Wild nights of burning and murder

Week IV

Petie Mc Donnell, OC of the West Connemara IRA. It saw a lot of action during the War of Independence.

Petie Mc Donnell, OC of the West Connemara IRA. It saw a lot of action during the War of Independence.

Clifden was not the only town to experience the terror of British forces running wild, shooting, and setting fire to buildings. The previous year, July 19 1920, Tuam suffered a similar experience as Clifden, only mercifully no resident was killed on that occasion.

The attack on Tuam followed an IRA ambush at Gallagh, on the main Tuam /Dunmore road, during which two constables, James Burke, of Birr Co Offaly, and Patrick Carey of Skibbeeren, Co Cork were shot dead. Two surviving constables were unharmed and allowed to return to their barracks where the alarm was immediately raised.

The police ran to the streets of Tuam, drinking openly, while seeking those responsible for the ambush and the killing of their comrades. Pubs in the town were forced to open or simply broken into and looted.[vii]

They set fire to the Town Hall, which had recently held the first sitting of the North Galway District Court, a Sinn Féin “Dáil Court” of a type set up to undermine British authority, replacing the Assizes being boycotted (the building was gutted and was not rebuilt until 1926 ).

Local businesses, such as Canney’s Drapers, Fahy’s Drapery Store, and Burke’s Grocery, were also set alight. Many homes and businesses had their windows shot out and shops looted. Hand grenades were thrown into buildings, such as the home of James Casey, who acted as a clerk in the new court. Many homes were raided and known Sinn Féiners arrested. The terror went on through the night resulting in an estimated £100,000 in damages.

Night of terror

On 8 September 1920, crowds assembled at Galway train station to await the arrival of the midnight mail train from Dublin which would bring copies of the evening papers and news of Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, who was on hunger strike in Brixton Prison, London. Among the crowd were several IRA volunteers who were awaiting a consignment of arms that were to be used for an attack on the RIC barracks in Spiddal. Accounts vary, but a gun battle erupted on the platform which left two men dead, IRA volunteer John Mulvoy and Constable Edward Krumm. Mulvoy was a 20-year-old from College Road who worked as a shop assistant at Corbett and Co.’s on Williamsgate Street. Krumm, aged 24, was a Black-and-Tan lorry driver and veteran of the Great War from Middlesex, England.

Later that night, when news of the shooting of Krumm became known, the Crown forces went on the rampage in Galway, terrorising the residents of the town. The Broderick house on Prospect Hill was raided. John Broderick, a 20-year-old IRA volunteer, was taken to the train station and shot but survived by feigning death. His family home was doused in petrol and set alight, and his younger sister, Maggie, a member of Cumann na mBan, had her hair forcibly cut with a blunt scissors. The offices of the “Galway Express”, a republican newspaper, were also wrecked.

In an even more shocking incident, James Augustine Quirk was taken, half-dressed, from his lodgings on the docks by a number of uniformed men. Known as Seamus, Quirk was a 24-year-old watchmaker from Cork City who worked at Jeremiah O’Donovan’s jewellers on Williamsgate Street, and served as battalion adjutant of the local IRA. He was beaten and forced to stand under a lamppost at the end of the docks where he was shot repeatedly through the stomach. Despite his horrific injuries, he managed to return to his lodgings where, apologising to his landlady for all the trouble, he asked for a priest. Fr Michael Griffin came and administered the last rites; Fr Griffin would himself be shot dead two months later. The “Galway Express” reported that Quirk, “known and loved by all in Galway, was foully murdered by the hireling constabulary.”

‘Murderous behaviour’

The undisciplined, drunken, and murderous behaviour of some members of the RIC, and later the Black and Tans (recruited in 1920 as a desperate measure by the British authorities to replace the demoralised and the deserting ranks of the RIC, the Royal Irish Constabulary ) was a major factor in the growing membership of the IRA. Men who were not normally inclined to violence, believed that something had to be done.

One of the businesses totally thrashed on September 8, was the Galway Express newspaper office managed by Seamus Murphy. Murphy, a veteran of the 1916 Rising, had been appointed OC Galway IRA. However his erratic leadership had come in for serious criticism from Dublin headquarters, and from local volunteers. But now, with his livelihood gone, Murphy emigrated to England leaving the way open for new direction.

A succession of meetings between local volunteers and the IRA strategists, notably with Richard Mulcahy, IRA chief of staff, were held in Vaughan’s Hotel Dublin,* and at the home of Pádraic Mór Ó Máille TD at Kilmilkin, Connemara. The Galway Brigade was divided into several smaller units. Petie Joe McDonnell was appointed OC of the West Connemara command, which saw a lot of action.

Further violence

Born in Leenane, Co Galway, 29-year-old Petie, or PJ, McDonnell, came from a strong nationalist family. He worked as a coach builder with Kilroys of Newport, and had joined the Irish Volunteers in 1914. He was highly regarded by IRA headquarters.**

By the first week of March 1921 McDonnell had 18 armed men in his column. The difference now was that the IRA were no longer a hidden force, but living in the open, dependent on safe houses for shelter and food, determined to square up to the British forces, which included the RIC.

By now, however, further violence in County Galway had ratcheted up the tension to almost breaking point. On October 15 1920, the Barna schoolteacher, Patrick Joyce, was taken from his home and shot. He had written a letter to Dublin Castle outlining Sinn Féin activities in the area. His letter was intercepted and passed on to the IRA.

As a result the Tans searched for him among the homes and people with threats, burnings, and public beatings. On November 2 Ellen Quinn, a young mother nursing her child, was shot dead outside her home at Kiltartan. The shot came from a passing Crossly tender, full of Tans. On November 14, Fr Michael Griffin, a known Sinn Féin sympathiser, was lured from his home at Sea Road on a bogus sick call in the middle of the night. His body was found some days later.

‘Two for one’

Petie McDonnell was not a boastful man, and rarely discussed afterwards his role in the War for Independence and the Civil War. However, apart from his matter of fact statements recorded in the Bureau of Military History, he spoke openly to one of the most enigmatic fighters in that war, Ernie O’Malley.***

One of the Connemara Brigade’s first missions was to follow up on the hanging of Tommy Whelan, an innocent young man from Sky Road, Clifden, wrongfully accused of being part of Michael Collins’ ruthless wipeout of British spies on so-called Bloody Sunday, November 21 1920. Tommy Whelan was executed March 14 1921; and now, two days later, the IRA had vowed that it would revenge such executions ‘two for one’.

Arriving in Clifden on that fateful evening, McDonnell told O’Malley that, having left some men covering the RIC station, he and five others (Jack Feehan, Gerald Bartley, Dick Joyce, Michael Joyce, and Peter Wallace ) walked towards the RIC men standing outside Ed King’s corner (now EJ Kings ). The men all had side arms. The RIC constables Reynolds and Sweeney saw them coming. “One of them made a dive for his gun as I passed and we wheeled and opened up. They were shot.”

Quickly a rifle and a revolver, 50 rounds of ammunition belts and pouches were removed. On their way out of the town a few men went to Lydon’s for bread and butter. They were ravenous.

Attack on Clifden

Expecting reinforcements to arrive by road, McDonnell’s men prepared an ambush on the approach to the town. However, as this Diary covered in recent weeks, a large party of Black and Tans arrived by train. Here is McDonnell’s version of what happened in the early hours of St Patrick’s Day, March 17. Although accounts of the attacks vary, Ernie O’Malley recorded his interviewees exactly as they spoke. Also note how the Tans tried to cover up their excesses by claiming that 100 men had arrived to attack them!

“They burned 13 houses in Clifden and they shot two or three people. I think they put a revolver in Clancy’s mouth [the man was shot twice in the face, but survived]. They burned Lydon O’Neill’s who was an old man and a good supporter of ours. They burned Mrs Bartley’s. They shouted at her to come out, and they fired in a hand grenade which came in the window, a round thing rolling around the floor. Then they burned her place. Afterwards we found out that two Tans had gone to the Railway Hotel which is across the street and they didn’t stir. They were watching us and they said that 100 men had come up the Quay Road and that they had a terrible fight.”

Next week:

A 12 hour shoot out at the home of Pádraic Mór Ó Máille TD, an active member of the Connemara IRA, at Kilmilkin, Maam.


* Vaughan’s Hotel, 29-30 Parnell Square, owned by Mrs Vaughan from Co Clare, was a favourite and safe IRA meeting place. Christy Harte, the porter, was completely trusted by Michael Collins.

** While on the run McDonnell married Michael Kilroy’s sister, Matilda. He took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, and during World War II served as an officer in the Irish Army. Afterwards he worked in the insurance business, and died in Galway city in 1967.

*** A former medical student from Castlebar, O’Malley abandoned his studies at UCD during the Easter Rising to fight with Liam Lynch with the County Cork Brigade. He was captured, escaped, and captured again. He opposed the Treaty and led the garrison which held out in the Four Courts, Dublin, until it surrendered to the Free State Army. Again he escaped into County Wicklow; and was finally captured after a vicious shoot out. He was shot 20 times (he carried three bullets in his body for the rest of his life ), and was saved from execution when his doctor, whom he knew at university, exaggerated the severity of his wounds.

O’Malley left Ireland in 1928, travelling throughout Europe, and finally America and Mexico, becoming associated with Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy American patron of the arts whose artistic circle included such figures as DH Lawrence, Georgia O’Keefe, Paul Strand, Ella Young, and Aaron Copland. His book On Another Man’s Wound is regarded as the classic account of the Irish fight for freedom.

Unable to forget his experiences, however, O’Malley began to interview survivors, across a broad spectrum of participants, covering the Tan War and the Civil War. The Men Will Talk to Me - Galway Interviews by Ernie O’Malley published by Mercier History, on sale €19.99.

Sources this week also include Galway City Museum, War and Rebellion in North Galway 1913 - 1923 by Dr Jarlath Deignan, and War and Revolution in the West of Ireland, by Conor McNamara.


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