Echoes of Courage: The Legacy of Selton Hill

by Mary Heeran White

Mother had turned eighty as we sat around the kitchen table, the familiar space where our family would gather to share laughter, tears, and the sweet taste of togetherness. We had returned from Sunday Mass at Gorvagh Church, and my four brothers and I delved into our favourite pans of boxty and fried bacon. After a few cups of tea, Mother shared the tale of when she was tasked with hanging clothes on the hedges to dry on our remote Leitrim farm, where rivers meandered through the land, when she was aged thirteen. It was 1921 she reminded us, a time when the winds of change swept across the land, and the horrors of the Irish War of Independence raged on.

Clothes on hedges weep,

Rain-soaked and heavy with grief,

Wind whispered her fears.

Spooked by the echoes of gunfire nearby, little did she know that among the valiant soldiers of the Leitrim Brigade stood Seán Connolly, an impassioned IRA activist entrusted with organizing the surrounding areas. He led a training camp nearby, undeterred by Michael Collins’ warning that it was the “most treacherous county in Ireland.” Sean’s resolve to fight for freedom burned bright.

Rolling hills embrace,

Leitrim’s tale, burdened by time,

Despair meets courage.

In the dark hours of 11th March, the RIC, and Auxiliaries, supported by troops from the Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire Regiment, encircled the camp. The odds were stacked against the IRA, as the enemy closed in on their position. The crackle of gunfire shattered the stillness of Leitrim’s rolling drumlins. Amid the chaos, six brave souls were felled.

In that fateful clash,

Amidst bullets’ deadly dance,

Six souls met their end.

The RIC callously claimed the bodies of the fallen volunteers, parading their conquest through the town of Mohill. Their triumphant shouts of “fresh meat!” echoed through the streets.

Betrayal’s bitter sting,

A doctor’s whispered secret,

Fresh meat on cruel lips.

And then, a twist of fate unfolded before my mother’s eyes. In the depths of the river that meandered through the farm, she discovered a man, frail and battered, soaking amid the healing powers of water.

Hidden in shadows,

Life clings in watery depths,

Fate binds their paths.

Bernie Sweeney, a survivor of the ambush, clung to life by seeking refuge in a hidden drain. The cold water that embraced him prevented his wounds from bleeding him dry. It was in that desperate state that my mother, an innocent girl of thirteen, stumbled upon him as she pegged clothes on the bushes to dry.

Horror shatters innocence,

No time for trembling by-standing,

River’s Secret wails.

Distraught, Mother knew she couldn’t bear this burden alone. She called upon the support of her family and neighbours who intervened to save the wounded stranger with unyielding compassion.

Neighbour’s hands extend,

Defiance against the tides,

Heroes shield the weak.

They nursed him back to health, hiding him from the watchful eyes of the Black and Tans, the symbol of oppression and fear. Clothes that once hung on hedges now dance with freedom as a reminder of the unwavering pursuit of freedom.

Selton Hill’s echoes,

A nation’s heart forever scarred,

In history, they rest.

Reproduced with kind permission of the author. This poem was composed in a Poetry as Commemoration workshop held at Limerick Museum in May 2023. The workshop was led by writer David McLoghlin.