Marc O’Sullivan Vallig recalls the first fatal shooting, over 100 years ago this month, of an RIC man in West Cork during the Troubles, in 1918
THE late historian Peter Hart once described the Old IRA of the parish of Eyeries as ‘hyperactive.’
He did not intend this as a compliment, though they would no doubt have taken it as such.
The Volunteers were particularly dynamic in 1918, when they scored their first major success in seizing a quantity of arms from the RIC Barracks in Eyeries village on St Patrick’s Day. Over the next several months, they laid ambushes on the road to Castletownbere on a number of occasions, but were frustrated when the expected RIC patrols failed to show up.
In late August or early September, the authorities stationed a company of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry at a sandbagged post at Eyeries Cross. Weeks later, at Bealnalappa, the Volunteers ambushed the rearguard of a military convoy carrying supplies on a mule-drawn cart to this outpost, and seized one Ross rifle.
As a result of this incident, a curfew – from 8pm each evening to dawn the next morning – was imposed on the area, and anyone suspected of being a Volunteer faced being searched and arrested, or even shot.
A few days later, the Volunteers fired on a patrol of two RIC men near Eyeries, wounding one before the policemen escaped back to their barracks.
In response, the authorities declared Martial Law in Cork West Riding on October 4th.
The British infantrymen stationed in Eyeries had signed up as soldiers; the constabulary had not. Most were Irish and Catholic, and had themselves grown up in farming communities, but now they found themselves being ostracised, denied supplies of milk and turf, or even service in the shops.
Many had nationalist sympathies, but they were denounced as agents of the British Empire, and remained the primary targets for the Volunteers. They were particularly vulnerable as they continued to engage in night patrols, on foot or bicycle, as winter drew in.
At 5.15pm on November 8th, RIC Sergeant James M O’Connell led a party of eight, including both policemen and military, out of Eyeries to patrol the road to Castletownbere.
They got as far as Crompane Hill, ‘about two and three quarter miles’ – by the sergeant’s estimation – from the village. There they stopped, to take shelter from the rain.
About 6.45pm, Sergeant O’Connell heard footsteps and saw shadows approaching on the road from Castletownbere. There were voices, which he recognised as those of Sergeant John Phelan and Constable John Moriarty, from the RIC barracks in the town, whom they had arranged to accompany to Eyeries. Moriarty was coming first, with Phelan about 10 yards behind. Both were wheeling bicycles.
Moriarty was just yards away when O’Connell stepped out onto the road, calling ‘Hands up!’ as a joke. There was a flash, a shot rang out, and Moriarty fell to the ground. O’Connell knew at once it was Phelan who had fired the shot. He called out to him to ‘Stop! Stop!’ as he rushed to Moriarty’s side. The constable moaned a few times, but did not speak.
Two soldiers were dispatched on Phelan and Moriarty’s bicycles to seek out a doctor in Castletownbere. Minutes later, a cartman came along the road. O’Connell and Phelan loaded Moriarty onto his cart, and the whole party departed for the town. Just outside it, they encountered Dr Hayes on his way to meet them.
Dr Hayes examined Moriarty, who was, he found, already dead, and directed that his body be taken to the hospital.
The next evening, at 5pm, a local solicitor named Hegarty, who served as deputy coroner for the district, held an inquest at the Berehaven Hotel. Sergeant O’Connell and two others in his party, Lance-Corporal Dimmock and Private Moore, gave similar accounts of the shooting.
Then Sergeant Phelan volunteered to give a statement. Hegarty cautioned that anything he said might, in the event of further proceedings, be used against him, but Phelan insisted that he wished to speak. He recounted how he and Moriarty had left Castletownbere at 4.45pm or 5pm the previous evening. They had sheltered from the rain for a quarter of an hour or 20 minutes at Foildarrig before continuing on their way to Eyeries.
At Ballinalamna Cross, Phelan saw a man appear on the left side of the road, and heard him cry, ‘Hands up!’ Thinking they were being ambushed, he fired a shot from his revolver. Then he heard O’Connell crying, ‘Stop!’ Phelan hurried on, and found O’Connell with Moriarty in his arms. He helped lift the constable onto the cart, and accompanied his body to the hospital in Castletownbere. That was where he saw the bullet wound in Moriarty’s back.
Dr Hayes then gave evidence. He testified that he had examined Moriarty’s body and found him to have been a well developed, well nourished man. He found a bullet wound six inches below the left shoulder blade, and believed the bullet must have pierced Moriarty’s heart. There was no exit wound. Death, he concluded, was due to shock and the bullet wound.
Hegarty, in reviewing the evidence, said there was no doubt as to how Moriarty had met his end. The jury concurred, finding that he had died as the result of the revolver shot fired by Sergeant Phelan. A message of regret and condolence was read from the Inspector-General, RIC.
Constable John Moriarty was the first RIC man in West Cork to be shot dead during the Troubles. He was 31 years old. A native of Gurtnatona, Killarney, he had served in Courtmacsherry and Carrigadrohid, as well as in Castletownbere.
After the inquest, his remains were brought home for burial by his family.
John Phelan had been promoted to the rank of sergeant only months before the shooting.
The authorities seem to have accepted that the killing of Constable Moriarty was entirely accidental, and he escaped punishment, continuing in the service until the RIC was disbanded in 1922, when he retired to Co Kilkenny.