The murderous and vengeful events that followed 'Bloody Sunday' 1920 impacted on the town of Clifden in an unexpected way. There was shooting and murder on its streets; and, following a rampage by the Black and Tans, practically half the town was burnt down.
It began in Dublin early on the Sunday morning November 21. Michael Collins' deadly plan to wipe out the so-called Cairo Gang, stooges and spies of Dublin Castle, was ruthlessly put into effect. IRA teams shot dead 13 people and wounded six. One IRA member, Frank Teeling, was captured, but he escaped.
The audacity and efficiency of the operation terrified and crippled British intelligence in Ireland. Other informers fled into hiding. There was consternation within the British administration. Believing that the assassins were hiding in the crowds heading for Croke Park that afternoon, a force of Black and Tans drove there in lorries.
Dublin was playing Tipperary, before a crowd of 5,000 spectators. It was said afterwards that the British intended to announce that all men would be searched leaving the pitch; but frustrations were at breaking point. Without warning the British forces indiscriminately opened fire on the players and into the crowd. In the mayhem that followed 14 people were killed, more than 60 wounded.
The British authorities were as appalled as were the people of Dublin. In an effort to calm the situation Dublin Castle issued a statement staying that its forces were first fired upon by gunmen in the crowds.
This was totally dismissed as a pathetic cover up. The Times, a pro-Unionist publication, ridiculed the Castle's version of events. A British Labour Party delegation in Dublin at the time totally rejected the Castle's view. The British brigadier Frank Crozier resigned in protest at the attempt by the authorities to condone the unjustified actions of the Black and Tans.
There was frantic rounding up of suspects over the next few days. Tommy Whelan, 21 years old, of Sky Road, Clifden, was arrested. With three others he was tried for the shooting dead of Captain GT Baggelly at Lr Baggot Street. Two soldiers swore they recognised Whelan at the location. But his landlady, at 14 Barrow Street, Ringsend, swore he came down from his bedroom after the shootings had occurred, left the house for Mass, where again a witness saw him. But it was to no avail. The case against the other three was dismissed. Tommy Whelan was sentenced to hang.
Hanged in pairs
The fact that Tommy had been a member of the Clifton Sinn Féin Club, and when he went to work at the Midland and Great Western Railway at Broadstone, he joined the Dublin Volunteers, probably went against him. But he was completely innocent of any involvement in the shootings of November 21. At his trial experts protested that he could not possibly have been in two places at once. The local Clifton pastor, the respected Monsignor McAlpine, declared his belief in Tommy's innocence. Tommy himself solemnly swore he was innocent. Mr Devlin MP spoke directly to the prime minister Lloyd George on his behalf. The PM said that he would have the case reviewed.
But all appeals failed. Tommy was to be executed with five other men on the same morning March 14 1921, exactly 92 years ago. They were to be hanged in pairs, beginning at 6am. Tommy was to die with Patrick Moran*, followed by Thomas Bryan and Patrick Doyle at 7am, followed at 8am by Frank Flood and Bernard Ryan, the youngest man at only 19 years.
An extraordinary thing happened. As death approached a great sense of peace descended on Tommy Whelan and the others. His wonderful mother went to Dublin, and remained until her son's execution. The trip was her first experience on a train. She was allowed visit her son as many times as she wanted. She spoke of the courtesy of the guards at Kilmainham and Mountjoy, and of her son's repeated declaration of his innocence. “You are not to be worried over me, Mother. If I die, I die innocent,” he told her repeatedly.
In the days leading up to the executions, people gathered outside Mountjoy eager for news of the prisoners. Mrs Whelan became a favourite with everyone. The Lord Mayor inquired if she was comfortable in her lodgings, and looked after. On the eve of his execution Tommy told his mother and visiting friends that he was happy. He gave them all little souvenirs (a ring or a medal ), and autographs. He told them it ' was the happiest day of his life', and that he ' was perfectly prepared to meet his death with a clear conscience’. The night before his death, he said, he would sing the old traditional song: ‘The Shawl of Galway Grey’.
On the morning of March 14 the crowds began to gather outside the prison when stars were still in the sky. It eventually grew to an estimated 40,000. The Irish Transport and General Workers Union had declared a general strike. The city was silent: “No factory whistle was heard, no clang of tram, no roar or rattle of car or motor, no rumble of train - no sound of human activity disturbed the solemn silence that hung heavily over the entire city.”**
Tommy's unfortunate mother sat on a chair outside the prison gate, wrapped in her Connemara shawl against the morning cold. At her feet were two holy pictures, one of the Sacred Heart, and one of the Virgin Mary. Despite the great mass of people the only sound was voices calling out the rosary in Irish.
At 8.25 a notice was put on the gate saying that all executions had been carried out according to the law. There was a great wail from the crowd.
Two days later the IRA followed through with their threat: Two for one. RIC constables Charles Reynolds and Thomas Sweeney were shot dead in revenge for Whelan's death at King's Corner, Clifden. They were not local men, but were well known and well liked. It was the beginning of Clifden's nightmare.
*Patrick Moran, a Roscommon man, had also vehemently protested his innocence. Despite having a solid alibi that he had nothing to do with the Bloody Sunday killings, he too was found guilty.
**Taken from Beyond The Twelve Pins - A History of Clifden and District 1860 - 1923, by Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill, first published 1986..