One bloody day in the War of Independence

The violent, unheroic deaths of five young men in three incidents on one day in 1920 say much about the nature of the country’s 'war’

Black and Tans and Auxiliaries in a happy mood after surviving an attack on their Dublin hotel in which an attacker was killed.

Black and Tans and Auxiliaries in a happy mood after surviving an attack on their Dublin hotel in which an attacker was killed.


On the morning of April 14th, 1920, acting Sgt Patrick Lavin, a Royal Irish Constabulary drill instructor, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his office at the police depot in the Phoenix Park.

Lavin’s death, and that of four others in two separate incidents on that same day, put in a broader perspective the untold story of firearm deaths during the War of Independence – the flying column and the ambush were by no means the only ways that people met untimely ends.

It was a bloody conflict not defined by set-pieces like the assassinations and reprisals on Bloody Sunday or the Kilmichael ambush, despite the disproportionate space they occupy in the memory of the conflict. Most of the dying and killing was ad hoc, swift and occasionally indiscriminate. In the transition from one regime to another, anarchy bridged the gap between British and Irish rule in many parts of the country. And, in truth, the ubiquity of firearms and persons trained in their use was a key factor in changing the nature of death and dying in Ireland after the first World War.

Lavin, a native of Co Roscommon, had been a member of the Irish Guards and, on demobilisation, had joined the RIC, becoming a drill instructor at the depot.

While it is impossible to know the reasons for his suicide, the papers of the day reported that, shortly before his death, Lavin had been informed that he was to be transferred out of the depot to a posting in the countryside at a time when violence against the police was occurring with heightened frequency.

If this was the motivation behind his death, then surely Lavin can be counted among the victims of the War of Independence.

The second event occurred at about 9.30pm that same Wednesday, April 14th. At Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, a crowd gathered to celebrate the release of hunger-striking prisoners from Mountjoy gaol that day.

Congregating around a lit tar barrel, the assembly sang songs, including the Soldier’s Song . Soon, a detachment of police and infantry advanced from the local barracks. Stopping 200 yards short of the gathering, Crown forces fired on the crowd leaving three unarmed local men – Patrick Hennessy, Thomas O’Leary and John O’Loughlin – dead at the scene.

At least 12 others were injured. Such indiscriminate firing had a deeply negative effect on public perceptions of the Crown forces in Ireland. In a highly politicised coroner’s inquest, the jury returned a verdict of murder and warrants were issued for the arrest of the soldiers and police involved.

If Lavin’s death highlights the psychological strains under which the police were operating by the spring of 1920, then Miltown Malbay underlined how fragile and hostile relations between civilians and Crown forces had become.

At some point on the night of April 14th/15th, Constable Patrick Foley, then on leave in his native Annascaul, was abducted along with a companion with whom he had been drinking in a local hotel.

Foley was allegedly engaged in collecting the names of local republicans while on leave in Kerry and, following an IRA court martial, was executed as a spy. His body was not found until 7am on April 16th in the yard of a creamery in Deelis, near Camp, 10 miles from his abduction.

At the time the authorities were confused by the fact that Foley had been taken so far from Annascaul. But Tadhg Kennedy, intelligence officer of Kerry No 1 Brigade [see also page 12], later revealed that “[Foley’s] sentence could not be carried out in the Dingle Battalion as almost all the officers were relatives of his.” Contemporary press reported that Foley was “riddled with bullets”.

Historian Sinead Joy has noted that the brutality of Foley’s murder was intentional, designed to send out a warning to other would-be informants.

While all of the above cases relate in one way or another to the independence struggle, shortly before these five men lost their lives, on March 23rd, 1920, an argument between relatives in Ballyharigan, Drum, Co Derry, ended in tragedy when 23-year-old Hugh Hutton called to the home of Mary Hutton, a shoemaker’s wife and nine years Hugh’s senior.

Hugh’s younger brother had allegedly hit two of Mary’s children and an argument ensued. As tensions flared, Mary Hutton took down a shotgun which was kept on a rafter and, as she threatened Hugh, the weapon discharged into his abdomen, mortally wounding him.

Mary Hutton would be sentenced to eight days’ imprisonment on a capital charge. Although Hugh Hutton died, like Foley, after being shot, it should not be taken that the prevalence of firearms in Ireland in this period was solely responsible for the increase in death. Indeed, on May 25th, 1920, two men, Coleman Keane and Martin Ridge, got in an argument and the latter was struck with a hammer and mortally wounded.

However, just as the first World War had democratised the experience of death across Europe, in Ireland, the War of Independence brought violence to the doors of civilians across Ireland in a manner and on a scale that simply had not occurred for at least a century.

In a European context, the human cost of the Irish revolution, at roughly 2,000 dead, was comparatively low, perhaps remarkably so. The Polish-Soviet war, which lasted from February 1919 to March 1921, witnessed over 100,000 deaths. In Finland, a more appropriate comparison in population terms, 25,000 people died during the civil war of 1918.

However, the impact of Ireland’s revolution cannot be measured in purely statistical terms. The deepest impact was psychological and the killing of civilians and police was one of the central differentiations between regular and irregular warfare.

As we look towards commemorating these events in the years ahead there should be no airbrushing of the often inglorious and always painful events that inhabit Ireland’s revolutionary decade.

Conor Mulvagh lectures in history at the School of History and Archives, UCD , and is working with the Royal Irish Academy on Documents in Irish Foreign Policy Vol. IX