Old drawing captures Glenties ambush site

Old drawing captures Glenties ambush site
Carolyn Farrarcarolyn.farrar@donegaldemocrat.com@dgldemocrat

The image of a drawing of a 1921 War of Independence ambush near Glenties has made its way back to Donegal.

As part of this year’s Glenties Harvest Fair Festival, the ambush at Derries, Kilraine, which turned out to be one of the last acts in the War of Independence, was re-enacted in the hills outside of Glenties.

A drawing of the ambush hangs on a wall of the Newtown Square, Pennsylvania home of Jim McNelis, whose father, Joseph, came from Meenavalley Ardara. Jim was named for his grandfather, James, who was headmaster at the Meenavalley school.

The drawing was done by Denis Malloy, a Meenavalley neighbour of Jim’s family, and brought to the United States by Jim’s Aunt Rose in the early 1930s.

”They said Denis could do anything with his hands,” Jim said, saying Denis also carved model soldiers. They drawings were done in crayon on the back of a piece of wallpaper, and had been framed and hung in the dining room of Jim’s family home in Philadelphia when he was growing up.

Jim wanted the drawings kept safe because of their historic significance. “I realised they were like something we’d have here of Washington crossing the Delaware.”

Still, they have grown faded over the years. He added, “I always thought they should have been better preserved.” 

The drawings were highlighted recently through another Donegal connection: RoseMary Ward of Frosses and her daughter Roisin were visiting friends Fidelma and Conal McGroary in Philadelphia in April, when they met up with Jim McNelis, a relation.

During their visit to his home, he showed them the drawings. One was of the 1921 ambush at Kilraine, and a second showed Éamon de Valera inspecting the Ardara Brigade in 1921. 

The drawing of the ambush shows the IRA firing from the hills, and RIC and Black and Tans in the convoy returning fire. The re-enactment was carried out at the site of the ambush, outside Glenties on the N56.

When Rosemary became aware of plans for the re-enactment, she recalled the drawings and got in touch with Jim, who sent her photocopies of the originals.

Jim, who turned 89 in June, said a member of the ambush team, Joe “Ned” Gallagher of Meenavalley, had been a regular visitor to his family’s home in Philadelphia, and he also recalled attending his funeral there.

Jim had been a regular visitor to Donegal until his 75th birthday, when he could no longer hire a car here. But he still keeps close ties to family and friends and was also active with the Donegal Association.

Jim’s father was the first of the 15 McNelis siblings to emigrate to the States in 1922. 

“He always referred to himself as ‘the Columbus of the family,’” Jim said. After training in electrical welding and working for many years for General Electric, Jim’s father passed away in 1951 at age 53. 

“He never got home again, and I always felt bad about that,” Jim said.