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 in turn 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, and 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. Some Tans came in and ordered drinks. For no reason one of them called Patrick out into the yard. He was hit on the head from behind. As he fell against the wall he was shot twice in the face. Miraculously, he survived.
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 jail 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 around 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.**
'Suffering and affliction'
Policing in the Ireland of the time, just three months before the Anglo-Irish Truce, must have been very difficult. Police officers were recruited from the community, as they are today. But in the changing political climate in the early years of the 20th century, they had to participate in very unpopular government decisions such as arresting Sinn Féin volunteers. Many of them might have been neighbours. In earlier years they had to provide back up for the hated landlord evictions.
Monsignor McAlpine spoke warmly of the two assassinated RIC constables, Reynolds and Sweeney, before they were brought back to Galway in their coffins, covered with the Union Jack, for burial in their respective home towns.***
He added, “I have known Clifden people for 20 years and I believe, speaking before God's altar, that I am safe in saying that a Clifden man never had anything to say to these murders, which have brought such suffering and affliction on this peace-loving community.”
In fact the assassin was born not too far away, in Leenane.
Next week: More information of the Clifden murders from a new book, The Men Will Talk to Me- Galway Interviews by Ernie O'Malley.
* I am taking details of the raid from Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill's excellent Beyond the Twelve Pins - A History of Clifden, published 1986.
** It was a costly night for the British government. In January 1922, all damage to Clifden and individuals was compensated. The total bill was in excess of £70,000.
*** Constable Reynolds was buried in his native Kenagh, Co Longford; while Constable Sweeney was buried in Aughrim, Co Galway.