John (Sean) Burke and the Rineen Ambush
by Greg Lavelle
John Burke was born on the 26th of April 1899 in Moybeg, Ennistymon, Co. Clare. He joined the volunteers in 1916. He was 17 years of age and had not left school at that time. He was one of ten children, nine boys and one girl1 born to Patrick and Mary Burke. He was greatly influenced by the Easter Rising of 1916 and was determined to make a significant contribution to the republican struggle and fight for Irish independence.
John Burke was a rifleman during the Rineen Ambush and took part in most of the many actions in the Battalion area during the war of independence. Later in the 1920s and the decades that followed he became Ireland’s most noted and famous golfer as a member of Lahinch golf club. He was interviewed by Ernie O’Malley in 1954 and in 1973 he chronicled the activities of the 4th Battalion and his golfing career in a popular series of articles in the Connacht Tribune.
After the truce in 1921 John fought on the anti-treaty side in the civil war, finding himself in opposition to his brothers and some former comrades. In his later life he came to believe that everyone was on the wrong side in the Civil war. “If the participants in the civil war were honest with themselves, the vast majority would readily admit that both were on the wrong side”. John, despite his golfing achievements, ranked being asked to deliver the oration at the unveiling of the Rineen Ambush Memorial as the proudest moment of his life. He also devoted a lot of time in later years working to ensure that those who participated in the ambush were remembered (memorials and plaques) and received the pensions that they deserved.
In July 1920 John Burke took part in the capture of five rifles from the RIC at Connor’s Cottage outside of Ennistymon. There was a dance being held and it was open to all. It was known that the military danced unarmed. Burke and his comrades saw an opportunity and his column attended the event. When the British soldiers got up to dance, they left their rifles leaning against their chairs. In a very daring move, the Irish column grabbed the weapons while the British were dancing. One shot was fired but no-one was injured. These weapons were used in the Rineen Ambush.
Towards the middle of September 1920, it was unanimously agreed at a Battalion meeting that an ambush of major importance should be staged in the area in the very near future. Information was available that a lorry load of Black and Tans left Ennistymon for Miltown Malbay every Wednesday at 11am and returned at approximately 3:30pm. This was to be the target. The day and the date were arranged, the 22nd of September 1920.
The purpose of the ambush was to seize weapons and ammunition and to provide action and experience for the volunteers who had not yet seen combat. Burke later said it was their “baptism of fire.” Fifty-three volunteers from seven of the nine Companies that made up the Battalion took part in the ambush. Most of the volunteers were unarmed. ‘The entire lot of arms consisted of 60 rounds of 303 ammo, eight rifles, two bombs, two revolvers and a varied assortment of sixteen shotguns of very questionable serviceable condition. Due to their lack of weaponry the volunteers would be unable to engage in a drawn-out conflict. They were to rely heavily on the element of surprise and the natural cover given by the terrain. They hoped to eliminate the enemy in one action, regroup, take the arms and ammunition from the Crossley tender, and leave the area.
A small Crossley tender of RIC and Black and Tans was ambushed at a strategically selected site which provided high ground and cover for the volunteers on the east and a bend to slow down the target vehicle. The location is known as Drommin Hill and lies in Rineen on the N67 between Miltown Malbay and Lahinch, Co. Clare. The volunteers met the night before and were spurred on by a pep-talk by their commander Ignatius O’Neill with the objective to avenge the death of Martin Devitt.
At noon the Crossley tender passed Rineen on its way from Lahinch to Miltown Malbay, there was a mix up in the signals from the scouts and it was allowed to pass without hinderance. O’Neill made the decision to carry out the attack on the Crossley’s return journey. John Burke was in one of the two positions west (at the seaside) of the road. John Burke later said of this position that ‘Everything was against it, in the sense that there was very little cover and retreat was cut off by the sea.’7
The attack took place at 3pm. The volunteers opened fire, killing the driver and stopping the Tender. The two bombs were thrown but to no great effect. Two men jumped from the lorry. Burke recounted that “One carrying his rifle, jumped as it were into our arms. Just as he was about to bring it into play, he was forever silenced.” The driver and five RIC men were killed8. Four rifles, one revolver and over 1,000 rounds of ammunition were taken from the lorry and distributed amongst the IRA. The IRA were satisfied with the outcome and began to make their way home in small groups. Some members of the Lahinch Company including my great-grandfather Tom Burke9 (John’s brother) had started north towards home along the cliffs.
Suddenly three lorries of Tans came upon the scene. They had been out looking for Captain Lendrum who had not appeared in Court in Ennistymon as expected that morning. The Tans were more surprised than the Volunteers who at that point had the high ground and were making their way home eastwards across the valley. Just as the men were about to celebrate their victory, they had to enter the second phase of the fight which they had not bargained for. “For a few seconds” said Sean Burke, “my brain was in a whirl. The fearful thought crossed my mind that had they been there minutes earlier, and the tender two minutes later, there would have been five battalions instead of six in the mid-Clare Brigade. The fourth would have been annihilated.”
The Volunteers focused on retreating safely. They could not expect their 11 rifles and small amount of ammunition to overpower the well-armed opposition and their machine guns. The Crown Forces were fought from the railway to the sides top and back of the hill before a firm stand was made behind ditches which were plentiful and cocks of hay as the column fanned out. When the British got to the top of the hill, they got the machine guns into operation. The Volunteers were by then firmly ensconced and were steadily fighting back. Ignatius O’Neill was wounded, so also was Micko Curtin of the Moy Company. They were carried to safety. No Irish Volunteers were captured.
After the ambush there was a hurried meeting held in Moy Company area. John Burke was detailed to go to Ennis and to give a verbal account to Frank Barrett (the Brigadier) on what had taken place. The plan for the Volunteers to defend against burning, killing and looting by Crown Forces was abandoned. This was a terrible mistake as a high price was paid that night when 28 homes and businesses were burned and six people were shot dead, a seventh died later. In the chaos of the next day John Burke’s father was brought from Moy to Lahinch to identify him as having been burned to death. John’s name had been put on the breast plate of the coffin in which Pake Lehane’s body had been placed.
John Burke was wheelchair bound from the early 1950s, despite this he was the secretary of the committee that erected the memorial at the site of the Rineen Ambush. The project cost over £1,100. The committee raised every penny themselves. The monument was unveiled on September 23rd, 1957. President Eamonn DeValera also visited the monument in September 1966. Even though John was disillusioned with how many of his comrades, who he described as the most generous people one could meet, had been treated his admiration and pride for what they achieved never faded. John was active in the IRA veterans’ associations and following the 1934 Military Services Pensions Act, spent a lot of his time completing pension and social welfare applications on behalf of former comrades. John was scathing about ‘the hurlers on the ditch’ who swept in to take the glory from those who had fought for freedom.
I have nothing but admiration for this man who lived so bravely through such challenging times. John joined the cause young, partook in very daring acts, it’s likely that he killed for the cause, he suffered the loss of his only sister to the Spanish flu in 1918, he fought against his brothers and comrades and was imprisoned during the civil war, went on to become a famous golfer, always remembered the real heroes and tried to do right by them. He did not let the fact that he was wheelchair bound in 1950s Ireland affect him. My research has brought me to the conclusion that he was a strong character with deep rooted beliefs about right and wrong. He was resilient and pragmatic. At the end of his life, he wrote a very entertaining series of articles about his experiences and had the maturity and humility to admit that when it came to the Irish civil war, he was on the wrong side. He astutely concluded there was no right side.