Michael Glavey - The Man

Michael Glavey was born in Clooncan, five miles from Ballinlough, County Roscommon, on the 20th October, 1883. He was the seventh child of a family of nine. He was born into an Ireland slowly recovering from the worst excesses of the Land War, 1879 – 1882, which had sounded the death knell of landlordism and brought about a revolutionary change in land ownership. But none of this would bother the young boy.

Michael’s father, also called Michael, came from the village of Coolnaha South on the Ballyhaunis-Toreen road. He was a tailor by profession. It was customary for tradesmen in the 19th Century to travel from place to place while plying their trade and in this way he met Mary Maguire who lived with her two brothers on the family farm in Clooncan. Later, when her brothers moved away, Mary and Michael inherited the entire Maguire farm.

Young Michael had five sisters, Kate, Bridget, Frances, Nora and Maria, all of whom emigrated to New Jersey and Manhattan, most of them destined never to return. He had three brothers, John, Luke and Jerry. Luke died aged sixty-eight in 1950 and the other two brothers, like Michael himself, were to die young, John in 1899, aged twenty eight and Jerry in 1917, also at the age of twenty eight.

Balfour’s Land Act of 1891 identified all of West Roscommon as a “congested” district, that is, where too many people were trying to make a living out of too little arable land. What this meant in reality was that times were extremely hard and money was scarce and that growing up in such an area was not easy. Yet, Clooncan was both peaceful and pastoral and the local landlord, Henry Brabazon-Coome, although an absentee like most of his class, was a benevolent man and there was little or no land agitation. Michael and Mary worked hard to make their large family as comfortable as possible and were lucky to have the income from the tailoring business to supplement that of tenant farmers. Consequently, the Glavey family reached a degree of prosperity and there is nothing at all to suggest that young Michael and his brothers and sisters experienced anything other than a very happy and contented childhood.

All of Michael’s brother and sisters were baptised in the Catholic faith in Castlerea church. In 1883, when Clooncan village was transferred from Castlerea to Loughglynn parish, Michael had the distinction of being the first Clooncan child to be baptised in Gorthaganny church. In 1890, when he was six, he began his education in Gorthaganny School. But when a new school opened in Clooncan in 1896, less than half a mile from his home, Michael changed there. It was here that he completed his formal education together with his younger brother and sister. By all accounts, Michael was a diligent and conscientious student with a high intelligence and a good singing voice. Unfortunately, second and third level education at the turn of the century was for the privileged few. Michael left school at fourteen to begin his tailoring apprenticeship with his father and older brother, John, in a workroom attached to the gable of their home.

But there were sorrowful days ahead. First, his brother John died in 1899 and two years later, his father passed away before Michael had completed his apprenticeship. He continued to learn the trade first with his uncle Darby Glavey in Coolnaha and finally with a tailor Murray at Two Mile Bush on the Roscommon-Strokestown road, his widowed mother paying Murray the ten pounds tuition fee. Soon, he had acquired what was known in the trade as “the cut”, that is the ability to mark and cut out a suit of clothes and then he was ready to continue the family business in Clooncan. His reputation as a skilled tailor spread quickly, he soon had a waiting list of two or three months and he was obliged to take on an apprentice and sometimes two. Michael could complete a suit of clothes in a day and that was the day’s work. In the evenings, his many friends would call by. There would be talk and discussion and Michael might oblige with a verse or two of “Wrap the Green flag around me boys”, a song popular at the time and one of his favourites.

With a touch of irony that Michael would have smiled at, a large part of his business was making uniforms for the R.I.C. stationed in the nearby barracks at Ballinlough, Loughglynn and Ballyhaunis. Michael knew many of these men personally and although they were in the service of the Crown, no animosity existed. It was not until after the 1916 Rising when Sinn Fein became the driving force in Irish politics and the R.I.C. were boycotted that a change of attitude took place.

Most able-bodied men at the turn of the century took part in the traditional rural Irish customs and pastimes of running, weight-throwing, wrestling, cycling, jumping, or as Archbishop Croke of Cashel called it “leaping”. What distinguished Michael from the rest was his all round exceptional ability. Alert, quick off the mark and blessed with strength and speed, he excelled at the shorter distances especially the one hundred yards. He took Connacht titles in this event on several occasions. There are no medals extant recording his many victories but his nephew Luke can distinctly remember Michael with a Gladstone bag full of sports gear and clocks. Obviously, winners were rewarded with clocks in those days and Michael usually had a few of them in his bag. He seldom held onto them but with typical generosity gave them away to his friends.

Important as track and field events were to Michael, Gaelic games became one of the dominant themes of his life. The G.A.A. was founded by Michael Cusack in 1884, the year after Michael’s birth. It was a powerful new force in cultural nationalism. It swept the country like a prairie fire and Michael grew up under its influence. It was characteristic of the G.A.A. to name football and hurling clubs after revered Irish patriots. The evidence was and still is all around – Castlebar Mitchels, Dunmore MacHales, and Thurles Sarsfields, to mention three. Little did Michael know as he played football to his heart’s content all over the locality that, one day too, his name would be added to this distinguished list.

He would have been influenced too by what his fellow county man. Douglas Hyde from Frenchpark was trying to achieve. Although Hyde belonged to a different class and background, Michael could easily identify with the aims of Hyde’s Gaelic League. He would have read Hyde’s speech “The necessity for deAnglicising Ireland”, which promoted a separatist philosophy and which recommended the use of the Irish language, Irish music and Irish games. He would have endorsed these sentiments. After all they were the ideals closest to his heart.

Michael worked hard and played hard and life was good to him. His tailoring business was thriving, he was financially comfortable and he grew into a handsome and popular young man. As well as football matches and athletic events, there were dances in Loughglynn, Ballinlough and Ballyhaunis. He met and fell in love with Mollie Keaveney from Loughglynn who taught in Clooncan National School. Soon they were engaged to be married.

But the storm clouds were gathering. National events like the 1916 Rising, the rise of Sinn Fein, the formation of the First Dail 1919 and the War of Independence 1919 – 1921 were taking place with bewildering rapidity. Always a man of action and courage, Michael did not want events to pass him by. True to his character and ideals and wanting to play his part in the guerrilla warfare that Michael Collins was successfully waging against the combined British forces of the R.I.C., Black and Tans and Regulars, he made the fateful decision to join the military wing of Sinn Fein. He became a member of the Ballinlough Company of Volunteers, one of the nine Companies that made up the 1st Castlerea Battalion of the South Roscommon Brigade I.R.A. He reached the rank of Lieutenant. Given that 1920 was the bloodiest year in Irish history, the chances were that Michael would be called into action sooner rather than later.

By mid 1920 the R.I.C. had taken a terrible hammering from the Volunteers. In every county police barracks were attacked. Many simply surrendered, some were burned to the ground and more were blown up. On one particular occasion in the space of two nights, some three hundred barracks were destroyed nationwide. The British Crown had enough and introduced a policy of withdrawing the R.I.C. from small barracks like Ballinlough which were very vulnerable and restationing the men in larger garrisons like Castlerea which were easier to defend. As soon as a barracks was evacuated, the local Volunteers burned it to the ground so that it could not be re-occupied. On the 14th September 1920, the R.I.C. stationed in Ballinlough, together with a unit of regular British soldiers, the 9th Lancers who were there in support, were withdrawn from the barracks and transferred to Castlerea. Once this happened, the die was cast for Michael Glavey.

That fateful September evening, the order went out to Lieutenant Glavey and the Ballinlough Company of Volunteers to burn the barracks to the ground. A small unit of men gathered after dark to do the job. They got several warnings, including one from local landlord Sampey, who knew the Volunteers well, to stay away from the barracks on the grounds that the R.I.C. and the Lancers had something up their sleeve. Michael heeded the warnings and decided to call off the attack but Pat Glynn, the Battalion Commandant insisted on it going ahead. He had come from Loughglynn to burn the barracks and he wasn’t going to make a second journey to do it.

Due to poor reconnaissance work, Pat Glynn was not aware of the fact that when the Crown forces were being evacuated earlier that evening, the lorries stopped two miles out the road and that the Lancers got out and hid in Cashlieve wood while the lorries drove on to Castlerea. They were under the command of the notorious Captain Peake who had vowed to “get every Shinner in the locality” and who was shot dead the following March in the Scramogue ambush. The Lancers hid among the trees and when darkness fell they doubled back across the fields, which were much more wooded then than now, and took up their positions in the gardens directly across the road from the barracks, well hidden behind a high boundary wall. There they lay in wait for the unsuspecting Ballinlough Volunteers.

They hadn’t long to wait. The Volunteers arrived to carry out what should have been a simple job. They had with them some straw and petrol which had been captured in a raid on a train at Ballinlough railway station the previous June. The amount of arms they carried was minimal. They set about their task totally oblivious to the fact that they were under observation and completely unaware that the Crown forces had them in their sights.

Pat Glynn and Michael Glavey climbed up the front of the building on ladders. They stuffed some straw soaked in petrol into holes in the roof and set it alight. Flames lit up men and building. Captain Peake and the Crown forces had easy targets and opened fire. Three Volunteers fell, mortally wounded. Pat Glynn managed to discharge his pistol in the direction of the gardens opposite before his died. Michael Glavey died after a short while calling for a drink of water with his dying breath. A third man, just nineteen years old, Private Michael Keane from Ballinlough fired his shotgun in the direction of the enemy before he too passed way. No prisoners were taken, the rest of the men made their way to safety. But the damage was done and the Ballinlough Volunteers had paid a terrible price.

The remains of the three comrades were taken by lorry to Castlerea barracks and left in a shed overnight. Nobody wanted to tell Mary Glavey that her son was dead but eventually she was brought the tragic news. She asked that the coffin be opened so that she could have one last look at her son. Very reluctantly, because he wished to spare her further grief, Fr. Cunningham agreed. There were no bullet marks visible on the body. Michael’s remains were brought to Gorthaganny church and the following day, after Mass, he was laid to rest in the family grave in Ballyhaunis.

Thus ended the life of Michael Glavey, a life that was and always will be synonymous not only with athletics and Gaelic games but also with Gaelic culture in general and Irish freedom in particular.

This article was written by Mr. Tom Burke, Dunmore Road, Cloonfad with the help of Luke Hurley Snr. R.I.P. It was printed in the Cloonfad magazine 2003. Tom kindly agreed to allow us to use it on our web site.