THE RINEEN AMBUSH.
22nd September 1920
4th Battalion Mid. Clare Brigade
“Soldiers of the Republic, today we are to avenge the death of Maurtine”
These were the words used by Commandant Ignatius O’Neill as he addressed the Volunteers of the 4th Battalion Mid Clare Brigade on the morning of Wednesday September 22nd 1920 prior to the planned ambush at Drummin Hill, Rineen. Everyone present knew that he was referring to the death of Commandant Martin Devitt who had been killed earlier in 1920 in an engagement at Crowe’s Bridge, near Inagh.
The Rineen ambush was at that time the largest and most successful military action against the Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.) and Black and Tans that had taken place in the War of Independence which had begun on the 21st January 1919 with the “hold up” of R.I.C. at Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary.
It had been agreed at a Battalion meeting that an attack would take place based on intelligence received that a patrol of regular R.I.C. and Black and Tans traveled in a Crossley Tender lorry from Ennistymon to Miltown Malbay every Wednesday morning. As well as avenging Martin Devitt the objective of the ambush was to secure arms and ammunition for the Battalion. I.R.A. Volunteers under the command of Ignatius O’Neill an ex- Irish Guardsman were drawn from seven of the nine companies in the 4th Battalion area; Ennistymon, Inagh, Lahinch, Moy, Glendine, Miltown Malbay and Letterkelly. Most were unarmed as the Battalion was poorly equipped and did not have sufficient rifles, shotguns or ammunition for the Volunteers.
Drummin Hill, Rineen with an elevation of 80 – 90 metres above sea level was selected as the ambush site because of its strategic location on the southern side of the main road between Lahinch and Miltown Malbay. A curve in the road would force vehicles traveling to Miltown Malbay to slow down as they reached the ambush site. Dromin Hill also had good natural cover of furze and bracken to provide camouflage for the Volunteers. The main body of Volunteers were positioned on Drummin Hill these were armed with what shotguns the Battalion had in working use. O’Neill asked for four volunteers who were issued with rifles to take two positions on the other side of the road each side of a by-road. These positions were filled by Anthony Malone, Pako Kerin, Steve Gallagher and John Burke.
O’Neill’s plans for the ambush were thrown into disarray by two events which were to have a major bearing on events at Rineen.
As the lorry was on its way a wrong signal was given by the scouts, “Police car coming” was taken up as “three cars coming”. An order by O’Neill was issued to hold fire and the tender was allowed to pass on its way to Miltown Malbay. O’Neill dispatched John Clune, a Volunteer from Inagh, to cycle to Miltown Malbay to watch the tender and report on its activities. Clune returned two hours later as the Battalion lay in position. He informed O’Neill that the Crossley Tender was outside the R.I.C. barrack facing for Ennistymon and was about to return. Shortly before 3.00pm the lorry began its final journey to Drummin Hill.
The second event in an unrelated incident that day was the shooting of Acting Resident Magistrate Captain Alan Lendrum at a level crossing at Caherfeenick near Doonbeg by members of the West Clare Brigade. He was on his way from Kilkee to attend the Petty Sessions (Court) at Ennistymon Courthouse. The search for Lendrum who had been earlier reported missing after his non arrival had led to an increase of Crown Forces activity in the Mid Clare area.
In his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History John Joe (Tosser) Neylon, Captain Ennistymon Company recounts what happened at Rineen: “Before posting the men to the different positions, O’Neill explained to them what each section had to do. All told I would say that the total number of men involved was 45 -50. Of these 10 had rifles and the remainder had shotguns. The rest were used as scouts. Four men with rifles were posted in groups of two at the north side of the road to deal with any of the occupants of the tender who might escape into the fields at that side, while the main position was on the opposite side of the road along a bohereen which ran diagonally across portion of the slope of Drummin Hill, from the main road to the railway gates on the brow of the south west corner of that hill. The entrance to the main position at the public road was camouflaged with ferns and bushes to prevent the police from observing the men lying along the laneway. The men here were placed a few feet apart, the nearest to the main road being about 20 yards from the entrance to the bohereen. I think that I should say too that most of the party had not been previously involved in a military operation requiring the use of firearms. On the right of the position and extending toward Lahinch and Ennistymon for about a mile, a number of scouts were posted along positions in the high ground overlooking the main road to report the approach of the lorry. I had a rifle and the job allocated to me was to fire the first or warning shot as soon as the tender reached a fixed point on the road, which happened to be 7 or 8 yards on the Lahinch side of Gormans lane. A couple of the riflemen were also detailed to knock out the driver of the tender. The O/C. of the party, Ignatius O’Neill, took up his position near me. At about noon word was received from the scouts that three lorries were coming from the Ennistymon side. O’Neill had a quick consultation with myself and a few of the Officers beside him. He had expected only one lorry and the plans had been made accordingly. His force was mainly composed of raw material and the ground did not lend itself to quick re-deployment. In the circumstances he decided, in view of the scout’s message, to withhold fire. When only one lorry passed he realised that a mistake had been made by some of the scouts. He at once sent a man on a bike into Miltown Malbay to pick up whatever news he could regarding the lorry, and to keep a special watch to see if arrangements were being made by the enemy in Miltown to send out forces to surround our position. There was just a remote chance that the occupants of the lorry might have seen some of us or noticed that the appearance of the position had been altered by over doing the camouflaging. The scout , whose name I am not able to remember, came back about 2 o’clock in the evening and reported that the lorry was outside the R.I.C. Barracks in Miltown, that it was facing in the direction of Ennistymon, that he did not think that we had been noticed, and that it looked as if it would be soon returning. In the space of 5 minutes or so we heard the noise of the lorry coming towards us. In the meantime, O’Neill made a few positional changes, bringing myself and the riflemen who were detailed to get the driver to more suitable positions. When the lorry reached the chosen spot I fired the warning shot and immediately all the party opened up. The attack was over in a matter of seconds. There was no reply from the lorry and our fellows rushed towards it to find five dead policemen lying inside. One of the police managed to get off the lorry and had gone about 300 yards towards Miltown when he was seen and shot by Donal Lehane of Lahinch in a field near O’Connors house and at a spot about 100 yards from the main road. All the guns and ammunition carried by the police were collected: - 6 Lee Enfield service rifles, one .45 revolver and about 3000 rounds of .303 ammunition. The lorry was also burned. Some of the party were still on the road around the lorry and others were making their way up the side of Drummin hill when word was received that lorries of British troops were coming towards us from Ennistymon.”
Ernie O’Malley describes in “Raids and Rallies”: “As IRA went up the rising ground Seamus Hennessy waited behind for a comrade of his, Steve Gallagher, who had gone down to collect the rifle belonging to the constabulary man who had rushed towards the sea. Seamus shouted to him to hurry up toward the road, as he heard the noise of what seemed to be a lorry approaching from the Lahinch direction. Some of the men had halted below the first hill, but he shouted at them to push upwards as he indicated the direction of the noise.”
J J Neylon continues: “Orders were given to all to disperse as quickly as possible; the big majority made off towards the top of the hill, while a few went in the opposite direction towards the sea. The latter got away without any trouble, but those who had already been making their way over the hill, as well as the party who were starting to do so, all came under heavy fire, rifle and machine gun, from the newly arrived troops. The brow of Drummin hill ends in a steep slope on the south side of the road and for a distance of nearly a mile is from 150 to 200 feet above the road level. At the top of the hill the land towards the south drops gradually into a dip for a distance of over half a mile and then rises at Ballyvaskin nearly a mile away, to about the level of the hilltop. It is country which provides very little cover for a party in retreat from experienced and trained soldiers equipped with machine guns. As the big majority of our men had only shotguns, they were of no use in meeting the British forces who, in a short time, had reached the hilltop a quarter of a mile or so further east of the scene of the ambush. There was only one course open to us and that was to use the rifleman to fight a rearguard action while the others with the shotguns were making their way to cover and safety on the Ballyvaskin side. Unfortunately only a few of the riflemen were then available for this purpose, they included O’Neill himself, Michael Dwyer, Patrick Lehane and myself.
The other men with rifles had gone off in a different directions and it was not possible to collect them. The four of us took up positions in a field adjacent to Honan’s house and engaged the military who were using a machine gun from behind a stone wall at the corner of a field about 300 yards due east. O’Neill was wounded in the thigh early at this stage of the fighting and as we retreated had to be carried. This was done by Michael Dwyer who carried him on his back. Gradually we made our way towards Ballyvaskin taking advantage of whatever bit of cover was available, sometimes a fold in the ground, sometimes a haycock, a drain or a bit of a stone fence until ultimately, the whole party got into Ballyvaskin country and dispersed to their homes or wherever they decided to go for the night. I went off towards Liscannor where I slept the night in the house of the local sub-postmaster, Peter Thynne.”
In “Raids and Rallies” Ernie O’Malley recounts the intensity of gun fire the Battalion was under from the advancing Crown Forces:“….Seamus Hennessy and some of his shotgun men were making for a gap in a bank when Vaughan shouted at them, ‘Don’t go out that gap, for they’re like to set the gun on it. Roll over the bank when I shout.’ Sure enough, the gunner had his sights trained on the gap, and when the men simultaneously leaped up and tumbled over the brow, the gun, in a long roll of fire, cut the edges off the gap and the top of the bank on either side of it.”
Though the Volunteers were surprised when a large British army patrol accidentally stumbled upon the scene as they searched for Lendrum, John Burke recalls :“Strange as it may seem, they were more surprised than we were. Consequently we had the drop on them and made full use of it…..the fighting continued for over three hours. By that time a vast quantity of the captured ammunition had been expended but not without results.”
Due to O’Neill’s leadership, strength and resolve of the Battalion and a through knowledge of the terrain the Volunteers were able to withdraw from Rineen without loss of life. Ignatius O’Neill and Micklo Curtin from Moy Company were wounded. Both were attended to by Dr Michael Hillery and within a few weeks they were fully recovered.
The resultant aftermath of the ambush led to immediate brutal reprisals and indiscriminate atrocities by the British Army, R.I.C. and Black and Tans. As the 4th Battalion had escaped them they were determined to make people suffer. They terrorized the local population in Miltown Malbay, Lahinch, Ennistymon and the surrounding countryside with the murder of civilians and the destruction, burning and looting of private and public houses and shops. The long night of rampage and violence left six civilians and one I.R.A. Volunteer dead. In the Irish Independent of September 27th 1920 the total damages to property were estimated at more than £100,000.
According to Anthony Malone the success of the Rineen ambush and the British forces reprisals had a strong effect on local people and the I.R.A. Volunteers: “The ambush had as far as our battalion area was concerned two very direct results. The enemy became more hostile and active, but he used large convoys when traveling. The people became very much embittered against him and adopted a more defiant attitude towards the military and Black and Tans. The women and the older people did not hesitate to show their feelings when they encountered these forces in the course of raids and searches. As far as the I.R.A. organistion itself went, the men became keener at their drill and showed more enthusiasm in the different duties which they were called upon to perform e.g.; road cutting, scouting and dispatch carrying.”
The Rineen ambush was an important landmark in Co Clare’s contribution to the republican struggle and fight for Irish Independence. The Volunteers of 4th Battalion Mid Clare Brigade ensured the stand they made at Rineen will never be forgotten.
(Colin Hennessy - The Rineen Ambush 2010)