B-Specials and a Border clash – Ronan McGreevy on the Clones Affray

An Irishman’s Diary

The early months of 1922 were ones where there was a real prospect of civil war between North and South and not, as it eventually turned out, between pro- and anti-Treaty forces.

It was marked by attempts to halt a spate of sectarian violence in the newly created Northern Ireland. The violence had begun in the summer of 1920 and matched the more contemporary Troubles in its intensity.

The Belfast pogroms began in July 1920 with the expulsion from the shipyards of 8,000 Catholic workers and so-called "rotten Prods" – those of a left-wing or trade unionist persuasion. It was accompanied by the expulsion of thousands of Catholic residents from their homes in the city and sectarian killings, mostly, though not exclusively, directed at Catholics in the city.

After the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 and the handover of power to the Provisional Government on January 16th, 1922, Sir James Craig, the prime minister of Northern Ireland, and Michael Collins agreed the first Craig-Collins pact.


This was an attempt to end the violence and bring a semblance of co-operation between two political entities which has been partitioned the year before. The pact raised unrealistic expectations of North-South cooperation which were quickly dashed.

To end the violence, Craig pledged to “facilitate in every possible way the return of Catholic workmen without tests to the shipyards as and when trade revival enables the firms concerned to absorb the present unemployed”.

Collins agreed to end the Belfast Boycott, a boycott of goods and services instigated in August 1920 by Dáil Éireann as a protest against the shipyard expulsions. Both consented to scrap the British representative on the Boundary Commission as set out in Article 12 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and to appoint their own representatives to "mutually agree on behalf of their representatives on the boundaries between the two".

They further agreed to dispense with the Council of Ireland as outlined in the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and opted to deal with issues of mutual concern between the two of them and their officials on a one-to-one basis.

The prospect that the two political entities set up on the island of Ireland could live in peaceful co-existence was swiftly shattered by Craig’s declaration three days later that there would be no territorial concession to the Irish Free State.

Collins too, while publicly supporting peace, was seeking to undermine the Northern Ireland state at every turn and had established an Ulster Council to that end with his old IRA comrades.

Though the chief signatory to the Treaty, Collins never accepted the Border as definitive, nor did he trust that the Boundary Commission would cede nationalist majority areas to the new Free State.

The scheduled hanging of three IRA men at Derry Jail on February 9th over a botched prison escape concentrated the mind of republicans.

Collins was determined to free them and even tried to kill the hangman, John Ellis, who was due to perform the executions.

In January 1922 the “Monaghan footballers”, as they became known, were arrested as they planned an escape attempt for the Derry three. This prompted the kidnapping of dozens of unionist sympathisers by the IRA in cross-Border raids.

On February 11th, any semblance of a rapprochement between North and South was ended by an incident which became known as the Clones Affray.

It involved a party of 18 armed Ulster Special Constabulary members, or B-Specials, travelling by train from Belfast, stopped at Clones railway station in Co Monaghan en route to Enniskillen. In pre-Partition times a group of policemen from the North getting off the train in Clones would have been mundane. The men waited on the platform for the train to take them to Enniskillen.

When the local IRA heard about it, they rushed to the train station. Sensing an incursion into southern territory, they called on the B-Specials to surrender. Instead, the policemen inside shot dead the IRA commander Matt Fitzpatrick.

IRA Commandant John McGonnell brought a Thompson machine gun with him and fired more than 100 bullets into the carriages occupied by the police.

“I continued firing until all movement in these carriages had ceased which proved to me that all the occupants were either killed or severely wounded,” he recounted in his chilling statement to the Bureau of Military History

Four B-Specials were killed and scores of others injured, including civilians.

By the time the train arrived in Enniskillen, the carriages were a mass of blood. The Clones Affray, as it became known, was a serious incident that led to the British government temporarily suspending its troop withdrawal from Ireland.

It prompted further fierce reprisals against the Catholic community. Over the next three days, 31 people died in Belfast.

The worst atrocity occurred at Weaver Street on February 13th, 1922, when loyalists threw a bomb into the middle of a group of children playing at a street corner. Six children were killed and 17 injured, all of them Catholics. The barbaric nature of the killings caused universal shock, Churchill stating: "It is the worst thing that has happened in Ireland in the last three years."

The centenary of the Clones Affray will be marked by an exhibition at the county museum in Monaghan town. Several items relating to the event are set to go on display including the rifle that reportedly killed Matt Fitzpatrick; his Luger handgun; and a wooden crucifix display, including the small metal cross he had in his pocket when he died, along with insignia from his uniform and a lock of his hair.

They have been donated to the museum by his nephew Gerard Fitzpatrick.