First, let me beg your indulgence. Let me recall the words of Matthew McConaughey as public defender, Jake Brigance in the 1996 movie, A Time to Kill, when, defending Samuel Jackson, the vengeful father in his murder trial, he said, ‘now imagine she’s white.’
Irish people felt that about British justice in the past and, clearly, oppressed minorities have felt that throughout the world, including minority communites who feel less trustful of American justice.
Revenge has no room in true justice. The people of Palestine, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, even Israel, could attest to that.
In September 1920 three incidents occurred in a remote, Atlantic ocean side community of Ireland, that were to have a fundamental and devastating effect on an ongoing war, for independence from British colonialism and for defeat of a colonial oppressor. From the British point of view, it was part of an effort to suppress a treasonous insurrection.
Early, on the morning of September 22, 1920, Captain Alan Lendrum, a distinguished WWI veteran and recently appointed Resident Magistrate, set out from his Kilkee home in West Clare to attend court in Ennistymon. He was travelling in his own Ford motor car and an IRA active service unit was detached to stop him and commandeer his car. Only one eyewitness account of what transpired exists but Lendrum was shot and killed.
That same morning, not five miles from the point of his ambush and unknown to that active service unit, a major IRA operation, involving personnel from at least three IRA brigades, assembled to ambush a truckload of RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) en route from Miltown Malbay. The primary object of the operation was to capture arms and ammunition, the secondary aim was to wreak revenge for the death of a local IRA commander, Martin Devitt, shot dead during an altercation with British forces.
The Rineen Ambush has since been recorded as one of the most significant defeats of British forces in that brief Anglo-Irish war even when, having achieved their objective of ambushing the single lorry of RIC and Black and Tans, the IRA party were surprised by the arrival of two more trucks of Black and Tans, responding to the reports of the disappearance of Captain Lendrum.
Both parties were taken by surprise but the IRA held their ground and the encounter ended with their successful withdrawal with minor injuries and the death of 14 RIC and Black and Tans. The aftermath, however, proved grim for the outlying towns of Lahinch, Ennistymon and Miltown Malbay as the Black and Tans engaged in an orgy of destruction.
Public reaction was strong, if cautious. Nevertheless, within three months of the event, the raids had become an international issue. There was huge outcry not only in Ireland and England but in the United States also. It was a public relations disaster for the British. It would also prove costly in financial terms. Claims for compensation amounting to £466,000 for the destruction of property and criminal injuries inflicted by members of the Crown Forces were submitted before Judge Bodkin, Co. Court Judge for Clare.
After these incidents, the public outcry and the costly enquiry that followed, there was a fundamental change in British military strategy, a change that contributed in no small way to the successful outcome of the war for the Republican forces. The Black and Tans were ordered to be terminated by Prime Minister Lloyd George. Clearly, the British government’s policy of fighting terror with terror had failed.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a transcription of a letter, sent by an eyewitness and victim of that night of mayhem and wanton destruction. It is a very human and harrowing account of terror, visited on a peaceful country village. And when you’ve finished reading it, NOW IMAGINE SHE’S SYRIAN.
29th – 9 – ‘20
A Nora a chroidhe,
We were delighted to get your letter and to hear that you are meeting all this trouble so bravely.
Well, you want a description of that terrible night and as I’m now getting an opportunity of sending it I’ll give you as detailed an account as I can.
Is fada agus is bronac and sceal e, A Nora, a croidhe.
On Wednesday night a great many people expected trouble and Joe came out and slept in Tgh Baile an Gleanna to be with us if anything happened.
We said the rosary and went to bed and I must have fallen asleep almost immediately because I spent all the previous week around the country organising for a feis in Liscannor and I felt really worn out. At about 2.30 I was awakened by the sound of shots and the most fiendish yelling imaginable. I slipped on my dressing gown and shoes and went out to call Aunt Nora. She was terrified and wanted to get up but I persuaded her that on account of the shots firing in all directions she would be safer in bed for the present. You see I was afraid that if she got up she would awaken Mary and that Mary’s cries would attract the attention of the police. I never dreamt that they would burn a house where there were only two defenceless women and a baby but I assured her that if the worst came I would give her word in time. I went down then and called Joe and told him the trouble had started.
In the meantime they had broken into Tommy Flanagan’s and drank all the whiskey they could find – raw – in pint glass fulls. They then went down to Paddy Walshe’s yelling for the men to come out and bring out their rifles. Here, they shot a young man named Salmon from Feakle – a married man with two children- who was there on his holidays and was at the time helping an old man of 75 years to escape.
The next thing I saw was Tommy Flanagan’s Susan Flanagan’s, Paddy Walshe’s and Mat Reynolds’ houses in a mass of flames and above all the din could be plainly heard the hellish laughter and shouts of revenge from the raiders. I got the Holy Water and sprinkled it all over the house and prayed to the Sacred Heart (to whom I had the house dedicated) through the intercession of Our Blessed Lady; Naomh Brighid, Muire na nGaedheal and the Irish Martyrs in Heaven to save us. Every time I passed a window I had to crawl along the ground on account of the bullets.
The next thing was that they rushed up the street, breaking windows, kicking doors etc on the way. They stopped at Mick Vaughan’s, yelled to them to come out and then set the place on fire.
By this time Aunt Nora had managed to dress herself without awakening Mary. The next thing we heard was a bomb exploding in the shop and in less than half a minute the house was in flames. When the bomb exploded Joe ran into the room off the drawing room for his shoes but already the flames were coming through.
He and Aunt Nora rushed to the top of the house to rescue Mary. I ran down to see which way was clear for us to escape. I opened the hall door, peeped out and saw that we had a good chance of escaping that way unnoticed.
By this time Aunt Nora, Mary and Joe had reached the first landing but the fumes were so suffocating that Aunt Nora fell and said that she couldn’t go any further. I ran up the stairs, shouted to Aunt Nora to throw me the baby and called to Joe to drag Aunt Nora down. In this way we escaped with our lives. We ran over the Barrack Lane and had only reached Pat O’Donnell’s when the staircase where we had been standing fell.
We had only gone another few steps when they came around the corner, saw us escaping, yelled something at us and fired a shot which missed us. D.G.
We ran down the promenade and I was climbing the second barricade at the end, Miss Baker’s dog, seemingly gone mad with fright, bit me in the leg. However, we struggled on down the rocks, Joe and I carrying Mary in turn. She awoke coming down the stairs but was too terrified to cry. The poor little thing! I will never forget the grip she caught of me and even since she is so frightened that she cries whenever she loses sight of me. We never stopped until we reached the middle the sand hills. About halfway down Aunt Nora, whose heart is not at all good, gave up and Joe had to practically carry her. We spent three and a half hours lying flat on the wet grass in our nightdresses, terrified to move for fear that they would see us with their searchlights, follow us and make their vengeance complete by murdering us.
During all this time God alone knows all we suffered. We were certain that Auburn House would be the next place they would attack and knowing that mother slept in the front of the house we feared that she was burned in her bed. Mother also suffered terrible agony because she believed that we were burned alive.
You see, she knew that they treated Tigh Baile an Gleanna differently to everywhere else. They knocked at the doors and gave the people from 4 to 7 minutes to escape in every house they burned except ours. When we tried to escape they fired a shot after us. They burned all the other houses with petrol only but they bombed us first then sprayed the house with petrol. When they left our house they burned Halpin’s and Howard’s. They then lit their cigarettes and ran up the hill shouting for the Lehan’s. They dragged poor old Dan Lehan out of his bed, brought him out on the hill and in the presence of his poor wife, shot him in the head because he wouldn’t tell where his sons were. At that time poor Pake was burned alive in Flanagan’s house R.I.P. but neither Dan nor his wife know of it yet. Poor Pake got no time to prepare for his death but we was present at a public mass we had here for the Lord Mayor on the Tuesday previous. Nobody dared to try to save any of the houses because they kicked, shot and burned Mickey Lehane’s son in Ennistymon for attempting to save his neighbour’s house. R.I.P.
Nora, we haven’t a stitch of clothing, house linen, ware, anything except what kind neighbours are lending us and they, poor creatures, can ill afford to lend to anybody because they have hardly enough for themselves and all well to do people are burned out. All I saved from the flames was a nightdress, dressing gown, slippers and rosary beads. Everything else I possessed is gone, every keepsake I held dear – my jewellry, clothes, autographs, antiques, books, music, feis medals and prizes, home ‘first aid’ outfit – everything – but I will be for ever grateful to Almighty God for saving our lives and leaving us our senses. Since it was His Adorable Will and the Cause demanded it that we should lose all, we willingly lay our humble sacrifice at the feet of God and Dark Rosaleen and once again, more fervently than ever before, we pledge our lives’ service to God and Ireland.
You never saw anything so sad as the sights on the sandhills that morning, Nora – a group of men and women, some of them over 70 years, practically naked, cold, wet, worn looking and terrified, huddled in groups on the wet grass. I met two mothers with babies not yet three weeks old; little boys partly naked leading horses that had gone mad in their stables and then when we got near the village, a group of men standing around the unrecognisable corpse of poor Salmon, R.I.P.; distracted people, running in all directions looking for their friends with the awful thought haunting them that the burnt corpse might be some relative of their own. Oh! It was awful!
Every evening since then there is a sorrowful procession out of the village – the people, too terrified to stay in their homes, sleep out in the fields. Last night was the first night we slept here and we were only in bed about an hour when the report went round that there were four burnings in the direction of Ennistymon. Of course, we thought we were in for a repetition of Wednesday night’s happenings so we took to the hills again. This morning we heard that it was hay they were burning last night. They also shot some cattle and horses.
Mother is bearing up wonderfully. D.G. It is a greater blow to her than to anybody to see the fruits of her life’s slaving deliberately burned to the ground. Poor Mother! She never had any comfort or pleasure in this life. She worked early and late, slaved when other people were in their beds to make a comfortable home for us and now it is all gone – £20,000 worth at the lowest calculation.
Will you show this letter to Piaras without delay and ask him to drop a line and advise us as to what they would wish us to do. Of course, I needn’t mention, that we wouldn’t on any account accept compensation if it were levied on the County. Then, if we claim direct from the Government, we will have to swear information before a magistrate – thereby recognising British Law. It is hard to know what to do! We have been told that it would be right to lodge the claim in case there would be a settlement and the British Government would be made liable for them. We have also been advised to lodge a claim against the County Council, not with the object of getting compensation from them but in order to have our claim on record somewhere. Whatever we do in the matter the other people here will do likewise. As far as we are concerned we can carry on for the present but there are other unfortunate families who are destitute and homeless.
Will you send Jack or somebody to the Independent and Freeman offices and give them any amount of abuse for only publishing a few lines describing the wholesale destruction of Lahinch and the horrors the people experienced. If it were a raid for arms the public would be treated to a lengthy description of it in large print but when it happens to be matter that should make useful Irish propaganda, it is ignored. If they wish and have no other means of getting in touch with here, I have no objection to their making use of the facts in this letter.
It is now a week since the awful happenings and during all that time neither paper took the trouble to send a reporter here.
Mary Walsh and Aunt Nora are up in Moy all the time since. The military were up there all day yesterday searching the houses. Grandma would have been very much frightened only that Aunt Nora was there. Mary doesn’t at all like living in the country ‘ because there are no shops’. You should have heard her praying that morning when we were flying with her down the sand hills, ‘Little Baby Jesus, save Auntie Mary and Aunt Mary’s house, save our country and save my teddy bear. You’ll save them all Little Baby Jesus because you love little children and you always do what they ask you etc She is heartbroken after her toys, her Irish Colleen Doll, her doll’s pram etc and can’t understand why Little Baby Jesus didn’t save them when she asked Him.
Poor Dan Lehan is doing very well in the Workhouse but cannot be said to be out of danger for nine days. He made his will yesterday, leaving most of his property to his favourite son, Pake. Isn’t it awfully sad? Mr Halpin has taken the two children away. When little Danny was flying with his life that morning he saw Glenville House in flames and I believe he kept saying, ‘poor little Mary Walshe will be burned, I’m afraid.’ She and Mary were great friends and used to have little chats on the corner when nobody was looking.
I believe when the Black and Tans broke into Susan Flanagan’s she went on her knees to them and begged of them in the honour of God not to burn the house as she had an invalid sister there whom she couldn’t remove. They said they didn’t care if she had five invalid sisters there and immediately proceeded with the burning. She had to run up the stairs, drag Bridie out of bed, carry her on her back downstairs and run with her to the end of the yard and leave her there to escape as best she could. Bridie is in the Workhouse now and Susan is homeless and destitute. Poor Susan. She intended going to America last Spring but then she decided to make a big effort to make a living in Ireland.
I believe before they burned Miko Vaughan’s they started to burn the post office but the officer came running up the street shouting ‘Damn you! Put out that fire at once. Can’t you see that’s the post office.’
I haven’t time to write any more. Go at once to Piaras with this letter and get Jack to go to the Independent and freeman’s offices.
I am very glad you are not coming home as there isn’t much comfort here now but by the time your Xmas holidays come round I’ll have the place done up as nicely as possible. My love to Molly, Niamh, Jack, Aunt Gretta, Piaras and self,
O do deirfiur gradhmhar,
The letter, I’ve since discovered, was written by Mary O’Dwyer, a brave woman by any measure and whose story I’ve wanted to tell for a long time. The letter, long lost, was found in a drawer of an old piece of office furniture in 1990, 70 years after it was written. It is now preserved in the Clare County Archive.