The West Connemara Flying Column

by Kate O'Neill

Irish chaffinches flash their white-tipped wings over
The valley. Though first you will hear their “rain call’
Auguring harsh weather and dark omens in the wind.

As the Royal Constabulary menaced Connemara,
Men shot before the eyes of their children, many
Vowed to join the flying column though sent on

The run by crown forces. Each had his own small
Get—shotgun, gelignite, cartridges. Though only
Twenty could arm. The roads, the land, bare and

Bleak, provided scant shelter. In spring of 1921
Black and Tans filed past my grands’ home at 3am
In search of Sinn Féin at Pádraic Ó Máille’s hearth—

Mounterown (Muintir Eoin) in the Maam Valley.
The men assumed their pre-planned ambush perches
And waited to open fire, their service rifles unfamiliar

As a saint’s staff. They were trained in judging distance,
Scouting, aiming—yet, no target practice as ammunition
Was too spare. A nervous recruit fired on impulse and

The edge was lost in driving cold rain. Jane Ó Máille
And her two young crouched in an outhouse as three
Dozen men fought a gun battle around them. After

Almost twelve hours of exchanging fire, a line of police
Lorries emerged from the distance. As the RIC dismounted
The column fled towards Tawnaleen. Police burned the

Ó Máille property to the ground. After the skirmish,
A young lad was captured in a round-up by the crown
Forces. He tells: I had come home for just one night and

Was captured, taken to Maam barracks. Shots were
Fired over my head, pins were driven into my skin, I was
Beaten badly, the RIC demanding to find my brother.

Towards evening, one of the RIC came to my cell. He
Said when all the Black and Tans were drunk, he would
Help me escape through the back gate. He was as good

As his word. I got away stumbling, throbbing in the night
and swore that I would never be captured again. Free as
Ireland herself would be. Ó Máille proclaimed that

summer in parliament—I pray Ireland will have her
freedom as Pearse wanted it—not merely free but
Gaelic as well, not Gaelic merely, but free as well.

The chaffinches live behind my grandparents’ house in far
Branches of a lightening-split oak. Their wool-lined nests
weaving spider’s silk into moss, grass and flecks of bark.