The assassination of Sergeant James King

The funeral of Sergeant James King
The funeral of Sergeant James King

The Clareman who led a British ‘murder gang’ in Roscommon. By Padraig Og O Ruairc.

On the morning of the 11th of July 1921 the town of Castlerea in Roscommon bustled with activity. After two and a half years of guerrilla warfare a Truce had been agreed between the IRA and the British Crown Forces which was due to start at noon that day.

The townspeople, eager for news of the ceasefire, awaited the delivery of the Dublin newspapers and the chief topic of conversation everywhere was the ceasefire. Unnoticed, two IRA Volunteers, Thomas Crawley and Ned Campion, stood, apparently in idle conversation, inside a shop drinking lemonade. They were keeping a close watch on the passers by outside on Patrick Street waiting in the hope that Sergeant James King might appear.

Sergeant King, a native of county Clare, was a forty four year old married man with four children was shot dead by the IRA on the morning of the Truce, July 11, 1921.

Sergeant King, a native of county Clare, was a forty four year old married man with four children. He had served twenty three years in the Royal Irish Constabulary (the British colonial police force in Ireland)  and had spent eight years in Castlerea after being promoted to the rank of Sergeant. In that time he had become both hated and feared by the local republicans.

King had an intimate knowledge of the area and it’s people and he knew in detail the activities of the local IRA. Sergeant King was the chief instigator in the British backlash against popular Republicanism in Roscommon during the War of Independence and he personally led what the local populace dubbed the ‘Castlerea Murder Gang.’

Throughout the Irish War of Independence military activity by the IRA in Roscommon had been hindered by poor leadership and a flat local terrain unsuitable for the type of guerrilla warfare the IRA had developed in the southwest. However the biggest problem the Roscommon IRA faced was infiltration by British spies and informers who worked for Sergeant King.

Tom Crawley who assassinated Sergeant King on the morning of the Truce 11 July 1921.
Tom Crawley who assassinated Sergeant King on the morning of the Truce 11 July 1921.

Thomas Crawley, the Vice-Commandant of the IRA’s South Roscommom Brigade recalled: “We were damned right from the start by having traitors and agents amongst us and in the area and we were never really able to get control over this situation or eliminate that danger. …Quite a number of men in the Castlereagh area were shot in their beds by the RIC or taken out of their beds and shot, and all of these can be put down to the activities of that ruffian.”

Acting on intelligence received from a British spy Patrick Conroy, an IRA Volunteer was abducted from his home on the 6th of April 1921 by the RIC and Black and Tans. His dead body was found in a nearby field a short time later. The local IRA maintained that Sergeant King was responsible for Conroy’s murder.

In the early hours of the 2nd of June another two IRA members, Michael Carty and Peter Shannon, both of whom were ‘on the run’ staying at a republican safe house were surprised by an RIC raiding party. Carty was killed and Shannon, though shot six times, managed to survive. Again the IRA’s chief suspect for these killings was Sergeant King who was alleged to have led both raids.

King had led a ‘murder gang’ in Roscommon responsible for killing ‘quite a number’ of IRA men

On the night of the 22nd of June 1921 the ‘Castlerea Murder Gang’ struck once more. This time a force of RIC and Black and Tans led by Sergeant King surrounded the Vaughan family home at Cloonsuck, Roscommon.

They surprised three IRA Volunteers, John Vaughan, Ned Shanahan and Martin Ganly who were sleeping in their beds. The three republicans were all armed but never got a chance to draw their weapons. They fled the house as the RIC raiders entered but Ned Shanahan and John Vaughan were shot dead as they ran and Martin Ganly was captured and taken prisoner. Not content with having killed two wanted republicans and captured another Sergeant King took up a rifle and beat Vaughan’s mother  unconscious with it and then shot dead the family’s dog before departing.

The RIC’s success in pinpointing the hiding places of IRA men who were ‘on the run’ made it obvious that there was a spy at work. It was soon revealed that Paddy Egan the Brigade Intelligence Officer for the South Roscommon Brigade was a double agent who had been working for the British and he fled to the USA before the IRA could capture him.

The death of Sergeant King less than two hours before the Truce  on the 11th July 1921 barely caused a ripple in a country that had become numbed by violence.

With Egan’s escape Sergeant King became the main focus of the IRA’s revenge. Sergeant King was aware of this development and, for his own safety, he began sleeping in the  local RIC Barracks instead of his family home in Patrick Street, Castlerea but returned there sometimes early in the day for breakfast. On the morning of the 11th of July Thomas Crawley was waiting.

“Sergeant King of the RIC was the principal man in the murder gang that was organised in the RIC in Castlereagh and was responsible for a number of killings around the area. He was badly wanted by us. On the morning of the Truce, the11th July 1921, we made a final effort to get this man. Between 10 and 11a.m. on that morning we proceeded into the town on this mission. …

We went into a shop to get a drink of lemonade and when only a few minutes there Sergeant King came out of his own house on the opposite side of the street and proceeded to get on his cycle as if to go to the barracks. We left the shop. Ned Campion and I let him have it. He died immediately. Although the truce took effect at 12 o’ clock on that day, the enemy chased us until about 6pm that evening. We finally escaped them, however, by adopting the role of shepherds gathering up sheep.” King was struck in the chest by at least two of his attackers bullets and despite receiving prompt medical attention died at approximately 10.30 am  – less than two hours before the ceasefire was due to begin.

Whilst the killing of the first two members of the RIC, Constables James O’Connell and Patrick McDonnell shot at at Soloheadbeg, had shocked the nation on the first day of the War of Independence in January 1919- the death of Sergeant King less than two hours before the Truce  on the 11th July 1921 barely caused a ripple in a country that had become numbed by violence, and few people mourned the passing of the leader of the ‘Castlerea murder Gang’.

IRA Volunteer John Vaughan_ After killing him Sergeant king beat his mother unconscious and shot dead their family's dog.
IRA Volunteer John Vaughan_ After killing him Sergeant king beat his mother unconscious and shot dead their family’s dog.

In more recent years a number of commentators have sought to rewrite history by portraying Sergeant King as an innocent who died as the last tragic victim of the conflict. For example the newspaper columnist Kevin Myers claimed that King was a pious Catholic, a deeply religious man, who had been foully murdered by the IRA as a ’soft target’ as he went about his religious observances.

According to Myers; James King was “a daily communicant … murdered in Castlerea as he cycled to Mass”. Myers claimed that Sergeant King’s was the last inoffensive victim of an IRA murder campaign a “once in a life time Summer sale of murder” orchestrated by the IRA to kill as many innocent victims as possible before the ceasefire began.

Myers one-sided and inaccurate account failed to mention Sergeant King’s role as head of the ‘Castlerea Murder Gang’ or his role as a perpetrator of several reprisal killings. Sergeant King was not the last victim of the conflict – this dubious ‘honour’ fell to Hannah Carey a hotel employee who was shot dead without warning at her workplace in the Imperial Hotel, Killarney by Sergeant King’s comrades in the RIC – However Carey’s killing has been airbrushed from history by politicians, newspaper columnists and historians who have sought to whitewash men like RIC Sergeant James King.


Kathleen Hegearty Thorne, ‘They Put the Flag A Flyin’ – The Roscommon Volunteers 1916 -1923.
Kevin Myers, Irish Times, 27th August 1994.
Micheál O’Callaghan, For Ireland and Freedom, Roscommon’s Contribution to the Fight for Independence 1917 – 1921, (Boyle, 1991)
Stephen ‘Paddy’ Vaughan, Interview with War of Independence veteran and brother of John Vaughan killed by Sergeant King, Conducted by Kathy Thorne Hegearty 24th January 1995. (Transcript in author’s possession)
RIC County Inspector’s report for Roscommon – July 1921 (NAUK, CO, 904/115)
Provisional Military Court of Inquiry in Lieu of Inquest for Sergeant James King (NAUK, CO 904)

Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc has a PhD in History from the University of Limerick. His new book “Truce: Murder, Myth and the last days of the Irish War of Independence” has just been published by Mercier Press.

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