AMAZING DISCOVERY OF A LONG FORGOTTEN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT FORGOTTEN EVIDENCE ON THE SACK OF BALBRIGGAN AS PRESENTED BY JOHN DERHAM IN 1920 TO THE AMERICAN COMMISSION ON CONDITIONS IN IRELAND
GRAPHIC PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF ONE OF THE WORST CRIMES EVER PERPETRATED ON THE PEOPLE OF FINGAL
WHY TERRY SHERLOCK WAS MURDERED BY THE BLACK AND TANS
TheRaven.ie chat with Author & Historian Adian Arnold
The year 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the Sack of Balbriggan which despite Covid restrictions was widely commemorated by Balbriggan and District Historical Society, Fingal County Council and even our President Michael D. Higgins.
The refusal by the British Government one hundred years ago to ever carry out an official inquiry into the Sack of Balbriggan inevitably left a lot of unanswered questions for the historical record. I recently came across a highly significant contemporaneous account of that infamous night and the following days in and around Balbriggan, filling in some of the gaps and allowing historians to take a fresh look what they believe happened.
While England refused to talk about The Sack of Balbriggan at the time, newspapers around the world picked up the story and ran with it, much to the British government’s embarrassment. Despite London’s objections and refusal to cooperate, a Commission of Inquiry was set up 3600 miles away in Washington D.C. It consisted of more than 150 members including state Governors, Senators, Congressmen, Cardinals, Bishops, newspaper interests including William Randolph Hearst and prominent citizens that covered geographically 36 states of the Union. They produced their findings in a 1100 page report in May 1921 entitled Evidence on Conditions in Ireland, comprising the complete testimony, affidavits and exhibits presented before The American Commission on Conditions in Ireland
I accidentally came across that historic document, housed in Boston College library, while researching a separate but related story. Twenty eight pages of their report contained the complete verbatim evidence of John Derham of Balbriggan. John Derham was a member of the Balbriggan Town Commissions who in turn was the father of James Derham, Chairman of the Town Commissioners. James is believed to have got the original invitation to give evidence in America but could not attend because he was arrested and held in Mountjoy Prison. I have included all of John Derham’s verbatim evidence in a new book entitled Forgotten Evidence on The Sack of Balbriggan. It is available in the Skerries Bookshop beside the Church, the Skerries News on Thomas Hand Street and Greg Reddin’s on Strand Street at €10.00 per copy. Unfortunately I do not have an outlet arranged as yet in Balbriggan but I can be contacted via Facebook or directly on my mobile 0872512373.
I am indebted to Jim Glennon for permission to use his family’s wonderful historic photos of the Sack of Balbriggan, which are just some of more than 40 photos, sketches and contemporary newspaper cuttings included on its pages. THIS BEAUTIFULLY ILLUSTRATED LITTLE BOOK AT €10 IS A PERFECT CHRISTMAS STOCKING FILLER FOR ALL YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS. There was a direct link between the Sack of Balbriggan in September 1920 and the murder of Terry Sherlock in Skerries a month later. I am including below the evidence of John Derham concerning Terry Sherlock and additional information I added in my book which should be of interest to readers.
EVIDENCE ON THE DEATH OF TERRY SHERLOCK AS PRESENTED BY JOHN DERHAM IN 1920 TO THE AMERICAN COMMISSION ON CONDITIONS IN IRELAND MURDER OF SHERLOCK AT SKERRIES
Q. I believe you had some information about the murder of a man at Sherries? A. At Skerries. Q. What is the situation of this town? A. Four miles from us. Q. What are the circumstances of the death of Mr. Sherlock? A. Penstraw is that man's name. He was supposed to be around with the Black-and-Tans at the night of the sacking of Balbriggan, showing them where the Sinns were. So he left the town the day after, and he was in Skerries. The report was that the Skerries Volunteers put him out of Skerries. That was the report. That was about three or four days afterwards. About a month after that, there was a body got about eight miles away in a ditch. It turned out to be Penstraw. He was not buried right. There was heavy rains on. There was some young lads in the ditch getting blackberries, and they found the body.
Q. Was there a man named Sherlock in that place? A. Well, then, he was identified. The police were very active, and he was identified as Penstraw. Q. Was there a man named Sherlock killed there? A. Yes. Well, that night they went up to Skerries in motor lorries. Q. How many? A. I do not know how many lorries went up, but there was a hundred or so Black-and-Tans. They stopped out on the Balbriggan side of the town and walked so that they would make no noise. They went to a namesake of mine, Derham, and knocked on his door, and he let them in, and stood in another door as they passed by and went upstairs in the house. And then they went out again. Derham immediately went out, when they broke in the door to look for him. So he escaped. They then went to a young man named Tyrell and kept him on his knees for two hours, and then went for Sherlock.
The father answered the door. They asked for his son John—John Sherlock. The father said, "He is not in." He said, "it is all right, father. They will not do me any harm." They brought him away about three hundred yards in a field, and when his father and sister found him that morning, about seven o'clock, there were three bullet wounds in his breast and four in his head. But Tyrell was all right. They did not shoot him. The next night they came again and set fire to Derham's house and burned it all up.
Q. Commissioner Addams: This first man, he was an informer? A. Yes. he was said to be an informer, going around with the Black-and-Tans. Q. Was there any reason for the Black-and-Tans believing that these men were implicated in this crime? A. The only reason was that the body was found about eight miles away from Skerries. Q. There was no other reason? A. No. Q. It was only an excuse? A. Yes, all they wanted was an excuse. That was all they wanted. Q. Mr. Wood: But was this body identified as that of the man? A. Yes, I believe an uncle and an aunt identified it. Q. But the body had been dead a long time? A. Yes, it was. He was missing for about a month. I don't know how long the body was there. But they could identify it by some of the things on the body.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION CONTAINED IN MY BOOK
John Derham’s evidence regarding the murder of Terry Sherlock on 27/10/1920 fills in some gaps on what has previously been recorded about this event. He refers to a “Mr Penstraw” who he states “ was supposed to be around with the Black-and-Tans at the night of the sacking of Balbriggan, showing them where the Sinns were. So he left the town the day after, and he was in Skerries.”
Penstraw’s body was found in a ditch, poorly concealed and badly decomposed, near Ballyboughal on 21st October 1920. His name was subsequently recorded on a death certificate as “William Straw” which is the name I use here.
Based on the best sources available I have compiled a map (SEE PHOTOS) detailing Straw’s last known movements following the Sack of Balbriggan on 20/9/1920 until the recovery of his body four weeks later.
1 Statement by John Gaynor, Captain, Balbriggan Company, Irish Volunteers and I.R.A Local gossip had it that he had led the Taxis and Auxies around the town and pointed out to them the houses to be burned and the homes of Volunteers on that fateful night on the morning following the burning I saw him standing looking at one of the houses which were still smouldering, and laughing as if he was obtaining great satisfaction from the fact. A broken gas main was alight in the ruins of this house and sending up a long flame still. I went over to him and asked him what he was laughing at, and he replied "at the fire", At this time he certainly, looked like a man who had been up all night and was covered with grime from the fires and a bit of burned material was attached to his clothes. He disappeared after this and was not seen in Balbriggan again. 2 There was a sighting recorded of William Straw at Clonard Cross. If that was correct he probably walked out past the smouldering remains of Clonard Street. Jim Walsh wrote in Balbriggan: A history of the Millennium that “ Much destruction was vented on Clonard Street, or “Sinn Fein Alley” as it was locally known. John Derham gave evidence that 17 houses in Clonard Street were torched to the ground, including 9 thatched cottages known as “O’Neill’s Cottages,” as were the premises of Costelloe’s and Reynolds. Straw must have known that his life could be in danger and he must have considered heading North to nearby Gormanstown Camp, the home of the Black and Tans, but instead he turned around and headed for Skerries. 3 Clonard Cross to Skerries is about six miles distance. Straw may have avoided the road where possible and instead took to the fields and the cover of North County Dublin hedgerows. He was said to be carrying 2 loaded revolvers, and to have been recognised and confronted by Terry Sherlock and a second volunteer in Skerries. He ran away and headed out the Skerries road to Lusk. 4 According to Joseph Leonard, an officer in the local IRA at that time and later a Colonel in Irish Army, Dan Brophy, a van driver employed by the Swords Co-operative Society, happened to be in Lusk on business. He was told by a local member of the Volunteers that the now notorious Jack Straw had passed through the town some ten minutes earlier, heading towards Corduff. He took his informant in the van, caught up with Straw and identified him. The information was immediately passed on to local IRA officials in Corduff.
5 A weapon and some cord to tie up the intended prisoner was produced, the driver spun around on the Dublin - Belfast road, William Straw was apprehended and bundled into the van. The prisoner was taken to a local mill about a mile away at Grace Dieu. To ensure his safe custody and prevent him from escaping Straw was tied to one of the heavy stanchions which supported an upper floor of the mill until evening.
6 The North Dublin Brigade of the IRA was contacted and a formal courtmartial of the prisoner was arranged for that night at the mill. The Brigade Commander who presided felt that the evidence against the prisoner was not sufficient to conclusively warrant his conviction as an enemy agent, but the court finally agreed on a verdict and Straw was condemned to death.
7 The execution was duly carried out. Jack Shields, one of the Ballyboughal Officers, had been instructed to prepare a grave in a field on the hill north of Ballyboughal near the "Nag's Head", but when the execution party arrived late at night they found the tools were there but no grave dug. The body was instead placed in a dry ditch and the earth from the bank above thrown in on it. 8 William Straw’s body was found on 21 Oct 1920 at Bettyville and exhumed the next day. The official inquiry on his death found that “the deceased, aged about 30, labourer, met his death by a gunshot wound in the brain, inflicted by some person unknown. They were further of opinion that the said person unknown committed wilful murder.”
On 27 October a large group of about 100 Black and Tan officers travelled to Skerries at around midnight and murdered Terry Sherlock, a local member of the Skerries Volunteers, apparently in retaliation for the death of William Straw.
Terry Sherlock reportedly had chased William Straw out of Skerries a month earlier but he was innocent of any involvement in his death.
John Derham was completely correct when he gave evidence three weeks later to the effect that all the Black and Tans wanted “was an excuse. That was all they wanted.”
Copies of the book are available in the Skerries Bookshop beside the Church, in Skerries News shop in Thomas Hand St and in Greg Redding’s in Strand St. Unfortunately I do not have an outlet in Balbriggan but I can be contacted via PM on Facebook or on my mobile 0872512373. Price is €10.00