by Mike McCormack
Across the racing current of the Shannon river stands many a bridge, but few as notable as the 13-arch bridge that connects the towns of Ballina, Co. Tipperary and Killaloe, Co. Clare. It was built in the early 1800s at a spot on the Shannon near Brian Boru’s ford. The ford was a shallow spot in the river where a man on horseback or a cart could easily wade across the river. It is called Brian Boru’s ford since High King Brian situated his royal palace of Kincora at Killaloe and, in the late 10th and early 11th centuries, it was the capitol of Ireland. It stood on the highest hill overlooking the ford and tribute paid to him in cattle were driven across that shallow spot. Another notable event occurred when the courageous Rapparee, Galloping Hogan, led Patrick Sarsfield and his men across the river at that ford in 1690 to attack King William’s siege train headed for the Battle of Limerick. Though the name of the ford didn’t change, the name of the road along the Shannon is now called Sarsfield’s Ride, but it could have easily been the Hogan Highway! In 1922, the Shannon was dammed at Ardnacrusha to provide power for the district and the level of the river rose to a point where it widened and deepened and the ford is no longer passable making Killaloe Bridge all the more needed. That bridge has carried many tradesmen, shoppers and tourists between Killaloe and Ballina, but in 1920, an event, not so happily remembered, took place on the famous bridge.
During Ireland’s War of Independence, an attack on a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Barracks took place at nearby Scariff and vengeful RIC Auxiliaries searched the countryside for those suspected of involvement. Known as Auxies to the Irish, they were recruited from unemployed Officers of the British Army after WWI and were far more brutal than the Black and Tans that had preceded them to defeat the IRA. On 16 November 1920, a group of Auxies under Lieut. John A. Faraday set out from their barracks at the Lakeside Hotel in Ballina on the Tipperary bank of the river and sailed up the Shannon to Williamstown on Lough Derg. There they found three men in Williamstown House in Whitegate. Captured while asleep, the three never had a fighting chance. They were Alfie Rogers and Brud McMahon from Scariff and Martin Gildea from Galway. Micheal Egan from Whitegate was caretaker of the house and he was also taken; they were brought back to the Lakeside Hotel. According to the RIC report, on 17 November, an RIC officer named Gwynne was called to take the prisoners for questioning to Killaloe barracks located atop the hill on the Clare side of the bridge, opposite the spot where Brian Boru’s Kincora once stood. With six Auxies accompanying him at 11:45 PM, Gwynne marched the prisoners across the bridge in the dark of night where, he said, they made a attempt to escape. They were called on to halt and when they did not, his men opened fire. Gwynne said about 10 shots were fired and all four died immediately. At least that is the story later released by the RIC.
After the families claimed the bodies, they were brought to Scariff church where the Clare County Council allowed Coroner Pat Culloo of Tulla to convene an inquest. He and a local doctor confirmed there were at least 17 bullet holes in the bodies all fired at close range! The inquest returned a verdict of willful murder by Crown forces. A Requiem Mass was later held in Scariff church by the broken-hearted family and friends. However, four lorries of Auxies not only surrounded the church and cemetery, forcing the mourners to pass through an armed cordon of scowling military, but they noisily searched the church during the service. Brigadier General. F. Crosier, commander of the Auxies, was so disillusioned with their lawless actions on the night of the 17th and their later disrespectful behavior, that he resigned shortly thereafter. On the twelfth anniversary of the tragedy in 1932, an article in the Irish Independent newspaper finally revealed that a Constable, dismissed from the force and sent to England, was regularly paid to keep his mouth shut about the Killaloe murders!
About 50 years ago, this author learned the story from local townspeople who lived through that tragedy and theirs is a heart-breaking version. They maintain that the four young men were, in fact, taken to the Killaloe Barracks at the top of the hill on the Clare side. One elderly lady, Mrs. Hogan, told of lying awake all night, weeping as she listened to the screams of the boys as they were tortured for information that they either didn’t have or wouldn’t reveal. She had tears in her eyes as she recalled that night to me. Several other elderly residents either confirmed her story or refused to recall that horrible night as too painful. At any rate, by morning the four young boys were all shot dead on the bridge on their way back to the Lakeside hotel.
After the War of Independence was won and Ireland regained her freedom (at least part of it) a memorial was erected on the bridge at the sight of the shooting. This year, as in every year since that time, the people of Killaloe place a wreath at that memorial to the four young martyrs who fell that Ireland might be free. With that in mind, the late poet Jack Noonan of Killaloe penned the words to a song, Four Who Fell that was made famous by a group called the Shannon Folk in 1969. It was recorded and produced by none other than Bill Whelan, who years later would compose and produce Riverdance. I had the pleasure of hearing the Shannon Folk sing it in person, in Killaloe in June of 1998. I also said a prayer at the memorial on the bridge. Another song, The Bridge at Killaloe (Scariff Martyrs), was recorded by Christy Moore, the first and last verses are given here:
The dreadful news through Ireland has spread from shore to shore,
for such a deed no living man has ever heard before.
The deeds of Cromwell in his time I’m sure no worse could do,
than those Black and Tans who murdered those four youths at Killaloe
Now that they are dead and gone, I hope in peace they’ll rest,
like all their Irish comrades, forever among the blessed.
The day will come when all will know who sold the lives away
of young McMahon, Rogers, valiant Egan and Gildea.
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