Killed yards from home: A Cork family’s grief 100 years ago

On May 21, 1922, the body of former RIC man Tim O’Leary was found in Cork. It was a shocking third tragedy of the war for the boy’s mother, reveals JJ HURLEY
Killed yards from home: A Cork family’s grief 100 years ago

The location at Carrigcannon, Kilbrittain, where the body of Timothy O’Leary was found in May, 1922

A HUNDRED years ago today, on May 21, 1922, a man called James Harrington was on his way to Sunday morning Mass when he found the lifeless body of Timothy O’Leary on a road at Carrigcannon in Kilbrittain.

A former member of the Royal Irish Constablary (RIC) in Laois, Timothy had been on his way home to nearby Coolmain the previous day, following the disbandment of the force, when he had been intercepted by the IRA.

The region at the time was a hotbed of IRA activity. Most recently, Michael O’Neill’s death had sparked off the so-called Bandon Valley Killings. Indeed, O’Leary must have weighed up these facts before returning home. His homecoming was to prove a fatal decision.

That Saturday, May 20, 1922, Timothy had left Kinsale with his aunt Julia Fielding, when the IRA unit stopped him just a few minutes from his home, and he was ordered off his pony and trap at Callan’s Cross, Kilbrittain.

In the subsequent inquest, reported in the Skibbereen Eagle, Mrs Fielding said she didn’t recognise the men at the scene. She went on to say she’d got off the car and got a hold of her nephew, but “the parties said to go back, that he would be back in a few minutes”.

Local MO, Dr Dorothy Stopford, interviewed at the inquest, reported she’d found two bullet wounds in the victim, one to the head and one to the neck.

O’Leary seems to have forfeited his life because of his former profession.

The British and Irish had agreed to disband the RIC in January, 1922, and the force formally ceased in April, although the full process was not completed until August that year.

The discovery of the remains of Timothy O’Leary a century ago added to the terrible grief of his family in Kilbrittain - his brother, also a member of the RIC, had been killed in an IRA ambush in 1920, and a month earlier, their uncle, who had an important role in the RIC, had been killed by Michael Collins’ infamous hit squad in Dublin.

They were all part of another Irish family caught on the wrong side of Irish history.

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Timothy O’Leary was born in December, 1892, to a recently widowed mother, Johanna O’Leary, whose husband, Jeremiah, had died the previous May as a result of a bowel obstruction.

She was left to bring up Timothy, along with two older children, Hanorah and Jeremiah, but Johanna seems to have overcome the difficult financial circumstances, with the 1901 and 1911 Census recording her profession as a domestic servant.

Johanna’s siblings also seem to have offered support, as her sister Julia - the woman on the cart with Timothy when he was intercepted - is recorded as living with the family in 1901, also employed as a domestic servant.

It seems likely it was their brother, Daniel Roche, a serving RIC constable since 1900, who encouraged his nephews, Jeremiah and Timothy, to sign up for the force, in 1910 and 1913 respectively.

Daniel, who had initially been posted to Mayo before transferring to Roscommon, arrived in Tipperary in 1908 with his wife, Agnus (Nee) Mc Donald, from Balla, County Mayo.

However, by 1919, Roche found himself in the midst of the struggle for Irish independence in Tipperary, with the site of the Soloheadbeg ambush of 1919 only 7km from his station - the incident that is viewed as the first shot of the War of Independence.

Promoted to Sergeant at Golden RIC station in August, 1920, Roche’s importance to the Castle authorities in Dublin was recognised when he was summoned to Dublin to identify the bodies of Sean Treacy and another unidentified individual, believed at the time to be Dan Breen (it was not him) in October, 1920.

Jeremiah O’Leary, who was killed in 1920
Jeremiah O’Leary, who was killed in 1920

Treacy and Breen had led the ambush at Soloheadbeg, and the former’s death had enraged Michael Collins, who detailed the ‘Squad’ to deal with Roche, as set out in various witness statements in the Bureau of Military History

The Irish Independent of October 18, 1920, records a dramatic picture of the scene of Roche’s killing in Dublin, revealing that squad members pursued Roche down Ormonde Quay into Capel Street, wounding two civilians, Irene Allen and Denis Reid, in the process, before they chased their quarry into Little Strand Street and shot him dead.

Roche’s body was returned to his native parish in Cork, and he was buried at a family plot near the Templetrine graveyard in Ballinspittle, while his wife, with their four young children, returned to Balla in Mayo.

Roche’s importance as an RIC man is recorded in his wife’s compensation award of £3,500. The Freeman’s Journal report states that “Sergeant Roche came from Tipperary to Dublin on special Secret Service duty”.

As the family in Coolmain came to terms with Daniel’s death, the Roche and O’Leary families received another hammer blow, as Johanna’s eldest son, Jeremiah, was killed a few weeks later along with three other men, in an ambush at Inches Cross, Tipperary, on November 13, 1920. While travelling from Bansha to Galbally and on to Tipperary, the seven-man patrol was hit up by members of the 3rd Brigade of the Tipperary IRA, under Denny Lacey, with O’Leary killed almost immediately. The Skibbereen Eagle reported that his last words were “carry on”.

A native of Bansha, Thomas Walsh, was charged with O’Leary’s murder and faced a trial at Victoria Barracks on May 13, 1921.

In addition to several RIC officers appearing for Walsh as character witnesses, The Cork Examiner also reported that the accused produced a number of alibis, which proved he could not have been at the ambush scene.

During the day-long trial, two prosecution witnesses, Faraday and Bustock, were questioned extensively on what they saw and remembered, with Bustock’s brother also killed at the scene.

At the end of the proceedings, Walsh was found not guilty, aided by the prosecution’s failure to call the only other witness at the scene, Wallace, the RIC driver of the lorry, which cast doubt on the reliability of their own witnesses.

O’ Leary’s mother was compensated for her son’s death with £1,000. Less than two years later, her youngest son, Tim, returning home after the disbandment of the RIC, suffered a similar fate - the latest family victim of the war.

After all that tragedy, mother and daughter, Johanna and Hannah O’Leary, became something of recluses, moving from their Coolmain home to Kilbrittain, and living in the shadow of a life that was haunted by a momentous change in the history of Ireland.

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