Tag Archives: county clare

Feakle ambush & reprisals: Multiple views of an event

At midmorning Oct. 7, 1920, nearly two dozen Irish Republic Army gunmen hidden in houses fired on six Royal Irish Constabulary officers outside the Feakle, Co. Clare, post office. Two policemen were killed in the ambush; another badly wounded as he escaped with the other three officers after they exchanged fire with the snipers. 

What happened next was typical of the tit-for-tat of Ireland’s revolutionary period, as described by three people involved in the events:

  • “Everybody anticipated reprisals,” a local priest wrote a week later to an Irish newspaper. He described being “thrashed” by soldiers who also set fires “to illuminate the night’s proceedings.”1  
  • “The police and military come down the street banging and shooting and throwing hand grenades in all directions,” an American visitor to Feakle testified two months later at a Washington, D.C. hearing.2
  • “I asked for reinforcements … and wanted to teach the enemy a lesson that this form of activity could be costly,” the IRA leader who instigated the ambush recalled more than three decades later for an oral history project.3

The three witness perspectives, combined with the findings of a military inquiry, press reports, and related documents provide a multidimensional snapshot of the Feakle ambush and reprisals. These sources also illustrate the dangers of reconstructing such emblematic events. In a History Ireland piece about the Bureau of Military History (BMH) witness statements of the Irish revolutionary period, Fearghal McGarry warned: 

Such a source inevitably raises a host of problematic issues, both ideological and practical: these include the subjectivity of oral history, the role of the state in the creation of a project intended to record and shape historical memory, the selective nature of the testimony collected, the reliability of the witnesses’ memories, the influence of subsequent events and knowledge, and the potential for bias …Like any historical source …  they must be evaluated carefully. They record not the events of the revolution but the witnesses’ imperfect recollections of them  … Dates, numbers and other details are often inaccurate, and some claims seem less plausible than others. 

However imperfect the individual recollections, they collectively help to form a vivid mosaic of the Feakle ambush and reprisals. This event, in turn, is another piece of the larger mosaic of the Irish War of Independence.

Prelude 

Feakle, middle right, on modern map.

Feakle village and the same-named townland and Catholic parish is located 50 miles north of Limerick city and 20 miles east of Ennis in the northeast corner of Clare. The upland topography includes the southern declivities of the Slieve Baughta mountains. People there still talk about herbalist and healer “Biddy” Early, an independent woman accused of witchcraft in the mid-19th century.   

In 1917, the young Éamon de Valera, a participant in the year-earlier Easter Rising, challenged an older establishment candidate in an historic by-election for the East Clare constituency. Feakle parish priest Father Michael Hays declared de Valera’s Sinn Féin “a party of socialism and anarchy and bloodshed which struck at the roots of society.”4 The London government at Dublin Castle reported “disaffection lurked under the surface ready to break out on very small provocation” and “turmoil increased with the approach of election day, intimidation was freely practiced, and there was growing disregard for all law and order.”5 The maverick de Valera won by more than 2 to 1 margin, and two years later declared president of Sinn Féin’s breakaway Irish republic. 

Thomas “Tomo” Tuohy, IRA captain:

Tuohy was born Nov. 23, 1898, in Laccaroe townland, neighboring Feakle, the eldest of 10 children. He joined the nationalist Irish Volunteers in 1915 and rose to leadership by October 1920, according to his 1954 BMH statement.

Volunteers in Clare attacked the Feakle RIC barracks in June 1920, and three months later attempted to capture the Scarriff RIC Barracks, about six miles to the east. Such efforts were part of the IRA’s national strategy to drive the authorities from the countryside to boost its own operational base. Shortly after the Scarriff attack, Volunteers seized mail from the postman making a delivery to the Feakle RIC barracks. Postal and railroad hold ups also were typical IRA tactics at the time. To counter this, Feakle RIC began collecting their mail at the post office. 

“I decided to attack this party and gave instructions to the Volunteers living in the Feakle village to keep the patrol under close observation, particularly as to the time on which it left the barracks and the formation in which it moved,” Tuohy said.

On the morning of Oct. 7, as six RIC officers spaced apart in three pairs began the three quarter mile walk from their barracks to the post office, a scout notified Tuohy. He quickly positioned 20 Volunteers and told them to wait for his warning shot. One man, “contrary to orders,” fired directly at a constable who had given him “a bad beating” the previous evening, Tuohy said. The other five officers scrambled for cover as the remaining Volunteers opened fire.

Military inquiry:

Constable William Stanley and Sgt. Francis Doherty were killed in the ambush. Both men were 46; each with more than 20 years of RIC service. Doherty was a bachelor from Mohill, Co. Leitrim; Stanley a Co. Cork native with a wife and four children.6

Doherty and Stanly shown in register of cases for courts of inquiry in lieu of inquest, Easter Rising & Ireland Under Martial Law 1916-1921. The National Archives, Kew, WO 35/162.

A military inquiry at Dublin Castle issued this statement:7

The police party were walking in couples 10 yards apart towards the P.O. when fire was opened on them from the upper windows of the P.O., from the adjoining house, and from a farmyard on the opposite side of the road, thus placing them in the centre of a triangle of fire. … The Court found the two men were willfully murdered by rifles, revolvers and shotguns fired at close range by persons unknown, that a large number of men took part in the shooting, which was premeditated, and that deceased were robbed after death. … The third constable named Murphy was wounded by an expanding bullet. … The police had a dog with them, and when the sergeant [Doherty] fell it ran to him and stood by him on the road. In the next volley the dog fell wounded, three of his legs being broken.

Seán Moroney, Irish Volunteer:

Moroney was 23 at the time of the Feakle attack, a year older than Tuohy. Moroney’s 1956 BMH statement8 provides several examples of McGarry’s warning about such records:

  • Moroney said the RIC officers “travelled in pairs, with about 200 yards between each pair.” This is a big difference from the 10 yards of separation mentioned in the military inquiry. He probably said 20 yards, but the transcript typist added an extra “0” keystroke.
  • One of the Volunteers “accidentally discharged a shot” at the police, Moroney said, rather than taking revenge on the constable for an earlier beating, as suggested in Tuohy’s statement. Both could be true. Either way: “This, of course, alerted the patrol and spoiled our plan,” Moroney said.
  • Moroney said the IRA captured two carbines and about 150 rounds of ammunition. Tuohy claimed they collected 4 carbines, one .45 revolver, 300 rounds .303, and 24 rounds .45 ammunition, and 1 Mills bomb [a World War I era British hand grenade].
  • Tuohy is not mentioned in Moroney’s statement. Moroney is not among the 19 attackers listed by Tuohy. 

Freeman’s Journal headline over Oct. 15, 1920, story that introduced priest’s letter.

Rev. Patrick O’Reilly, Feakle priest:

“On Thursday last, October 7th, there occurred here the tragic event in which two policemen lost their lives,” the priest began his letter to the Freeman’s Journal, published eight days later.

“I was immediately called by a courageous girl to administer the last Sacraments to them. I went at once and did so. This was about 10:30 a.m. Irish time. The doctor arrived shortly after, but could then do nothing.”

Thomas Tuohy:

He said the IRA sustained no deaths or injuries. The rebel’s search for weapons and other victims of the ambush lasted about 20 minutes “when Fr. O’Reilly, C.C., Feakle, came on the scene to administer the last rites of the church to the police. He shouted to us from the road ‘The horsemen will be on top of you in a few minutes as a messenger had gone for them before I left the village.’ ” 

Patrick J. “PJ” Guilfoil, American tourist:

Guilfoil was born in Scarriff on May 29, 1880, emigrated to America in 1900, and naturalized as a U.S. citizen at Detroit in 1906. He married a Clare woman and they had two sons. Guilfoil was working as a Pittsburgh innkeeper in March 1920 when he applied for his family’s U.S. passports.9 They sailed to Ireland two months later to visit his wife’s sister in Feakle, where they remained through October.10 

Patrick J. Guilfoil, left, and his family in 1920 passport photos.

In Dec. 10, 1920, testimony to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, Guilfoil said that on the morning of Oct. 7 he learned that two policemen had been shot outside the post office a quarter mile away from where he was staying. He said that he already intended to walk to the post office to wire the Thomas Cook & Sons travel firm in Dublin about his family’s return to Pittsburgh. “Being an American citizen and having my passport there, and being of good courage, I went out there after this happened,” he said.

He found the two slain policemen attended by “a young priest, Father O’Reilly,” the town physician having already left the scene.  “I asked the priest if he did not run great danger of reprisals for remaining there. But he said, what could he do? He could not leave two dead bodies by the road, because there were pigs and dogs around there, and what could he do? I told him that if he felt that way about it, I would remain with him, which I did.”

He said the military arrived about 2 p.m. “They got the priest to provide a horse and cart to carry the remains into town.”

Father O’Reilly:

“From 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. I remained alone practically all the time to take care of the remains and I could find no means of having them removed. At 2:30 the military arrived and I was peremptorily ordered to commandeer a horse and cart to remove the bodies. I did so and returned no more. I had had quite enough.”

PJ Guilfoil:

He testified that once he returned to his sister-in-law’s cottage in the village, a military officer asked to see his American passport and recorded his name and number. “And he said he was going to put me on the black list.”

Guilfoil said that at 6:30 p.m. a District Inspector and six soldiers arrived at Father O’Reilly’s house and dragged the priest outside–three at the head, three at the feet. They accused him of murdering the two policemen. “I stood directly across the street taking it all in,” Guilfoil said.

One of the officers commanded, “ ‘Let him have it.’ ” and a soldier delivered “three horrible blows across the hips” of the priest with the butt of his rifle, an attempt to coerce a confession, Guilfoil testified. An officer told the priest to get up and get back into his house, but as the cleric complied with the order, the officer kicked him and “called him some terrible names.” 

Father O’Reilly:

“An officer, a district inspector, and eight or ten soldiers knocked at 5:30 p.m. I opened the door and was ordered out. I was told I was to be ‘thrashed soundly,’ and there and then the soldiers caught hold of me by the hands and feet, knocked me down, and dragged me to the wall in front of the house, and proceeded to thrash me with a stock of a rifle. The officer struck me very violently with a stick when I protested. The District Inspector then interceded, be it said to his credit, and thereby saved me from further ill-treatment.

“I was ordered in, while being told I would be shot. I closed the door and thanked God I had come off so well.”

PJ Guilfoil:

“I went across the street and knocked at the door of the priest’s house, and he let me into the house, and I said, ‘My God, are you able to stand up?’

“And he said, ‘I got some awful wallops and am suffering some great pain, but what am I going to do?’

“And I said, ‘I don’t suppose your feet can carry you very far, but as far as they can carry you, I would advise you to get out of the town. There are going to be reprisals tonight.’

“He said, ‘Well, if there are reprisals, there will be people dying and they will need a priest.’” 

Father O’Reilly:

“The kind neighbors rushed in at the back to see if I was hurt. They were terrified and expected my death at each moment. They besought me most earnestly to leave the house for the night. I refused to leave until I would see things out, and I consoled them to the best of my ability. They left.”

PJ Guilfoil:

Guilfoil said he met Dr. O’Hallaron, the village physician, on the street as he returned from treating the wounded officer at the RIC barracks. “The conditions up there are terrible. They are all wild drunk,” the doctor said.

Reprisals on the village, which Guilfoil estimated at about 300 people, began soon after. He testified that he moved his family to an upstairs room and told them to lie on the floor next to the walls. “I do not need to tell you how nervous those children were,” he said. “They were shaking so that I got to shaking myself.”

The police and military set fire to the thatched roof of the Considine house, about 50 yards away, he continued. Then they torched the cottage where the Guilfoils were staying, which was partitioned and also occupied by members of the O’Brien family. 

“We have no time to fool around here,” Guilfoil said he yelled to his wife and sons as the flames surrounded the windows. “Take what you have and get out of here. I prefer to be shot than to be burned to death.”

Thomas Tuohy:

The IRA summoned “over 40 men” to defend Feakle and “teach the enemy a lesson,” Tuohy said. As the group got within a quarter mile of the village at about about 8 p.m., “flames were seen rising from three houses – Considines, O’Brien’s and Fr. O’Reilly’s. Realizing that we had been forestalled it was agreed right away to send back the reinforcements.”

The rebels abandoned the village and withdrew to the hills for the next three days.

Father O’Reilly:

“I lay in the centre of the kitchen floor, and I anticipated death at any moment. I made many an Act of Contrition, said the Rosary a few times … A bomb came through the parlour window, exploded with a deafening sound, and drove broken glass in all directions.It sprinkled the oil from the table lamp all over the room, and it is a miracle no fire resulted.”

The priest said he escaped about 3:30 a.m. to a house in the country, where he found other refugees from the town. He remained there the next evening, which was fortunate “as the [village] house was again bombed and densely riddled with bullets. The door was driven in and all my belongings piled on the village street and burned.”

PJ Guilfoil:

Some neighbors helped put out the fire at the O’Brien house as the police and military withdrew to their barracks, Guilfoil testified.

“At six o’clock in the morning I got hold of a car to convey my baggage and the children out of town, and about ten o’clock I left myself” to “a place in the country” where his wife’s family lived.

The police and troops returned in the daylight. They asked the woman who rented the house to Father O’Reilly whether any of the furniture inside belonged to her. When she said no, they pulled it into the street and set it on fire.

“And they said they were only sorry that they did not have that bloody bastard, as they called the priest, to put him on top of it,” Guilfoil testified.

A local history book published 70 years later claims the police dressed an effigy in the priest’s clothes and tied it to a chair, which was burned with the other furniture. The officers danced and sang, “The rebel padre is roasting.”11  

Press Reports:

Irish and British newspapers coverage of Feakle tended to emphasize the slain officers or the reprisals, depending on when the reports were published and the target readership. The military inquiry statement was published in papers on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Several Irish dailies carried a Press Association, Dublin, account, which corrected an Ennis correspondent’s early reporting that the Feakle RIC barracks had been attacked.12 The reprisals got more attention after the Freeman’s Journal published Father O’Reilly’s letter eight days later.

In London, The Times, an establishment paper, attributed its next day story to Dublin Castle, with nothing said about reprisals.13 A week later, The Guardian’s Dublin correspondent noted the burning of houses at the “little out-of-the-way village” of Feakle in a roundup of other reprisals in Ireland.14

The Weekly Summary, an RIC newspaper launched two months earlier to bolster force morale, published an editorial that said:

Reprisals are wrong. They are bad for the discipline of the force. They are bad for Ireland, especially if the wholly innocent suffer. Reprisals are wrong but reprisals do not happen only by accident. They are the result of the brutal, cowardly murder of police officers by assassins, who take shelter behind the screen of terrorism and intimidation they have created. Police murder produces reprisals. Stop murdering policemen.15 

This Associated Press dispatch appeared in an Oct. 24, 1920 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Oct. 23 dateline says the officers were killed “yesterday.”

The first Associated Press report published in American newspapers said Stanley was killed and Doherty only wounded. An updated version saying both officers were killed “yesterday” continued to be published through late October.16

In November, the pro-Irish Gaelic American, a New York weekly, over two issues republished the Limerick Echo’s report about Father O’Reilly’s letter to the Freeman’s Journal.17 The News Letter of the Friends of Irish Freedom, Washington, D.C., included Father O’Reilly in a roundup of attacks on other priests and looting of Catholic churches. “The latest phase of the ruthless campaign against the Irish nation seems to have taken the form of ‘reprisals’ for the crime of being Irish and Catholic,” the weekly newsletter said.18

A constable’s life, 1920:

An RIC Division before the force was disbanded in 1922. Note the dog at front right. Image from Royal Irish Constabulary.com.

A day before the Feakle ambush, the Royal Irish Constabulary Office at Dublin Castle announced a pay bonus for “permanent members” of the force, veterans such as Constable Stanley and Sgt. Doherty.19 The money was intended to boost morale in the difficult circumstances of “the life of the average constable,” as described a year later by a Dublin Castle intelligence officer:

He lived in a fortified barrack, probably overcrowded owing to the concentration of the Force, and certainly never designed to resist determined assault with modern weapons. He was surrounded by a populace which, if not definitely hostile, was at all events so intimidated that the members of the civil population hardly dare be seen speaking with him. Lurking throughout the countryside were members of the Republican Army, who, instigated by their leaders, regarded him not as an enemy to be faced in the open, but to be prosecuted by every means from petty annoyance to treacherous murder. His life was spent in constant apprehension of danger. His barrack might be attacked at any hour of the day or night, but usually the latter, by overwhelming numbers of callus ruffians, who would use every weapon of brutality against him. If he would go out of the barracks, he was compelled to do so as one of a party operating in practically an enemy’s country. He could never predict the moment when a hail of bullets would burst upon him from a carefully prepared ambush, his assailants being the apparently harmless citizens who surrounded him every day.20

Stanley and Doherty’s deaths raised to 120 the toll of RIC fatalities in Ireland since Jan. 1, 1919. Another 72 officers were killed by the end of 1920.21 Stanley’s widow received “special advances” to survivors of RIC murdered on duty at least through 1922, when the force was disbanded.22

Thomas Tuohy:

“After the Feakle ambush the local parish priest, Father Hayes [Father O’Reilly’s superior, who spoke against Éamon de Valera during the 1917 election.23 ], a violent imperialist who regularly entertained members of the enemy forces, strongly denounced the IRA from the pulpit. He referred to us as a murder gang, and declared that any information which he could get would be readily passed on to the British authorities and that he would not desist until the last of the murderers was swung by the neck. This denunciation led to unpleasant consequences and for some time services at which he officiated were boycotted by most of the congregation.”

Remember that Tuohy said Father O’Reilly had warned the IRA ambushers that military “horsemen will be on top of you in a few minutes.” Tuohy also said that Father O’Reilly administered Confession and Holy Communion to about nine IRA men in December 1920. If true, the local priests were certainly at odds, and the police and soldiers seem correct in their suspicions of Father O’Reilly.

A few days after receiving the sacraments from Father O’Reilly, Tuohy was arrested by the RIC and accused of having seditious documents. He was sentenced to two years hard labor, but released from Limerick County Jail 11 months later.

Father O’Reilly

Given Tuohy’s statements, the conclusion of the priest’s letter to the Freeman’s Journal is ambiguous:

“My last sermon in the parish prior to the occasion had been solely a counsel of moderation.  … I have appealed for nothing but peace and unity amongst all Irishmen. … I most heartily forgive all who attacked me, and also those who were the deliberate and malicious cause of it. … I stand for peace, peace with honor, and though my life may now be in danger I will never be a traitor to the flag of my country. God save Ireland.”

Father O’Reilly and Father Hayes were each soon relocated from the Feakle parish.24

PJ Guilfoil:

The Guilfoil family traveled from the Clare countryside to Cork city, about 100 miles south, where they waited a week for the ship back to America. PJ and his young sons witnessed another scene of revolutionary Ireland, which concluded his commission testimony at the Lafayette Hotel, a few blocks from the U.S. capitol.  

Guilfoil testified at the Lafayette Hotel in Washington D.C. shown here between 1910 and 1926. Library of Congress.

The father and his two boys, ages eight and six, watched the funeral procession of Irish Republican Army volunteer Michael Fitzgerald, who died a few days earlier on hunger strike in jail. As the line of mourners passed the Windsor Hotel, troops plucked the mourning wreaths and Irish tricolor flags from the hearse with their bayonet tips and flicked them to the curb, Guilfoil testified.

“Anything more horrible I never want to see than an armored military body following a coffin,” Guilfoil said. “They followed that coffin with rifles and machine guns all the way out to the cemetery. … I took the boys and got away from there, for I thought there might be trouble.”

Guilfoil’s testimony was exactly what the pro-Ireland commission had sought to publicize in its effort to turn U.S. opinion against Britain. The blue-ribbon panel of two U.S. senators and six other military, religious, and civic leaders held six public hearings from November 1920 through January 1921. It was not an official U.S. government enterprise. Years later, Irish politician Patrick McCartan wrote of the hearings that “only the rustle of the reporters writing broke the silence in which America strained to hear the story of British savagery withstood and defeated by the indomitable courage of the citizens of the Irish Republic.”25

Guilfoil, 1920

Guilfoil—5-foot, 8-inches, with a ruddy complexion and blue eyes under receding brown hair—seemed like an enthusiastic witness.26 “Yes, O, yes,” he answered when asked whether most Irish civilians supported the IRA. He displayed a bullet he said had pierced the cottage before his family fled from the fire. He shuffled a sheaf of “literature” and newspaper clippings about events in Ireland.

These papers may have included Father O’Reilly’s letter to the Freeman’s Journal, published in the nationally-circulated paper five days before Guilfoil sailed back to America, or the Gaelic American’s two-part reporting of it a few weeks after he returned to Pittsburgh. Father O’Reilly’s letter said he “remained alone practically all the time” outside the post office with the bodies of the two policemen. Guilfoil testified he spent over two hours with the priest at the scene. Father O’Reilly might have wanted to protect the American visitor, emphasize his own ordeal, or both. Guilfoil might have inflated his experience based on such published accounts, but it is also possible that he offered the truest version of the events. 

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 11, 1920.

How Guilfoil came to be called before the hearing was not explained during his testimony, in the commission’s report, or newspaper coverage. Alexander P. Moore, editor of the Pittsburgh Leader, was a member of the nationwide steering committee that organized and funded the commission, but his paper did not report on Guilfoil’s testimony. The city’s other dailies headlined the appearance: “Pittsburgh Witness In Irish Probe P.J. Guilfoil Tells of Raid by Military on County Clare Town’ and “Local Man Tells of Burning of Town in County Clare.”27 Guilfoil’s testimony was noted in other U.S. newspaper coverage, but it was overshadowed by the same-day appearances of three former RIC men who quit the force in protest of British “misrule” in Ireland, and the sister of an Irish republican politician who had died on hunger strike.

Guilfoil died in 1946 at age 66.28 The obituaries do not mention his 1920 commission testimony, or suggest that he ever returned to Ireland.

Visiting Ireland 2019: Best of the rest

From Westport, we drove through Connamara, then flew to Inisheer, smallest of the three Aran Island. On our return to the mainland, we made a short stop in Galway, then drove south to North Kerry, my grandparent’s homeland.

A stunning view in Connemara, south of Westport.

A road in Inis Oirr (Inisheer), with An Súnda Salach (Foul Sound) at right.

Buskars in the Latin Quarter, Galway city.

Looking west at late dusk from the sea cliffs at Ballybunion, in North Kerry, with 15th century castle ruin at right. The land in the distance is Loop Head Pinensula, County Clare.

This is my last post from the road. More photos and reporting from this visit will appear in future articles. Previous posts:

Catching up with modern Ireland: May

I’ve been away most of the month working on long-term projects. Thanks for supporting our archived content. Here’s the monthly roundup. MH

  • U.S. President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on June 6 at Shannon Airport. Trump wanted the meeting at his Doonbeg golf resort in County Clare, where he will layover on his return from the U.K. earlier in the week. Varadkar wanted the meeting at Dromoland Castle Hotel, a neutral site that has hosted similar sessions with American leaders. Shannon was the compromise, Vox reports, citing the Washington Post. With Trump, of course, anything could happen. He scratched an announced November visit to Ireland.
  • Killarney National Park’s keystone oak woodlands are threatened by invasive rhododendron, The Irish Times warned. Earlier this year, wildfires damaged nearly 200 acres of heath and forest in or near the County Kerry park.
  • “Ireland has voted overwhelmingly to ease restrictions on divorce, taking another step toward liberalizing a Constitution that was once dominated by the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church,” The New York Times reported after the measure was overwhelmingly passed in a May 24 referendum.
  • Thousands marched in Belfast to support same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, including the partner of slain journalist Lyra McKee.
  • In European Union and local elections, the Green Party made gains at the expense of Varadkar’s Fine Gael. So far, right-wing Euroskeptics have not reached the Irish ballot box. … A recount of 750,000 votes is underway for the MEP seat representing Ireland South will begin June 4 and could take the rest of the month, TheJournal.ie says.
  • An RTÉ story has detailed high turnover rates in the Irish Defense Forces.
  • Fáilte Ireland’s new €150 million “Platforms for Growth” initiative will “transform the tourism landscape across the country” CEO Paul Kelly said in a release. The first “platform” will focus on developing Immersive Heritage and Cultural Attractions that include more hands-on experiences to bring local culture and heritage to life.

The entrance of Trump’s Doonbeg golf course in County Clare during my July 2016 visit.

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Killone photos

ENNIS ~ My “Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited” series explored aspects of the book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert.

The Charleston, S.C.-born, Harvard-educated, New York City newspaper editor traveled around Ireland during the first six months of 1888, a period of resurgent agrarian violence and nationalist political agitation. His book, published later that year, focused on these topics. Like most visitors to Ireland, however, Hurlbert also explored the country’s landscapes and landmarks, including the ruins of Killone Abbey in County Clare.

The American journalist leveraged his visit to the abbey ruins to criticize the violence in the land reform movement, as discussed in my original post about this section of Hurlbert’s diary. A year later, an Irish priest mocked the characterization in his Hurlbert unmasked rebuttal pamphlet.

See black and white images of the abbey, circa 1865, or more than 20 years before Hurlbert’s visit, at this link to the Robert French photography collection at the National Library of Ireland. Below, photos from my 11 November 2018 visit to the site, 130 years after Hurlbert.

Approach to Killone Abbey, November 2018.

The abbey opened in 1190 and abandoned in the 17th century.

Looking back toward the photo vantage above.

During his 1888 visit, American journalist William Henry Hurlbert commented about the “picturesque lake” and the “confusion, squalor and neglect” of the abbey graveyard.

I’m always drawn to the view from the surviving window frames of ancient ruins.

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Killone Abbey

This blog serial explored aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page#IUCRevisited

***

“In the afternoon we took a delightful walk to Killone Abbey, a pile of monastic ruins on a lovely site near a very picturesque lake.”
–William Henry Hurlbert

Hurlbert visited numerous places and sites in Ireland 130 years ago that remain tourist attractions today. In Clare, this included Killone Abbey, about three miles south of Ennis. Like similar Irish ruins, the former Augustinian abbey was converted into a graveyard used “not only by the people of Ennis, but by the farmers and villagers for many miles around,” Hurlbert wrote.

But he was appalled by the conditions:

The graves are, for the most part, shallow, and closely huddled together. The cemetery, in truth, is a ghastly slum, a ‘tenement-house’ of the dead. The dead of to-day literally elbow the dead of yesterday out of their resting-places, to be in their turn displaced by the dead of to-morrow. Instead of the crosses and the fresh garlands, and the inscriptions full of loving thoughtfulness [of German and English cemeteries] … all here is confusion, squalor and neglect.

Hulbert and his hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Stacepoole, also found skull with “a clean round bullet hole in the very center of the frontal bone,” the American wrote. “Was it the skull of a patriot or of a policeman? of a “Whiteboy” or of a “landlord”?

Father Patrick White, in Hurlbert unmasked, mocked the scene, writing that Hurlbert “had not read his ‘Hamlet’ in vain.” The priest was bothered that Hurlbert sarcastically answered his own question by suggesting the shooting victim had been “some peasant selfishly and recklessly bent on paying his rent.” The American reporter was taking his own shot at the Land League.

Killone Abbey ruin in November 2018.

Hurlbert’s party moved on:

Near the ruins of Killone is a curious ancient shrine of St John, beside a spring known as the holy well. All about the rude little altar in the open air simple votive offerings were displayed, and Mrs. Stacpoole tells me pilgrims come here from Galway and Connemara to climb the hill upon their knees, and drink of the water. Last year for the first time within the memory of man the well went dry. Such was the distress caused in Ennis by this news, that on the eve of St John certain pious persons came out from the town, drew water from the lake, and poured it into the well!

The County Clare Library has additional resources about Killone Abbey Graveyard and St. John’s Well.

NOTES:  From pages 176-179 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American; page 11 of Hurlbert unmasked : an exposure of the thumping English lies of William Henry Hurlbert in his ‘Ireland Under Coercion’ .

NEXT: Hurlbert who?

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: On boycotting

This blog serial explored aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page#IUCRevisited

***

“The author … tells a story … of ‘boycotting’ long before Boycott.”
–William Henry Hurlbert

Hurlbert mentioned “boycott” about two dozen times in his book, which is somewhat remarkable considering the word had not existed eight years earlier. It resulted from the 1880 social and commercial ostracism of County Mayo land agent Captain Charles Boycott in a key early protest of the decade’s agrarian agitation in Ireland.

In his discussion about boycotting in Miltown Malbay (See previous post), Hurlbert referenced a passage from the 1852 book Fortnight in Ireland, by  Sir Francis Head. The book was based on Head’s one-week visit to the island, his first, near the end of the Great Famine.

In a description of religion conversion efforts tied to charity (“Protestant missionary zeal with Protestant donations of meal”, in Hurlbert’s phrasing), Head noted 36 years earlier:

Any Roman Catholic who listens to a Protestant clergyman, or to a Scripture reader, is denounced as a marked man, and people are forbidden to have any dealings with him in trade or business, to sell him food or buy it from him.

A boycott! The phenomenon is even older, however, according to Samuel Clark in his seminal work, Social Origins of the Irish Land War:

The practice was obviously not invented by Irish farmers in 1880. For centuries, in all parts of the world, it had been employed by active combinations [social groups] for a variety of purposes. In rural Ireland itself the practice of refusing to bid for involuntarily vacated farms or for distrained livestock had a long history, as did the ostracism of landgrabbers. Even during the Land War, the tactic was used well before the Boycott affair; and it had been advocated on numerous occasions before [Charles Stewart] Parnell recommended it in September 1880.

Parnell

It seems an oversight by Hurlbert that as he reported about boycotting in County Clare, he did not reference Parnell’s speech eight years earlier at Ennis. Parnell spoke weeks before Boycott’s troubles began in the Lough Mask area of Mayo, 80 miles to the north. Parnell said:

When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must shun him on the roadside when you meet him – you must shun him in the streets of the town – you must shun him in the shop – you must shun him on the fair green and in the market place, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him alone, by putting him in moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of the country, as if he were the leper of old – you must show him your detestation of the crime he committed.

Davitt

Michael Davitt also used the image of a leper in his 29 January 1888, speech at Rathkeale; the oration about not overusing the term “Bloody Balfour” that caught Hurlbert’s attention upon his arrival in Ireland. Davitt also said:

I maintain that a landgrabber is a thief, when he covets and steals his unfortunate neighbor’s holdings, and I want to say once more, what I repeated on a hundred platforms, that the landgrabber incurred malediction in the days when the Holy Bible was written: ‘Cursed be he who removes his neighbor’s landmark.’ He is a cowardly, slimy renegade, a man who should be look upon as a social leper, contact with whom should be considered a stigma and a reproach.

As noted in an earlier post, Davitt complained in his diary that the Freeman’s Journal (and other papers) did not report this portion of his speech. It was, however, quoted in Parliament the week that Hurlbert was in Clare.

In Ireland Under Coercion, Hurlbert reported that some landlords and their workers suggested they were able to withstand boycotts without much impact. In places such as Kerry, however, he noted that the “dual government” of the Land League “enforce[d] their decrees by various forms of outrage, ranging from the boycott, in its simplest forms, up to direct outrages upon property and the person.”

This included the murder of boycotted Kerry farmer James Fitzmaurice, two days after Davitt’s Rathkeale speech. See my earlier post.

Period illustration of the January 1888 murder of boycotted Kerry farmer James Fitzmaurice in front of his daughter Nora. She was not physically harmed.

I’ll give the last word to Father Patrick White, parish priest of Miltown Malbay, who Hurlbert reported as being “the moving spirit” behind a series of boycotts in Clare. Father White denied the allegation in his rebuttal booklet, Hurlbert unmasked: an exposure of the thumping English lies of William Henry Hurlbert in his ‘Ireland Under Coercion’ . He explained:

There was unquestionably boycotting in the district, and as [local Land League] president … I had to take note of it. The people, goaded by desperation by the terrible distress of [18] ’78, ’79 and ’80, were up in arms against the heartlessness and the cruelties of the Landlord system, which had paved the way to it. … Against such an obstacle as this neither an appeal to justice nor argument of was of any value whatsoever, so boycotting was resorted to. Desperate diseases require desperate remedies … The people fully appreciated my difficulty [as a priest] acting as president with them, and never pressed me to accept, or put from the chair, any boycotting resolution.

I’ll return to this issue in a future post about another word that came out of the late 19th century agrarian agitation in Ireland: moonlighting.

NOTES:  Hurlbert referenced Fortnight on page 172 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. Quote about “dual government,” etc., on page 219. Quote from Head on page 155 of Fortnight. Quote from Clark on page 311 of Social Origins. Quote from Father White on pages 17-18 of Hurlbert Unmasked.

NEXT: Killone Abbey

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan

Ireland Under Coercion: Miltown Malbay

This blog serial explored aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page#IUCRevisited

***

“Only yesterday no fewer than 23 of these publicans from Miltown Malbay appeared at Ennis here to be tried for ‘boycotting’ the police. … An important feature of this case is the conduct of Father White, the parish priest.”
–William Henry Hurlbert

One of the more controversial aspects of Hurlbert’s Ireland Under Coercion was his coverage of boycotting activity in Miltown Malbay, about 20 miles west of Ennis in County Clare. Citing government officials and reports, Hurlbert accused Father Patrick White of helping to organize the activity.

Father White strongly rebutted Hurlbert’s characterizations in his own booklet, Hurlbert unmasked : an exposure of the thumping English lies of William Henry Hurlbert in his ‘Ireland Under Coercion’ , published in 1890 or 1891, about two years after Hurlbert’s book.

Hurlbert arrived in Ennis on 18 February 1888, a few days after his London meeting with Michael Davitt. (See post 15 and post 16). The American reporter had left Ireland four days earlier for an unexplained side trip to Paris, which suddenly became “unnecessary.”

At Ennis, Hurlbert connected with Colonel Alfred Turner, a high-ranking police commissioner; Cecil Roach, a resident magistrate from neighboring County Kerry, and Richard Stacpoole, “a gentleman of position and estate” who had welcomed London journalist Bernard Becker to the region eight years earlier.

“I was struck by the extraordinary number of public houses in Ennis,” Hurlbert remarked. He reported being told by a police sergeant that Miltown Malby, with a population of 1,400, had 36 pubs, and that 23 of the publicans had boycotted the police. Hurlbert reported that during their trials, one was acquitted; one discharged; 10 signed guarantees in court to refrain from further conspiracies; and 11 were sent to the gaol (jail).

Main Street in Mlltown Malbay, circa 1890, a few years after Hurlbert’s visit. Image from The Lawrence Photograph Collection, National Library of Ireland.

Col. Turner told Hurlbert that Father White “was the moving spirit” of the local boycotting activity. Hurlbert wrote:

All this to an American resembles a tempest in a tea-pot. But it is a serious matter to see a priest of the Church assisting laymen to put their fellow-men under a social interdict … [I]t is a serious scandal that a parish priest should lay himself open to the imputation of acting in concert with any political body whatever, on any pretext whatever, to encourage such proceedings.

In three days of diary entries and 30 pages of the book, Hurlbert weaved in and out of the case. He reproduced the full police report of a related case handed to him by Col. Turner, as well as letters between Col. Turner and Father White. As the book was going to press later that year, the policeman and the priest each provided additional letters to Hurlbert to further clarify their positions. These were published in the Appendix.

Father White devoted half of his 32-page pamphlet to rebutting Hurlbert’s characterization of himself and the situation in Miltown Malbay. “He has libeled me, and libeled me unsparingly,” the priest wrote. He considered taking Hurlbert to court, “but legal friends … dissuaded me” because a Tory or Unionist sympathizer on the jury would probably nix a favorable verdict.

The tit-for-tat of the episode is too tedious to detail here. It does illustrate how local tensions between police and communities unfolded against the national developments of the Land War and Home Rule movement. In fact, as Hurlbert noted, the case of one boycotted family in Miltown Malbay was raised in Parliament in a debate between John Redmond, then a nationalist M.P. for Wexford North, and Chief Secretary for Ireland Arthur Balfour.

The Clare County Library has compiled a number of resources about Miltown Malbay, including the relevant extract from Hurlbert’s book and an article about the July 1888 evictions on the Vandeleur Estate, Kilrush. Unfortunately, Hurlbert unmasked is not so easy to access.

NOTES: Pages 165 to 195 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. I obtained a copy of Hurlbert unmasked thanks to an inter-library loan from Hesburgh Libraries at the University of Notre Dame. The pamphlet is also available at the National Library of Ireland.

NEXT: On boycotting

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Unnamed sources

This blog serial explored aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page#IUCRevisited

***

“When he wants to throw out some offensive innuendo on the Irish Party, or the Irish people, or the Irish Priests–anything Irish so it be on the National side–he nearly always introduces some unnamed and, as I believe, unnameable individual to to the work for him.”
–Father Patrick White commenting on William Henry Hurlbert

In a fortuitous coincidence, my launch of this project coincided with the January 2018 release of Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

Micheal Wolff

Wolff’s book about the American presidential administration and Hurlbert’s 1888 publication about Irish political agitation share one significant characteristic: frequent use of unnamed sources.

As we’ve discovered in this blog serial, Hurlbert was very transparent about his sympathies for Irish landlords and the unionists supporters of London’s ruling conservative Tory government. He openly disdained Irish nationalists and the island’s urban and rural poor.

In his attacks on the latter, Hurlbert often relies on unnamed sources to make his point, as Father Patrick White noted in his rebuttal pamphlet to the American’s book, Hurlbert unmasked : an exposure of the thumping English lies of William Henry Hurlbert in his ‘Ireland Under Coercion.’ [The text doesn’t show a year published. It appears to have been released in 1890 or 1891.]

Father White was Catholic parish priest in Miltown Malbay, about 20 miles west of Ennis, County Clare. In his book, Hurlbert accused the priest of organizing boycott activities, which Father White strongly rebutted in his pamphlet. I’ll return to this matter in a future post.

In a section of Hurlbert unmasked headlined “Mr. Hurlbert’s Anonymous Informants,”  Father White savaged the American author’s use of unnamed sources, which included a …

  • Catholic from the south of Ireland
  • sarcastic Nationalist acquaintance of mine
  • jarvey with a knowing look
  • shrewd Galway man
  • resident of the county who gave me his views on the Plan of Campaign
  • magistrate familiar with Gweedore

“I will not here mince words,” Father White wrote. “Such tactics as these are cowardly and contemptible … [Hurlbert] finds vent by this devise for a stream of contempt and scorn poured out on the Irish representatives, which must have been pleasant reading, indeed, for all Unionists.”

William Henry Hurlbert

Or, as the New York Sun noted in its 1891 review of Hurlbert umasked, “the third person singular indefinite is a difficult witness to rebut.”

Father White heaps more scorn on Hurlbert for cloaking some of the people he encountered late in his travels with a series of  “* * * *” in place of their name or identifying characteristics. The priest calls the device “a sensational novelty” and “a fit crowning to the work.”

In a footnote, Hurlbert explained:

After this chapter had actually gone to press, I received a letter from the friend who had put me into communication … [with these people] begging me to strike out all direct indications of their whereabouts, on the ground that these might lead to grave annoyance and trouble for these poor men from the local tyrants. … What can be said for the freedom of a country in which a man of character and position [his “friend”] honestly believes it to be ‘dangerous’ for poor men to say things recorded in the text of this chapter about their own feelings, wishes, opinions, and interests?

The explanation bolsters Hurlbert’s contention that the worst coercion in Ireland came from shadowy and violent agrarian activists, not the police and government officials who enforced the laws of London. Ireland Under Coercion does identify people in this latter group, which is why the book remains relevant for historical study.

Which brings us back to 2018, and the furor that Fire and Fury has created over reporting with unnamed sources, whether in daily online journalism or modern book publishing. I give the last word to my wife, Angie Drobnic Holan, editor of PolitiFact, from her 9 January review of Wolff’s book:

The lack of sourcing is a problem because it means evidence is given a back seat to narrative oomph. It encourages people to suspend their critical thinking skills and follow their emotions into a pleasing narrative. That narrative might be true or it might not be, and it’s almost impossible to independently evaluate.

NOTES: Bulleted “sources” from pages 54, 71, 88, 125, 152 and 179, respectively; footnote from page 361, of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. … Father White’s comments on pages 24, 25 and 28 of Hurlbert unmasked : an exposure of the thumping English lies of William Henry Hurlbert in his ‘Ireland Under Coercion.’ Special thanks to Hesburgh Libraries at the University of Notre Dame. … New York Sun, 31 January 1891, page 7.

NEXT: Kilkenny visits

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan

Saturday in the stacks: ‘set-piece eviction’ timeline

Irish history stacks at Catholic University of America.

I spent a few hours in the main Mullen Library at Catholic University of America, browsing the Irish history collection in the open stacks. I selected from one of the shelves “A New History of Ireland, Volume VI: Ireland Under the Union: 1870-1921,” edited by W. E. Vaughan. I settled into a chair to read the chapter, The Parnell Era, 1883-91, by R. V. Comerford.

The Irish “Land War” period of tenant-landlord agitation is typically framed as 1879-1882. But agrarian unrest on the island began during the Great Famine of the mid-19th century and lasted throughout the 1880s. In reading about British administration of Ireland during the year 1887, Comerford makes this statement that caught my eye:

“This was the great era of the transportable battering-ram and of the set-piece eviction scene, producing images that have been frequently superimposed on earlier times.” (My emphasis.)

Eviction scene with battering-ram in County Clare, July 1888.

Obama will return to Ireland in ‘coming year or so’

Outgoing President Barack Obama will return to the Republic of Ireland “in the coming year or so,” according to U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Kevin O’Malley. “The last sentence the president said to me … [4 January] when we were saying goodbye, was ‘please tell them I’m coming’,” O’Malley told RTÉ host Marian Finucane.

While the location or context of his return is less clear than the timing, Obama is generally popular in Ireland. His May 2011 visit included a stop in Moneygall, County Offaly, the ancestral home of his great-great-great grandfather.

Since then, a service plaza was erected in Obama’s honor on the M7 motorway just outside the village. In addition to petrol and fast food, the place is packed with Obama souvenirs, plus memorabilia of popular presidents Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy. In a contemporary sense, it might be the most Irish-American spot in all of Ireland, through certainly not the most scenic or historic.

Barack Obama in Moneygall in 2011.

Obama, who also visited Northern Ireland in June 2013 for a G8 summit, leaves office 20 January, the inaugural of President-elect Donald Trump, who owns a golf resort in Doonbeg, County Clare. O’Malley will leave his Dublin post a few days earlier due to a demanded from the incoming administration that all non-career ambassadors depart immediately.

IrishCentral, citing a tweet from New York Times writer Maggie Haberman, reports the next U.S. Ambassador to Ireland will be philanthropist and businessman Brian Burns, the grandson of an emigrant from Sneem, County Kerry.  Burns, 80, and his wife, Eileen, have been close friends of Trump through the Palm Beach and Mar-A-Lago connection.

O’Malley, a St. Louis trial lawyer whose grandparents emigrated from County Mayo in the early 20th century, was appointed by Obama in June 2014 after a record-setting 18-month gap following the departure former ambassador and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney.