Clonfin ambush can teach us about ethical remembering

Exploring experience of ‘other’ need not entail rejection of values of one’s own side

The President of Ireland’s “Machnamh 100” series issues the challenge of commemorating events during the decade of centenaries from the perspective of ethical remembering. This approach is characterised by a willingness to be “open to the perspectives, stories, memories and pains of the stranger”, which includes “the enemy of yesterday”.

The decision last year to cancel a planned state commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary could be interpreted as a failure of the test of ethical remembering. The controversy that ensued risks losing sight of other commemorative events which have successfully integrated the crown forces into the act of remembrance.

One hundred years ago this month, on 2 February 1921, nineteen members of M Company of the Auxiliary Division of the RIC were ambushed by the North Longford Flying Column of the IRA at Clonfin, between Ballinalee and Granard. The ambush was among the revolutionary IRA’s best strategic employments of guerrilla tactics and most effective uses of an improvised explosive device. Four Auxiliaries died and seven were subsequently discharged as medically unfit due to the severity of their injuries.

In 1971 the surviving IRA veterans came together to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the event and every year since then a commemoration has been organised by their descendants. A scaled-back centenary commemoration held earlier this month exemplified ethical remembering. In addition to the standard commemorative rituals – reading the IRA roll of honour, raising the tricolour and playing Amhrán na bhFiann – the deaths of the four Auxiliaries cadets (George Bush, Francis Worthington Craven, Harold Clayton and John Houghton) were noted. The ceremony concluded with a joint ecumenical prayer from the local Catholic parish priest and Church of Ireland rector.


Role of their ancestors

These proceedings were complemented by a personal journey of reconciliation undertaken by a local Mercy sister, Maeve Brady, who visited the graves in England of all four deceased Auxiliaries. Her father, Tom Brady, took part in the Clonfin ambush as a member of the North Longford Flying Column. For the descendants of the North Longford Flying Column members, honouring the role of their ancestors in achieving Irish independence is not incompatible with recognising the loss suffered by those on the other side, a central tenet of the president's conception of ethical remembering.

This was not the first time that RIC members featured in centenary events. The local commemoration of the Soloheadbeg ambush in Tipperary in January 2019 also included descendants of the two Irish RIC men who died in that engagement. Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is that where sensitive events from the past are remembered the impetus should come from below, from the local communities which best understand the dynamics, rather than be imposed from above by government.

The second instalment of Machnamh – which takes place this week – focuses on the centrality of empire and the imperial legacy of British rule in Ireland. All of the Clonfin Auxiliaries had served, many with distinction (including two Military Crosses and one Distinguished Service Order), to defend king, country and empire during the Great War. Did that same desire to protect the empire from insurrection lead four of them to their deaths in Ireland in 1921?

In launching the Machnamh series last December, the President cautioned against accepting stereotypical depictions of the “other”. Older generations in Ireland were led to believe that the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries were unstable renegade ex-convicts, a perception largely demolished by serious historical analysis of their backgrounds.

The President has also noted how the violent actions of the crown forces were strategic tools employed to defend empire, and certainly that was the vision of the political and military leaders who deployed these men to Ireland, but does it explain the individual motivations of the men who defended the British nation and empire in Ireland during 1920 and 1921?

Reasons for enlistment

The Clonfin Auxiliaries included men who had been engineers, mechanics and clerks before the Great War. The most unusual member of the group, Louis Martin Van Eyssen, was a university graduate, teacher and Dutch Reformed preacher in his native South Africa, where he had fought against the British during the Boer War, before switching sides to serve in the Royal Flying Corps during the first World War.

Compensation claims suggest more mundane reasons for enlistment in the Auxiliaries, than considerations of nation or empire. Van Eyssen’s divorce was finalised later in 1921, suggesting a desire to escape from an unhappy domestic situation. Harold Clayton, one of the fatalities, had been sending home £5 weekly to his pregnant wife and their child, while for William Bellingham the Auxiliaries offered a source of income “merely to tide him over in the crisis in the engineering trade” during the economic downturn after the first World War.

In other ways the Clonfin Auxiliaries exhibit the nuances and complexities of the revolutionary years. One of those permanently incapacitated was an Irish Presbyterian from Co Laois. A surviving Auxiliary, TJ Wilford, subsequently married a Longford woman whose family had lived not far from Clonfin. In the 1950s Wilford revisited the site of the ambush and corresponded with his former adversary, Seán MacEoin.

This year’s centenary commemoration of the Clonfin ambush was a practical demonstration of the President’s call for ethical remembering. It showed that commemoration does not need to be exclusive or exclusionary, and that exploring the experience of the “other” need not entail a rejection of the values of one’s own side.

Dr Marie Coleman is a Reader in modern Irish history at Queen’s University Belfast