ON a quiet Tuesday morning of November 16, 1920, a steamer docked at Williamstown Harbour in East Clare, after making the relatively short journey from Killaloe. Locals who caught sight of the Board of Works vessel though little of it, believing ‘The Shannon’ had arrived to carry out much-anticipated harbour dredging works. Most people would have returned to their daily routine. Some getting ready for the fair the following day in Killaloe. Everyone was anxious to live as normal a life as they could. The second year of the War of Independence was drawing to a close. Tensions were high and the rhythm of rural life was in chaos. An attack on the RIC barracks in Scariff two months previously had triggered raids and reprisals by Crown forces and a number of IRA volunteers were on the run in the locality. Three of them – Brud McMahon, Alfie Rogers and Martin Gildea, officers of the Fourth Battalion of the East Clare Brigade of the IRA – had found sanctuary in the servants’ quarters of Williamstown House on the shores of Lough Derg. It is not know when news of the arrival of ‘The Shannon’ filtered through to them, but the docking of the steamer was to seal their fate. Below its deck were hiding a contingent of Auxillaries who disembarked and surrounded the safe house. The three were captured alongside local man Michael Egan, a care-taker on the grounds. Two local men, John and Michael Conway who had been working in the fields, were also captured on suspicion of assisting the IRA members.
All six were taken to the Lakeside Hotel in Killaloe, which was occupied by the police. Accounts of that night suggest the men were tortured before being taken to the bridge where Gildea, Egan, Rodgers and McMahon were shot dead. A newspaper account from The Irish Independent said locals heard 15 to 20 shots and that, the following day, those crossing the bridge to go to the fair were met with the bloody aftermath of the killings.
The story of the Scariff Martyrs, as the four dead men came to be known, is a key chapter in the revolutionary history of the country. This year, the centenary of the brutal incident will be marked at three locations in Clare, including – for the first time – Williamstown.
“Because the tragedy began here, we decided that for the 100th anniversary we should commemorate the events that happened in Williamstown,” explained Councillor Pat Burke. “I met my neighbour Tommy Holland and we decided to look into what might be done. We made an application for funding to the Library section of Clare County Council which is tasked with allocating grants from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.”
Oral historian Tomás MacConmara, who is writing a book on the Scariff Martyrs, was also consulted for his advice, given his expertise and the existing local commemorative activities. “I got in touch with Tomás and the East Clare Memorial Committee to see what the thinking was. He was delighted to hear that we in Whitegate are so keen on remembering what happened in Whitegate. While the four that were executed became known as The Scariff Martyrs, we’re inclined to call them The Williamstown Four.”
The memory of the Willamstown link is one that has lingered locally. “I would have been in a local pub 30 years ago with my parents when I heard a man singing a song ‘The Four Who Fell’ and I asked my father about it,” Councillor Burke explained. Williamstown House is on the land that he now farms and interest in this year’s planned commemoration is keen: “People in this area are really buying into the preparations. Tommy Holland and Tomás MacConmara have the history, I’m just the local community person, trying to tie the whole thing together.”
Tommy Holland from Williamstown is another committee member and was recently in Lakyle National School to tell children the story of the martyrs. An avid local history enthusiast, his grandfather and Alfie Rodgers’ father were first cousins. MP Holland also employed Michael Egan and the story of the martyrs has been handed down the generations.
“My grandfather, MP Holland was an auctioneer, and a corn merchant,” Tommy outlined. “He was also hired to look after Williamstown House, which at that time was owned by an Englishman, and used as a holiday home. My grandfather hired Michael Egan as a gardener and a caretaker to look after the place.”
Meanwhile, the IRA men were struggling to stay ahead of the Auxillaries, who were burning down any place they believed might be used as a safe haven. “They [Rodgers, Gildea and McMahon] came down to Holland’s in Nutgrove, their relations and friends,” Tommy explained. “They stayed in the loft of a house locally but got word that it might not be safe for them, so my grandfather gave them a note to go over to Galway. He knew of safe houses there. But they came back in a day or two, and he abused them for coming back: ‘Why did ye come back? Don’t you know they’re after ye?’. So they worked above in our farmyard and then he, being care-taker of Williamstown [House], said there was no-one in the house and that they could sleep below in there, in the maid’s quarters.”
On the day the Auxillaries arrived, Michael Egan was working with an ass on the law. “They arrested him and tied him up with his own ass’s reins,” Tommy outlined. “They quizzed him, but he didn’t say that the lads were inside in the house. He didn’t tell them anything so they raided the house. We always heard that they [the martyrs] had eight rounds of ammunition and just one revolver, so they were overcome, arrested and tied up, and taken back to Killaloe.”
What followed, Tommy believes, was a gruesome ordeal. “You can use your own imagination as to what they suffered. I know John Conway very well and he said he could hear the lads roaring and shouting and screaming and being beaten – they were in different rooms at the Lakeside Hotel. Around midnight, they were taken out to the bridge. They were told to run and then they shot them.”
A veil of secrecy descended over the area in the days that followed the killings. Newspapers of the time reported that even the local clergy were denied information. The authorities said a military inquiry had found that the men had been shot trying to escape custody, but local accounts strongly disputed that assertion and continue to do so. The four men have been commemorated in both Scariff and Killaloe over the last decade and, according to Tommy Holland, their memory is one of the reasons why local people were so strongly opposed to ill-fated plans for a State commemoration of the RIC.
“The memory of the martyrs is very strong here, very strong,” he said. “I remember their 50th anniversary, I was at the commemorations. It didn’t go down well here when the government were moving to commemorate the RIC and the Black and Tans. People felt it was outlandish.”
Meanwhile, planning is continuing for the events next November.
“We haven’t fully decided on the format for our event,” Councillor Burke explained. “But what we are clear on is that it will be designed to form part of a wider commemorative weekend on November 14 and 15. To make the weekend into a major commemoration, if you take the triangle of Williamstown, Killaloe and Scariff – where the martyrs are buried – we are thinking of having our commemoration on the Saturday morning. That will involve local schoolchildren, the Tulla pipe band, a re-enactment and an oration. The idea is that people will then be able to go on to Killaloe and then to Scariff to continue the commemorations. To link the events at the three locations together is the whole point so that people really get a sense of what happened 100 years ago.”