Royal Irish Academy

A Revolution in Profiles - Co. Offaly

In association with The Royal Irish Academy

Colum/Columb/Columba Kelly 1901-23

Columb Kelly was born in Tullamore in 1901. He was the first child of Joseph and Rose Kelly who lived at Srah. Joseph, who had worked as a bank porter died of TB in 1910. By 1911 Rose Kelly had moved with her four children and two brothers to live at Puttaughaun, the family later settled in Barrack Lane. Rose married William Cahill in 1914. Cahill served in the British Army during the Great War and was killed while cycling at Ballinagar in 1928.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Kelly was part of the Anti-Treaty columns operating in the countryside outside Tullamore. Among his confederates were two other young men, Patrick Cunningham from Barrack Lane and William Conroy from Ruddocks Lane. Brigade O.C. Sean McGunniess later stated that…

‘Kelly I directed to go off the run and go home owing to his youth. Cunningham and Conroy were suspended for a breach of discipline’ (1)

Some military pension reports claim that it was Conroy who had been deemed too young for active service and that the men were removed from their unit after reports they had been seen in the company of National Army soldiers. Whatever the full story of their Republican activity, in November 1923, while suspended, the trio carried out a series of robberies in the Ballycowan district and were subsequently arrested by the National Army.

From September 1923, the Provisional Government enabled Military Courts to impose death sentences on those found in procession of arms. In late 1922 several republicans were executed in Dublin and Kildare, but in January 1923, with the Civil War dragging on, Kevin O’Higgins pushed for executions across Ireland to break anti treaty resolve.

On January 5th, 1923, a Military Court held at Roscrea found Kelly, Cunningham and Conroy guilty …

‘On a charge of being in possession without proper authority of firearms at Tullamore on 21st November 1922, and, further, with feloniously and burglariously entering with intent the houses of several residents in Tullamore, and stealing therefrom a silver watch., several streams of money, with other goods and chattels’  (2)

In line with the government policy that executions be localised, the condemned men were transferred to the National Army base at Birr castle.  Shortly before his death, in a letter to his mother Colum Kelly wrote…

‘I am sorry my dear mother, I cannot see you once again, but I hope we will all meet in heaven. I am going to be executed in the morning at 8 O’clock, so all I ask of you is not to fret or give. I am sending you all my belongings- my prayer book, photos, also a lock of my hair.  I beg of you as a favour not to grieve.’ (3)

Kelly, Cunningham and Conroy were executed the following morning 26th January at Birr Castle. Fr. Pat Gaynor who provided spiritual comfort to the executed men later documented their calmness when facing the firing party.

While the government executions policy was motivated by its wish to undermine republican leaders resolve to continue fighting, with some exceptions, most of those executed were low ranking IRA men often with limited pre-truce records. 

In 1924 the bodies of all those executed during the Civil War were released to their families for burial. Outside Tullamore the three men’s funeral procession amalgamated with that of Patrick Geraghty and Joe Byrne who had been shot in Portlaoise in January. The Clonaslee Band played the ‘Death March’, as the cortege travelled through Tullamore and all five men were waked in the towns Sinn Féin rooms.

The three young men shot at Birr were reclaimed by the Republican Movement and the subsequently listed among the ‘77’ anti treaty IRA men executed during the Civil War.

In 2003 a memorial was placed in Birr Castle walls to commemorate the executed men.

Colum Kelly was buried at Clonminch Cemetery.

The author wishes to acknowledge the longstanding research of Dr. Philip McConway into Offaly’s Civil War Dead.

 


Sources:

1901 and 1911 Census. Search online at http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/search/

Military Service Pension Collection. Columb Kelly DP7309. Patrick Cunningham DP3916. William Conroy DP147 Search online at https://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/military-service-pensions-collection-1916-1923

MSPC Blog ‘Executions January 1923’ online at https://militarypensions.wordpress.com/2023/01/22/executions-january-1923-part-3-22-to-27-january/

Michael Byrne. ‘The Execution of three young Tullamore Men at Birr during the Civil War’. Online at https://www.offalyhistory.com/uncategorized/the-execution-of-three-young-tullamore-men-at-birr-during-the-civil-war-26-january-1923-by-an-eyewitness-fr-colm-gaynor-a-birr-curate-d-1949-a-contribution-from-offaly-history-to-the-decade-of

Maurice G Egan. ‘What if? 1919-23’ Offaly History online at https://offalyhistoryblog.wordpress.com/2021/06/16/what-if-1919-1923-by-maurice-g-egan-with-thanks-to-hollie-m-eilbeck-and-dedicated-to-the-memory-of-rose-kelly/

Michael Hopkinson. Green against Green, the Irish Civil War (Dublin) 1988.

Philip McConway. ‘Offaly and the Civil War Executions’ in Offaly Heritage Vol 5. 2007-08.

Irish Independent. 27 January 1923.

Leinster Leader 8 November 1924.

(1) Military Service Pension Collection. Columb Kelly DP7309.

(2) Irish Independent. 27 January 1923.

(3) Philip McConway. ‘Offaly and the Civil War Executions’ in Offaly Heritage Vol 5. 2007-08 p.274.

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