Kiwi in the IRA

A member of our page Hugh Keane from New Zealand has written this unique article and provided images of Kiwi Sergeant Fred McKenna who in the early stages of the War of Independence fought with Ignatius O’Neill and the 4th Battalion Mid Clare Brigade.

Kiwi in the IRA

By Hugh Keane

It is known that one New Zealand soldier served with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the Irish War of Independence. Private Frederick James McKenna absconded from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) in July 1918, and made his way to the west of Ireland where he fought against the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).

Born in 1897, McKenna was the son of James Augustus McKenna, an Irishman from Co. Clare and the former mayor of Patea. He was educated at St Patrick’s College in Wellington and was working as a government clerk before enlisting with the NZEF during May 1917. On two earlier occasions McKenna had been rejected for being under age. After several months training at Featherston Military Camp, McKenna embarked with the 30th Reinforcements for England, arriving at Liverpool in December 1917.

After further training in England, McKenna was posted to the Western Front in February 1918 with the Wellington Infantry Regiment. However, by April 1918 he was back to England suffering from “severe pneumonia”.

While convalescing at Hornchurch Military Camp during July 1918, McKenna decided to head to Ireland. His elder brother Frank, a Gallipoli veteran, had recently married Ethel McNeill in Miltown Malbay, County Clare. Frederick McKenna met up with Ethel’s brother, Ignatius O’Neill, who was Commandant of the 4th Battalion, Mid Clare Brigade, IRA. At this time the IRA was still organising itself and obtaining weapons to take the fight to the British Forces stationed in Ireland.

In Co. Clare James McKenna assisted local volunteers with weapons training and military drill. He was soon appointed a captain of the 4th Battalion and took part in several raids to seize British arms. He also allegedly aided Michael Brennan, Commander of the East Clare Brigade IRA, when he was on the run from the British, by providing him with a revolver. Brennan was later a general in the Irish Free State Army.

On 25 July 1919, McKenna took part in an attack on Connolly RIC barracks. The night attack by 15 volunteers armed with 13 shotguns and just two rifles was led by Commandant Martin Devitt and Ignatius O’Neill. McKenna was reputedly one of the riflemen. The volunteers were unsuccessful in encouraging the Connolly RIC sergeant and constables to surrender, despite forcing the front door of the building and throwing in homemade grenades. With dawn approaching, the volunteers were forced to withdraw. In a later ambush against the RIC, Devitt would be killed and O’Neill severely wounded. O’Neill later served as a commandant (major) in the Irish Army.

Although Connolly RIC barracks wasn’t captured, the action resulted in the building being abandoned and the police garrison withdrawn to the town of Ennis. RIC stations were the eyes and ears of the British administration in rural Ireland, so the abandonment of a barracks was a crucial victory for the IRA as it allowed the local IRA units greater freedom for training and movement.

McKenna’s story then takes a curious turn of events. His NZEF military file states at the end of July 1919 he surrendered himself to the RIC in Miltown Malbay, but the circumstances of his arrest are not clear. Was he captured, or did he give himself up voluntarily because he saw it as a course of action to help him return home to New Zealand?

The Great War was at an end and perhaps McKenna was homesick after being on the run from the authorities for 12 months. Another factor may have been the escalation of the guerrilla war in Ireland which soon led to the deployment of the infamous Black and Tans force. The increasing unrest and conflict soon resulted in the British executing Irish volunteers who were captured bearing arms. The most celebrated of these unfortunate men was Kevin Barry, an 18-year-old medical student who was hanged at Mountjoy Prison after a botched IRA raid in Dublin in 1920.

After his arrest, McKenna was transferred to Limerick gaol by armoured car and then transported back to England under armed guard to face trial. McKenna’s NZEF status saved him from being held in Ireland and potentially being executed as an IRA gunman. His NZEF military file records he was marched into Sling Camp under close arrest on 3 August 1919.

In September 1919 he was court-martialled and charged with “Deserting his Majesty’s Service in that he at Hornchurch absented himself without leave from the 6th day of July 1918 until surrendering himself to the RIC at Miltown Malbay at 10:00 hrs on the 29th day of July 1919”. However, McKenna was lucky, he was found not guilty of desertion but guilty of the lesser charge of “being absent without leave”. He was sentenced to 120 days jail and to forfeit £242 in pay.

It is likely McKenna kept his IRA activities secret from the military court, for to admit any involvement in armed rebellion against the British Crown would have had serious consequences. One can only surmise that since the November 1918 Armistice, the need for the military to convict soldiers for desertion to stiffen morale had abated. The Great War was effectively over and the NZEF was being reduced in strength with drafts being sent home to New Zealand. These factors may well have saved McKenna from a firing squad.

McKenna did not serve much of his sentence in a military prison, for in November 1919 he was placed aboard the troopship Arawa for the return voyage to New Zealand. On his arrival in Wellington he was discharged from the NZEF. He was now a free man.

Interestingly, McKenna’s military conviction didn’t affect the recognition of his war service, because in 1924 he received his First World War service medals. His NZEF military service file states that he had served two years and 35 days overseas. He had also been promoted to sergeant in October 1917, but within a couple of months reverted to the ranks at his own request. To make sergeant at the age of 20 suggests he was a very capable soldier.

McKenna later became a dairy farmer in South Taranaki, married and had a family. After he died in December 1978 at the age of 81 years, his family was concerned his IRA service may prevent internment in the Returned Services Association (RSA) section in the Patea Cemetery. However, McKenna appears to have kept his IRA service a secret and he was duly interred alongside his RSA comrades.

His brother Frank McKenna finished the war as a 2nd lieutenant in the Wellington Infantry Regiment. He and his Irish bride settled in South Taranaki where he became a chemist and later a farmer, dying in Patea in 1964. His wife Ethel died in 1971.

Selected references:

1.             McKenna family

2.             The Diggers and the IRA, Kerry Casey

3.             New Zealand Archives