The 1867 Fenian Rebellion was marked out by a series of low-level encounters across the country, that mostly consisted of a loose assembly of barely armed Irish nationalists, that quickly dispersed, or were made to disperse, when the lack of coordination and arms became apparent, or when the police arrived with the advantage of carrying guns. One of the few exceptions was in the small County Limerick town of Kilmallock, where the barracks of the Irish Constabulary was attacked by a group of, allegedly, 500 Fenians. The police inside held out long enough for reinforcements from nearby to arrive, and the Fenians were driven off, with a few killed. In terms of the wider disaster that was the rebellion that year, the attack on the Kilmallock barracks made little impression, but it was a well-remembered event locally.
Fast forward 53 years, to the early summer of 1920. The East Limerick IRA had just carried off the coup of destroying Ballylanders RIC barracks, aided in large part by “Sean Forde” the alias of GHQ mandated organiser Tomas Malone. Malone had helped to bring the schism in the East Limerick volunteers to somewhat of a conclusion, and had played a part in orchestrating yet another spectacular IRA attack. But Ballylanders would eventually be proven to be more of a dress rehearsal for a much grander affair.
The Kilmallock RIC barracks remained where it had been over half a century earlier, but the building itself had undergone extensive renovation. As the RIC retreated from its more isolated and undefendable barracks buildings elsewhere in the county, more central ones became focal points, enlarged, strengthened and garrisoned with more men than was usual. Kilmallock was one of these. Its size, garrison strength and additional defences – like the steel slatted windows that were becoming ever more common – would appear to have made it an undesirable target, too strong for the IRA to attack.
But in other ways, it was a very desirable target. It was now the centre of RIC activity in that section of County Limerick, and if it were to be neutralised their power to enforce British authority in that area would be further crippled, perhaps irrevocably. Its very strength, paradoxically, made it a target, as if the IRA could attack and destroy this barracks, with all of its defensive advantages, then they could send a very clear message that nowhere in Ireland were the RIC safe from being targetted in a similar fashion. And, of course, there was the historical dimension. The effort on Kilmallock barracks in 1867 naturally led many to consider it a worthwhile target in 1920: a chance to redeem the failure then, with veterans of that attack still living in the town, and with IRA members in the area being descendants of those same Fenians.
The coming effort would be a combined one, taking in Volunteer units from numerous neighbouring counties and brigade areas, with the O/C’s of the Clare and West Limerick Brigades being present, and with IRA members as far away as Waterford travelling to take part, but it was conceived in East Limerick, where Tomas Malone was still playing a leading role. The arrest of Sean T. O’Riordan, the O/C of the Ballylanders battalion, by constables from Kilmallock may also have been a contributing factor to the decision to attack, but the intricacy of the planning would indicate to me that this may have been incidental.
In the end over 200 men would be involved, and the leadership roles fell to men like Malone and Sean Finn of the West Limerick Brigade. Everyone was aware of how large an effort would be required, and this may have been one of the reasons to branch out and invite Volunteers from other areas to get involved, so that ammunition, so limited in quantity, could be pooled. Even GHQ, happy to see Limerick getting into the fight more and more, would contribute arms and bombs to the proposed attack.
The plan was essentially a repeat of what had occurred at Ballylanders, just on a larger scale. IRA Volunteers would isolate Kilmallock and strike at night. The buildings around the barracks would be occupied and used for suppressing fire. From neighbouring structures, the main focus of the attack would be launched, with Malone and others attempting to make a breach in the barracks roof, comparatively weak next to the thick walls and metal windows, and use this breach to start a fire inside. With the building in flames the garrison would have to surrender, and the IRA could then take whatever arms they could get their hands on before the entire structure went down. Fairly straightforward, but things were not going to go all to plan for the IRA.
At first, everything went well. On the designated night, May 27th, the larger force did their job in blocking the roads and isolating the town, whether it was by dropping trees or digging trenches. Nobody was going to be able to come to the RIC’s aid, at least not quickly. In the town around 40 men were ordered to the outskirts to secure the area, while an attacking parry of 30 went forward, with a detachment of the Cumann na mBan present for support. The attackers would have been armed with pistols, rifles and shotguns, along with grenades and homemade bombs. They took their positions quickly, and without being noticed, in the buildings around the barracks.
Those facing the barracks on the other side of the street, that included a bank and a small hotel, were the central points, their occupants turfed out temporarily. Meanwhile, Malone and a select group of others took up position in a residential building next to the barracks, from where they would attempt to make the breach needed. Unlike Ballylanders, the Kilmallock barracks was not semi-detached, so a gap existed between the building and its neighbours, but Malone and others jerry-rigged a solution, with heavy weights on ropes that were to be flung at the barracks roofs again and again until a breach was made.
Malone, once he was in position on top of the neighbouring building, gave the signal to open fire, and 30 guns of various shapes and sizes did so. The amount of men inside the building is unclear, but have been as many as 28, but they had little to do than hunker down, fire back occasionally and endure. The small arms fire could not hurt the building, and was designed mostly to suppress the RIC. Malone and his men used their makeshift weights to smash the roof of the barracks, eventually making a workable gap.
After that it was just a matter of setting the barracks alight, but this proved more difficult than expected. While both sides exchanged fire, Malone and others attempted to fling their own homemade petrol bombs, little more than pint bottles from a local brewery filled with stolen paraffin oil, with Mills bombs as the explosive to set it alight. There were accidents that were almost comical, with paraffin twice mistaken for water, once when a Volunteer drank some (he became quite ill, but survived) and once when the Volunteers had to fight a fire that erupted in their own position, that they unintentionally fed (thought it was eventually brought under control). Eventually, a blaze was set in the barracks, that spread beyond control.
All the IRA had to do now was to wait, with the RIC given the choice of surrendering or dying in the blaze. The initial surrender offer was refused, and the exchange of fire continued, with both sides pitching grenades that exploded uselessly away from their targets. This went on for several hours, until the roof of the barracks collapsed. The IRA still awaited a surrender, but it wouldn’t come: the RIC had been able to withdraw from the main barracks and into an annex at the back, with the engulfed barracks untenable between the heat, smoke and lack of structural integrity. With dawn coming and ammunition running short, the IRA were not in a position to press the attack, and the decision was taken to withdraw. While in the process of doing this the IRA took their only casualty, when Kerry Volunteer Liam Scully was hit in the neck while leaving his building. The RIC, for their part, lost two men, a Sergeant Kane and a Constable Morton, both described as being wounded by gunfire early on before expiring later, either from those wounds or the fire. Four more RIC men were wounded, but survived.
Just who could be considered the winner of the exchange is a matter of debate. The RIC had not surrendered and had held their ground to a certain extent, and even inflicted a death on the enemy, an increasingly rare event. Moreover, the IRA had expended a huge amount of ammunition in the effort at Kilmallock, and gained none, to the extent that official GHQ criticism on wastage came down in the aftermath. It could be argued that whatever they had gained was not worth such an expense.
But on the other hand, the stated objective of neutralising the Kilmallock RIC barracks was attained. The building was burnt to the ground and would not be re-built – the site is the location of Kilmallock Bank of Ireland branch today – the message sent that nowhere were the RIC untouchable. And, speaking in pure morale/propaganda terms, the repulse in 1867 was avenged. The attack was not badly carried out, indeed it was close to a total success, and demonstrated that the IRA could pull off a large-scale operation involving multiple different units.
And there was more to come in the aftermath. The local community was targetted for reprisal by Crown Forces, with nearby homes, a creamery and a public hall all destroyed shortly after the attack. However, none of the attackers were captured in the immediate aftermath. As for Malone, he was promoted to a more permanent position in the area, to the position of vice commandant of the East Limerick brigade, an appointment that would soon lead to a position of command with a flying column, and further events of consequence.
The RIC sergeant who had been in command that night, Tobias O’Sullivan, later made public a list of local men that he believed had been involved in the attack, which caused a number of them to have to go on the run: Donnacha O’Hannigan, present that night, would soon launch East Limerick’s own flying column as a result. O’Sullivan’s actions made him a figure of hate and, later in the war, when it was feared he would be used by the British to identify captured IRA men, he was selected for assassination. This took place at his new assignment in Listowel, Co Kerry, in January 1921, where he was gunned down in broad daylight, his son at his side.
Somewhat ironically, events if a different sort in Listowel will take our attention next. In the course of our look at the War of Independence it would have been easy to paint the RIC as an entity completely wrapped up with the “Crown Forces”. But that was not always the case. As the war continued to escalate, some members of the RIC would refuse to follow orders that they did not agree with, and they will be the focus of the next entry.
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