‘A matter of seconds’ – An Irishman’s Diary on the Rineen ambush of 1920

The Rineen ambush, which occurred 100 years ago today, was the largest by the IRA to that date in the War of Independence. Five Royal Irish Constabulary constables, all of them Irish, and a Black and Tan were killed when men from the IRA's Mid-Clare Brigade ambushed a Crossley tender on the coast road between Ennistymon and Miltown Malbay in west Clare on September 22nd, 1920.

Two of the RIC officers who were killed were from Co Roscommon and there was one each from counties Sligo, Mayo and Cork. The Black and Tan who died was a 21-year-old London veteran of the first World War.

Like the more famous and more bloody Kilmichael ambush, the officer commanding at Rineen was also a war veteran. Ignatius O'Neill fought with the Irish Guards and survived both Ypres and the Somme.

He was not initially involved in planning for the raid, but insisted on bringing his military experience to bear when he heard of the ambush.

The ambush site was chosen carefully. Some 60 IRA men were positioned on hills both sides of the road which was concealed by thick shrubbery at Rineen Cross. They were sited just after a bend on the road where any passing vehicles would have to slow down.

Though the ambush party was large, the number of men with weapons was small. The brigade had only nine rifles between them and ammunition was scarce.

Scouts had noticed that RIC lorries passed by on a regular basis between the barracks in Ennistymon and Miltown Malbay.

The targeted lorry had already passed by the waiting ambush party that morning, but there was confusion as to whether there were three lorries or just one, so it was allowed to pass.

O’Neill feared his men did not have the firepower to take on three lorry-loads of RIC men. He sent on a scout by bicycle to Miltown Malbay to monitor the movements of the lorry. The scout reported back that the lorry was parked outside Miltown Malbay barracks facing towards Ennistymon.

When the lorry passed a second time around 2pm in the afternoon, the ambush party opened up with devastating results.

"The attack was over in a matter of seconds," recalled John Neylan, who had been involved in the ambush. "There was no reply from the lorry and our fellows rushed towards it to find five dead policemen lying inside. One of the police managed to get off the lorry and had gone about 300 yards towards Miltown when he was seen and shot."

They were still at the scene when a party of British soldiers arrived and began to use machine guns on the fleeing ambush party, wounding O'Neill. He was treated by Dr Michael Hillery, the father of future president Patrick Hillery.

The presence of the soldiers was a coincidence. They were not there because of the ambush, but because of the disappearance of the local magistrate, Alan Lendrum, who had been stopped at a roadblock by the IRA's West Clare Brigade earlier that day.

According to the IRA, he had drawn his pistol when asked to hand over his car and they shot him dead, weighed his body with stones and dumped him in a lake. Two weeks later they removed his body from the lake and put it into a makeshift coffin for the British military to find.

From a military point of view, the ambush was a complete success, but the reprisals were swift and brutal.

Houses were burned in Ennistymon, Lahinch and Miltown Malbay. Residents of Lahinch fled the town and slept out in sandhills for two nights. Black and Tans burned the town halls in both Lahinch and Ennistymon and several hotels which were the economic mainstays of the local economy.

Five people were killed that day in revenge for Rineen.

Crown forces shot a local farmer, Sean Keane, who died of his wounds. Thomas Connole, the secretary of the local ITGWU union branch, was shot and thrown into his burning home.

The Black and Tans targeted the home of Dan Lehane, whose two sons were involved in the ambush. They shot him dead and burnt his home.

His son Patrick “Pake” Lehane was burnt to death during the reprisals. He was only 15.

One unfortunate man, James Sammon, was on holidays in Lahinch when he was shot dead while fleeing a burning building.

Six IRA men were captured and summarily shot by the Auxiliaries in November and December in what was widely believed to be revenge for the Rineen ambush.

The reprisals were widely condemned.

Maj Gene Sir Frederick Maurice said five days after the ambush, and with Balbriggan also still in the public mind, that the Black and Tans had become a "law on to themselves". "I believe that their lives depend on their exacting, not an eye for an eye, but two eyes for one."

The pattern of reprisals by British forces was condemned in the House of Commons, but a motion brought by the Labour Party was soundly defeated.

The chief secretary for Ireland Hamar Greenwood justified the targeting of homes in response to Rineen.

Those involved, he said, had been “notorious Sinn Féiners. I am convinced that the people of those two villages (Ennistymon and Lahinch) knew of the ambush.”

The explicit acknowledgement by a cabinet minister of a policy of reprisals would ultimately backfire on the British government.

International opprobrium was one of the reasons why the British sued for peace just nine months later.