Novelist and journalist Wilfrid Ewart traveled through Ireland from mid-April to early May 1921. His dispatches for London newspapers were later collected and revised in the book, ‘A Journey In Ireland, 1921.’ Previous installments of this centenary series are collected at American Reporting of Irish Independence
Ewart arrived in Limerick on April 27, less than two months after the city’s mayor and his predecessor were murdered. The visitor interviewed Stephen O’Mara, 76, the city’s first Irish nationalist mayor, from 1885. He tells Ewart that his same-name son, 37, the current Limerick mayor, has just been imprisoned by the British military for not complying with orders.
All of this, Ewart writes, is “very characteristic of Ireland in 1921.”
In January 1921, George Clancy succeeded Michael O’Callaghan as Limerick mayor. Then, between late evening March 6 and early morning March 7, both men were shot dead at their homes. A third man, an Irish Volunteer, also was killed that night, and Clancy’s wife was wounded. The killers belonged to a Royal Irish Constabulary auxiliary unit, potentially in collusion with military authorities, historians say.
At the time of Ewart’s visit, however, the crimes were as unresolved and divisive as the Irish war. He wrote:
Nothing remains more strange, and nothing more sinister, in a long history of Irish crime than the murders of the two Mayors of Limerick. Strange and sinister in particular, because here are two of the most prominent citizens of one of the largest towns in Ireland done to death in the same night — and to this day none shall say by whom. … A world of intrigue, of punishment or reprisal, of accusation and counter accusation, of suspicion, and semi-certainty then again doubt. … Who shall unravel the truth, or will it ever be unravelled? Will it ever see the light of day?
The two mayors had publicly defended Limerick’s citizens against military and police harassment. Their killings were retaliation for earlier Irish republican attacks, and also intended to terrorize the population.
Michael O’Callaghan, left, and George Clancy.
As Bew/Maume note, Ewart too quickly “entertains the possibility” the two mayors were “killed by IRA hardliners, rather than Crown forces, when he is told this by a fellow British officer.” He fails to show the skepticism he demonstrated about official versions of the burning of Cork. Pointing fingers at the IRA simply diverted attention from the auxiliaries and sowed doubt and division among Irish separatists.
Ewart is told this story during a visit to the military’s New Barracks, where he also attempts to unravel the dispute between the authorities and Mayor Stephen M. O’Mara, Jr., Clancy’s successor. An officer says O’Mara, Jr., opted for a week’s imprisonment rather than paying a £10 fine for breaking curfew regulations. Ewart asks to see the imprisoned mayor, but a guard refuses him access and insists O’Mara doesn’t want to receive visitors.
Within days of this episode, the authorities released young O’Mara from jail. He soon sailed to the United States to replace another brother, James, as a fiscal agent in raising funds for the Irish Republic.
Ewart describes Limerick as an “ugly” place, its “abiding impression” that of a garrison town with limited commerce.
“The economic history of Limerick was that of the majority of Irish towns in 1921 – you could read it in the look of the place,” Ewart writes. “Trade bad, nobody buying, no ships coming up the river … not a ship to be seen along the quays … progressive decay had set in before the war. Limerick lacks energy, lacks healthy vitality.”
Limerick waterfront in the 1920s.
Throughout his travels in Ireland, Ewart repeatedly asks his interview subjects whether Bolshevism is playing a role in the Sinn Féin revolution. “No,” he is told, including by O’Mara, Sr., “a big Limerick bacon manufacturer.”
Ewart does not mention the Limerick soviet of two years earlier. The headline-making general strike by trade unionists protested the military’s heavy-handed lock-down of the city. American journalist Ruth Russell, in the city at the time, highlighted the workers’ strong ties to the Catholic Church, which made their soviet less radical than other Marxist factions.
In her Ireland book, Russell observes how the red-badged guards rose to bless themselves on hearing the tolling Angelus bells of St. Munchkin’s chapel. “Isn’t it well that communism is to be Christianized?”, Bishop Michael Fogarty replies when she describes the scene.
Russell also interviewed Alphonsus O’Mara; another son of Stephen, Sr., brother of Stephen, Jr., and predecessor of the murdered O’Callaghan. As Limerick mayor in April 1919, “Phons” helped to end the soviet after two weeks.
In 1921, a century before Brexit, O’Mara, Sr. tells Ewart that England is the “natural market” for Ireland’s eggs, butter, bacon, cattle, and linen. “We might find other markets for ourselves, but England is the natural one and always will be,” he says.
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