The Burning of Knockcroghery
The burning of Knockcroghery Village on 19th June 1921, followed wrong information gleaned by British Intellilgence Agents in Athlone. At that time Sean MacEoin "the blacksmith of Ballinalee" - was under sentence of death and a plan was made by volunteers in Westmeath to capture General Lambert, who was then the officer commanding all British troops in the Western Command, hold him as a hostage, and then bargain for Mac Eoin's release.
General Lambert's movements were watched and it was known that he frequently visited friends near the village of Glasson, Athlone. An ambush was laid near Glasson and on the evening of June 17th, General Lambert traveled in a car, driven by his wife, to pay a social call at the house of a friend in Glasson. When the car approached the scene where the Westmeath Volunteers lay in wait, a volunteer officer stepped out on the road and signaled to the driver to halt. The car slowed down and then suddenly gathered speed and attempted to drive through the cordon of volunteers. Shots rang out and General Lambert was killed instantly. His wife, who was unhurt, drove on towards Glasson and the Volunteers dispersed.
In the course of their inquiries, British Intelligence Agents were told that the Volunteers who laid the ambush had come directly across Lough Ree from the Knockcroghery or Gailey Bay side. This information was not correct, but in the early hours of the morning of the 19th June, four lorry loads of Black and Tans, police, and auxiliaries arrived from Athlone in the Village of Knockcroghery. All of them were "under the influence".
They fired shots into the air, banged on the doors of the houses in the village and ordered the inhabitants to get out. The residents of Knockcroghery - men, women and children in their night attire, were driven out into the street. The raiding forces then spilled petrol on the vacated houses and set fire to them, having first looted each house for anything they considered of value. Many of the houses had thatched roofs and in a very short time, the village was ablaze from end to end.
One of the first houses to be visited was that of Parish Priest Canon Bartley Kelly. The Canon, who was in bed, refused to leave and the Tans immediately set his house on fire. Neighbours, who saw his plight, went to the Canon's assistance and rescued him through an upstairs window. They then helped to bring the fire under control, but not before considerable damage was done. The Canon crossed the fields and sought refuge with his friend the Church of Ireland Rector, the late Canon Humphries.
Only two houses, side by side, were untouched. One building, which was owned by the Feeney family, housed John S. Murray's Pub and Grocery Shop. The fact that it also housed the local Post Office saved it from destruction. The other building, a small Pub & Grocery owned by Mrs. Mary "The Widow" Murray was also left alone. She gathered her children around her in the kitchen near the door and refused to leave her home. The Tans threatened to burn the house with her in it. One of the officers took pity on her, ordered his men out and told them to leave her and her family alone. They left the building, helping themselves to some money, cigarettes and tobacco as they went.
Meanwhile, the raiding forces drove up and down the village, 28 firing shots at random, cursing loudly, and laughing at the plight of the people of Knockcroghery. The people were terrified, particularly the children, whose cries of fear added to the terrible scene. The homeless people of the village were given shelter in the houses of friends, neighbours and relations in the district and some of them, along with Canon Kelly, found temporary accommodation with Canon Humphries at the Rectory.
Next morning the extent of the devastation was seen with the advantage of daylight. The sight was horrible to behold. All that was left of each building was a smoking shell. Very little, if anything, could be salvaged from the ruins. Canon Kelly and Canon Humphries resolved to do everything in their power to help relieve the plight of the homeless. They set up a relief committee and sent fund raisers far and wide to collect as much money as they could. In spite of having very little money to spare the people of the area responded magnificently. One good woman gave the only thing she could, a gold sovereign. When the collector was handing in his collection to the joint Chairmen, Canon Humphries spotted the gold coin. Turning to Canon Kelly he asked if he might have it. To which Canon Kelly replied "You can have that one, I have plenty of them". Canon Humphries thanked him and put it in his pocket having first replaced it with a pound note. The total amount collected has long since been forgotten but it went a long way in relieving the hardship of many families.
Rebuilding did not begin for at least another two years until the compensation agreed in the 1921 Treaty came through. Most of the building work was carried out by the Hessions of Roscommon with the Foley's of Ballymurray employed as stonemasons. Many of the houses were never rebuilt, the original owners, either having died in the meantime or gone away for good. The claypipe industry which once thrived in the village was never restarted. The families involved set up alternative businesses as the claypipe was in rapid decline due to the increased popularity of the brier pipe and manufactured cigarettes. The memory of that terrible night will live on in the minds and hearts of Knockcroghery people for a long time to come.