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Witness to War 1917 – 1923: Commandant Séamus Hennessy
by Colin Hennessy


1894-1918 Early life; Joins Irish Volunteers

Descendants of the United Irishmen of 1798 still populated County Clare at the turn of the twentieth century and some, continuing the legacy of their patriotic forbearers, became closely identified with the War of Independence and the rise of Irish nationalism at the early part of the century.

One such was James Hennessy. His Great Grandfather Owen Hennessy along with his brother Michael took the oath in Moy, Lahinch, and was sworn into The Society of United Irishmen by Hugh Kildea in October 1798 taking part in attacks on landlords of North Clare into 1799. Kildea was later hanged in Ennistymon after being found guilty in Ennis of unlawful assembly amongst other charges of agrarian attacks and agitation.[1]

James or Jim as he was known was born in the town land of Cloneyogan, Moy, near Lahinch, Co. Clare 22nd February 1894. The seventh of twelve children to Michael and Bridget Hennessy.[2] A ‘Farmer’s Son’ he was raised and worked on the family’s tenant farm. The census of 1901 describes the Hennessy family home as having stone walls, a thatched roof, three windows to the front and three rooms. The following census of 1911 shows they had made changes to the interior of the home as they now had five rooms. They eked out a meagre existence raising livestock for sale at local markets as well as growing vegetable gardens. In the early part of the new century James like many others became a local activist in the growing nationalist and Sinn Féin movement and became involved in the Gaelic revival. He joined in 1917 with his younger brothers William and Austin and his sister Margaret the local Moy branch of Conradh na Gaeilge.[3] At that point it can be assumed James was now using the Gaelic form of his name, Séamus. Later in 1920 he became Secretary of the branch.

Moy Branch Gaelic League 1917 - 1918

Moy Branch Gaelic League 1917 - 1918

Back Row. Jack Finnucane, Michael Looney, Thomas Tuttle, Morgan Finnucane, Candy Hayes, Molly Egan, Mike Shannon, Joe Nagle, Micko Finnucane, Pete McMahon, Gerry Clancy, Andrew Clancy, Willie Hennessy.
Middle Row. Katie McMahon, Babe Nagle, Seán Vaughan, Nora Finnucane, May Finnucane, Marty Madigan, Austin Hennessy, Nora Egan, May Mulheeney, Jimmy Vaughan, Nell McMahon, Tom White, Bridget Egan.
Front Row. Jimmy Clancy, Michael Clancy, Joe Vaughan, Paty Nagle, Jack Kerin, Ellie Finnucane, Pat Tuttle, Mago Hennessy, Steve Gallagher, Séamus Hennessy, Miko Clancy, Seán Hayes.

In the same year with the continuing threat of Irish conscription as the allies suffered heavy losses on the Western Front. The British sought a solution to the manpower crisis emerging in the Great War. Séamus resisted the efforts of John Redmond the Irish Party Parliamentary leader, who from late 1914 was encouraging Volunteers to join the war effort in order to assist the passage of the Irish Home Rule Act which had been suspended for the duration of the war. Séamus believed the fight had to be fought at home within Ireland to achieve ultimate freedom and not in the fields and trenches of Europe. Along with his brother William[4] and against the vast majority who sided with the Redmondites and joined the British Army they joined the newly organised Moy Company of the Clare Brigade Irish Volunteers which had been formed in October 1917. In the Irish Volunteers he initially undertook basic military and drill training, attended lectures and classes on elementary military tactics, map reading, signals and first aid. He also prepared pikes, took care of captured arms, raised money for the Volunteers and took part in weekly parades in defiance of Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.). Since Easter 1916 open drilling had been outlawed, the Police regularly disbanded the Volunteers public gatherings and pursued the separatists in an attempt to capture and prosecute them. To avoid the eyes of the Constabulary Moy Company regularly attended the Sunday parades at ‘Liberty Hall’ a remote and unoccupied farmhouse in Ardmore outside Ennistymon part of the Coonagh Company area.[5]

Before 1917 ended Séamus was promoted to Adjutant. His main responsibility was as a despatch rider between Moy Company and the 4th Battalion Staff. He traversed the Battalion area from Miltown Malbay to Inagh, north to Ennistymon and Lahinch and back to Miltown Malbay, most of the time on foot in all weather conditions, to Battalion council meetings and locations where the Battalion Staff were billeted.[6]

Éamon de Valera was resoundingly elected to Westminster as a Sinn Féin candidate in the 1917 East Clare by-election by a comfortable two to one margin over the Irish Party candidate Patrick Lynch K.C. The political initiative had now moved from the Irish Party to Sinn Féin as the electorate gave a mandate to the men of Easter Week 1916 and, more importantly, to the Sinn Féin policy of physical force to achieve their aim of Irish freedom. This was dramatically illustrated in the General Election of December 1918. De Valera, now President of both Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers, but also a prisoner in Lincoln Jail, was re-elected unopposed in Clare. He was also nominated to contest the seat in East Mayo, standing against John Dillon the new leader of the Irish Party. Séamus was amongst one hundred and fifty Clare Irish Volunteers who were ordered to Mayo, Séamus to ‘bear arms’ for President De Valera in Charlestown and Carracastle. The Clare men were to escort canvassers, protect and guard supporters during rallies and election meetings as well as being in attendance and visible at polling stations.[7] Sinn Féin won 73 seats against 26 for the Unionists and only six for the once dominant Irish Party. Not only Sinn Féin but the Irish Volunteers had been given a mandate for the establishment of the Republic.

In April 1918 Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, under pressure from the British public decided to impose conscription on Ireland. A fierce campaign of resistance began, supported by a broad coalition of national and political organisations including the Catholic Church. Séamus and William took part in anti-conscription demonstrations as nationalists and the Volunteers became radicalised. With a scarcity of arms orders were received that every Volunteer had to provide himself with a pike. Séamus assisted the local blacksmith in making pikes for Moy Company and in trying to repair the limited firearms the Company held.[8] The Irish Party and Redmond became marginalised as the Volunteers now stood resolute behind a reorganised Sinn Féin to resist and defeat conscription. With the threat of violence from the Irish Volunteers if any Irishman was conscripted, a proposed General Strike and a mass movement uniting the Irish people against them, the British government backed down and suspended the Act as they realised conscription could not be enforced in Ireland. The conscription crisis ended with the armistice of November 11th 1918 and the ending of the Great War.

This activity was in contrast to Séamus’s older brother Michael who, prior to and during the War of Independence, was a member of the R.I.C. stationed in Tralee, Co. Kerry. The constabulary’s distinguishing trait was its intimate knowledge of the people. They were the intelligence gatherers and watched for signs of republican activity and unrest. A policeman was more than an up-keeper of the law. He was an important civil servant carrying out the administration of the country as the main link between the British state and its Irish citizens. Pre-1917 they were respected had social standing in the community and were an accepted part of Irish society. Now as the Volunteers’ guerrilla campaign began in earnest they were regarded as enemies, became socially isolated and ostracised. They became targets for physical violence which increased and became more legitimate as the police became more militarised. It is unclear but Michael, though stationed in Co. Kerry to prevent association with friends or relatives, may have given information to the local R.I.C. on his brother’s republican interests and activities. After the R.I.C. disbanded following the Treaty, during a visit home in September 1923 to see his parents, Michael was shot and seriously wounded by members of the local I.R.A. The Southern Star reported the incident: ‘It has now transpired that a sensational shooting affair took place at Lahinch, Co. Clare, on Thursday night, about 10.00pm, when Michael Hennessy, of Moy Lahinch, a disbanded R.I.C. man was fired at by a party of men armed with revolvers. As he was crossing the street towards Mr. Vaughan’s public house, the men it is stated, fired ten shots in quick succession and then hurriedly escaped by a laneway whence they fired. The wounded man was conveyed to Ennistymon Hospital where in he lies in a grave condition. He is said to have received bullets in the stomach, side, ankle, hip and wrist. Several people were around at the time as it was race day in Lahinch. He is a brother of “Cap.” Hennessy of the irregular forces on the run, and was stationed at Tralee prior to disbandment. The man was at home on a visit to his friends for some weeks back and was it is stated previously cautioned to quit the country. No arrests are reported.’ As the shooting happened in his battalion area it is probable that Séamus either sanctioned or at least had knowledge of the plan to assassinate his brother. After recovering Michael duly emigrated to the north west of England never to return home to his parents or family aside from a brief trip to Dublin as part of his job with The Irish Hospitals Sweepstake.[9]

Tralee R.I.C. Tug of War Team

Tralee R.I.C. Tug of War team

Back Row
. J. Sullivan, James Clancy, J Murphy, A. O’Connell, G. Barnes, W.J. Wright.
Front Row. Michael Hennessy, Sergeant, R. O’Donnell, T. Henry.


Witness to War 1917-1923 - Commandant Seamus Hennessy