Undefeated: The Attack and Defence of Clara RIC Barracks, June 1920

Reminisces

From the 1936 interview with Seán Robbins, former quartermaster of the 2nd Offaly Brigade:

Q. Our view about Clara Barracks is – whether we are right or wrong – that it was a major engagement for some and not a major engagement for others?

S.R. Yes.

Q. A man that was in the mill, how would he be situated?

S.R. That was one of the most dangerous positions.

Q. Was he in the actual fight?

S.R. Yes. And William’s house on the opposite side was dangerous.

Q. Was that the Sergeant’s house?

S.R. The sergeant’s house was attached to the barracks proper.

Q. Was that William’s house?

S.R. William’s house was the opposite side, the mill was in front of the barracks and the sergeant’s house was attached to the barracks proper.

Q. It would have been a bad place?

S.R. It was. As a matter of fact there were two or three men lost there, two wounded and one died. Two mained [sic] and one seriously wounded.[1]

Record of the RIC

On the night of 2nd June 1920, the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) barracks in Clara, Co. Offaly (then King’s County), was the target of a coordinated assault by several local companies of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The attack had been well-planned with a shrewd understanding in how to isolate a target beforehand and an array of sophisticated, if unsubtle, techniques against a fortified position.

The RIC, on the other hand, was finding itself to be an antiquated institution and one ill-prepared for the rigours of confronting a guerrilla war. The burden of pacifying the unruly country increasingly fell upon the shoulders of the British Army regiments stationed in Ireland.

Members_Of_The_Royal_Irish_Constabulary
RIC policemen

In assessing the state of the RIC by May 1920, an internal review of the Army’s performance during the Irish Troubles, Record of the Rebellion in Ireland 1919-1921 (drafted in 1922), found that its ally had:

…lost control over the population even in the towns and villages in which they were stationed, and it was becoming the exception rather than the rule for head constables and sergeants in command at outstations to do more than live shut up in their barracks.[2]

While not unsympathetic to the plight of the besieged police force, Record pointed to the excess of elderly timeservers in its ranks, men whose primary interest was their forthcoming pensions. To survive, the RIC would need recruits with the strength and vigour of youth.

Such fresh blood was to be found and would quickly taint the name of the RIC with their own: the Black-and-Tans and the Auxiliaries. It was a policy that would go horribly right but, in May 1920, no one amongst the British forces could deny that the police were in dire need of an overhaul:

In a military sense, the RIC were untrained and thus, though no fault of their own, they were greatly handicapped. Their military training was almost non-existent, their fire discipline nil, and our officers had to go round their barracks to help them as much as possible in the effective use of the rifle…hand and rifle grenades, rockets and Verey light signals, and in the defence arrangements of their barracks.[3]

The RIC barracks were a particularly weak link in the Crown chain. Many were in unsuitable positions, having not been built to defend against an organised assault. The one on Clara Barracks was singled out by Record as an example of such an attack and a demonstration of the tactics used by the IRA.[4]

irishpolice4
RIC police and barrack

Clara Barracks

Clara Barrack stood in the middle of the town as a small two-storied stone building with a slate roof and steel shutters over its windows. At one end, it adjoined a large flour-mill and at the other were the quarters of Sergeant Somers’ wife and children.

Somers manned the building with an addition of eight armed constables. It made a formidable target, one that required the men of the Clara, Tullamore, Rahan, Streamstown and Ballycomber companies to come out in full force.

clara
Main Street, Clara

At midnight, the tramp of marching feet could be heard through the streets of Clara. Volunteers had already been assigned to various tasks such as stealing tins of petrol from a nearby garage, cutting telephone wires or felling trees across all roads leading to the town. Reinforcements to the beleaguered barracks would not be coming quickly, if at all.

In addition, the barracks in the nearby village of Geashill was attacked. The fight there lasted for less than an hour and the only causalities it caused were smashed windows but it had succeeded in its primary aim as a feint.

In Clara, the door to the Somers’ family quarters was kicked in. With a touch of chivalry, the wife and children of the Sergeant were taken to the safety of the post office. At the same time, the windows of William’s shop in the main street, opposite the barracks, were smashed in by rifle-butts as men took up position. There, the men barricaded the top windows as best they could with mattresses, furniture and anything else at hand. The mill at the end of the barracks was likewise occupied.[5]

Strength in Numbers?

Despite the relative finesse of the operation, it was Seán Robbins’ opinion that the IRA’s superiority in numbers had also been a hindrance:

Q. You can see the trouble about Clara Barracks attack. There was a lot of men in the attack on Clara that were not in dangerous positions?

S.R. 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.[6]

The numbers of the Volunteers involved is uncertain. Two contemporary newspaper accounts reported numbers of 300 and 100-200. Though Record believed the 300 estimate an exaggerated one, Robbins also judged the participants to have been up to that same number, making it the most likely.[7]

The Fight

Inhabitants of Clara and nearby towns such as Birr were awoken that night by the sounds of gunshots and lightning-like flashes. The latter were from the Verey flare guns that the RIC garrison were sending up to call for aid. They made a striking impression on Seán O’Neill, one of the participants in the attack, as he later described:

While we were in the yard showers of multi-coloured verey lights came down on top of us. When the verey lights were fired they went right into the air like a star, then spread out like miniature fiery balls of many brilliant colours.[8]

Despite such eye-catching splendour being visible all the way to Birr, the garrison was on its own. From their positions in William’s shop and the mill, the Volunteers kept up a hail of fire on the barracks with an assortment of rifles, shotguns and revolvers. Despite several calls to surrender, the besieged police responded vigorously with their own guns through the apertures of the steel shutters covering the windows.

North-Longford-Flying-Column-300x271
IRA/Irish Volunteers

In order to break the stalemate, those IRA men in the Somers’ family quarters and the mill attempted to break through the adjoining walls to the barracks. Posted to the rear of the building, O’Neill could hear the sledgehammers and crowbars at work in the Sergeant’s house whenever there was a lull in the fighting.

Explosions

At this point, the two main sources for the attack – Record and O’Neill – diverge (though otherwise they are notably congruent). In the former, the assailants in the Somers’ home were able to use explosives to blow a hole through the wall into the first floor of the barracks and behind where a constable was busy firing from a window. The quick-witted policeman was able to throw several bombs through the sudden hole, throwing his enemy into disarray. The IRA mole team in the mill, on the other hand, failed in their own efforts to break through to the barracks.

O’Neill’s version, however, has it that it was the Volunteers in the mill who succeeded in blasting through. O’Neill says nothing about the success of the Volunteers in the Sergeant’s quarters, only that they were able to let off an explosion in the wall which apparently went nowhere.

volunteers
IRA/Irish Volunteers

One of the Volunteers in the mill, Martin Fleming – in O’Neill’s account – shouted though the gaping hole for the defendants to surrender. Fatalities at this stage in the War of Independence had been relatively light, and the intent of the Clara attackers seems to have been to secure the barracks with the least bloodshed possible; otherwise, they could have thrown bombs through the hole in the wall as soon as they could. Fleming received for his troubles a bomb of the RIC’s own which almost blew his arm off.[9]

Retreat

With the attack stalled and dawn starting to break, the Volunteers decided by 3 am to retreat. They had suffered two other causalities besides Fleming, both while posted in William’s shop: Patrick Seery from a bullet to the chest and Ned Brennan in the hip. It was not surprising that Robbins would remember that position as a dangerous one.

O’Neill remembered Robbins helping Seery to a priest’s house to be anointed, the prognosis clearly a grim one. O’Neill, for his part, assisted in taking Fleming and Brennan to the same priest, an experience that was to haunt him:

It was not a pleasant scene in view of the failure to take the barracks to see the footpath strewn with the blood of our men. I shall not easily forget the condition of Seery who had a large hole in his chest and Fleming whose hand, from above the wrist, was almost completely severed.[10]

It was not until 5:30 am that Tullamore Barracks received news of the attack, and 6:30 when army reinforcements arrived in Clara, by which time the attackers were long gone.

Despite their failure to capture the barracks, the Volunteers had at least been able to isolate it, perhaps a little too well: the Birr-Roscrea train was delayed that morning by almost two and a half hours due to tampered wires, and a motorist from Mullingar crashed his car against a tree across the road. Unharmed, the driver and his passenger made the rest of the journey to Athlone by foot.

Record proudly recorded what the enemy had had to abandon in their haste to depart: “One rifle, a shot gun, several bombs, articles of clothing, full tins of petrol and a sprayer.” It was a good indicator of the armoury the Offaly IRA had at its disposal.[11]

The Westmeath Guardian told of the blood found on the scene as well as a cap with a bullet-hole found in the peak, testifying to the intensity of the fight. Another newspaper, The Leinster Chronicle, was pithier: left behind on the scene had been a “considerable quantity of arms, petrol and blood.”[12]

Patrick Seery

The RIC garrison had suffered no causalities. Of the IRA, Brennan and Fleming survived their injuries, though the latter lost his arm and wore an artificial one in later years.[13]

Seery, however, lingered on before dying in September while at the Mater Hospital, Dublin. He was 31 years old. His funeral in his native district of Tyrrellspass, Co. Westmeath, was a grand affair and a show of strength by his comrades. Thousands of Volunteers from the Offaly and Mullingar battalions joined the mile-long funeral procession, marching two deep while keeping time with the Tullamore Pipers’ Band.

volunteersDrilling
IRA/Irish Volunteers

Upon reaching the cemetery, the tricolour-draped coffin was borne on the shoulders of Volunteers, and a military salute was fired over the grave. The farewell did not go entirely without a hitch. A member of the firing party was impressed by his revolver’s lack of kick, saying that he had never fired a finer gun. On closer inspection, it transpired that the revolver had not fired at all due to dud ammunition, not that anyone had noticed at the time.

While reporting on the funeral, the Westmeath Guardian neglected to mention the cause of death. The Leinster Chronicle, bolder or better informed, said that the deceased had perished from wounds received from the police, though it did not link him specifically to the attack on Clara Barracks four months ago.[14]

Those Left Behind

In death, Seery was indisputably a hero. His surviving family would not find thing so simple. In 1924, two of his siblings, Joseph and Jane, made separate claims to the new Free State government for compensation for their brother’s death.

The officer who initially investigated the claims on behalf of the Army Pensions Board came back with a strong recommendation for them to be accepted. In addition to being one of the first IRA men killed in the War of Independence, Seery had been “held in the highest esteem in his Brigade, and his death was a big loss” to his comrades.

The loss to his bereaved kinsfolk was also keenly felt, according to the investigating officer. As Patrick had been the chief breadwinner of the family, his surviving three siblings were in dire straits, not to mention poor health, without him and their father, who had died of shattered nerves three years after his son.

Eschewing subtlety altogether, the investigator appealed for the healing of Civil War divisions: “payment of a pension would enhance the reputation of the Government in an area where it has not too many friends.”[15]

Unimpressed, the Army Pensions Board complained that the initial report on the Seery family’s affairs had been contradictory and padded with hearsay. A follow-up investigation found that the family’s finances were in considerably better health than they had let on. They had not been dependant on Patrick’s earnings and none of his siblings were incapacitated through poor health. Consequently, both claims were rejected.

A later claim by a second sister, Anne, in 1934, and a second attempt by Joseph Seery were likewise turned down due to their claims of dependency being unproven. Patrick Seery may have died for a free Ireland but not necessarily a credulous one.[16]

The Crown Response

Less than a fortnight after Seery’s funeral, Somers, now Head Constable, applied to the Tullamore Quarter Session Court for compensation. The interior of his family’s quarters had been wrecked by the fighting four months ago, and furniture of good and expensive quality reduced to matchwood. Judge Fleming – any relation to Martin Fleming unknown – regarded Somers’ request for £120 as moderate compared to those claimed elsewhere from barrack attacks and generously amended the amount to £150 before awarding it.[17]

Optimized.RIC_transport_div_1921
RIC policemen

Head Constable Somers was not the only one who benefitted from the successful defence of Clara Barracks. The RIC victory there had, in the professional opinion of Record, helped raise the morale of the beleaguered police force. It also sharpened the military response of the British authorities, showing them the weak spots that needed to be strengthened:

  1. The RIC to be concentrated in larger garrisons than before.
  2. Directive boards to be set up at all military look-out posts, and the firing of alarm signals from neighbouring barracks to be practised.
  3. Instructions in the care and firing of rockets and other alarm signals to be offered to soldiers and RIC.
  4. Barracks in obviously untenable positions to be evacuated.
  5. Military lorries to carry equipment that would help clear roadblocks, road trenches or damaged bridges, such as cross-cut saws, hawsers and temporary bridging equipment.

Record claimed that the repulse of the attack also had a depressing effect on the local IRA. If that was so, then there were no signs of it. Clara Barracks did not last long after its successful defence. It was one of the outposts evacuated by its garrison, and was promptly razed by the vengeful Volunteers.[18]

Unintentionally undermining its own optimistic take on the situation after the Clara Barracks defence, Record listed the Clara-Tullamore as one of the “bad districts” due to the lack of Crown forces there. Regardless of its defeat, the Offaly IRA had been given free rein. One side was undefeated but it was the other who had won.[19]

 

See also: Sieges and Shootings: The Westmeath War against the RIC, 1920

 

References

[1] Military Service Pensions Collection, MA/MSPC/RO/178, p. 48

[2] Sheehan, William. Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 (Cork: Collins Press, 2009), p. 30

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, p. 31

[5] Sheehan, p. 173 ; O’Neill, Seán (BHM / WS 1219), pp. 88-89 ; Leinster Reporter, 05/06/1920

[6] MA/MSPC/RO/178, p. 48

[7] Leinster Reporter, 05/06/1920 ; Westmeath Guardian, 04/06/1920 ; Sheehan, p. 173 ; MA/MSPC/RO/178, p. 49

[8] O’Neill, p. 89

[9] Leinster Reporter, 05/06/1920 ; Sheehan, p. 173 ; O’Neill, p. 89

[10] O’Neill, p. 90

[11] Sheehan, p. 173

[12] Leinster Reporter, 05/06/1920 ; Westmeath Guardian, 04/06/1920

[13] O’Neill, p. 90

[14] Leinster Reporter, 11/09/1920 ; Westmeath Guardian, 10/09/1920 ; Dockery, Seán (BHM / WS 1711), p. 7

[15] Military Service Pensions Collection, A11127, pp. 5, 11

[16] Military Service Pensions Collection, 1D233, pp. 3, 46, 50-51 ; 33APB49, p. 4

[17] King’s County Chronicle, 21/09/1920

[18] Sheehan, p. 173

[19] Ibid, p. 74

 

Bibliography

 

Book

Sheehan, William. Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 (Cork: Collins Press, 2009)

 

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Dockery, Seán F., WS 1711

O’Neill, Seán, WS 1219

 

Newspapers

King’s County Chronicle

Leinster Reporter

Westmeath Guardian

 

Military Service Pensions Collection

A11127

MA/MSPC/RO/178

1D233

33APB49

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