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

1919 - July 1921 War of Independence

Just over four years earlier in 1919 Séamus’s active service in the fight for freedom began with the 4th Battalion of the Mid Clare Brigade I.R.A. The Irish Volunteers were now more commonly known as the Irish Republican Army. The Clare Brigade had been reorganised and divided by I.R.A. GHQ, the Mid Clare Brigade being established early in 1919 along with the East and West Clare Brigades. The Mid Clare Brigade consisted of initially five battalions and, later in the war, six.[10] Each battalion was then broken down into smaller local companies. Under instructions from Michael Collins, Director of Organisation, Cathal Brugha the I.R.A. Chief of Staff and his assistant chief Richard Mulcahy, Ernie O’Malley a GHQ Staff Captain was sent to Clare to organise the new Brigades. O’Malley, a veteran of Easter Week was an ideal choice by Collins:

…committed to discipline, efficiency, and to the meticulous regularisation of his forces; preoccupied with questions of duty, order, leadership, and rank…an almost obsessively professional I.R.A. officer.’ [11] In March O’Malley came to the Mid Clare area to train the men and officers of the Brigade which Séamus attended, usually for night manoeuvres. ‘On Sundays we manoeuvred one battalion against another, companies marched eight or nine miles to the mobilisation centre. Officers and men wore what uniforms and kit they had. Police and military followed us; we carried out tactical exercises whilst both our parties watched for and avoided the real enemy. The numbers gave the men more solidarity and confidence. During a practice attack I once watched another officer from Miltown Malbay, who had been in the Irish Guards, train his men to advance under cover. He carried a haversack full of clay balls and from behind belaboured his men when they did not keep close to earth. I gave military books to the officers and typewritten notes, lectured to them and endeavoured to make field work and study interesting. It was a difficult task. All day they worked hard at their farms or in the towns; when evening came there was an added task. It “put years on them,” it was cruel and hard to study.’[12] Séamus related an incident when a Volunteer was reluctant to go to ground when ordered by O’Malley as he had a new suit of clothes. O’Malley said “God blast you...get down!” The Volunteer got down into the mud and then the heavens opened.[13]

It was shortly after this period of training -10th May - that the Hennessy home in Moy was first raided by the R.I.C. Séamus now had to go ‘on the run’. Aside from short visits he was not to live at home for the next five years. Sleeping in safe houses, cabins, hay barns, dug outs or in the open, relying on the goodwill of the people both in the countryside and towns to feed, clothe and shelter him and many other Volunteers on the move. Primary care was given by members of Cumann na mBan, the women’s auxiliary of the I.R.A. Ellie Maloney of Islandbawn was one member who provided care and support for the battalion. In a reference letter Séamus outlined her work which was typical of Cumman na mBan: ‘This is to certify that I the undersigned have known Miss E. Maloney for many years particularly since her service with Cumman na mBan organisation, and as an active participant in the fight for Irish freedom. I have known her to have been an active, energetic, reliable and trusted member who undoubtedly risked serious dangers, lost much sleep, and endured continued hardships during the Anglo-Irish and Civil War periods. Her occupation at farming and dairying industry was continually interrupted; her work and business often neglected owing to her military activities. I have known her to have been associated and to have taken part in the following military operations, raising funds by way of organised dances for army purposes, cooking, sewing, attending to wounded I.R.A. officer Comdt. I. O’Neill and other members of the Active Service Unit who were continually billeted at her home immediately after Rineen ambush Sept. 1920. Had charge and care of despatches, firearms and important documents for members of Brigade Staff Lex O’Neill and Battn. Staff Séamus Hennessy who were practically whole time billeted in her house. Had continual charge and care of firearms and ammunition. Ran important despatches at great personal risk to Miltown Malbay. Assisted in the equipping of members of Battalion A.S.U. on the way to Miltown Malbay ambush on March 31st 1921. Continually cooking, catering, washing, knitting, and sewing for A.S.U. who were on the run and practically whole time calling to her house which was situated in a backward district.’[14]

Miltown Malbay since early 1919 was now a ‘Military area’ as the R.I.C. in the town was reinforced by the British army: ‘The district was subjected to all the objectionable restrictions associated with military rule. Fairs and meetings were banned, movements of persons into and outside the area was allowed only on the production of a permit from the sergeants of the R.I.C., barricades were erected on the roads at different points in the area at which sentries were posted who questioned and searched pedestrians and passengers in carts and motor cars.[15] Despite this the Volunteer’s continued to drill, train and meet in remote locations.

After a number of 4th Battalion council meetings at Lehane’s house in Lahinch, the Battalion HQ, it was decided to attack Connolly R.I.C. barracks. This was to be one of the first I.R.A. raids upon a Police Barracks. On the night of 21st July 1919 with Commandant Martin Devitt[16] and Ignatius O’Neill[17] , the former Irish Guardsman, O’Malley had earlier observed Séamus with Steve Gallagher[18] and Anthony Malone[19] were in a party of Volunteers who took part in the attack. The barracks was a single storey stone building housing a sergeant and four constables. John Joe Neylon[20] was transporting homemade grenades from Ennistymon to Cloonagh when he fell off his bicycle and was injured. Hence no grenades arrived to the attacking party. Devitt decided to attack regardless. Ignatius O’Neill and Frank McKenna had rifles, the first time the battalion rifles were brought into use, the other members of the party had shotguns. Devitt called on the sergeant to surrender: ‘Sergeant O’Shea surrender the hut and spare the lives of your men’, while Paddy Gallagher under fire attempted to force the door in with a sledgehammer. A chain gate inside the door which only opened a few inches for identification purposes was found to make entry impossible. The barrack door was also metal-plated making it bullet proof. O’Neill and McKenna opened fire but the R.I.C. returned fire from a position of safety within the barracks. The attack was called off as Devitt considered they were wasting ammunition. Despite the I.R.A. not capturing the barracks, with the windows blown by shotgun fire and the destruction caused by the attack, it still resulted in the withdrawal of the R.I.C. to Ennis.[21]

Steve Gallagher, the Moy Company Captain, was promoted to the Officer Staff of the 4th Battalion Mid Clare Brigade on 15th September 1919, serving as Battalion Quartermaster and later as the fearless and daring Commandant of the Battalion’s ‘Flying Column’ which was formed in early 1920. Séamus, his close neighbour and friend, succeeded him as Captain.[22] A constant severe lack of useful firearms and ammunition was the first issue the new Captain had to deal with, a common problem throughout the Volunteers. To address this, on 21st November 1919, Séamus led Moy Company on the 4th Battalion’s raid for arms on Mount Callan House the centre of landlord Colonel Frederick St. Leger Tottenham’s estate.[23] Tottenham was continually the target of agrarian attacks as a leading diehard in the Clare Unionist movement and his vehement opposition to Irish Land Bills and the prospect of Home Rule. Bridges on his lands were ‘smashed’ up, trees felled and roads to and from his estate blocked. Cattle were driven off his grazing and, when returned or replaced, his livestock would again, sometimes the following morning, be cleared from the fields by large groups of men. Tenant farmers, many of them Volunteers wanted to make life uncomfortable and difficult for their landlord in order to get better terms when purchasing their tenancy under the Wyndham Land Act. They dug up fields, threw stones in meadows, damaged machinery and knocked stone walls.

Tottenham did not seem to heed the advice of his friend and fellow landlord Colonel George O’Callaghan-Westropp who advised in his ‘Notes on the Defence of Irish Country Houses’ that Protestants should prepare for raids by gangs of perhaps fifty land-hungry Nationalists. ‘Shotguns, rifles and a telescope were taken from Mount Callan after Volunteers had knocked down and knelt on the elder Colonel Tottenham, who is said by one raider to have ‘put up a fierce resistance’. A maid fainted, giving another raider a ‘terrible job to raise her’.[24] Pako Kerin, Glendine Company was in the raiding party: ‘The Colonel was a bitter imperialist and we expected plenty of opposition. We were armed for that job. After making entry into the house through the kitchen in the basement, we found the Colonel in his bedroom who, on seeing us, lifted a table-lamp and hit Stephen Gallagher with it on top of the head. My brother, Joe, and Gallagher rushed him. He grabbed Gallagher’s revolver and had almost secured possession of it when my brother wrenched it from both of them. He handed the revolver back to Stephen Gallagher who hit the Colonel over the eye with it. The Colonel was then overpowered. He refused to disclose where the guns were kept in his house. In view of his obstinacy and of our determination not to leave without getting the guns, we tried a bit of bluff. His legs were bound and we laid him on a sofa. After dressing the wound we tried to entice him to tell us where the guns were hidden. It was of no avail until eventually we threatened to shoot him and forced open locked presses in the room, destroying the furniture in the process. At this stage he asked for one of the maids and requested her to give us the keys and show where the guns were. In this raid we secured altogether six shotguns, one .45 revolver and one .32 revolver, with ammunition for these guns.’[25]

Over the next fifteen months the house was twice further raided when the Tottenham’s were at church, though the booty was of less military value, in the second case a watch, two daggers, a compass, £5 and a pair of gaiters.’[26]

The following week in Westminster the raid on Colonel Tottenham’s house was raised in the House of Commons. Mr. Donald M.P. asked the Chief Secretary for Ireland ‘if his attention has been called to a raid by Sinn Féiners on the house of Colonel Tottenham, at Mount Callan, West Clare; whether this gentleman was knocked down and received serious injuries, whilst two shot guns and two revolvers were taken from his house; what is the present condition of Colonel Tottenham; and if any arrests were made?’ Mr. MacPherson M.P. replied ‘I regret to say the facts are substantially as stated in the question. The condition of Colonel Tottenham, who showed great courage, is I am glad to say, improving. So far no arrests have been made.’[27] In December the question was followed up in the Commons by Colonel Newman M.P. who asked the Chief Secretary for Ireland ‘whether he has received information of an outrage committed on the 21st November on Colonel Tottenham, Mount Callan, County Clare, a gentleman advanced in years; whether his house was entered by a party of twenty-two men of the Irish Republican party who knocked him down, tied his hands, and compelled him to give up all he had in his house, and, in an attempt at resistance, Colonel Tottenham was repeatedly struck in the face with bludgeons and severely injured; and if the authorities have been able to ascertain the names of his assailants?’ Mr. Henry M.P. replied ‘I would refer my hon. and gallant Friend to the reply given to the question asked on this subject by my hon. Friend the Member for the Victoria Division of Belfast on Thursday last, and to which I have nothing at present to add.’ He later confirmed that Tottenham’s condition had improved further.[28] After the raid Colonel Tottenham was so shaken that he had to employ a young Scot to help with the farm and home, where he had acted as his own steward since the 1890s.[29] In mid 1923 as the Civil War ended, after thirty one years at Mount Callan, Colonel Tottenham moved out. ‘Many of the old neighbours came to wish me ‘farewell’ – one said ‘Sure! You came among us, and we made you our own’, and another said, ‘Sure! You were our father’. I like to leave it at that, hoping there may even be a grain of truth in it.[30]

Previous to the Mount Callan raid Séamus led a raid on the 1st October in his own Company area in Moy and Lackamore which resulted in one revolver and one shotgun being captured. Later in December 1919 in a raid on a ‘hostile’ house in Curragh O’Dea the company also procured firearms.[31]
As I.R.A. assaults continued upon outlying barracks the R.I.C. withdrew their men to larger barracks in the main towns. To discourage their return the I.R.A. systematically destroyed the evacuated posts. On Easter Saturday 3rd April 1920 as the war escalated there had been a directive from I.R.A. GHQ to commemorate the anniversary of the Easter Rising by burning abandoned barracks. In response that night Séamus led members of Moy Company in burning Lahinch R.I.C. Barracks. The Sergeant had been previously transferred to Ennistymon, though his wife Mrs Roleston was still resident in the barracks. She was asked by the Volunteers to leave with her family and possessions to a nearby house. The Moy I.R.A. Volunteers spread hay on the floor of the barracks and after a sprinkling of petrol it was set alight. Slow to ignite Pat Murtagh and John Garrahy applied further torches. After a few seconds Seán Burke[32] recalled ‘all hell was let loose’ as slate, windows and doors blew out after a massive explosion. Murtagh and Garrahy, still inside, were rescued unconscious and seriously burnt. Séamus along with his brother William, Steve Gallagher and members of the Company carried the men the two mile journey to the Company area to Seán Burke’s house, where Dr Michael Hillery, the Miltown Malbay practitioner was called for medical assistance. Séamus placed armed guards and scouts to protect them from R.I.C. search parties while they recovered. Hillery later drove Murtagh to Dublin for treatment.[33]

The following September it was agreed at a Battalion meeting that an attack would take place, based on intelligence received, that a patrol of regular R.I.C. and Black and Tans travelled in a Crossley Tender lorry from Ennistymon to Miltown Malbay every Wednesday morning. As well as avenging Martin Devitt who had been killed earlier in 1920 in an engagement at Crowe’s Bridge, near Inagh. The objective of the ambush was to secure arms and ammunition for the poorly equipped Battalion. Ernie O’Malley recounts in Raids and Rallies: ‘...As there had been no previous engagement in this Moy Company area the commandant decided to get as many men as he could into action. This would give a wider sense of participation and it might encourage Volunteers to be eager for another attack on the British. There were nine companies in the battalion, and as the area was thickly populated there was ample manpower to draw from. It was arranged that each company, except Lavereen, would furnish Volunteers[34] Séamus Hennessy was the company commander of Moy, and as the operation was to take place in his area he was responsible for guides to direct the incoming companies to their mobilisation centres. At two o’clock on the morning of September 22, 1920, three companies, Inagh, Ennistymon and Lahinch, were at Moy chapel. They had brought rations with them and they lay on trams of hay to rest while the Moy Volunteers acted as a protective screen in the darkness. At four o’clock the commandant moved the companies off towards the Carrig at Ballyvaskin where they met more men from three other companies.’[35]

Drummin Hill, Rineen with an elevation of 80-90 metres above sea level was selected as the ambush site because of its strategic location on the southern side of the main road between Lahinch and Miltown Malbay. A curve in the road would force vehicles travelling to Miltown Malbay to slow down as they reached the ambush site. Drummin Hill also had good natural cover of furze and bracken to provide camouflage for the Volunteers. Ernie O’Malley continues: ‘...They had a mixture of rifles and shotguns and they would have the cover of low walls and banks to lie behind. They were placed in position first, and were given instructions to withhold fire until they saw the constabulary leave the road to get cover on their side, otherwise cross fire might hit the men in the laneway. Further to their west was the sea, but these men below the road and the riflemen on high ground could fire over land in that direction for about five hundred yards. O’Neill picked riflemen and took charge of them. Higher up, Séamus Hennessy was responsible for the first small group of shotgun men.[36]

O’Neill wasn’t to know that his plans for the ambush were to be thrown into disarray by two events that were to have a major bearing on activities at Rineen. An unrelated incident that day was the shooting of Acting Resident Magistrate Captain Alan Lendrum at a level crossing at Caherfeenick near Doonbeg by members of the West Clare Brigade I.R.A. He was on his way from Kilkee to attend the Petty Sessions (Court) at Ennistymon Courthouse. The search for Lendrum who had been earlier reported missing after his non arrival had led to an increase of Crown Forces activity in the Mid Clare area. The second event concerned the Crossley Tender. As the lorry was on its way a wrong signal was given by the scouts, ‘Police car coming’ was taken up as ‘three cars coming’. An order by O’Neill was issued to hold fire and the tender was allowed to pass on its way to Miltown Malbay. O’Neill dispatched John Clune[37], a Volunteer from Inagh, to cycle to Miltown Malbay to watch the tender and report on its activities. Clune returned two hours later as the Battalion lay in position. He informed O’Neill that the Crossley Tender was outside the R.I.C. barrack facing for Ennistymon and was about to return. Shortly before 3.00pm the lorry began its final journey to Drummin Hill.

In his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History John Joe (Tosser) Neylon, Captain Ennistymon Company recounts what happened: ‘The scout, whose name I am not able to remember, came back about 2 o’clock in the evening and reported that the lorry was outside the R.I.C. Barracks in Miltown, that it was facing in the direction of Ennistymon, that he did not think that we had been noticed, and that it looked as if it would be soon returning. In the space of 5 minutes or so we heard the noise of the lorry coming towards us. In the meantime, O’Neill made a few positional changes, bringing myself and the riflemen who were detailed to get the driver to more suitable positions. When the lorry reached the chosen spot I fired the warning shot and immediately all the party opened up. The attack was over in a matter of seconds. There was no reply from the lorry and our fellows rushed towards it to find five dead policemen lying inside. One of the police managed to get off the lorry and had gone about 300 yards towards Miltown when he was seen and shot by Donal Lehane of Lahinch in a field near O’Connor’s house and at a spot about 100 yards from the main road.[38]All the guns and ammunition carried by the police were collected: - 6 Lee Enfield service rifles, one .45 revolver and about 3000 rounds of .303 ammunition. The lorry was also burned... Some of the party were still on the road around the lorry and others were making their way up the side of Drummin hill when word was received that lorries of British troops were coming towards us from Ennistymon.[39]

Ernie O’Malley describes in Raids and Rallies: ‘As IRA went up the rising ground Séamus Hennessy waited behind for a comrade of his, Steve Gallagher, who had gone down to collect the rifle belonging to the constabulary man who had rushed towards the sea. Séamus shouted to him to hurry up toward the road, as he heard the noise of what seemed to be a lorry approaching from the Lahinch direction. Some of the men had halted below the first hill, but he shouted at them to push upwards as he indicated the direction of the noise.’ O’Malley recounts the intensity of gun fire the Battalion was under from the advancing Crown Forces: ‘…Séamus Hennessy and some of his shotgun men were making for a gap in a bank when Vaughan shouted at them, ‘Don’t go out that gap, for they’re like to set the gun on it. Roll over the bank when I shout.’ Sure enough, the gunner had his sights trained on the gap, and when the men simultaneously leaped up and tumbled over the brow, the gun, in a long roll of fire, cut the edges off the gap and the top of the bank on either side of it.[40]

During the I.R.A. withdrawal from Rineen Séamus, along with Paddy McGough, Captain Inagh Company, alternated use of one of the captured RIC rifles. Pako Kerin, a rifleman during the ambush, recalled the withdrawal from the ambush scene: ‘...On returning again to the hill top I met Séamus Hennessy of Cloneyogan, Lahinch, afterwards O/C of the Battalion, and he informed me that the military were coming from the Ennistymon direction. Others with him were Pat Frawley, Liscahane, Miltown, Michael Nester (Miko) Ennistymon, Francis Mee, Clooncoul, Anthony Malone, Battalion Adjutant, and John Joe Neylon. We decided to make for Ballyvaskin nearly a mile as the crow flies from Drummin Hill. The intervening country was shaped something like a saucer and provided little cover as the fields were very big. We went in extended formation and had gone a hundred yards or so when we came under heavy machine gun fire from the North east. The Military had reached the top of Drummin Hill and placed a machine gun in position four hundred yards away from us. Our party at this stage were in the middle of a ten acre field through which ran a stream in the direction of Ballyvaskin. Pat Frawley and myself made for the stream. On the way I was stunned by a bullet which passed between my ear and head. Recovering after a few seconds, I got into a shallow drain where I remained for ten minutes or so, and then dashed twenty or thirty yards further onto a cock of hay. There I found Pat McCough, O/C of the Inagh Company. With him I got as far as a low stone wall. The firing was still fierce and was mostly coming from a machine gunner. Here we began to time the machine gun burst and reckoned that a pan was being changed. We dashed across another fifty or sixty yards of open ground behind another stone fence where we met two more of our crowd, Dave Kennelly and John Crawford. Kennelly, who had a rifle, was in an exhausted state and enquired if any of us were in a condition to return the fire. Crawford had a carbine which he captured from the tender, but the cut off had jammed. This I put right by forcing it open with my teeth, and we both opened fire. I exhausted all the ammunition I had, a total of fifty two rounds. Our fire enabled the other men in our vicinity to retreat in more safety and, when my ammunition was finished, we went after them. I overtook Mick Curtin of Cloneyogan, Moy, and we travelled together for a distance, thinking we were safe from the enemy fire. We were approaching a garden wall close to the houses in Ballyvaskin when Curtin was wounded in the thigh. Somehow we managed to get into the garden and relative safety.’[41]

Though the Volunteers were surprised when a large British army patrol accidentally stumbled upon the scene as they searched for Lendrum, Seán Burke recalls: ‘Strange as it may seem, they were more surprised than we were. Consequently we had the drop on them and made full use of it…the fighting continued for over three hours. By that time a vast quantity of the captured ammunition had been expended but not without results.’ [42] Due to O’Neill’s leadership, the strength and resolve of the Battalion and a thorough knowledge of the terrain the Volunteers were able to withdraw from Rineen without loss of life. Ignatius O’Neill and Micklo Curtin from Moy Company were wounded. Both were attended to by Dr Michael Hillery and within a few weeks they were fully recovered.

The resultant aftermath of the ambush led to immediate brutal reprisals and indiscriminate atrocities by the British Army, R.I.C. and Black and Tans. As the 4th Battalion had escaped them they were determined to make people suffer. They terrorized the local population in Miltown Malbay, Lahinch, Ennistymon and the surrounding countryside with the murder of civilians and the destruction, burning and looting of private and public houses and shops. The long night of rampage and violence left six civilians[43] and one I.R.A. Volunteer dead.[44] In the Irish Independent of 27th September 1920 the total damages to property were estimated at more than £100,000.[45]

Historian Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc discusses the significance of the ambush: ‘Although its significance was later overshadowed by larger ambushes in Cork and Limerick, the Rineen ambush...was at that time the largest and most successful military action against the Royal Irish Constabulary & Black and Tans that had then taken place in the Irish War for Independence. Before this the I.R.A.'s military campaign had mainly consisted of small scale ambushes on individual R.I.C. constables on duty in towns, assassination attempts on higher ranking R.I.C. officers, & small scale ambushes on police 'escorts'. These included the 'hold up 'of the R.I.C. escort for the explosives being delivered to Soloheadbeg quarry on 21 January 1919, during which 2 members R.I.C. were killed and the rescue of Seán Hogan at Knocklong station which also resulted in 2 R.I.C. fatalities.

Before Rineen the largest and most successful ambush on an R.I.C. patrol had been carried out at Timoleague, County Cork on the 10th May 1920 during which the R.I.C. suffered 3 fatalities. The Rineen ambush was the first time that a large I.R.A. unit had waited in an ambush position for a lengthy period of time, and it was the first time that the I.R.A. had wiped out an entire R.I.C. & Black and Tan patrol in a single ambush inflicting 6 fatalities. The success of the 4th Battalion Mid Clare Brigade at Rineen was not eclipsed by any other I.R.A. ambush until two months later when the West Cork Brigade attacked and destroyed a patrol of R.I.C. Auxiliaries at Kilmichael resulting in 17 R.I.C fatalities and the deaths of 3 I.R.A. Volunteers.’[46]

According to Anthony Malone the success of the Rineen ambush and the British forces reprisals had a strong effect on local people and the I.R.A. Volunteers: ‘The ambush had as far as our battalion area was concerned two very direct results. The enemy became more hostile and active, but he used large convoys when travelling. The people became very much embittered against him and adopted a more defiant attitude towards the military and Black and Tans. The women and the older people did not hesitate to show their feelings when they encountered these forces in the course of raids and searches. As far as the I.R.A. organisation itself went, the men became keener at their drill and showed more enthusiasm in the different duties which they were called upon to perform e.g.; road cutting, scouting and dispatch carrying.’[47]

Dr W.H. Kautt concludes: ‘Although the Rebels claimed a greater victory than occurred, and although their successes were due more to luck than skill, there is no denying that this attack was a victory for the I..R..A. Mid Clare Brigade.[48]

Seán Burke in his recollection to Ernie O’Malley describes how, the night before the next major engagement in the battalion area - the Monreal Ambush of 18th December 1920 - members of the 5th Battalion came to Moy to collect arms: ‘...we met the Moy men that night close to the Moy School. Steve Gallagher, Séamus Hennessy and Ignatius were there.[49]

The Monreal ambush was carried out by the Mid Clare Brigade’s newly formed active service unit or ‘Flying Column’ whose objective was to destroy and disarm two lorries of Crown Forces which made daily trips between Ennistymon and Ennis each morning. With the unexpected appearance of a third lorry for which they were not prepared, a long exchange of fire ensued with both sides inflicting causalities though none were reported as fatal. Crown forces attempted to encircle the Flying Column as reinforcements arrived from Ennistymon but the I.R.A. managed to safely withdraw under intense pressure.

Though Séamus did not take part in the Monreal attack he had just assumed greater responsibility in the 4th Battalion. At a Brigade meeting at Hegarty’s in Kilnamona on 27th November 1920 there was a reshuffle of Officers following the resignations of Commandant Ignatius O’Neill and Vice Commandant John Joe Neylon.[50] Séamus, though continually on the run as his home in Cloneyogan was regularly raided by Crown Forces, was promoted to Officer Commanding 4th Battalion Mid Clare Brigade. Anthony Malone the 4th Battalion’s newly promoted Vice Commandant recalled the Battalion changes: ‘…The Battalion O/C. (Ignatius O’Neill) himself was incapacitated for several months after Rineen and this fact did not improve matters. In December 1920 he resigned from the post due to some differences with the brigade staff. He was replaced by Séamus Hennessy, Cloneyogan, Lahinch.’[51] In his 1973 Connacht Tribune series of articles on the history of the war in north and west Clare Seán Burke describes the meeting: ‘Commdt. Ignatius O’Neill, who was generally quiet spoken and business like in the disposal of the agenda, seemed drawn and haggard. He made one of his longest speeches. He paid tribute to the display of the Column at Rineen and tendered sympathy to all who had suffered as a result of the reprisals of the Crown forces...Then he dropped the bomb on the party, when he said that he and Vice Commdt. John Joe Neylon wished to be relieved of their commands...Up to then changes in the Battn. Staff had been brought about only as a result of the promotion to the Brigade staff of Martin Devitt, and later by his untimely death...After some discussion, the meeting came to an end, the ultimate decision was: Commandant – Séamus Hennessy; Vice-Commdt. – Anthony Malone; Adj. – Seán Burke; Q.M. Steve Gallagher; Capt Moy Coy. – Paddy Clancy; 1st. Lieut. Lahinch Coy. Tom Burke.[52]

Malone continues: ‘On the night of our appointments the Battalion O/C. (Séamus Hennessy) and myself came into Miltown Malbay and seized the Co. Council Rate Books from the local rate collector (James McClancy).’[53] Co. Councils across the country no longer recognised the British Local Government Department. British civil administration had collapsed across Clare and the country. Sinn Féin District and County Councils were established, as were Parish and District Courts, supported by the Volunteers and recognised by the civilian population. Rates were to be collected by trusted appointed Volunteers who often, if they did not take the anti-Treaty side during the Civil War, kept the position under the new Free State administration. Séamus oversaw the collection of rates and monies for the Dáil loan by selected Company Officers. He also organised the courts in the area and appointed Volunteer Police who replaced the departed R.I.C. who had wholly abandoned rural areas. The Volunteer Police carried out all the normal duties of the R.I.C. as well as enforcing the law more stringently in the Republican courts than their predecessors. Séamus had to impose both military and civilian discipline on his men. On one occasion he court-martialled and arranged the deportation of two prominent Volunteers who in May 1921 had been convicted in the Republican courts of armed robbery. With the loss of British civilian control Martial law was extended to the whole of Co. Clare on 1st January 1921. [54]

Intelligence was a fundamental part of the war against the Crown Forces. Séamus organised a special intelligence department in the Battalion drawn from sympathetic Post Office officials, hotel employees, publicans and shopkeepers in Miltown Malbay, Ennistymon and Lahinch. Anyone who was in routine contact with R.I.C., Black and Tans and Auxiliaries. During the Truce in December 1921 he received information that a raid was to take place on the Munster and Leinster Bank in Ennistymon. In response Séamus immediately placed armed guards at the Bank day and night as well as guarding the manager and his staff from attack on their normal business around the town and at their homes. [55] In mid March 1921 at a brigade meeting in Hegarty’s house, Kilnamona, presided over by Frank Barrett O/C a GHQ order was read out to officers of the brigade’s six battalions. Representing the 4th Battalion was Adjutant Seán Burke. Attacks were to be planned and mounted by all active service units on RIC patrols or Crown Forces outside barracks on the night of 31st March to mark the fifth anniversary of the Easter Rising. It was also pay night. Many R.I.C or Black and Tans would be in local pubs and vulnerable to attack. It was agreed that as there was no Barrack in the 5th Battalion area they could operate in the 4th Battalion’s area and attack Ennistymon while the 4th would concentrate on Miltown Malbay.[56]

A meeting of the 4th Battalion was arranged for Lehane’s house, Lahinch a week or so later. ‘There was a full attendance as usual, with Commandant Séamus Hennessy presiding. There was unanimous agreement that the column which consisted of specially selected men should participate… Rockmount School, in the Glendine Company was decided on as the place to meet, prior to entering the town. All the “old reliables” turned up. A notable absentee was John Joe Neylon, who was surprisingly captured early in the month…Final instructions were given after the party had been paraded and inspected. An accidental shot was fired and a few harsh words were uttered. Apologies were tendered and the party moved off. The entrance to the town was gained from three points.[57]

John Jones the battalion’s intelligence officer arranged the plan of attack: ‘...I met the attacking party on the Ballard road just outside the town about nine o’clock and led them into the town through Hill’s Lane into the ruins of the O’Neill’s old home which had been burned about six months earlier as a reprisal for the Rineen ambush. In these ruins the party took up positions waiting for the Tans to leave Wilsons’ pub, and I had arranged with the party to withhold their fire until the Tans had left Wilsons’ and were passing a demolished house formerly owned by a family named Roche. At half past nine the Tans came to the door accompanied by Mr Wilson, where they remained in conversation for a few minutes and they moved off. No sooner had they done so than someone in our party fired. This started a fusillade from the guns of the others. Both Tans fell and were presumed dead, but it later transpired that only one, Constable Moore, was killed and that the other, Constable Hersey, was wounded.’[58]

Seán Burke describes the shooting: ‘A volley of shots was fired. The two men fell and a rush was made towards them. They were turned over and relieved of their revolvers and a dozen rounds of ammunition and searched for any papers or documents that might be in their possession. At that stage they were both presumed dead.[59]

When those in the barrack heard the shots, flares were sent up in the hope that reinforcements might arrive, but the I.R.A. had made provisions and all roads in the Lahinch Company area had been thoroughly blocked to prevent the arrival of reinforcements. Further precaution was taken on the night of 1st April when the I.R.A. posted observers on the hilltops at Moy, Glendine, and Letterkenny to watch out for any help that may be coming to get reprisals for the attack.[60]The Clare Champion on Saturday 9th April reported the death of Constable Stanley Moore and the serious wounding of his comrade ‘who made a very good pretence of being dead… he thought that discretion was the better part of valour, and so he lived to tell the tale’[61] of this attack on the Crown Forces in Miltown Malbay. All shops were closed next day and many inhabitants left the town fearing reprisals but, with the exception of the burning of a store-house, no other reprisals took place that night. RIC Constable Moore was a thirty year old single man from Glamorgan, Wales. He had seven months service having been a dentist and soldier before joining the Constabulary.[62]

Addressing the congregation at Sunday Mass in Miltown Malbay, Very Rev. Canon Hannon, P.P. condemning the shooting of Constable Moore said: ‘I hardly know what to say to the congregation this morning in reference to the terrible tragedy that stunned our little town on Thursday night and that has cast a gloom over the whole Community. I wish I could spare you and spare myself the distress of speaking of Thursday night’s awful occurrence when a young police constable – I am told a most inoffensive man – was shot dead in the street and sent into eternity without a moment’s preparation to meet his creator. The shocking occurrence has horrified me beyond expression. I have not met anyone in the town or district who have not spoken of it with horror and loathing...Whatever complexion may be put upon it, I could never view it as anything but a cruel murder. How can such a deed bring a blessing on any cause no matter how right or good? Those responsible for the preparation of this deed have small concern for Miltown. This little town has suffered more than any other little town in Ireland, in the past twelve months. If suffering be the price of national freedom, then Miltown has paid more than its share…..The distress and anxiety that old men and old women, not to mention others, have endured since Thursday night’s terrible deed, God alone knows. Each night, most of them fly from the town to seek shelter and refuge elsewhere…For the past two or three years, I have been giving my advice in public and in private to certain matters but it has not been of much avail. This morning, I again beseech you to give no countenance to anyone who would violate God’s law and bring fresh trouble on this town that has already suffered heavily indeed.’[63]

Under Séamus the West Clare Railway was often the focus of attacks as it was the main artery for moving large numbers of Crown Forces, military supplies and post from Ennis to West Clare. Throughout the period the Battalion harassed the railway line including on 6th March 1921 demolishing Hanrahan’s Bridge in Moy.[64] Anthony Malone in his witness statement details other attacks: ‘On Ascension Thursday, 1921, I had charge of eight men armed with rifles at Toor Hill, near Lahinch, while another party, under the Battalion O/C., went on to the Railway line about half a mile closer to the coast to raid the mails coming on the morning train to Miltown. Hennessy’s party were armed with revolvers and shotguns. The main road from Lahinch to Miltown runs between Toor Hill and the Railway line and my party were keeping eye on a back road which was also connected Lahinch and Miltown. Just as the train was approaching the British military passed along the main road. Thinking he was surrounded, the O/C. allowed the train to pass unmolested and the military, who were unaware that anything was afoot, continued on the journey. ...In June 1921, under the Battalion O/C., I was one of a party of 16 men who met at Vaughan’s Hill, Moughna, Lahinch, to ambush a party of police who were expected to come to Tom Tuttle’s, Moughna, to serve him with a juror’s summons. After waiting from 10.00 a.m. to 4 p.m. the police did not come along... A week or so later in June 1921, the train to Miltown Malbay was held up at Moy Bridge by a party of 25 men under Séamus Hennessy and two horse loads of mails were removed from it, along with a quantity of suspected “Belfast goods”. The seizures were brought to Marrinan’s in Curraghadea, Lahinch. There the mails were censored. Nothing of importance was found, but all correspondence addressed to members of the British forces was destroyed. The remainder of the mail was brought to Dunsallagh Post Office by some members of the Moy and Letterkelly companies and it was delivered in due course to the addressees.[65]

A member of the attacking party was Pako Kerin, now Captain of the 4th Battalion’s Glendine Company: ‘In June, 1921, under the command of the Battalion O/C, Séamus Hennessy, I and about thirty others held up the train outside Lahinch and seized a number of bales of cloth, boxes of boots and rolls of tobacco that had been sent from firms in Belfast to merchants on the west coast of Clare. The goods were confiscated and divided around among our own supporters.[66]

On many occasions the Battalion’s Active Service Unit lay in ambush for many hours but either the enemy did not show or another factor determined the calling off of the attack. On 12th May the Column was in position at Inagh to ambush a convoy of Crown forces but had to withdraw as reports came to Séamus that Fr McKenna and Fr Gaynor, both from Mullagh Parish in west Clare, were prisoners in the lorries being transferred to Ennis and onto Limerick for court martial. Two days later Séamus with the brigades Flying Column O/C Joe Barrett went to Mullagh in the West Clare Brigade area to meet Séan Liddy, the brigade’s O/C, to examine locations for an ambush on the same lorries and Black and Tans who had also attacked the church in Mullagh, but nowhere suitable could be found.

Séamus, as a member of the Mid Clare Brigades Flying Column, on 19th May was in the planned attack on Auxiliaries based in Corofin at Toonagh, on the road between Ennis and Corofin. This was the largest mobilisation of the Brigade’s Column during the war. In the Column was Andy O’Donoghue Commandant of the 5th Battalion. In his memoirs he related what happened ‘In March or April, 1921, the Auxiliaries came to Corofin. They had a big reputation as seasoned and ruthless soldiers. Our brigade staff was anxious to emulate the feat performed by the Corkmen at Kilmichael, and eagerly sought an opportunity to do so. The Auxiliaries soon provided the chance, by travelling in lorries between Corofin and Ennis. About the middle of May, 1921, the brigade O/C, Frank Barrett, assembled upwards of seventy or eighty men, nearly all armed with rifles, at Kilnamona where they billeted for the night. Next morning, after having breakfast and getting conditional absolution from Father Hamilton, later Canon Hamilton, then on the staff of St. Flannan’s College and one of the leading lights in the Sinn Féin movement in Clare, the party marched to Toonagh, about four miles away and roughly midway on the main road between Ennis and Corofin, which are nine miles apart. Positions were taken at about seven o’clock in the morning, and one or two lorries were expected to come from Corofin some time before noon. It was the intention to attack them on their way to Ennis. Around four o’clock in the evening, the enemy was still without coming. A shot suddenly rang out which could be heard for miles throughout the country. This happened accidentally, but it caused the O/C to withdraw from the position. He had come to the conclusion that, owing to the lateness of the hour, the Auxiliaries were not going to travel to Ennis that day, and furthermore, he had a feeling that the shot, which had been discharged by one of the men, might have been heard either by the enemy or by someone who might warn them. Placed as we were between Ennis and Corofin, the party could be quickly surrounded by troops moving from these two points. On our withdrawal from Toonagh, the men were instructed to disperse to their home areas.[67]

Later the following month the Battalion received information that Crown forces were due to serve a court summons on Tom Tuttle who lived at Moughna, Lahinch. A group of sixteen Volunteers led by Séamus lay in ambush for them on the appointed date of the summons but the R.I.C. failed to turn up. Anthony Malone recalled: ‘In June 1921, under the Battalion O/C., I was one of a party of 16 men who met at Vaughan’s Hill, Moughna, Lahinch, to ambush a party of police who were expected to come to Tom Tuttle’s , Moughna, to serve him with a juror’s summons. After waiting from 10am to 4pm the police did not come along.’[68] The summons was eventually served on the 11th June 1921 by a party of British soldiers from the Royal Scots who had travelled to Moughna in a convoy of four lorries. As they made their return journey one of the soldiers, Private George Duff Chalmers dismounted from one of the lorries. The main party continued on without him. Private Chalmers was courting a local woman, and left the convoy to pay her a visit. A short time after leaving the lorry Chalmers was captured by two members of Moy Company. Chalmers was brought before Séamus and Steve Gallagher and taken to Moy National School. During his interrogation Chalmers refused to give his name or any other information. The officers subsequently tried him by court-martial. Found guilty, Chalmers was sentenced to death and summarily executed. He was buried in a nearby bog in Islandbawn. According to the I.R.A. report of the incident Chalmers was executed on the suspicion of having being a spy on an intelligence-gathering mission: ‘A Private of the Royal Scots who dropped off one of four lorries passing through C. Coy area was captured by two riflemen after a chase. The Bn. Staff being satisfied that his object in leaving the lorry was to seek information had him executed on the same date, after getting all the information they could from him. He did not give information of importance.’ During the Civil War the Duke of Devonshire began correspondence with Richard Mulcahy O/C of The Free State Army in an effort to locate the remains of Chalmers and other missing British soldiers. The Free State was able to confirm that Chalmers had been executed, and could give the approximate date but not the exact burial location to the Duke.[69]

The Moananagh Ambush 6th July 1921 was the final major engagement with Crown forces by the 4th Battalion Mid Clare Brigade before the Truce ending the War of Independence was called the following week 11th July. The previous month on two occasions -June 20th and June 28th - the Volunteers had sniped Miltown Malbay R.I.C. barracks with no response from the occupants. The only way to still engage with the enemy was in the open. The site chosen was Conneally’s Hill, three and a half miles from Ennistymon just off the main Ennis to Ennistymon Road. The site, though at a distance, had a clear view in both directions of Crown Forces movements along the road.

This was the second time the Flying Column of the 4th Battalion had been in position at this location. Anthony Malone, the 4th Battalion’s Vice Commandant, recalls the first occasion: ‘The last time in which I was concerned in an attempt to attack the enemy prior to the truce was at Moananagh about the beginning of July 1921. This was to be a sniping operation and our party comprised eight or nine riflemen again under the control of the Battalion O/C. Moananagh is three or four miles from Ennistymon on the main road to Ennis. At this time a convoy of from 12 to 20 Lorries accompanied by an armed car was going between these places a couple of times a week. Owing to its strength and the absence of any ground along the route which would be large enough to enable the I.R.A. to occupy positions favourable for attacking purposes, the Brigade O/C., with the approval of an officer from G.H.Q. who had come in person to the Mid Clare area to see things for himself, gave orders to snipe this convoy as often as possible. On the day in question our party took up positions about 4 o’clock in the morning and we remained until around 1 o’clock in the evening.[70]

Pako Kerin was also in position on the first visit: ‘Under Séamus Hennessy the unit occupied positions in Moananagh to attack Tans and military who travelled in Lorries from Ennis to Ennistymon...I was lying in a meadow all night in which the grass was very wet. From this I contracted lumbago which prevented me from taking part in the big attack in the same position, which occurred a week or so later. The enemy did not put in an appearance on the first occasion.[71]

Seán Burke recounts: ‘Our intelligence service had come to the conclusion, after a long and careful study, that the British Military system worked on definite set patterns, and come what may it seldom changed...Communications were disrupted to such an extent that two or three lorry loads of fully armed men were deemed necessary to deliver a confidential, complicated or simple message from one barracks to another...Something out of the ordinary must have happened to put our column to the inconvenience of a second journey.’[72]

Anthony Malone describes the drudgery of waiting for an ambush that does not materialise: ‘The rain came down in torrents and when we withdrew it was a question of absolute necessity as the entire party was exhausted from the long spell of waiting under the heavy downpour. In any event, the enemy always passed before noon and on that occasion did not actually travel. Our party marched back to Tuttle’s of Moughna where a good meal put us all in better form. As the day dried up and the sun came out we decided to warm ourselves by having some drill.’[73] Commandant General Michael Brennan 1ST Western Division I.R.A. in his memoir perceptively highlights the attitude of most Volunteers with regard to the weather: ‘I found most men were willing to risk death for their country, but most unwilling to face getting wet for it.[74]

Once again the Flying Column under the command of Séamus with Commandant Steve Gallagher moved into the same position in the early morning of Wednesday 6th July. Some of the attacking party were directed to police the main road and divert locals to use a side road so they wouldn’t get caught in any crossfire. The column was not long in position when Maria Conneally arrived with welcomed tea and bread for the men to sustain them as they waited.

Seán Burke recalls all was going well ‘...until a well dressed, middle sized man wearing spectacles appeared on a bicycle. He was coming from the Ennis direction, and wore long stockings and plus fours. This was something out of the ordinary. He needed looking into – who or what was he? He was mannerly and spoke with a refined accent, definitely not Irish. He had no objection to being searched. There was a medium sized suitcase on the carrier of the bicycle, into which was inserted a smaller case with some instruments. He said he was going to Ennistymon on business, stated what it was and gave an address. Later this was checked and proved correct. Any thoughts of his being a spy were dispelled, but the precautions were necessary. A short while later, he took up permanent residence in Parliament St., in the name of George B. Stradling, Dentist!’ [75]

As noon approached final orders were given by Séamus. From three different positions, approximately three hundred yards away, sights were set by the riflemen. The positions held were a long distance to have any degree of accuracy on a moving target. Séamus McMahon, Captain of Ennistymon Company, was in the ambush party: I was one of a party of about twenty men armed with rifles and accompanied by ten or twelve unarmed Volunteers acting as scouts, who, under the Battalion O/C, Séamus Hennessy, took up position behind a stone wall in Tom Conneally’s land in Moananagh to snipe lorries of military coming from Ennis to Ennistymon. This wall ran more or less parallel to the road and was about 250 yards from it. At 3pm ten lorries came the way. The first three or four were allowed to pass before we opened fire. As soon as we did so the military got off the lorries and engaged us, taking positions behind the road fence. We kept up the fire for 10 or 12 minutes, when the O/C ordered us to retire and off we went towards Mount Callan without being interfered with. We had no causalities and I am not able to say if the British had any or not.[76] For the next few days until the truce the Column continued to snipe at Military along the Ennis to Ennistymon Road.


Witness to War 1917-1923 - Commandant Seamus Hennessy