British Army and RIC unleash terror on the streets of Clifden

March 1921 saw Crown Forces burn houses in the 'capital of Connemara' and bomb a Sinn Féin building in Galway city

The West Connemara IRA Flying Squad, photographed in 1920/1921.

The West Connemara IRA Flying Squad, photographed in 1920/1921.

March 1921 saw the British army's D Company Auxiliaries continue their tour of east Galway, assisted by an RAF spotter plane, the RIC, the Black and Tans, and various members of the Crown Forces.

In Tuam, Archbishop Thomas Gilmartain proclaimed that for the month of March novenas would be said across the diocese to restore peace in the west of Ireland. However, the rattling of rosary beads was soon quelled by the rattling of rifles, revolvers, and machine guns.

On Wednesday March 2, Thomas Mullen from Killavoher, Clonbern, was arrested by Crown Forces, taken a short distance outside the village and shot dead. Later, a local woman who lived close to where the killing took place stated she had heard gunfire but that there was nothing uncommon about this when Crown Forces were in the area. She said a man in uniform she knew called to her door asking if she had a cart that could take Mullen back to his mother’s house as he had been wounded while trying to escape.

The Freemans Journal stated: “She and her two daughters went out and were horrified to see Mullen lying against a bank on the roadside. He was dying. She took him in her arms and recited the act of contrition...” Thomas Mullen died in her arms 10 minutes later as the uniformed men looked on. He had been shot seven times.

'In Moylough, children were beaten with rifle butts, shots fired indiscriminately, and windows broken. The surrounding of churches and intimidation of congregations was commonplace in rural Galway'

Later the inquiry into Mullen’s death found that “two policemen allowed a man that they had just taken into custody to escape. On a plea that the party were tired and hungry, they made no attempt to recapture him, but shot him.” Mullen’s only crime was that his brother was a suspected IRA man and it was he that they had been looking for.

State terrorism in east Galway

Thomas Whelan before his execution 1921

Thomas Whelan (centre ), photographed before his execution.

Over the coming days Mullagh, Moylough, Kilchreest, Ballinasloe, Loughrea, Gort, Peterswell and several surrounding townlands were terrorised by D Company assisted by a selection of Crown Forces. In Gort, more than 100 men were rounded up. In Moylough, children were beaten with rifle butts, shots fired indiscriminately, and windows broken. The surrounding of churches and intimidation of congregations was now commonplace in rural Galway. D Company were now taking young men as hostages and using them as human shields as they drove through the countryside thus limiting the risk of IRA ambushes.

On March 14 in Mountjoy Prison at 6am, Thomas Whelan, a native of Clifden and a member of A Company 3rd Battalion Dublin Brigade IRA, was hanged along with five other men. Whelan was arrested in November 1920 and charged with killing Captain Geoffrey Thomas Baggallay, a prominent prosecutor in the British Military Courts.

On the morning of November 21 1920 a group of IRA men entered Baggallay’s accommodation on Baggot Street, Dublin, and shot him four times. An officer who claimed he was in a nearby room identified Whelan as the assassin, although when the RIC arrived this officer could not be found. Although Whelan had five witnesses including a priest who stated that he was attending Mass in Ringsend Church at the time of the shooting, he was still found guilty and sentenced to death.

The IRA takes action

Clifden in the 1920s

Clifden in the early 1920s.

In retaliation a well planned ambush under the command of Peter (Petie ) Joe McDonnell was carried out by the West Connemara Brigade Flying Column in Clifden on the night of March 16. At 10pm, four RIC men on patrol walked into a crossfire between King’s Public House and The Railway Hotel in the centre of the town, resulting in the deaths of RIC officers Charles Reynolds and Thomas Sweeney. A wireless message was sent to Galway reporting the incident and members of D Company Auxiliaries, along with six RIC under the command of Sergeant Keeney, boarded a special train to Clifden arriving at 4am on St Patrick’s Day.

'JJ Mc Donnell, formerly of the 5th Battalion Connaught Rangers, and who had served on the battlefields of Salonika, Greece, and France in WWI, now lay in a pool of blood as his father’s hotel'

On arrival they were joined by local RIC men who brought them to the houses of suspected republicans. Later they would claim that as they approached certain houses they were fired upon and this justified the burning of 12 houses and the horror they unleashed onto the local community. This is highly unlikely. A flying column by nature was not designed to be stagnant after an attack. Nevertheless, the Crown Forces commenced their assault starting with Alexander McDonnell’s Hotel.

In the inquiry that followed these incidents stated: “I came down the stairs as I could not sleep owing to the noise and smell of burning...about eight police and four civilians banged on the door...half the police with a boy of fifteen ran of the police who stopped downstairs asked where my son was and told me to call him down...the policeman... said “you were at the shooting last night” my son denied it and said he had been in the army. The police then said come outside...I heard two shots in succession. About five minutes later the same policeman showed me my son, JJ Mc Donnell’s body a few yards from my door at the corner of the house.”

JJ Mc Donnell, formerly of the 5th Battalion Connaught Rangers, and who had served on the battlefields of Salonika, Greece, and France in WWI, now lay in a pool of blood as his father’s hotel. Joyce and Clancy’s Butchers, Lydon’s Public House and Grocery along with Bartley’s Restaurant, and the dwellings of the King and Gordon families, among others, lay in ruins.

Execution of Louis D’Arcy

Eglinton Street RIC barracks.

On the morning of March 23, Louis D’Arcy, OC of the Headford Battalion IRA, and co-organiser of the Kilroe ambush,was arrested in Oranmore attempting to board a train. D’Arcy had been on the run since the Kilroe ambush, and it is believed someone informed on his whereabouts. On Thursday 24, while being escorted to Eglinton RIC Station, Louis D’Arcy was executed in the Roscam-Merlin Park area.

In the inquiry that followed, Black and Tan John Low, and Wyn Owen, both claimed that one of the lorries in the patrol had broken down and D’Arcy, who was not handcuffed, had made a dash for it. They shouted at him to stop but he continued to run. They fired and he fell. There was no medical report available to the officers in charge of the investigation which was most unusual.

Local lore has it that Louis D’Arcy was dragged by rope from the back of one of the lorries in similar fashion to the Loughnane brothers and it is worth pointing out that CW Owen was OC in both cases.

In the final act of March 1921, the Sinn Féin Hall on Prospect Hill was petrol bombed and destroyed. Throughout this time talk abounded of negotiation and the creation of a credible peace with Sinn Féin. However, several senior Conservatives of the day thought this notion preposterous with Sir Samuel Hoare proclaiming: “You can’t call Pax with a rattle-snake.” Or could you?

Damien Quinn is a military historian specialising in Irishmen in the service of the British Crown Forces. He studied politics and history as an undergraduate, and gained a Masters of Literature in History from NUI Galway.


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