On the 10th March 1920, an attack took place in the County Limerick town of Rathkeale, when several members of the local IRA took advantage of an opportunity to target members of the RIC. The event was more than just an attack of opportunity though: the manner in which it came about, and the identities of those who were fired upon, allows for an opportunity to examine several different aspects of the war in one moment, and how the conflict was more than just a paramilitary force against a constabulary.
Rathkeale was the purview of the 4th Battalion, commanded by a James Halpin, of the West Limerick Brigade, commanded by a Sean Finn. West Limerick boasted some large units that had been drilling for years, thanks mostly to the efforts of men like Finn, who had proven adept at recruitment and making contacts throughout the area. The 2’000 strong brigade had done what they could to make their operational area untenable for the British, through harassment and ostracisation of the RIC, the guarding of ballot boxes, the collection of arms and the boycotting of loyalist farms.
However, it is also fair to say that they had relatively little in the way of combat experience by early 1920. They had played a supporting role in some of the War of Independence’s earlier drama, having aided and then helped hide those responsible for the Soloheadbeg ambush and Knocklong rescue in 1919, but West Limerick, up to that point, lacked a truly stand-out moment in the course of the war. That changed on that Spring day, when the chance to issue a full-on blow to police authority presented itself in the form of Sergeant George Neazor, Constable Garret Doyle and a civilian named Michael O’Brien.
James Roche was, at the time, a lieutenant of the Rathkeale company, employed in a drapery whose pro-Republic owners didn’t care or actively supported his other line of work. That morning, while working, he was approached by a local farmer named John Nolan, a supporter of the Dail and IRA, and also a future TD. Nolan told him that he had spotted the two RIC members named above, in plain clothes, at the local fair, where they were acting as bodyguards for O’Brien, a land steward. How Nolan was able to identify the two is unclear: perhaps he simply realised from his own observation that they must be RIC, or perhaps he may have recognised Neazor, who had been involved in the arrest of Roger Casement four years earlier and was also a native of Pallaskenry, ten km’s to the north.
Land steward’s were agents employed by farmers to procure livestock throughout the country: Michael O’Brien was one based in Kerry, and working that day on behalf of a farm that had been the subject of a boycott. Farms could be boycotted for multiple reasons – perceived or open loyalist tendencies, poor treatment of tenants and staff, refusal to engage with Republican courts – and when such boycotts were enacted, the owners often had little choice in terms of gaining livestock than to look further afield, as was the case here. Such was the ill-feeling and resentment wrapped around the issue, that land steward’s often had to be the focus of official protection, being dubbed “enemy civilians” in some pro-republican accounts of the era. Neazor and Doyle were armed with revolvers.
Shortly after Roche was informed of the group presence in the town, one of the men himself, Neazor, entered the drapery to browse, identified afterwards by a returning Nolan. Realising the opportunity that had presented itself, Roche sent a message to Sean Finn, who rapidly organised a few local Volunteers to shadow the two RIC men. They quickly discovered that Neazor was due to travel to Pallaskenry that evening in a rented motorcar, presumably to visit his family. The IRA attempted to either convince or intimidate the driver into assisting them with a rapidly conceived ambush, who initially agreed to fake a mechanical problem with the vehicle as a prelude to a “challenge”, but when the time came he simply drove off before the IRA could do anything.
Unfortunately for Neazor, his route that day took him back to Rathkeale in the night-time hours, where the three men were staying at Ward’s Hibernian Hotel. After confirming that Neazor and the others had returned, and where they were staying, Finn, Roche and a few other IRA men decided to press the matter. They included among their number Tipperary’s Sean Hogan, who just so happened to be in the area at the time and was more than happy to assist in any operations, sanctioned or ad hoc. His experience with such actions was no doubt an important bolster to the rest of the unit. They walked up to the front door of the hotel where they were greeted by a fellow Volunteer, who had gone ahead to identify the targets and make sure they were where they were meant to be. This done, the attacking party entered the hotel and rushed the dining room.
It was a very brief firefight, with the two RIC men caught by a surprise. Some claim that the IRA did not go into the hotel with the intent to kill, but instead aimed to hold-up the RIC and take their guns. Other sources say shooting began immediately, one of which is James Roche’s account, indicating that it is more likely to be correct, given an IRA men was saying they opened fire “immediately”. Either way, Neazor managed to get a single shot off before being killed – either with a bullet to the head or a chest wound, with sources varying – while Doyle was hit multiple times in the hip and wrist. The attackers fled the scene quickly, after collecting the RIC’s guns, but without confirming Doyle’s death: as it happened the constable survived. O’Brien, “enemy civilian” or no, was unhurt.
Even at this later stage of the conflict, the killings still provoked some shock and backlash from the local community, but not enough that anything ever came of efforts to find the men who pulled the triggers. Neither Neazor nor Doyle were especially disliked by their communities or their comrades in the RIC: some accounts from those comrades claim that the killings hardened hearts against the IRA in an area that had been tipping more towards sympathy and disillusionment, though this may just be bluster in the moment. The IRA in West Limerick was getting stronger, not weaker: events like the Ward’s Hotel ambush merely proved that.
The ambush showcases how flexible individual units of the IRA could be. Within an hour of being told there was a potential target in their area, the 4th Battalion had men tailing that target: only a little bit longer and they had a plan in place to attack. When that plan didn’t work out, they were able to formulate a new plan, and then execute it, using an advance scout to reconnoiter the hotel, and their own quick actions. That attack was a success in so far as the two primary targets were made casualties, while the IRA sustained none. One dead RIC sergeant and one wounded RIC constable was not going to win the war, but it did make an untold impact in that part of the country. And it was another blow in the long running Land War, a message that boycotted farms could not easily buy livestock just by looking a county over.
Despite the numerous failed barracks attacks and the British attempt to fight back against the IRA in the early months of 1920 – a topic for a future entry – the IRA could easily be perceived as being in the ascendant in Ireland. And yet there were losses, some that would hurt more than others. Ten days after the Ward’s Hotel ambush, a murder in Cork City would provoke widespread outrage, and signify precisely how the War of Independence was now escalating.
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