Updated: 20/09/12 : 06:46:05
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Ninety years ago today, the 'Noble Six' killings

A Special Report
 
THE PRINCIPAL local history of Sligo published in the 1920s gives just one one paragraph to Sligo's Noble Six, the anniversary of which occurs today.
 
In the 90 years since elapsed not too many local histories, published versions anyway, have shed much extra light either on events of September 20th 1922.
 
It is easy to understand why: Communities and even families were split and divided by the event, which included two executions and four other killings.

The most shocking part of the Noble Six incident -- one which still shocks people -- is that the Army which did the killing was Irish. The British ranks were gone 'home'... officially, anyway.
 
The definitive published narrative of the Noble Six incident in Sligo was written in 1988 by a Scottish University professor, Michael Hopkinson of Stirling University.

Also worth reading, to get the full flavour and infill of the times, is a 1981 biography of the Army leader in the Sligo area at that time, '' The Sean MacEoin Story (The Blacksmith of Ballinalee)'' written by Comdt Padraic O'Farrell, now deceased.

There are fine unpublished local investigations into the Noble Six incident, one notable and seen by this article writer but not referred to or treated here as the content is copyright and private.

Worth noting, too: The biography of Richard Mulcahy, contains not one line on the Noble Six event. He was overall national commander of the Army on the day of the killings and Minister for Defence in that Fine Gael/Cumann na nGaedhael government,

Rumour and Bitterness


Comdt O'Farrell in the ''Sean MacEoin Story'' in 1981 wrote that Sligo's Noble Six ''were shot in an affair about which little is even yet certain.

''Few incidents of the Civil War aroused such speculation, rumour and bitterness as did the Ben Bulben killings," he said.

He added: ''Pro Treaty troops were accused of shooting the victims while they had their hands raised in surrender" -- strong images, even in 1981.

Himself an Army officer in the midlands, the late Comdt O'Farrell had, crucially, interviewed contemporaries of General MacEoin, both for and against him.

His promise to offer a ''frank objective appraisal'' of MacEoin was certainly delivered.

First things first: In Professor Hopkinson's account General MacEoin's second in command, Tony Lawlor, clearly had an instrumental role in the Ben Bulben events.
 
MacEoin and Lawlor made the military decisions which still reverberate, uneasily, through Sligo's history of the period. Today marks the official anniversary of the Noble Six.
 
If Professor Hopkinson is correct -- and his notated version has never been challenged substantively -- the Army, the Irish Army that is, captured prisoners and, then, rather than bring them back to Sligo Jail at Gethins Street, they asked for 'volunteers' in their own ranks to execute them and then dumped their bodies.
 
Comdt Farrell's book added one sickening detail: Jewellery was removed from the bodies of those executed on Ben Bulben, notably Brian MacNeill, and it took TWENTY FIVE YEARS for it to be returned.




The programme of the 1972 Commemoration by Feis Shligigh

Whispered Story


By virtue of the Noble Six, General MacEoin had delivered, ultimately, on his reported threat there would be ''buckets of blood'' in Sligo.
 
Some of the contexts in which he might have said that might have tried most officers, or indeed non officers:

1. His 'Ballinalee' armoured car had been captured by the IRA at Rockwood outside Sligo and a number of men MacEoin had brought with him from Longford were killed. These Army men are honored by name on a tasteful plaque at Rockwood Parade in Sligo town centre, beside the Yeats Building;

2. MacEoin had been forced to abandon his honeymoon, as he spent part of it at the Ramsay Hotel in Sligo, due to hostilies further afield;

3. The occupation of Sligo Courthouse led by Brigadier Devins, one of those killed on Ben Bulben, irked MacEoin. He felt there hadnt been enough fighting in Sligo when the British were the enemy. He held Sligo's contribution in contempt and never changed that view;

4. Michael Collins, who'd been at MacEoin's wedding, had been killed in an ambush less than a month before the Sligo Noble Six events;

5. Arthur Griffith, whom MacEoin's senior officer Tony Lawlor had driven into Sligo town for a public meeting despite IRA threats, had died around the same time.
 
On the Noble Six killings and executions, MacEoin once solemnly said of what his soldiers did that day: ''Most of the funerals were ours before that."

He added of Sligo's Noble Six: "They were armed and alert and had to suffer for the consequences."

Sean MacEoin's biographer went on: "Years of whispered story have spawned sensation, even macabre, averment in connection with this engagement."

The people of Sligo town and hinterland didnt please MacEoin either in his later judgement of the event: "They would be with you one day and against you the next."

Added Glue

It is too easy, to think that all the bloody soldiery and butchery in Ireland was done by the British. The scale of the Noble Six events and their aftermath and impact say otherwise.
 
When the Sligo historian Michael Farry examined the papers of IRA revolutionary Ernie O'Malley in UCD he found praise there from North Sligo IRA men for specific decisions of British officers during the Black and Tan rampage.
 
Tellingly, there was no such praise for the Army -- or government -- of the new Irish State.
 
Yet, in the decades afterwards, BOTH sides of that political/military divide between Irish people worked hard and achieved varying degrees of harmony and co-operation when they were elected to the Dail, Seanad and to Council chambers.
 
There were many fine public servants, too, who added ''glue'' -- and then some -- to such process.
 
One such outstanding local public servant of that process was former Sligo and Leitrim County Manager, Tom (TJ) McManus, now deceased.
 
The slaughter in Sligo this day 90 years ago could have been much worse, too. Small pockets of Protestant farmers shielded some of their IRA neighbours from the rampage by the new Army as it continued overnight with its military sweep of North Sligo this day 90 years ago.
 
Sectarian Slaughter
 

Whatever their individual reasons in Sligo in 1922, many modern Protestants must always wonder about the IRA's vile sectarian slaughter in places like Kingsmill in 1976, when they ordered a Catholic from a bus and then executed his ten Protestant workmates.
 
As with the Army and Fine Gael in 1922 and the actions of the IRA too, that event still poses a difficult question.
 
Namely, combatants in the conflicts may not have always honoured the 1916 Proclamation pledge ''.......no one who serves the cause of Irish unity will dishonour it with cowardice, inhumanity.''
 
The decade ahead will pose that same teaser many times. There may be no answers of certainty. There may be no correct answers.
 
In that type of comfort zone, the Army of 1922 and its government, led by what became Fine Gael, might well argue that they did what they had to do to ''prevail;'' historians often use that word "prevail," rather than use language like 'victors' and 'losers.'  

Fine Gael and the Army 'prevailed' after Ben Bulben; this day 90 years ago did much to end to the Civil War in this area, imposed by executions, military curfews and support from the Catholic Church. The only real action afterwards was the destruction of Sligo Railway Station.

The only certainty is that any apology by Fine Gael or by the Army for their collective action in Sligo on September 20th 1922, however desirable that apology might be, is not a black and white certainty.
 
Back to Ben Bulben: The Army pursuit of the IRA across Ben Bulben 90 years ago today uncannily evokes another pursuit in Irish legend, Toraiocht Diarmuid agus Grainne, the pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne.

Professor Hopkinson wrote in his book: ''It is impossible to be dogmatic on whether the men were shot after surrender.''

General MacEoin, he noted, had said the men were shot going up the mountain and that ''their death was necessary in a war context."

Hopkinson continued: ''In early January 1923,'' one of the Army men involved in the operation ''was reported as giving an account backing Republican claims.

Shoot The Prisoners


''Near the top of Ben Bulben, after the four had surrendered, the pro Treaty officers 'apparently decided to shoot the prisoners, as the members of the party were asked to volunteer for a firing party to shoot them.'

'''This the men would not do. According to the soldier's account, the two captains and four of the former British soldiers remained behind, and the sound of machine gun fire was soon heard.''

The official Army report said MacNeill had been shot through the head, Devins through the heart, while Banks and Carroll had been ''absolutely mangled'' by machine gun fire.

The name of MacNeill was withheld from media for ''diplomatic reasons.'' His father Eoin MacNeill was a member of the government which supported the military sweep which had killed his son, while his mother supported his IRA activities in Sligo.

The senior Army officers in the Sligo incident had tough reputations, both in dealing with populations and their own military superiors, as detailed in Professor Hopkinson's book.

Tony Lawlor had personally shot a prisoner Patrick Mulrennan dead in Athlone Jail, where ash plants were also used to beat prisoners in a harsh and notorious regime under General MacEoin and Lawlor in the midlands.

MacEoin's failure to manage Lawlor is exemplified in an incident reported by Padraic O'Farrell in his biography. Lawlor fired shots through MacEoin's office door after his senior officer had verbally reprimanded him over the way he treated some lower ranks.

Richard Mulcahy became Army Commander after Michael Collin's death. He was persistently unhappy with BOTH MacEoin and Lawlor, and with their troops' performance in the midlands and west. TDs, priests and the public had all complained from Mayo, for example, and not anonymously.

O'Farrell's book was greatly admiring of General MacEoin. But the book also revealed that Army GHQ had written to MacEoin criticising ''the lack of solid administration or organisation in the west.''  

MacEoin had felt the need to defend Lawlor.... ''and many others under his command.''

Said O'Farrell: ''He wrote strongly worded letters to his Chief of Staff in reply to what seemed to be endless queries..... including anonymous letters received in Dublin HQ from the west."

Lack of Pay

It was a vigorous two way process of complaint and both officers were equally critical when writing to their GHQ -- eg the lack of transport and ammunition, while the lack of pay had caused the Dromahaire garrison to quit.

The sweep which caused the Noble Six event in Sligo might well, in fact, have happened sooner if Army munitions had been made available.

Professor Hopkinson observed in his book: ''While severely critical of MacEoin and Lawlor, Mulcahy could not remove them during such a vulnerable period.''

Finally to note: The estates within Cranmore in Sligo town are named after Sligo's Noble Six. This makes them unique in Irish and European history, ie the physical size of the remembrances to the vanquished side in any Civil War.

RECOMMENDED READING

Green Against Green  -  Michael Hopkinson, 1988, Gill and Macmillan;

The Sean MacEoin story (The Blacksmith of Ballinalee) - Padraic O'Farrell, 1992, Uisneach Press, Mullingar

Sligo and it's Surroundings
- Tadhg Kilgannon, 1926,  Kilgannon & Sons.

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