Ballyconnell is a small town in western County Cavan. According to the 1911 census it is populated by 125 families, or in the region of 600 people, and is according to local pro-Treaty TD Seán Milroy, “in the values of country towns, a very considerable centre of county life.” Since 1921 it has been wedged up against the new border with County Fermanagh and Northern Ireland to the north and the Arigna Mountains to the south and west. As the Irish Civil War rages south of the border, and with no effective police or military presence, Ballyconnell is particularly vulnerable to the depredations of armed groups of various allegiance.
Cull is part of a contingent of 50-70 anti-Treaty fighters holed up in the Arigna Mountains. As well as guerrilla attacks against the forces of the Irish Free State, one of their most frequent actions, out of necessity, is raids on civilian targets for supplies.
Cull, according to the local newspaper, is holding up Ovens’ hardware and grocery shop in Ballyconnell when he is shot dead by a plain clothes Free State officer. The National Army later derisively refers to “the shooting of a looter named Cull … He and others were raiding in Ballyconnell when a couple of officers who were in the area got in touch with them. This gang of Irregulars have been in the mountains for several months past.”
Cull’s death is by no means the end of Ballyconnell’s troubles. The anti-Treaty column based in the Arigna Mountains, composed of Volunteers from Roscommon, Leitrim and Cavan (which includes Cull’s brother James) and led by Ned Bofin, visits a ferocious revenge on the small town for the death of Cull.
Almost exactly a month later, on the morning of February 5, 1923, at about 7:00 a.m., fifty well-armed anti-Treaty IRA fighters descend on Ballyconnell from the hills in a military lorry and several cars. The guerrillas, armed with rifles and three machine guns, stop the train to nearby Ballinamore so that word cannot get out to adjacent Free State garrisons. They then go in search of those they hold responsible for Cull’s death.
At Oven’s grocery, the proprietor, William Ovens, is shot through the thigh and badly wounded. One of his employees, William Ryan, is dragged out and shot dead. According to the local press, the guerrillas shouted, “Was it you who shot Cull?” at Ryan before they shot him. His 80-year-old father follows the fighters through the streets, shouting “murder, murder.”
Sean McGrath, an Irish language teacher originally from Galway, is also dragged out of bed and shot dead, apparently for no other reason than that he is lodging at the home of Free State supporter John Dunn.
The guerrillas proceed to bomb and burn out three shops, including the car dealership and the Post Office, and to smash the windows of the other premises with shots and rifle butts. The Ulster Bank branch is robbed of £200 and two Ford cars are seized. After a rampage of 35 minutes, the IRA column re-mount their vehicles and head back toward the Arigna Mountains, leaving the little town partially in flames, pockmarked with bullet holes and mourning the death of two of its citizens.
According to the pro-Treaty National Army, “Our troops in Belturbet got word of the raid, and immediately set out in all their transport. They were joined en route by two Fords of troops from Cavan, and all proceeded to Ballyconnell, where they arrived shortly after 9 o’clock. They followed the Irregulars past Ballinamore but failed to get in touch with them.”
(From: “The Tragedies of Ballyconnell” by John Dorney, The Irish Story (www.theirishstory.com), June 19, 2014 | Pictured: The main street of Ballyconnell in the early 20th century)