On Monday morning the 21st of March 1921 Richard Murphy, who lived in the townland of Booladurragh, situated beneath the southern face of Blackrock mountain, left home with two horses to harrow a field. Upon reaching the land he opened the field gate and came upon ‘a man lying on his mouth and nose apparently dead and blood on the ground all round him.’ Richard, in a state of shock, immediately turned around and made his way to Ballindaggin to send a ‘wire’ to the police.
Contemporary newspaper accounts later reported the shocking discovery, but that there was not just one, but two men, found shot and lying close to one another within the same field. They were named as James and Thomas Skelton, two brothers, whose family home was a short distance away from where their bodies were found.
The eldest brother, James Skelton, was 28 years of age and had been working as a farm labourer with Edward Byrne of Askinacloe, not far from the family home. He had previously served in the British Army during the world war 1 and at the time of his death lived in the family cottage in Booladurragh with his father, mother, two sisters and younger brother. The other victim, Thomas Skelton, was 21 and worked as a farm laborer with a James Murphy of Kilcullen. Both of the brothers were single at the time.
The father of the deceased, Patrick Skelton, recalled in his witness statement, which he gave for the subsequent investigation, how his son James was taken from their home by armed men on the the night of the 21st of March. Patrick was awoken at about 1 in the morning by the sound of knocking on the front door. When he answered two men were standing outside with revolvers in their hands. One enquired of Patrick, ‘Is your son James within’, to which he replied he was not, for fear of James’s life. He was then told that they would search inside and if James was found he (Patrick) would be taken away also for telling lies. He then led the two men inside and proceeded upstairs, calling his son James. The men asked James of his name and told him to get ready and to come with them for a few minutes, after which they would let him go. James never spoke a word, only got up and went with the men. Patrick was told to go back to bed, that his son would be back soon, but he heard nothing more until the discovery of his body the following morning.
James o Toole, whom was a member of the IRA and present on the night, recalled the incident some years later to the bureau of military history. It is interesting to note contrasting differences in his account of the story. He recalled how on the night members of the north Wexford flying column had surrounded the house in an attempt to block any possibly escape. After knocking on the door and asking for James his father Patrick purposely identified his younger brother instead, while James attempted to escape. However he was caught and positively identified by ‘local men who knew the Skeltons and were there for the purpose of identifying them’. No mention is made of James’s attempt to escape or the identification of his younger brother as him in Patrick’s account.
The younger brother Thomas did not reside at the family home and lived in Kilcullen townland, which was not to far away. A workmate of his named Thomas Sutton was possibly the last person to see him alive. In the statement he gave as part of the investigation he recalled how they last spoke on Sunday the 20th of March. Both were working together, milking cows on the day, when Thomas Skelton after having a brief conversation with Sutton, said he was returning home for a shirt and that he would not be back until late. This was the last time he was seen alive. Thomas Sutton would later identify his body and remarked that as far as he knew Thomas Skelton took no part in politics.
Circumstances surrounding the shooting
Contemporary newspaper accounts from the period offer little information behind the motive for the killing of the two Skelton brothers. The witness statement of James O Toole is the only one given to the bureau which makes reference in any great detail to the shooting. According to James the two Skelton brothers came under the suspicion of the IRA after the RIC in Bunclody continued to obtain information on them, despite the shooting of Contable Jones in December 1920. Initially it was thought Jones had been providing the RIC in Ballindaggin with information regarding Volunteers and he was subsequently shot.
‘The R.I.C. in Ballindaggin had been getting a great deal of information regarding Volunteers and their movements. The I.R.A. had information that a Constable Jones was responsible for it. He was stationed in Newtownbarry for a considerable time and knew the area and people very well. He was shot by the first column in a pub in the town. After his death the R.I.C. in Newtownbarry continued to get information about us. Eventually we came to suspect two brothers named James and John Skelton, who lived with their father and younger brother named Patrick, in a small cottage at Templeshambo. They always seemed to have plenty of money which they spent very freely on amusements, etc.‘ (p13-14)
James goes on to tell how a letter, addressed to Sergeant Torsney in Bunclody, was intercepted after a mail train was held up at Scarawalsh and the mails sized. This was a regular intelligence gathering activity at the time which aimed to intercept British communications. The letter in question was found in a bag addressed to the district inspector in Enniscorthy and informed Sergeant Torsney that arrangements were being made for one of the Skelton brothers to be taken into the R.I.C. O Toole in his statement was unsure which brother this was but suggests it may have been James. A sum of money for the two brothers was also found in the envelope. He notes how he was unsure as to the origin of the letter and it may have been from the county inspectors office in Wexford or instead RIC HQ in Dublin. The information was forwarded to IRA general headquarters in Dublin and permission was given to execute the brothers. James refers to how all executions had to be sanctioned by Dublin and that permission was only given after ‘…the guilt of the persons concerned had been proven beyond the slightest doubt’ (p14). He recalls how the two brothers were taken away and told to make an act of contrition, and after having done so, were then shot.
RIC Sergeant John McNally was the first officer to visit the scene and gave a statement for the investigation in which he described what he saw; on the morning of the 21st he found the body of James lying on his face and hands while Thomas, who had been blindfolded, was in a sitting position with his back against a wall. Both had been shot in the head. Two cards had been placed around the brothers necks accusing them of being spies. That around Thomas read ‘Spy, Sergt ——— is responsible for this man’s death, all informers beware we are on your track IRA’. The card around the neck of James read ‘Convicted Spy, IRA’. The name of the Sergeant referred to on the card around Thomas Skelton was purposely omitted from the constables statement with only a line after Sergt. In the book ‘Dead of the Irish Revolution’ those who carried out the execution are named as Patrick Fitzpatrick, James Whelan, Frank Gibbons, Thomas Roche and William Kavanagh.
The Enniscorthy Guardian reporting on the incident stated the bodies of the men were discovered ”at the back of an unused house at Boladurragh, which is situated about half a mile from his (Patrick Skelton’s) home’. Where the bodies where found appears to also have been the same place as the execution. It ws situated on the Bunclody to Kiltealy road just north of a crossroads known as Butlers cross. Although reported as being in the townland of Booladurragh the site is actually in Boolamore townland with the road forming the border between the two.
Nothing remains of the disused house today and the field has since been planted with Christmas trees. No marker or memorial exists on the site. The home of the brothers, where James was taken from, is located a short distance to the north and it seems that the IRA intended for the bodies to be easily found.
A story untold
Few sources exist relating to the execution of the Skelton brothers in March of 1921. The only witness statement in the Bureau of Military History which covers the incident in any detail is that of James O Toole. Some discrepancies are noticeable when its compared against other sources. This includes using the wrong names, referring to Thomas as John and indicating that both brothers lived in the home house when only James did. It should be taken into consideration that the account was written many years after the incident took place and is from a single viewpoint. In contrast to the accusation that the brothers were informing on the IRA the police reports refer to them having no association with either the police or politics. The execution appears to have been sanctioned by IRA GHQ in Dublin, as stated by James in his witness statement and suggests that such an incident would not have been undertaken without much consideration.
In his witness statement James O Toole refers to the shooting of RIC constable William Jones in Bunclody in December 1920 and how the RIC in the town continued to receive information despite this. The circumstances surrounding Jones death (which this author has written on previously) were questionable with conflicting accounts surrounding the circumstances. It appeared to be either an opportunistic killing or else was undertaken because he was suspected of providing information on local IRA activities. The latter of the two may not have been true, as suggested by James’s statement and from this the Skelton brothers were suspected. This highlights the nature of such operations and that fault and confusions could of and did occur. Looking back on the events of 100 years ago today it is important to consider the difficult legacies of the past with understanding, generosity of spirit and empathy and to value equally the dignity of all lives that were lost during the period.
Bureau of Military History Witness statement, James O Toole #1084
Courts of inquiry in lieu of inquest: James and Thomas Skelton (National Archives United Kingdom [hereafter NAUK], War Office [WO] 35/159B/7).
E.O’ Halpin and D. Ó Corráin (2020) ‘The Dead of the Irish Revolution’, Yale University Press, p349
Enniscorthy Guardian 26th March 1921, p4
A special thanks to Aaron Ó Maonaigh for his help with sources
Thanks also to Liam Kelly for help with identifying the sites referred to in this article