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The War of Independence in West Clare by Rita Marrinan

1921: The Final Months of the War

The first three months of 1921 appear to have been very peaceful and there are no reported incidents. However, tragedy was on the way. At a meeting of the six mid-Clare battalions in mid-March of that year, after routine matters had been discussed the main purpose of the meeting was disclosed. A circular letter which had been issued to all Brigade Commanders from Government Headquarters was read. It proposed that every active service unit in the country should make its presence felt by attacking an enemy post or patrol on the 31st March, to commemorate another anniversary of the Easter week Rising.[39]

After a lengthy discussion, it was decided both Ennistymon and Miltown Malbay would act as targets for the fourth and fifth battalions. A battalion meeting was arranged for Lehane’s house, Moy – which was the headquarters of the Moy Company area – a week or so later and there was a full attendance with Commandant Seamus Hennessy presiding. There was unanimous agreement that the column which consisted of specially selected men should participate. It might be noted that it was usually the same men who took all the responsibilities and risks.

Rockmount School, in the Glendine Company area and adjacent to Miltown Malbay, was chosen as the place to meet before entering the town. All the “old reliables” turned up except John Joe Neylon, who had been captured earlier in the month. Final instructions were given after the party had been paraded and inspected. They then moved off to enter the town from three previously selected points. It must be remembered that it was not the residents of the town, but the Crown Forces, they were going to attack.

A party from O’Neill’s lane, led by Tom Burke and Tom Hayes of the Lahinch Company saw two men in uniform. A volley of shots was fired and the two men were seen to fall. The attackers, presuming the men were dead, rushed to the men and relieved them of their revolvers and twelve rounds of ammunition, before searching them for papers or documents. After searching the various “haunts” of the Crown Forces, it was decided that these were the only two on patrol that night.

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 for such a plea and all roads in the Lahinch Company area had been thoroughly blocked to prevent the arrival of such reinforcements. Further precaution was taken on the night of April 1st 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. The Clare Champion on Saturday April 9th reported the death of Constable Stanley Moore and the serious wounding of his comrade in 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. Perhaps this was because the roads had been blocked.

Addressing the congregation at Sunday Mass, 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 moments 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."[40]

The Crown Forces, however, were not willing to accept defeat so easily, and if Miltown was defended for one or two nights after the attack it would not be so forever. On the night of April 6th, by which time I.R.A. “defence” of the town had ceased, Crown Forces attacked it and destroyed two houses using bombs. One was owned by Mr. Michael Hayes, Ennis Road, who was permitted to remove his furniture before the house was destroyed. Windows were shattered in the adjoining houses of Messrs. Moroney, Finucane and Shannon. A large drapery shop in Main Street owned by Mr. John O’Sullivan was demolished in a similar fashion. Part of his drapery stock was burned in the street after the house had been destroyed. In reply to enquiries made to Dublin Castle about the attack on Miltown, it was stated that “the destruction of Miltown Malbay was carried out as a military operation following the shooting of Constable Moore on March 31st."[41] No other information or satisfaction was given by the authorities.

Soon after the incidents mentioned above had taken place, one of the volunteers, a man named Tom Malone from Labasheeda, was captured near Kilrush and taken hostage to the workhouse in Ennistymon. Members of the Volunteers in the area decided to rescue this, as yet unknown, comrade. At the time it was customary for the “Tans” to take hostages on the “rounds” with them. After a few journeys Tom Malone contacted pneumonia from exposure and long hours of waiting in the lorry. As a result of this, he was moved to the hospital which at the time was in the charge of the Sisters of Mercy. The two men selected for the rescue operation were Tom Burke and Mick O’Loughlin. Mick O’Loughlin’s family owned a victualler shop in Ennistymon and at the time supplied meat to the Black and Tans and military workhouse in Enistymon and the marines in Liscannor. In the course of his business, Mick paid a couple of visits daily to the military quarters and was in a position to get information and on a few occasions he even got small rounds of ammunition. Having viewed the situation from all angles and being satisfied that the patient was well enough, the escape was planned. The armed guard who was on duty with the prisoner was allowed a tea-break from 5.00-5.30 p.m. and it was during this time that the escape was to take place - arrangements having been made with the patient. Mick O’Loughlin, Joe McInerney and Auty O’Brien came by the back road. Mick entered the hospital and the other two linked up with Tom Fitzpatrick of Lahinch to act as scouts between the hospital and Ballybeg. Tom Hayes and Tom Burke arrived to “visit” the patient separately as arranged.

The Hospital (part of the workhouse) was similar to others of that time, which consisted of several buildings, a playground, and a large garden surrounded by a solid wall approximately thirteen feet high. Two armed sentries were continuously on duty and held a commanding view of both gates. At the appropriate time the patient was approached and after he had dressed they left the hospital singly and at four minute intervals. The gateman and three other members of staff, had been shifted to other parts for duty. Consequently, they were of no assistance to the British authorities in their enquiries.

Everything went according to plan until the scouts, hidden in a clump of bushes gave the signal that four soldiers were coming, so the escape party had to take cover and wait until they had passed. They then continued their journey and a couple of days later the captive was back at home. While the escape was taking place a few men from the Lahinch Company acted suspiciously between the hospital and Ennistymon and consequently, when the prisoner was missed, the search party headed in the wrong direction.

No matter what happened the I.R.A. kept a regular check on mail in the West Clare train. On April 16th, 1921, one such check was carried out. But at a court case on a later date when an employee sued for compensation due to loss of wages on that occasion, Judge Bodkin K.C. described the incident as “highway robbery” and refused compensation. However, not all attempted raids were successful. One such occasion was 5th May, 1921. This had been the date set aside for checking the mail on the West Clare Train at Moy. A man had boarded the train in Lahinch to ensure no members of the R.I.C. or “Tans” were on it and was to indicate to the others as the train came close to the station in Moy. However, as the train was approaching the hold-up position, the man was completely dismayed and annoyed that the train didn’t stop after he had given the “all clear” signal. There was, of course, a reason for this. It was a pig-fair day in Miltown Malbay and the Black and Tans arranged that six lorries of troops be sent from Ennistymon to Miltown Malbay to break up the fair. The passing of these lorries on the road which ran parallel with the railway and which was divided roughly by one hundred and fifty yards co-incided with the passing of the train, hence the signal to proceed. The I.R.A. later reflected on how fortunate they had been on that occasion, because had the lorries been four minutes later the outcome of the planned hold-up can only be imagined. After all there were only six Volunteers and of these only two were armed, and what could they hope to achieve against one hundred and eighty armed soldiers. Fortunately for the would-be attackers, these soldiers continued on their journey oblivious of the situation and scattered the crowd who had gathered in Miltown for the fair. Many were beaten and injured and left helpless until the “Tans” had gone away and then residents could return to help the injured.[42]

Not satisfied with their destruction, and still bloodthirsty, the soldiers made a detour on their return journey. They headed for Moymore Church and opened fire on a congregation leaving Mass (it was Ascension Thursday). One volunteer, Danny Killoughery of Ballyvaughan was the victim of a hail of bullets. He was buried two days later at the age of twenty-nine.

On the following Sunday, Rev. Fr. Sharkey, C.C., in a stirring sermon condemned the attack in the strongest possible terms. He said the Catholic Church and Holy Sacrifice of the Mass had been desecrated and abused and that the infidels of British law and order had no respect whatsoever for religious freedom.

The subject of religion was again connected with the troubles of the time when in early May, Rev. P. Gaynor and Rev. M. McKenna, both curates in Mullagh, were arrested and taken to Limerick where a Field General Court-martial assembled at the new barrack for their trial. The former was chairman of the Clare Mental Hospital Committee and the latter had been an army chaplain during the war. “They were charged (1) with having on the 1st April in their house at Mullagh a document containing statements the publication of which would be likely to cause disaffection - namely a paper refusing to recognise the protection of the British Government and placing their house under the protection of the Irish republic. (2) with having in their possession also on the 1st of April, a document purporting to relate to the affairs of an unlawful association-namely Dail Eireann."[43] Both refused to recognise the court and entered a formal plea of not guilty.

The court was told that both men had been arrested on April 1st, but, to spare them the indignity of being in jail for almost a month without a trial, they were freed and ordered to return to a court-martial on May 10th, but the men didn’t turn up or send an explanation. On the 23rd they were again arrested and taken to the Court-martial in Limerick and charged with the offences mentioned above. When the men were first arrested on April 1st, the two documents were alleged to have been found in their sitting room, and they were put into two different cars - Fr. Gaynor was taken to Ennistymon while Fr. McKenna was dropped half way.

Fr. Gaynor accepted responsibility for the first document but, like Fr. McKenna, denied the second one had been found in their house. Both priests claimed they were arrested as suspects for the murder of Constable Moore in Miltown on March 31st, not because the documents were found. They had been called murderers by the Crown Forces when they first visited the house. During the trial, Fr. McKenna stated that a series of petty tyrannies had been committed by the Crown Forces in his parish for some time before the trial, one of which was the desecration of the tabernacle and its contents. He also said he had reported the incidents many time but got no satisfaction of even a reply. There was no reply to these allegations and both priests were sentenced to six months imprisonment without hard labour.

The war was coming to an end as negotiations between Lloyd George and members of the Irish Provisional Government began in July. However, an agreement was not finally reached until the end of 1921. With the Treaty signed at 2.10 a.m. on December 6th[44] all that remained to be done was to evacuate the Crown Forces from the barracks throughout the country. Those forces stationed in Ennistymon were not willing to surrender very easily and in the conflict that marked their evacuation many school-children were injured - some seriously.

On February 1st, 1922, in accordance with instructions from Brigade Commandant Frank Barrett, Commandant Ignatius O’Neill and John Burke went to Ennistymon to have the barrack and courthouse formally handed over to them by the Black and Tans. This was necessary for the I.R.A. so that they could take stock of the contents. The necessary forms had to be signed and counter-signed and then returned to their respective headquarters. It was about 10 a.m. when the men first went to the barrack in Parliament Street. In the absence of the District Inspector, the men presented their “credentials” to the head Constable. They were informed that evacuation could not take place in the absence of the District Inspector so they agreed to depart and return later. By this time, many people had gathered in the town suspecting that there would be some excitement in the area. As the two men were leaving the barrack, some children were let out to lunch from the nearby Christian Brother School. As they watched with excitement some of the more daring ones shouted “up the I.R.A.” and “up Rineen”. This apparently enraged the Black and Tans because a couple of minutes later two bombs were thrown from the barrack. “Amongst those dangerously wounded was D. Fitzpatrick (14) and P. O’Dwyer (15). The following received lesser injuries – J. Leydon (14), P. O’Connor (12), F. Brennan (16), R. McCormack (18)”. Several little girls who were in the area at the time were also injured. The two volunteers who had been leaving the barrack summoned both spiritual and medical help immediately. Fr. Jordan, C.C. and Doctors Garrahy and Keane were on the scene almost immediately. The injured - eighteen in all - were removed to the workhouse hospital for observation and treatment.[45]

The Volunteers demanded the arrest of the guilty party immediately. Within a few minutes the Head Constable had the two guilty men before them. On the following evening Constable Francis Cosgrave was charged before a special R.I.C. Court in Ennis and was remanded in custody for seven days.[46] As the men left the barrack at 5 o’clock that evening for a tea-break, four shots were fired in quick succession. They were slightly off target and became embedded in the wall and door near where the men were standing. This led to further heated exchange of words and after threats and cautions had been issued to the guilty party, an apology was tendered.

When the two men returned once more at six o’clock their patience was coming to an end and they immediately referred the Head Constable to the section of the document which stated that possession was to be handed over by 6.30 p.m. and all keys were to be in their hands by that time. Orders were quickly issued to the men to collect their personal belongings and report to the barrack Sergeant in the yard at once.

However, as the men were packing up to leave the I.R.A. felt cheated because these men had broken the truce and must suffer for it. During the evening tea-break from five to six o’clock, it was decided to ambush the Black and Tans on the hillside just beyond where the railway station was situated and on the opposite side of the road. The I.R.A. had just acquired sixteen new rifles and were determined to put them to use on the old enemy before they left the area. The ambush party were to be disappointed, however, because when the lorries pulled out they took the long route to Ennis through Lisdoonvarna and so further bloodshed was avoided. The war was finally at an end and people could live in peace once more but unfortunately this peace did not last long because, within a few short months, a much more cruel and degrading war would begin.


Monreal Ambush and Reprisals


Review of the War