Mid Clare Brigade Disarm Military in O’Connell Street, Ennis.
Comdt. Joe Barrett’s recollection of the preparation and events of the day was published in “With the I.R.A. in the fight for Freedom” (Tralee 1955). Below is the main extract of the operation detail.
Horse Fair was background to well-rehearsed coup in Ennis
Mid Clare Brigade, 23rd June 1920
By Joe Barrett
(Formerly QM, Mid Clare Brigade, I.R.A. and O/C Mid Clare Brigade Flying Column)
Over a period of eleven months, RIC barracks situated in country districts had been experiencing attacks by members of our different units…The coming of June found the police sheltering behind their steel shuttered and sand bagged windows, watchful , but for the most part, immobile in the rural localities. On the other hand, our men were drilling and organising, but they urgently needed arms and ammunition in order to press home the fight with greater vigour. Our brigade officers were examining ways and means to repair this want. As a result of observations maintained by our intelligence agents, we turned our attention to the enemy garrisons in Ennis, where a successful operation would achieve the two fold purpose of defeating his propaganda and, at the same time, making a valuable addition to the all too slender armaments of the brigade.
Stationed in the town at the time were some thirty members of the RIC and in addition to these was a company of infantry belonging to a Scottish regiment. This company occupied the old jail adjacent to the junction of Carmody Street, O’Connell Street and the Limerick Road. In the Butter Market, about half a mile from the old jail, was an army transport park over which the jail garrison maintained a twenty four hour guard of one corporal and six men. We noted that the guard was relived each evening between five and six o’clock, and that the men coming off duty marched back from the Butter Market to the jail by a route that was never varied. It lay along Carmody Street as far as the junction of O’Connell Street and the Limerick Road, at which point the military turned into O’Connell Street. We also observed that they marched in double file carrying their rifles with fixed bayonets at ‘the slope’, and that approximately twenty-five paces separated each file of two men, with the corporal in charge marching between the second and third files. It appeared to us that this patrol could be captured and disarmed, and following careful study of its routine movements and of other factors, we decided upon a rather original plan of operations, and fixed the evening of 23rd June as the date to carry it out. It was the day of the annual Spancill Hill horse fair, and on the evening of the fair the streets of Ennis were always crowded with dealers and horses from all parts of Clare and adjoining counties.
During the early weeks of June we selected twenty one men for the job, from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the brigade. Each night, under the trees of Drumconora Wood, three miles from Ennis and on the road to Galway, these men were exercised in the tactics to be followed on the streets of the town on the evening of 23rd June. In the wood a route was mapped out which roughly corresponded to that over which the British patrol marched each evening in Ennis. Along that route seven men representing the enemy patrol marched, night after night, and their capture was carefully rehearsed and explained until each member of our attacking party understood perfectly his own particular role. In brief, the plan amounted to a division of twenty-one attackers into seven sections of three men, with a section detailed to deal with each member of the British patrol. At a given signal, they were to spring upon the patrol, each section taking on its allotted man. One member of each section was to cover the soldier with a revolver. It was the task of the second man to seize the rifle and equipment, while the third member of the section was to ensure the silence of the soldier by gentle throttling.
It was a plan that depended for its success upon split second timing and a complete absence of anything that resembled fumbling. Speed and silence were essential, for the operation would be carried out within the very shadow of the old jail in which the company to which the patrol belonged was billeted. When added to that hazard was the fact that the attempt would take place in the streets of a county town on the evening of a great annual horse fair, its nature can be fully understood. After a week of the nightly rehearsals in Drumconora Wood, every man of the attacking party was considered capable of carrying out his given task and each man felt confident of his own ability to discharge it.
But the architects of the plan were determined to leave nothing to chance. Amongst the precautions taken by them was one that provided against the possibility of the members of the patrol or of other enemy forces in the town becoming suspicious that something out of the ordinary was afoot, especially when the attackers had taken up their positions. It amounted to taking the fullest advantage of the fair day scene. In addition to the actual attacking groups, seven members of the IRA were given instructions to bring horses to the junction of O’Connell Street, the Limerick Road and Carmody Street, and to hold them there at intervals of twenty two yards, on the evening of the operation, so that the attackers could pose as horse dealers while waiting for the enemy patrol. Everything would then be in keeping with a normal street scene in the town of Ennis on the evening of the Spancill Hill fair. Marked on the accompanying sketch map are the positions at which the horses were held and at which the attackers also gathered in groups at half past five on the evening of 23rd June. They thus occupied the best possible striking positions without giving any cause for suspicion on the part of either the military or RIC.
About the middle of the crossroads, at the point marked ‘A’ on the map, I took up a position and pretended to be interested in the horse dealing. From that point I was able to see the approach of the enemy for more than 200 yards. When I sighted the patrol the time was about five minutes to six, and as the soldiers marched nearer, the horse dealing mounted to a crescendo, excited ‘buyers’ wrangling and disputing noisily with indignant and recalcitrant ‘owners’. It was a piece of by-play well calculated to deceive even the most sceptical , for the men were enacting part of their own civilian lives; all were taking part in something well known to them from childhood, so that the parts in which they were cast did not present them with the slightest difficulty. Steadily the military marched towards the spot where the merits of horses were being extolled with vehemence and decried with acid and sarcastic comment.
From my strategic position I saw the patrol reach the crossroads, and the leading file of two men wheel left into O’Connell Street. They were followed by the second file of two. At that stage the line of my vision of the patrol had been cut, with four of its members out of sight in O’Connell Street. In Carmody Street still, but approaching the corner, were the corporal and the last two men. They had no view of the four men in O’Connell Street. At that moment I blew my whistle, our pre-arranged signal for the attack to begin. Panther like, the attackers sprang to action. Each soldier was held up, gripped by the throttle and disarmed in a series of movements carried out almost simultaneously. The corporal, alone, showed fight, but his resistance was quickly overcome with a few well directed punches by Seán O’Keeffe.
Within the space of two minutes the operation was over, and the members of the patrol were being marched speedily into D’Arcy’s Yard, marked ‘B’ on the map, where their web equipment, steel helmets and ammunition, totalling 350 rounds, were gathered in without delay. It was a neat piece of work, carried out efficiently and expeditiously under the very noses of the garrison in the old jail.
The seven British soldiers were safely locked up in one of D’Arcy’s stables, and the captured equipment and arms were loaded into three waiting motor cars, which immediately pulled out for Kilmorane, some miles outside the town. The cars were driven by John Joe Egan, Jack Mellett and Mick Kennedy. Travelling in them also, to guard the booty, were Seán O’Keeffe, Micko Foley, Con MacMahon and Mick Hegarty. In the meantime, the other members of the column had dispersed into ones and twos. The equipment was taken over by the officers of the 2nd Battalion.
The following participated in the task: Joe Barrett, O/C; Seán O’Keeffe, Peter O’Loughlin, Jerry O’Dwyer, P.J. O’Doherty, Paddy Considine, Paddy McNamara, John Joe Egan, Frank Keane, Michael Nugent, Con McMahon, Liam Stack, Michael Hegarty, Thomas Baker, Paddy Casey, J.J. Clohessy, Michael Foley, Jack Mellett, Paddy Brody, Dan McNamara, Sammy Moroney, Jack Darcy, Patrick Davis.
The manner in which the operation had been conducted, and its complete success, greatly enhanced the prestige of the IRA in the area. It had been witnessed by many people from the town and district, and though several of the attackers were known to the onlookers, not one of them was betrayed. The effect of the operation on the enemy propagandists in Ennis is best left to the imagination.
Comdt. Seán O’Keeffe, Brigade Quartermaster in his witness statement (BHW.WS1261 29th September 1955) outlined the operation.
…Two Ennis Volunteers, Liam Stack, an officer of that company, and Michael Malone, reported to Joe Barrett who was then I believe, Brigade O/C Operations, that a military guard of about seven men who had started doing guard over a military transport depot in the Butler Market, Ennis, could easily be disarmed while returning from guard duty to their headquarters in the Home Barracks, Jail Road Ennis. They always returned through Carmody St. and the distance from the Butter Market to the barracks was a quarter of a mile. Barrett immediately summoned the officers of the 1st Battalion to a meeting held in a field in Drumconora, Barefield. I also attended. He put the information which he had received regarding the patrol before the meeting and it was decided to attempt a disarming operation.
Captain Sean O'Keeffe
At this meeting the men to take part in the job were selected and it was also agreed that it should come off on the eve of Spancilhill fair, which was then about a fortnight away, and that in the intervening period the part which each man would take would be rehearsed each night under the personal supervision of Barrett, who was to be in charge of the actual attack.
The following list, which was prepared by me some time ago for other purposes, gives correctly the men who were selected and who actually did take part in the operation:
(1) O/C - Joseph Barrett, Brigade Staff
V. O/C - myself
Seán O'Grady O/C 1st Battalion
Crusheen Company - Patrick Davis, Patrick Casey, John Joe Harte, Patrick Flanagan,
Barefield Company - John Roughan, Daniel McMahon, Thomas Considine, Patrick McNamara, Con McMahon.
Clooney Company - John Clune, B.J. Doherty,
Kilnamona Company, 3rd Battalion. - Michael Hegarty, Patrick Keane, Patrick Brody, Joseph Barrett.
Ruan Company - Peadar O'Brien, Patrick Casey, Seán Casey.
(2) Ennis Company, 1st Bn. - Liam Stack, John Joe Clohessy, Daniel McNamara, Jack Darcy, Peter O'Loughlin, Michael Malone, John (Ter) Frawley, William McNamara.
(3) Patrick Costelloe, O/C 2nd Battalion, Michael Barrett, Vice O/C.
Ballyea Company - Sylvester Barrett, Brian Barrett.
(4) Ennis Coy. 1st Battalion. John Joe Egan, Sam Moroney, Joseph Tierney, Michael Kennedy, Jack Mellett, William Barrett.
It will be noticed that all those listed in No. (1) of the list belonged to units outside the town of Ennis. As they were the men who had to do the actual disarming of the military, it was deemed safer that they should be from the rural parts as there was less likelihood of recognition afterwards by the military or any of the few townspeople who might inform the British authorities as to the identity of the attackers. Those in part (2) of the list were all drawn from the Ennis Company as their part was to be that of a covering off unit who were familiar with the "ins and outs" of the town. The men in part (3) were those earmarked to meet the motor car containing the captured rifles at Kilmoraine and there take over custody of the guns. Lastly, those whose names appear in part (4) were all motor drivers.
At that particular stage of the struggle it was remarkable how the British military adhered to a fixed type of routine. They rarely varied their formation in movement and rigidly adhered to set hours for such things as guard changing. On this occasion the relieved guard marched back to barracks in pairs about ten paces apart, the N.C.O. in charge bringing up the rear three or four paces behind the last two soldiers. The route was always the same - from the Butter Market into Carmody St., Upper O’Connell St. and then on to the Jail Road, and the rifles were carried at the slope with bayonets fixed.
The plan of attack provided for the splitting up of the men named in part (1) of the list Into groups of three, each group to take up a position along Carmody St. and Upper O'Connell St. at a distance equivalent to that between each pair of soldiers. The two streets make almost a right angle. At the junction is Darcy's public house and it was here that the O/C, Joe Barrett, decided to take up his position as it gave him a clear view of both streets. A blast of a whistle blown by him was to be the signal for our men to rush the soldiers, each group taking on the two nearest soldiers. Every man in the attacking party carried a loaded revolver which he was to draw as soon as the whistle sounded and present as he was advancing on the soldiers, shouting at the same time "Hands up". Parked at Darcy's I corner also was to be a motor car driven by John Joe Egan. He had received orders to start up the car as soon as the second pair of soldiers passed him, and the attacking party had also been instructed to run to the car with the rifles immediately a gun was takers from the soldiers so that Darcy could clear off the scene with the booty without a moment's delay.
At the rehearsals for this attack about thirty men attended. Seven of those were chosen to act the part of the military guard, while twenty-one others were assigned the role of the attackers, No man missed a rehearsal. The site chosen for this practice closely resembled the route traversed by the military guard, and by the end of the fortnight every man was thoroughly familiar with what he had to do to make the attack a success.
There was a special reason for selecting the eve of Spancilhill fair for the date of the attack. In those days this was one of the biggest fairs in Clare, at which there was always a lot of horses offered for sale. People came from all over Ireland to this fair and big crowds usually gathered around the town of Ennis on the preceding evening. Although Spancilhill is about three miles from Ennis, a goodly number of animals were generally displayed and sold along the Ennis streets on the evening before the fair. We took advantage of this custom as strangers or country fellows loitering along the streets on such an occasion would excite little or no suspicion from either the watchful R.I.C. and the less cautious military. So as to help in throwing both of these forces off their guard, we got a Volunteer called Michael Nugent from the Barefield Company to bring a horse into Carmody St. and some of the men who were to constitute the attacking party were detailed to get around this animal and be engaged in pretending to buy it just before the attack was timed to come off.
A short while before 4 p.m. on the evening of 23rd June, 1920, the day selected for the attack, all our men had assembled in their places in Carmody St. and Upper O'Connell St. The military guard came along marching in their usual formation shortly after 4 o'clock. As planned, everything worked out in our favour and within a matter of seconds after the 0/C, Joe Barrett, sounded the whist1e the operation was over; the rifles and equipment which were taken from the soldiers were being conveyed in the motor car driven by John Joe Egan to the pre-arranged destination. Only one of the soldiers offered any resistance - the Corporal in charge - and I finished that by a punch to the jaw which quickly subdued him. They were all collected and marched into sheds in Jack Darcy's yard and locked there. Michael Hegarty, Con McMahon and Michael Foley accompanied Egan in the motor car as an escort. We took the captured booty to Kilmorane barracks, about 2 miles from Ennis on the road to Kilrush, and there handed it over to Patrick Costelloe and his men. Myself and the other members of the escort made off home across the country.
There are two other matters concerning this operation to which I desire to refer. Firstly, despite the fact that it took place in the open daylight and that notwithstanding the precautions to guard against identification of the participants, a number of our men were recognised by eye witnesses to the attack. Yet not one single Volunteer concerned was afterwards arrested. Secondly, the people whose names appear on part (4) of the list were all motor drivers who had cars standing convenient for use in case of emergency. One of these cars, driven by Joseph Tierney accompanied by William Barrett, went off along the Kilrush road once the attack was over. This was done to hoodwink the British authorities and succeeded in its purpose, too, as the car was followed by a military armoured car which was sent out in pursuit of the vehicle containing the captured arms and equipment (seven rifles and a quantity of ammunition, seven bayonets and the web equipment of the seven soldiers).