportedly worked as a tailor for Kerrigan’s of Fair Green in Westport. Another IRA man present at Kilmeena, John Pierce, was from Dublin and had also been in Artane. He had come to Westport to learn his trade as a tailor in January 1919. Since Collins was likely expelled from his work place in Belfast after the many sectarian attacks on workers at the end of the summer of 1920, that connection might have brought Collins to Mayo although it could also be coincidental. There is some controversy over Pierce’s role at Kilmeena after he was arrested as he was seen being driven around by the RIC and then he apparently disappeared. A review of evidence provided by various eye-witnesses in the Connaught Telegraph on 23rd May 1984 concluded that he was not a spy. Dominic Price reproduces a lengthy statement he gave to the RIC after his arrest in The Flame and The Candle. That evidence led to a number of raids and arrests in the immediate aftermath of the ambush. Afterwards, Pierce was held in Galway Prison until December when he was transferred to Liverpool Prison before being released in the general amnesty that followed the signing of the treaty. He joined the newly-founded National Army and in November 1922 he was a Sergeant in the tailor’s department of the Quartermaster General’s Staff.
Pierce’s statement (as quoted by Price) described how he and Collins had been out for a walk at Corrig, just outside Westport, and happened upon an IRA unit on 17th April 1921 and asked to join. They had then become part of the 3rd Battalion flying column although Pierce states that Collins had asked a priest about shooting at police as he was uneasy about it. At Kilmeena, he was beside Collins when Collins was mortally wounded. As he was only 18, he simply appears to have broken under the stress of the gun battle and Collins’ death at Kilmeena rather than being either an informer or a spy.
So what else do we know of John Collins and his Belfast origins? Very little, so far. His age was recorded as 19 when he died, which would be consistent with being at Artane as the time as John Pierce. He is described in various sources as an ‘orphan’ (notably, so was John Pierce although Pierce’s 1922 army census record shows that his mother was still alive in Dublin – so calling him an ‘orphan’ may have been based on an assumption about why they had been sent to Artane). The 1911 census has two John Collins from Belfast at Artane, one aged 11 and other aged 14. Comparing the other ‘John Collins’ in the 1911 census and the birth/death records doesn’t identify a candidate who fits both the age and was an orphan several years prior to 1921 (presuming being an orphan is why Collins was sent to Artane). The closest I can find is a John Collins who was slightly older than 19 in 1921, at 21 years of ago. That John Collins was born in Jordan Street on the edge of the Bone in 1899. His mother, a mill worker named Catherine Collins, didn’t include his father’s name on his birth certificate (and was herself born in Louth). She shared the Jordan Street house with another mill worker, Mary Whiteside, and Mary’s daughter (also called Mary). Catherine died in 1902 of TB while Mary died two years later. Mary’s daughter Mary was put into an orphanage in Belfast. John Collins presumably then ended up in Artane, and I assume this is the 11 year old John Collins in Artane in the 1911 census (although he obviously returned to Belfast again and was working there before 1920 or 1921). Whether it is the same John Collins isn’t clear – yet.
We’ll find out in a couple of months as a new book including information about John Collins is being published in April. You can keep an eye on that here at the Tiernaur Oral History Page.
[Thanks to Martin Molloy for bringing John Collins to my attention]