Thursday, 2 June 2011

A Border Incident

One of the most interesting clan stories from Twentieth Century Ireland comes from the mid 30s. On the 5th July 1935 one Constable McIlhagga was seriously wounded when on duty in the townland of Skeriff, Newtownhamilton, Co. Armagh. A Belfast Telegraph Newspaper report said the incident took place on the border (between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland) at Cullyhanna, South Armagh. The full record is in the National Archives of Ireland in Dublin. Constable McIlhagga was in fact on a Royal Ulster Constabulary Customs Patrol about a mile from the border and an animal was involved. The Constable's superintendant, M.J. Glynn, took some photographs of a cow that had been seized, and had circulated them to the border stations in the hope of tracing its owner. However, despite distinctive marks on its head and sides they had had no luck. The fact was that cattle were purchased in fairs in the south and west of Ireland and were then railed to Castleblaney where they were divided into small lots and were smuggled across the border. Constable McIlhagga had been part of the constant task of attempting to prevent cattle smuggling.

About 2am two Customs Patrols, each of two men, were due to exchange positions, when an animal was sighted on the public road coming from the direction of the Border, followed by one man who was intercepted by the Patrol that was in ambush. The first patrol consisted of Sgt. Napier and Constable Lowe. They pursued the drover along the public road. The second patrol, with Constables Todd and McIlhagga were approaching along a lane at right-angles to the road. But who was the drover?

Suspicion fell on a member of the 'B Specials' named Albert Burns of Skerriff. He was no less than a Sergeant in the Special Constabulary! Some members of the RUC were suspected of cooperating with him, and it was known that the two RUC Constables Todd and McIlhagga were friendly with Burns. It was suggested that the two RUC Officers, Sgt. Napier and Constable Lowe, when they arrived on the scene, fired at the decamping drover. Unfortunately Constable McIlhagga was in the line of fire and got wounded. He received a bullet wound a few inches beneath the heart. Unfortunately it was not able to confirm who fired the shot as the RUC members "became rather reticent about the subject". In the mellee the drover escaped. The light was not sufficiently clear to identify him.

The RUC dropped any attempt to act in a way which would have implicated any of their members. All known smugglers condemned the 'outrage' very vociferously. Moreover everyone said they wanted to avoid friction on the Border. The official report of the incident concluded that the incident did not have any political or territorial significance and that it was in everyone's interest to have the smuggling continue under peaceful conditions!

Unfortunately we do not know whether Constable McIlhagga fully recovered, nor do we know with certainty to which clan family he belonged as his Christian name is never mentioned. The fact that he did survive is evidenced by a report in 'The Straits Times' on 3rd May 1936 (p.15) which said, 'A special rate is to be levied on twelve Ulster border towns to raise the £475 Compensation which was awarded at Armagh to Police Constable McElhagga (sic) who was shot last July while on Customs duty on the border of Northern Ireland. A patrol was passing a cattle rustler at two o'clock in the morning when the constable was shot through the stomach. The bullet lodge near the spine and an extremely delicate operation was necessary to remove it'.

To the best of my knowledge there are only two clan members who have been RUC Constables. One was George McIlhagger who served in Co. Galway and who by 1935 had been dead for some years. The other as Andrew McIlhagga who from 1918-25 was a Fireman in The Merchant Navy and who died in 1971 as a retired Police Constable. In 1935 he would have been 39. If he is to be identified with the 'border incident' then it looks as if he might have been in the service for upwards of 25 years.

Permission to cite from an Irish Department of Justice file, NAI, D/Justice, 8/416. has been given by the National Archives of Ireland and by the Director of the National Archives of Ireland, dated 17th November 2010.

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