Under the heading ‘Panic in the town last night’ The Connacht Tribune told the story of the attack on Clifden on March 19 1921: ‘Following the shooting of RIC Constable Reynolds, and the wounding of Constable Sweeney (who was to die from his wounds some hours later ), at Clifden last night, panic reigned in the town and nine of the principal houses were burned.
‘Mr John J MacDonnell, whose dead body was found in an archway near the principal street in the early hours of this morning, was an ex-army man who had served as a sergeant-major during the war. He was described as a quiet, inoffensive young man. The hotel, owned by his father, Mr Alex MacDonnell, has been burned. It is thought that young MacDonnell may have come across the street during the burning to aid in putting out the fire when he was shot.
The following houses are reported to have been burned: Mr PK Joyce, butcher, Main Street, Mr WA Clancy, butcher, ditto, Mr John M Lydon, a former county councillor, publican and general warehouse, Market Square, Mrs Bartley, teashop and restaurant, Market Street, Mr Bartley King, Market Square, and Gordon, next door.
‘The people fled from the town in panic. It is reported that all is quiet this afternoon. ‘This is the first time in living memory that blood has been shed in the peaceable capital of Connemara.
‘A number of arrests have been made in connection with the attack on the two constables. These included two brothers named Boyne from Cushatrongh, one ex soldier in whose house a gun has been found, Pat King, Lettershea, J Faherty, a postman, Kylemore, John Schley, Francis Burke, Tom Senior and Pat Walsh (an assistant at John M Lyden’s ) Clifden, Mrs JM Lydon, and her assistant Miss Senior, were also arrested , but subsequently released.’
The Irish Independent reported on March 22 that following the shootings, a company of Auxiliaries has taken over the railway hotel, while another company has been stationed at Westport 43 miles away.
A notice posted at Mr EJ King’s corner where the shooting occurred, stated: ‘Clifden will remember, the RIC will not forget!’ While another declared: ‘ Shoot another policeman and up goes the town!’
A sense of horror
A sense of real horror is conveyed in a further account in the Connacht Tribune: Poor Alexander MacDonnell, described as ‘one of the most pathetic figures in Clifden’, whose son was killed and his hotel burned to the ground described how at about 5am on St Patrick’s Day, ‘the crown forces rushed into the hotel having smashed the windows. One of them called Mr MacDonnell ‘a bloody old rebel’, and struck him on his shoulder with his rifle. MacDonnell said he was not a rebel. They asked for his son, who was in bed, telling him to get up and dress that they wanted him outside.
‘His son sat up in bed, and told them he was an ex-soldier, and asked to be allowed to show his papers, but it was no use. He was ordered outside and asked for mercy. But a volley of shots rang out’, and he found his only son had been shot shot dead. His hotel, where he also lived, was burned down.’
The count of four
Monsignor McAlpine was the parish priest of Clifden from 1898 until 1932. Though he was not a supporter of Sinn Féin he described the night as ‘Hell let loose’. He was first called at about 10pm to the RIC barracks on being told two men had been shot. Then in the early hours of St Patrick’s day he was called by loud banging on his door: ‘For God’s sake, Canon, come down. The town is ablaze!’
The priest ran down to the town and came across a Tan setting fire to a house. The soldier turned to McAlpine and demanded what brought him here.
“I said that this is sad work on such a feast day as this.’ Referring to the two shot constables McAlpine said he was sorry ‘at this whole business’. The Tan warned him to keep away.
McAlpine then went to the barracks where he was confronted by another Tan, who threatened he would give the priest to the count of four, ‘and if you are not out of it by that time you will never get out of it…’ he pointed his rifle at the priest. An RIC constable interfered, and said that the Monsignor was a good man, and a good priest.’ McAlpine left and went to say Mass at the convent.
Next week: The Connemara IRA are prepared for battle.
The Clifden assault raised in the English parliament
Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY : asked the Chief Secretary whether, following the assassination of two police-constables at Clifden, in Connemara, on 16th March last, nine houses, including the house of the father of ex-Sergeant-major M'Donnell, were burnt by the Crown forces; whether ex-Sergeant-major M'Donnell was shot while trying to extinguish the flames in his father's house; whether this was an official or unofficial reprisal; and whether Connemara is in the martial-law area?
Mr. HENRY : The facts of the case are as follow. At 10 p.m. on 16th March two policemen, Constable Reynolds and Constable Sweeney, on patrol with others at Clifden were shot down in cold blood at point-blank range by a party of civilians, some of whom were masked. Reynolds, who had been living with his wife and young family in Clifden for some years and bore an excellent character, was instantly killed. Sweeney, who was also an Irishman and had served with distinction in the Irish Guards, was severely wounded in three places and did not survive 48 hours. News of this abominable outrage was conveyed to Galway 50 miles away by wireless, the telegraph wires having been cut. A party of Royal Irish Constabulary under three experienced officers was at once despatched by special train to the scene of the outrage in the hope of apprehending the murderers. This party, which included men who knew the locality well, arrived in Clifden between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. on the morning of the 17th. As they approached certain houses which they intended to search fire was immediately opened from the houses on them. In the course of the encounter which ensued, twelve houses were burned and four others damaged. A man named John McDonnell, who escaped from one of the houses, was shot dead after running some distance. Another man named Peter Clancy, pensioner from the Royal Irish Constabulary, was wounded by a stray bullet. The statement that McDonnell was shot while endeavouring to extinguish the flames is untrue. As will be clear from what I have said this was not a case of reprisal. The district is not in the martial-law area.
Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY : Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the inhabitants of Clifden, who are not Sinn Feiners, deny the statement that any fire was opened, and state further that Clancy the ex-constable was put up against a wall, and shot?
Mr. HENRY : No one is so likely to know whether fire is opened or not as the men who sustain it.
Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY : Is it not the usual excuse for acts of arson by Crown forces that they are fired on, and will the right hon. Gentleman have inquiries made into this case, as there seems to be a conflict of evidence?
Mr. LYNN : Is it not a fact that any ex-soldier who is in the South of Ireland goes about with his life in his hands, owing to Sinn Fein?
Mr. MacVEAGH : If these houses were not burnt as reprisals, how does it happen that they were burnt accidentally?
Mr. HENRY : I have already dealt with that in my answer. You cannot have an encounter of that kind without something of this sort.