The R.I.C. In An Untenable Position, Part 1: Trauma at The Burgery

Domnail O’Faolain, son of West Waterford Brigade Commanding Officer (O/C) Pax Whelan, noted in a 1966 lecture the difficulty in getting members of Oglaigh na hEireann (I.R.A.) in the Deise area of County Waterford to talk of the War of Independence period:

Situated as they were at the time, it was difficult for them to keep records of any description, as they were subject to raids and searches, and, as a result, they did not commit much to paper. Some other areas seemed to have been fortunate in having amongst its Volunteer personnel someone of a literary turn, who was able to write up the various things that happened and put them down on record. We were not so lucky. (1)

Left: A group of Irish Volunteers in County Waterford

Even in later years, those relatively few men who were on active service in West Waterford were generally not ones to dwell on the events of 1919-1923. Fortunately, in the early 1980s, Sean and Sile Murphy took statements, from a number of the aging men of the West Waterford I.R.A. (The Comeraghs, Refuge of Rebels). Notably and perhaps understandably absent were the writings of the individual who commanded these men. This was to be rectified by the 2003 release of an enlarged version of the Murphy work (The Comeraghs: Gunfire and Civil War: The Story of the Deise Brigade IRA 1914-24). Included then were the writings of my father, George Lennon, O/C (officer commanding) of the men on active service (flying column), who had been hailed by East Waterford commandant Paddy Paul as “the number one man in Waterford.” (2)

In this treatment of the events of the night and morning of March 18-19, 1921, I have relied on the following source materials:

  • Trauma in Time: An Irish Itinerary by George Lennon (unpublished, 1970s)
  • Down by the Glen Side by George Lennon (unpublished, 1962)
  • Bureau of Military History: Witness Statements of Mick Mansfield, Jack O'Mara, James Prendergast, Mick Shalloe and Paddy Paul
  • Death certificate of Sergeant Hickey
  • Survivors (“Pax O Faolain”) by Uinseann MacEoin.
  • “The Keatings of Comeragh” by Lena Keating (unpublished)
  • 1921 newspaper accounts: The Waterford News and Munster Express
  • The Comeraghs: Gunfire and Civil War by Sean and Sile Murphy
  • Illustrated History of Dungarvan by Edmond Keohan
  • The Waterford News, “The Burgery Ambush” (September 5, 1924), by “an officer who took part in the combat” (George Plunkett)
  • Personal correspondences: Tom Mooney of Ardmore, Fr. O’Mahony of St. Mary’s, Dungarvan and the daughter of Sergeant Hickey’s fiancée

Deserving of further investigation are the following documents:

  • British Military Report
  • Royal Irish Constabulary Report   
  • George Plunkett’s Report to Dublin G.H.Q.  

Of Waterford families involved in the physical force republican movement and the events of mid-March 1921, none were more active than the Mansfields of Old Parish and the Keatings of Comeragh. The witness statement of Mick Mansfield (pictured) is readily available. Missing, of course, are the statements of slain brothers Pat and Tom Keating (1923). I was, therefore, most fortunate to obtain, from the late Maureen Kent of Kilmacthomas (daughter of nurse Katie Cullinan Kent), a copy of the remembrances of Lena Keating. Her family’s tribulations and friendships with the most active of the column men, including my father, gave Lena a unique perspective from which to record her observations. Particularly moving is her account of the trauma of finding final resting place for Pat, in what is today the Republican Plot in Kilrossanty.

My father never spoke of the events of that night and morning, even when I prompted him by mentioning the bullet scarred gate at the Burgery site, which had so impressed me in 1950 and 1954 when my mother, May, and I visited the Mansfields at their Burgery home. As noted in his Dungarvan Leader obituary:

When the engagement was over and backs were being slapped, George would quietly slip away, for he had no time for such frivolities. There were other jobs to be done.(3)

He saw no need to respond to the Bureau of Military History when it began to compile statements from veterans of the War of Independence. My father had, in his own words, relegated the matter of "our tuppence ha'penny” revolution to "the dustbin of history," describing what little had been written of the period as largely "lies." As to the identification of these, perhaps unwitting, writers of what he perceived to be mistruths, one can only speculate.(4)

In the early 1960s, he completed a play, entitled Down by the Glen Side, which dealt with issues raised when a captured enemy combatant is to be shot in reprisal. The later memoir, Trauma in Time, dealt with many of the ambushes in Waterford as well as earlier engagements in Limerick and Cork. The title refers to the effect that the 1913-1923 period, most specifically the events at the Burgery and Grawn, had upon him.

With respect to the Burgery, he noted in his memoir simply that “we destroyed the two enemy vehicles and took some prisoners whom we released. All but one." He did, however, include in his memoir a brief one-act play titled I and Thou. The "thou" being the "all but one" -- a Dungarvan childhood police acquaintance executed by men of his flying column. In keeping with his unwillingness to draw attention to himself, the participants are listed as a partisan officer, a subordinate partisan officer, a constabulary sergeant, a priest, and a firing squad.(5)

These individuals, clearly, were my father (partisan officer), Pat Keating or Mick Mansfield (subordinate officer), Michael Joseph Hickey (R.I.C. sergeant), and Father Tom Power (a priest) of Kilgobnet. A reference to "Stackpoole" is to Dublin G.H.Q. Staff Captain George Plunkett who, during his inspection tour of the Deise Brigade, insisted on being referred to as "Captain Murphy."

Although I did not have access to Plunkett’s report to Dublin G.H.Q., it would likely be in agreement with the most detailed description available of the encounter. This may be found in an unsigned letter to The Waterford News, some 2 1/2 years after the ambush. The editor simply noted that it was “written by an officer who took part in the ambush.” Those most familiar with the Burgery events and the character of its participants agree that this officer was George Plunkett. (6)  

Background

With the approach of St. Patrick's Day 1921, O/Cs Whelan and Lennon could look back on a very active, and generally successful, period of revolutionary activity in the Deise. However, guerrilla insurgency involving men "on the run," away from their homes, is inherently stressful, both emotionally and physically.

Left: A group of Volunteers

These men were, for the most part, idealistic and Catholic-educated, in some cases schooled by the County Waterford founded Irish Christian Brothers. The possible spiritual cost of their actions was not an irrelevancy. The human costs must have weighed heavily. Through March 1921, engagements involving men of the Deise included fighting at Kilmallock, Bruree, Kildorrery, Fermoy, Piltown, Cappoquin, Pickardstown, and Durrow. Fatalities ensuing included native Irishmen, Black and Tans and British soldiers.

Of immediate and practical daily concern was the overriding necessity of securing weaponry and ammunition. This was forcefully demonstrated earlier in March at the Durrow train station and co-op, when the I.R.A. Volunteers were forced to prematurely withdraw from the engagement there when ammunition ran low. A guerrilla force, by definition, cannot depend on a central storehouse, but must rely upon its acumen to supply itself with foodstuffs, clothing and military equipment. Primary reliance was placed upon the generally supportive native populace and, for military supplies, seizures were made from the enemy. In Mao Tse-tung’s words, the guerrilla revolutionary is “like a fish swimming in the sea.”

This constant need to resupply was to have dire consequence at the Burgery.  There the lives of native Irishmen tragically intersected.  For my father, the arguably unnecessary deaths of men under his command were to cause him to ultimately question his philosophical and political underpinnings, while remaining sympathetic to nationalist aspirations directed against fascist or foreign foes.  

R.I.C

There are no police heroes of the Irish Revolution -- at least none as defined by songs, statues, memorials, or collective memory. At best, a few have acquired the sort of posthumous notoriety that comes with Michael Collins having ordered your death. This anonymity has been ... harmful to our understanding of what happened between 1916 and 1923. ... (7)

Right: A group of RIC officers

The Royal Irish Constabulary had been placed in an untenable position -- on the one hand, attempting to provide a necessary police function and, on the other, acting as the representative of a 750-year foreign presence. In the words of writer and revolutionary Ernie O'Malley:

The R.I.C. had ceased to be a police force; they pointed out houses, localities and short cuts to the Tans and soldiers; they identified wanted men from arrested suspects and they guided punitive expeditions. Some of the older R.I.C. were nearing their retiring pensionable age. If they retired before their pension they would lose it. In divided mind they remained on. Police had to give a month's notice before they resigned; a few who had left the force had been killed or beaten up by Tans.(8)

For reasons of security and discipline, police policy dictated that constables be stationed in barracks away from their home counties. Nonetheless, the R.I.C. was not generally resented as an alien body, except during periodic outbreaks of political or agrarian tension. Like their countrymen, the majority of the R.I.C., excepting the highest ranks of the force, were arguably, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, nationalists (albeit largely constitutional). It, however, became an organisation under intense pressure by the I.R.A., which identified the policeman as its principal enemy during the initial phase of the guerrilla war. (9)

Even in the modern Ireland of the "Celtic Tiger,” to use certain terms reveals an implicit bias. In some quarters, the neutral-sounding "Anglo- Irish War" has come in to favour, yet Irishmen fought and died as members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. In the early stages of the struggle, the British relied chiefly upon this armed native police force to quell the “criminal” I.R.A. Lacking sufficient native recruits, the R.I.C. was augmented, in March 1920, by the Black and Tans. Shortly thereafter, a group of former British military officers, known as Auxiliaries, were introduced.  

The initial period, beginning in January 1919, in addition to being an early 20th century colonial guerrilla war, arguably had, at British insistence, elements of a civil war. The internecine nature of the conflict and the later Free State-I.R.A. struggle (1922-1923) were responsible for many of the divisions to be found in Irish society for the rest of the century. For some, in Dungarvan, it remains a palpable presence. (10)

In early 20th century Ireland, members of the police force quite naturally formed friendships with their countrymen in the communities they patrolled. Limerick-born (March 18, 1885) Michael Joseph Hickey was engaged to a Dungarvan girl, and, early on in his posting at the local barracks, had befriended, as had Constable Neery, a gorsoon who was to become the O/C of the Deise Flying Column and Vice O/C of the I.R.A. Deise Brigade. By some accounts, Hickey was “very popular” and, with an impending marriage, no doubt entertained thoughts on this, the day of his 36th birthday, of raising a family in his adopted community. (11)

The newly promoted Sergeant Hickey, the son of an R.I.C. father, was a 15-year veteran of the police force. The role of a sergeant was an important one, involving substantial prestige and authority. He was in charge of the constables and the barracks on a day-to-day basis and the symbol ("Royal" since 1867) of the government in his district.

According to Sean Moylan (right), who was Lennon's counterpart with the North Cork Flying Column (1920-1921) and O/C Cork No. 2 Brigade (April 1921), men of the R.I.C.:

...were of the people, were intermarried with the people, and were generally men of exemplary lives and of a high level of intelligence. They did their oftimes unpleasant duty without rancor and oftimes with a maximum of tact; therefore, they had friends everywhere who sought the avoidance of trouble for them. (12)

However, this was not always possible. For example, in August 1920 Hickey and a number of constables had been disarmed while accompanying a mail delivery at the railway station in Dungarvan. According to Mick Mansfield, “the Sergeant showed a reluctance to surrender and only did so on being threatened to be shot.” Subsequently, he was “warned on a number of occasions to refrain from certain activities and he failed to do so.” (13)

No doubt he was aware of his precarious position. He had to have known of the deaths in the area of other R.I.C. constables, most notably Maurice Prendiville (or Prenderville), who had reneged on his promise to quit the force after the Piltown ambush. Other R.I.C. deaths in Waterford were in Kilmacthomas (Sergeant Morgan), Cappoquin (Constables Rea and Quirk) and Scartacrooks (Constable Duddy). The two Cappoquin shootings involved at least four Deise men -- Lennon, Mick Mansfield, Pat Keating and Nipper McCarthy – who were with the column at the Burgery. (14)

As to Hickey's nationalist beliefs, one can only speculate. The reported presence of a green, white and orange tricolour, sewn to the inside of his tunic, was indicative of, at least, constitutional nationalist sympathies. (15)

Regarding a conflicted R.I.C., Sean Moylan observed:

Even if they understood and sympathised with the motives of the I.R.A. it would have been most difficult for them to realise that any success would attend the efforts of the handful of men putting their puny strength against the might of Empire. It was expecting too much of them to expect that they would resign.... (16)

My father later intimated that Hickey might very well have been conflicted when he wrote of a fictional -- albeit married --  “Sergeant Dunne of the Constabulary,” who initially refused to guide a British force and declared:

I must look after my family. What do you think I am wearing this uniform for? I am wearing it only because it gives ... a living, not for any love of it! (17)

A newcomer to the area was Constable Sydney Redman, a 35-year-old bachelor from Kent, England. He only had two months police service, having been a motor driver and a British soldier. His motivation for crossing to "John Bull's Other Island" as a Black and Tan was, in all probability, the same as that of many English ex-service men who saw an opportunity to better their lives economically. Reportedly, for some there was the added incentive of putting in their place the Irish Volunteers who had actively opposed any Irish support for Great Britain in the Great War of 1914-1918.

Read Part 2: The Volunteers, "For it is My Sad Fate"


Ivan Lennon, son of Irish Volunteer George Lennon, is a retired history teacher living in Rochester, N.Y. He was born during the “ The Emergency” years, at  Dublin’s famed Rotunda Hospital, a stone’s throw from  the G.P.O. where the Irish Republic was proclaimed during Easter Week 1916. Ivan is the author of a family history of the Shanahan and Lennon sides of his family. “Ulster to the Déise: Lennon's in Time” includes material on the War of Independence in County Waterford.

Notes:

1.  Domnail O'Faolain, "The Struggle For Freedom In West Waterford"

       (Dungarvan Lecture, 1966).

2.  Letter from Paddy Paul to Florrie O’Donoghue  (circa 1953).

3.  Brian Coulter, "George Lennon: A Quiet Warrior" Dungarvan Leader

       (5 April 1991).  

4.  Author’s conversation with George Lennon (circa 1985).

5.  George Lennon, Trauma in Time: An Irish Itinerary (unpublished, 1970’s), p.44.  

6.  The Waterford News, “The Burgery Ambush” (September 5, 1924).

7.  Richard Abbott, Police Casualties in Ireland 1919 – 1922 (Dublin: Mercier Press,       

      2000), Foreword by Peter Hart, p.9.

8.  Ernie O’Malley, On Another Man’s Wound (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1936), p. 162.

9.  Ibid. 

     Sean Moylan, Sean Moylan in His Own Words (Aubane: Aubane Historical                     

     Society, 2004).

     Michael Hopkinson, The Irish War of Independence (Montreal: McGill – Queens          

     University Press, 2002).

10. Personal correspondence of Ivan Lennon (2007).

11.  Ibid. Lennon, op.cit., pp. 43, 46.

12. Moylan, op. cit., p.28.

13. Mick Mansfield Witness Statement 1188 (Rathmines: Cathal Brugha Barracks, 14     

      June 1955), p.11.

       O’Faolain, op. cit.

14.  Mansfield, op. cit., p.15.

15.  Personal Correspondence of Ivan Lennon (2007).

16.  Moylan, op. cit., p. 31.                     

17.  George Lennon, Down by the Glen Side (unpublished, 1962), p. 50.

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Tags: Burgery, Irish Freedom Struggle, Irish Volunteers, Irish War of Independence, Lennon, RIC

Comment by Ivan Lennon on October 5, 2015 at 9:00pm

I am most appreciative that The Wild Geese has chosen to include this admittedly lengthy investigation into a little known ambush -as were many others- of the War of Independence period. The  ramifications, truth be told,  are still being felt in the Deise.  No doubt many other immediate family members  of  those who served in Oglaigh Na hEireann have similar stories  to tell of their parents or  grandparents who have not always received the measure of recognition due to them. 


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Comment by That's Just How It Was on October 12, 2015 at 9:14am

It is a much needed article on what was happening in other parts of Ireland in 1916 / and War of Independence. I have posted several articles on the Leaders 1916 Easter Rising ; however while doing all this research I have come across many instances of exceptionally brave people  in other parts of Ireland .

Irish people [including myself; before I started researching my grandmother stories] always concentrated  on the Dublin , where the hub of the insurgences were based/

Needles to say ; I have thoroughly  enjoyed your article. Thank you for that  .  

Comment by Ivan Lennon on October 12, 2015 at 10:23am

I think Sean Forde, Ernie O'Malley, Liam Deasy, Tom Barry,  Dan Breen ,Sean Moylan et al might disagree as to the "hub of the insurgencies"  : ) 

There was always an element of distrust between Dublin H.Q. and the  leadership of the A.S.U.s

Witness the wariness between my father and Dublin HQ staff officer Seoirse Plunkett at the time of the Burgery Ambushes. Resulting in the unnecessary deaths of two Volunteers. Not to mention  Soloheadbeg and the preemptory Truce

A guerrilla force can  win the war  w/out winning a single battle - To wit the Viet Cong 

The IRA, of course had notable successes until the  Customs House debacle which  likely contributed to 11 July

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