Remembering the Scariff Martyrs

The killing of four young men on Killaloe Bridge in 1920 still resonates locally

On April 8th, 2004, I drove from a house in Ennis that I rented with my friends, Clive, Peter, Shane and Rob. I was 23 and the discussion I departed from was likely about the weekend just gone or the weekend to come, laughing, banter and absolutely merciless slagging, some of which was directed towards me as I left. Although not without some curiosity as to my reason for leaving, they did not care, not then anyway. Very, very good times.

I was heading east towards the native parish of my father. There, I would transform into a very serious and intense history enthusiast. I was to meet Paddy Gleeson, born 99 years earlier in April 1904. My father Dan would be there too. He was the key that unlocked this century-old door. Both men from the parish of O’Callaghan’s Mills, they had endless threads to pull on from a seemingly ever-expanding fabric of memory. They spoke fluidly in a language of intimate familiarity, a deep knowing, shared.

I had already been engaged in the study of the past since I was a young teenager and had recorded the voices of many. This was my first time meeting Paddy Gleeson, however, and I knew it would be important. Within his three-room, stone-built cottage, Paddy sat directly in front of his open-hearth fire, warmth within reach across a space filled again and again with stories of the past. When after a time I pressed record, I captured Paddy mid-sentence, already on his way away from the present and deep into the distant past. Having reached into that history, one story was retrieved and foregrounded, with Paddy declaring: “I was in Scariff the night the four boys were brought back”.

Before I knew the history of the Scariff Martyrs, I knew the feeling of it. It was there, embedded in the way people spoke. Michael “Brud” McMahon, Alphie Rodgers, Martin Gildea, three IRA Volunteers, together with Michael Egan, a civilian who had sheltered them, were shot dead on the bridge of Killaloe by British Crown Forces. The shooting took place at midnight on November 16th, 1920, at the height of Ireland’s War of Independence. It was an incident that wounded deeply the local community, leaving a pain that would echo across the generations.


At a later point in my research, I sat with a 105-year-old woman at a nursing home in Newmarket on Fergus, Co Clare. While gently moving through her memories, I asked a question that had been impatiently waiting on my mind: “Do you remember the time the four lads were killed on the bridge of Killaloe?”

I knew Margaret Hoey was a native of Scariff and hoped she had some sense of the event, perhaps even remembered it. Almost immediately, Margaret’s countenance changed to one of outward sadness, her old shoulders dropping as if some heaviness had taken hold of both her mind and limbs. Before responding, Margaret’s eyes had already betrayed some long-held distillation of understanding. She began to take me back to November 1920, when she was 16-year-old Margaret Minogue and when the story of the four men’s brutal death was revealed to the community. Margaret had left her native place over 80 years before I recorded her memories. It quickly became apparent that her native place had never left her.

There are occasions when a disclosure of memory can be so powerful, so wrought with emotion, that for a moment you find yourself transported on a journey of recollection. So it was in Carrigoran Nursing Home when Margaret Hoey, born five years and a century earlier in 1904, revealed to me a moment marked indelibly on her memory. For a time, I felt as if I was there standing near the open-hearth fire of her home when her mother opened the door to a frantic IRA Volunteer. Four young local men had been killed. Margaret knew three of them. Within the folds of her memory, I walked and then ran with Margaret as she quickened her pace up the avenue adjacent to her home. She had been dispatched there to warn other IRA Volunteers who were on the run and sheltered in a local safe house. Back then in 1920, she had cried as she ran. As I listened 88 years later, she cried as she spoke.

I stood beside her as she knocked shyly on the door. I was there when the man of the house shouted at her, frustrated at her failure to speak words through her tears. It was the anxiety of a man who wanted to know but feared the knowledge. I saw his face transform as those devastating words broke through Margaret’s quivering voice, as she told him that Alphie, “Brud”, Martin and a man called Michael Egan had been killed. As with Paddy’s declaration, from Margaret’s simple but profoundly emotional disclosure, I became intensely aware of how forcefully the memories of the men, later known as the Scariff Martyrs, were imprinted on local memory. Margaret died just weeks after that interview. Paddy died in November 2010, proud then to be Ireland’s oldest man.

Writing in 2021, after many years immersed in the story, I feel I have drawn closer to an understanding of that experience. Over time, my philosophy of history came not simply to surround the accumulation of knowledge about the past, but the cultivation of understanding. To this end, I have listened: to Paddy, to Margaret and many, many others. To make such a pilgrimage to the innermost districts of our past, one must attend to the role of place, people, and memory in our historical consciousness. With this, I believe, comes a greater knowing; one that can illuminate the hidden contours of our historical experience and enable us, in our time, to inhabit a much richer landscape.

A lot has changed since I drove away from Kealderra that evening in 2004. I had unconsciously begun a journey of exploration that would only end seventeen years later. I drove away from O’Callaghan’s Mills and back into the town of Ennis where on the Gort Road, I rejoined my friends and the past faded away to the more imminent present. Back to laughter, slagging and discussions of weekends gone and more to come. We all have children now, partners and wives. We are still friends, although I am almost sure they have read none of my books.

The Scariff Martyrs: War, Murder and Memory in East Clare is published by Mercier Press