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Remembering Michael Tolan

 

April 14th, 2021 marks the centenary of one of the most significant and tragic events of the War of Independence in Ballina.

On this day one hundred years ago, 26-year-old Ballina native Michael Tolan was arrested and subsequently endured a most brutal and gruesome death at the hands of British Crown Forces.

The shocking tale of the arrest, disappearance, and tragic discovery of the mutilated body of Michael Tolan remains one of the darkest chapters in our town’s recent history.

A tailor by trade, Tolan was born with ‘reel feet’-a deformity which caused his feet to turn in and affected his walk.[1]. At the time of his murder, he was a Non-Commissioned Officer for the North Mayo Brigade IRA, an intelligence officer, recruiter and a ‘summons server’ for the local arbitration courts (known as the ‘Sinn Féin Courts’). He was a bachelor and lived on Shamble Street.

 Tolan had been involved with nationalist activities in Ballina from early 1917, when a branch of the Irish Volunteers and a Sinn Féin Club were established in the town. In his Witness Statement to the Bureau of Military History, Stephen Donnelly recalled days of his youth in the Ballina unit of Fianna Eireann: “Tolan...took complete charge of us. He has us affiliated with Fianna Eireann in Dublin & took all the necessary instructions from there”. [2]

 

Ballina of one hundred years ago was a town firmly in the grip of the ongoing ‘Troubles’.  The notorious ‘Black and Tans’, sent as reinforcements to the local RIC, had become a feature of everyday life in Ballina and patrolled the streets regularly and with great zeal.  They were joined in January 1921 by the Auxiliary Division RIC (‘The Auxies’); easily identified by their distinctive uniforms and ‘Tam-O-Shanter’ beret-style caps.  Crown Forces established their HQ at the Imperial Hotel on lower Knox Street. A strictly enforced curfew between the hours of 8pm and 4am was set. The Union Jack flew high atop ‘The Imperial’ as local merchants, publicans and residents endeavoured to carry on with their lives in the streets below.

In July 1920, just eight months before the arrest of Tolan, local members of the North Mayo Brigade carried out a daring ambush on the nightly RIC patrol at Moy Lane, just one hundred yards from the barracks on Charles Street. The skirmish resulted in the fatal shooting of RIC Sergeant Thomas Robert Armstrong. A fifty-six-year-old Cavan native and father of eleven children, Armstrong had served in the town for twenty years and was held in high regard by the townspeople. Reporting on the incident, ‘The Ballina Herald’ noted the tragedy of the fact that Armstrong, “who was always looked upon as most inoffensive officer” was due to begin his retirement in matter of weeks.[3] The killing of Armstrong was a turning point in the town and signalled a drift towards violence on both sides of the conflict.

 In the weeks and months leading up the arrest of Tolan, ‘tit-for-tat’ actions and counteractions by the IRA and Crown Forces characterised life in Ballina and its hinterland. Raids on homes and businesses, intimidation, armed patrols, and regular weapons searches (even outside Mass) were the order of the day.

 In January 1921, during an arms raid on Becketts Mills, prominent Brigade member Pappy Coleman was captured and severely beaten at the Charles Street Barracks.[4] Less than three weeks later, Brigade officer, solicitor and Chairman of the Ballina Urban District Council PJ Ruttledge (who went of the serve as a Fianna Fáil TD for thirty-one years and three-time cabinet minister) was arrested, court-martialled and sentenced to six months in Galway Jail.[5] Such was the “bad handling” he received that he was left deaf in one ear for some time afterwards.[6]

Owing to the ongoing hostilities, Tolan, like so many of his comrades, was ‘on the run’ at time he was ‘picked up’ and was in the habit of staying in various homes to avoid capture. On the night of 14h April 1921, he was at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Forbes of Shamble Street- a house in which he had sought refuge many a time before. When the Crown Forces arrived at the back door, Tolan -in his bare feet- made for the front door but was captured a few yards from the house. He was brought to the RIC Barracks, until an order for his interment could be procured.

Local Cumann na mBan members, Ida O’ Hora and Margaret Sweeney, were among the first to visit Tolan at the Barracks. There they found him lying in a cold, dark cell, still in his bare feet and moaning in pain. Miss Sweeney later said he was unable to eat the food brought to him, such was his condition. Tolan told her that his jailors had nearly killed him. Supplies of food, warm woollen socks, boots and an overcoat were quickly sourced and brought to the Barracks. A heavy overcoat-dark green in colour-supplied by Ida O’ Hora was later to become a key piece of evidence at the inquest into Tolan’s death.[7]

On her first visit to see her son (“my boy”, as she called him), Tolan’s widowed mother Mrs. Ann Quigley could scarcely make out the face of her curly-haired son in the darkened prison cell. On the second occasion, Michael was permitted to approach the door of the cell, allowing his mother a better, and as it transpired, final look upon her son before his disappearance. [8]

 

As Tolan languished in his cell, his comrades in the North Mayo Brigade continued in their struggle against his captors. On the night of 15th April, Bridge Street was the scene of a planned ambush of the RIC patrol by a small band of local men. When the patrol was ordered to halt, an exchange of gunfire ensued. Two Constables- Walter Davis and Harold Moore were severely injured. The patrol was forced to retreat to the nearby barracks for safety.[9]

In an act of retaliation, the Crown Forces embarked on a frenzied rampage through the town centre. Shop front windows, places of businesses and homes were smashed. Weapons were fired indiscriminately, leaving the commercial centre of the town in a sea of broken glass and bullet casings. We can but image the treatment of prisoner Tolan in the aftermath of the ambush and it seems likely that he too bore the brunt of the rage administered that night.

Three weeks later, on the night on 7TH May 1921, Michael Tolan was handed over to D-Company of the Auxiliary RIC, for transportation to Galway City. The transport lorry departed from Charles Street Barracks and duly arrived at its destination, but Michael Tolan was not on board.

When there was no message or correspondence from Tolan is the days and weeks that followed, his family, friends and comrades grew concerned for his safety.  Repeated enquiries as to his whereabouts were made.  Other than confirmation that he was no longer being held in Ballina, no further information was given. A gravely disturbing twist in the tale was about to unfold.

 

In June 1921, the badly decomposed body of a man was discovered by locals at bogland in Shraheen, near Foxford, just eight miles from Ballina. The body bore gunshot wounds to the head. One of the victim’s arms was torn from his socket. Most gruesomely of all, both feet had been violently removed with force. The deceased wore a dark green overcoat, the pockets of which contained; cigarettes and matches, a set of rosary beads, a toothbrush, a black poplin tie, two shirt collars with the name of Ballina draper J.J. Murphy, and lastly, a tailor’s thimble.[10]

 

The remains were removed from the bogland by undertaker Martin Duffy and his sixteen-year-old apprentice carpenter, young Tommy Armstrong (Tommy also helped to build the coffin for the unfortunate soul)[11]. Crown forces oversaw the transfer of the remains to an unmarked pauper’s plot at Leigue Cemetery in Ballina. A most lonesome burial followed – the only mourners in attendance being the driver of the cart, two inmates from Ballina Workhouse who dug the grave, along with stone mason and graveyard caretaker Mr. Gerry Ginty and his mother, Mrs. Ginty.[12]

July 11th, 1921 brought joyous news to the people of Ballina- a Truce between Great Britain and Ireland was called. There were scenes of jubilant celebrations on the streets of the town late into the night. Bonfires were lit and music drifted across the summer breeze as locals took full advantage of the end of curfew and the fear of intimidation.[13]

There was little cause for celebration in the Tolan household, where anguished relatives awaited news of their beloved son and brother. Tolan’s comrades pressed on in their enquiries, but no trace of the Ballina NCO could be found in any barracks, jail or internment camp. On 10th August, solicitor and senior North Mayo Brigade officer P.J. Ruttledge began a series of correspondences with the RIC. The date of Tolan’s arrest in mid-April and ‘handing over’ to Auxiliaries in early May were verified. The crucial answers in the case remained unanswered. In September, RIC District Inspector White told Ruttlege that the relevant personnel were ‘on sick leave’ and that it was impossible to carry out further enquiries. A shroud of silence and secrecy surrounded the case.[14]

It was now quite clear the remains found at Shraheen were in fact those of Michael Tolan, and that he had been subjected to a most barbaric death. The removal of his feet was designed to disguise his identity. In October, officers of the North Mayo Brigade conveyed details of the case to the Department of the Adjutant General, Michael Collins. Permission to exhume the body and carry out post-mortem was sought. Permission was granted, along with instructions to hold a public funeral.  [15]

 

In early November 1921, in the presence of Deputy Coroner, Dr. McGuiness, Dr. John Crowley TD, Dr. Francis Ferran TD and Dr. John Madden, the remains of Michael Tolan were exhumed. Prominent local Battalion officer and future TD, Pheilim Calleary identified the body of the young NCO who was well known to him and was in fact the same age as him. A thorough post-mortem was carried and a date for an inquest was set.[16]

 

In a packed Town Hall in mid-November, the formal inquest into the death of NCO Tolan took place. Local newspapers recorded the proceedings of the day in exacting detail, satisfying the enormous public interest in the case.  Testimony was heard from all relevant witnesses which included Tolan’s heartbroken mother and sister, his kindly neighbour Mrs. Forbes, Ida O’Hora and Margaret Sweeney of Ballina Cumann na mBan and John Armstrong and Mr. Mc Hale of Shraheen.

The harrowing findings of the post-mortem were relayed in forensic detail. It was determined that Michael Tolan had been twice shot through the back of the head while lying face down. One bullet exited through the eye, the second through the cheek bone. His lower jaw was shattered, and four teeth were missing- broken with the force of a heavy object. Both arms were broken, one having been completely wrenched from its socket. His chest bore the large marks of deep wounds- likely inflicted with a bayonet. Lastly, a heavy blunt instrument had been used to remove his feet from his body, sometime after his death.[17]

 John Armstrong and his neighbour Mr. Mc Hale of Shraheen gave evidence that the feet were intact when they first came upon the remains in the bogland in June. Mr. Mc Hale told the court that the good weather had likely accelerated the decomposing of the remains. He described the thick brown curly hair of the deceased, and feet which were ‘‘thick about the ankles” and “turned in”.  It was apparent that the feet had been removed ahead of the transfer of the body to Leigue Cemetery. [18]

The particulars of the clothing worn by Michael Tolan prior to his disappearance were given- his grey homespun trousers, a blue flannel jacket with blue buttons, a white shirt and heavy dark green overcoat. All the apparel described matched those found on the body at Shraheen.

 

In his closing statement to the jury, solicitor PJ Ruttledge remarked “No more damnable atrocity could have been committed than if the sluice gates of Hell were raised and all the villains and demons let loose”. After deliberating for less than thirty minutes, the jury of thirteen returned a verdict of “Wilful Murder of NCO Tolan by Crown Forces whilst in their custody”.[19]

 

The funeral of Michael Tolan – one of the largest ever witnessed in the town took place on Friday 11th November 1921. The remains had been brought to St. Muredach’s Cathedral two days before. Tolan’s comrades held a round- the -clock vigil at his coffin, draped in the tricolour. Requiem Mass was held at 11am. The enormous crowds spilled into the church grounds and streets of the town. Shops and businesses closed their door and shuttered their windows.

The hearse was followed to Leigue Cemetery by over a thousand uniformed IRA, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Éireann.  It took over ninety minutes for the funeral cortege to wind through the thronged streets, lined by upwards of three thousand sympathisers. The Rosary was said recited ‘as Gaeilge’ by the Cumann na mBan. The Ballina Herald described the scene as “mournful and pitiful in the extreme”.

 

On reaching Leigue Cemetery, Tolan’s comrades stood to attention in mass formation. A firing party of twenty men lined the grave, and when the coffin was lowered, three volleys were discharged, followed by solemn sounding of the ‘Last Post’. The ‘Herald’ captured the scene; thus, “The day was fine, tinged with frost, and as the plaintive notes rang out in the clear air, many a silent tear was shed.”

A short graveside oration was given PJ Ruttledge, in which he described Tolan as “. a faithful and efficient officer” who “in his services in the Intelligence Department ...exhibited a constant attention to duty and and did all that could be desired…from a member of the Army to which he had the honour to belong”. Ruttldge made a request of all those gathered, which would best honour Tolan; that they would “not recognise the members or officials of the enemy service who now walk our streets”.[20]

The following year, Tolan’s mother Mrs. Quigley was awarded compensation of £750 by the District Court, under the 1919 Criminal Injuries (Ireland) Act.[21] Applications under the Army Pensions Act were subsequently made by Mrs. Quigley and his sisters Annie Kelly and Maria McGlynn – both of whom were widowed in the years that followed. Despite letters of support from various quarters, no Army pension in respect of Michael Tolan was ever granted.[22]

 

In March 1922, at a meeting of Ballina Urban District Council, a motion to change Ballina’s street names was put forward by future senator Tom Ruane, former O/C of the North Mayo Brigade. The new street names would honour those who had given their lives in Ireland’s long struggle for Independence. Patriots such as Emmet, Tone, Pearse and Mc Dermott were included in the list. It was only fitting that Bridge Street was renamed Tolan Street, an eternal local remembrance of NCO Michael Tolan.[23]. In 1966, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising, huge crowds attended the unveiling of a new memorial at the Republican Plot in Leigue Cemetery. The memorial, which still stands today bears the name of Michael Tolan and fellow comrades. [24]

In September 2020, artist Meave Clancy included a portrait of Michael Tolan in a new installation depicting aspects of the Irish War of Independence, on display in the Walled Heritage Garden of the Jackie Clarke Collection, Ballina.

Tolan is shown well-dressed in his shirt and tie. His curly brown hair is neatly combed. He is smiling.

It is hoped that this portrait will go some small way to restoring the dignity so cruelly taken from our local boy, one hundred years ago.

Remember Michael Tolan, 1895-1921.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] 1901 Census

[2] Bureau of Military History Witness Statement 1548

[3] Ballina Herald July 1920

[4] Bureau Military History Witness Statement 1683

[5] British Army Intelligence File 4403

[6] Military Service Pensions Collection 34D2403, Patrick Joseph Ruttledge

[7] Military Service Pensions Collection 34D2336 Ida O’Hora-Mc Grath

[8] Ballina Herald 17 November 1921

[9] Brigade Activity Report North Mayo Brigade, 4th Western Division A 35/2

[10] Ballina Herald 17 November 1921

[11] Authors conversation with Mr. Martin Armstrong

[12] Letter to the Editor of Ballina Herald by Mr. Gerry Ginty, 30 April 1956

[13] Western People 16 July 1921

[14] Ballina Herald 17 November 1921

[15] Military Archives Michael Collins Papers CP/4/32

 

[16] Freemans Journal 16 November 1921

[17] ibid.

[18] ibid.

[19] Irish Press 3 December 1921

[20] Ballina Herald 18 November 1921

[21] Western People 4 February 1922

[22] Military Service Pensions Collection DP3309

[23] Ballina Herald 20 May 1960

[24] Western People 21 May 1966

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