To outsiders, the village of Ballinalee, in Co Longford, might seem like no great shakes, just a bump in the road, a blink-and-you-miss-it spot that you’re through before you even notice. Were they to consult a map of the county, the seemingly inconsequential dot called Ballinalee might be ignored in favour of grander spots, like Longford town, Ballymahon, Granard or the pretty heritage town of Ardagh.
But that would be a mistake because lovers of history will find pure gold in its environs. For starters, it is the site of Ireland’s first convent – the remains of which are still visible – but that’s not what gets the juices flowing. No, the real interest lies elsewhere. Put it this way, how many tiny villages do you know that can claim two generals to their credit, and another military hero born just a five-minute drive away?
That third one, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir George Monro, hailed from the village Clonfin. Born in 1700 into a military family, his own soldierly career would be quite lacklustre until 1757, when he achieved renown through the Siege of Fort William Henry during the Seven Years’ War between the British and the French. Situated on the frontier between the British Province of New York and the French Province of Canada, Fort William Henry was a key military position which found itself in the path of a combined French and Indian force of 8,000 men.
Monro and his 1,500 garrison of troops were soon besieged, but managed to hold out for several days, earning the admiration of the French commander. Eventually, though, Monro had to surrender. However, while removing his troops under a flag of truce, his men were set upon by marauding Indians and decimated. Monro himself would survive the attack, but die three months later through illness.
The dastardly deed was immortalised by James Fenimore Cooper in his novel, The Last of the Mohicans, ensuring that Monro’s name would live on in literature as well as history.
But Monro wasn’t the only boy from that small neck of the Longford woods who would achieve fame – there was also the ‘Blacksmith of Ballinalee’, Sean MacEoin, who would cause a bit of a stir, to put it mildly.
MacEoin was born a blacksmith’s son in 1893, outside Granard, and would go on to set up his own forge in Kilinshley, in the Ballinalee district. But smithying would soon take second place to his other duties, namely as the leader of an IRA flying column in the area during the War of Independence.
To say MacEoin had an eventful war is an understatement. Aside from being responsible for many attacks on British troops, he and 300 men are credited with repelling a 900-British force intent on burning Ballinalee in November 1920, as a reprisal for previous IRA raids.
In January, the following year, he was almost captured in a house by a 10-man British patrol, but MacEoIn fought his way out, hurling grenades and firing his pistol, killing the patrol’s officer in the process.
A few weeks later, at Clonfin, (home to Sir Geore Monro), MacEoin and his men ambushed two lorries carrying 18 British troops, killing and wounding their commanders. He showed his chivalrous side by ordering his men to treat the enemy wounded as British reinforcements converged on the scene. MacEoin’s actions would later be praised by his opponents and castigated by men from his own side.
The following month, March 1921, MacEoin was captured by the British at Mullingar station and sentenced to death (later commuted) for the murder of an RIC Inspector.
Michael Collins organised a daring rescue attempt in which six IRA men dressed as British soldiers and drove a captured armoured car into Mountjoy Prison, but MacEoin was not in the area that they had expected him to be and his would-be rescuers had to retreat under heavy fire.
Following the Anglo-Irish Treaty, MacEoin joined the National Army and, in June 1922, was appointed general in charge of the Western theatre, where he helped subdue anti-treaty forces. He held several high-ranking positions after that, culminating in becoming Army Chief of Staff in February 1929.
MacEoin would have an equally successful political career, serving two terms as Minister for Defence and one as Minister for Justice.
It’s interesting to note that when he was facing the death sentence, MacEoin’s mother wrote a letter pleading clemency to her son’s neighbour, who just happened to be one of the most senior British officers in World War One.
Yes, MacEoin, the bane of the British Army, lived just a stone’s throw from the home of local landlord, Field Marshall, Sir Henry Wilson.
Wilson’s military career was even more impressive than that of MacEoin’s. He was instrumental in drawing up plans to deploy British troops to France in the event of war and became Chief of Staff, Sir John French’s most trusted adviser during Britain’s 1914 military campaign.
He would later be Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s military adviser before becoming Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1918. Four years later, Wilson, who was also a Unionist MP, would be gunned down by two IRA men, Reginald Dunne and the one-legged Joseph O’Sullivan.
As Wilson alighted from a taxi outside his home in London, the two IRA men pounced, shooting the Field Marshall seven times. As Dunne later testified: ‘I fired three shots rapidly, the last one from the hip, as I took a step forward. Wilson was now uttering short cries and in a doubled-up position staggered towards the edge of the pavement. At this point, Joe fired once again and the last I saw of him he (Wilson) had collapsed.’
The Field Marshall had tried to draw his ceremonial sword in a bid to defend himself but was dead before the weapon had been fully cleared of its scabbard.
One little area of Longford and three extraordinary military careers…
What history… and what stories Ballinalee’s locals must know as they watch the outsiders speeding past in search of more worthy places to visit.