The killing of Michael Moran - Galway city, 1920

Was the successful Tuam IRA leader the victim of a British shoot to kill policy during the War of Independence?

Sinn Féin’s declaration of an Irish Republic on January 21 1919, along with the killing of two RIC officers in Tipperary by the IRA on the same day, signalled the start of a guerrilla war for Irish independence.

In Tuam, the IRA battalion, under the command of Michael Moran from Carrowmoneen, had fast become very efficient. Summer 1919 saw the gathering of weapons, drilling, and additional battalions being formed across north Galway. Orders came from Michael Collins to attack RIC barracks across the country. In north Galway, Castlehackett RIC barracks was burned, then Castlegrove, and on Easter Saturday night, 1920, the Barracks at Barnadereg was destroyed.

Ambush at Gallagh

RIC helmet and Truncheon

Around 9pm on Monday July 19 1920, an RIC sergeant and three of his constables were heading back to Dunmore. Just a few miles outside Tuam, in the townland of Gallagh, they came to a roadblock. They stopped their lorry and when Constables James Burke and Patrick Carey got out to remove the obstruction they were ambushed.

Fire was exchanged and both Burke and Carey were killed. The remaining RIC men surrendered. They were then disarmed and told to walk back to Tuam. Tuam IRA had successfully pulled off their most daring raid to date. However, this victory would come at great cost.

Tuam set ablaze and ransacked

Tuam Town Hall July 1920

Tuam Town Hall, July 1920.

The two officers that were spared returned to Tuam and promptly informed the local barracks of what had happened. Additional RIC who had now arrived from Galway along with soldiers from the Dragoon Guards, who were stationed in Claremorris, made their way to the scene of the ambush. After searching the area the party returned to Tuam in the early hours of the morning. Then all hell broke loose.

Tuam was set ablaze and ransacked. Windows broken, shops set on fire, grenades thrown, men dragged from their beds and threatened to be shot. By morning light the Town Hall lay smouldering in ruins.

Destruction In Tuam July 1920

Destruction in Tuam, following the RIC ransakking the town in July 1920.

A comment on these events which appeared in the Manchester Guardian on July 21 1920 brings into focus the savagery unleashed: “As I entered the town this morning it recalled nothing so much as some of the ruined Belgian and French towns...I thought a striking resemblance to wrecked Albert.”

This stark comparison between the destruction of Tuam and Belgian and French towns during World War I casts a dark shadow over the graves of those men from Tuam who sacrificed everything for their King just a few years before. The sacking of Tuam was the first in a series of reprisals by Crown forces resulting in copycat reprisals across Ireland. In Caltra, County Longford, the local RIC were heard shouting “Up Tuam!” as they set their town on fire.

Churchill creates the Auxiliaries

Winston Churchill 1920s

For the British, the situation in Ireland was spiralling out of control. As a result, Sir Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War created The Auxiliaries, many of whom had been decorated for their deeds in World War I. The 21 Auxiliary Companies formed were stationed across Ireland. D Company took up residence in Galway in September 1920 with Lenaboy Castle, Salthill, as their main city base.

It was claimed that Moran made a run for it and, in a hail of bullets, was fatally struck

D Company Auxiliaries, aided by the RIC, along with ex-servicemen who freely joined up as Black and Tans, now swung the pendulum of fear in favour of the Crown. D Company was involved in seven killings in Galway between September 9 and November 15. Prime Minister David Lloyd George defended their collective actions on October 9 1920 declaring: “The police and soldiers do not go burning houses or shooting men wantonly without provocation.”

Eglinton Street RIC Barracks

Eglinton Street RIC Barracks.

Meanwhile, Moran had been named by the RIC as the mastermind behind the Gallagh Ambush and other raids in the area. He was arrested in October 1920 and held in Galway Gaol for six weeks. On the morning of November 22 he was released, then rearrested, and held in Eglinton Street RIC Barracks for an additional two days of interrogation.

The death of Michael Moran

On the evening of November 24 1920, Lt Col FHW Guard, Lt T Simmonds, and Lt J Lowe of D Company were ordered to escort Moran to Earls Island for further interrogation. Earls Island - now The O’Donoghue Drama Centre, NUIG - was the temporary home to the Seventh Lancers and some Black and Tans. It was claimed that Moran made a run for it and, in a hail of bullets, was fatally struck in the temple and died behind the old handball alley on the grounds of Queen’s College Galway.

Location of old Handball Alley NUIG

The location on the grounds of NUI Galway where the old handball alley was once located, and where Michael Moran was shot by Crown Forces.

At the Military Court of Inquiry into his death, held in Earls Island on November 25 1920, Lt Col FHW Guard of D Company stated that Michael Moran was shot while trying to escape.

Records show that between September 1920 and January 1921, 57 detainees, like Moran, were shot while attempting to escape custody

Officer Guard claimed a crowd gathered near the university wall and as he approached telling them to disperse, Moran bolted and all three officers opened fire, Moran then fell to the ground.

Shoot to kill?

The Court of Inquiry ruled that the officers’ actions were justified as Moran was trying to escape. The question therefore arises: Did Moran run, or was he executed? Close examination of British Military files from this time indicate a policy of shoot to kill. On May 3 1920, a document was circulated to all British Military stationed in Ireland from General Headquarters, Park Gate, Dublin signed by Major General FF Ready. Paragraph seven states that:

“It is only in the case of a grave offence, such as Treason or Felony and when the offender has been caught in the act, or a warrant for such an offence has been exhausted, that he may be fired at if he attempts to escape from custody or evades arrest.”

Michael Moran Gravestone

Records show that between September 1920 and January 1921, a total of 57 detainees, like Moran, were shot while attempting to escape from custody. Therefore, it can be argued that Crown forces availed of paragraph seven as a loophole justifying execution without trial of those standing in the way of the “pacification of Ireland”, whether they ran or not.

Michael Moran’s body was brought back to Tuam for burial November 26. His coffin was draped in a tricolour and carried aloft on the shoulders of his comrades. He was buried on Saturday 27 after Requiem Mass in Tuam Cathedral. His headstone reads: “Michael Moran Who Died For His Country Nov 24th 1920 Aged 29 Years”.

Damien Quinn is a military historian specialising in Irishmen in the service of the British Crown Forces. He studied politics and history as an undergraduate, and gained a Masters of Literature in History from NUI Galway.


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