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Mystery of Private Robertson’s resting place

AS we approach the centenaries of the Easter Rising and War of Independence, there is growing public interest in the period of the Irish Revolution of 1913-1923.

 

Ned Lynch (right) and his wife, Norrie and nephew, Charlie. Ned, captain of the Miltown Malbay Company of the IRA, had confronted Lance Corporal McPherson and Corporal Buchanan when they raided his house. Photographs courtesy of Clare County LibraryTo date, interest in Clare has focused on relatively well-known events of the period, including ambushes, barracks’ attacks and the deaths of leading rebels.

However, one aspect of the conflict little is known about is the secret execution and burial of British soldiers and members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). During the War of Independence, three members of the British forces were executed and secretly buried by the IRA in Clare. The first British serviceman to be killed and secretly buried by the IRA in the county was Private George Robertson.

The train of events that led to the execution of Private Robertson began on October 21, 1920 when two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Alexander McPherson and Corporal Norman Buchanan, spent the morning drinking in Miltown Malbay. Both men were non-commissioned officers of the 2nd Battalion Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment) stationed in the area.

That evening, on their way back to barracks, the two soldiers called to the Breaffa North district where they began burgling houses on the pretence that they were searching for arms. At 5pm that evening, they called to the family home of Ned Lynch, captain of G Company, 4th Battalion of the IRA’s Mid-Clare Brigade. Lynch challenged the pair when they attempted to enter the house.

“The taller of the two [McPherson] said they were raiding for arms and tried to push past me. He carried what I first thought to be a revolver but on closer scrutiny noticed it was a glass one painted black, which I knew had been looted sometime previously from Blake’s pub in Miltown. I hit him a heavy punch in the right arm, which caused him to drop the ‘shot of malt’, as the toy gun was known to us locally and it broke in pieces on the doorstep.

“Just as this happened, one of the neighbours arrived accusing the soldiers of having stolen £10 from him, hereupon the bigger soldier tried to break away. I tripped him and we searched him thoroughly, recovering other articles he had looted but not the money. The second soldier [Buchanan] was less truculent, was also searched but offered no resistance and after receiving directions from my brother, made off for the military post.”

Charles Lynch, who was shot dead at Breaffa North by Lance Corporal McPherson on October 21, 1920. Photograph courtesy of Clare County LibraryA short time later, McPherson returned to the area with a large force of British soldiers, RIC and Black and Tans and led them straight to Lynch’s farm. Upon his return, McPherson shot dead Charles Lynch, the 70-year-old head of the Lynch family. The soldiers were then preparing to shoot Charles Lynch’s son, John, and a neighbour, when an RIC constable named Cooney intervened, saving their lives. The British soldiers then set fire to the Lynch family home. Before leaving the area, the soldiers shot and wounded John Grady, a local farm labourer, assaulted members of the Lorrie family (several of whom had previously served in the British army) and burned ricks of hay belonging to the Talty, Boland and Moroney families.

A week later, a group of IRA volunteers, led by Mick Meere of Corann, captured McPherson near the village of Connolly, about eight miles east of Miltown Malbay.

When captured, McPherson was accompanied by a second British  soldier, Private George Robertson (service number 3044395). Both men claimed they were deserters from the British Army. The IRA volunteers, who had captured the soldiers, were apparently unaware that McPherson was responsible for Charles Lynch’s death.

From a Republican perspective, genuine British Army deserters were regarded as a potential source of weapons, ammunition and intelligence information for the IRA. Consequently, British deserters captured by the IRA in the early stages of the War of Independence were treated quite well. This situation began to change in late 1920 when the British Army took advantage of it and began using soldiers posing as deserters to spy on the IRA. According to IRA veteran Paddy ‘Con’ Mac Mahon, McPherson and his comrades were initially accepted as genuine deserters and were treated very well, “never knowing what they were involved in. They kept them in farm houses for some time and they brought them to dances but there was a guard always with them.”

McPherson was being held at Mick Eustace’s house in Furroor, Kilmaley when he escaped on October 30, 1920.  According to Ned Lynch, McPherson had tricked his guard, an IRA volunteer named Hehir. According to Lynch, Hehir was, “a giant of a man, athletically built but much too innocent for the character with whom he was dealing”.

Hehir was loading a revolver under the watchful eye of McPherson, who commented that Hehir did not have the proper technique for loading the gun. McPherson generously offered to demonstrate this and when Hehir handed over the loaded weapon, McPherson made his escape without making any attempt to take Robertson with him.

The IRA in Connolly panicked when they realised McPherson had escaped. They feared he would lead the British forces to the area and capture members of the local IRA company. In response to McPherson’s escape, the local IRA immediately executed Private Robertson. His body was buried in a bog at Connolly, which was owned by Colonel Frederick St Ledger Tottenham, a local Unionist landlord. Tottenham’s bog was chosen as the site for Robertson’s burial since it was felt that his lands were unlikely to be searched by the British forces.

As the IRA had suspected, McPherson returned to Connolly the next day, leading a British military search party. He identified the houses that he had been held captive in, through marks that he had carved into the furniture with a tobacco knife. At one farm, he had carved his initials into the rafters of an outdoor toilet.

The houses McPherson identified were searched and some were burnt in reprisal. Frustrated by their failure to find Private Robertson, British troops killed livestock on nearby farms and assaulted a number of local men.
Despite these draconian measures, the British Army never found any trace of Private Robertson, except for his bloodstained uniform cap.

A neighbour warned the Eustace family of the advance of the British raiders and they were not at home when the troops arrived. The British forces arrested Mick Eustace two days later, when he returned to examine the remains of his family home. He was interned in Limerick Prison until December 24, 1921, when he was released without charge.

An alternative account of Private Robertson’s death was put forward by Fr Pat Gaynor, a member of Sinn Féin, who was then curate of Kilmurry Ibrickane. Fr Gaynor claimed, “At the trial, on Ned Lynch’s demand, the younger soldier [Robertson] was sentenced to death but the execution was so badly bungled that he was still alive the next day and he was able to drink a cup of tea that some kind person in the locality gave him. He had been left lying inside a hedge and ultimately – so Eamonn Waldron told me – was battered to death by a stone.”

Fr Gaynor’s account is scarcely credible. Whilst it is plausible that Ned Lynch had demanded vengeance for the death of his father and pushed for Robertson’s execution, there is no evidence to support this.

Secondly, Gaynor’s statement that Robertson had been left to die, lying undiscovered in the open for a whole day before being bludgeoned to death, seems highly unlikely given that the British army had flooded the area with troops, who at that exact time were searching for the missing soldier.

Fr Gaynor’s insistence that Private Robertson had been “left lying inside a hedge” does not fit with the fact that Robertson had been buried and hidden so well that the repeated efforts of the British army (and later the Free State Army) failed to locate his body.

It is significant that Fr Gaynor was not in the immediate locality at the time of Private Robertson’s death and that his version of events was written decades later, based on second-hand accounts.

Three years after Private Robertson’s disappearance, during the Civil War, the Duke of Devonshire began correspondence with Richard Mulcahy, commander in chief of the Free State Army, in an effort to locate the remains of Private Robertson and the other British soldiers who had been killed and secretly buried in Clare. Because so many members of the IRA from Connolly, Miltown Malbay and Lahinch had taken the Republican side during the Civil War, the Free State Army was unable to glean much information about the location of these soldiers’ remains.

The Free State Army was able to confirm that Private Robertson and a second British soldier, Private George Chalmers, had been executed in West Clare and could give the approximate date and location of each execution to the duke. However, they were unable to locate the grave of either soldier and were forced to admit defeat after concluding “there are a good many bogs in that district, the information is not very definite”.

The search for the soldiers’ bodies was abandoned soon after. The correspondence between the duke and Mulcahy indicates that Robertson and Chalmers’ families did not make enquiries or petitions to the British Government concerning the men’s fate. This would not have been unusual at the time, given that the bodies of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers killed in the First World War were never recovered. It was also fairly common for the bodies of Black and Tans and British soldiers killed during the War of Independence to be formally buried in Ireland, instead of being returned to Britain for burial.

The three members of the British forces killed and secretly buried by the IRA in Clare all died in completely different circumstances. The common element between them is that all three of those executed were suspected of acting as spies. When Lance-Corporal McPherson and Private Robertson were captured by the IRA, they had initially claimed to be deserters from the British army.

McPherson’s actions in marking, for later identification, the Republican safe houses that he had been held in and his efforts in leading British troops on a search of the Connolly area afterwards, suggest that he was definitely gathering intelligence about the local IRA. Whether McPherson had deliberately set out on this mission or whether it was a spur of the moment decision he adopted once he thought of escaping from the IRA and returning to his battalion, will probably never be known for certain. Nor will we ever know for sure whether Private Robertson had willingly embarked on an intelligence-gathering mission with McPherson or whether he was a genuine deserter, who was very unfortunate in his choice of companion.

The full story of the British soldiers who were executed and secretly buried by the IRA in Clare during the War of Independence is published in the book Blood On The Banner and in the article Missing in Action in Volume 36 of The Other Clare.

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