Where History Meets Poetry : “The Valley of Knockanure”

by Gabriel Fitzmaurice

“If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation”: Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun (1653-1716), Scottish patriot.

In this reading, we are as influenced by the poetry of a nation as we are by its history, and more so than by its laws. In this light let us consider the ballads of the events of Thursday, May 12, 1921 at Gortaglanna in Knockanure, Co. Kerry. The months of April and May, 1921 saw a lot of bloodshed in the parish of what is now Moyvane-Knockanure near Listowel in North Kerry. This was, of course, during the Irish War of Independence. On Thursday, April 7, Mick Galvin, an IRA volunteer, was killed by British forces during an ambush at Kilmorna in Knockanure. The IRA had been lying in wait to ambush a group of British soldiers who were cycling to Listowel after a visit to Sir Arthur Vicars at Kilmorna House, his residence. Vicars had been Ulster King of Arms and custodian of the Irish Crown Jewels which were kept in Dublin Castle, the burglary of which in 1907, although Vicars was never seriously suspected of being involved in their theft, led to his ruin and, ultimately, to his death.

Found guilty of negligence and dismissed from his post, ruined socially and financially with neither position nor pension, Vicars, at the invitation of his half-brother, George Mahony, came to live in Kilmorna House. When George died in 1912, he left the estate to Sir Arthur’s sister, Edith, who lived in London. She decided that Sir Arthur could live out his life in Kilmorna. That he remained there during the War of Independence when British Forces and Sinn Fein activists were matching atrocities was foolhardy rather than courageous, and typical of the man who was generally regarded by the local people as a decent, if eccentric, gentleman. But he was also passing information on IRA activity to the British army.

On Thursday, April 14, 1921, Kilmorna House was raided by the local IRA. One of the party, Lar Broder, told the steward, Michael Murphy, that they had come to burn the house. Which they proceeded to do. However three members of the Flying Column led Vicars to the end of the garden and shot him. (One of his executioners, Jack Sheehan, was himself shot dead by the British army near Knockanure on May 26). Then on May 12 Crown forces shot dead three members of the Flying Column at Gortaglanna, Knockanure, a short distance from Kilmorna. This is the incident that is commemorated in the various ballads that follow.

Poetry, particularly narrative poetry to which the ballad belongs, distorts historical fact for aesthetic reasons – these may be for the imperatives of narrative, for considerations of rhyme or metre, or for reasons of the poet’s perceptions or sympathies. The ballads of the atrocity in Knockanure on May 12, 1921 are no different. No version gets the facts entirely right. All versions tell a basic story but even the most historically accurate distort the facts. Some, either from carelessness or ignorance, or from unrestrained fancy, depart from historical fact entirely.

The most famous ballad of the events is Bryan Mac Mahon’s “The Valley of Knockanure”, written in 1946 – though, in the true spirit of tradition, its authorship is disputed. Let’s clear this up immediately. On August 16, 1969, Pádraig Ó Ceallacháin, Republican and retired Principal Teacher of Knockanure National School, wrote the following testimony:

I, Pádraig Ó Ceallacháin, formerly Príomh-Oide Scoile of Knockanure NS Co. Kerry hereby affirm that about 20 years ago I brought to Mr. Bryan McMahon (sic) NT Ashe St. Listowel a few verses of a traditional ballad on the murdering at Gortagleanna (sic) Co. Kerry in May 1921 of three soldiers of the Irish Republican Army – Jermiah (sic) Lyons, Patrick Dalton and Patrick Walsh. I also supplied Bryan McMahon with a copy of the sworn statement of Con Dee the survivor and requested him to rewrite the ballad and to add whatever verses were necessary so that it would be historically accurate. This Bryan McMahon did and later supplied me with printed copies of the ballad in question “The Valley of Knockanure” a copy of which is affixed herewith.

Signed: Pádraig Ó Ceallacháin
Date: 16/8/69
Witness: Aibhistín Ua Ceallacháin

(Co. Kerry)

In memory of Jeremiah Lyons, Patrick Dalton and Patrick Walsh, murdered by Crown Forces
at Gortagleanna, Co. Kerry on 12th May, 1921.

You may sing and speak about Easter Week or the heroes of Ninety-Eight,
Of the Fenian men who roamed the glen in victory or defeat,
Their names are placed on history’s page, their memory will endure,
Not a song is sung for our darling sons in the Valley of Knockanure.

Our hero boys they were bold and true, no counsel would they take,
They rambled to a lonely spot where the Black and Tans did wait,
The Republic bold they did uphold though outlawed on the moor,
And side by side they bravely died in the Valley of Knockanure.

There was Walsh and Lyons and Dalton, boys, they were young and in their pride,
In every house in every town they were always side by side,
The Republic bold they did uphold though outlawed on the moor,
And side by side they bravely died in the Valley of Knockanure.

In Gortagleanna’s lovely glen, three gallant men took shade,
While in young wheat, full, soft and sweet the summer breezes played,
But ’twas not long till Lyons came on, saying “Time’s not mine nor your”,
But alas ’twas late and they met their fate in the Valley of Knockanure.

They took them then beside a fence to where the furze did bloom,
Like brothers so they faced the foe for to meet their dreadful doom,
When Dalton spoke his voice it broke with a passion proud and pure,
“For our land we die as we face the sky in the Valley of Knockanure.”

‘Twas on a neighbouring hillside we listened in calm dismay,
In every house in every town a maiden knelt to pray,
They’re closing in around them now with rifle fire so sure,
And Dalton’s dead and Lyons is down in the Valley of Knockanure.

But ere the guns could seal his fate Con Dee had broken through,
With a prayer to God he spurned the sod and against the hill he flew,
The bullets tore his flesh in two, yet he cried with passion pure,
“For my comrades’ death, revenge I’ll get, in the Valley of Knockanure.”

There they lay on the hillside clay for the love of Ireland’s cause,
Where the cowardly clan of the Black and Tan had showed them England’s laws,
No more they’ll feel the soft winds steal o’er uplands fair and sure,
For side by side our heroes died in the Valley of Knockanure.

I met with Dalton’s mother and she to me did say,
“May God have mercy on his soul who fell in the glen today,
Could I but kiss his cold, cold lips, my aching heart ‘twould cure,
And I’d gladly lay him down to rest in the Valley of Knockanure.”

The golden sun is setting now behind the Feale and Lee,
The pale, pale moon is rising far out beyond Tralee,
The dismal stars and clouds afar are darkened o’er the moor,
And the banshee cried where our heroes died in the Valley of Knockanure.

Oh, Walsh and Lyons and Dalton brave, although your hearts are clay,
Yet in your stead we have true men yet to guard the gap today,
While grass is found on Ireland’s ground your memory will endure,
So God guard and keep the place you sleep and the Valley of Knockanure.

It’s clear from this that the words we now sing, whatever about their ancestry, are Bryan MacMahon’s.

Let us compare this, the best version, and closest to historical fact, with the actual history of the event as given first hand by Con Dee, the survivor of the atrocity:


“About nine-thirty a.m. on Thursday, May twelfth, 1921, I Cornelius Dee, accompanied by Patrick Dalton and Patrick Walsh [Dee’s first cousin], left Athea unarmed, where we had been attending a mission given by the Redemptorist Fathers. We were walking along the road leading to Listowel when at Gortaglanna bridge we met Jerry Lyons; he was cycling. He dismounted and began talking about various happenings. After a few minutes Paddy Walsh suggested that we should go into a field as it would be safer than the road-side. We moved and were just inside the fence when we heard the noise of a lorry. ‘Take cover, lads,’ I advised, and we tried to conceal ourselves as best we could. Jerry Lyons, Paddy Dalton and I took cover immediately. Paddy Walsh ran to the end of a field and lay down. Very soon we were surrounded by men in the uniforms of the Royal Irish Constabulary. ‘We are done, Connie,’ said Paddy Dalton. ‘Come out, lads,’ I said, ‘with our hands up.’ Jerry Lyons, Paddy Dalton and myself stood with our hands over our heads. Paddy Walsh ran towards us. We were met with a torrent of abuse and foul language. I remember such expressions as ‘Ye murderers’, ‘Ye b “, ‘We have got the real root’, ‘We have got the flying column’. We were asked our names and gave them correctly; we were searched and found unarmed, having nothing but a copy of the Irish Independent.

We were then compelled to undress and while we were fastening our clothes again we were beaten with rifles, struck with revolvers and thrown on the ground and kicked in trying to save ourselves. Then we were separated some distance from each other; four or five men came round each of us and my captors continued to beat me with their rifles and hit me with their fists. After about twenty minutes we were marched towards the road and then to the lorries. Paddy Walsh and Paddy Dalton were put in the first lorry. I was put in the second, and Jerry Lyons in the third. The lorries were then driven for about a half a mile towards Athea. They were then stopped and turned round. Paddy Walsh and Paddy Dalton were changed to the lorry in which I was. Jerry Lyons was not changed out of the last lorry, which was now leading. The lorries were then driven back the same road for about a mile. We were then ordered out of them. I looked at my companions; I saw blood on Jerry Lyons’ face and on Paddy Walsh’s mouth. Paddy Dalton was bleeding from the nose. We were then asked to run but we refused. We were again beaten with the rifles and ordered into a field by the roadside. We refused but were forced into the field. We asked for a trial but the Black and Tans laughed and jeered and called us murderers.

We were put standing in line facing a fence about forty yards from the road. I was placed first on the right, Jerry Lyons was next, Paddy Dalton next, and Paddy Walsh on the left. Then a Black and Tan with a rifle resting on the fence was put in front of each of us, about five yards distant. There were about ten more Black and Tans standing behind them. I looked straight into the face of the man in front of me. He delayed about twenty seconds as if he would like one of his companions to fire first. The second Black and Tan fired. Jerry Lyons flung up his arms, moaned and fell backwards. I glanced at him and noticed blood coming on his waistcoat; I turned round and ran. I was gone about twelve yards when I got wounded in the right thigh. My leg bent under me, but I held on running although I had to limp. I felt that I was being chased and I heard the bullets whizzing past me.

One of the lorries was driven along the road on my front and fire was maintained from it. After I had run for about a mile and a half I threw away my coat, collar, tie and puttees. The Tans continued to follow me for fully three miles. When too exhausted to run further, I flung myself into a drain in an oats garden. I was there about forty-five minutes when two men came along. They assisted me to walk for about forty yards. I was limping so much that one of them sent for a car and I was taken to a house.

I recognised Head Constable Smith, Listowel, along with the Black and Tans present at the massacre; also Constable Raymond, and there was one in the uniform of a district inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary.

The official report issued on May 14, 1921 from the Dublin Castle Publicity Department reads as follows:

“‘Three R.I.C. tenders were ambushed by about 100 armed men at Kilmorna near Listowel at 1.15 p.m. on Thursday (May 12th). Two R.I.C. were slightly wounded. The dead bodies of three unknown rebels were found at the scene of the ambush, and it is believed they suffered heavy casualties. Crown forces also captured a number of shot-guns, revolvers and ammunition”.

Years later, in 1958, Con Dee was to revisit the tragedy in an article he wrote in “The Shannonside Annual”. In it, he tells us that, due to an outbreak of scabies, or “IRA itch” as it was called at the time, among members of the North Kerry flying column in early May, 1921, it was decided to disperse the flying column in groups of three or four to get medical treatment. Paddy Walsh, Paddy Dalton and Con Dee consisted of one group. Paddy Walsh insisted that the three go to his home in Gunsboro in the parish of Ballydonoghue, “the hub of activity for North Kerry” according to Con Dee. This they did.

Shortly afterwards, Dee writes in that article, “a volunteer by the name of Buckley from Listowel came to Walsh with a dispatch, which stated that a conversation of a certain woman in Listowel with the police was overheard by a barmaid. The woman told the police that a Mission was being held in Athea, and that it was more than likely that the West Limerick Column would be attending devotions there. She also said that she would get all the information she could from a friend of hers who had a religious goods stand at the Mission. When I relayed the message to the others, we decided under no circumstances would we let the West Limerick Column be trapped. We agreed that Paddy Dalton [a native of Athea] and I should proceed at once to Athea…

Dalton and I decided we’d make faster time if we traveled without arms. We felt time was of the utmost importance to forewarn our comrades. We traveled by way of Tullamore, Knockanure, along the river Gale to Kilbaha, where we stopped at Hanrahan’s and had some refreshments. We continued along the river as far as possible, and then cut across and arrived in Athea about three o’clock in the afternoon.

We visited our good friend, Josie Liston, and told her our mission. She immediately got in touch with the West Limerick Column and local volunteers. That evening we contacted the local mailman and made arrangements to meet him next morning to censor the mail.”

Dee and Dalton went to the devotions in Athea “for at no time at all”, Dee continues, “did any of the fighting men miss an opportunity to attend church if at all possible. After devotions Patrick Dalton and I visited the Fathers who were staying at Danaher’s Hotel. We told them also of our mission. They became angry to think such a thing could happen, and wanted to have the woman put out of the village right away, but we objected as we figured we might get some information from the mails. We attended devotions for three nights and visited the priests until eleven o’clock each night…

Paddy Dalton’s home was about a mile from the village and each night we went there. I well remember the first night we were going home, when we were a short distance from the house, Paddy remarked that the family was still up. I asked him how he knew; he remarked that they were looking at the cattle. Again I asked, ‘How do you know?’ He replied, ‘Don’t you see the lights in and out of the cow house?’ I did not see the light. When we got to the house we went to his father’s room and asked him if he had been out. His father replied, ‘No’. He then went to the other rooms and asked his brothers. He received the same answer, ‘No’. The next morning we got up early and while at breakfast started to discuss the lights of the night before. No one paid much attention to it, but Paddy himself.

The routine the next night was the same. We went to devotions, visited the priests and started for home about the same time. The same thing happened. Paddy again saw the lights, but I did not. He again questioned his people, but they again replied that they had not been out with a light. He wasn’t satisfied till we went out and looked allover. We could see or hear nothing and went to bed. The next day we were joined by Patrick Walshe (sic) in the village. We again attended the mission, went to confession, visited the priests and left for Paddy’s home.

Again when approaching the house, Patrick Dalton and Patrick Walshe both saw the lights. I didn’t see them. When the family was again questioned, they replied the same as the two previous nights. This time the two Patricks went out and searched but found nothing. The next morning the lights were again discussed. It was passed off as a joke.

This was Thursday, 12 May.”

Now let us consider some other ballads of the atrocity. J. Anthony Gaughan in his book “Listowel and its Vicinity” (Mercier Press, Cork 1973, second and revised edition 1974) prints MacMahon’s ballad almost verbatim but omits verses 2 (“Our hero boys they were bold and true…”) and 8 (“There they lay on the hillside clay…”). He changes the line “And side by side they bravely died in the Valley of Knockanure” to “And side by side by side they fought and died/ In the Valley of Knockanure”. He changes the order of two of the verses – he has the verse beginning “‘Twas on a neighbouring hillside/ We listened with calm dismay” preceding the verse beginning with “They took them then beside a fence/ To where the furze did bloom”. (MacMahon has them the other way around – which makes narrative sense).

“The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem Song Book” (Tiparm Music Publishers, Inc., New York, 1964) prints a much truncated, though essentially Bryan MacMahon’s, version of “The Valley of Knockanure”. Historical inaccuracies creep in: “They rambled to a lonely spot where the Black and Tans did hide” (the Tans did not hide, they happened upon the Gortaglanna martyrs); as in Gaughan’s version above, they carry the line “And side by side they fought and died in the Valley of Knockanure” (they did not fight – they were captured unarmed); “But e’er (sic) the guns could seal his fate, young Walsh had broken thro’” (it was Dee who escaped), and “The summer sun is sinking low behind the field and lea” (it should be “Feale and Lee”, two local rivers). This displays an ignorance of local history and geography, understandable in the mutating nature of a folk ballad, but historically inexcusable.

Here is the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem’s version:


You may sing or speak about Easter week or the heroes of ninety eight
Those Fenian men who roamed the glen for victry (sic) or defeat
Their names on history’s page are told, their memories will endure
Not a song was sung about three young men in the Valley of Knockanure.

There was Lyons and Walsh and the Dalton boy, they were young and in their prime
They rambled to a lonely spot where the Black and Tans did hide
The Republic bold they did uphold, tho’ outlawed on the moor
And side by side they fought and died in the Valley of Knockanure.

It was on a neighbouring hillside we listened in hushed dismay
In every house, in every town a young girl knelt to pray
They’re closing in around them now with rifle fire so sure
And Lyons is dead and young Dalton’s down in the Valley of Knockanure.

But e’er (sic) the guns could seal his fate, young Walsh had broken through
With a prayer to God he spurned the sod as against the hill he flew
The bullets tore his flesh in two yet he cried with voice so sure,
“Revenge I’ll get for my comrade’s (sic) death in the Valley of Knockanure.”

The summer sun is sinking low behind the field and lea
The pale moon light is shining bright far off beyond Tralee
The dismal stars and the clouds afar are darkening o’er the moor
And the Banshee cried when young Dalton died in the Valley of Knockanure.

Another version of Bryan MacMahon’s ballad was recorded by Paddy Tunney, the renowned Irish traditional singer on his “Ireland Her Own” LP (Topic Records, London 1966). It is published in “Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Reader” edited by David Pierce (Cork University Press, 2000). It is, in the opinion of Pierce, “one of the best songs composed about the War of Independence in 1919-21. Listen to Paddy Tunney singing this on Topic Records and you can hear the heartbeat that accompanied Ireland in its transition from colonial rule to independence”.

It is, once again, factually inaccurate. It states, once again, that “side by side they fought and died/ In the valley of Knockanure”; that the event took place “Upon an autumn evening” (it did not – it was the morning of May 12th); that they were waiting “upon a brief dispatch/ To come from Tralee town” (they were not – note Tim Leahy’s ballad below); that “As Dinny spoke his voice it broke” (there was no Dinny present on that day); that “The glistening stars shone out afar/ And gleamed o’er Collins moor” (there is no such place in Knockanure); that Dalton “fell in the fight” (there was no fight); lastly, it makes no mention of Con Dee’s escape.

Here is Paddy Tunney’s version:


You may sing and speak about Easter Week
And the heroes of ’98,
Of the fearless men who roamed the glen
For victory or defeat.
There were those who died on the green hillside
They were outlawed on the moor;
Not a word is said of the gallant dead
In the valley of Knockanure.

There was Dalton, Walsh and Lyons boys,
They were young and in their pride.
In every house in every crowd
They were always side by side.
The republic bold they did uphold
Though outlawed on the moor,
And side by side they fought and died
In the valley of Knockanure.

Upon an autumn evening
These three young men sat down
To wait upon a brief dispatch
To come from Tralee town.
It wasn’t long ’til Lyons came on
Saying time isn’t mine nor yours
But alas it was late when they met their fate
In the valley of Knockanure.

Upon a neighbouring hillside
We listened in calm dismay,
In every house for miles around
A maiden knelt to pray.
They’re closing in around them now
With rifle-fire so sure,
And Dalton’s dead and Walshe (sic) is down
In the valley of Knockanure.

For they brought them hence beyond the fence
Wherein the furze did bloom,
Like brothers now they faced the foe
To meet their vengeful doom.
As Dinny spoke his voice it broke
With a passion proud and pure:
‘For our land we die as we face the sky
In the valley of Knockanure.’

There they lay on the damp cold clay
Martyred for Ireland’s cause
Where the cowardly clan of the Black and Tans
Has showed them England’s laws.
No more they’ll feel the soft breeze still
Or uplands fair and pure
For the wild geese fly where the heroes lie
In the valley of Knockanure.

When the evening sun was sinking
Beyond the Feale and Lee
The pale moon was rising
Way out beyond Tralee.
The glistening stars shone out afar
And gleamed o’er Collins moor,
And the banshee cried where the heroes died
In the valley of Knockanure.

I met with Dalton’s mother
And these words to me did say:
‘May the Lord have mercy on my son
Who fell in the fight today.
Could I but kiss his cold cold lips
My aching heart would cure,
And I’d gladly lay him down to rest
In the valley of Knockanure.’

Now, apropos that final verse: there is a tradition in and around the parish of Athea, bordering Knockanure, that the “original” version of “The Valley of Knockanure” was written by James Kiely Mahony, from Knocknaboul, Athea. This tradition has been conveyed to me by Donie Lyons, an All Ireland senior singing champion from Glin, a neighbouring parish in west Limerick, Domhnall de Barra of Athea, singer, musician and former President of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and Dan Keane of Moyvane-Knockanure, a poet and All Ireland senior champion composer of Newly Composed Ballads at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, all men of unimpeachable integrity. No one now seems to know what Kiely Mahony wrote. It is possible that he wrote an early version, now lost. Dan Keane states in his book “Around Athea” (2005) that a Mrs Hartnett of Abbeyfeale, a daughter of Kiely Mahony, confirmed to him that her father wrote “The Valley of Knockanure”, that she remembered him writing the line “I was speaking to Dalton’s mother”. Be that as it may, there is no doubting Bryan MacMahon’s authorship of the ballad as attested in Pádraig Ó Ceallacháin’s testimony.

The spalpeen poet, Paddy Drury (1865-1945), a native of Knockanure, wrote a number of ballads about the atrocity. One of his versions, “The Dawning of the Day”, is less a narrative of the events than a vehicle for his own anti-English, pro de Valera, anti-Treaty sentiments. Though it is not possible to date its composition, it clearly originates from a time when “Kerrymen are fighting still” before de Valera, as leader of the IRA, can say “lay down your guns, the fight is won”, and before the same de Valera, as Taoiseach of the Irish Free State Government in the early 1940s, executed Kerrymen Maurice O’Neill of Caherciveen and Charlie Kerins of Tralee for IRA activity.

Here is


O, Holy Ireland, suffering still,
Your troubles now are great,
From tyrants trained to shoot and kill
Whose minds are filled with hate;
Who sold their souls for foreign gold
To rob and steal away;
It’s no wonder that our hearts are sad
At the dawning of the day.

Sons of North Kerry, proud and true,
Step forward every man;
You know the foreign bloodhound crew,
The murderous Black and Tan
Who shot young Lyons and Dalton
And Walsh the proud and gay
As the left their gallant comrades
At the dawning of the day.

On Gortaglanna’s rugged height
Surrounded by that crew
How could they stand, how could they fight,
What could our martyrs do?
They showed no fear when death was near ,
When the tigers sought their prey,
But our blood ran cold when the tale was told
At the dawning of the day.

But Kerrymen are fighting still
From Dingle to Tralee;
I’m proud to be a Kerryman
And I’m proud of sweet Athea;
I’m proud of Lyons, that noble lad
Who gave his life away
As he left his gallant comrades
At the dawning of the day.

When writing down the Roll of Fame
In old Ireland’s history,
With green and gold illume the name
Of gallant brave Con Dee;
I’d give my life to clasp his hand
And ’tis with him I would stay
And fight by his side for my native land
At the dawning of the day.

(The above is the version given by Jeremiah Histon in his article “I Remember Paddy Drury” printed in “The Shannonside Annual” of 1957. Jack Carroll of Listowel, a respected traditional singer and a reliable source of local ballads, had the following concluding verse which I collected from him in the 1970s):
Oh Mother Ireland, dry your tears
Be ever full of cheer,
Pray for those noble volunteers
Who fought to set you free.
When freedom comes to Ireland’s sons
De Valera* he will say,
“Lay down your guns, the fight is won
At the dawning of the day”.

(* In all fairness, I must point out that Jack, in politically sensitive company, would change the de Valera reference to:

When freedom comes to Ireland’s sons
Brave Irishmen will say
“Lay down your guns, the fight is won
At the dawning of the day”).

Another of Drury’s versions goes as follows:


May the Lord have mercy on their souls,
Their hearts were loyal and true,
They were beat and shot in a lonely spot
In a glen near Knockanure.

There was Jerry Lyons, now, from Duagh,
There was Dalton from Athea,
There was Walsh from Ballydonoghue
And Con Dee who ran away.

Through hill and vale he did leg bail
As the bullets pierced the ground
Till he jumped the stream at the Bog Lane
Where he blinked the devil’s hounds.

Through mountainside he did tide
Though wounded then and sore
And he shed a tear for his comrades dear
Who were bleeding in their gore.

For our martyrs bold, now dead and cold,
To the lorries were thrown in
And Smith* said there was an ambush at
The Gortaglanna glen.

For now Sinn Fein prove that you’ll gain
And remember those who died
And let each man try to keep his eye
On Smith* and on McBride*.

Now we have two more we sad deplore
That in this parish fell,
They are Galvin and Sheehan.
In Heaven they all dwell.

(* Smith and McBride were two of the Black and Tans/R.I.C. who were present at Gortaglanna on that day).

Tim Leahy of Mount Rivers, Listowel also made a ballad. His version, composed on September 20, 1921, is printed in Colm O Lochlainn’s “More Irish Street Ballads” first published in 1965 by The Three Candles Ltd., Dublin, and subsequently, in 1978, by Pan Books Ltd., London.

This is a faithful version of the events at Gortaglanna. What it lacks in drama and personality, it makes up for in local detail, details that other versions don’t give us – for instance, he tells us that the boys were coming from Mass that morning, that they were waiting for a dispatch (there is no evidence of this in Con Dee’s testimony nor is it mentioned by Danny MacMahon, who was working close to home in Gortaglanna on that day, in his account of their capture published in J. Anthony Gaughan’s “Listowel and its Vicinity”, Mercier Press Cork, 1973, revised edition 1974 ) ; and Leahy alone tells us that they were shot near an ancient ring fort which, incidentally, is still to be seen in front of the ditch where they were shot and where now stands the monument erected to their memory by the North Kerry Republican Soldiers Memorial Committee in 1949. Here is his ballad:


It was in the year of ‘twenty-one,
All in the month of May,
Some of our noble Column boys
Were strolling on their way.
They came from Mass that morning,
Their souls were now secure,
But little they thought that they’d be shot
In the Valley of Knockanure.

On a bridge near Gortaglanna
Those boys a rest did take ;
They were waiting a dispatch to say
What move they were to make;
With feelings strong to move along
And make themselves secure –
But it was their lot that day to be caught
In the Valley of Knockanure.

Now when those boys were taken,
They were beaten black and blue;
Into the lorries they were thrown –
Alas! What could they do?
They dare not ask for mercy now
But they prayed they might endure
Their torments for their Motherland
In the Valley of Knockanure.

Those heroes’ names I’ll now relate
Who were captured on that day:
Paddy Walsh and Jerry Lyons
And Dalton from Athea;
Con Dee from Ballylongford
He surprised the Tans I’m sure
When he made that dash for liberty
From the Valley of Knockanure.

Near an ancient fort those boys were shot
And there their bodies lay
Till Ireland’s sons a tomb will raise
To them some future day.
So pray the Lord may grant them rest,
Their souls with him secure,
For a martyr’s death those heroes met
In the Valley of Knockanure.

What woe and grief to parents came
That night when told the tale
In every house they knelt and prayed
Along the River Gale
For those gallant boys who gave their lives
Our freedom to secure
And relieve Con Dee that wounded be
In the Valley of Knockanure.

And now to the version where history and poetry part company entirely, the version recorded from Joe Heaney (Seosamh Ó hÉanai) by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in their home in Beckenham, Kent, England in 1964.

Joe, by way of giving background information, has the following to say:

“You know in Ireland every six months, the priest comes around to give advice and confessions to the old people, you see, in the cottages. And there’s one particular house they come to every time. Well this day they came to Knockanure in County Kerry and it was in 1922 and there was two wee lads, Eamonn Dalton and Danny Walsh was on the run up in the hills and five lorry loads of Black and Tans came to hunt them. And they had a boy, a fourteen year old boy called Con Dee bringing them messages to tell them how the Tans was behaving and the Tans, fifty Tans, [a] hundred Tans, I should say, surrounded them with rifles and they told Con Dee to get away somewhere and bring a message to the village that they were willing to die to save the village. And the two fellows died. But the people, the old people coming, as they do there, they come along, old women and men and to spare them, the two lads fought to the death with a hundred Black and Tans up on the hill and saved the village from ruin, because if they ran back to the village, the lads were afraid the Tans would come back and probably kill innocent people”.

And he sings:

You may boast and speak about Easter Week
Or the heroes of ‘ninety-eight,
Of the gallant men who roamed the glen
To victory or defeat.
The men who died on the scaffold high
Were outlawed on the moor.
Not a word was spoken of two young lads
In the Valley of Knockanure.

‘Twas on a summer’s evening
Those two young lads sat down.
They were waiting on a brief dispatch
To come from Tralee town.
It wasn’t long till Lyons came on
Saying ‘Time’s not mine nor yours,
Look out we are surrounded
In the Valley of Knockanure.

Young Dalton grabbed a rifle
And by Walsh’s side he stood.
He gazed across the valley
And over toward the hill.
In the glen where armed men
With rifles fired galore,
There were Dalton, Dan and the Black and Tans
In the Valley of Knockanure.

One shot from Dalton’s rifle
Sent a machine gun out of play.
He turned to young Lyons and said
‘Now try and get away.
Keep wide of rocks, keep close to nooks
And cross by Freeney’s moor,
And Danny and I will fight or die
In the Valley of Knockanure.

The summer sun was sinking fast
On Kerry by the sea.
The pale moon it was rising
Over sweet Tralee.
The twinkling stars they shone so far
Out on the dreary moor ,
And when Dalton died, the Banshee cried
In the Valley of Knockanure.

God bless our bold Sinn Feiners
Wherever they may be.
Don’t forget to kneel and pray
For that hero brave Con Dee.
He ran among the Kerry hills
To the rich man and the poor,
Salt tears he shed for those he left dead
In the Valley of Knockanure.

Our hero boys were stout and bold,
No counsel would they take,
They ran among the lonely glens
Where the Black and Tans did lay,
The women of the uplands
Gazed out across the moor
Watching Dalton and Dan fighting fifty to one
In the Valley of Knockanure.

And ’twas God who sent those boys to life
But did not say how long,
For well we knew that England’s crew
Would shoot them right or wrong.
With our rifles fixed right up to fire
And bullets quick and sure,
We’ll have revenge for those young men
In the Valley of Knockanure.

Young Eamonn Dalton and Danny Walsh
Were known both far and wide,
On every hill and every glen
They were always side by side.
A republic bold they did uphold,
They were outlawed on the moor,
And side by side they fought and died –
In the Valley of Knockanure.

I met with Dalton’s mother ,
Those words to me did say,
‘May the Lord have mercy on my son,
He was shot in the getaway.
If I only could kiss his cold, cold lips
My aching heart would cure
And I’d lay his body down to rest
In the Valley of Knockanure.

This has more to do with Hollywood than history and it calls into question the great singer’s authority in matters historical. It calls into question, too, the historical authority of folk song. Basically, as we all know, song is not history. Nonetheless, Joe Heaney’s version demonstrates how history becomes legend. And we need legend. Though historically inaccurate, legends are true to the spirit of their people, that indefinable coming together of historical fact, memory, story, song and poetry that make us what we are.

Nowadays, the events of April and May 1921 are almost entirely forgotten, even in the parish of Moyvane-Knockanure where they occurred. Galvin, Vicars, Dalton, Lyons, Walsh, Dee and Sheehan are scarcely remembered. Some may welcome this amnesia as a good thing. But amnesia is never good. We forget our history at our peril. We censor our poetry to our cost. Let a poet have the final word. Art Ó Maolfabhail, writing in his poem “Inis Córthaidh agus Gné den Stair”, about Enniscorthy and the events of 1798, states that “ní mór peacaí ró-ghránna/na staire a mhaitheamh” (“the ugly sins/ of history must be pardoned”).

We must forgive history’s ugly sins. But to forgive them, we must first know what they are.