The Rineen Ambush: Hell Comes to County Clare

Come all you gallant Irishmen, come listen for a while
I’ll sing to you the praises of the sons of Erin’s Isle
’Tis of an awful, awful ambush I’d have you to beware
That happened in Rineen, in a spot in County Clare.

Séamus Hennessy (right) stood on top of Dommin Hill, Rineen, Co. Clare, frantically waving his arms and yelling to his friend, Steve Gallagher, to hurry up as the noise of the approaching British army lorries grew louder from the northeast. Gallagher ran as fast as he could across the field on the other side of the road. Though the weight of it was slowing him down, he refused to release the precious Lee-Enfield .303 he had just take from a dead RIC constable near the Lahinch – Miltown Malbay road.

This was the first major ambush of the War of Independence by the Mid-Clare Brigade, and up until that moment it appeared that it would be a rousing victory. Now, as word spread of multiple military lorries approaching from Lahinch, the prospect of the catastrophe of being caught in the open by a large, well-armed force of British soldiers loomed. As Gallagher struggled up the steep hillside toward Hennessy, they saw the first lorry come around the bend in the road and pull over a few hundred yards away.

Khaki-clad British soldiers began streaming out of the rear and crossing the road up toward the railroad bed on the top of the hill. One was carrying a Lewis machine gun, which Hennessy knew could be deadly to them in the open ground to the west, which was now the only escape route for the Volunteers on top of the hill. Gallagher and Hennessy, who had known each other since they were school boys together, must have wondered if they would ever see their hometown of Moy again. The Volunteers had started the day as the hunters, but now they were the hunted. 

Like most of the Volunteer organizations around Ireland, the Mid-Clare Brigade had spent the early part of the war training to take on the Crown forces, but hampered by a severe lack of modern fire arms. Many of the early actions of the war in Clare and elsewhere had the goal of procuring those fire arms from the most available local sources, which were the homes of the local gentry, that often contained numerous hunting weapons, and  the RIC. In February 1920 one of the most respected men of the brigade, Martin Devitt (left), of Cahersherkin, was killed during an unsuccessful attempt to disarm some RIC constable’s at Crow’s Bridge, and Ignatius O’Neill, who would later command the Rineen ambush, was badly wounded.

During the month of July, however, the Volunteers were successful in procuring a number of Lee Enfield rifles and several pistols, including four rifles and a pistol that were captured by luring a number of RIC constables to a local dance, where they were relieved of the weapons with no loss of life on either side. But one Volunteer, Michael Conway, of Ennistymon, was killed in a later, unsuccessful attempt.

By late summer they had enough weapons to begin to plan a larger operation that might both obtain more weapons and inflict losses on the enemy, as many of them wanted to avenge Devitt and Conway as well. In addition to that, many wanted revenge for an attack in Miltown Malbay in April. When the government released a group of Republican hunger strikers, some of the locals there were celebrating around a bonfire when a group of police and soldiers arrived and began indiscriminately firing into the crowd. When it was over, they had murdered three men, one a British army veteran, and wounded seven others, two of them school children. The Volunteers felt it was time to balance the ledger.

When you are fighting guerilla forces the worst thing you can do is be predictable, but the Crown Forces had not yet learned that lesson. Keeping a close watch on the RIC in the area, it was discovered that a Crossley Tender lorry of RIC constables and Black & Tans made the trip from Ennistymon to Miltown Malbay and back every Wednesday.

(Right: An overly optimistic depiction of the happy "New RIC" from a Christmas card.)

A plan was formulated to ambush them on Drummin Hill in Rineen, about 2 miles north of Miltown Malbay on what is N67 today. That hill was one of the few elevated spots on the road. The ambush spot was well chosen, it would allow them to see for a long distance up and down the road. The West Clare railroad ran along near the top of Drummin Hill on the eastern side of the road and there was a boreen (a small road) running south, parallel to the main road up the side of the hill. The boreen gave them a perfect firing positions from above the road at a spot where the road curved, which would cause the lorry to slow down.

The brigade commander, Ignatius O’Neill of Miltown Malbay, was at a safe house is Lisdoonvarna, still recovering from his wounding at Crow’s Bridge, and it was decided to keep the operation a secret so he wouldn’t insist on commanding it. He got wind of it, however, and confronted Captain John Joe “Tosser” Neylon of Ennistymon the night before the ambush, angrily calling him a “double-crosser." So O’Neill took command, though he only insisted on being there, since Neylon and others had done all the planning earlier. Neylon, however, in deference to O’Neill’s military training, insisted he command the ambush.

(Left: An RIC Crossley Tender filled with what appear to be Auxiliaries.)

Men from the companies of Ennistymon, Lahinch, Inagh, Moy, Glendine, Miltown Malbay and Letterkenny assembled in a church in Moy area the night of the 21st. They had ten rifles, but only about 6 rounds each for them, two revolvers and about sixteen assorted shotguns, some of them barely serviceable. They also had two hand grenades, entrusted to Peter Vaughn, who was familiar with them from WWI service with the U.S. 106th Infantry Regiment. Vaughn was home visiting his family in Moy when learned of the plan for the attack and decided to join the Volunteers on the spot.

O’Neill knew they could not sustain a fight of any long duration with the small amount of rifle ammunition they had for their handful of rifles, and their shotguns were only useful for short range fighting. So they would be reluctant to engage more than the one lorry they were expecting. They had mustered some 53 men for the ambush, even though they barely had weapons more than half that number. The unarmed men would be used as scouts. Ernie O’Malley speculated they mustered that many to give a large number the experience of participation in an attack, to make them feel a part of the cause. This also increased the odds of a larger disaster for the Mid-Clare Brigade, however.

O’Neill placed most of his riflemen in the lower part of the boreen (above), and the men with shotguns further up. He commanded the riflemen himself and he put Séamus Hennessy in charge of those with shotguns. Expecting to engage a lorry coming from the north, they piled brush in front of the entrance of the boreen to conceal the riflemen. Behind the stonewalls on the west side of the road, on each side of Gorman’s Lane, a narrow road running down to the sea, O’Neill placed four men with rifles. They would be behind any Crown Forces taking cover from the main force on that side of the road. Hennessy’s friend, Stephen Gallagher and Sean Burke, of Lahinch, were posted on the south side of the lane, and Patrick “Pako” Kerin and Anthony Malone, of Glendine on the north side. The scouts spread out in every direction, with special attention to the north, where the lorry was expected. By about 7 am their dispositions were set and the Volunteers tensely settled in to wait.

For most of the Mid-Clare men mouths were probably very dry and palms very sweaty, for it would be their first time in combat. The gentle sound of the surf in the distance, and the pleasant sea breeze blowing in the smell of the salt air must have reminded many of them of lovely days spent by the seaside in their youth. But this day would be unlike any other they had spent near the shore, and most were probably contemplating whether it would be their last.

(Right: Mid-Clare Brigade training in Kilfenora in November 1921. Séamus Hennessy is the Officer standing to the right.)

For Ignatius O’Neill, however, having experienced the horrors of WWI, combat itself it would be all too familiar. He had emigrated to U.S. before WWI. After the war began he went to Canada and enlisted in the Irish Guards. He served in Ypres and was wounded during the incredible carnage at the Somme in July 1916; where the British army had the worst single day in their history, suffering 57,470 casualties. He was in Great Britain for a time after the war, then returned to Ireland to recover. There he joined his hometown Miltown Malbay Company of the Mid-Clare Brigade, becoming its Captain. He and Ernie O’Malley helped train the Clare Volunteers in Cloonagh in early 1919.

Around 11 am they heard the sound of the West Clare train coming down the tracks. O’Neill quickly got everyone up against the uphill side of the boreen to hide from any prying eyes on it. It passed without incident, but there was no way to be certain none of them had been seen. Not long afterward word came from the scouts to the north, but it was disappointing news. Three RIC lorries were on their way south, was the message O’Neill received. Three lorries could mean as many as twenty or more well-armed men, and possibly one or more Lewis machine guns. He had neither the guns nor ammunition to take on such a force, so the decision was made to let them pass.

(Left: An RIC recruiting poster.)

When they did, however, there was but one lone lorry which peacefully passed by. The message “police lorry coming” had somewhere along the way become “three lorries coming.” O’Neill had let them slip through his fingers, but all was not lost, for they would return on the same road and it was only about noon, so there was plenty of daylight left. Having been in place while first a train and now the lorry passed, however, there was also a danger that they had been spotted and the RIC in Miltown Malbay might be even now arranging to surround and attack them. Jack Clune, from Inagh, known to be a good cyclist, was sent into the town to see where the lorry was, and whether there seemed to be excited activity around the RIC barracks.

Clune got back around 2 pm and reported that the RIC did not appear to be making any preparations for an attack, and the lorry was parked at the barracks headed north. About five minutes after Clune returned word came from the scouts to the south that the lorry was coming, and soon they could hear low hum of the engine noise above the soft sound of the surf from the west that had been serenading them all morning. Hearts were pounding as engine sound grew louder and O’Neill ordered everyone to “GET DOWN!” They all knew to wait to open fire after they heard the signal round fired.

“Tosser” Neylon was one of riflemen in the boreen, and he had been tasked with firing the first shot to signal the others to open fire when the lorry was a few yards past Gorman’s Lane. As the lorry came around the bend Neylon drew a bead on the driver and as they reach the designated spot he squeezed the trigger. In an instant the air exploded with the sound of every Volunteer gun blazing away, along with thump of Vaughn's two grenades one after the other. Two other riflemen in the boreen had been ordered to target the driver, and he was mortally wounded in the first volley, bringing the lorry to a halt. Before any of the Volunteers had fired more than four rounds, the fight was over.

(Below: Map of the ambush. Click on it for a larger view.)

Four of the six in the vehicle were dead or mortally wounded within seconds. Two constables had miraculously jumped out unhurt. The first was gunned down immediately. The second was running south down the road toward Miltown Malbay, then across field toward the sea. Several volunteers with rifles took aim and he was finally brought down several hundred yards away in a field own by the O’Gorman family, which would prove disastrous for them. As Steve Gallagher sprinted over the field to retrieve that constable’s Lee Enfield, O’Neill ordered the rest of the Volunteers to cautiously move in on the lorry, but the caution proved unnecessary. They would capture six rifles, six pistols, a number of Mill’s bombs, and perhaps most importantly, about 3,000 rounds of precious .303 ammunition for their Lee Enfields. When they were done they set the Crossley Tender on fire.

They also searched the bodies of the constables for any valuable papers they might have. As Anthony Malone searched one body he discovered he was a Black & Tan named Reginald Hardman, from London. He had no papers of any military value on him, but he did have some letters from female admirers back home. Thus Malone, like millions of other soldiers before and since, experienced the sudden jolt of the previously faceless enemy he had just helped kill becoming a man whose loss would be felt in some far off place.

Sometimes in war victory or defeat are determined by good tactics, good planning, and good execution of the plan. This plan, considering it was the first major attack of the war for the Mid-Clare Brigade, had been executed to near perfection. The other factor that can often decide victory or defeat is blind luck that is little different from the flip of a coin or a role of the dice. Robert E. Lee probably lost the battle of Antietam because one of his officers wrapped his cigars with a copy of Lee’s orders and then lost them. At the Battle of Midway in 1942 a totally unsuccessful attack on Japanese carriers by US torpedo planes brought the carrier’s air cover down to low levels at the exact moment US dive bombers arrived and attacked with no Japanese fighters to oppose them, played a huge role in that crucial US victory. Now the Volunteers luck was about to turn.

Earlier that day, about 11 miles south of Rineen, the West Clare Brigade ran an operation designed to steal the car of a British army officer, Captain Alan Lendrum (left). Lendrum resisted, however, pulling his pistol and he was shot and killed. The West Clare men were unaware there would be an ambush at Rineen later that day, but the timing would prove extremely dangerous for the Mid-Clare Volunteers. By mid-day British military units around the area were sending out patrols to search for Lendrum. Ten lorries full of them were not far away at the moment the ambush opened at Rineen. They had heard the distant gun fire and now saw the smoke. They quickly moved south from Lahinch, just 5 miles away.

Séamus Hennessy was one of the first to hear and then see the lead British lorry come into view from the north and began screaming for the men below to hurry up the hill. Several were still on the other side of the road and took the chance of heading west, toward the beach. Ned Lynch and Michael O’Keefe, both of Miltown Malbay, Sean and Tom Burke and Donal Lehane, all from Lahinch, using the walls as cover, were unseen and managed to make a clean get away along the ocean. The rest of the ambushers were now running for their lives along the fields and bogs to the east of Dommin Hill. There were a series of small hills in that direction, along with some walls, hay stacks and a stream bed that the men could use for cover. This terrain worked in the Volunteers favor, as they had grown up traversing it, while the British soldiers mainly moved in the area by lorry or marching on roads.

(Below: Looking at the ambush site from the western side of the road. This has reversed the location of the RIC man who nearly escaped. He was actually headed toward Miltown Malbay, to the right.)

There were only a small number of Volunteers left on the hill with Lee Enfields who could help cover the retreat. O’Neill and “Tosser” Neylon, along with Michael Dwyer and Patrick Lehane, both from Lahinch, took up position to fire on the advancing enemy. The British got at least one Lewis gun to the top of the hill about a quarter mile north of the ambush site, but by then most of the Volunteers had cleared the first hill. The rear guard fired a volley and dropped one of leading soldiers and caused them all to go to ground in the heather. The Volunteers had long since expended all the ammo they had originally brought. The captured .303 ammo was now being returned to the British, but not in the form they would have desired. How many of the ten lorries full of British soldiers got into the fight is not clear, but there is no doubt the Volunteers were outnumbered and tremendously out-gunned by this point. Though the arrival of the British lorries had been unlucky, it could have been far worse. Had they arrived just a few minutes earlier, the Volunteers would likely have suffered a tremendous number of kill, wounded, and captured.

Utilizing the covering fire of the rear guard, and timing their movements for the intervals when the drum on the Lewis gun was changed, the Volunteers began slowly making their escape. Once the bulk of the men had made it out of range of the British, the rear guard attempted to extricate themselves. As they did, the unlucky O’Neill suffered his third combat wound, in the thigh. He was one of just two of Volunteers who were wounded in the battle, the other being Michael “Miklo” Curtin, of Moy. Neither wound would prove serious, but Michael Dwyer would carry O’Neill off the field at the end of the action, around 4 pm. The men scattered around the area, with most hiding out around Ballyvaskin, to the southeast.

(Right: A group of Black & Tans.)

The RIC and Black & Tans has suffered six killed and though the military didn’t admit to any losses, the Volunteers were sure they had wounded some them as well, and possibly killed some. Both the attack and the retreat after being surprised by the British military had been pulled off flawlessly. It was a rather remarkable victory for a force mostly made up of men with no combat experience. And for many of the Crown forces in the area, it was far too successful. The reprisals on the local population would be some of the most brutal and infamous of the entire war.

As soon as the British gave up the pursuit of the Volunteers and returned to the road, the reprisals began. The farm house of the Honan family, none of whom took any part in the ambush, was the nearest to the ambush. It was set on fire and destroyed. Then they moved south to the O’Gorman farm, where the fleeing RIC constable had been shot. They also had no part in the ambush, but they were dragged from the house and beaten and their house set ablaze. They then came upon an elderly farmer, Sean Keane, on a horse drawn cart and simply shot him. He died less than two weeks later. Another innocent civilian who happened to be on the road, Charlie Lynch, was shot as they neared Miltown Malby. He died about three weeks later.

It was that evening and through the night that the most horrendous of the reprisals began. Miltown Malbay was the closest town to the ambush, and thus the most “guilty” in the eyes of the Crown forces. Soldiers and constables in the town got drunk early in the evening and began firing indiscriminately around the town. This alerted most of the population to flee to friends and relatives outside the town, no doubt saving lives. The Crown forces began smashing doors and windows, throwing grenades into homes and burning them. Eight homes burned down and it said that no more than ten homes in the entire town were undamaged, but luckily no one died.

The town of Ennistymon was not spared the same treatment. There it started earlier, as the RIC and Black & Tans burned the town hall around 9 pm. Tom Connole, a union leader who was suspected of being a Volunteer, was dragged from his home and shot him in the head in front of his wife, who was holding their infant son, and their 4 year old son. They then set their home on fire and tossed his body into the flames. Going door to door down another row of homes they told everyone to get out and began setting fire to them. P.J. Linnane, in his early teens, was sent by his mother to warn an elderly neighbor to get out because the Crown forces were burning homes. The following morning his lifeless body was found near the RIC barracks with four bullet wounds. With five homes and the town hall in flames, the Crown forces moved on to Lahinch.

In Lahinch, the people in town had no warning and the carnage was far worse. The soldiers and constables arrived in town in the early morning hours, around 2:30 am. A party of soldiers, RIC and Black & Tans went to the home of Dan Lehane, whose sons Patrick and Donal had been at the ambush and dragged him out of the house and set it on fire. They beat him and shot him through the throat in front of his wife and his 14 year old son. He died the following day. They were about to murder the son as well, when a military officer stopped them.

(Left: Patrick "Pake" Lehane, who survived the battle, but was killed during the reprisals.)

They burned the town hall and several other buildings. A young man who was visiting the town, with no connection to the ambush, Joe Sammon was shot and killed as he ran from the burning town. Volunteer Patrick Lehane was hiding in the attic of Flanagan’s Pub, and was killed in the fire. As the Fox family was fleeing the attacks there, 12 year old Norah fell and was seriously hurt. She died shortly after the fall.

On their way north from Miltown Malbay the Crown forces set fire to numerous hay ricks along the way. Between the hay ricks and burning homes and shops in the three towns, the sky along the western Clare shoreline must have glowed like the embers of hell, and in deed it had been transformed into a facsimile of that place that night. In all eight people, seven of whom had no connection to the attack, two of them children, were killed or mortally wounded during the Crown forces reprisals after the Rineen ambush. A large part of three towns, over 25 homes and businesses, had been destroyed and as many as 70 were damaged and numerous homes and shops broken into and looted.

When it occurred, the Rineen ambush was the first large scale ambush of Crown forces in Ireland. Though it would be over shadowed by the several more famous actions, such as the Kilmichael Ambush and “Bloody Sunday” in Dublin during November, and is little remembered today, it was one of the most successful and famous attacks by the Volunteers at the time.

As for the aftermath of the ambush, even one as unsympathetic of the Republican cause as Sir Winston Churchill said, “Never were so many atrocities perpetrated on so many for the actions of so few." And yet some in the British government could still support these actions. Hamar Greenwood, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, defended the State Forces' actions, saying that the houses destroyed were those of, "notorious Sinn Féiners... I am convinced that the people of those two villages knew of this ambush". The Irish Independent, on September 24th, described the brutal reprisals as, “a spectacle akin to that of Belgian towns after the Huns.”

(Right: James Devitt's drapery shop in Ennistymon, which was destroyed during the reprisals.)

They were talking about atrocities by the Germans in WWI, but truly the actions of the Crown forces in Clare following the Rineen ambush could easily have been used by the Nazis as a template for their atrocities against civilians in Europe in retaliation for partisan attacks in the war to come. The result of this barbarity in Ireland would have the opposite of the desired effect of destroying support for the Volunteers, however. In Clare, and elsewhere on the island, each burned cottage and shop, each murdered son and brother, only increased the resolve of the majority to support those fighting against terrible odds to resist the foreign government that sent men out to do such things.

RELATED LINKS:

"Raids and Rallies" by Ernie O'Malley

"The Men Will Talk to Me: Clare Interviews" by Ernie O'Malley

“Blood on the Banner: The Republican Struggle in Clare” by Padraig Og O Ruairc

The Rineen Ambush and Reprisals – audio file with Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc

Recalling one of Ennistymon’s blackest days

The Burning of Ennistymon (Scroll about 3/4's of the way down the page to find the link.)

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Tags: Black and Tans, County Clare, Irish Volunteers, Irish War of Independence, RIC, Rineen, ambush

Comment by Mike McCormack on October 3, 2017 at 11:38am

Outstanding account Joe.  I've been on that road many times, but now I am looking forward to doing it again with a different view.  You wrote almost as if you were there.  I knew of the Mid-Clare Brigade, and heard of the Rineen ambush, but never knew any details until now.  Thank you


Admin
Comment by Joe Gannon on October 3, 2017 at 7:50pm

Thanks, Mike. Recently I find myself more and more fascinated with the Irish War of Independence. Ernie O'Malley did a series of books called "The Men Will Talk to me" that cover several of the western counties with lots of great detail that I purchased recently. He did them for Mayo, Galway, Clare, Kerry and West Cork. I've also purchased several others, like "Blood on the Banner" about Clare and "Tans, Terror and Troubles" about Kerry. Lots of us have heard about Tom Barry in west Cork and of course Collins and his group in Dublin, but much of the details of the war round the rest of the island is not very well known. It's amazing what they accomplished. when you think that most of these Volunteer groups started out with only enough arms for a tiny percentage of their men.

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