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The Blackwater tragedy

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FOLLOWING early mass on the morning of Sunday, February 20, 1921 Aiden, Cecil and Thomas O’Donovan decided to walk from their home at Emma Villas, in Thomondgate, to Blackwater Mill in Parteen. The purpose of their journey was to search for birds’ nests in the ruins of the mill.

Cecil and Aiden O'Donovan.On their way to Blackwater, they were joined by their first cousin, Brendan O’Donovan, who was known to his friends as Ben. Cecil, who was the oldest of the three brothers, was 18 years of age, while Thomas was 17 and Aiden was 14. They resided with their parents, Thomas and Alice, along with four other brothers and two sisters, at 3 Emma Villas in Thomondgate. Their cousin, Brendan, was 19 and was one of a family of six children belonging to Daniel and Gertrude O’Donovan, who lived on the Ennis Road. None of the O’Donovan brothers or their cousin had any involvement in politics or political movements. In a sense, it could probably be said that they were blissfully unaware of the tragedy that was about to befall them.

They walked the four miles from their home in a casual manner and while there is no definite record of the time of their arrival at the mill, it was probably at around 12pm. Oblivious to the world around them, the four youths started to search the ruins for birds’ nests. At some stage, they were observed moving around the mill ruins and grounds by a person who mistook them for IRA men on a training exercise.

Being engrossed in what they were engaged in, they did not notice the approach of an RIC convoy of two Crossly tenders, accompanied by two motor cars. The convoy, containing RIC and Black and Tans, drove out the main Broadford to Limerick Road and halted near where McMahon’s public house and mortuary now stands.

The convoy was under the command of District Inspector John Greally and Captain David Sturrock, the intelligence officer attached to the brigade staff at the military barracks. Sturrock, in his later account, states that he had received information that the IRA were drilling in the grounds of the mill and it was on the foot of this information that the convoy was sent out.

Immediately, the two men in charge Inspector Greally, who was originally from Westport, County Mayo, and Captain Sturrock moved up to investigate. Sturrock, in his account, stated that he saw ‘seven to nine’ men streaming out from the mill. While the officers were still investigating the mill, a number of shouted orders came from the direction of where the tenders were parked.

This was the first indication that the young O’Donovans had of the deadly danger they were in. Before they had time to respond to the shouting, fire was opened from this direction. This party of police and Black and Tans was under Sergeants James Horan  and Lawrence Flynn. Immediately, 14-year-old Aiden O’Donovan was hit in the chest and he fell, mortally wounded. His older brother, Cecil, was hit by a bullet between the eyes and was killed instantly. Their cousin, Brendan, managed to escape through the grounds of the mill. A badly shocked and frightened Thomas O’Donovan put up his hands and surrendered to Captain Sturrock. A ceasefire was called immediately and details of the tragedy soon unfolded.

A military inquiry into the shooting of the O’Donovan Brothers was held at the New Barracks on Tuesday, February 22. The inquiry was under the Presidency of Colonel RJP Anderson, assisted by Major Kemble of the Royal Garrison Artillery and Lieutenant HJ Byrne of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. It was very clear that no order to open fire was given by either Captain Sturrock or Inspector Greally and in Sturrock’s own evidence, he stated that when he took the surrender of Thomas O’Donovan, he was actually putting himself in the line of fire. In his evidence, Thomas O’Donovan said that while he saw the lorries arriving, he did not hear any order to halt but when he saw the police, he decided that the safest thing to do was to put up his hands and not run. His two brothers were very close to him when they were hit but his cousin had escaped at the start of the firing.

Major Skarfe of the Warwickshire Regiment, who had planned the operation, stated in his evidence that he had not actually arrived with his men when the police had opened fire. To further reinforce the point about the unauthorised firing, Skarfe stated that he had given clear orders that fire was only to be opened if the raiding party was under attack or in the event of the ‘IRA’ attempting to break out.

In the event, Sturrock and Greally were only moving up to investigate when the RIC and Black and Tans opened fire and the O’Donovans were shot. At the Court of Inquiry, no question was raised as to who gave the order to open fire while the officers in charge were still investigating. Also, no question was raised about the phantom ‘eight or nine’ men that Sergeant Horan and Captain Sturrock claimed to have seen. This was especially important in light of the fact that the court accepted that the incident was a ‘tragic misadventure’. If the court believed that there were other persons, other than Brendan O’Donovan, present it is doubtful that they would have classed the incident as a ‘tragic misadventure’. They were much more likely to deem it a ‘justifiable homicide’.

Even today, over 91 years after the tragedy, there are many unanswered questions hanging over what happened on that Sunday. Because of the timescale involved and because the information was sent to the military intelligence officer at the New Barracks rather than to the RIC at William Street, the person who alerted the military almost certainly had to have access to a telephone. If it were an informant traveling by motor car or by horse and trap, he or she would most likely have gone to the nearest post, which would have been William Street.

The most likely informant was a person who had military connections, access to a telephone and was living in the Blackwater area. The fact that the O’Donovans were apolitical and from Limerick City, rather than local to the Blackwater area, probably accounts for the fact that the IRA do not seem to have carried out any follow-up investigation.

Another interesting detail to emerge at the military inquiry was the role of Captain David Sturrock. Ostensibly, Sturrock was listed as the O/C of the Royal Army Service Corp detachment in the New Barracks but his real function appears to have been that of brigade intelligence officer. He also gave critical evidence at the military inquiry into the shootings of the IRA men killed at Caherguillamore. On that occasion, his knowledge of IRA members left no doubt that his role as officer in charge of transport and barrack cleaning was just a cover for his real activities.

The remaining O’Donovan siblings and their parents were to mourn the loss of Cecil and Aidan out of the glare of official sympathy. When Hamar Greenwood, chief secretary for Ireland, was questioned by a Labour MP JG Hancock, he persisted in saying that the O’Donovan Brothers were tragically killed playing around the mill, while a party of eight or nine IRA were using the building for training exercises. Any one who had the faintest knowledge of how the IRA operated knew that Greenwood was being totally disingenuous. On no account would the IRA have allowed non-members to search for birds’ nests while they were carrying out training exercises on the same premises.

Cecil and Aidan O’Donovan’s father, Thomas (Snr), died in 1927 when he was about 59 years of age. His wife, Alice, lived on until 1959, when she was well into her 80s.

Of the seven surviving siblings, Nora, who was the eldest, became a nurse and settled in England, where she married and had one child, who is now deceased. The second-eldest was Alice and she married a man named King and lived at Osmington Terrace in Thomondgate, just around the corner from her parents.

Sadly, Alice died at a fairly young age without having a family. The oldest surviving son, Thomas, went to England and lost contact with the family. Patrick, who was the next surviving son, was married and had two children, one of whom died some years ago. His daughter, Hazel, is one of the few surviving children. Patrick died in England in 1970.

The seventh member of the family, Francis, joined the British Army during World War II and served in Aden. He died in London in 1943 from an illness picked up while serving. He was only 34 and unmarried. The second-youngest son, Clement, was married to a lady named Bridget O’Shea, a well-known figure in bridge circles in Limerick. Clement and Bridget lived at Lansdowne Park until they died some years ago.

The youngest son, Brendan John, who was born in November 1911, married a lady from Tralee named Eileen Murphy and they lived in O’Connell Street. They had two children, Michael and Mary. Eileen O’Donovan died in 1971 and Brendan died in 1982. Michael attended the CBS in Sexton Street and was a very useful hurler and soccer player until he migrated to England. Mary, his younger sister, married Paddy Beegan and settled in Limerick. Mary, who was the youngest child of the youngest child, is the only one of the family still living in Limerick.

Sadly, the fate of the two young O’Donovans has long been forgotten and their memory has slipped inexorably from the pages of history. But the Meelick and Cratloe War of Independence Commemoration Committee plan to rectify this by raising a plaque to the memory of the young O’Donovans in 2013.

Anyone wishing to contribute can do so by contacting Tom Toomey at 086 3114867 or Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc at 086 3148496.  Historian Tom Toomey will give a free public lecture about the Blackwater Tragedy in Parteen National School at 7.30pm on Wednesday, February 20.

Note: The author would like to thank Mary Beegan (née O’Donovan) and Deirdre O’Donovan (née Lloyd) for their assistance in compiling this article.

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