There is a popular saying in politics sometimes attributed to Ronald Reagan ‘When you’re explaining,…
The Lieutenant featured in this article was my granduncle Matthew Cullen and Monday the 29th of August 2022 will mark the 100th anniversary of his death, when he, along with a small party of National Troops [Free State army] from Tullamore Barracks were attacked by about fifty Irregulars [Republican IRA) at Bonaterrin [Bunaterin] Hill, near Blueball, Tullamore.
Lieutenant Matthew Cullen, (3rd Southern Division Óglaigh na hÉireann) was only 21 years old. Born 25th May 1901 in Ballymorris, Portarlington County Laois, he was one of five boys born to Timothy and Mary Cullen. Matthew joined the Free state Army on 16th of March 1922 as did his two brothers Thomas and James (my grandfather) and by August 1922 were all stationed at Tullamore barracks. Matthew was also an ex-internee of the Rath Camp in the Curragh of Kildare and was there in Hut 9 on the 9th of September 1921 when the great escape happened.
Before he was stationed in Tullamore Barracks [the barracks was at High Street – now Donal Farrelly’s house/ and Charleville Castle] Matthew spent over five months in the Nenagh Barracks, and since the opening of the Civil War was involved in almost every engagement in the Nenagh area. He was only a week in Tullamore when the fatal ambush happened.
On Sunday morning the 21st of August 2022 at ten, an anniversary mass will be said for him in the Church of the Assumption, Tullamore, the very same church where 100 years ago Requiem Mass was held for him by the Rev. Father Lynam CC.
(The Midland Tribune, Tipperary Sentinel and Offaly Vindicator Saturday 2nd September 1922)
LIEUT CULLEN KILLED AND LIEUT LEAHY SERIOUSLY
DEADLY AND FIERCE ENFILADE FIRE AT BONATERRIN
MEDICAL TESTIMONY AS TO THE USE OF AN
Coroner’s Jury Commend Motor Driver’s Bravery.
News reached Tullamore on Tuesday evening about 7.30 p. m, of a very painful and distressing character, which cast a gloom of sorrow and depression over the town and district. It was that a party of National troops had been ambushed at Bonaterrin, some four miles from Tullamore, and about a mile from Blueball, and that Lieut Cullen, a native of Portarlington, an ex-internee had been killed, and that Lieut Leahy, a native of Listowel, Co. Kerry, had been seriously wounded. Both were officers in the Tullamore garrison headquarters, were very well known, and much esteemed by the townspeople. Particulars to hand state that three cars carrying a party of about 20 officers and men from Tullamore, had been out in the neighbourhood of Kilcormac and Mountbolus engaged in clearing road obstructions.
When the work of clearing obstructions was finished they proceeded to return homewards about 6 p.m. The first car – they were all open cars – was driven by Capt. Donnelly, O C of the local garrison, with Lieut Cullen on his left, there also being in the car Capt. Wm Egan, son of Mr John Egan, Croghan, Rhode, with Lieutenants Lawlor, Leahy, and Volunteer Dunne. The second car, which was driven by Mick O’Neill, was in charge of Sergeant Reilly, a native of Tullamore who had with him a party of five men.
Bunaterin townland north of Blueball. So when you are whizzing past think of Matthew Cullen and that day 100 years ago. Map courtesy of Townlands.ie – one great site
The third car was driven by Driver Ennis and contained a party of five men, in charge of Corporal Collins. Everything went well with the party until Bonaterrin was reached, when fire was suddenly poured on the first car, which was a considerable distance ahead of the other, by attackers who were in places concealment and who fired at close range. It is stated that they must not have been more than 80 or 100 yards distant. It was enfiladed fire of a very deadly character, and maintained with great fierceness. Lieut Cullen was struck with a bullet which pierced his heart, and he died immediately. It rent his uniform in the region of the heart, and appears to have been one of an explosive kind. Lieut Leahy was hit on the back and the bullet passed through his stomach, his spine being seriously injured. He lies in a critical condition, and at the time of writing, 11p. (Tuesday) is still unconscious.
St Vincent’s Hospital, Tullamore about 1930 where the body was taken
The attackers appeared to have fired from both sides of the road at the point indicated, one crowd of them being evidently concealed in a wood and the other near a farmyard adjacent, at the opposite side of the road. The remaining occupants of the first car now replied vigorously to the attacker’s fire. Lieut Cullen had been killed and Lieut Leahy wounded, but the survivors Capt. Donnelly, O C, Capt William Egan, Lieut Lawlor, and Volunteer Dunne gallantly fought against great odds, until the other cars came along to their assistance. When the other two cars came on, a general engagement developed which lasted over half an hour but the National troops eventually, with the aid of a withering fire, scattered the attackers, who fled. Lieut Leahy was removed to Tullamore while the fight proceeded in the third car driven by driver Ennis passing under a hail of bullets. It was seen that he was bleeding profusely from the wounds he received in the attacks, and therefore little time was lost in bringing him away for treatment. He was promptly treated by Dr Moorhead on arrival at Tullamore Garrison headquarters. The doctor pronounced his injuries to be of a very grave character. Subsequently he was taken in a Tullamore Co Hospital ambulance to the Co Hospital, accompanied by Dr Meagher, who further treated him, and where he lies in an unconscious and critical state, under the care of the Nuns and nursing staff. The body of Lieut Cullen was removed to the morgue of the Co Hospital where it lies. His clothes were saturated with blood, and there are evidences of a terrible wound. The body was viewed by Rev Fathers Daly, Lynam, and O’Keeffe C C’s. The last rites of the church were administered to Lieut Leahy by Father O’Keeffe CC, before he had been removed from the garrison headquarters. Captain Donnelly received a slight wound in the course of the engagement.
Service sheet for Matthew Cullen (courtesy of the Military Archive)
Capt. Egan had a providential escape a bullet having swept the pince-nez he was wearing, without however doing him any injury. Lieut. Matt Cullen, killed, was a First Lieutenant and a native of Portarlington and was an ex-internee. Lieut. Leahy, wounded, was a native of Listowel, Co. Kerry, and was up to the time he joined the National Forces a chemist in the employment of Mr. Shiels at his pharmacy in Tullamore. He had been in town for a year or two and was well known to the townspeople, both in his professional and military capacity, and his kindly and gentle qualities rendered him a general favourite. Lieut. Cullen was about 28 years of age, and Lieut. Leahy about 32 years. When the news of the attack reached Tullamore, the local troops were mobilised, and proceeded to the scene immediately, but the attackers had fled before they arrived, as a result of the searching and with suing fire of Captain Donnelly, his officers, and men. It is stated that even though well protected by cover, the attackers must have suffered casualties. A visit to the scene of the irregular’s position disclosed to the troops the fact that the attack had been carefully planned. There was many evidence of the conflict around in the shape of empty cartridge cases etc.
A semi-official account of the fighting states:-“We left Tullamore on Tuesday about 3 o’clock in three Ford cars, containing five officers and ten men, and we went to Mountbolus, and from there went to clear some trees off the main road to Kilcormac. We were joined at Blueball by troops stationed there and proceeded afterwards to Kilcormac. We entered Kilcormac, and saw the Officer there in charge, and we left Kilcormac about 6.30 p.m, returning to Tullamore via Blueball.
The first car was the Brigade car which was about 40 yards ahead of the others at the time. In the car were Captain Donnelly, O C; Lieut. Cullen, Lieut. Leahy, Lieut. Lawlor, Staff CaptainEgan, and Private Dunne. When we came to the face of Bonaterrin Hill, about a mile from Blueball on the Tullamore side, fire was opened on us from two points, one on our right and partly in front, and on the other side from concealed positions in a shrubbery on the hill, about 60 yards from the road-that was on the left, or Rahan side. When the firing of the attackers opened Captain Donnelly turned the car into the ditch towards the left hand side, to give the occupants a chance of getting out without being exposed to fire or caught in the fall of the car, which turned over. There were four of us in the lower side of the car which had turned over when it was run into the ditch. We managed to get clear before the car turned. The car was then across the road. Lieuts Cullen and Leahy were on the upper or Tullamore side of the car: they had got off it, and were taking cover under a wall from the fire directed on them from the flank. That fire was coming from the scrub. There were only about two or three attackers on the other side of the road, but it was they who did all the damage. They held a position in a little grove near Bradley’s house, and we subsequently examined the position there. Just after we got out of the car and had taken up positions facing the flank fire, Lieut. Cullen was shot dead while in the act of ramming a cartridge into the breach of his rifle. He still held the bolt of the rifle in his hand when we got him. Immediately after Lieut. Cullen was shot Lieut. Leahy was struck on the side by a bullet fired from the same point-the grove near Bradley’s house- as he was crouching under a wall watching the flank fire from the other side.
The four remaining occupants of the car continued to fire in the directions from which theshots came – on the flank towards the scrub-and also in the other direction. We knew that there was fire coming up the road from the other direction, but we could not locate it exactly at the time. When the second car arrived its occupants dismounted and took cover, and we then poured a steady fire on both positions of the attackers-the scrub on the flank and the grove near Bradley’s on the other side of the road, from which the fatal shots came. When the third car came the soldiers it contained got out and took up positions about 120 yards away from the first car, and joined vigorously in the attack.
In the meantime, while firing was still hot, Lieut. Leahy, who was bleeding profusely from the wound on his side, was taken into Driver’s Ennis’s car; and Driver Ennis drove with thewounded officer through a heavy hail of lead from the attackers, to Tullamore. Lieut. Cullen’s death was practically instantaneous.
When the second and third cars came along and poured fire into the attacker’s positions the fire of the latter died out. Just before it ceased one of the attackers was heard to moan and shout on the left hand side of the road in the scrub, where his cap was afterwards found. The place was searched subsequently, and a large quantity of empty cartridge cases were found there – about 50 or 60 of them with some live cartridges. In the attack from Bradley’s grove side dum-dum bullets were used by the attackers. They cut holes the size of half-a-crown in the metal work of the car. Capt. Donnelly who was in charge of the party, had a narrow escape at the outset. A bullet went through the glass screen of the car he was driving, and if he had remained in his original position he would have got it straight; it came the moment he was swerving the car, and this movement saved him. All the occupants of this, the first car or Brigade car, had miraculous escapes, and the mystery is how any of them survived the terrible hail of lead concentrated on the car and its occupants.
The road at Bunaterin, near Blueball and Screggan, today
When reinforcements arrived from Tullamore the attackers had disappeared, and no trace of them could be found. They had three miles of wood cover under which they were enabled to retreat. Lieut. Cullen was struck on the chest with two bullets, which made a terrible gash. The military are communicating with Lieut. Cullen’s family conveying the sad news, and with a view to arrangements for his interment.
They are also trying to get in touch with Lieut. Leahy’s people (who live on or near Listowel, Co. Kerry). Lieut. Leahy was Brigade Chemistry Officer to the Offaly No.1 Brigade. Lieut. Cullen took part in recent fighting in Tipperary, and was only a week in Tullamore.
THE SCENE OF THE SHOOTING.
The scene of the attack, Bonaterrin is on rising ground, a short distance from Blueball – about a mile or a mile and a half. There is a grove near Bradley’s house, and almost directly opposite, but more on the Blueball side – the scrub, with extensive wood tract behind it. The grove portion commands the road, and that of the scrub overlooks it; the situation of the place favoured the operations of the attackers. From the scrub on the left, the troops as they were coming along to Tullamore, there was flanking fire, but the fire ftom the grove on their right, was partly frontal; from this point the most deadly and destructive fire came. Considering the advantages the attackers had in position and numbers, the fight put on by the troops, who had no time for selecting or preparing positions was a wonderfully plucky one. The small party, under capable leadership, handled the situation with great skill and bravery and rendered the positions of the attackers untenable, even before the Tullamore garrison reinforcements arrived.
EVIDENCES OF THE CONFLICT
A gentleman who passed from Kilcormac to Tullamore about an hour after the fighting, informed our Tullamore reporter that there were various evidence of the conflict at the scene of the battle. A number of cars from Kilcormac and Kinnitty side were held up on the road for a pretty long interval. The National troops have drawn a kind of cordon about the place. The point at which the attack took place is on one side a wooded eminence overlooking the road on the right hand side going from Tullamore to Kilcormac and on the left it also raised country, but with a few houses. The place is about half a mile from Tullamore Golf Links, [ the old links at Screggan] and is on the main road from Tullamore to Birr, four and a half miles from Tullamore and eight and a half miles from Kilcormac. The point from which the shots were fired was according to an account, only about forty yards from the main road along which the troops were proceeding. It was dusk and the conditions were favourable to the attackers, who were of course in a position to select their own ground. It is a fairly populated part of the country. Two cars riddled with bullets were seen after the fight on the roadside.
Prayers were offered up by the celebrant of the morning Mass in the Church of the Assumption, Tullamore on Wednesday morning, for the repose of the soul of Lieut. Cullen, who, he said, was murdered the previous evening.
An inquest was opened on the body of Lieut. Matt Cullen in the Co. Hospital Board Room, Tullamore, on Wednesday, at 3 p.m. Mr. Malachy Scally was foreman and the other jurors sworn were – Messes T English, John Kelly, Harbour; Sg: P W Keaveney do; R Nugent, P J O’Meara, James Walsh, Barrack St, Joseph McGlinchey, P J Dunne, Barrack St, John Branet, Michael McGinn , Daniel Larkin, Geo N Walshe. The coroner (Mr. Conway, Solr) said – This is an inquiry into a tragic and serious occurrence, which I am glad to say, is the first of its kind that happened in this county, and I hope it will be the last. It happened yesterday evening, about 6 p.m. as the troops were returning from Kilcormac. They were attacked at a place called Bonaterrin, at the opposite side of Pallas, from the hills, and the wounds received by Lieut. Cullen practically meant instantaneous death. They were caused by what I am told is now a great favourite – dum-dum bullets – and they were fired from above, and practically his whole sheet was torn away; but I don’t want to distress you with any sermonising, as you can all form your own opinion when you have heard the evidence. I have received a circular from the Minister of Home Affairs as recently as Monday, and he directed that in the case of any person being shot that a telegram should be sent to him, so that there was a possibility of the Ministry sending down an inspector to attend this inquiry. I wired to the Minister for Home Affairs about this stating that I would open the inquiry at 3 p. m. today, but would take only evidence of identification, so as to allow the removal of the remains. The inquiry will be resumed at 12 o clock tomorrow, if that hour suits the convenience of everybody – Mr. English (juror) – I want to get away by the first train in the morning, and I would be grateful if you would excuse me. – Coroner – I will excuse you. The jury viewed the body lying in the morgue, Co Hospital. James Cullen deposed – I am a brother of the deceased officer. This is his body the jury have seen. He was 21 1⁄2 years old last birthday – last May. He was unmarried, and a native of Ballymorris, Portarlington. – Coroner – That is the only evidence I can produce today on account of the receipt the circular from the Ministry of Home Affairs, and I will adjourn the inquiry to 12 o’clock tomorrow (Thursday). I wired that information already. – Foreman – Does the morning train arrive here by 12 o’clock?. – Coroner – Yes or earlier. The representative of the Ministry may come down this evening. The reason I started the inquiry today was because the military wanted to remove the remains. – Foreman – We would wish to express our sincere sorrow at the sad occurrence. – Chairman – We can do that, and add it as a rider to the verdict later on. – Mr. McGlinchy (Juror) – Will Mr. Cullen (witness) be required tomorrow? – Coroner – No. – The proceedings then adjourned until 12 o’clock the following day.
REMOVAL OF REMAINS.
The remains of the late Lieut. Cullen were removed from the Co. Hospital, Tullamore, on Wednesday evening at 7 p. m, and were conveyed to the Church of the Assumption, where they lay overnight. At the church door they were received by the Very Rev. Father Callary, PP V G and Rev. Father Lynam, C C and placed on a catafalque in front of the high altar. The transference of the remains to the church was marked by a remarkable demonstration of public sorrow and sympathy. They were accompanied by an immense gathering of the people of all classes and creeds, blinds were drawn, and business places closed as a mark of respect to the memory of the gallant officer. A guard of honour composed of troops of the local garrison, with rifles reversed, marched beside the hearse, in which the remains were carried enclosed in a beautiful coffin, which was wrapped in the tri-colour. Rev. Father Lynam C C, accompanied them the Co. Hospital. Deceased’s brother, with officer comrades of the deceased, followed immediately behind the hearse.
Fr Callary (front row) and above Matthews and Fr Eugene Daly
At the Church Rev. Father Callary announced that Requiem Mass would be celebrated for the repose of the soul of the deceased at 7.30 the following morning (Thursday) in the Church of the Assumption, and that the remains would be conveyed to the morning train for Portarlington afterwards.
The Requiem Mass on Thursday morning was celebrated by Rev. Father Lynam C C, a large congregation assisting, including a number of officers and men of the National Army. The coffin was removed from catafalque in church, where it rested overnight, and when the cortege proceeded to the station business in shops was again suspended, and the employees, as well as the general public of all classes, accompanied the remains to the station. The guard of honour, as on the previous evening, when the remains were removed to the church, consisted of the men who were in the fatal ambush with the deceased officer. This body of men also proceeded with the remains to Portarlington today (Thursday) and were the firing party at the graveside. The Pipers Band led the cortege from the Church of the Assumption to Tullamore railway station, playing “Flowers of the Forest” and Lord Lovatt’s Lament.
Beautiful floral tributes included one from the officers of the Tullamore garrison, and one from the men of the Tullamore garrison. The interment took place at 3 o’clock at Portarlington on Thursday with the Dublin Guards Band in attendance, when there was a remarkable demonstration of public sympathy. The chief mourners were – James and Tom Cullen (brothers), with the following officers – Brig General Gallagher, Capt. Forrestal, Quarter Master: Capt. Egan and Second Lieut. McMunn. Brigadier Transport Officers, all of Brigade staff; also Lieut Comdt O’Leary, Capt. S Irvine, Capt. Donnelly, Lieut Barry, O. C. Daingean; Lieut Keogh, O. C. Kilcormac; Lieut Lawlor, and Lieut Hughes of the Divisional Staff. Lieut. Cullen had been interned in Rath for eight months. He was stationed at Nenagh Barracks for a long time, and had seen much service since the opening of the present hostilities having been almost in every engagement in the Nenagh area. He was in Tullamore only about eight days when the fatal ambush took place.
FROM LEIX AND KERRY.
Lieut. Leahy is a native of Lisselion Cross a place between Ballybunion and Listowel, Co. Kerry, and belongs to the farming class, his people been extensive farmers. He is a young man of fine- physique.
Lieut. Cullen was a native of Portarlington, and was well over six feet – a tall, athletic young man and during the short time he had been in Tullamore a conspicuous figure, because of his size and fine soldierly bearing.
LIEUT LEAHY’S CONDITION
Lieut Leahy recovered consciousness on Wednesday morning and spoke now and again. The medical and nursing staff of the Co. Hospital are most assiduous in their attention to him, but his condition is still critical.
At the resumed inquest on Lieut Cullen at Tullamore on Thursday, Coroner Conway said he was glad to say that the inquiry would be shortened. He had got a telegram from the Minister of Home Affairs, and it was not proposed to send down any officer from headquarters. Consequently they wanted only one military witness and the doctor who examined the body. The proceedings would therefore, be comparatively brief.
CAPT. DONNELLY’S EVIDENCE
Capt. Wm. Donnelly deposed – We, military party, were coming along the road on Tuesday evening, 29th; I was driving the first car, and was not expecting anything to happen, but a few bullets came through the windscreen of the car. Whoever fired at us had positions on both sides of the road. There were six of us (military) in the car including myself. Immediately the fire opened I blocked the car to the left, and it ran into the ditch; the car toppled over on its side. The inside of the car was facing up the road towards Tullamore. Lieut. Leahy and Lieut. Cullen, who were now on the road, took cover kin the car. They had been thrown out onto the road and got back into the car. Fire opened then from Tullamore direction on the right-hand side of the road. Lieut Cullen was first hit, and I believe he died at once. About a minute afterwards Lieut Leahy got wounded by a shot from same direction, which came down the road. We got into position and started firing on the wood at left hand side going towards Tullamore. We could not see anyone at the time or at any time. The firing from both sides of the road continued for about ten minutes. There were two cars carrying military which came up to us in the meantime, and got into position, and joined in the defence. We had no casualties, but the two Lieutenants. Lieut. Leahy was only wounded about a minute when he was removed. The driver of the last car came up under fire, and took Lieut. Leahy and brought him straight on to Tullamore to the barracks. He was sent after a short time to the Co. Hospital – after our doctor had seen him. The whole affair lasted only ten minutes. It was about 6.45 p m when the occurrence took place – Mr. G A Walshe (juror) – What was the driver’s name? – Witness – Tommy Ennis was the driver of the Ford car that picked up and drove in the wounded officer, Lieut. Leahy, under fire.
Dr. Timothy Meagher deposed – I am medical officer for the military in Tullamore. I inspected the body of Lieut. Cullen (dead officer) on Wednesday morning, in the Morgue, Co/ Hospital. There were four bullet wounds in the chest, and one in the abdomen. Death must have been practically instantaneous. – Coroner – Were the wounds all caused by the same class of bullet? – Witness – It was obvious that all the wounds were not caused by the same class of bullet. There was one wound running from the right shoulder at the back, evidently coming out at the
left shoulder in front. This seemed to have been produced by an ordinary service bullet fired at fairly close range. There were two wounds on the breast bone, one of them about the size of half a crown and the other about the size of the palm of one’s hand. These I think were not produced by an ordinary service bullet – Coroner – Were they caused by soft nosed or Dum Dum bullets? – Witness – By an expanding bullet. The intestines were protruding through the stomach wound. I don’t think the stomach wound was caused by an ordinary service bullet. If it were the intestines would not have been protruding. The cause of death was shock and haemorrhage, due to gunshot wounds.
Tom Conway, solicitor and coroner (d. 1931)
The jury brought in the following verdict – “We agree with the medical evidence that the cause of death of Lieut. Matt Cullen was due to shock and haemorrhage, caused by gunshot wounds received in an ambush at Bonaterrin, Screggan, on Tuesday 29th August, about 6.45 p m, shots wilfully and maliciously fired by persons unknown. We offer to the relatives of the deceased officer, and his comrades, our sincere sympathy, and commend to special note Driver Thomas Ennis for his bravery on the occasion. – The Coroner said that he concurred with the verdict. He thought it was an atrocity to have it occur in a country free from such things up to the present, and he hoped that freedom from such occurrences would continue, and that there would be no more investigations of this kind to carry out. He might add that as far as the sympathy of the public was concerned it was shown last night on removal of the remains from the church. Evidently deceased had the sympathy of the vast majority of the people of Tullamore. – After the jury produced their verdict Capt. Donnelly was called in, and the coroner, in explaining it to the officer, said it amounted to one of wilful murder practically against persons unknown. He would give the officer copy of it if necessary. – Capt. Donnelly – I don’t think it is necessary. _ Coroner – Any time you want it we will give it to you.
Offaly History wishes to thank Raymond Cullen for this article. If you have a story to tell get in touch [email protected]. Our blogs reach 2,000 every week and are retained in our online archive at http://www.offalyhistory.com. Subscribe and get note of our stories with extra this week to mark Heritage Week 2022.