Ireland’s Wars: 21st August 1920

Nothing truly seismic, in the history of the Irish War of Independence or the history of Ireland, actually occurred on the 21st August 1920. The basic facts are that six members of the RIC were killed or wounded fatally, with several more injured, in five separate ambushes in five different parts of the country. Each of them was a small-scale event that would not fully register on the historical consciousness on their own. But, when they are taken together, they showed how deadly the IRA was, and how, in a time when the British military was showcasing its ability to withstand attacks and ambushes, they still were more than a match for the RIC. In no particular order:

The first of that day’s attacks that we will discuss took place in the village of Inchigeela, Co Cork. The target was Sergeant Daniel Maunsell, a prominent member of the local RIC, well known for his loyalist sentiments. He had commanded Inchigeela barracks during an attack by the IRA earlier in the year, successfully holding out after coming under sustained fire for several hours. Maunsell was commended for his bravery in the aftermath of this, and the moved to the bigger barracks in nearby Macroom. The combination of Maunsell’s position, his notoriety in withstanding that barracks attack, and his knowledge of local IRA volunteers, all made him a likely target. He was apparently approached on several occasions in the lead-up to the August 21st attack, and advised to either resign, or to at least curtail his activities when it came to Irish republicans, things that Maunsell refused to consider.

The exact manner of his death is somewhat confused, with different accounts stating that he was coming from work, others that he was alone, at the time of his death. The most common is that he had just left an evening mass in Inchigeela, where he still lived with his family, when he was approached by armed Volunteers. Maunsell may have thought that, having let a religious service, and in the company of his family, he may have been in less danger than usual, but if so he was mistaken. He was hit by several shotgun blasts from close range, with some accounts claiming he was holding his daughter’s hand at the time. He was carried into the nearby RIC barracks where he passed.

His death was an example of the growing ruthlessness of the IRA, and the ineffectiveness of the RIC when it came to defending their ranks from such close-range attacks. Maunsell’s death brought a quick response: a truckload of constables arrived in the area the following day, and were the subject of an impromptu IRA ambush. The RIC got the better of this one, killing a Volunteer at the cost of two wounded, but were unable to ascertain the identity of Maunsell’s killers.

In Kilrush, Co Clare, a similar assassination took place. The target on this occasion was a Detective Constable John Hanlon, or O’Hanlon. Hanlon was another loyalist, who worked in the intelligence wing of the local RIC. His work and actions had led to the disruption of an IRA training camp in the area, and the temporary disbandment of the West Clare Brigade’s flying column. All of these things made Hanlon, a man described as being far too busy in his work to republicans’ liking, a target.

However, when he was killed it appears to have been more of an impromptu one-man operation than something more clearly planned. By some accounts, Bill Waugh, a senior officer in the West Clare IRA, just happened to see Hanlon on the streets of Kilrush that day, followed him into a pub, and shot him dead then and there. Others claim that Waugh’s action was a bit more premeditated, that the IRA man had gotten in contact with Hanlon on the grounds of having a discussion with Waugh om him emigrating to the United States. When they met in a pub to talk about it, Waugh pulled a gun out and shot Hanlon. Either way, Hanlon was killed, and Waugh escaped into the ether in the aftermath, though, identified as the perpetrator, Crown Forces burned his house down. It did little harm to Waugh in the long-run, he going on to serve as a Free State Commandant.

Not too far to the north, in Oranmore, County Galway, was the next killing. That afternoon, an RIC cycle patrol comprising five men was making its way through the town, heading in the direction of nearby Galway City carrying dispatches. While the patrol was commanded by a Sergeant Healy who had seen some action defending a local barracks in 1916, and included a Constable Brown who was well-known to the IRA, they do not appear to have been targetted on an individual basis. Having passed underneath a railway bridge near Merlin Park, they came under fire from concealed gunmen on a hill.

The ambush was quick, with Constable Martin Foley hit several times in the opening salvo, killed instantly. The IRA wounded another man and dispersed rather than engage in a firefight: another RIC man who pursued them got a bullet to the foot for his trouble and had to have a toe amputated. The IRA had been led by Joseph Howley, who would later be killed when identified in Dublin before the year was out. Oranmore suffered cruelly from reprisals in the days that followed, with civilians assaulted and buildings burned: some fled into the surrounding countryside in fear for their lives.

We go next across the country. Kildare, home of the British Army’s headquarters and one of the flattest places in Ireland – not exactly conducive to guerilla warfare – was one of the quietest counties during the war, to the point that a local newspaper claimed in August that Kildare’s population could congratulate themselves for being above the violence engulfing the rest of the country. Kildare’s IRA contingent was small enough, containing just two battalions and around 100 active men.

On the night of the 21st, a group of these, under Commandant Tom Harris, decided to get involved with the war proper. The local IRA had observed the routine of a cycle patrol, that every second night left the barracks at Kill near the border with Dublin to travel to Naas. Sticking too rigidly to the same route every time, they were easy prey, even for an ambushing force armed only with shotguns. Other RIC units in the rest of the country had learned that lesson, but the quiet in Kildare evidently led to a degree of complacency. Half a mile out from Kill, at a place called Greenhills, the ambush was enacted, with the IRA covering both sides of the road and setting men to guard the approach from either direction.

There is the typical dispute as to whether the IRA attempted to hold-up their targets first, or if they just opened fire: either way, a Constable Patrick Haverty was shot dead and a Sergeant James O’Neill, only a few weeks away from retirement, was wounded badly enough that he expired before the end of the month. The remaining police were subdued, and all arms and ammunition lifted. Just as in Oranmore, there were reprisals on nearby homes and businesses in the aftermath, with civilians terrorised by the gunfire of Black and Tans, though it was, perhaps not as brutal as similar villages and towns were experiencing in Munster.

The last attack to discuss took place in Dundalk, Co Louth. On the afternoon of the 21st (admittedly, some sources say the 22nd), a group of four RIC were tasked with performing crowd control duties at a football match occurring locally. While walking down Joelyn Street, they came under attack from a number of young men, identified as members of Fianna Eireann in some sources. The fighting was quick with one RIC man, a Constable Thomas Brennan, shot dead.

The exact nature of this ambush is a little bit elusive: the local RIC would come to think it was carried out by people from outside the town, but it appears to have been an impromptu, and botched, attempt by local republicans to hold-up the RIC for their guns that turned deadly. However it came about, Brennan was killed, and two of his colleagues, identified as “Tans” in some sources, wounded. A Sinn Fein hall and republican-sympathetic pub were wrecked by British forces in the aftermath. Interestingly, one of the ambushers claimed that he was recognised by a surviving RIC man, but that even when he was arrested later this was not brought to light officially. A sign, perhaps, of the fear factor that republican attacks were creating.

I want to use the 21st of August as an example of how far-reaching the war had become in terms of these small-scale attacks. The number of attacks on that day was exceptional and a harbinger for more to come: in the ten days that followed between the 21st and the end of the month, seven more RIC, and one member of the British military, would die in further attacks and ambushes. The war was very much a daily event now, as was an increase in the death toll.

I also want to use the 21st of August as yet another example of how poor the position of the RIC was at that time. In the space of a day they had lost five more members of their force, with others injured. In return they inflicted no casualties. They could try and fight back through reprisals, but in truth this only weakened their position more in the long-run.

The War of Independence was no longer a conflict where the regular RIC could be considered a prime player. Their role as the main enemy of the IRA had been superseded by the British military, by the Black and Tans and by the Auxiliaries. They were a force multiplier in many ways, and would play a supporting role in everything that took place in the rest of the war. They would suffer many more losses. But between the losses already taken, the resignations, the abandonment of so many of their barracks, and their general relegation in importance, it is fair to say that, by the end of the summer of 1920, the IRA had essentially defeated the RIC.

The change of focus in terms of opposing the IRA, from constabulary to military, is at the core of the next entry. So far, we have seen much that portrays the IRA as the active side of the war, constantly choosing when and where it was fought, usually engaging the enemy on their own terms. In the next entry, we will look at the exact opposite: a moment when the Brtish, through their military, set a trap for the IRA, one that had deadly consequences.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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3 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: 21st August 1920

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Ballinlough Ambush | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Rineen Ambush | Never Felt Better

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