1920-1939 | Burning villages | Media propaganda | Punitive operations

Reprisals in Ireland – convent burned – random civilians murdered

The village of Headway –
The National Library of Ireland – public domain – via Flickr.

18 January 1921

Following an ambush of auxiliary police on a country road in County Galway by the IRA, injuring six cadets, several lorry loads of British soldiers disembarked in the nearby village of Headford shortly after 10.30 pm on 18 January 1921. They immediately began to fire eight buildings in a reprisal operation, including the public house, the grocers, the convent and the presbytery adjacent the chapel, where the Catholic curates lived and where ‘shots were fired’.1  Farm storage facilities and stackyards in the area were also burned down.2

Earlier the same day, hundreds of British soldiers combed the surrounding countryside. At a farm house in the hamlet of Keehill, they shot dead 21 year old Thomas Collins, who they claimed was ‘attempting to escape’ from arrest.3 Galway historian Conor McNamara describes how ‘ ( army ) lorries roamed the narrow roads firing indiscriminately, with civilians wounded in the villages of Kilconly, Sylane and Glennamaddy.’ He also details how, on 22 January, auxiliary troops returned to the area, killing three more young men, including James Kirwan, 22, Michael Hoade. 28, and William Walsh, 30.4

According to the British press, they were all ‘shot dead while attempting to evade arrest.’ In contrast, the Dublin Freeman’s Journal reported that Hoade was dragged from his sister’s house and ‘brought back a corpse,’ that Walsh ‘was taken from his breakfast table and shot dead’ and that Kirwan was spotted outside ‘unloading a cart of manure’ and fatally wounded by a gunshot injury. The newspaper added that ‘the horse was also killed’. The auxiliaries then went to the nearby farm and informed the father that they had left his son dying in the field. None of the three victims had any connection to the earlier ambush or the IRA.  The Freeman’s Journal noted that there had been ‘further burnings’ and described one particular incident in which the victim was an elderly man and his daughter, who, after the firing of their home, ‘had no place to go.’5 The Archbishop of Tuam, Thomas Gilmartin, condemned the ‘inhuman barbarity of the reprisals.’6


  1. .’House Burning in Ireland,’ The Aberdeen Daily Journal, 20 January 1921, p. 6, ‘A Gallant Cadet,’ The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 21 January 1921, p. 5  and ‘Auxiliaries Ambushed in County Galway,’ The Dublin Evening Telegraph, 18 January, p. 1 Different reports cite either 10.30 pm or 11 pm as the approximate time that troops arrived and started to burn property in the village.
  2. ‘Burning Stackyards: Wholesale Destruction of Irish Village,’ The Leeds Mercury, 20 January 1921, p. 7.
  3. ‘Intense Guerilla Warfare,’ The Scotsman, 20 January 1921, p. 8.
  4. Conor McNamara, War and Revolution in the West of Ireland: Galway, 1913-1922, Irish Academic Press, Newbridge, 2018
  5. ‘Terrorism in the Tuam District,’ The Freeman’s Journal, 24 January 1921, p. 5, ‘Irish Troubles,’ The Western Morning News, 24 January 1921, p. 5 and ‘Weekend of Murders and Outrages,’ The Nottingham Evening Post, 24 January 1921, p. 1.
  6.  ‘Archbishop of Tuam and Kilroe Ambush,’ The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 25 January 1921, p. 8 and ‘Eleven Homesteads Burned Down,’ The Sligo Champion, 29 January 1921, p. 6.

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