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Local history: A turbulent time in Ireland

Reviews: Paul Clements on stories from the War of Independence and Civil War

The killing of four men in Clare's War of Independence in November 1920 has been imprinted in the minds of local people for several generations. The Scariff Martyrs: War, Murder and Memory in East Clare (Mercier Press, €19.99) by Tomás Mac Conmara brings together for the first-time precise details of the incident in which British forces shot the men dead on Killaloe bridge, straddling Clare and Tipperary. A renowned oral historian, Mac Conmara has immersed himself in the events of that night and assembled a huge amount of evidence, including recording an interview with a 105-year-old woman who recalled it, as well as tapping into previously unused material.

Three of those killed, Martin Gildea, Michael “Brud” McMahon and Alphie Rodgers, were active members of the IRA. The fourth, Michael Egan, was a civilian who had been pulled into the story by allowing the other three to stay in Williamstown House in Whitegate where he was caretaker. The betrayal of the men by a spy, their torture and refusal to deceive comrades is dealt with, while the killings are set against the deeper tensions and feelings of the times.

At the other end of Clare, in the north and west of the county, the murders of Guard Thomas Dowling in 1925 and of Detective Tadhg O'Sullivan four years later are recalled in Echoes from a Civil War (€20) by Joe Queally. While their deaths were not directly connected, they were linked by the fact that they took place in communities torn by years of strife and warfare. In describing both incidents – the shooting of Guard Dowling at Craggagh in Fanore and the bomb explosion that killed Detective O'Sullivan in Tullycrine – the author is sensitive to the depth of distress their deaths caused to the families of the two gardaí.

Although the civil war had ended in 1923, bitter feelings and entrenched positions persisted in local communities, as well as conflict over the illicit traffic in poitín. Dowling, who was 29, was shot while returning from patrol duty on his bicycle at the end of December. He was accompanied by an off-duty colleague, Guard John Cahill, who cycled away hastily from the scene to try to get help. A murder investigation was launched under Superintendents Kelleher (Ennis) and Brady (Ballyvaughan) which involved searching houses and questioning people about their movements. Three men were charged with murder and after a trial at the Central Criminal Court in Dublin they were released. The case remains one of the longest unsolved murders in the history of the Irish State.


The name Tadhg Barry may be little-known today but he is regarded as the last high-profile victim of the crown forces in the War of Independence. In his biographical study Utter Disloyalist: Tadhg Barry and the Irish Revolution (Mercier Press, €19.99) Donal Ó Drisceoil draws together the strands of his life and death. An alderman on Cork City Corporation, a leading trade unionist, veteran Republican activist and enthusiastic GAA supporter, Barry was arrested and imprisoned without charge or trial in early 1921.

On November 15th that year he was shot dead by a sentry in Ballykinlar internment camp in Co Down. The anger at his death was exacerbated by the timing – just three weeks later he would have been released along with his fellow internees as part of the Anglo-Irish Treaty settlement. The author points out that following his death, Cork Corporation called for the Treaty negotiations to be suspended. And despite a huge funeral – Barry’s name was “lost in the smoke” after the Civil War, erased from the collective memory, even in his native city.

In an absorbing compendium Independence Memories: A People's Portrait of the Early Days of the Irish Nation (Hachette, £14.99) Valerie Cox soaks up social history from 100 years ago. She interviews a cross-section of ordinary people, listening to their authentic speaking voice telling of how their families were affected by the troubled times. The tragedy of innocent civilians killed during the Civil War – estimated to be between 300 and 400 people whose stories are largely unknown – is recounted. One of them, Mary Ellen Kavanagh, who was 19, was shot dead during a bank raid in Buncrana in 1922. Her family was offered compensation of £19 – one pound for every year of her life.

An overview of the revolutionary decade drawn from the Witness Statements archive is revealed in Eamonn Duggan's We Go Into Action Today at Noon . . . First-hand Accounts from Ireland's Revolutionary Years, 1913-22 (O'Brien Press, €19.99). Seventeen chapters provide invaluable recollections of the organisation of battalions and flying columns, procuring arms and ammunition, spying and intelligence work, and other subjects. Those interviews were carried out by the Bureau of Military History from 1947-57, covering the period of the Easter Rising up to the War of Independence. The statements are a comprehensive roadmap of the decade and capture significant stories from not only the men but also the women who joined Cumann na mBhan. They paint a portrait of who took part in military operations across the country shedding light on the political manoeuvres and wider thinking in republican circles.

Stirring accounts of the Rising include those of Michael Staines, Quartermaster General of the Irish Volunteers from 1913-16 who was in the GPO. And from Monsignor Michael Curran – secretary to the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Walsh – who kept a personal dairy of the fast-moving events and was a witness to shootings and lootings.