Martin Devitt’s Death as a Cause of the Rineen Ambush


By Harrie Keane



The Irish War of Independence or Anglo-Irish War was a guerrilla war fought from 1919 to 1921 between the Irish Republican Army and the British security forces in Ireland. On October 8th 1918 the workhouse in Ennistymon Co. Clare was taken over as a military base, this led to great anger and beneath the surface the Mid-Clare Brigade had begun training its members. The men who trained in Clare played a very dedicated and active part in the War of Independence. On September 22nd the I.R.A. in West Clare staged their first major ambush in Rineen.

 In this essay I will be discussing the main events leading up to the Rineen Ambush. Such as the Canada Cross Shootings, The Lendrum Shooting and the raid on Colonel Tottenham’s house in Mount Callan along with the events surrounding the death of Martin Devitt and the lead up to his shooting. I intend to look at the IRA members involved in the Rineen Ambush. I will also be briefly outlining the Ambush itself and make my decision at the end of the essay as to if Martin Devitt’s’ death was a main cause of the Ambush or not.

Preceding the death of Martin Devitt there was a notable increase in IRA recruitment and activities. Two such activities were the Canada Cross shootings on 14 April 1920 and the Lendrum shooting. The Canada Cross shooting took place in Miltown Malbay where a tar barrel was being burnt on the main street to celebrate the release of hunger strikers from Mountjoy prison. There was a congregation of around 75 people. It was said things were progressing in a “harmonious way” (1). Later on a patrol led by RIC Sgt Hampson stopped outside the tar barrel at the Canada Cross and shots were fired which killed 3 Miltown men (Patrick Hennessy, John O’Loughlin and Thomas O’Leary) and others were wounded by rifle fire when the combined R.I.C. and military forces opened fire on the crowd.

The Lendrum shooting was the shooting dead of Captain Alan Lendrum on 22nd of September 1920 at Caherfeenick. His body was discovered the1st of October on the railway line near Craggaknock railway station. Alan Lendrum, originally from Tyrone, joined the British Army around the time of the First World War and around 1920 was demobilised and appointed Acting Resident Magistrate of Kilkee. The I.R.A. decided to hold up Lendrum at gunpoint at the railway crossing at Caherfeenick, near Doonbeg on the morning of Wednesday 22nd September 1920.The intent was to seize Lendrum’s Ford car and get arms off him.” They had orders to kidnap Lendrum not to shoot him”. (2) It became known that he was to travel from Kilkee to Milltown Malbay on December 6th. Two IRA volunteers lay in wait at a level crossing at Caherfeenick, two miles north of Doonbeg The railway gates had been closed across the road and an officer who was supposed to be present had not yet arrived when Lendrum drove up. According to the account given (3) he whipped out an automatic when challenged. Before he had a chance to use it he was fired on and mortally wounded. Lendrum’s body was hidden in Lough Donnell near Doughmore Strand.

The Canada Cross shootings greatly contributed to the increase in IRA operations and recruitment. Local people were very angry about the event and wanted to join the IRA to get retribution for those killed. From my research of the Rineen Ambush and in source (7) I found that retribution for the Canada Cross shootings was also a hugely contributing factor to the Rineen Ambush. Men were motivated to join the IRA after these events as there was local and public anger over the way the locals were being treated and unlawfully killed by the RIC and British.

An event that also preceded the Rineen Ambush was the raid of Colonel Tottenham’s’ house at Mount Callan on the 21st November 1919. It is stated (6) that around 20 men raided the house around 8 and Colonel Tottenham’s father was held at gunpoint. A number of guns and rifles and a telescope were stolen. This shows the increase in IRA activity and how adamant they were to obtaining ammunition. The fact Colonel Tottenham’s father was held at gunpoint shows us that the IRA had arms prior to the raid.

On February 21st 1920 the Clare Champion reported the occurrence of an incident between Inagh and Miltown Malbay on the 17th. Colonel Cotton, an officer in charge of troops in Ennis was travelling from Ennis to Ennistymon but instead he decided to go to Miltown Malbay. Soon after passing Inagh he overtook a party of armed men with 5 horses and carts resting by the roadside but as he approached the men scattered in all directions and some forgot to take their guns with them. The Colonel took possession of the guns which had been left by the ditch and immediately returned to Ennis. Some shots were fired and the car was hit but he escaped uninjured.

On the same day, authorities in Ennis received reports from Inagh that armed men had taken a number of horses and carts in the area and in some cases forced the driver to go with them. District Attorney Moore and head Constable Deignan went to search the area. They found two horse carts abandoned by the roadside but could not find any of the armed men. They made no arrests.

Just a week later an incident occurred not too far from the scene of these happenings, Martin Devitt, A twenty five year old draper apprentice and Vice Commandant of the Mid Clare Brigade was fatally wounded by the RIC from a shot to the head and later died. His comrade Ignatius O’Neill was also shot in the thigh but recovered in Miltown Malbay. This really influenced O’Neill later on in the Rineen Ambush as he was so close to Devitt and was with him when he died.

The Rineen Ambush then occurred on the 22nd of September 1920 and was one of the most significant encounters of the War of Independence in Clare and was one of the most important military incidents of the War of Independence, nationally. It took place at Dromin Hill in Rineen. The primary aim was to get revenge against the British for shooting dead Martin Devitt. Also the ambush aimed to get arms for Mid Clare Brigade.

A tactical advantage was that Dromin Hill was 400 feet high and that made it an ideal spot for the ambush. It was possible to see enemy lorries coming from either side from the top of Dromin Hill. As I have seen from maps obtained from the local studies section of the library there was good cover at one side of the road but little cover on the other side. It was decided that this side then should be manned by two armed experienced men. A boreen leading from the main road was to be the main line of attack. It had protective natural cover as seen from the maps I obtained from the local sources section. The trees and shrubs gave the attackers great cover from passing trains and from the road.

Martin Devitt said “We are getting ready to fight against the foreigners and to finish the job the Fenian’s set out to do”(4).Showing his dedication to the cause. As regards the execution of the ambush, as the lorry was coming along the Miltown road a wrong signal was given and the two cart loads of hay which were on the road indicated that three lorries were coming and the lorry was allowed to pass. The men then had three hours to wait before the lorry would return. When the lorry did return two bombs were shot at it but missed the target of the lorry and landed in a nearby field. The blast however was strong enough to kill the driver and two of the party of six on the lorry. Two men had jumped clear of the blast, one straight into the arms of his attackers and was shot dead. The second fled towards the sea. The volunteers then went to the lorry to collect the arms and ammunition left behind. There were five rifles and a thousand rounds of ammunition in total. While this was going on Tom Burke and Donal Lehane gave chase the escapee.

The Rineen Ambush was a well-planned ambush by a well-trained officer, Comdt. Ignatius O’Neill. Comdt. Ignatius O’Neill was born in Miltown Malbay in 1896. On completion of his studies at Blackrock College he immigrated to America and crossed into Canada on the outbreak on WWI and joined the Irish Guards. He served at Ypres and the Somme where he was injured and returned to Ireland and joined the 4th Battalion Mid Clare Brigade. His previous military experience meant he was quickly promoted in the IRA and was the officer in charge on the day of the Rineen Ambush. Ignatius was close friends with Martin Devitt from the beginning and saw to it that Martins’ death would not go unnoticed or unpunished. His military background also meant he had great experience and would not go into the ambush solely for the purpose of retribution. (5)

In the aftermath of the ambush, just when the volunteers were confident they had won, three lorry loads of men were seen coming to a halt along with thirty other men on bicycles. The troops were just as surprised to see the volunteers as the volunteers were to see the troops. The newly acquired rifles and ammunition were quickly distributed amongst the volunteers and they proceeded to take cover in ditches and the fighting continued for another three hours. By this time most of the new ammunition had been used up but not without results. When the British got on top of the hill they began to use their machine guns but by this time the volunteers were already deeply entrenched. A final effort was made by the British when four of their men tried to storm the volunteers but all were shot down. The IRA had defeated a vastly superior force to them and their main aim of the ambush was fulfilled; they had avenged the death of Martin Devitt completely. As well as getting arms, they succeed in killing the R.I.C Constables they set out to kill, but they also killed far more in the second phase of the ambush. They may not have come out of the ambush with much or any ammunition but they had done what they had set out to do and that was kill the British and get revenge for the killing of their fellow IRA member and Vice Commanding Officer, Martin Devitt.

The death of Martin Devitt was heavily documented in newspapers around the country during the War of Independence but mainly in Clare and it angered many people. That was one of the main reasons the Rineen Ambush was such a major and memorable event in the War of Independence.

Mainly what I found from my research of my chosen topic was that, Yes, the death of Martin Devitt did hugely contribute to the Rineen Ambush and also its success but that it was not its sole cause. The Canada Cross shootings and the Lendrum shooting were huge contributory factors. It just happened that the shooting of Martin Devitt was a sort of “last straw”. But in the end the Rineen ambush was to gain ammunition and just happened to coincide with the death of Martin Devitt.


(1) The Clare Champion. 1 June 1957. (Page 4)

(2) A statement by D.I. George Noblett of the R.I.C., a personal friend of Lendrum’s. September 1920. (Page 4)

(3) Liam Haugh-the only I.R.A. veteran to give a detailed account of the Lendrum Shooting. (Page 4) September 1920

(4) Quote Martin Devitt. September 1919 – Local tradition. (Page 5)

(5) The War of Independence in County Clare. Published by Monreal and Monaghan Historic Society 20th June 2011. TM printers. Author Pat Kirby. (Page 7)

(6) The Synge-Tottenham Diaries1877-1925.Families personal diaries property of Jane Tottenham, residence at Callan House. Mount Callan (Page 5)

(7) Blood on the Banner by Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc. Published February 3rd 2009. (Page 5)


By Harrie Keane, who has recently completed her Master’s Degree in Work and Organisational Psychology at University of Limerick and is a past pupil of St. Josephs Secondary School, Spanish Point.