After sporadic fighting in Galway during the summer of 1922, and the occupation of some buildings in the town, including the old RIC barracks in Eglington Street, and the former Connaught Ranger barracks at Renmore, the anti-Treaty forces withdrew into Connermara, and into the east Galway countryside.
In Connemara they were welcomed by the so called Connemara Flying Column, under the capable command of Peter McDonnell, who had fought in the War of Independence. * With very few exceptions the Flying Column members sided with the anti-Treaty forces, which now numbered about 400 men.
On July 25 they burned the workhouse and RIC barracks in Oughterard, and arriving in Clifden promptly burned the local workhouse there. Workhouses were hated symbols of inadequate relief and shelter during famine times.
They also attacked and burned the Marconi Station at Derrygimla, which despite its renowned reputation for transmitting the first commercial wireless messages across the Atlantic in 1907, and was a major employer in the district, would never again reopen.
In the General Election of June 18, the vast majority of the Irish people had voted clearly for pro -Treaty candidates, and Clifden was no exception. Life in the town attempted to carry on as before but with the passing of time this often proved difficult. The town was in effect occupied by the anti-Treaty forces, and the townspeople, who generally did not support the armed men in their midst, tolerated the state of affairs as best they could. The anti-Treaty forces occupied the barracks on the Main Street, and Sunnybank, a large house situated on a hill north of the town.
All petrol was commandeered. Roads were barricaded and trenched, making them impassable. Railway bridges were blown up, and telegraph lines cut. The anti-Treaty forces commanded all the approaches by road.
In an attempt to keep news from the outside world away, all newspapers, particularly the Irish Independent (which fiercely condemned the stand taken by the anti-Treatyites ), were forbidden. Clifden man James Lee was arrested and detained for a day for possessing a copy of that paper, while Miss Fergus from Roundstone had six copies taken from her and burned. She was warned not to bring such newspapers into the district.
On August 3 Mr Smith, Captain of the Dun Aengus, arrived in Roundstone with over 100 sacks of mail. For three weeks there was no communication with the outside world and people went ‘wild with joy’. Richard Berridge, of Ballinahinch Castle, arrived and offered to take sacks of post to Toombeola, and a further 12 sacks were taken to Recess. It was evident, however, that the National Army was gaining ground to the north of Clifden, and it was only a matter of time before it arrived.
There was an outbreak of fever in the Roundstone area, and the local Dispensary Doctor, T Collins, managed to get a message to the Minister for Local Government in Dublin, complaining that he was unable to carry out his duties. ‘We are absolutely cut off here, no post or telephone communications, no railway, and worst of all, no petrol’. Ambulances attempting to remove patients to the Galway hospital, were forced to turn back.
The anti-Treaty forces demanded that all citizens hold permits. This was the last straw for Monsignor Patrick McAlpine a larger -than-life character who was parish priest in Clifden from 1898 until his death in November 1932. He refused to comply with the order. When refused permission to visit a house situated outside the town, he declared that he would ‘die by the roadside before he would allow to be asked for a permit from boys he had baptised’. The requirement was dropped.
Public Safety Bill
Matters nationally, however, were developing at a deadly pace. On August 22 Michael Collins was shot dead by anti-Treaty forces at Béal na Bláth in West Cork. In response the Provisional Government under WT Cosgrave, Richard Mulcahy, Minister for Defence, and Kevin O’Higgins, Minister for Justice, accepted that the nation was facing an unlawful rebellion against an elected Irish government. The matter should be treated as a criminal act. It introduced the Public Safety Bill, which in effect gave powers to the state that anyone bearing arms, other than the legitimate forces of the state, could be executed by firing squad. It was passed by the Dáil.
In response Liam Lynch, the anti-Treaty Chief-of-Staff, ordered the killing of any TD who had voted for ‘The Murder Bill’ (as he called it ), and he also threatened hostile judges and newspapers editors.
It was out and out war.
On December 7 two TDs, who supported the Treaty, Seán Hales of Cork, and Padraic Ó Maille of Connemara, deputy Speaker of the Dáil, who had fought a famous gun battle against an armed RIC attack on his home at Kilmilkin, emerged from a hotel on Ormonde Quay, along Dublin’s river Liffey. Two gunmen opened fire on them, killing Hales and wounding Ó Maille.*
As a direct result of that attack four men, already imprisoned, were executed including Liam Mellows who led the Galway insurgents in 1916.
By November eight anti-Treaty men had been executed including Erskine Childers, who was secretary to the team who had negotiated the treaty in London; and who, in June 1914, smuggled a large cargo of rifles and ammunition into Dublin on board his boat The Asgard, effectively arming the 1916 Rising.
It would take 81 executions before the Civil War ended in May 1923. Six young men were shot in Tuam in the last few weeks of the strife.
In the meantime, a plan to capture Clifden by sea was devised when it was realised that all roads into the town were trenched, bridges were blown, and a well armed anti-Treaty force were well positioned.
On August 12, under the command of Colonel Commandant Michael Brennan, a large force of men set out from Galway docks in three large motor trawlers and headed first for KIlronan on the Aran Islands, where they were welcomed by the islanders. Absolute secrecy was essential. Islanders agreed to guide the attack ‘around dangerous Slyne Head’. However, the sea was rough and misty, the attack was called off and the force returned to Kilronan.
Twenty four hours later in better sea conditions, and again in darkness, the main force went to Inishturk Island, from where local fishermen guided them into Eyrephort, in Kingstown Bay to began the trek into the town. Another force had landed at Mannin Bay. At dawn the National Army was in Clifden. The anti-Treaty forces were taken by surprise as they did not expect an attack from the sea. They immediately began to withdraw into the hills.
Capt Fallon, in charge of the advance guard, opened fire on the town barracks, where he expected resistance. But when he entered the building it was deserted. Similarly, the hill post, Sunnybank, was quickly occupied after a sniper kept the National Army at bay while his comrades made their retreat.
By 7am the fighting was over. Slowly the townspeople came out to greet the soldiers, and to cook them breakfast. Monsignor McAlpine ‘bade them all a Céad Mile Fáilte on behalf of the long-suffering people’. He thanked the Irish troops for what they had done and ‘bade them all welcome to the capital of Connemara.’
Next week: The Ballinaboy ambush, and the burning of the orphanage for Protestant boys near Clifden.
NOTES: * Other officers of the Flying Column included John Kilroy, Jack Conneely, Gerald Bartly (later a Fianna Fáil deputy and Minister for the Gaeltacht, and Defence ), Stephen Coyne, and Jack Feehan. Two members of the Column, Dick Joyce and P O’Malley, became officers in the Free State Army, and would marry and live peaceful lives in Clifden.
A British armoured car was passing by and its soldiers, in what may have been the last actions ever by British soldiers in Dublin, fired some fleeting shots after the assassins as they ran in the direction of Capel Street.
Frank Henderson, head of the IRA Dublin Brigade had, apparently, ordered the killing only of Ó Maille, the Leas Cean Comhairle, or Deputy Speaker of the Dáil, and was dismayed that Hales had been killed. For 16 years afterwards he had his son, a priest, say a Mass for Hales.
Sources this week include Beyond the Twelve Bens - A history of Clifden and District 1860 - 1923 by Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill, Civil War in Connacht, by Nollaig Ó Gadhra, Margaret Collins, and Marion Nikolakos, Galway County Library.