Remembering Sean Mac Caoilte/John Forrestal of Tullamore (1885–1922). Great talent we lost during the revolutionary period.
Happy St Patrick’s Day to all our followers. A good day to recall a talented…
My story starts as a small boy growing up in Dillon Street, Tullamore in the 1940s. I remember seeing a cutting from a newspaper which I presumed was from a Tipperary weekly paper. The article covered a report of a feis and sports held in a field at the Golden Vale Hotel in Dundrum Co. Tipperary. It mentioned about the Misses Crummy from Ballydine taking part in the Irish dancing. A small report on the opposite side of the cutting was headed
Shooting near Birr. Charged at Birr with conspiring in 1923 to kill and killing John Finlay, Tullamore. Chas and Peter Molloy and Michael Coyne were sent for trial.
What is so unusual about this paper cutting from 1923?
My mother, one of the Misses Crummy mentioned in the article, was now working in Tullamore for T. English & Co. She met and married my father Thomas, brother of John Finlay some ten years later.
Drays outside the Williams shop and offices at Barrack/Patrick St., Tullamore about 1904. The motor lorry was more general from 1915. One of the T. English shops was on the corner with William/Columcille Street.
What a coincidence?
When I was growing up my father never spoke about the civil war, but I knew that his family were staunch Republicans. I knew that my uncle Jack, as he was known, worked for D.E. Williams in Tullamore. His job entailed delivering goods by horse and cart to shops owned by the company throughout the midlands. He had been working for the company for the previous eight years. He left Tullamore about 10.30 on Monday morning February 12th 1923 with a cargo of provisions for the branch houses in Clara, Ballycumber and Ferbane. He reached Ballycumber shortly after 2 o’clock, when, having delivered some goods to the manager of the branch house there and also to Flynn’s public house, he continued his journey to Ferbane. The story goes that when driving along the road nearing Lemanaghan he was accosted by two of three armed men, who halted him and proceeded to raid his load. He had been robbed before and was warned by his employers that the next time this happened he would lose his job, as they were under the opinion that coming from a Republican background he was handing over his load to the I.R.A.
The Williams shop at Ballycumber about 1904.
Jack was described in the newspapers as a man of powerful physique resisted the raiders, one of whom seeing they were not likely to succeed in the enterprise, and that they were likely to get worsted, presented a rifle with which was armed, fired, shooting Jack through the heart. The horse and dray were found on the roadside some distance from the body, nothing having apparently been interfered with. It is thought that when the raiders saw what they had done that they decamped as quickly as they could across the fields not venturing to interfere with the contents of the dray. A Mauser rifle cartridge case was found near the scene of the tragedy
The occurrence was reported to the Civic Guards at Clara, a number of whom proceeded to the scene of the shooting and had the body removed to Ballycumber where an inquest was held by Dr Wm. Meagher, Ferbane. The jury found that the deceased was shot by some person or persons unknown, and tendered sympathy to his family. It was reported deceased was 26 years of age, was a young man of splendid physique and muscle. He was a prominent Gaelic footballer having taken part in many senior Offaly championships matches, and on several occasions had represented his county.
His tragic death will no doubt be regretted by every Gael in Offaly.
The remains were conveyed to Killeenmore , the home of the deceased by motor on Tuesday night. His tragic death has cast a gloom over Killeigh and district where deceased was a favourite with all classes. The funeral of young Finlay took place from Killeigh church on Wednesday afternoon, and was the largest held for possibly a century in that neighbourhood. The cortege comprised hundreds of young men and dozens of horse and motor vehicles. There was a big contingent of ex-I.R.A. men from Tullamore, and Wednesday being half-holiday, a large number of Messrs Williams’s employees attended. Mr M. Whelan T.C. represented the Transport Workers Union; several members of the Tullamore Urban Council, including the vice-chairman, Mr Berrill were present. Wreaths were sent from Tullamore ex-I.R.A. men, and from Offaly No.1 Brigade I.R.A., to which the deceased belonged, and with whom he took a prominent part in the fight against the British in the years 1920-21, being subsequently captured and interned. There was a beautiful wreath from the Tullamore G.A.A. club, which was represented by Messrs Holland, O’Brien, Hogan and Fitzsimons. Several other clubs from throughout the county were also represented including Killeigh and Ballycommon.
Charles Molloy and Peter Molloy, brothers, Dernagun, Ferbane, and Michael Coyne, Turraun, Ferbane, Kings County have been arrested and charged with the murder of John Finlay, Tullamore, on February 12th 1923. Finlay was a van-man in the employment of D.E. Williams, the Tullamore firm
The accused were brought before Mr Larkin, P.C., at Ferbane charged with the offence and remanded in custody to Ferbane District Court on Thursday 10th September 1925. At Ferbane District Court on Thursday Charles Molloy and Peter Molloy Dernagun, and Michael Coyne, Turraun, were returned for trial to the next sitting of the High Court on charges of conspiring to kill and killing, John Finlay, Tullamore, a van-man in the employment of Messrs D.E. Williams, Tullamore, on February 12th 1923 at Leabeg, between Ferbane and Ballycumber. Mr. Rogers, State Solicitor, who prosecuted, said sometime between 2 and 3 o’clock on the day in question Finlay’s dead body was found on the highway, where he had been shot and murdered in the defence of his master’s property.
Sentence of death was passed on Charles Molloy, aged twenty-one years of King’s County by Mr Justice Sullivan at the Central Criminal Court, Green Street on Monday 25th January 1926. He was found guilty of the murder of John Finlay, a van-driver, on the high road between Ballycumber and Ferbane in Kings County on the 12th February 1923. The prisoner’s brother, Peter Molloy, aged nineteen, and Michael Coyne pleaded guilty to attempted robbery on the same occasion, and a nolle prosequi was entered by the State in a charge of murder for which they were to be tried. They were put back for sentence. Mr Carrigan, K.C., who prosecuted for the State, said that there was not a single extenuating circumstance to distinguish the case from cold-blooded murder.[Luckily for the accused men the Civic Guards were dealing with the case and not the military. Five Offaly men had been executed in January for possession of arms – three of whom were from Tullamore – see January blog on the Birr executions.]
Finlay was a van-driver employed by Messrs. Williams of Tullamore. It was known that he would pass along the road with his horse and van at a certain hour, and the accused man, his brother, and Coyne took up positions in a deserted stable which commanded a view of the road, and there lay in wait for him, their primary object being robbery. The accused man had a loaded rifle. When Finlay came along with his horse and van the three men appeared on the road, ‘held him up’ and told him to ‘hand over the goods’. He refused, and an altercation ensued, during which the accused man levelled his rifle at Finlay and shot him dead.
The man from Killenmore
Jack was born here in Killeenmore, near Tullamore, in 1897, one of eleven children six boys and five girls. His parents, Patrick and Mary Ellen, were a well- known local farming family. Killenmore is about three miles from the village of Killeigh with its very attractive green associated with two great events, and a world-famous greyhound.
I remember as a young boy in the late 40s and early 50s coming here with my father on our bicycles to Killeigh sports which was held every August Monday Bank Holiday This was a great occasion for the village as it attracted very large crowds who came to witness some of Ireland’s top athletics and cyclists taking part. It was also a very special day for people of the parish who had moved away, as they made this a special day to return and meet up with friends and relations have a drink and a chat and remember bygone days.
Early in 2014 I meet up with Pat Heffernan whom I had known since our days playing for Tullamore G.A.A. club, and for the last few years on the golf course. Pat had known the story of my uncle Jack, as his father-in-law had heard the shots being fired and gave evidence at the murder trial. Ì brought the old cutting from the Tipperary paper and also the football medal, as I was always interested to know about the trial and what happened to the three men involved. With Billy Cronly (R.I.P.) a long-time friend of mine I decided to head to Ballycumber to see if we could locate the cross as I had not been on this road for over thirty years. I had a good idea where it should be. I knew there was a big white house opposite and also it was after a bend on the road. The house was originally owned by the Boland family, and it was in their barn that the three men hid out in before Jack came along. To my surprise we had no trouble finding it, the house was still there now in the ownership of the Rigney family, the road was still the same, the only problem was the cross was badly damaged lying in a drain and was not visible if you were driving by.
Jackie Finlay with the then councillor Sinead Dooley and the late Billy Cronly, Lemanaghan 2012.
Within a week Pat phoned me to contact Carthage Minnock formerly from Rahan near Tullamore, now a retired garda living in Dublin, who had the full story concerning the trial.. He told me as a boy he spent a lot of his summer holidays with his grandparents who lived a short distance from where Jack was shot. He was told the history of the cross that they passed on their way to the shops in Ballycumber, as the story of Jack Finlay was well known in locality, so over the years he followed up on the story.
I was amazed with the amount of information he had acquired. He had a folder with photo copies of cuttings from the Irish Times starting on 14th February 1923, two days after the shooting up to 18th February 1926, stating that the death sentence of Charles Molloy for the murder of John Finlay had been commuted to penal servitude for life. Cartage had also a cutting from the Midland Tribune dated 30th September 1922 of a football match played between Offaly and Wicklow. Jack Finlay played centre field on the Offaly team. I was always told he was big man and a great footballer and that I never would be a patch on him.
Carthage gave the phone number of a friend of his Paddy Joe Bermingham who lived at Leabeg Cross, a short distance from where Jack was shot. I phoned Paddy Joe to find out who owned the land beside where the old cross was located. He told me that Michael Rigney owned the land in question and that he lived in the house across the road. I contacted Michael and made arrangements to meet him at his house on a Saturday as he worked in Bord Na Mona during the week. I phoned Paddy Joe to tell him that I had contacted Michael and that he was delighted to hear that I was going to erect a new cross.
He told me that a few months previous a John Brady from Killeigh who was married to a daughter of Paddy Flynn who owned a pub on the outskirts of Ballycumber, had called to his house to enquire if he knew where the Jack Finlay cross was located.
I picked up Billy Cronly in Tullamore and proceeded to meet up with Michael at his house. He told us that a few years previous a local man had hit the cross with his lorry as the cross at that time was located beside the road. On another occasion one of his calves got out and ran across the road, a lady driving by swerved to avoid the calves, she too hit the cross. Michael told me that he had no objections to wherever I wanted to erect the new cross and he would be delighted to help out in whatever way possible. I asked Michael if Paddy Flynn still ran the pub he told me that his son was now involved and that Paddy still lived there and did a bit of farming as well. Billy and I decided to call to the pub to see if Paddy was there only to find it was closed as it only opened at night-time. I saw a young man going in a side entrance which was to the living quarters and I asked him if he was related to Paddy Flynn as I wanted to speak to him. He told me he was his son and invited us in to the house and he went looking for his father in the nearby farmyard. He came back with his father and introduced us as the men who were looking for him.
I told him who I was and did he look surprised. Here was a man I first met in the late 1950s when I was working as bread salesman, and he in his late teens had taken over the running of the business on the early death of his parents. He told me that his father told him that Jack Finlay had made a delivery to him on that fateful day, so he was the last man who had spoken to him before he met his death a short while later up the road on his way to Ferbane.
In 2019 David M. Doyle (a Tullamore man) co-authored a book on Capital Punishment in Independent Ireland where it is stated:
The civil war and its legacy were the basis for mitigation in capital cases . . . Charles Molloy who was sentenced to death [in 1926] for the murder of a van driver, John Flanagan, three years earlier. Molloy was one of three armed men, including his brother and an older man, John Coyne, who held up the victim, a van driver, between Ferbane and Ballycumber. The victim challenged his assailants and was shot dead by Molloy. In his summary of the case, Thomas Finlay noted that the ‘chief point in the accused’s favour is that the murder was not premeditated’. This was fully endorsed by the judge, Mr Justice Timothy Sullivan, who, on the grounds of the prisoner’s youth and the lack of premeditation in the crime, ‘strongly’ supported the jury’s recommendation to mercy. Interestingly, he added, in, mitigation, that the crime ‘was committed in the month of February 1923 when the condition of affairs in this country was very bad’. Molloy’s mother would later write, in petitioning for her son’s release from prison, that ‘every, man, woman, and child were carrying rifles and guns. A time when unfortunate innocent boys had those firearms trust on them by older and unscrupulous men who used those innocent youths as their tools and led them into all sorts of crime’.
The young Tullamore men executed by the national army at Birr in January 1923 were not so fortunate.
This article is a further contribution to the Decade of Centenaries.
 David M. Doyle and Liam O’Callaghan, Capital punishment in Independent Ireland: a social, legal and political history (Liverpool 2019), pp 43–4.
Jackie Finlay went to publish a video history of the Lemanaghan shooting in 2014 and his book Memories are made of this (from which this except is taken) was launched at Offaly History Centre in 2017. Copies are available at Bury Quay and the online shop at http://www.offalyhistory.com. Our thanks to JF for his work.