‘While some counties have done much in the matter of publicizing their part in the fight for freedom, very little has been heard of the part played by Offaly in that great struggle, and yet it was within the borders of this historic county that some of the bravest and most daring deeds were done. It is not right, he said, that these should be allowed to pass into complete oblivion, and it is hoped the writing of this story of the Clara R.I.C. barrack attack will encourage others into penning the complete story of Offaly’s fight during that critical period of Irish history.’ These were the words of P. O’M. in 1960, basing his account on that published in the local press on 5 June 1920. (P O’M was brought to our attention as Paddy O’Meara who wrote a number of good articles on Clara history and was a local news correspondent.) The witness statement of Séan O’Neill, a manager in P.J. White’s Clara shop (Bureau of Military History) supports the press reports of the time. So to do the recollections of Harold Goodbody (forthcoming). IRA man and county councillor Sean Robbins of Clara was critical as was Fergus O’Bracken, writing to vindicate the role of his father, overall IRA commandant Peadar Bracken, in the episode.
The town of Clara which enjoyed the air of peacefulness was rudely awakened after the midnight hour on Wednesday 2 June, 1920, to witness a terrific attack on the R.I.C. Barrack, situated in the center of town. It is estimated the raiding party’s strength was close on 200 men, but that they were not all engaged in the actual attack, prior to which elaborate precautionary measures were carried out. The main roads connecting Clara with the adjoining towns of Tullamore, Kilbeggan, Moate and the villages of Ballycumber, Horseleap and Rahan, were blocked by fallen trees, while the telegraph and telephone lines were cut.
Sentries were posted at various points, making outside communication absolutely impossible. To avoid any possibility of surprise from the direction of the railway several sections of the main railroad were removed. This preliminary work was performed by the raiding party in a comparatively short time. Feeling secure from anything in the nature of a surprise they directed their attention towards the town, which they entered from all sides.
Moved to safety
The task of surrounding the barrack was quickly but quietly done. A notable feature (states the writer in 1960) was the respect and courtesy extended by the raiders to persons whose houses were entered. The manageress and female occupants of Williams’ Hotel were conveyed to the Post Office, while the male members, including a number of commercial travellers, were taken to the rear of the premises and ordered to remain there. The rooms overlooking the roadway had a commanding view of the barrack and immediately the raiders got to work with sandbags and furniture to partially block the windows through which they subsequently directed their fire on the barrack. In Bridge Street, Mrs. Kenny and family were removed to a place of safety in the rear, while occupants of Mr. Joe Flynn’s premises were also conveyed to safety. Similarly every consideration was given to the wife of one of the sergeants and her children, who were taken from this home to the Post Office where they found shelter during the engagement. Amongst other buildings occupied by the attackers were the extensive flour mills owned by Messrs Goodbody’s, as numerous windows commanded a perfect view of the thoroughfare and the police station. All these windows were practically packed up with heavy bags of grain, and when the attack began an almost incessant fire was kept up. Through a skylight in the mills, directly overlooking the barrack, bombs were thrown, and in several places slates were removed to give snipers, positioned inside, an opportunity of firing through the barrack windows. The most dangerous position of all was that taken up by three men, who mounted the roof of an outhouse attached to Mr Tom Daly’s business establishment, opposite Sergeant Somer’s private residence, and also facing the gable-end of the barracks. These kept up continuous fire and prevented the police from utilizing the gable-end windows.
The R.I.C. garrison
The garrison was comprised of Sergeant Somers, who was in charge, and Sergeant Coady, Constables Smyth, Fulton, Power, Folan, Byrne and special Constable Clarke. Of the garrison only a couple had retired for the night and these were quickly summoned and allotted to their posts. The police fired through the port holes in the steel shutters and from behind sandbags, placed at the windows upstairs. The fusilade was furious and the noise of rifle fire and bursting bombs struck terror into the inhabitants of River Street and Main Street. Many of them left their beds and sought shelter as bullets were flying in all directions. The attack was maintained with great vigour and bombs were thrown on the roof of the barrack from the mill roof. The police replied vigorously as shown by bullet marks and broken windows in nearby premises. Joe Flynn’s drapery establishment was constantly under fire as the I.R.A. had taken up positions there to concentrate on the gable-end windows of the barrack. At the rear of the barrack a number of men from the corrugated roof of a lean-to shed in Mr. Steward’s yard, maintained the attack with great fury. While the firing was at its highest, excavations were made under the foundation of the barrack at a spot where it adjoins the mill. Explosives were placed in position, but these failed to explode. The attackers also gained entrance to the sergeant’s quarters, which was separated by a substantial wall from the barrack building. They bombed a breach of considerable dimensions and having done this one of them entered it and demanded the defenders to surrender. The police inside in this portion of the barrack, which was used as a dormitory, threw grenade after grenade through the breach, and the attackers were forced to evacuate this portion of the building.
Danger to mills
A breach was also made in the wall between the mill and the dayroom portion of the barracks. The attackers carried large supplies of petrol, but no effort was made to set the barrack on fire, presumably fearing the mills would suffer with consequent great loss to the workers and the town. While the attack was on armed sentries carrying rifles, guarded the approaches of the town and patrolled the streets. The attack eased off at 3 a.m. possibly because it was apprehended that the arrival of a goods train at that time might have contained military. While the police reported no casualties, three [or four] of the best and bravest of the I.R.A. were seriously wounded and one of them – Patrick Seery, Cloneyheigue, died from wounds the following September and Martin Fleming, of Ballycumber, lost an arm. The third man wounded was also Ed. Brennan and appears that Martin Mileady suffered also.
When hostilities had ceased information of the attack was conveyed to Tullamore by a dispatch rider. The military in that town did not receive any intimation of the attack until 5 a.m. It appears the constable sent to the attic to send up verey light signals could not do so as a concentrated attack was kept on him. He was standing on a box close to the roof sending signals through a skylight while around him rained bullets, some of which singed his clothing. It was stated after the attack that he had a providential escape. Police cyclists had to be used to get to Clara as a military vehicle found the roads blocked, but by the time reinforcements arrived, the attackers had gone. Military and Police officers made an investigation by the rifle fire and grenades and in the evening a military detachment entered with the police into joint occupation of the building which was strengthened with sandbags. The military, aided by the Black and Tans, made a thorough search for the attackers; and it was said they traced blood to McGlynn’s Bridge. Two civilian caps were also found—one in Mr. Steward’s yard with a bullet hole through the peak and another in Mr. R. Goodbody’s laurel adjacent to Bridge Street. The R.I.C. reported the finding of a rifle, shot gun and some bombs, stated by experts to be of home manufacture. While these were being examined a live cartridge which one exploded, the bullet hitting the roadway and ricocheting. A splinter struck Miss Rourke, a young lady from Ballycommon, who had been standing with her sister, Mrs Kenny, Bridge Street. Another splinter struck Mr. Coleman, Manager Hibernian Bank, while another injured Mr. Crozier, a dentist.
A general house-to-house search was carried out and all the male occupants taken out on to the road, where machine guns were placed in front of them for several hours. They were later released.
The wounded men were attended by the late Right Rev. Mgr. M. Bracken, P.P., V.G., and a member of the Jesuit Community, St. Stanislaus College, Rahan, the late Rev. Fr Tomkin, S.J., and the late Dr. M. C. O’Hara, Clara.
While the attackers retired without having accomplished their task, the attack was carefully planned. The explosives which failed to work were calculated to have sufficient power to blow up the entire barracks and dwelling houses to pieces. It is also a tribute to the chivalry of the I.R.A. that before commencing the attack they had one of the sergeant’s wife and children brought to safety. “Look after this woman and her children” was the remark of the officer conducting Mrs Somers and her youngsters to the post office. This gave the police a great chance of fortifying the building and being ready for the attack.
Harold Goodbody, writing in the 1940s saw, correctly, that the Clara Barracks attack marked the beginning of a wave of attacks on barracks and courthouses that left the county and the country ungovernable:
The Sinn Feiners cleared out these people and by means of explosives, blew a hole through the wall into the barracks proper, while another party did the same from the mill, having seized the keys from the mill manager. Others kept up rifle fire from the houses opposite and from the mill windows. The police, although in reduced strength, put up an excellent defence and a lucky Mills bomb thrown through the hole in the wall into the neighbouring house, is supposed to have killed two or three of the assailants although the particulars of the killed and wounded have never come out, and as the attackers came from distant places – some from Tyrrellspass – it was not possible to check up. It is understood that the Parish priest, Father Bracken, refused to come out and shrive the wounded until the attacks were called off and the police remained victorious in a badly shattered building and subsequently evacuated Clara altogether for a time. In fact most of the barracks in the country were cleared into headquarters as being indefensible. We were then dependant on occasional patrols of police and military in motor lorries and the ordinary law ceased to function. In order to prevent these patrols the roads were blocked in one way or another although generally there was a way round. On 19th. June the Clara court house in Church St. adjoining the chapel was burnt.
The long-serving County Inspector Crane had retired in December 1919 and the police reports of 1920 are not as entertaining or informative. The police put the raid on Clara at 300 men and later in the year the acting C.I. commented:
Resignations from the force are becoming very numerous and no body of men can be expected to support indefinitely the condition under which the police in many places are forced to live, boycotted, forced to commandeer their food, crowded in many instance into cramped quarters without proper light or air, every man’s hand against them in danger of their lives and subjected to the appeals of their parents and their families to them to leave the force and so put an end to the danger and annoyance to which continued service exposes them all.
A diversionary attack on Geashill barracks on the same night commenced about 1 a.m
Both Geashill and Clara barracks were strongly protected against attack. It was noted that the Clara attack, though a failure, was well planned and carried out with determination. The 2nd of June 1920 was polling day in the county council elections and these proceeded that day with Sean Robbins, a Goodbody employee (Transport Union) and an I.R.A. man defeating his boss, the long-time public representative, deputy chairman of the council and largest employer in Offaly, James Perry Goodbody.
Sean Robbins, speaking in 1936 thought that there were far too many IRA men called up:
That is what happened there were too many men there. The Brigade Commandant mobilised too many. He mobilised the first and second battalion of Offaly I and also portion of Offaly II took part. That is what happened the men were on top of one another.
Fergus O’Bracken was of the view that only about 80 men were involved and of that only 21 directly. They did not have enough weapons to arm any more. The objective was to remove slates from the roof of the barracks, pour in petrol and force out the RIC in that way and secure their weapons. According to Bracken the plan in this regard was not adhered to by the commanders in the field led by Sean McGuinness who, Bracken says, had not turned up for a meeting in a Dublin hotel beforehand to advise Peadar Bracken of the impending attack date and details. Thirty years on ‘Comrade in arms’ writing in the press in 1950, a short time after Martin Fleming’s burial in Kilreehan, said that the Clara barracks attack just went wrong and was in fact a disastrous failure. He did not blame anyone. There was a trail of blood, he recalled, to Dr O’Hara’s house (probably the blood of Martin Fleming who lived three miles out on the Ballycumber Road). Dr O’Hara would say nothing later despite attempts from the military the following day to account for himself and his patients. The Ballycumber man, McInerney helped transport the wounded to Dublin assisted by Tom Fleming, Liam Dignam, Tom Bracken and others including the parish priest and the Jesuits of Tullabeg College. At 4 p.m. in the evening, according to ‘Comrade in arms’ the car made its way to the Mater Hospital, Dublin. Martin Fleming lost an arm but ‘despite the empty sleeve his spirit remained indomitable’.
The quest for a suitable memorial for Patrick Seery (born 1889, a farm labourer,) of Cloneyheigue near Tyrrellspass would go on for twenty years. Joe Begnell of Milltownpass had suggested in 1950 a suitable memorial for the captain of the Tyrrellspass Company in No 1 Offaly Brigade. On the 2nd of September 1920 Patrick Seery died at the Mater Hospital in Dublin from wounds received during the attack on the R.I.C. Barracks at Clara. Almost fifty years to the day his death was commemorated with that of other old I.R.A. members, but perhaps overshadowed with the repatriation of the remains of James Daly of the Connaught Rangers ‘mutiny’, also marked on that occasion. It was Tomas Malone who spoke, fittingly, as it was at his family home in Meedin, Tyrrellspass that the ‘rebellion’ of 1916 was suitably proclaimed in Westmeath. He was accompanied by Sean McGuinness who as O.C., was to make many speeches over the period from the 1920s right up to his death in 1978.
A wonderful memorial sculpted by Imogen Stuart now stands on the Green in Tyrrellspass of three children on the way to school and looking to the future. Yet, whatever the confusion in the execution of the battle plans (if any) for the Clara attack, great bravery and decency as soldiers was shown by all in Clara on that warm morning of 2 June 1920. It was Offaly’s opening salvo in the War of Independence. On the same day Sean Robbins would top the poll in the county council elections and Sinn Féin would dominate the new council.