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The War of Independence in West Clare by Rita Marrinan

Reprisals for and Reaction to Rineen

From all the preparations made and care taken, it seems obvious that the volunteers were determined to have a victory at Rineen, but it also appears they were prepared to accept the consequences – or what they thought would be the consequences. At a meeting in Lehane’s house [in Lahinch] on the night of Septmeber 21st, it was assumed that Miltown Malbay would be attacked and so provisions were made for its protection. They had anticipated an attacking party of ten – as had been used in the past, and so were preparing for what they thought would be another victory. But they were mistaken; not only was Miltown attacked by a much stronger force, but the nearby towns of Lahinch and Ennistymon were also burned and looted. The reprisals were the worst ever carried out by Crown Forces during the war. Sir Winston Churchill said of them “Never were so many atrocities perpetrated on so many for the actions of so few."[30]

The reprisals by the soldiers started on their return journey to the barrack. Sean Keane, a farmer on a horse and cart was shot dead near the scene of the ambush. Charlie Lynch who lived near Miltown Malbay was also shot dead. But it was that night the Black and Tans really satisfied their hunger for revenge. Miltown Malbay, the town nearest to the scene of the ambush, suffered most. The Irish Independent, on September 24th described the town as “a spectacle akin to that of Belgian towns after the Huns”. It continued, “There are not ten houses in the town that have not suffered in greater or lesser degree."[31] At about 11.30 p.m., residents of the town were startled by the sound of shots. Immediately they fled to relatives and friends in the surrounding countryside. A number of uniformed men were then seen passing through the streets, shouting and cheering and striking doors and window shutters with butt ends of rifles and other weapons.

The first house to be set ablaze was that of Mr. P.H. O’Neill, a hardware merchant, and then the premises of Mr. Edward Roche were seen to be on fire. Other houses set on fire were those of Messrs. Collins and Michael Hayes. Some hours later the premises of M. Marrinan and Michael Casey (Draper) were set ablaze. Goods were looted from several houses and enquiries were made as to the whereabouts of certain young men in the locality, who, fortunately for them, had fled at the outbreak of the invasion. After some time, police arrived on the scene but little was done to prevent further burnings. Dr. Hillery’s garage was forcibly entered and set on fire, and much damage was done to his house. He had retired from the commission of the peace shortly before the ambush. A number of soldiers stationed in the town led by their officers helped locals to fight the flames and rescue the unfortunate residents trapped in the burning houses. The uniformed men who carried out, so relentlessly, the work of destruction did not leave the town until 5.30 a.m. The inhabitants were fear-stricken in the following weeks and for the next few nights remained in the country after dusk.

While the destruction mentioned above was taking place, Lahinch, the nearest village on the other side of the ambush was suffering in much the same way. Parties of uniformed men in lorries arrived at about 2.30 a.m. and went up and down the street, screaming in their distinct English accent and setting fire to houses and shops.

The town hall, the property of Miss Collins, was burned to the ground and many more houses were destroyed including Miss Flanagan’s Bar and grocery, Vaughan’s grocery, Miss O’Dwyers drapery shop and Halpins and Reynolds public houses. Mr. Thomas Blackwells premises were set fire to but he succeeded in extinguishing the flames. However, the hall and front room were damaged and many door jambs were burned. When the men were about to attack the Marine Hotel, Miss Collins (mentioned above) and Mr. Byrant, an excise officer, appealed to have the hotel spared as it was entirely occupied by ladies and they had already suffered enough by the loss of the town hall. The appeal was granted and as the men moved away, they gave permission to Miss Collins to take in a number of terrified women and children who were waiting outside. As a young man named Joe Sammon, a visitor to Lahinch from East Clare, was running from a house he was shot dead. He was in his late twenties, married, and had one child. Fearing a repetition of the outrage the residents spent the two following nights on the sandhills and many visitors left the sea-side resort fearing that their lives would be endangered if they remained.

As some of the attackers were passing from Miltown to Lahinch they set fire to every rick of hay in sight. They also stopped at the house of Mr. Lehane, who lived at Cregg near Lahinch and set fire to it. They then dragged the old man from his burning home and shot him in front of his wife and daughter. His sons John Joe, Jimmy and Mickey escaped a hail of bullets as they escaped by the railway embankment. Pake, his eldest son, who fought in the ambush earlier that day, was engulfed by flames in Flanagan’s pub, Lahinch, on the same night.

Simultaneously, another town, Ennistymon, which is two miles from Lahinch, was also being attacked. Evidence available at present shows that the town hall was first to be burned down after which the men proceeded to the private house of Mr. Tom Connole, a thirty-one year old married man with two children. He had worked as a clerk in the Henry Street warehouse in Dublin but failing health had forced him to return to Ennistymon some months before the incident. He was secretary of the local branch of the I.T. & G.W.U., [a trade union] a Catholic and suspected of taking part in the ambush, but local people at the time claimed he had no part whatsoever in it and never played an active role in politics. Mr. Connole was taken from his house and shot while his wife and children were compelled to look on. He was then thrown into the flames of his burning house.

Soon after this horrifying incident, Devitt’s drapery shop was set on fire but the flames soon spread to Marrinan’s next door. “On hearing a cry for water, three young men, sons of Mr. Linnane, a building contractor, and a man named Sullivan went to the rescue. One of the men Patrick, was shot dead, but the others were unable to go to his assistance because the firing continued. He was subsequently taken to Connoles stable by an ex-soldier named White and was attended to by Fr. Mullins, C.C. who arrived on time to administer the last Sacraments."[32] He was twenty one years of age, unmarried and worked with his father. He, too, was innocent and never participated in politics.

On the following day, the remains of both men were taken to Ennistymon Church where they remained overnight. Solemn requiem Mass was offered next day by Rev. Fr. Nestor P.P. who made brief reference to the events of the tragic night when both men were murdered and, after asking the prayers of the congregation for the happy repose of their souls he appealed to both families to have the funerals private in order to prevent any further trouble. Both families complied with his wishes and the remains were interred at the cemetery in Churchill [in Ennistymon].

Many other houses were completely destroyed including Whelan’s tailor shop, P. Clair’s grocery shop and Callinan’s public house, and only the four walls remained standing. In the ruins of Whelan’s house a remarkable thing was noticed soon afterwards. High up and embedded in a stone wall was a plaster cast of the Holy Face. This escaped damage except for a slight chip in one corner. The house of Mr. John Hynes, draper and Mr. Joseph Conneally of Clooney, Ennistymon, were also damaged.

Having devastated Miltown, Lahinch and Ennistymon, the men proceeded to the nearby fishing village of Liscannor where they wrecked havoc on private houses. In a report on the reprisals in the Irish Independent of September 27th, the total damage was estimated at £100,000.

On the day following the ambush and reprisals, the Bishop of Galway and priests of Kilfenora held a conference at Lisdoonvarna. Here they condemned the Rineen ambush as “unwise beyond measure and a grave breach of the law of God, except of course it occurred in lawful self-defence, which they had no means of ascertaining at that time."[33] They also deplored and condemned the destruction of lives and property of innocent people which were carried out immediately after the ambush, by British forces, all the more because it seemed to be encouraged and tolerated by those who professed to be governing the country, and had a duty above all else to protect the lives and property of the people of Ireland.

They appealed to their own people to be careful in this time of crisis, to give no provocation or protest for a recurrence to violence on the part of the British forces. “They prayed Our Father in heaven to have mercy on the souls who have been so suddenly hurled before His tribunal and they implored His guidance and protection for their own flocks and for the people of Ireland through the intercession of Mary the Great Mother of God who has helped the Irish so much in the past."[34]

The then Bishop of Killaloe, Dr. Fogarty, made the following statement at early Mass in Ennis on Sunday, September 26th. “Mistakes and sorrows are, I suppose, inevitable in such an intense struggle as we are now passing through but if the country adheres faithfully to the advice and directives of its elected representatives we shall win our cause and without the disasters which are sure to follow when irresponsible heads take action on their own account”. Dr. Fogarty continued “while we deeply deplore such actions (Rineen), in the present excited state of feeling, the less said the better. We can only sympathise with the afflicted sufferers and pray, as we sincerely do, that God may have mercy on the souls of those, whatever side they belong to, who have been killed in that series of horrible outrages."[35]

It may seem natural that native people would be shocked and horrified by the British reprisals, but it appears that shock was equally widespread in England. The Westminster Gazette had a report which stated “it is absolutely essential that the authorities should stop these outbreaks of violence on the part of the police. An undisciplined force is worse that none, and the more difficult the situation in Ireland becomes the greater is the need for discipline. If this vendetta is allowed to grow more intense, complete anarchy will be the result”.


The Rineen Ambush


Monreal ambush and reprisals