War for Independence in Roscommon 100 years ago

The month of October 1920 saw more barrack attacks, ambushes, shootings and Black and Tan raids. On the 2nd of the month, the IRA attempted to capture the RIC barracks at Frenchpark, dislodge the occupants, and destroy the building as Frenchpark housed a combined force of the British army, and Black and Tans.

The planned action was the first assault on an occupied barracks’ by men of the South Roscommon Brigade. A large number of volunteers were mustered to carry out the operation. A daring plan had been hatched, whereby a house opposite the barracks was to be taken over, a bomb was to be detonated close to the barrack wall, and a cart-load of hay was to be placed at the front door and set on fire to smoke out the garrison.

The operation became undone due to a number of factors; the force inside the barracks became alerted to the activity in the street outside and a short gun battle ensued. The bomb planted by the wall failed to make a big enough impression, and when a hand grenade was thrown from a top window by the defenders, the attackers had to abandon the hay cart and withdraw without having any success. The Frenchpark barracks was heavily fortified with steel shuttering and sandbags which made the task of dislodging the garrison by the IRA very difficult.

The assault on Frenchpark barracks was to incur the wrath of the Black and Tans, who in the days after the incident went on a rampage of reprisals. The nearby village of Ballinagar was their target. They descended on the small, sleepy town, where they commenced to ransack and burn dwelling houses, barns and haystacks. The Black and Tans came back again to Ballinagar on October 19th to pillage and torch another number of houses. They were specifically looking for certain volunteers they believed were in the vicinity.

This time however, a young local man – thirty-two-year-old Pat Doyle of Drummin, Ballinagar – became one of their fatal victims. On that day, Doyle happened to be innocently visiting Pat Garvey, who lived at the southern end of the village. When the Black and Tans arrived at Garvey’s house, Doyle was asked for his name and address, and when it was found that he wasn’t a member of the Garvey household, this aroused the suspicion of the Tans. Doyle was then brought outside the door and shot dead on the street.

As far as the crown forces were concerned, anyone found in the home of a neighbour was more than likely an IRA man on the run. It is believed that Pat Doyle had no connection with the IRA and his shooting by the Black and Tans was to set a pattern for many reprisal killings that took place in various parts of west Roscommon during this period.

Black and Tan terror was rampant in 1920, and other villages in the county were targeted for special treatment. The small village of Rooskey, that straddles the Leitrim/Roscommon border on the River Shannon, was also subjected to a terror raid by the infamous force. On October 15th, a large number of Tans descended on the place and commenced to terrorise the inhabitants. Houses and shops were ransacked and searched. Men were taken out and made lie on the street while shots were fired close to their heads, others were beaten, and some were arrested and taken away for questioning. Before leaving the village, the Tans helped themselves to liquor and goods from the shops.

Meanwhile, the IRA continued to harass the crown forces; the Athlone Flying Column ambushed police in the parish of Drum, where a RIC man was hit by gunfire, but his injuries were not fatal.

The largest ambush that occurred in the county to date during the War of Independence took place at Fourmilehouse, in the parish of Kilbride. On this occasion, a motor vehicle containing eight RIC men was ambushed on the morning of October 24th, 1920 by volunteers from the first, second, and third battalions (South Roscommon Brigade). The place where the attack took place was just beside Kilbride Church, where the road (the N61), travels through a deep cut. The ambushers were situated behind stone walls on both sides of the road on elevated banks, which gave them an advantageous position. When the police vehicle approached from Roscommon town and came into the ambush site, it was hit by a barrage of shotgun and rifle fire. Despite the ferocity of the gunfire, the driver of the motor managed to avoid being hit, speeding through and continuing to Strokestown, where medical aid was rendered to the wounded.

When the car arrived at Strokestown, in it were two dead constables, and three wounded – two of which died later. Three of the occupants including the driver escaped without injury.

The ambushing of the RIC at this location was regarded as an audacious act, in that it took place in what would be classed as open countryside. The surrounding terrain of Fourmilehouse is of large fields and stone wall boundaries, which would have been a difficult place for the volunteers to withdraw from if they were outflanked. The result of the Fourmilehouse Ambush was to cause more Black and Tan reaction, as will be dealt with in a later article.

Apart from the occurrences in County Roscommon, other events were happening nationally. On October 25th, Terence MacSwiney (Lord Mayor of Cork) died on hunger strike in Brixton prison, England. MacSwiney’s hunger strike had gained international attention, with protests being organised in his support throughout the world. Many countries from South America to the US, Australia, Germany, France and Spain made representations to the British government for his release, but they all fell on deaf ears. MacSwiney died after fasting for seventy-four days.

Before his funeral took place, his body lay in St. George’s Cathedral in London, where 10,000 people filed past his coffin. Terence MacSwiney had succeeded Thomas McCurtain as Lord Mayor after McCurtain had been shot dead in his home in Cork city by the RIC in March 1920.

* (More next month – An Staraí Áitiúil)