Since the Archaeology of the Irish Revolution in East Limerick project began, we have heard from many locals about a Bristol Fighter 1487 plane that crashed just 2km north-northwest of Kilfinane in February 1921. To this day, locals can accurately pinpoint the otherwise non-descript spot where the plane came down, demonstrating the significance of this event in the community’s memory.
The plane had been flying between Oranmore, Co. Galway and Fermoy, Co. Cork when it developed trouble and had to make an emergency landing. Unfortunately for the pilot and navigator, their plane was spotted and fired at by members of the East Limerick Flying Column, who had been billeted nearby following the Dromkeen ambush. According to John M McCarthys witness statement, it was not clear if the shots fired were the cause of hastening the landing or not. In any event, once landed, Flying Officer Moreton went off in the direction of Kilfinane to get help, while Flying Officer Andrew MacKay remained with the plane.
Naturally, locals began congregating around the crash site but were soon dispersed by shots fired in the air by I.R.A Volunteers. It was reported that the ‘pilot’ [more likely the navigator MacKay] said: “these are our men”, thinking the shots had come from the R.I.C rescue party, but the locals replied, “no, they are ours” (WS883 John M. McCarthy). The approaching column under the command of Jack McCarthy most likely came from Kearney’s, which was used as both a safe house and a headquarters for the Martinstown company. This house was located just 600m north of the plane which explains why the I.R.A arrived so quickly and why the pilot, Moreton, had been able to proceed unimpeded southwards towards Kilfinane. It seems Volunteers who had been staying in Cush also arrived on the scene shortly after the landing.
In a perilous position, it is reported that MacKay at first refused to surrender and took a position in a hollow in the field. However, MacKay soon realised his situation and yielded. The lack of threat posed by MacKay and apathy towards the air force general, may have saved his life.
After this, the I.R.A Volunteers removed the mailbags, military documents, and pilot’s equipment from the plane before setting it on fire. Interestingly there was no mention of weapons found in the plane. Usually, Bristol Fighters were armed with a fixed Vickers .303 machine gun at the front and at least one Lewis .303 machine gun mounted at the rear cockpit, which would have been useful for the I.R.A. Despite the lack of weapons, the significance of the plane’s captured documents is demonstrated by the fact that they led to the identification and subsequent execution of an informer in west Clare.
Although the plane was burned by the IRA, the propeller somehow escaped the blaze and is now part of the collection at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins’ Barracks. To access the museum’s page click here. It has been said that other ‘bits’ of the plane survived in various houses in the locality, but unfortunately, what they were, or where they are now, is unknown. If you have any information about this, please email us at: email@example.com
MacKay was transferred by the Column to safehouses in the Effin, Ballingaddy, Athlacca and Bruree areas. He may also have been held at Moloneys, Bridge House, Knocklong, where he admired the racing trophies, including the King George V’s Cup on the sideboard in the dining room.
Meanwhile, British efforts to secure Officer MacKay’s release were well underway. Clancy’s house at Cush was burned, and 20 aircraft flew over Kilfinane dropping smoke bombs and leaflets on the town. One of these leaflets is now held at the National Museum of Ireland and reads, ‘Warning – If Flying Officer MacKay is not returned safely within 48 hours, official reprisals will be taken’.
In response to these threats, the I.R.A declared that should Kilfinane be burned; the R.A.F man would be killed. At this point, the I.R.A Volunteers were in a difficult position. They had not intended to keep Mackay over a prolonged period but also did not want to release him in answer to the threats of British forces.
Following an intervention by Canon John Lee, the Parish Priest of Kilfinane, the I.R.A released Flying Officer Andrew Mackay on the 13th of February, around 5-6 days after his capture. When leaving Carroll’s of Atlacca, Mackay asked to be blindfolded. According to witness statements, he thanked his captors for their kind treatment and assured them he would not reveal where he had been held. It seems he was telling the truth because when he was brought back to some of the places he has been held by Limerick Black and Tans he supposedly failed to recognise any of the places.
February was an eventful month around Kilfinane, and the reprisals must have taken their toll, but the ability of local Volunteers to capture important documents, burn an R.A.F aircraft, safely retreat and release their prisoner must have been considered a success. The archaeology of this complex event comes down to the artefacts – a propeller and a dropped leaflet – but also the field in which the plane was burned. The field is known as ‘the plane field’ or ‘Leahy’s field’ and is today much as it was then. The double-ditch from where the Column fired shots at Flying Officer Mackay is still evident, as are a number of hollows in which the R.A.F man may have taken cover.
The story is not without contradictions, but the general reliability of accounts is attested to by the artefacts that survive and the many places associated with the operation. The event had been significant for the local community, the Flying Column and the British military, especially for MacKay who reportedly told local volunteer Tom Howard upon his release that “if I ever come back, I will take you for a ride in my plane” (WS1435 Daniel O’Shaughnessy).
This is just one of the interesting stories we have heard from the Kilfinane area during the Archaeology of the Irish Revolution in East Limerick project. Special thanks go to John Kearney, Angela Hennessy and D.H. Moloney for their help relaying this information.
If you have any more stories or objects you would like to share with the team, please come along to our free revolutionary workshops, which are being held across East Limerick. The next will be in Cappamore Community Centre, on the 20th of March at 7 pm. All are welcome to attend.
Sources used in the creation of this blog post include:
Toomey, T. 2010. The War of Independence in Limerick
Hennigan, H. 2018. The World of Constable John Hennigan, Royal Irish Constabulary 1912 – 1922. Matador
BMH.WS883 John M. McCarthy
BMH.WS1412 Michael Hennessey
BMH.WS1435 Daniel O’Shaughnessy