26 Jun 2022

Denis Carroll of Ballywilliam: A Tale of Epic Tragedy

Denis Carroll of Ballywilliam: A Tale of Epic Tragedy

When farmer Denis Carroll sat at his fireside, in the company of his three sons and four of his neighbours on the evening of February 10, 1921, little would he have imagined the pain, suffering and tragedy that would soon befall him and be his lot for the remaining seven years of his life.

The arrival of an unexpected visitor to his homestead at Ballywilliam, Nenagh on that fateful evening set in train a series of events that would leave the fifty-eight year old farmer bereft of family, house and holding, friends, neighbours and everything that one might consider to be of value in life.

The visitor in question was his fourth son John (better known as Jack). He was a member of the police force, the RIC since 1906 and was stationed at Empress Place Barracks in Cork city. Although this was the time of conflict between Crown Forces and the IRA, Constable Jack Carroll was not high on the hit list of the Cork City IRA.

Towards the end of 1920, he had been confronted by a small group of armed IRA men as he was leaving Mass in Cork City. He was known to be an RIC man, but was not a target and was allowed to go on his way.

Just a few months later, Jack Carroll was part of a police convoy, travelling from Dublin to Cork, which stopped overnight at Nenagh.

Finding himself close to home, he borrowed a bicycle and cycled to his family home at Ballywilliam, availing of the opportunity to visit his father and brothers. Having spent the night in the company of his family, Carroll set out next morning about 7.40 am, to return to Nenagh and re-join his unit.

However, the next tidings heard of Jack Carroll was the discovery three days later of his lifeless body in a field near Ballyartella, Ballycommon.

Evidence produced at the subsequent Military Court of Inquiry in lieu of an inquest was that his hands were “bound together behind his back with five coils of strong cord” and also that he was blindfolded.

The medical evidence given describes four wounds - the shots had been fired at close range. One bullet entered just below the left ear and he had another wound to the face was where a bullet entered just to the right of his nose. On his body, one bullet entered his chest and passed right through, lodging in the forearm. The court returned a finding that John Carroll had been “murdered by person or persons unknown”.

In Witness Statement 1,463 to the Bureau of Military History, Martin Grace, an officer in the IRA’s 3rd Battalion, describes how he was one of four Carrigatoher IRA men involved in the abduction and shooting of Jack Carroll. They had great difficulty in subduing Carroll, but when they did, they took him to a cow-house in Coum, where he was held for a few days.

Finally, according to Grace’s account on the instruction of a senior IRA GHQ officer, they took Jack Carroll to the small quarry in Ballyartella where he was shot by the IRA group under the command of his neighbour, Paddy McDonnell.

Constable Jack Carroll’s name had appeared in the most peripheral of contexts in the preliminary court hearing of the trial of six persons accused of the killings of his police colleagues Sergeant Peter Wallace (Roskeen) and Constable Michael Enright (Thurles) during the famous rescue of a prisoner at Knocklong railway station on May 13, 1919.

The sum of his evidence at the hearing, held in William Street barracks in Limerick on Friday January 13, 1920, was that he was stationed to keep guard on the train carriage in which the fatal shots were fired when it arrived in Cork eventually.

According to the Cork Examiner reports, he witnessed two cartridge cases being found in a search of the carriage and being handed to Captain Kelly of the military. This evidence is the reason Martin Grace cites why he believed Carroll was shot. In reality, Carroll probably knew his abductors, who were his neighbours and, having captured him they could not therefore release him.

However, even before the remains of John Carroll were released for burial, events in his native parish of Ballywilliam had begun to take a sinister turn. Notices were displayed throughout the neighbourhood warning people not to attend his funeral.

So effective was this campaign of intimidation that when Carroll was laid to rest in Burgessbeg graveyard, only a smattering of people, mostly police and ex-military from Nenagh, were in attendance.

On the Monday following his son’s burial, letters in the name of Denis Carroll appeared in both the Irish Independent and the Freeman’s Journal.

He appealed that there be no reprisals on account of the tragedy that had befallen him.

“It will merely add to our grief and suffering, if any of the good kind old neighbours, among whom we have received every consideration and friendship should be injured as a result of the dark tragedy”.

Denis Carroll’s appeal was clearly directed at the Crown Forces, which at this stage of the conflict had an official policy of reprisal – burning or bombing houses of suspects near where IRA attacks took place.

Despite Carroll’s appeal, two houses in Ballywilliam were burned down as reprisals, those of Michael McDonnell and Carroll’s first cousin, Denis Hayes. Hayes had been in Carroll’s house when Jack arrived that fateful evening and was suspected of being the one who told his IRA colleagues of the constable’s arrival at his family home.

Perhaps it is this last aspect that gave rise to what happened next? The campaign of intimidation resulted in two of his brothers who worked in Ballywilliam creamery being ordered to leave the parish on pain of death.

Michael and Denis Carroll left immediately when this threat was served on them, seeking refuge in the Monastery in Roscrea first before taking the boat to America. There they joined their sister Kate, who had gone to New York and settled in New Jersey some years earlier.

Denis Carroll picked up the pieces of his life as best as he possibly could and, along with his remaining son Patrick, continued to work his ten acre holding at Ballywilliam.

At the Quarter Session held in Nenagh on Monday March 28, 1921, Carroll lodged a claim for compensation for his son’s death.

The whole affair had, he said, lost him not only one son, but three, as under threat to their lives, both Michael and Denis were forced to emigrate.

He described in great detail the substantial monetary contributions given by the dead constable to the family and gave special mention to him paying for his brother Patrick, who was ‘delicate’, to be sent to the seaside.

Constable John Carroll

“They have my two sons shot now”

Just over a year later, on June 12, 1922 Denis Carroll found himself once more on a witness stand. On this occasion he was proffering testimony to a Coroner’s inquest convened at Ballywilliam creamery.

At about 1.30 am earlier that night, Denis Carroll and his son Patrick were awoken by the barking of their dog. When the younger man got up and looked through the window, he saw flames coming from the thatched roof of their dwelling.

Through his tears, Denis Carroll told the inquest, that on leaving the house, Patrick was shot and collapsed into his arms.

The unfortunate man had to drag his son’s lifeless body away from the blazing homestead and set out to try find help.

What transpired next reveals the levels of fear and intimidation that prevailed in the Ballywilliam area. William O’Brien, a neighbour of Carrolls, told the inquest of being called on by Denis Carroll that night.

“Get up – Paddy’s been shot”! called out Carroll, but O’Brien’s brief contribution to the inquiry ended with, “I was afraid to get up or go out. That’s all I know about the occurrence”.

Finding no assistance at the O’Brien household, Denis Carroll proceeded to the house of his nephew Denis Kennedy, who reluctantly consented to lend assistance. Kennedy’s hesitancy was not without good reason and his foreboding proved well grounded.

A week later his rick of hay was set alight and burned.

Dr Courtney testified the Patrick Carroll was hit by a single high velocity bullet fired into his back, which ruptured his heart and caused almost instantaneous death.

After the jury returned with a verdict of “willful murder against some person unknown”, Denis Carroll addressed the assembly: “They have my two sons shot now and they were good sons. I reared a good family and now they are all gone. If they left him to me I would be too happy. I have neither family nor home now”.

The coroner, solicitor James O’Brien had concluded the inquest by expressing his sympathy to the bereaved Denis Carroll and remarking that in his years of experience, “he had never come across such a harrowing and heart-rending case”.

At 6.30 pm on the evening of the June 12, 1922 the inquest concluded, the remains of Patrick Carroll were placed in a coffin and taken to Ballywilliam church.

The following day, after the celebration of High Mass, his funeral took place to Burgessbeg graveyard, where he was buried in the family plot.

We do not have any detailed account but it is not difficult to imagine what Denis Carroll was experiencing on that evening, June 12, 1922.

A widower, his only daughter was in far away in New Jersey, his son Jack buried in Burgessbeg graveyard, his sons Denis and Michael exiled to America by extreme intimidation; now, his neighbours afraid to help him, and his remaining son shot dead and placed in a coffin to be taken to the local church.

With the burial of his last son and his home destroyed, there was nothing left for Denis Carroll to do but to leave his native parish where he and his family had experienced the most extreme hostility.

The head of the republican police in Nenagh, Frank McGrath, an honourable man from the Youghal end of the parish, had the task of setting up the coroner’s inquest and undertaking the investigation.

In his day job as an auctioneer, he was also tasked with disposing of Carroll’s three cows and four calves, his pigs, mare and some farm implements. Carroll left his native Ballywilliam and relocated to Nenagh, where he lived as a boarder in a lodging house at 48 Kenyon Street.

Over the few remaining years of his life, Denis Carroll’s name appears in local newspaper reports of minor lawsuits against former neighbours, over issues of trespass and damage to property as he tried to keep possession of his ten acre holding.

Although we don’t know, perhaps he may have attended the funeral in 1924 of one of the central characters in this story.

After Jack Carroll was shot, his first cousin Denis Hayes, the man believed to have given the information to the IRA about his presence, went on the run to escape arrest by the Crown Forces who also burned his mother’s house in reprisal.

Strangely, Hayes served with the East Limerick IRA in the remaining months of the War of Independence.

He took the anti-treaty side in the Civil War. In May 1924, more than a year after the Civil War had concluded, Denis Hayes was shot dead by members of the new Garda Síochána in bizarre circumstances outside a dance in Kilkeary. 

Marker Stone in Burgessbeg where the Carroll family is buried

Tragedy strikes family in New Jersey

Catherine (Kate) Carroll emigrated to America in the early 1900’s. She settled in the city of Elizabeth in the state of New Jersey, where she married a Charles Hayes.

When her brothers were forced to leave Ireland in 1921, they went also to New Jersey where they lodged in the home of their sister.

Both were employed by the Standard Oil Company at their Bayway refinery. On the evening of April 10, 1927, Michael Carroll left his sister’s home to go for a walk.

When he did not return, the family became concerned as to his safety. On May 8, 1927 the badly decomposed body of a man was found on the shore of Buckwheat Island, a small tract of land in the Staten Island sound. The body carried no identification but a small, beaded crucifix along with two collection envelopes for St Mary’s Church and an empty wallet were found in the victims clothing.

On learning these details through the newspapers, expecting the worst, Catherine Hayes went to the city morgue where her worst fears were confirmed.

Mrs Hayes also said that when her brother left home on April 10, that he had on him, a sum of $75 which he had in his wallet. The state of decomposition of the body did not allow for a complete examination that would have ruled out foul play, - but the more than strong possibility of such cannot be lightly discounted.

If Denis Carroll read of the death of his exiled son in the local press, the report might have granted him some degree of comfort.

Giving a fleeting reference to the ‘troubled times’, the report described him as, “a young man of promising ability who had already made his mark in the land of his adoption”.

The cause of death was reported as pneumonia. Denis Carroll died on September 9,1928.


The events in Ballywilliam described above took place one hundred years ago during the War of Independence and in the period of drift to Civil War - a period of great turmoil in Irish history.

The personal nature of the campaign of murder and intimidation directed against the Carrolls by their neighbours is not the kind of glorious history we are used to hearing.

Instead, the Carroll story illustrates the local, vicious and sometimes dirty nature of what were euphemistically called ‘The Troubles’.

Although the killing of local policemen and the intimidation of witnesses are part of this type of conflict, this was scarcely part of a heroic fight against Empire, or indeed Free State?

Martin Grace’s Witness Statement gives us some information on who shot Constable Jack Carroll and why. However, there are no statements about who orchestrated and controlled the campaign of intimidation subsequently directed at the family. Or who set fire to the Carroll house and shot Paddy in the back when he emerged with his father?

Perhaps we will never know the full story about what propelled such vicious actions within this community against one man and his family? What we do know is that those involved had to live with the dark and vile deeds they perpetrated. It would be tempting to think that one of them, at least, encountered summary justice, although not perhaps for his misdeeds against the Carrolls?

One final comment can be made in this matter with some certainty.

The killing of the Carroll brothers, the burning of their homestead, the threats, intimidation and forced exiles during both the War of Independence and later in the Civil War hardly advanced the hallowed cause of an Irish Republic - so nobly invoked in the 1916 Proclamation with the hope that it would not be dishonoured by ‘cowardice, inhumanity or rapine’.

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