Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Roadside Memorials - Death of Tommy O'Connell I.R.A. Commander



“The road to sweet Athy”, no matter from which direction you travel, can be measured in terms of lives lost in road traffic accidents.  Some of us can recall accidents extending back over 50 years ago or more, but here and there along the roadside can be seen the visible reminders of long forgotten tragedies.  Is there anywhere a more poignant reminder of a roadside death than the memorial to Frances Ramsbottom on the Stradbally Road just beyond Lennon’s Bridge.  Mrs. Ramsbottom was killed in May 1916 when the cart in which she was travelling overturned.  She was travelling to her home in Fossett after shopping in Athy and died almost immediately after the fall.  What is remarkable about her accident is that almost 90 years later the place where she had that unfortunate accident is marked with a small stone memorial in which flowers have been placed on a regular basis in recent years.

Other local roadside memorials have not been tended as carefully as Mrs. Ramsbottoms and indeed in many instances the neglect of years has caused some of these memorials to disappear.  I am particularly reminded of a memorial which was once to be found at Rosestown at the spot where Sylvester Sheppard, a young Monasterevin man, was shot dead in an encounter with government troops on Sunday, 4th July 1922, just shortly after the Civil War started.  I understand that the late Paddy Joe Murphy of Levitstown tended the memorial during his lifetime, but on a recent visit to the site I found that the memorial had disappeared.  It would be a pity if nothing was done to restore the roadside memorial to this young man, after whom the Fianna Fáil Cumann in Monasterevin was named. 

Another roadside memorial which I had passed on many occasions without noticing it, is located on the Athy / Carlow road.  Indeed on first becoming aware of its existence some months ago I kept a careful lookout for it whenever I drove to or from Carlow.  I could not find the memorial until yesterday when returning to Athy I stopped my car near Maganey and walked the narrow road keeping a watchful eye on the speeding cars which threatened at every bend to put a premature end to my search.  Eventually I found the memorial located at the side of the road where Tommy O’Connell, Officer Commanding Carlow Brigade I.R.A. was accidentally killed on 31st August 1924. 

I had begun my search some months earlier when a letter arrived from Dorset in England enquiring if a memorial had ever been erected to the memory of the correspondent’s grandfather.  Intrigued by the enquiry I followed up the matter and found that Athy resident Betty O’Donnell had a lot of information on O’Connell who succeeded Eamon Malone of Barrowhouse as O.C. of the Carlow Brigade.  Previously, Tommy O’Connell held the position of Vice O.C. of the Brigade comprising six Battalions of which the 5th Battalion area included Athy, Kilkea, Castledermot, Ballylinan and Barrowhouse.  When the Civil War broke out Tommy O’Connell took the anti-treaty side and was imprisoned.  He escaped from jail and for quite a long time was on the run.  He survived the Civil War but did not feel able to return to his hometown of Edenderry until about six weeks before his untimely death.  Like many others who fought in the War of Independence or in the Civil War his health had been impaired as a result of the long periods spent on the run.  Before the commencement of hostilities he had worked as a French polisher and I believe that he was so employed again by Thomas Prendergast, Furniture Manufacturer of Carlow at the time of his death.

From the details given at the inquest, presided over by Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill of Athy, it would appear that the former I.R.A. leader accompanied two friends as they travelled by car to Garyhill, Bagenalstown.  On the return journey Christopher Pentony of New Road, Edenderry was driving and near to Maganey Railway Station a tyre burst and the car swerved to the right, hit the embankment, overturned and pinned Pentony and O’Connell underneath.  James McDonald who was sitting in the back seat was thrown free and he went for assistance.

Martin Fleming who lived in the area gave evidence at the Coroner’s Court of being awakened by McDonald around 3.00 a.m.  He went with him to the nearby house of Michael Carolan but got no-one there.  Both men then returned to the scene of the accident, with Fleming carrying a lighted candle which he was told to quench as petrol was spilling from the crashed car.  Unable to right the car, Fleming ran to Anthony’s house some distance away and with the help of Mr. Anthony and his son succeeded in turning over the car.  Dr. Francis Brennan of Castledermot who was called to the scene pronounced Tommy O’Connell dead.

News of O’Connell’s tragic accident was received in Athy and surrounding area with great sadness.  The Nationalist and Leinster Times reported that “the windows in Athy were shuttered all day on Monday in token of sympathy and great numbers joined the funeral cortege as it passed through the town on its way to Edenderry.”

Athy Urban District Council passed a vote of sympathy at its meeting that Monday night which was chaired by Thomas Corcoran and attended by Peter P. Doyle, Frank Jackson, James Dargan and Thomas O’Rourke.

Tommy O’Connell was buried at Monasteroris on Tuesday, 2nd September 1924.  Death notices were inserted in the Nationalist and Leinster Times by several groups with which he had been associated including the Officers and Men of the 1st Battalion Carlow Brigade.  The Brigade staff inserted another notice, as did the Carlow Cumann na mBan.  Before the end of September 1924 a public meeting was held in Carlow for the purpose of raising funds to erect a memorial to the former I.R.A. Commander. 

Last week as I examined the roadside memorial which lay concealed from inquisitive eyes by overgrown briars I read the inscription on the stone base into which a cross had been set.

“MRS. KEARNEY PRESENTED THIS MEMORIAL CROSS
TO THE STAFF OF THE I.R.A. CARLOW BRIGADE TO BE
ERECTED WHERE THEIR GALLANT O.C. ACCIDENTALLY
LOST HIS LIFE 31ST AUGUST 1924
GO NDEINIMID DIA TROCAIRE AR A ANAM”.


Who I wondered was Mrs. Kearney and whatever happened the public subscription which was to fund the O’Connell Memorial?  Maybe someone can help me with these questions.  In the meantime the roadside memorial to Tommy O’Connell will be re-visited again to ensure that the name of this once brave soldier can be seen and when seen, remembered with pride. 

The same hopefully will also be the fate of the Sylvester Sheppard Memorial site at Rosetown.

No comments: