Murder and mayhem in Clifden

Week II

Called the Black and Tans because their uniforms were a mixture of dark green and British army khaki, they gained a reputation for  brutality, and became notorious for reprisal attacks on civilians and civilian property, including  extrajudicial killings, arson and looting. Their actions further swayed Irish public opinion against British rule and drew condemnation in Britain. Pictured here was a typical scene in Ireland’s streets in 1921.

Called the Black and Tans because their uniforms were a mixture of dark green and British army khaki, they gained a reputation for brutality, and became notorious for reprisal attacks on civilians and civilian property, including extrajudicial killings, arson and looting. Their actions further swayed Irish public opinion against British rule and drew condemnation in Britain. Pictured here was a typical scene in Ireland’s streets in 1921.

Just before 6am on St Patrick's Day 1921, Monsignor McAlpine, the Catholic parish priest of Clifden, Co Galway, was woken by loud banging on his door. “For God's sake, Canon, come down - the town is ablaze.”

Mc Alpine later told a military enquiry that he went down to see if he “could save anything of poor Clifden. The flames were then far advanced. Willie Clancy's was burning. Alex McDonnell's hotel was reduced to ashes. Crown forces were up and down the street; no one dared venture abroad. I went round the square and found that Mr John M Lyden's and Mr Bartley King's were burning, and the forces were engaged in setting fire to Mr M A Manning's public house, and Mrs Bartley's restaurant.”

Following the shooting dead of RIC constables Charles Reynolds and Thomas Sweeney who were on patrol in the town the previous evening, a special train had set out from Galway shortly after midnight. On board were 30 Black and Tans. There were also armed men with the driver, and with the train guard. They were bent on exacting vengeance for the killing of the RIC constables, who were shot by the IRA in revenge for the hanging two days earlier in Dublin of the young Clifden man Tommy Whelan. This terrible cycle of killings was typical of the time; and often had tragic consequences for innocent people.

Looting and drinking

While it was still dark, the train arrived at Clifden station. The Tans rushed into the town shouting and terrorising the people. Word of the raid quickly spread. Men who feared for their lives rushed away through their gardens and over walls. Frustrated, the Tans began looting and drinking. As the hours went by they became more and more drunk. They began setting fire to the town. John McDonnell, the soldier son of hotel owner Alex, ran from a house on Main Street. He was spotted and shouted at to halt. He ran on. Shots were fired, but missed. John had served with distinction with the Connaught Rangers throughout World War I. He had been promoted to sergeant major in the field, a distinguished army career for King and Country, here he was running for his life in his native town. But as he ran in front of his father's burning hotel, he was spotted by another group of Tans. This time he was shot dead. He collapsed outside Michael Ward's shop.

Patrick Clancy was in his brother's public house on Main Street, which was damaged by an unsuccessful attempt to burn it earlier. Some Tans came in and ordered drinks. For no reason one of them called Patrick out into the yard. Patrick later told the courts of inquiry, he followed them ‘without hesitation. On entering the yard, ‘I was struck from behind and knocked against the wall.I then received a bullet, which passed through my throat; this brought me to my hands and knees, and I then received another bullet, which passed through my lower jaw. I fell flat and received another bullet which chipped some of my teeth. I was then made unconscious.’

Miraculously, he survived.

Unreal scene

At this stage most of the townspeople had fled in fear from their homes. Some sought sanctuary in the workhouse, others in the convent. Others ran into the fields. Fourteen houses and businesses were completely burnt that night. Many others were badly damaged.

An obvious target was the home of Tommy Whelan, on Sky Road. The Tans arrived at the door, but Tommy's brothers had gone into hiding. His mother had not yet returned from keeping a brave vigil outside Mountjoy gaol as her son was executed. The only people left in the Whelan household were the father, grandparents, and small children. Photographs of the brothers were confiscated, and mercifully the house was not torched.

Gradually as the morning progressed, the Tans withdrew. They were replaced by regular soldiers, who went among the people asking for everyone to return to their homes. The danger is over, they were told, your safety is guaranteed. Two doctors, Surgeon O'Malley and Dr Sandys, had arrived from Galway. It must have been an unreal scene as people returned to a smouldering town. They stood in groups talking of the shootings and death; wondering where it was all going to end.

They also noted with apprehension the painted slogans across Eddie King’s corner: ‘ Clifden will remember, and so will the RIC’, and ‘Shoot another member of the RIC and up goes the town!’.

Tribute of respect

Illustrating the confused loyalties at the time, Monsignor McAlpine spoke after evening Devotions saying that he would never have believed that he would witness ‘such calculated bloodshed or such terrible scenes in Catholic Ireland.’ But he blamed the shooting dead of the two RIC constables, Reynolds and Sweeney, as the instigation for the attack and murder meted out by the Black and Tans on the town.

He told his congregation, the remains of Constable Reynolds, aged 33 years married with one daughter, who had 14 years service with the RIC, and who was well liked by the community, would be removed on the midday -train for the following day. “I would take it as a favour and a great tribute of respect to a good man’s memory, if the people would attend in large numbers at the funeral.”

Next morning, Saturday, a ‘considerable number’ of townspeople followed the coffin of Reynolds from St Joseph’s church to the railway station, and a wreath was sent on their behalf. In Galway the coffin of Constable Sweeney, who was 24 years of age, covered with a Union Jack, was brought to the station, where the two coffins briefly met, before their burial in their respective home towns.**

Next week: More on the burnings and murder at Clifden.

Notes

* I am taking details of the raid from Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill's excellent Beyond the Twelve Pins - A History of Clifden, published 1986.

** Constable Reynolds was buried in his native Kenagh, Co Longford; while Constable Sweeney was buried in Aughrim, Co Galway.

 

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