Having spent a degree of time going over the higher political situation, we must now dive deep into the hurley burley of 1921’s military engagement in earnest. We begin in County Clare. We have a spent a bit of time there already in the not-too distant past, but almost entirely with the men and ambushes of the Mid-Clare Brigade. Today, we look a little to the right, to focus instead on the somewhat less notable East Clare Brigade, a unit that would sometimes be criticised for a lack of action during the war but which, in January 1921, managed to achieve their singular success of the conflict.
The leader of the East Clare Brigade was 25-year-old Michael Brennan. We mentioned him briefly in the context of his assistance to others around the time of the kidnapping of General Lucas, but now he deserves a closer look, seeing as his future career will almost certainly come to out attention again. Meelick born, Brennan had been a member of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood since 1911, inducted at the rather young age of 15, and was one of the first people involved in the organisation of the Irish Volunteers in Limerick City. A firm nationalist – if not, perhaps, a firm republican as later events would indicate – Brennan sided with the “Irish” side of the Volunteer split, and though he was reduced to operating in only a small unit for a time, by 1916 the Meelick Volunteers were a more substantial force again.
On Easter Week Brennan was caught up in the miasma of contradicting orders and a failure of many of the men of his unit to muster: he stated of this moment that “I found most men were willing to risk death for their country, but most unwilling to face getting wet for it.” Thought he was desperate to engage in a rising Brennan found little support, and was later arrested. Spending various amounts of time in prison over the next few years, while out Brennan became a vitally important figure in the nascent Clare IRA, eventually appointed to be the O/C of the third of Clare’s brigades.
Brennan was active enough, leading and directing raids and the odd ambush. One encounter with the RIC left him with a broken arm, but he compensated by using a German Mauser pistol with an extended stock as a sort of one-handed rifle. By the end of 1920 Brennan was also working with the Clare County Council, and grew concerned about calls for an end to the fighting from some involved in the political dimension, like the neighbouring Galway County Council. In January, he determined to arrange for another ambush, as a demonstration of the area’s fighting spirit and a rejection of any proposed peace plan. The first effort, near Meelick, resulted in two dead RIC, but Brennan’s ambushing party was lucky to escape an attempted encirclement of British military.
A better opportunity to make a larger splash occurred a week later, at a place called Glenwood, between Simile bridge and Broadfort. The rural area had many of the usual characteristics that we should be used to by now: a narrow enough road, a nearby bend that would necessitate any enemy vehicles to slow, and a low stone wall that would provide cover to the ambushers. It also provided a decent avenue for escape to nearby woods and then into a mountainous area. The target was a lorry of RIC, including some Black and Tans, that was observed taking the route a bit too routinely.
On the 20th January, Brennan was able to get his men, taken from throughout the Brigade, to the area. They numbered around 35 in total. The IRA was in position early in the morning but, as often happened, they stayed in place all day with no sight of the enemy. I have mentioned before, but it bears repeating, that the majority of ambush attempts that the IRA enacted ended with nothing happening, usually due to the absence of the enemy. By the late afternoon, Brennan’s account claims that he had had enough and called in the outlying scouts ahead of an intention to retreat and disperse. After that order was given, the sound of an approaching lorry was heard. Brennan had no time to get word to the scouts, and no signals could be given. Knowing that the approaching vehicle could just be a civilian truck, Brennan sent his men back to their positions, realising that he would only be able to authorise them to open fire when the lorry was on top of them. Other accounts do not mention the scout withdrawal, but it would be an odd thing to invent.
The lorry was indeed the RIC the IRA had expected earlier. At a very late moment, Brennan blow a whistle to authorise the Volunteers to open fire. The ambush was quick, with the RIC caught completely by surprise. The IRA focused their initial burst of fire at the driver, hoping to force the lorry to come to a halt. The lorry did halt, owing to damage taken by the steering mechanism, but incredibly the driver avoided getting hit, being able to pop out of the cabin and make a break for it. The men in the lorry was less fortunate. The vehicle had come to a rest right next to the wall, so the Volunteers could hardly miss. Of the ten RIC/Black and Tans inside, it is claimed by the IRA that nearly all of them were hit by the volleys of fire, and were largely unable to fire back. A few were able to follow the driver and bolt for the countryside. Some of the Volunteers pursued, but Brennan called them back.
Inside and around the lorry, he found six dead. One of them was a fairly high value target, relatively speaking, a District Inspector of the RIC named William Clarke, a veteran of the Royal Irish Rifles. The other five dead constituted three members of the Black and Tans, and two “regular” RIC members. The dead appeared to have been killed almost instantly. Brennan and his men collected the captured rifles and ammunition – almost as big a prize as the enemy dead in the context of the war – set the lorry on fire, and then dispersed
In the aftermath, the usual reprisals took place all throughout the surrounding area: from nearby hills in which he was ensconced, Brennan claimed to see at least 36 buildings in flames within hours of the ambush, though on this occasion no fatalities appeared to have occurred. This in itself is remarkable enough, because the ambush was a disaster for the RIC any way you look at it, and feelings would surely have been running high. The IRA had been caught having to enact an ambush in a somewhat last-minute way, with a commander who wasn’t capable of using an actual rifle. The enemy was in a vehicle, and had enough men and ammunition that, in an actual fight, they would surely have been able to give a good account of themselves. Instead, they were nearly all cut down in moments, and in numbers that made a mockery of claims that the war in Clare had turned in the Crown Forces’ favour. The British at least learned some lessons from Glenwood, and some accounts of those present report that they never saw an RIC lorry out of a convoy in those parts for the rest of the conflict. The usual exaggerations occurred afterwards from both sides – some British reports claimed the attack had been carried out by 500 men, and a pro-republican account claims 13 RIC were killed – but Glenwood was still a rather notable event.
The IRA had used their knowledge of the local geography, the advantage of surprise and what arms they had to the fullest effect. On top of that, they had seemingly done it on the fly, and without adequate warning from outlying scouts, indicating a degree of flexibility and adaptability in their operations that did not exist before. The East Clare Brigade may have struggled to match the achievement for the rest of the war, but it undoubtedly did no harm to the reputation of Brennan and the men under his direct command.
Next, we turn further south, back to Cork. The war there in 1921 would become increasingly brutal, as more and more attention was paid by the IRA to the issue of informants, those civilians who were willing to pass information on Volunteers to the Crown Forces, and who often paid for such actions with their lives. To a certain extent, this level of the War of Independence has been described as sectarian in nature and, in the most extreme of descriptions, as ethnic cleansing. Such descriptions are often overblown in my opinion, but next week we will look at them in more detail, with a particular focus on one incident of note: a betrayed ambush, and the IRA’s vengeance afterwards.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.