New Historical Primary Source Sheds Light On Tipperary War Of Independence

A new historical primary source sheds further light on the War of Independence here in Tipperary in 1921. Same comes from the written perspective of the late Mr Con Spain, (Commandant, 1st. Battalion, No.1 (North) Tipperary), formerly of Ard na Croise, Thurles, Co. Tipperary.

Readers will be aware that the 100 year anniversary of the death of Mr James (Jim) Devaney at hands of the R.I.C. in late January 1921 was commemorated recently here in North Tipperary.

Now correspondence between Mr Con Spain and Mr Devaney’s family has come to light, which gives Commandant Spain’s personal recollections into the events of that tragic day at a time when he states “respect for life and property was at a very low ebb.”
In this never before published correspondence, the author Commandant Con Spain gives a unique insight into this difficult period in our county’s history.

Rare photograph of Cornelius (Con) Spain, [Commandant, 1st. Battalion, No.1 (North) Tipperary.]

Commandant Con Spain writes: –

“It happened in late January 1921. The war of Independence was raging and respect for life and property was at a very low ebb. We weren’t to know it then, but six months later the Truce was signed. It had all been worthwhile. [Note, the war of independence in Ireland ended with a truce on July 11th 1921.]

I had just about completed ploughing a five acre field, when I stopped for dinner and to fodder the other farm animals and my team of horses.

As I recollect it was about 1:30 p.m. in the afternoon, when I heard rifle fire coming from the direction of the main road, adjacent to the local pub. Scarcely turned 18 years, it took me only seconds to climb up into the largest benches of the hay barn, in hope of getting some view of the action which was evidently taking place.

Intervening ditches made it impossible to make out what was happening, but the bullets were coming uncontrollably close at this time. When the firing ceased, I heard a Crossley Tender moving down the main road towards Nenagh and Limerick. The occurrence of rifle fire was not uncommon in that area, in 1920/21, so I dismissed it from my mind and took my horses back to the field to finish ploughing the headlands.
[Note. Crossley Motors was an English motor vehicle manufacturer based in Manchester, England, later taken over by British Leyland]

Around 4:00pm it’s started to rain and I moved up to shelter in a thatched cottage, which was on the field and near the roadway. I was resting over the outside half door; looking out on one of our neighbours ploughed fields, when I saw a skirmish line of about 30 to 40 men, advancing from the farthest hedge, which adjoined a small bye-road. They appeared to be searching for something and as they came near, I noticed that they were mostly in civilian clothing and all were armed. Since I was a member of the Irish volunteers, I quickly emptied all papers from my pockets and burned them in the turf fire in the cottage. I then left the shelter of the cottage and went to my team of horses, to resume my ploughing.
[Note, a Skirmish Line, is an irregular open formation that is much more spread out in depth and in breadth than a traditional line formation].

However, at this point an R.I.C. constable whom I recognised as “Collins” and a well-dressed man in civilian clothing approached me from the laneway by the main road. They asked me if I had been in on the “ambush”.
Since I knew nothing of this action, I could truthfully say that I was not involved. The civilian, whom I assumed to be a District County Inspector of the R.I.C., turned to the Constable and barked “Take him out and strip him”. They stripped and searched me but all they found was a small spanner. [Both they and I overlooked something that was in a small pocket of my inside vest. I’ll return to this later].
By now the main “search” party had reached us and the barrel of a Lee Enfield rifle was pointed at my forehead…. so close that I could see the gleaming grooves of the rifle down the barrel mouth…. incongruously, I thought “how in hell did he get the barrel that clean, when the one I had been using for 2 years never did shine like that”. This odd reflection only took a split second, before I made my most fervent act of contrition in expectation of summary execution. No shot came. The rifle was reversed and I was stuck under the chin by the rifle butt instead and knocked flat.

As I struggled to get up, I heard some of the riflemen calling from about 30 yards to my rear. I was unceremoniously pushed along to this spot. There in the drainage ditch, inside the road hedge, was a young man of about 20 to 25 years, in a doubled up position, apparently dead. Luckily, I did not recognise the man because I was then questioned about his identity, with rifles once again at my forehead.
As they emptied his pockets, they found amongst his possession, tweezer-like tools which made them suspect that he might have been a Doctor. Later, I was to learn that he was a chemist’s assistant, who work in Dublin and who had recently come home and joined the Active Service Unit or “Flying Column”. He had not been a member when I had last contacted them on the hills above Moneygall some months earlier. Incidentally the house we used as our meeting place was christened the windy barn by Joe Mangan, later killed, (R.I.P.) In fact Joe composed a song about its bleak location and other discomforts.
[Note: Moneygall – Latter a small village on the border of counties Offaly and Tipperary, in recent years identified as the ancestral home of former US president Barack Obama).]

To digress from the main story for a moment …. I mentioned that I myself had a Lee-Enfield rifle, but could never get it to shine like the barrel I looked down, that fateful day.

At races and hurling matches, before the first world war, some people may remember a game called “Jack in the Barrell”. Well, a British Reservist named “Waggy” Sheridan used to stand in a barrel, while a pal of his sold sticks (6 for sixpence) to throw at “Waggy”. If you hit him then you got six more sticks free. The sticks where as big as Ash plants and you had to stand back about 50 yards. “Waggy” had to be very agile to avoid being hit.
In the early years of the war “Waggy” was called to Active Service; issued full kit and rifle and then sent home for a week on leave. It was the practice then to allow the soldiers to bring their rifles home with them.

It seems that “Waggy” was very fond of “the few pints”. It was while in the pub that “Waggy” met a couple of volunteers one of whom was Ned O’Leary, latter Brigade Adjutant and Commander of an active service unit. Between the ‘hoppin’ and the ‘trottin’ they brought the rifle from “Waggy” for £1…. a goodly sum in those days. They worked out a plan. “Waggy” boarded the train at Nenagh (Co. Tipperary) with full gear and his Enfield, and in the company of a volunteer. At a prearranged place the Enfield was thrown from the moving train and another volunteer was standing by to pick the rifle up. “Waggy” probably was court-martialled, but then maybe that’s what he wanted, it beat going to the trenches.

This was the weapon that I had in my possession from 1918 until 1921. It had been badly neglected before it came into my hands, but this never affected it’s accuracy.

To return to the story, when the dead man was pulled from the Dyke, two others who were brought forward under escort were ordered to carry the deceased. One of the men was the owner of the field Pat Kelly, who incidentally was not associated with the volunteers but their fellow prisoner was. I had hurled on the local team with the second man on many occasions and it seems that he was picked out on the adjacent railway line, where we happened to be working at the time. We carried the corpse about 200 yards across the ploughed field; myself and the volunteer James Keogh carrying the head portion and Kelly holding the legs. With the dead man on our shoulders I remember Joe’s whispered conversation; he wanted to know whether or not I knew who the dead man was. He told me then that it was Jim Devaney, Toomevara, a chemist from Dublin. I recall then that he was brother of Tom, a good hurler and also a volunteer who was shot in his own yard a month or so later, by the R.I.C. and Black and Tans.

We placed the remains in the Crossley Tender and the three of us were ordered into the lorry and taken to the local military barracks and locked in a cell.

The barracks was garrisoned by 3 companies of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, about 330 men and officers. All three of us were soaking wet and the cell was also wet. There was no furniture of any kind in the cell and it was freezing cold. After about an hour we were taken out separately for interrogation. I was the first to be taken out to the guard room. Here I was faced with a London Black and Tan Sergeant nicknamed Tich and interrogated about the ambush. I knew nothing of an “ambush”, (There hadn’t been one in any case) and answered truthfully. Before I realised it my pole (head) hit the flag floor, from a vicious uppercut. I got up mad as hell and tried to get my own back, but now I found myself with a revolver at my temple. I was in the hands of the infamous Constable K whose name was mentioned at that time in connection with the deaths of 3 volunteers, all dragged from their beds and two having died of horrible bayonet wounds. ‘K‘ had slipped up the passage and into the guard room so quietly that I didn’t hear him come in. Now I felt sure that this was the end for me and I was in fact reconciled to go, if possible, without torture. I made a final appeal to answer honestly.
[Constable K was ‘Keane’, who married a Nenagh girl, but had to go to Canada after the truce.]

I hit the flagged (stone) floor again and again, during this brutal interrogation and was removed, in a sorry state, to my cell once again. My two comrades fared no better and one was even taken back for a second helping, simply because he spoke to the other, as they bumped accidentally in the doorway outside the guard room.

Later we were thrown three army blankets, one each, which we used to sit on in separate corners of the cell. We were soaked, cold and miserable.
To be on the safe side, I searched my pockets once again and to my surprise I found a small ‘Morris Tube’ bullet in my inside vest pocket (mentioned earlier).
(The Morris Tube was invented by Richard Morris and patented in April 1882.)

I had picked it up in a raid for arms and ammunition at an ex British army officers house. I thought it might fit a .22 calibre rifle, but it wouldn’t fit. I later discovered that this calibre bullet was used in the Lee Enfield Rifle (and the British Martini-Henry Rifle) when a ‘Morris Tube’, a reducer, was placed into the gun barrel. It was used to reduce the usage of the larger .303 ammunition by British army troops when only at target practice. The volunteers used a .22 rifle for practice.
Anyway I now have a problem; I had to dispose of it somehow. About 10 ft above the cell floor there was an old metal ventilator. With no furniture in the cell I had to climb on the back of one of my colleagues to reach the ventilator and slipped the bullet through the grill. This indeed would have been incriminating evidence had they found it in their earlier search. Years later I returned to that cell and tried to recover the bullet as a souvenir, but it was no longer there.

Each morning we were exercised separately by the escort of the K.S.O.B. (King’s Own Scottish Borderers) and except for the occasional threat which we took little notice of, they treated us fairly.
After about 3-days Pat Kelly, on whose land the dead man was found, was released, very much as we had expected. About one week later, Jim Keogh was turned loose and I was alone still sleeping on my backside in a corner, with my solitary wet blanket. In the meantime my captors threatened to use me as a hostage, i.e. tie me to the back of a car or their truck and in the event of an ambush I would be summarily shot.

Still another week passed and despise repeated threats, no specific punitive action was taken against me. Incidentally the only prisoner that I personally ever knew of, from the Tipperary No1 Brigade, who was used as such as a hostage, was a fairly old man named Matt Ryan (Lacken), father of the much wanted Paddy Ryan (Lacken). Matt was arrested by the auxiliaries under Captain Biggs, who were stationed in Killaloe. Matt I was told was a brother of the Very Reverend M.K Canon Ryan who served the Thurles community for 10 years and who died as a Parish Priest in Latin (Co. Tipperary) in 1925. There is a slab in his memory in the Cathedral. This is the same Canon Ryan whose valuable help to the Gaelic Athletic Association is commemorated by “Ardan Ui Riain” in Semple Stadium, (Thurles).

It would have been difficult for old Matt to have any knowledge of his son’s movements, as Paddy was constantly on the move with the Tipp No1 Flying Column, until Christmas 1920, so threatening, even torturing Matt, would have gotten little information. This “Column” disbanded after the Kilcommon Ambush and Paddy as a wanted man could not return to his home. Paddy, with a few others, joined the East Limerick Column and fought all through the area right into North Cork. It was in North Cork that one of Paddy’s pals, Paddy Star of Nenagh was killed and buried in a field after the Skeheenarinky Ambush. His remains were exhumed after the Truce and reburied in Tyone, Nenagh, where a headstone was erected by his faithful comrades.

Paddy “Lacken” returned when he heard of his father’s arrest by the auxiliaries and his subsequent ill-treatment and use as a hostage.
On the second Sunday in May 1921, by arrangement with brigade O/C Sean Gaynor and Tom McGrath O/C 6th (Newport) Battalion, ambush positions were taken up on two roads leading to the Barrington home in Glenstall, Captain Biggs O/C of the Auxiliaries in Killaloe was known to be paying court to Miss Barrington and visited there regularly. That evening Captain Biggs, with Miss Barrington beside him, and a guard in the back of the car, was caught in the ambush.
[Note: “Captain Biggs” refers to District lnspector (Major) Henry Biggs, one of the most notorious and hated Black-and-Tan officers in the South of Ireland.]

[Note: “Miss Barrington” refers to Winifred Winnie Barrington, only daughter of Sir Charles Barrington of Glenstal.]

The signal was given when the car came into view and an expert sniper shot Biggs in the throat. A third occupant make good his escape unhurt.

Before he died that day on the roadside, Biggs was informed in no uncertain terms by Paddy “Lacken”, why he had been ambushed and shot. Paddy fired the fatal shot himself and emptied his revolver also in Biggs.

On the same evening by orders of the Brigade O/C, four other ambush positions were taken up on different roads within three quarters of a mile of Nenagh town centre. The objective of these ambushes was to restrict the spying activities of some Black and Tans. It appears that the Tans were accustomed to wandering out to the Tyone river bridge and sitting there, where they could observe the townspeople coming and going and it was much too close to a pathway used by members of the brigade staff on the way to their headquarters. The Tans failed to show, but one of the other three ambushes was successful and killed two R.I.C. constables. At this time the orders from the Chief of Staff General Dick Mulcahy, where “shoot on sight”. Dick was Thurles born and is buried in Ballymoreen, (graveyard) near Littleton, Thurles, Co. Tipperary.

On being released from prison after close on four weeks, I returned home to find that my family and myself had a very narrow escape. It appears that on the evening that Devaney was killed and on which I was arrested, the Tans searched our farmhouse and out offices and almost dislodged a volunteer uniform cap and a booklet issued by brigade headquarters. Fortunately, the items did not fall down until after they passed through. My aunt found them and immediately buried them. Had they been found then our farm and buildings would have been burnt to the ground and I wouldn’t give you tuppence for my fate.

Later, I contacted the flying column O/C to find out how Devaney had come to be shot and to discuss reprisal action. Well it seems that four members of the column, with time on their hands decided, without permission, to slip down to the local known as ‘Lucky Bags’ for a quick drink. None of them were armed.

This old thatched pub had been burnt down some months earlier and was under reconstruction at that time; an outhouse with some planks across a couple of barrels served as a temporary bar in the meantime. Since the distance was only a couple of miles the boys slipped down by the railway which provided good cover. Jack O’Leary, a Munster and Leinster bank official, was left on guard but he failed to spot the police Crossley Tender, until it was too near. He made another fatal mistake by running back towards the pub. Had he walked he would not have aroused any suspicion and they could have melted away quietly. Two with O’Leary escaped in the cover of the buildings, but poor Devaney fell into a tank, with about 4 ft of water, which was in the yard adjoining a bye-road. He got only about 100 yards from the pub, when the firing got so close that he decided to jump the hedge on his right side and was struck by a bullet in the main artery between hip and knee. He bled to death where he fell.

Two of the others, Jack O’Leary and Paddy O’Brien, of the Silvermines, (Nenagh) ran down the road about 500 yards further and turned into a short laneway that led to the cottage, which I used for sheltering from the rain. Incidentally I neglected to mention that the widow and her children who owned the cottage happened to be absent at this time. Both men made good their escape across the field that I had ploughed and reached the safety of the countryside. The other member Tom Whelehan, who happened to suffer from asthma, lay down inside the makeshift counter in the outhouse and believe it or not the Tans failed to search there. After the lorry left, he made his way safely back to Toomevara.

Before leaving the Tans threw grenades into the house which was under construction. A carpenter named Mick Tracy, had a narrow escape when a piece of shrapnel ripped into the saw he was holding. His son still has that saw to this day, as a memento of those dark days.”

Is Mise,
One of the few remaining survivors.
Cornelius (Con) Spain.


2 comments to New Historical Primary Source Sheds Light On Tipperary War Of Independence

  • Brendan O'Brien

    Sean Gaynor’s account of the ambush on Biggs and his party is much more detailed and presumably more accurate. It’s very strange that Spain doesn’t mention that Winifred Barrington was also killed.

  • George Willoughby

    The letter published was written in an attempt to answer certain other questions being asked privately, as to the treatment of deceased volunteers. This letter was never intended to deal with details of the sad death of Winifred Barrington.

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