Michael Brennan waved his arm and called out to the men of the East Clare Flying Column to abandon their positions along the road near Glenwood House in southeast County Clare, about 12 miles north of Limerick City. Like so many ambushes laid by members of the Irish Volunteers during the Irish War of Independence, this one, on January 20, 1921, was about to end without contact with the Crown Forces.
The column had been in position since about 7 a.m. that morning. They had expected an RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) lorry to come through traveling from Sixmilebridge to Broadford sometime around 11 a.m. When it had not arrived by 11:30, Volunteer Mick Neville was dispatched to Kilkishen to see if anyone had seen the RIC lorry there, which would mean they had bypassed the ambush site to the west. He returned to report that the lorry had not passed through there either. They continued to wait.
(Right: A group of Volunteers from the Mid-Clare Brigade.)
So it was that around 3:30 p.m. Brennan was giving the order to end the operation, and the Volunteers were moving out of their ambush positions. Suddenly they all froze in place as the sound of a lorry was heard in the distance from the south. Several civilian lorries had passed by during the day, so there was no way of knowing if they were hearing the RIC lorry this time.
With the scouts now out of place, there could be no advanced warning if it was their target. In lieu, Volunteer Joe Clancy found a spot on the wall behind a holly bush, where he could look up the road and see the lorry as it approached. As the vehicle came into view, Clancy, who had been a captain in the British army during the war, could see that it was the RIC lorry. “POLICE!!” he yelled as he jumped down behind the wall. Not sure if there might be another vehicle following, Brennan waited until the lorry was nearly even with his position before giving the signal for the column to open fire, blowing his whistle. As the shrill sound rent the air, it was abruptly drowned out by the crack of the rifles of the East Clare Flying Column.
Michael Brennan (left) and his brothers, Austin and Paddy, the eldest brother, dominated the Volunteer movement in East Clare from its earliest days. Michael, the youngest brother, was born February 2, 1896, in Meelick, County Clare. In 1911, Michael joined Na Fíanna Éireann, the Irish Republican scouting movement. The brothers were sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) when Michael was only 15 years old. He was sworn in by George Clancy, later mayor of Limerick and murdered by the Black & Tans. In 1913, at 17, Michael was involved in the forming of the first Volunteer units in the area.
In 1914, Brennan traveled to Dublin to study to become a wireless operator. While there he became acquainted with many leaders of the IRB, including Seán Mac Diarmada, who would be one of the executed Easter Rising leaders. Brennan was even instructing some of the young men in Na Fíanna Éireann in telegraphy at the same time. As war approached, however, Mac Diarmada told Brennan he should return to Clare, as the British might try to conscript wireless operators.
Back home, Brennan threw himself into training Volunteers, bicycling all around Clare, and helping to organize a company in his hometown of Meelick and several nearby towns. In the summer of 1915, the Volunteers held a huge parade in Limerick, after which he met Padraig Pearse, Tom Clarke, Ned Daly, Tom McDonagh, Tomás McCurtain, and Terence MacSwiney at John Daly's house on Hartstonge Street. Surely talking to those future martyrs increased his republican zeal.
All this activity began to bring him to the attention of the British authorities. In early 1916, he got himself arrested after a public meeting in his hometown of Mellick, where he told Volunteers that if the RIC should attempt to confiscate their weapons, then use them, “and not the butts of them, but the other ends and what’s in them.” This got him some time in Limerick gaol.
Brennan was out in time to play a role in Clare’s abortive involvement in the Easter Rising. As a member of the secretive IRB, the Brennan brothers knew of the plans for the Rising before most of the Clare Volunteers. Patrick was put in charge of the West Clare Volunteers for the Rising, with Michael in command of the East Clare men. The plans depended on the delivery of the German arms on the Aud, and all the plans were thrown into disarray by its capture and scuttling in Cobh harbor. News of this disaster resulted in Eoin MacNeill’s attempt to cancel the Easter Rising. Of course, IRB leadership in Dublin countermanded that, and went forward with it a day later than planned, Easter Monday.
(Below: Republican prisoners at Frongoch.)
The IRB hoped news of the Rising would mobilize the Volunteers around the island, but confusion and disorder reigned. Clare was no different. Michael Brennan and his now poorly armed East Clare men tried to carry out orders to cut roads from Clare to Limerick City. After a couple of days out in the rain, however, most of them dispersed to their homes. They were, “rather more prepared to die for Ireland than to get wet for it,” Brennan later observed. He attempted to get to Limerick, but was arrested on the way.
Brennan would spend the rest of 1916 in British prisons, going from Richmond barracks, to Wakefield, to the Frongoch prison camp in Wales which would become famous as the “University of Revolution” due to its collection of rebel leaders who instructed each other in guerilla tactics while there. In addition to learning from each other, they developed personal relationships that helped the Volunteer leaders cooperate in the field later.
(Below: A pro-Sinn Fein poster from the period.)
Brennan was released in December, but by February was back in jail for Volunteer activities again. He escaped and was hiding out in Dublin in June when he got word that some wanted him to stand for the parliamentary seat in Clare that was open due to the death of Willie Redmond of the Irish Parliamentary Party in combat in Europe.
Many different republican leaders were proposed as the Sinn Féin candidate for the seat. Being just 21 years-old, Brennan declined and threw his support, along with his brothers, behind the eventual winner of that seat, Éamon de Valera. De Valera was not actually very well known in Clare at the time, but the Brennan brothers were, so their support was crucial. His victory was celebrated by republicans around the island and began one of the longest political careers in Irish history.
(Below: A group of Clare Volunteers around de Valera, in the center. To his left in the photo is Pat Brennan, behind him is Austin Brennan and the 2nd man to his right is Michael Brennan.)
The Brennan brothers then put into effect a plan of passive resistance to the British in Clare. They would blatantly train their Volunteers in front of the RIC, knowing they would be arrested. The plan was to refuse to recognize the Crown’s authority at trial, and then go on hunger strike. “We felt the people were ripe for an ‘offensive’ attitude and that we might manage to give them a lead” was how Michael put it.
All three Brennan brothers were arrested in August and began a hunger strike. Mick Collins had them end it though, as he adopted their plan for the whole organization and wanted them to do it as a larger group. They were sent to Mountjoy Jail in Dublin, where all the Republican prisoners then refused to do the normal prison work done by common criminal and all went on hunger strike. Several other well-known Volunteer leaders participated, including Austin Stack and Sean Treacy. It was during that hunger strike that the British began force-feeding prisoners. Brennan survived it, but the process was botched on Thomas Ashe, causing his death.
Brennan was released in November 1917 and returned to Clare. As with most of the Volunteer units around the island, the East Clare Volunteers were woefully short of arms. In Clare, they had one source of the best arms available for a while. The South Irish Horse Regiment was stationed in Ennis and had many republican-leaning soldiers who gladly passed them Enfield rifles for some time until the British figured out what was going on and transferred the unit.
Michael Brennan was arrested again in February 1918. He was not released until Christmas Eve, after contracting the Spanish flu, which was killing millions around the world. The Volunteer unit he returned to was very different.
The end of the war and the threat of conscription had led to a steep decline in membership, and many of those still on the rolls were not active. “On paper, we had large numbers, but it was unusual if more than 25 percent of these reported for any parade,” he recalled. On paper, the strength of the Volunteers was perhaps as much as 100,000 men, but Michael Collins (right) estimated after the treaty that only about 15,000 were actively involved, with no more than about 3,000 on active service at any time. Though weak from the flu, Brennan immediately went to work bicycling around the county trying to rebuild the brigade.
In June 1919, after their famous rescue mission to free Seán Hogan at Knocklong in May, Seamus Robinson, Seán Treacy, Dan Breen, along with Hogan, showed up in Clare with the entire British army and the RIC hot on their trail. Brennan and the East Clare Brigade helped aid the escape of Tipperary’s “Big Four,” the most wanted men in Ireland. Brennan supervised their movements around the county for a time before they moved on.
(Left: Seán Treacy, Seamus Robinson, Dan Breen and Michael Brennan, left to right. Probably taken when they were on the run in Clare.)
Through the summer and fall, Brennan made numerous trips to Dublin, begging for firearms and ammunition, but got only a few pistols. Rifles were what they needed, but Collins demanded local units pay for them, and Brennan had no money. He felt that Collins was sending rifles to his native Cork without them paying. If money was what it took, Brennan decided to get some.
Volunteer Jack Coughlan worked at the GPO (General Post Office) in Limerick and knew when the money for British government pensions came. Just before Christmas, Brennan and a number of his men raided the GPO and got away with £1,500. Now he had the money for arms, but GHQ in Dublin was not pleased with him for doing this without permission. In late December, when Brennan showed up with his money to buy arms, he was removed from command of the East Clare Brigade, replaced by his brother, Austin. Still, they allowed him to buy weapons from them with that money.
(Above: The British Army’s .303 Lee-Enfield rifle was the most coveted rifle on the battlefield of the Irish War of Independence.)
By now, Michael Brennan was one of the many Volunteers who were “on the run” from the British. He stayed in Dublin until March, operating with Collins “squad” along with other “on the run” men like Seán Tracy and Dan Breen. In March he returned to Clare to find that the Clare men were incensed with GHQ for relieving him of command, with many wanting to refuse to accept their authority and become “independent.” To his credit, Brennan talked them out of that, and in truth, he would command the flying column in the field, which was the more important position.
In late May, Brennan accepted an invitation from West Limerick Brigade commander, Sean Finn, to participate in the attack on the RIC barracks in Killmallock, County Limerick. He refused an offer to command a section of the attack from his old prison comrade, Tomas Malone (aka Seán Forde), feeling the Limerick men would perform better under a man they knew. He instead served in the group under Jack McCarthy. The barracks was destroyed, but the RIC officers managed to hold out in an annex to the main building until the Volunteers were forced to withdraw in the morning. Brennan was standing next to Liam Scully (right) when he was fatally wounded in the neck. He believed the shot might have even been aimed at him.
In early July, the East Clare Brigade got the unenviable assignment of guarding Cuthbert Lucas, a British general recently captured by Liam Lynch’s men in Cork. Brennan hated having him there, as they had to suspend all actions to avoid increased British scrutiny of the area and also because of the cost. “General Lucas was an expensive luxury as he drank a bottle of whiskey every day which I hated like hell to pay for,” said Brennan.
Brennan and his brothers treated Lucas very well, as even Lucas affirmed later. They actually set up a system to allow him to write to his wife in England and get her replies. In addition to the difficulties of holding him, Brennan came to also feel sympathy for Lucas’ wife, who was reported to be ill. “I was very sorry for him and more so for his young wife in England, who was very ill partly after a baby, but mostly, I imagine, from shock,” he said.
(Below: General Lucas (seated) with captors Paddy Brennan, Michael Brennan, James Brennan, and Joe Keane.)
They eventually decided they would all be better off if he “escaped,” which he was allowed to do on July 30th. On his way back to freedom in a British convoy later that day he was nearly killed in an ambush led by Brennan’s buddies, Treacy and Breen. It was coincidental, but would have been an ironic end to the tale had Lucas been killed. Lucas was lucky he was not captured eight or ten months later, or he may have suffered the same sort of “killed while escaping” fate that befell so many Volunteer prisoners later in the war.
On September 29th, in a small action in which two RIC constables were killed in the village of O’Brien’s Bridge, Brennan was wounded in his right forearm. He was out of commission for several weeks. The bullet had broken his arm.
While Brennan was recuperating, three of his men were captured by a patrol of the infamous Auxiliaries. Alphie Rogers, Brud McMahon, Martin Kildea, and Michael Egan were later all shot dead on Killaloe Bridge. Egan wasn't a Volunteer, but a private citizen, who got swept up by the Auxies at the same time. Each body was said to have over 15 bullet wounds. Though Brennan blamed it on the Auxilaries at the time, it was actually three RIC constables, two of whom were Black & Tans, who had carried out the “killed while escaping” executions.
On January 11th, martial law was declared in Clare. This only gave men like Brennan more incentive to strike at the Crown Forces. Brennan felt recovered enough to lead the flying column in the field again, though he still didn’t have full use of his right hand. He had a German Mauser pistol with a wooden stock attachment that he was able to use like a rifle using his lefthand. On January 13th, he arranged an ambush near Cratloe, but it was ruined when a Volunteer accidentally fired a round too soon, allowing the RIC lorry to speed away. Still, the Volunteers were able to open fire briefly and the RIC suffered one dead and three wounded, putting the Crown forces on notice that the East Clare flying column was active.
That ambush had been arranged with information from Jack Egan of Pollough, who was an intelligence officer in the Brigade, about a regular RIC patrol from Sixmilebridge to Broadford. The action had involved a different patrol, however, and they were still intent on ambushing that patrol out of Sixmilebridge.
Brennan sent word to the six battalions of the East Clare Brigade to assemble at Parker’s house, Castlelake, on the morning of January 20th. About 37 members of the Brigade assembled there. About half were said to have rifles, with the rest having shotguns or pistols. The ambush was set up near the back entrance to Glenwood House.
(Left: A Mauser pistol and wooden stock like the one used by Michael Brennan at Glenwood.)
The Volunteers were split into three sections, with Brennan commanding a section behind a wall just north of the gate, all armed with rifles, and his brother Austin commanding a group about 50 yards north of that, armed with both rifles and shotguns. Another group with mostly shotguns and pistols were south of Brennan, commanded by Tom McGrath of O’Callaghan’s Mills, whose family home had been burned in the British reprisals after the action at Cratloe.
The ambush was over nearly as quickly as it began. When Brennan blew his whistle, all three groups opened fire, with Brennan’s group concentrating on the driver to stop the vehicle. The driver, a Black & Tan from Aberdeen named Seabright, was amazingly only slightly wounded in the hand, but the lorry was disabled and stopped. Seabright managed to slide out and escape into Belvoir woods as the lorry came to a halt. District Inspector William Clarke, from Armagh, a World War I veteran who served with the Royal Irish Rifles, was seated in the front with Seabright. He was wounded in the shoulder and staggered out of the vehicle, where, Seabright said, he was riddled with bullets and killed.
Dan Lenihan tossed a Mill’s bomb into the lorry, but, as was often the case with Volunteer ordinance, it didn’t explode. It hardly made a difference. The initial volleys had killed or wounded nearly all the RIC men in the bed of the lorry. One of the wounded, Sergeant Egan, slipped out of the rear of the lorry and followed Constable Selve into Belvoir woods.
With no return fire coming from the lorry, Brennan ordered a ceasefire and told his men not to pursue the two running off. As Brennan and his men cautiously approached the lorry, all they could hear was the moaning of mortally wounded constable John Doogue, from Laois.
(Right: De Valera reviewing Volunteer troops in Clare in December 1921. This was said to be near the site of the Glenwood ambush.)
Inside the lorry was a scene of bloody carnage. Four of Doogue’s comrades were dead around him. The other four dead RIC men were Sgt Michael Mulloy and Constable Michael Moran, both from Mayo; Constable Frank Morris, a Black & Tan from Lancashire; and Constable William Smith, a Black & Tan from Kent.
Constables Selve and Prior were the only ones who had escaped injury, and they also ran off into Belvoir woods and like the other two, left their arms behind. Brennan reported that they captured 10 Enfield rifles, 7 revolvers, and a large quantity of ammunition. It was a quick and complete victory for Brennan and the East Clare men. The ammunition was even dearer than the rifles for the East Clare men and other Volunteer units at this point in the war.
(Left: A Crossley Tender.)
As the Volunteers were setting fire to the lorry, Brennan sent a man into Sixmilebridge to summon Fr. Daly and Fr. O’Dea for the mortally wounded Doogue. It was a sympathetic act in a war that was going to become more and more brutal as 1921 continued. The priests encountered Sergeant Egan on the way, being helped by Constables Seabright and Prior, and did reach Constable Doogue in time to give him his last rites.
Brennan and his flying column retreated to the east and then scattered to avoid the dragnet of Crown forces they knew would follow the attack. What everyone in Ireland also knew would follow any attack by January 1921 were reprisals against local Irish civilians, and now the British government had officially sanctioned them.
Sixmilebridge suffered at the hands of the Black & Tans and RIC first, then they moved on to Kilkishen that night. Auxiliaries from Killaloe headed to Kilkishen, but stopped on the way to burn the Bridgetown Creamery and burn homes in Lissane, Ballykelly, Ahaclare, Belvoir, and Knockatureen.
(Right: A home in Sixmilebridge that was burned by Black & Tans after the ambush.)
Michael Brennan wrote that “within a few hours of the ambush we counted thirty-six burning houses from our position up on the mountains.” Though that total may be high, most sources agree that the number burned was at least in the low 20s. The Kilkishen home of Joe Clancy, who had given the word that it was an RIC lorry that was coming, was ransacked, with nearly every piece of furniture destroyed, but was inexplicably not burned. Over 20 men were rounded up in the countryside, but nearly all were shortly released. The Brennan brothers knew how those who lost homes felt; their family home in Meelick had been burned in 1920.
These official reprisals were designed to turn the people against the rebels, but the resulting outrage had the opposite effect. Brennan sent out an appeal to the local population for funds to continue the fight shortly after the Glenwood ambush. It was done mainly outside the gates of churches. Although most of the parishioners would have known people who had lost homes or had lost their own, £1,500 was collected; a considerable sum then.
In addition to sustaining the morale of Irish civilians, the reprisals were also hurting the British cause at home and around the world. Two weeks after the destruction in Sixmilebridge, Lady Sykes of the Peace with Ireland Movement toured the town and reported on the damage.
The more information that got out, the more support was building for the republican movement in Great Britain and the United States. In December, William Butler Yeats’ sister Lilly wrote to her father regarding these reprisals, saying, “As you know I was no Sinn Féiner a year ago, just a mild nationalist – but now …” They were changing hearts and minds, but inversely to their goal.
(Left: Susan "Lilly" Yeats, painted by her brother, John Butler Yeats.)
Their disaster at Glenwood convinced the RIC to only travel the countryside with large convoys, usually accompanied by armored cars. The Volunteers had no weapons that could pierce armor and were unable to undertake any more major ambushes before the ceasefire was announced in July.
In May, when the Volunteer brigades around the island were organized into divisions, Brennan was appointed commander of the 1st Western Division. His command included all the Clare and Galway brigades along with the South Mayo and South Roscommon brigades.
After the treaty's implementation in December, Brennan was the only Western or Southern Division commander who took the pro-Treaty side. He was in command of the Free State effort to take Limerick against the republican forces commanded by his friend Liam Lynch. His forces were initially far weaker than Lynch’s, so he kept negotiating while his forces were getting stronger.
(Right: Free State troops at a barricade near Cruises Hotel in Limerick.)
Lynch probably should have attacked while he had the advantage, but he had worked hard to avoid the Civil War and had no desire to fight his former comrades. Soon Brennan’s forces were stronger than Lynch’s and he did not hesitate. In mid-July, he canceled the ceasefire and attacked. In barely over a week the Republican forces were driven from the city, and the tide of the Civil War had turned in the favor of the Free State.
After the war, Brennan remained in the Irish army. He was appointed Army Chief of Staff in October 1931 and held that post for nearly nine years. After he left the army he was chief superintendent in the Office of Public works until 1961. He and his wife, the former Bridget Conheady, had one son and two daughters. Micheal Brennan died October 24, 1986, in Dublin, and was buried at Deansgrange Cemetery, near Dun Laoghire.
(Left: Michael Brennan in his Free State uniform.)
Brennan is not as well remembered or celebrated today as many other rebel leaders, like Tom Barry, or Dan Breen, who wrote best-selling books not long after the war was over. Brennan also wrote a book, “The War in Clare, 1911-1921,” but it was not published until 1980. His support for the pro-Treaty side in the Civil War is also probably held against him by many Republican purists. Michael Brennan, from his teenage years on, devoted his life to the fight for Irish freedom and then to service to the new nation. His contributions to the fight deserve to be remembered, and his name included in the pantheon of Irish leaders of the War of Independence.
"The War in Clare, 1911-1921: Personal Memoirs of the Irish War of Independence" By Michael Brennan
“With the IRA in the Fight for Freedom: 1919 to the Truce” by Gabriel Doherty (Book)
"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
‘We had to go forward’ –The Mountjoy Hunger Strike of 1917
Halfway down this page is an audio file of an actor reading some of Michael Brennan’s testimony in the Irish Bureau of Military History Witness Statements
More on the Irish War of Independence
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