I am always fascinated by the fact that there are still living witnesses in our parish who saw from afar the local town of Tubbercurry ablaze, during a night of infamous terror. This event occurred in October 1920, so our witnesses are aged 100+. There must be something in the South Sligo water because we have more than our fair share of centenarians. Obviously, the number of survivors is dwindling yearly – but the tale is etched into the consciousness of all elderly and not so old Tubbercurry natives.
Nationalist rebels had been active in South Sligo for 50 years when the Irish War of Independence erupted at the beginning of 1919. Decades of anti-British sentiment saw ordinary Irish men and boys take up arms against their oppressors. Tubbercurry and surrounding districts instantly became a hotbed of secret IRA military offensives. Well-organized small units in each parish soon became masterly at the new art of guerrilla warfare. Constabulary and judicial targets were attacked in surprise overnight raids, and then the IRA soldiers disappeared back to their farms and cottages. The perpetrators were very difficult to distinguish from innocent civilians, thwarting British military leaders who were more used to fighting a visible army.
By 1920, a pattern of IRA ambushes followed by indiscriminate British-backed reprisals had been established, leading to ever-greater atrocities. The British Government sent in WW1-hardened troops to assist the overrun Irish Constabulary. These mercenary war veterans were ill-disciplined and regularly counter-attacked non-military Irish businesses. As a result, the whole of Ireland rose up to ensure that British rule over the island was ended once and for all.
Wartime events in our locality reached a terrifying peak on the night of 30th September 1920. An IRA Flying Column unit successfully ambushed a police and military patrol on the outskirts of Tubbercurry. The aim of the mission was to kill, wound or capture a recently-appointed Police Inspector, thereby sending out a loud message of local defiance. After a gun battle, the Police Inspector was fatally wounded, and the IRA retreated without suffering any losses. The British reprisal attack was swift and brutal. A company of “Black and Tans” entered the once-sleepy town of Tubbercurry and proceeded to burn the shops and homes of suspected IRA sympathizers. As the town was composed of adjoining terraced streets, soon the whole town centre was ablaze with women and children in fear of their lives. A small number of town-based IRA Volunteers could not quell the outrageous violence of an out-of-control British Army.
Read local Commander John Brennan’s witness statement to gain a full overview of the nature of the frightening War of Independence in Sligo: 1918 Tubbercurry Volunteers
After 30 months of fighting a losing battle, the British called a Truce and political dialogue about Home Rule provisions commenced. Then a short but tragic Civil War broke out as squabbles about the governance of the new Nation got out of control. Peace eventually prevailed in 1922. Local memories are long – but somehow, former enemies were graciously forgiven and Tubbercurry re-emerged from a charred past as though nothing had ever happened. That’s how it is today, and that is why it’s amazing, considering that living witnesses are still around.