The Kilmallock Barracks Attack: Burning Down the House

Tomás Malone, aka Seán Forde, looked down at the gaping hole in the roof of the Royal Irish Constabulary barracks and hurled in another Mills bomb, hoping that this time he would see the roof explode in flames. They had thrown several gasoline-filled bottles into the gaping hole already from their perch in a hole they had made in the roof of Willie Carroll’s house next door to the barracks, a bulwark in Kilmallock, County Limerick. Certainly a Mills bomb would easily ignite the gasoline-soaked roof. Once again, though, there was an explosion, but no flames following.

The Volunteers across the street from the barracks kept up their fire at windows at the front of the building, but the steel shutters made them virtually impervious to attack by rifle or Mills bomb. All they could really do was ensure that the RIC constables could not escape.

(Left: Tomás Malone)

Now Malone (Forde) recalled that he had seen a horse-drawn tanker of paraffin oil (kerosene) in town before the attack. The tanker was brought up in hopes that if they soaked the roof with more flammable liquid they might yet ignite it and capture this barracks in the same way they had captured the Ballylanders RIC barracks a month earlier. Collecting all the bottles they could get from O'Sullivan's Brewery and all the buckets they could find, they returned to their post on Carroll’s roof and began pitching bottles of paraffin on to the barracks room.

With the roof now saturated, Malone tossed another Mills bomb into the hole in the barrack roof. Suddenly, there was a flash and the roof ignited. Malone and his comrades on Carroll’s roof, including Ned and David Tobin of Ballylanders, let out a whoop of success, which must have been greeted with joy by the volunteers on the streets, and dismay inside the barracks. The joy on the top of Carroll's house was short-lived as someone screamed “Fire!” and they did not mean the one in the barracks. Their own position was burning, and as Malone grabbed what he thought was a bucket of water  to douse it, it flamed higher, as the bucket had actually been full of paraffin. Now Malone and his comrades on the roof faced the threat that their incendiary plans might result in their own death by fire.

(Below: Members of the East Limerick Volunteers.)

As 1920 began, the Irish Volunteers had debuted a new strategy: attacks on RIC barracks all around the island. The attacks had a two-fold purpose. When they closed down an RIC barracks, the area around It ceased to be under complete Crown control. In addition, the barracks were a treasure trove of arms and ammunition for the poorly equipped Volunteers. The barracks raids in 1920 would help them arm themselves to point that they could form Active Service Units (Flying Columns) later in 1920 and into 1921 and meet the Crown forces in the field with a chance at victory, if they picked their spots carefully.

For the first three months of 1920, one of the areas of the country where little was done by the Irish Volunteers was east Limerick. This was mainly due to personality disputes at the command levels of the Volunteer organizations in the area. This was why Tomás Malone, a member of the secretive IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood), was sent to east Limerick in February 1920 by Collins, who told him, “Get those Limerick men into the fight.” What he found was that those Limerick men were quite eager to do just that. It was then that Malone, who had a price on his head, assumed the alias of Seán Forde, which he used throughout the war.

Malone is one of the more fascinating leaders of the Irish War of Independence. Tomás Malone was born on August 7, 1896, in Meedin, Tyrrellspass, County Westmeath, to a staunch Republican family. His paternal grandfather had been forced to flee Ireland due to his Fenian activities. His mother, Máire (nee Mulavin), of Castletown Geoghegan, County Westmeath, a teacher in a national school, was fluent in the Irish language. She was fired from that job for the “crime” of teaching her students how to say their prayers in Irish.

(Left: A 1913 poster promoting the Gaelic League.)

In a demonstration of the stubborn nationalism she would pass to Tomás, she didn’t merely accept that firing. She returned to the school and staged a sit-in protest which she did not end until the RIC arrived to arrest her. None of that stopped her determination to teach local children their native tongue. She began teaching them Irish in her home at night. Unsurprisingly, she became a member of the nationalist Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge), founded by Douglas Hyde.

With such radical Republican influences at home, it was no surprise that Tomás was moved to join the growing nationalist movement. While still a teenage, he met Liam Mellows at a féis in Mullingar. Mellows realized he had a budding recruit for the movement and enrolled him in Na Fianna Éireann, the Republican boys movement that had been founded by Bulmer Hobson and Countess Markievicz. When the Irish Volunteers were founded by Eoin MacNeill, Tomás immediately joined. His course as an Irish rebel was now set. His older brother, Seumas, also joined the Volunteers and was involved in the Howth gunrunning.

On the day of the Easter Rising the 19-year-old Tomás and his unit had been tasked to blow up the bridge over the Shannon at Shannonbridge, County Offaly. Like most attacks planned outside Dublin that day, it was aborted due to MacNeill’s infamous “stand down” order. Tomás was by then known to be a member of the Volunteers, and he and his brother Seumus both were arrested. Tomás was placed in the same cell in Richmond Barracks that held Seán McDermott shortly before McDermott was taken out and shot.

(Right: Seán McDermott)

Like so many later leaders of the War of Independence, eventually both Tomás and his brother ended up in Frongoch prisoner-of-war camp in Wales. There, in what was later known as, “The University of Revolution,” he got educated in the tactics of what would come to be called guerrilla warfare. All those men were released, and Malone continued his republican activities. After assaulting an RIC constable, he was arrested and then escaped from Mountjoy Jail, where Seán Treacy had been his cellmate. It was then that Collins sent Malone to Limerick to help with the dispute between the factions led by Liam Manahan and Donnchadh O'Hannigan.

Malone got the leaders in the area to agree that the best way to get past the in-fighting was to fight the enemy. In a meeting at Justin McCarthy's house in Kilfinane, Malone got the group to agree to an attack on Ballylanders Barracks. They all believed it was a fairly soft target, likely having less than 10 constables there and would provide them with a relatively sure victory. Since he belonged to neither faction in the disagreement, Malone was picked to command the attack. Malone told the men involved, "I know nothing about it (the dispute) and it doesn't make one bit of difference to us. What we want to do now is to go ahead and fight,” Fight they did, with 1st Galtee battalion, commanded by Seán T. O’Riordan of Kilmallock, providing most of the men for the assault.

(Below: Seán T. O’Riordan)

The Ballylanders attack was, indeed, a success. The plan for the attack was like a dress rehearsal for the later attack at Kilmallock. The group with Malone broke through the roof of the house next to the RIC barracks, which was a formidable stone building with a steel door and steel shudders. The one vulnerable spot was the roof. Malone led the party that broke through the roof of the dispensary next to the barracks and got onto the barracks' roof. He gave three blinks from a lantern, signaling for the attack to begin a little while before midnight.

The Volunteers took the windows under fire as Malone and his men bashed in the barracks roof with sledgehammers, poured in some paraffin, then a torch, and shortly had the building ablaze. At one point, Malone had to jump back as he was nearly wounded or killed when a constable fired through the roof hoping to blindly hit one of them. The fire spread quickly after that, and about a half hour later a constable stuck rifle out the window with a white flag attached.

In the summer of 1920, the war had not yet become as brutal as it would become in the coming month. The constables were all treated well and eventually released. Their barracks, however, was burned down. The Volunteers captured six rifles, 850 rounds of .303 ammunition, two or three .45-caliber revolvers, a small amount of .45-caliber ammunition, and one box of Mills bombs. The Volunteers suffered one serious casualty. Seán Meade of Ballintubber took a round through the lung, but would eventually recover.

The Limerick men had achieved the victory they needed to shore up morale. Malone later told Ernie O’Malley that the victory “finished the O'Hannigan-Manahan scrap.” Now they looked to a bigger prize, the larger and better-garrisoned RIC barracks at Kilmallock.

The barracks there held a special place in Republican lore. This would not be the first time Irish rebels attacked the barracks. On March 6, 1867, the Fenian Brotherhood had attacked the barracks. Three Fenians had died in the failed attack, and one of the attackers has never been identified. He became famous as “the unknown Fenian.” Republican poet Michael Hogan wrote about him:

Who was he at Kilmallock, that brave-hearted stranger,
Who daringly breasted the fire of the foe?
Like a veteran inured to the battle’s grim danger
He fought ‘til the red hail of death laid him low.

(Right: The Fenian Monument in Kilmallock.)

Some of the Irish Volunteers in the area were descendants of men who fought in that attack. Some of the old men who actually took part in the attack still lived in the area. So, the memories of that failure were very strong in the vicinity of Kilmallock. When Kilmallock constables captured Seán T. O’Riordan, commander of the 1st Galtee Battalion, the barracks once again became the target of Republican wrath in east Limerick. Now the Irish Volunteers would attempt to finish the job their Fenian ancestors had begun.

In addition to the defenses of the building being formidable, the garrison of the barracks was known to be 20 or more. With a few smaller barracks being closed after the destruction of Ballylanders barracks, constables were coming and going around the area, some moving through and on to other locations, it was impossible to know what number might be there day to day. On the day of the attack, it’s thought there may have been 28 in the barracks.

Twenty or more men could hold that barracks indefinitely, unless the Volunteers could pull off the same plan as used at Ballylanders. It would not be as easy, however, as they could not crawl onto the barracks roof from an adjacent building. The neighboring Carroll house was a bit higher but there was a gap of several yards between them. The plan was to throw a number of heavy iron weights onto the roof of the barracks and smash a hole in it.

There was also the important job of blocking possible relief columns once the attack began, especially from military forces from Tipperary, Limerick and Cork. Volunteer units from West Limerick, Clare, and Tipperary were also brought into the plan to accomplish that. Even George Lennon, one of the leaders of the West Waterford Brigade, traveled to Kilmallock to take part. It would be one of the largest Volunteer operations of the war. They all knew what the destruction of the Kilmallock barracks, considered impregnable by the RIC, would do to their morale. It would mean no RIC barracks was safe.

(Left: The former RIC barracks in Kilmallock, now occupied by the Bank of Ireland.)

The haul of weapons from Ballylanders barracks would be utilized in the Kilmallock attack, but they needed more. Every Volunteer unit was short on arms and ammunition during the entire war, and so were very stingy with it. It was an indication of how important the operation was that Malone was able to get South Tipperary Quartermaster, Mick Sheehan to loan them some .303 ammunition for their Enfield rifles. East Limerick Brigade commander Seán Wall, of Bruff, was even able to get Michael Collins to share some of his stash of Mills bombs, contact bombs, and ammunition.

On the night of May 27th the Volunteers gathered in the Kilmallock area. By about 9 pm, the roads in an area of about 15 miles around the town had been blocked. About 70 Volunteers were mustered west of town and headed in around 10:30. Only about 30 would be involved in the direct assault, with the other forty securing the perimeter of the town.

Under the cover of darkness, the Volunteers occupied the three buildings across the street from the barracks. Two Volunteers, Joe Crowley and Tom Crawford, checked into Clery’s Hotel, directly across from the barracks, that day so they could unlock the door and let the attackers in. The Volunteers also occupied the Provisional Bank of Ireland and Con Herlihy’s house on either side of the hotel. John M. MacCarthy of Kilfinane was in command of the group in the Herlihy house. Donnchadh O'Hannigan commanded the Volunteers in the bank. Tim Crowley commanded the men in Clery's Hotel.

(Right: Donnchadh O'Hannigan)

Around midnight, the flashing signal from Malone on the roof of Carroll’s began the attack. George Lennon recalled the eerie silence that fell over the town just before the firing began. Thirty rifles opened on the barracks, but the effects on that fortress house was negligible. At the same moment, Malone threw a large metal weight into the roof of the barracks. He, and the Tobin brothers from Ballylanders, Edmond and David, along with Liam Scully, from Glenbeigh, County Kerry, continued to rain down heavy weights and some of the contact bombs from Dublin until they finally broke open a hole in the barracks roof.

It had taken quite some time, and gallons of paraffin to finally get the roof of the barracks ignited. But with all the gasoline and paraffin that had spilled around the opening on the roof of the Carroll house, that roof was also on fire. “We were up in the garret, with all the bombs and explosives and everything else, filling bottles of petrol, when the place went on fire,” recalled Malone.

Malone grabbed what he thought was a bucket of water to help put it out, but it was a bucket of paraffin oil, and it blazed higher. It was suddenly becoming unclear which would burn down first, the barracks or the Carroll house. Wet blankets and canvas sacks were quickly passed up to them and after several minutes of desperate work by Malone, the Tobin brothers and Scully, the fire was subdued.

(Left: Mills bombs)

With crisis averted, and the barracks now burning fiercely, Malone signaled for the attackers to ceasefire. He called out for the RIC garrison to surrender. The rising, flickering flames of the barracks lite up the night like the bowels of hell during that tense silence. After a short wait, the RIC response came as they cried oud “NO SURRENDER!” and opened fired again. Malone signaled for the Volunteers to continue the attack. The blaze continued into the night and toward dawn, with the defenders constantly firing grenades toward Clery’s, but each time missing the windows and exploding harmlessly on the street.

Through the night, the RIC continued to refuse to surrender, in spite of the building burning down around them. Near dawn part of the roof collapsed. As the sparks flew into the dark sky, the Volunteers let out a cheer, but still the constables did not surrender. Their rate of fire lessened more and more as the sun came up, however, until it finally stopped. Mills bombs and ammunition could be heard exploding in the ruined building. Had they all stayed there and burned to death?

There was no way the constables could have survived if they stayed in the building, but it was discovered that they had managed to move into a small annex building in the back. The sun was up now, and the Volunteers were too low on ammunition to think about laying siege to that building, especially with RIC or military help likely headed toward Kilmallock. The decision was made to retreat.

(Right: The burned out remnants of the Kilmallock RIC barracks.)

In the process of withdrawing, they suffered their only casualty. Ned Tobin went up into the attic of the Carroll house to tell Liam Scully and his brother David the unit was retreating. "It's a pity to leave now,” Scully said, “it must fall soon". As Scully was moving out of the Carroll’s house, he was hit in the neck and collapsed on the ground. It may have been one of the last constables left behind in the main barracks that hit him. Ned Tobin bravely ran into the street, scooped him up carried him to cover. There was no saving him, however, as the bullet had severed his jugular vein. The local pastor, Fr. Wolfe, gave him the last rites.

As the Volunteers retreated, they carried Sullly’s body off in a vehicle. Like the “unknown Fenian” in 1867, Liam Scully, a teacher of Irish, was a stranger to the area, being from Kerry. They buried Scully in a churchyard in Templeglantine at 11 o'clock the following night.

(Left: Liam Scully)

Two constables were killed in attack, Sgt. Thomas Kane, 48, and Constable Joseph Morton, 47. Both were wounded early in the battle and their bodies were  “consumed in the fire,” according to the RIC after-battle report. It did not mention if they had died before that. Both were posthumously awarded the Constabulary Medal for Gallantry, as were all the survivors, most of whom had been wounded. The courageous resistance of the RIC garrison had denied the Volunteers a total victory, as no arms or ammunition were captured.

Still, for all the valiant resistance of the RIC, the supposedly impregnable Kilmallock barracks, which had successfully withstood the Fenian attack in 1867, had been totally destroyed. The Volunteers had also demonstrated that they could run a large operation with cooperation between numerous Volunteer units from several counties.

(Below: Some of the surviving constables from Kilmallock barracks.)

Tomás Malone would be appointed the Vice Commandant of the East Limerick Brigade after Kilmallock, and was also vice commander of their flying column after it formed. He would be captured by Black & Tans in Cork on Christmas Day 1920.

After his capture he gave his real name because if they found out he was also Seán Forde, who had led several attacks in Limerick, he might be executed. After being heavily beaten during a couple of interrogations, including having most of his teeth broken with a kick to his face, he was eventually sent to Spike Island. Somewhere near the end of March or beginning of April 1921, he and several others made a daring escape by motor boat, having killed one guard while getting to it.

Malone took the Republican side in the Civil War and was once again captured. He was visited in prison by his old friend, Michael Collins, in August 1922, shortly before Collins was killed. Luckily for him, he escaped again, as many captured Republican leaders were being executed. Tomás became a school teacher after the Civil War, living until 1981.

An interesting and tragic figure involved with the attack at Kilmallock was RIC Sgt. Tobias O’Sullivan, who commanded the defense. After the attack, he published a list of local men he believed were involved in the attack. This caused many of them to have to go “on the run.” That was one of the factors that led the East Limerick Brigade to form the first “Active Service Unit,” which stayed armed and in the field, as opposed to the fighting groups forming and disbanding for attacks as had been the practice until then. They are usually referred to as “Flying Columns” today, and their later formation around the island helped turn the tide of the war. So, Sgt. O’Sullivan’s “fingering” of Volunteers had an unintended and very unfavorable effect for the Crown forces in Ireland. The East Limerick Flying Column would have a famous victory at Dromkeen in February 1921

(Left: Sgt. Tobias O’Sullivan)

O’Sullivan's connection to identifying Volunteers would also lead directly to his own death. Many Volunteers wanted revenge for the list he made public following Kilmallock. Also, in an ambush led by Liam Lynch in Cork in January 1921, documents were found that indicated that the British were suspicious that the Tomás Malone from Westmeath that they had in custody at Spike Island was also the rebel “Seán Forde” from Limerick. The document said that O’Sullivan was going to be sent to Spike Island to identify “Forde.” If that happened, Malone would likely be executed.

O’Sullivan had been promoted to district inspector after Kilmallock and transferred to Listowel, County Kerry. After the document was found by Lynch, an assassination team was sent into Listowel. On January 20th, Volunteers Con Brosnan, Jack Ahern, Jack Sheehan and Dan Grady gunned down O’Sullivan on the street in Listowel. One could say his death was the last casualty of the assault on Kilmallock barracks.


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Tags: 1916 Rising, Easter Rising, IRA, Irish Civil War, Irish Freedom Struggle

Comment by Joe Gannon on May 31, 2019 at 8:01pm

A list of some of the men who took part in the attack at Kilmallock barracks, or who performed vital tasks in the town and its approaches on that occasion, were: from the Kilmallock company; Michael Scanlan, Michael Mortell, Daniel Mac Carthy, John Keogh, John Mortell, Edmund Mulqueen, Michael Moynihan, Seánán Murphy, James Ryan, John P. Delee, James Chamberlain, Larry Dinneen, John Crotty, Tim Tierney, Michael Moroney, William Naughton, Thomas Conba, Thomas Hogan, Richard Walsh, Michael Walsh and Liam Scully, a Gaelic League organizer from Kerry, who had been in Kilmallock for sometime previous to that attack; from the Ballingaddy company: AlbertBourke, Patrick Cowhey, Thomas Sheedy, John Casey, Maurice Casey, Patrick Fitzgerald, James Clarson, Michael Leonard; from the Brureecompany: Johnnie Lynch, Michael O Keeffe, Joseph O Keeffe, John Wall, John O Brien, Dick Fitzgerald, all of Tankardstown.

Comment by Joe Gannon on June 1, 2019 at 12:13am

Several members of the Kilmallock RIC in a photo which has names included. Probably a photo the Irish volunteers were using to ID constables there.

Comment by Joe Gannon on June 11, 2019 at 1:50pm

A monument honoring the East Limerick Brigade in Bruff, Co. Limerick.


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