On Wednesday morning the 22nd of September 1920 men cutting corn on the land of Mr. James Joyce in Knockroe county Carlow, just over the border from County Wexford, discovered the body of a man. He was found facedown and covered over by a ‘few sheeves of corn’. Bullet wounds were noticed on the body and a rosary beads hung around the victims neck, as well as a placard with the words ‘Spies and Informers Beware.’
The body was identified as that of a James Doyle, aged 34 from Tomgarrow, Ballycarney Co. Wexford. He was originally a native of Templeshambo and during the World war worked as a munitions worker in Arklow and then England. At the time of his death he was emplyed as a farm laborer for a Mrs. Whitty of Ballycarney. He left behind a wife and 7 children, the youngest 4 months and the eldest 11 years old.
Circumstances surrounding the death
Contemporary Newspaper reports tell how on the night of Saturday the 19th of September 1920 James returned to his home from the mission mass in Castledockrell church, conducted by the Redemptorist Fathers. He arrived at his house around 9 or 10 o clock at night and about 11 o clock a knock was heard at the door. The Newspaper and witness statement accounts to the Bureau of Military History vary as to the what occurred next( i.e. number of persons present, who answered the door etc.). However, they all suggest that strangers arrived at the house dressed in some sort of military uniform and that a conversation took place between them and James Doyle, after which he got his coat and left ‘willingly ‘ with the men, for what his wife understood would only be a ‘brief period’. Reference is also made that the men arrived in motorcars. James would not return that night and several days would pass until his body was identified in a field in Knockroe. At the inquest the Irish Times (2nd, Oct, 1920, pg3) reported ‘…the medical evidence went to show that two bullet holes were found in the head, with one near the heart and another in the right side.’
Sean Whelan, in his witness statement to the bureau of military history. tells how he intercepted a letter addressed to British troops stationed in Enniscorthy courthouse that provided information on the IRA. He was given the letter by a Michael Murphy whom told said it was written by James Doyle of Ballycarney. Whelan states he was unsure if the letter was signed and had forgot where Murphy had obtained it but goes on to tell how it was decided to set a trap for Doyle to investigate the matter further;
‘I decided to set a trap for Doyle, and I asked Tom Roche, saddler, Templeshannon, and my brother Jem (James) to spring it .Sometime previously, we had captured British army officer’s uniforms in raid for arms on a loyalist house. We dressed Tom and Jem (James) in the uniforms and we started off for Doyle’s house.’ (p20-21)
Sean Whelan’s account together with that of Patrick Doyle and Michael Kirwan tell how Doyle led the ‘soldiers’ around the area, telling them what he knew of IRA men in the locality. At some point in the night Thomas and James identified themselves as IRA men to Doyle and he was then taken prisoner. Where he was taken is unclear; Patrick Doyle tells how
‘He (James Doyle) brought them (IRA men disguised as British officers) to Kehoe’s of Curraduff where the soldiers let him know they were IRA men. He was then held here and after a day or two he was tried by court-martial. (p8).
In contrast to this though Sean Whelan told how ‘Doyle told all he knew about the area and the volunteers, as he walked along the road in the moonlight towards Ballyhamilton‘ (p21). After Doyle had revealed all he knew the IRA men identified themselves to him and he collapsed after which they had difficulty in ‘…getting him along the road to Ballindaggin where we imprisoned him in an out house on a farm of – I have forgotten the name’.
Both accounts differ in the location as to where the men revealed themselves and where subsequently Doyle was kept. Ballyhamilton, near Ballindaggin, is several miles away from Curraduff. However, location near Ballindaggin would seem most likely, being within closer proximity to knockroe. Sean Whelan goes on to tell how James Doyle was court-martialed and sentenced to death. Phil lennon the brigade O/C presided at the court-martial. A Fr. Aidan McCormack from Kiltealy came to hear James Doyles confession before his execution.
Sometime between his disappearance on the 19th of September and the discovery of his body on the 22nd he was taken and shot. The exact location of his execution is unknown but the witness statements refer to how it took place just over the Carlow border in the Knockroe. Patrick Doyle states: ‘Doyle’ was executed in county Carlow just across the Wexford border’ (p9). The townland of Knockroe takes in the northern part of the Scullogue gap, a well travelled pass between the Blackstairs mountains, connecting Carlow and Wexford. A large portion of the townland is made up of rural isolated mountain side, which would have been suitable for an execution. It is not known who carried it out but in the recently published book ‘The Dead of the Irish Revoloution’ James Whelan told the Irish Pensions board tat he ‘was on the execution’ (p180). James Doyle’s body was then found in the same townland nearer the roadside, probably not too far from where he was shot. His remains were later interned in Templeshambo graveyard.
Newspaper accounts mention how on the same night that Doyle was taken from his home men dressed as British Soldiers, (likely the same that would later visited James Doyles), visited the homes of a Patrick Doyle of Ballinakill (James Doyle’s father in law). They asked if he had a son in the army, to which he replied yes but that he did not live there. The men took away a photo his son and then continued onto James Doyles, which was only a mile away.
Seamus Whelan in his statement describes an event the morning after Doyle’s execution which highlights the cruel nature of such an operation.
‘When I arrived home on the following morning I found Doyle’s wife seated in the kitchen, talking to my mother. She had come to ask me to help her find her husband who, she said, had been taken from his home two days previously by officers of the courthouse garrison. She had been to the courthouse and they denied all knowledge of her husband.(p22)
The family of James Doyle today maintain his innocence and that he was illiterate and therefore could not have written the letter supposedly from him to the British soldiers in Enniscorthy. Instead the letter is said to have been written by someone else, a woman, who forged it in his name.
Bureau of Military History Witness Statement: Michael Kirwan (IRA) #1175
Bureau of Military History Witness Statement: Sean Whelan (IRA) #1294
Bureau of Military History Witness Statement: Patrick Doyle (IRA) #1298
Irish Times, 2nd October 1920. p3
New Ross Standard, 24th September 1920. p5
New Ross Standard, 18th February 1921. p3
The Dead of the Irish Revoloution by Eunan O ‘Halpin and Daithi O Corrain, Yale University Press 2020
Wicklow People 2nd October 1920. p4
A special thanks is due to Patrick Quigley for helping to identify the location of ‘Joyce’s field’ near Knockroe.