While perhaps not as active in the War of Independence as some other parts or Munster, the IRA Brigades based in Clare – West, Mid and East – had played a role, as had the county in general. Some of the first casualties had been incurred there, IRA units had supported neighbouring counties in their operations and some ambushes had been carried out. 20 people had been killed, either as members of the RIC, IRA, or civilians caught in the middle. But the county had still not had a truly stand-out moment in the course of the war, the kind that grabbed attention nationally and internationally.
The IRA had a great deal of freedom to operate in Clare, more so than in many counties. Even today the county is largely rural and characterised by large stretches of uninhabited land, and this was true to a much larger extent a century ago. Once the RIC abandoned its smaller barracks’, the IRA found themselves able to move with impunity once they avoided major thoroughfares. The British did not, by any means, withdraw from Clare entirely, but like in other parts of the country they choose to concentrate the RIC, Black and Tans, Auxiliaries and military resources in the area to specific points, and send out patrols in force to other areas. The effectiveness of this strategy is very debatable, with it often amounting to the facade of power projection. Worse than that, the movement of Crown Forces in such a fashion could often become routine and predictable. When that happened, they became targets.
In the early Autumn of 1920, the leadership of the Mid-Clare Brigade was made aware of a lorry trip made by a force of RIC, travelling between the towns of Miltown Malbey and Ennistymon, around the same time and on the same route every week, departing on a Wednesday morning, and returning Wednesday afternoon. The target was irresistibly tempting. Aside from the blow to the RIC that a successful ambush would be, there was also arms to be taken and revenge to be got for IRA members and sympathisers who had been killed or been made the subject of harassment in the area. Moreover, because of the state of play in the area, if everything went right the RIC would be unable to benefit from any reinforcements quickly.
The task was given to the 4th battalion and each company therein sent men to take part in various capacities. The nominal battalion commander was a man named John Joe Neylon, usually the O/C of the Ennistymon company, but he was only in temporary charge at the time. The actual O/C of the battalion was Ignatius O’Neill, a World War One veteran of the Irish Guards who had fought at Ypres and the Somme, but was, at the time, still dealing with wounds suffered in an ambush earlier in the year. According to Neylon’s account, O’Neill was initially left out of plans, but this was reversed when he learned of the ambush, and insisted, with some vigour, on being involved. Leaving aside those tasked with reconnaissance, the attacking party was quite larger, going by first hand accounts, maybe over 50 men, but they were armed with only eight or so rifles, a few revolvers, and a number of shotguns and what explosives could be found: there were men present who had no guns.
The ambush site was chosen carefully: a hill named Dromin near a place called Rineen, on the road between Miltown Malbey and Lahinch, parallel to a railway line. The IRA occupied hills on either side of the road, with the main attack force situated south of it. A bend in the road mandated any driver reduce speed in the area. Their positions concealed by assembled shrubbery, the IRA plan called for the driver of the lorry to be taken out by the right flank of the force, before a larger central group and a smaller section to the north of the road engaged the rest of the RIC.
At first, things didn’t go well. Scouts incorrectly reported that instead of one lorry, there were three, and the decision was made to stand down until more men could be assembled. When the initially expected single lorry passed the area, the IRA were thus unprepared to engage, and let it pass. Sticking to their original positions, they decided to enact their ambush on the lorry’s return journey. A few hours later, the RIC came back from Miltown Malbey heading in the direction of home in Ennistymon.
With the target confirmed the right flank opened fire with guns and bombs, killing the driver. The lorry spun into a roadside dish, and the rest of the ambushers opened fire. The engagement lasted only a minute, with the surprised RIC unable to adequately defend themselves from the attack coming from both directions. Five men were killed at the scene of the lorry, whether it was from bullets or explosives, while a sixth made a break for it heading in the direction of the nearby coast, only to be shot down before he could get too far. One of the dead was identified as a Black and Tan.
Given that most of the men present had little battlefield experience – O’Neill’s involvement was thus extra critical – and many of them were not even armed, the ambush was a stunning success. The RIC had been completely neutralised in a rapid space of time, with the six dead comprising the worst defeat the Crown Forces would suffer in the county during the war. The IRA had chosen their position carefully, timed their attack to perfection and had achieved their objection clinically. They took no casualties and did not expend their limited ammunition wastefully. The prize, aside from the casualties to the enemy, was a collection of guns and ammo retrieved from the truck and its former occupants. With no use for the lorry, the IRA set it alight.
However, unbeknownst to the 4th battalion, an operation carried out by units from a neighbouring Brigade, the West, was about to result in serious consequences for them. On the same day as the IRA assembled for the Rineen ambush, another group had set-up a roadblock at the Caherfeeneck railway crossing, 20 km’s from Rineen. Their objective was to waylay a local magistrate named Alan Lendrum who was known to use the route, for the purposes of stealing his car, a much prized two seater Ford. Lendrum had already been fired at in the course of his duties, and was travelling armed. When the IRA appeared and challenged him Lendrum, a decorated veteran of the First World War and Russian Civil War, whipped out an automatic pistol and made to defend himself. The IRA fired two shots before he could. Lendrum, mortally wounded, was taken to a nearby outhouse where he passed before the end of the day. His body was dumped in a nearby lake. Later claims that Lendrum survived the shooting and was drowned by the IRA are more than likely false, dreamed up by British propaganda. It seems clear that the IRA did not intend to kill Lendrum, but in so doing they set-off an unfortunate chain of events.
Lendrum’s absence was quickly noted, and the British forces assembled a group of men to look for him, from the Highland Light infantry battalion stationed at the military garrison in Ennistymon. This was sent south, with plenty of armed soldiers travelling in numerous lorries, on the very same road that the IRA had ambushed the RIC on near Rineen. The IRA there were still at the ambush site, some of them celebrating with some roadside cigarettes, when the British military came on the scene.
Some accounts claim that as many as 150 soldiers, armed with several machine guns, now dismounted from up to a dozen trucks to engage the IRA. The Irish had not been caught completely by surprise, thanks to the noise of the enemy vehicles, and now rapidly put into action an impromptu plan of a fighting retreat to the south for most of the force. This saw them break into small sections and gradually move into the countryside past the railway line, which was boggy and difficult to traverse if you were not used to it. A smaller group went north to the coast.
The British pursued, and a lengthy enough of exchange of fire resulted. The IRA armed with shotguns, or not armed, could do nothing to actively engage the enemy at this point. Their flight was covered superbly by riflemen under O’Neill, who retreated, took cover where they could, fired back at their pursuers to cover the retreat of the rest, and retreated again. In the process, they used some of the ammunition they had just taken from the RIC, and indeed used more than they might have otherwise have needed to, to give the false impression there were more of them than there actually was. Rises of ground, sections of stone wall, a stream bed and bundles of hay provided concealment from British fire. This was fire and manoeuvre of a more traditional conflict, and O’Neill experience, and ability to direct his men, was invaluable, as hours elapsed.
Though they were able to set-up a Lewis Gun on the abandoned Dromin Hill, the British had trouble with the boggy ground, having little experience of such terrain during their time in Ireland (unlike the IRA, who spent much of their time in such environments), and perhaps did not expect the IRA to put up as sustained fight as they did, as they were unable to close the gap. The Volunteers were able to time their movements and their opposing fire to the reloading of the Lewis Gun, and further negated its impact by utilising the cover of the terrain. After retreating nearly two km’s into the bogland, the IRA broke up and dispersed, heading to predetermined hiding places. The British were unable to continue their pursuit. Four of the Volunteers, including O’Neill, were recorded as suffering wounds, with O’Neill having to be carried from the area at the end, but astonishingly none were killed. British casualties for this section of the engagement are disputed: IRA figures insisted they killed a number of their attackers, but this is not recorded elsewhere.
For the IRA, this second success, of a kind, was almost as impressive as the first, at least in terms of the limited number of men who fought the rearguard action. They had suppressed a much larger force of better-armed men for a significant period, with the result that everyone was able to escape, using well-implemented tactics and taking advantage of the terrain. The British, for their part, performed poorly, unable to make their advantage in numbers or firepower count, and failing to cut off the IRA retreat by attempting to seize backroads to the south. In no uncertain terms, both the police and the British military were shown up at Rineen.
It was to be the civilian population that would pay the price of that humiliation, as reprisals began almost immediately. Two of the farmhouses nearest to the ambush site were burned then and there and their occupants subject to beatings. Another local farmer was shot, as was a completely innocent cyclist who just happened to be travelling through the area. That evening parties of soldiers and police, some identified as drunk, shot-up Miltown Malbey, Ennistymon, Liscannor and Lahinch. Numerous civilians were killed including a union leader and a 15-year-old boy in Ennistymon, the father of two of the ambushers, a hiding Volunteer and a visitor to the town in Lahinch. Numerous homes, businesses and other buildings, like Ennistymon’s town hall, were burned to the ground. As before, the reprisals resulted in a wave of condemnation from the press, British opposition figures and international observers, and a responding wave of desperate justifications and downplaying from the British administration. While Clare was hardly loyalist beforehand, these reprisals helped galvanise public opinion even further against the British administration. Crown Forces in the area were now obliged to always travel in numbers.
The Rineen ambush and the subsequent fighting retreat both went down in local and national legend, and given recent events elsewhere showcased even more the precarious position of the British forces. The IRA was not done in September either. Less than a week after the Rineen fight, IRA further south in Munster would launch an audacious assault, taking the fight directly into the teeth of the British military. That fight will be the focus of the next entry.
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