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Clare Genealogy

Donated Material: Family Histories, Biographies & Memoirs 

Michael Cunningham's life in the IRA & Garda Síochána

by John Cunningham

Michael Cunningham (right), William St Garda Station, Limerick, late 1920s

My father was born in 1899 on a small farm in Shyan near Kilmihil, County Clare. He was but a young fella of 16 when he joined the West Clare Brigade of the Old IRA under Commandant P.J. Haugh, I think, and subsequently Sean Liddy. At the time they had neither guns nor ammunition or even uniforms, but that didn't stop them drilling up and down the fields with sticks on their shoulders in the evenings preparing for the revolution. They had heard about the plans for an uprising sometime in the late Spring or Summer of 1916 but had no details of the actual event. In fact, the first they knew about the Easter Week Rising in the GPO, was when they read about it in the Clare Champion the following weekend. My father used often say, that were it not for poor communications, he could have been up in Dublin getting shot at instead of blissfully marching around the fields of West Clare.

After the truce was declared in 1922, the members of the Old IRA had a few decisions to make about what to do with themselves. They had to choose between joining the Free State Army, joining the Guards, staying on the run or returning to the farm. My father wasn't too keen on the latter two choices and the decision on the first two was basically made for them by whichever way their Commandant decided to go. Commandant Brennan of the East Clare brigade led a group of IRA men from Clare, including my father, into the newly formed Guardians of the Peace and my father was assigned number 842. He was in the second batch of 500 guards who signed up in March/April 1922. There used to be a photo of him and other recruits with first commissioner Michael Staines, on the spiral staircase of the Garda Museum in Dublin Castle.

They were originally based in the old military barracks in Kildare town as the Depot in the Phoenix Park had not been handed over by the British yet. As it happened, a senior post came up in the Gardaí and Brennan and his men felt that he should get it. However, an experienced former RIC man called Doherty from Donegal got the job instead and this created resentment among the former IRA men. They decided to mutiny and broke into the armoury which at that time was packed with guns confiscated from the old RIC and the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Just as Brennan and his men had taken over the barracks, an armoured car and some soldiers from the Curragh Camp appeared at the front gate. The mutineers assumed that they had been sent to quell the mutiny but it subsequently turned out to have been sheer coincidence. My father told me that a standoff ensued, and just as it was about to turn nasty, one of the soldiers from the Curragh Camp who was from Clare, recognised one of the lads inside the gate who was also from Clare and when they explained the situation to each other the tension was eased. When word got to Michael Collins about this incident, he was furious at Staines for letting it happen and it cost Staines his job as commissioner. Collins subsequently blamed a “Cabal from Clare” for the mutiny.

My father was then posted to Sligo and his first assignment was to reopen old RIC stations in Donegal in the name of the new Garda Síochaná. Now Donegal at the time was still fighting the War of Independence and the sight of a man in uniform cycling around the place offered the local lads an opportunity for target practice. Sure enough one day, some of the IRA lads took a few pot shots at the father and it took a lot of shouting and explaining before he got it across to them that the British and the RIC were no longer in charge in Dublin and that he represented the new State that they had been fighting for. To the day he died, he still didn't know whether or not they knew that BEFORE they started shooting at him or not.

Later on in the 20s, when my Father was stationed in Sligo, a message came through from Dublin one day about the illegal poitin stills out on Tory Island off the Donegal coast. Apparently, the Tory islanders had quite a thriving industry going on up there and used to supply the ships sailing between Scotland, Northern Ireland and America with poitin for the speakeasys of the Prohibition days in the States. The U.S. Embassy had complained to the Government who had in turn instructed the Guards to smash the illegal operation.

A detachment of Guards from Sligo and surrounding areas was sent to carry out the operation. They travelled up the coast until they reached the point on the mainland from which the boats would row out to the island. Having hired the required boats, they set off and landed at the pier on Tory.

When they announced their intentions however, the islanders were thrown into a state of agitation and it wasn't long before they were confronted by an angry crowd. Now the islanders had their own 'King' and this gentleman told the Guards that if they smashed up all the stills, they needn't worry about getting home to the mainland as they would all be drowned. The guards passed no heed but proceeded to break up all the poitin stills they could find. The King told them again that the elder women had turned the stones in the graveyard and thereby called down a curse on the intruders; a storm would arise and drown them all as they rowed back to the mainland. He told them that a few years before, a British warship had sent men ashore to do the same thing and a similar curse was called upon their heads. According to His Highness, the ship was sunk and all hands drowned.

The guards did some quick thinking and decided to arrest the King and bring him back in the boat with them so that he might act as insurance against anything happening. When the job was done they returned with their captive to the pier only to find that the boatmen had spent the day guzzling the last few drops of available poitin and were pissed out of their bloody minds. Undaunted, the Guards rolled up their sleeves and started to row the boats as best they could.

It wasn't long before a storm did indeed blow up and my father remembers being really frightened trying to keep his boat on an even keel. They eventually did reach shore and although my father's hands were streaming blood from the burst blisters, he never felt happier. The lads brought their captive back to Sligo and he was duly prosecuted and sentenced.

One of the Guards had also slipped a little keg of 'whiskey' into one of the boats and they decided not to open it there and then, but to keep it until Christmas and have a wee party. When they opened it at Xmas however, it was pure poison and undrinkable and had to be dumped. Whether this sample was cursed or representative of what the Americans at the time had to drink in their speak-easys, we'll never know.

I remember my father telling me another night about a time when he was still in the IRA during the War of Independence and his battalion was instructed to take over a landlord's house outside Kilrush which had been abandoned by the owners. They had placed sentries at the front and back doors and the others were playing cards in a room off the hall to pass the time. Around 10 o'clock or so, the large front door was heard to bang open and heavy footsteps were heard crossing the hall and stomping up the stairs. The lads grabbed the rifles and rushed out only to find nobody there but a frightened sentry. They could still hear the footsteps on the stairs however and followed the noise up to the top floor and into a room which had obviously been barricaded up for years. They proceeded to smash down the door with the butts of the rifles and when they shone the candles around the room they could see nothing only old dusty religious statues and pictures. There were no doubts about the supernatural amongst those lads from that day on, even though they were down-to-earth soldiers and not given to superstition.

On another such night when he would tell me of his past, he confided in me that he once saw a file in Union Quay barracks in Cork which contained the name of the man who shot Michael Collins. He told me that since he was sworn to secrecy he would never tell even his family and anyhow, his superiors at the time felt that the name should be kept secret as its revelation would only revive old civil war enmities. I tried to press him for more information but he abruptly replied “That’s enough about that now”, and that was the end of that discussion.

He had a very interesting story also about the anticipated German invasion of the south of Ireland during the Second World War. At the time he was stationed in Union Quay barracks in Cork. Information had come through to Collins military barracks in Cork, that the Germans were about to invade along the jagged coast of West Cork. Whether the information was valid or planted by British Intelligence they didn't know, but it was decided not to take any chances. The army had taken control of all state forces to cope with this emergency and since he was an Inspector at the time, the father was given orders to report to Collins barracks with a dozen men. There they were issued with rifles and a revolver for him, and 20 rounds of ammunition each for the Gardaí. They were ordered to cycle to the old coastguard station near Clonakilty and to defend it against any invaders until the army arrived. My father said that they were so badly informed at the time, that they had no concept of what a German invasion would mean....Stukas, Panzers and thousands of well armed men pouring up the beach. He told me that if they had actually landed, the best thing he and his men could have done would be to give them false directions and send them back towards Kerry.

Some Stories of my Father’s Experiences in Blarney Garda Station.

The Big Flood

I believe it was around the winter of 1946, ‘47 or ‘48, shortly after I was born, when the deluge finally hit Blarney. According to my Father, it had rained for the proverbial 40 days and 40 nights and the land was already saturated like a well soaked sponge, when the clouds burst yet again over the village. The water roared down off the upper fields above the two sandpits and flowed onto the roads around the Square in no time.

My father had left the barracks and gone home for his tea when he heard the rush of water outside in the avenue, and knowing that floods were likely, he made his way down to the village by holding on to the cement wall that ran along between our avenue and Mrs Coffey's house (now Fr Cusack's house).
What he didn’t know however, was that the force of the water had overcome the small dam up the Waterloo road and the village was under several feet of water. It took some time before he could make his way down as far as the barracks which was at the lowest point of the village, so the water would be at its highest there.

When he got his head in the door, Guard Gaffey, who was on duty in the day-room that evening, had scrambled up onto the shelf where the big thick files were usually kept and was watching anxiously to see if the water was going to keep rising. My Father's first thoughts were that Gaffey was being very dedicated in staying at his post instead of just wading or swimming to higher ground. It wasn't until sometime later that Guard Gaffey admitted that he couldn't swim and the shelf looked like his best bet of survival. At any rate the rain eased off and the water subsided and no casualties were reported from the night of the Big Flood.

The Siege

One of the anomalies of the drinking laws of the 1950s was the infamous 'Travellers clause'. This part of the legislation was originally a concession to people who had to travel long distances, like over 5 miles or so, and who would be in need of resuscitation and nourishment as a result. The law allowed such people to be served drink after normal closing times on Sundays if they could prove to the innkeeper that they were 'bona fide' travellers.

In effect however, it meant that people would travel out from Blackpool and places in Cork city to villages like Blarney and drink their heads off all day Sunday and then drag themselves home again on Sunday night. They would arrive on every means of transport, which in those days would typically mean either bicycle or horse-drawn jaunting car.
The pubs would do a roaring trade on most Sundays but on days of special events like the Blarney Sports, they would be pouring porter as fast as they could. If I remember correctly, closing time was 7 o'clock and the Guards would have to help the publicans to clear the unruly crowds from their premises, shove them onto the jaunting cars and point the horses towards Cork. Occasionally, the odd row would break out and some would have to get a few clips of a baton and put into the 'Cooler' for the night.

On one such busy Sunday, there was a particularly rough element above in the Muskerry Arms and Tom Bradley, God rest him, was having no luck in getting them to move. So, as usual, the Guards were sent for and they duly arrived to survey the scene. They were met with a sea of bodies still pressing to get drink from the bar and with no intention of moving. My Father and Sergeant Kelly were immediately sent for and they mustered up any reinforcements available that Sunday evening. Armed with batons they descended on the pub and made their way around to the back of the bar through the yard. My Father, not being the sort of man who would ask his men to do something that he wouldn't do himself, led his men up onto the bar counter itself and with a loud voice he asked the crowd to leave the pub once more. This request was met with another round of drunken guffaws and with that, Dad marched down along the bar and kicked the pint glasses back into the crowd. The guards then jumped down into the crowd and forced them out the door before them.

Outside on the street, several of the crowd attacked the Guards and had to be arrested and put into the small jail in the barracks. The jail only held about ten or twelve people if they all stood up, but this night they had to squeeze more in. No sooner had they locked the last few sardines in the 'cooler' than a gang gathered outside and demanded their release. When they were told that they couldn't be released until they had been charged with being drunk and disorderly, the crowd outside got nasty and the barracks door had to be bolted to keep out the mob. Windows were smashed but the Guards held firm and kept the mob at bay for about an hour or so after which time they got fed up and went home.

"At Ease Men"

On another occasion such as the above, there was a need to draft in some extra reinforcements from the Watercourse Rd barracks in Cork to control the drunken crowd. A young Guard called Vincy Strand was among the detachment sent to Blarney to help the local Guards and as usual, when closing time came, the rougher elements had to be 'persuaded' to leave the pubs. A fight started on the streets again and some strong arm tactics had to be used by the reinforcements to sort them out and restore law and order to the normally peaceful village. This was no bother to the city based Guards who would be used to dealing with the tougher elements of society in the Blackpool area every day.

When the job was done, Vincy and the lads retired over to the new bridge beyond Pat Byrne's house and lit up cigarettes. They were just enjoying their smoke break when around the corner came the Super striding purposefully. Being in uniform, the lads tried to hide the fags immediately in the hollows of their hands or wherever, and when my Father demanded to know if they were the ones who had thumped the fighting gangs, they thought they were in trouble on two counts: unnecessary use of force and smoking while in uniform. They pulled themselves to attention and replied "Yes Sir" to the Super's question to which he replied, "And a f***ing good job ye did too. At ease men." Vincy often related that story to me over a pint in later life when he retired from the Detective branch and settled in Blarney. I hope himself and Dad are enjoying the many stories about those times now, up above.

The One-Eyed Gunner

My brother Matty would have more details on this story now than I would, but it basically involved some character with one eye who bore some grudge against the old RIC and decided to take it out on the Garda Síochána one night after a rake o' pints. He cycled over from Donoughmore with his gun and blasted the front of the barracks with a few rounds before heading off again. No casualties were reported. As is usual in small rural communities, he was henceforth nicknamed 'De one-eyed gunner'.

The Fraud Squad

One summer in the early 50s, there came to the village a group of men and women with the sophisticated airs of London about them. They were drinking daily in Forrest’s and seemed to have no problem with money. Needless to say, this aroused quite a lot of interest in a small Irish village in the 50s when there was shag all going on anyhow.

However this peaceful holiday came to an abrupt end about a week later when the word came through that Scotland Yard in London were looking for a group of people of the same description for forgery in England. The Blarney guards suddenly found themselves in the midst of an international crime event and the excitement reached a peak in the village when the visitors were arrested and held in the barracks. A large crowd gathered to witness the detectives from Scotland Yard arriving the following day to take the forgers into custody and escort them back to England for prosecution. The fact that such a prestigious organisation should come into our backyard and team up with the local police to apprehend international criminals was very exciting and kept us going with conversation for ages. The Emer Cinema probably also benefited by the increased interest in the Scotland Yard films for the next year or so.

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