Women active in IRA flying columns?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 1996), Letters, Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 4

Sir,—The caption—’Women continued to play an active role in the War of Independence’—under the photograph on page 41 of the last issue (Autumn 1996) is misleading on two counts. In the first place, it does not depict a War of Independence flying column but a Civil War one—the Third Battalion flying column (‘Plunkett’s Own’), No.2 (South Dublin) Brigade. Secondly, it is a ‘posed’ photograph: there is no evidence that any of the women depicted were ever ‘active’ and in the course of my research I have never come across references to women operating in any flying column during the Tan or Civil War.
The photograph was taken most probably by May Mooney, one of the Mooney sisters, in the kitchen garden (now the car park) of Mooney’s Pub, Manor Kilbride (near Blessington), County Wicklow, on or about St Patrick’s Day, 1923. Included in the photograph (from left to right) are: (front row) Betty Mooney, Annie Mooney, Niall ‘Plunkett’ O’Boyle, Paddy Farrell, Peg Mooney; (centre row) Jim Redmond, Jim Treacy, Tom Heavey, Bride Mooney; (back row) Kay Mooney, Dan Whelan, Kit Barry, Bernard Corcoran, Paddy Reilly, Seamus McMorrow, Dan McGee, unknown. The column is well armed as evidenced by the Lee Enfield .303 rifles. Betty Mooney (not fully visible in the print used in the last issue) is holding Tom Heavey’s Thompson sub-machine gun. Annie and Peg Mooney each hold a Lee Enfield and Bride Mooney a revolver. Kay Mooney, a qualified nurse,  who may have rendered medical assistance to the column from time to time is unarmed. Niall ‘Plunkett’ O’Boyle is wearing the uniform tunic of Sir Bryan Mahon, whose residence the column had burned down. Jim Redmond, Jim Treacy and Tom Heavey are holding what appears to be the tailgate of a small farmcart upon which is written in chalk: ‘No 3 Column Dublin 2’.
This West Wicklow-based IRA flying column, which operated from about October 1922 until its capture in May 1923, was a mixture of Northerners, Dubliners, West of Ireland men and locals, among them escapees from the Curragh and Newbridge internment camps. It operated under the jurisdiction of Third Battalion, No.2 (South Dublin) Brigade, under the command of Gerry Boland, later a Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice and known at the time as ‘Trotsky’, on account of his exposition of left-wing views. The column commander, Niall O’Boyle, had escaped with a number of others from Newbridge camp and had been sent to West Wicklow where, under the name ‘Sean Plunkett’, he gathered the local Volunteers under his command attacking Free State Army positions and burning local ‘big houses’, among them Mullaghboden House, residence of Sir Bryan Mahon, and Mauds of Tinode.
The flying column was eventually surrounded at Nortons’ farmhouse in the early morning of 15 May 1923 by a Free State Army raiding party under the command of Colonel Felix McCorley and after a brief exchange of fire a parlay was arranged. According to eye witnesses, O’Boyle approached McCorley with his arms raised in surrender. McCorley asked, ‘Who are you’, and on being told, ‘I’m Sean Plunkett’, McCorley shot him through the left eye and again in the side of the head as he lay dying. A monument to ‘Plunkett’ O’Boyle can be seen at Norton’s (now Nolans) of Knocknadroose at the Reilly family grave in nearby Hollywood. He is buried in his native Kincasslagh, County Donegal. Following his death the photograph, in postcard form, circulated freely in the area. I obtained a copy from another column member (not in the photograph), the late Myles Reilly of Hollywood whom I interviewed on a number of occasions before his death, along with Seamus Mooney of Manor Kilbride. Other information is taken from Padraig Ó Baoighill’s Oglach na Rossan, Niall Pluincead Ó Baoighill (1994) and Uinseann McEoin’s Survivers (1987).—Yours etc.,

County Dublin.


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