I was delighted to see this feature by Clodagh Finn on Thomas Ryan, a War of Independence hero of true grit and courage. Ryan was also a most honourable man.
In 2005 a memorial was unveiled in Burncourt, County Tipperary, to International Brigadier Kit Conway, killed in action at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937. On the occasion of the unveiling ceremony, I wrote as follows of Ryan’s tribute to Conway:
One of Kit Conway’s earliest War of Independence actions had been an attack on the RIC barracks in the neighbouring village of Ballyporeen. It was that combination of courage and military expertise shown by Conway during this attack that led his Battalion Commander, Col. Thomas Ryan, to write of him in later years that “had the circumstances afforded the opportunity, he might have been a famous leader like Tom Barry”, the Flying Column Commander of the 3rd West Cork Brigade and author of “Guerrilla Days in Ireland”. This was a notably generous and noble tribute from Ryan who, subsequent to their common struggle during the War of Independence, had gone on to become a Free State Army officer and had fought against the Republican Conway during the Irish Civil War.
Ryan had written of Conway:
‘When I first met Kit Conway during the War of Independence I was initially suspicious of his earlier period in the British Army. Some time after that I invited Conway to take part in an attack on the RIC Barracks at Ballyporeen. He was posted in the most dangerous position during the attack, where we kept him under observation with a view to shooting him at once if he showed any signs of treachery in his behaviour. Instead, to our surprise, he showed himself fearless and determined in the course of the attack, and demonstrated to those of us who watched him how a man should behave under fire.
From that night onwards, he became the white-haired boy, and was taken into the Column without having to take the Volunteer oath. He remained with the Column through all its activities until the Truce, and was our principal instructor in drill and musketry, being an expert on the subjects through his British Army training.
Conway was fearless and a natural born fighter. I often thought in the subsequent years that, had the circumstances afforded the opportunity, he might have been a famous leader like Tom Barry. During the Spanish Civil War he was killed while fighting with the Irish Unit of the 15th International Brigade.’
Commander of the 6th Battalion,
3rd Tipperary Brigade, War of Independence.
First published in the ‘Tipperary Historical Journal’, 1991.
On that 2005 occasion, I also went on to paraphrase Ryan’s tribute as one of the verses I added to the song “The Galtee Mountain Boy” by way of my own tribute to Conway:
At Ballyporeen Kit’s courage was seen on that Flying Column raid.
Of no RIC, nor Auxies, nor Tans was he afraid.
“A leader bold, in Tom Barry’s mould!”, his commander would exclaim.
For freedom’s light, to the death he would fight, on a war-scorched hill in Spain.”