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|The War of Independence in West Clare by Rita Marrinan|
Ambush at Crowe’s Bridge and Attack on Miltown Malbay
After the tragic and bloody month of August, 1919, activity in the area appears to have died down until February of 1920 – the month that saw the death of one of the most capable and respected local leaders – Martin Devitt. But this was only the beginning of tragedy in the area for the year because 1920 was definitely the most bloody and tragic year of the War of Independence in west Clare.
On February 21st the Clare Champion reported the occurrence of a most unusual incident between Inagh and Miltown Malbay on the 17th. Apparently, Colonel Cotton, an officer in charge of troops in Ennis was travelling from Ennis to Ennistymon, but instead he decided to go to Miltown Malbay. Soon after passing Inagh he overtook a party of armed men with five horses and carts resting by the roadside, but as he approached the men scattered in all directions and some forgot to take their guns. The Colonel took possession of the guns which had been left by the ditch and immediately returned to Ennis. Some shots were fired and the car was hit but he escaped uninjured.
On the same day, the authorities in Ennis received reports from Inagh that armed men had taken a number of horses and carts in the area and in some cases forced the driver to go with them. District Inspector Moore and Head Constable Deignan went to search the area. They found two horse carts abandoned by the roadside but could not find any of the armed men. They made no arrests and the incident was never repeated and the purpose of those armed men remains a mystery even to this day.
Just a week later a not quite unusual but far more tragic incident took place, not too far from the scene of this strange happening. Martin Devitt, the twenty-five year old draper apprentice and Vice Officer Commanding of the Mid-Clare brigade was fatally wounded and died later. His comrade, Ignatius O’Neill was also badly wounded but recuperated in Miltown Malbay and finally in Doolin, to which place he was taken by Dr. Michael Hillery.
Plans had been made to deprive Sergeant Giles and Constables O’Donnell, Hughes and Glynn from Maurices Mills Barrack of their rifles, and consequently, their movements had been closely watched for some time. It was noted that their movements were very regular and that they usually made their journey at the same time each day. Consequently, it was decided by the I.R.A. that Crowe’s Bridge would be the most suitable location. Four men, the two mentioned above and Pake Lehane and Patrick Devitt (Martin’s brother) took up position long before the R.I.C. appeared. When they did come the attackers opened fire immediately and the R.I.C. were forced to take shelter.
Due to the presence of civilians, who accidentally got in the line of fire, the attackers were forced to hold fire. As Martin rose from his crouched position he was immediately shot and fatally wounded. Some more exchange of shots took place during which Ignatius O’Neill was also wounded. As a man driving a cart-load of turf was passing the scene, the police jumped on their bicycles and travelled with him taking advantage of the barrier he unintentionally formed.
Paddy Devitt and Pake Lehane sought help locally to remove the body of the dead man. Michael McGough and some others from the Inagh Coy provided a short ladder which acted as a stretcher and the remains were removed from the area in case army or police reinforcement should arrive and discover the name of the deceased. All Coys of the Battalion come to pay their respects. The body was later buried in a bog in Clooney South but was discovered some time later by the Military.
Shortly after the ambush Police and Military visited the scene and thoroughly searched the area. “An ordinary tweed cap was found which had a bullet hole in front of the peak and a corresponding hole at the back and inside the holes was a substance which was subsequently pronounced by a doctor to be brain matter. They also found traces of a body, and blood on the grass.
At an inquest on the body of Martin Devitt on March the 3rd, the police and military representative, Mr. M. Morrissey D.I. stated that on March 2nd they went to a bog in Clooney South and found the body about six inches from the surface. Over this there was a “small clamp of turf and some bog mould”. On the coffin was the inscription “Martin Devitt died February 24th, 1920, aged 25 R.I.P.” Patrick Devitt identified the body as that of his brother. The verdict of the jury was given as follows: “Martin Devitt of Cahersherkin, Co. Clare died on 24th February 1920, from a bullet wounded received while fighting for the freedom of his country, which freedom is prevented by mis-government and we tender our sympathy to the relatives of the deceased”.
This was the greatest defeat suffered by the Fourth Battalion, but his gallant action and bravery inspired all his comrades long after his death. Feelings of anger ran very high for quite some time and indeed one of the main purposes of the ambush at Rineen, seven months later, was to get revenge for the death of Martin Devitt, one of the most respected leaders of the Mid-Clare Brigade.
After the initial shock of this fatal ambush was over, life more or less returned to normal in the area for some time afterwards. Unfortunately, however, as the country rejoiced on the night of April 14th at the release of the I.R.A. hunger strikers, Miltown Malbay was grief-stricken by the murder of three local young men. At about 5.30 p.m. that evening, news reached Miltown Malbay of the release and the volunteer organisation and community in general set themselves the task of giving the released men a rousing welcome. Parades were arranged, bands played and banners and slogans were carried and a spirit of general enthusiasm prevailed as tearful mothers welcome their sons. At about 10.45 p.m., a huge bonfire blazed at Canada Cross. A group of adults and children had congregated and were singing national songs when a body of police and military arrived on the scene and ordered them to disperse. Before they had time to do so, a volley of about one hundred shots rang out. Thomas O’Leary and Patrick Hennessy were killed instantly and John O’Loughlin was wounded: he died shortly afterwards after being administered the last rights by Rev. Fr. Lawlor.
The window of Mr. P. O’Brien’s shop was shattered by bullets and Mr. A. Clancy’s door was perforated, and the top bedroom window was shattered. Mr. P. Marrinan’s door in Main Street was struck by a bullet. Mr. Joseph O’Halloran’s shutters were penetrated and the window inside smashed and the fanlight over Mrs. Marrinan’s door was broken. Traces of blood were found in various parts of the street. The shooting lasted for about twenty minutes. At an inquest in Ennis, a verdict of “wilful murder without provocation against the police and soldiers who fired the shots”  was returned.
The route along which the [funeral] cortege passed lay through the town and by the scene of the tragedy. Three crosses had been erected on the spots where the men fell. An inscription in Irish, on each, read “May God have mercy on the soul of (name) who fell on this spot and died in the cause of Ireland.” Over three hundred volunteers from within a radius of fifteen miles marched after the coffins which were draped in the tricolour. The Ennistymon Brass Band was also present. Clergy from many of the surrounding parishes attended the funeral including Rev. Canon Hannon, P.P. Miltown Malbay, Rev. N. O’Fegan, P.P. Kilfenora, Rev. J.F. Enright, C.C. and Rev P. Gaynor, C.C. Mullagh, Rev. A. Lawlor, C.C. Kilfenora, Rev. N. Mullins, C.C. Ennistymon and Rev. P. Ruane, Spiddal. All shops in the town closed as a mark of respect on that day.
At the requiem Mass, the Canon condemned in the strongest possible terms, the outrage which resulted in the deaths of the three men. He pleaded with the congregation to remain calm at all times in order to avoid further bloodshed. The Bishop of Killaloe, in whose diocese the parish is, and who was in Dublin at the time of the tragedy sent a message of sympathy to Canon Hannon and the relatives of those who were murdered. Some three weeks later, at a confirmation ceremony in Miltown Malbay, the Bishop again referred to the murders. Again he appealed to the people of the area to remain calm and assured them that eventually their goal would be achieved.
The following is a list of the dead and wounded
John (Jack) O’Loughlin, Ennistymon Road, was a tailor and aged twenty five. He was shot dead through the lower intestines and hip.
Thomas O’Leary, Ballard Road was an ex-army man and aged about thirty eight. He was shot dead through the body. He left a wife and ten children.
A number of others received minor injuries. All were treated by Drs Hillery and MacClancy.