Remembering Michael McDermott, Durrow, Co. Offaly (1895-1976), an old IRA soldier of the War of Independence, by Máirtín D’Alton

My grandfather Michael McDermott of Durrow, County Offaly was born in 1895 and died on 30 March 1976. My mother later stated that he was actually aged 81 years (not 79 as on the gravestone) when he died. What caught my particular attention was that his gravestone records him as ‘CO (sic) North Offaly Batt. IRA’.  But he was not in fact the OC of the North Offaly Battalion as claimed. For the funeral, as is usual for old IRA men, the coffin was draped in the Irish tricolour, and the ‘Last Post’ was played, with a firing party over grave. My cousin still has one of the spent cartridges from the blanks.

Family informants

Michael McDermott Photo
Michael McDermott

What I know of my grandfather comes from my mother, his daughter Elizabeth, and my Great Aunt Elizabeth (Liz) whom I met in 1994 when she stayed in my mother’s house. Liz was then aged 91 and on holidays from where she lived in Washington D.C. My great-aunt stated that my grandfather worked as kitchen gardener in Durrow Abbey House, near Tullamore, home of the Otway-Tolers. His younger sisters would smell the herbs from his hands when he returned for dinner time.

My mother states that Michael had been instructed by his father to tug his forelock as a mark of respect to the ‘Young Master’ of the estate, should he encounter him in the grounds. His father minded the cattle herd of the farm on the estate. Michael would not, and resolutely charged forwards with hands firmly in his pockets whenever he encountered the young man.

While thus engaged in tending the herbs and vegetables for the kitchen, Michael met another member of staff, Ellen Hickey, from Mountcain, Knocknagree, in the Slieve Luchra area of Co. Cork, a member of the household staff of the estate (housekeeper or some such job).

026 Durrow Abbey magan - Copy
Durrow Abbey House, home of the Otway Tolers, c. 1837

On the run from 1919

Michael’s activities within the independence movement of Ireland meant that his duties to the Durrow estate were incompatible to his position as a soldier of the Irish Republican Army, and under surveillance from the crown police he stated that he went ‘on the run’ in 1919. Two younger brothers were apparently also in IRA and another was a scout.

Otway Tolers not in favour of their servants marrying within the household

Ellen Hickey’s employers, aware of her attachments, summoned her to account as to her intentions. They seemed to be unaware that history demonstrated that that their welfare depended on the goodwill of their ferociously independent tenants, who had killed two previous owners of the Durrow Estate; Hugo de Lacy in 1186, and Hector John Graham-Toler the second earl of Norbury on 3rd January 1839. The Otway Tolers demanded that Ellen either keep her paramour or her position. Ellen opted for the former, and upon leaving was apparently able to attain similar alternate employment in Westmeath.

My mother states that in an engagement between Cloneygowan and Geashill Co. Offaly, Michael’s unit was surrounded by crown forces but escaped beyond the cordon by crawling through the ditches and fields of the bogs of Moanvane, near Walsh Island. They forced a local (apparently hostile) farmer to utilise the plough he was using to plough the party’s weapon into the ground, and they made their escape.

My great-aunt Liz related a story about a Crown forces reprisal on the family. On one occasion the neat house in Gransha, Durrow, was surrounded by British soldiers, who arrived in the lane near the house very early in the morning, intent on capturing Michael and his three brothers. The commotion caused by the approach of the army lorries had meant that the family had brief but sufficient time to rouse themselves. Liz remembered seeing the moonlight glinting off the soldiers’ bayonets. When the army burst through the door, the family were assembled in the living room, except the four boys, who were ranging across the countryside at the time. My aunt said that enraged at not capturing the boys, the commanding officer manhandled Michael’s elderly father, and decided to hold him accountable for the actions of his sons. Ordering that a rifle be placed in the old man’s mouth, he demanded to know the whereabouts of the young men. The old man behaved with some sang froid and answered the officer with the claim that he had just missed them. They had left early to go to the bog. If the officer had only informed them that he was coming…..At this Elizabeth said that she bolted from her elder sisters protective clutches and threw herself around her father’s leg. Loudly sobbing, she cried ‘Don’t shoot my Daddy!’, and the officer paused, either he was moved by the little girls distress, or his act was a bluff. In any case the soldiers did not shoot, and were content to satisfy their anger by ransacking the house, breaking the windows and the crockery, and tearing up the soft furnishings.

The countryside was in tumult, Liz remembered jumping into the hedges on the sound of approaching army lorries, as the security forces were known to fire on and kill civilians in the fields.

Gortnamona Front view of house
Gortnamona House destroyed by fire 1923, home of the O’Connor Morris family.

Republican policeman in Tullamore

My mother states that when a truce was arranged between the British and Irish forces, Michael in his capacity as local IRA commander took over policing activities in Tullamore and the surrounding area, including the protection of property and personnel. On the subsequent accession of a treaty, the new Irish Government immediately flooded the country with newly formed National Army. The two groups thus in occupation of the country, local volunteer guerrilla fighters, and uniformed Dublin soldiers, viewed each other with some suspicion and not a little hostility. Michael refused any accommodation with the new regime, thus showing himself hostile to the terms of the treaty at an early stage, and refused to relinquish his position. Michael on cycling home to Durrow would do so with his machine pistol cocked upon the handlebars of his bicycle. He would later state, according to my mother, that he was never as afraid of the British as he was of the new Free State Army.

My aunt Mary, my mother’s brother’s wife, told me that Michael had told her a story that when he was a policeman, he proceeded to Tullamore Railway Station, on a tip off, that two brothers were coming to rob the Munster and Leinster Bank [the Ulster bank was robbed on two occasions in 1921 but the town had no Munster & Leinster bank until 1925]. When challenged one of the brothers paused, but the other continued. Michael related that they struggled, and the result was that Michael strangled the man to death.

Another story he told my aunt was of a spy, apparently called [Eric] Steadman, who was apprehended. When caught, he apparently admitted his crimes. He was later shot dead.

When the animosity between the two groups in control of the countryside erupted into Civil War, Michael was apprehended returning from Port Laoise on official duty and taken into custody. Michael was imprisoned in Tullamore, being later moved to another prison in Kilkenny City. The IRA, decided to burn the estate house at Durrow (May 1923), and another house at Gortnamona (August 1922), ostensibly to deny it being used as a billet by Free State forces. Gortnamona was burned to the vaulted cellars in 1922. [Durrow suffered less damage and was rebuilt.] My mother said that his apparently was on the orders of a man called [Seán] McGuinness.

Leinster Leader, 3 March, 1923

Prison in Kilkenny in course of the Civil War

My mother told me that Michael related the story of a prison escape attempt from Kilkenny jail. He said that a tunnel was excavated to the rear of the property across the street. This was from the now demolished old jail. Two men had already traversed the tunnel, when the third, an officer from Clare, insisted on bringing his suitcase. The suitcase wedged in a support half way down the tunnel. Efforts to remove the suitcase led to the partial collapse of the support. My grandfather says he was the fourth man. There was a great escape from Kilkenny in 1921. I have found details of an escape by Paddy Fleming from Kilkenny jail in 1922, so perhaps there is some truth to the story.

My mother says that Michael was finally released in 1924. He had been briefly released in 1923 on parole to attend his father’s funeral, which was related in the local newspaper. He and Ellen Hickey were reunited, married, and lived in Dublin until Ellen’s premature death in 1934.

071861 Durrow Abbey Rebuilt 1924 - Copy
Rebuilding of Durrow Abbey house, c. 1926.