It was the worst of times. It was August 1922, 90 years ago. Ireland was at war with itself; a civil war which has been called Green on Green. Arthur Griffith, now identified as the intellectual and constitutionalist of the independence movement, died of a heart attack on the 12th of that month. Some would say that he died of a broken heart.
Ten days later, Michael Collins, the revolutionary and first Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Army, was killed at Beal na mBlath in West Cork. Both had been signatories of the Articles of Agreement on the 6th December 1921. On hearing of Griffith’s death, Collins is quoted as saying that it seemed as if some ‘malignant fate’ was dogging the fortunes of Ireland, and he cited the deaths of Thomas Davis and Parnell at critical junctures in Irish history. To that malignancy, the deaths of both Griffith and Collins were now added.
In between both dates - on the 8th and 9th August, 1922, what could now be described as the last battle for Clonmel occured in the streets of the town. The cumulative memories of such painful cumulative events could not be talked about in the many decades which separated then and now. These memories were too painful and divisive, a taboo for discussion. My school history lessons stopped at 1916, with barely a mention of the establishment of the new democratic State.
Recently, in a small town in Spain, I met two women from Northern Ireland. Both were Unionist in politics. One was a social worker who had worked in very troubled Loyalist areas during the worst period of the Troubles. (“I tried to persuade them not to keep guns in the homes where there were children”, she said).
She talked about her own work in trying to bring some sense of normality into abnormal times, and on parting, she remarked how good it had been to talk about her experiences because “we can’t talk about them at home”.
And it may well be that, like us, it will take another 90 years, or even a century, before the protective silences imposed by the facts of internecine disturbances can be discussed by ordinary people whose relatives or friends may have lived through such events.
So to Clonmel! The town suffered more than most Irish towns in the birth pangs of the new State. Following the evacuation of the British Army from Victoria Barracks (now the sadly vacated Kickham Barracks), the barracks was occupied by those former fellow-combatants and friends who opposed the Treaty. These were variously described as the Anti Treatyites or perjoratively the Irregulars, or by those who supported them, “The Boys”. And many were indeed just boys.
There followed much disruption in the life of the town. Approach roads and bridges were mined. Telephone wires were cut and in those pre-radio and televison times, the telephone was the only direct contact with the ‘outside world’. Because of threats, this newspaper very briefly was forced to cease publication. In early summer, damage to the permanent-way on the railway system prevented trains from bringing much needed goods to the town.
Commercially, heretofore thriving businesses were becoming no longer viable, since the Anti Treatyites were “paying” for their food and necessities by promissory notes, and according to Eoin Neeson in his “The Civil War 1922-23”, by cash from £20,000 “appropriated” from local banks.
Clonmel’s experience was exacerbated by industrial unrest caused by the strike of employees in the Condensed Milk Company of Ireland in Suir Island and the formation of the so-called soviet. This strike ultimately deteriorated into anarchy on the streets. The RIC had been disbanded; the Garda Siochana only in the process of formation. There was, consequently, no police force to implement law and order.
Ordinary citizens, having already experienced much disruption to their lives, desperately looked forward to peacefully going about their work. They saw some prospect of that law and order and peace in the steady progress of the now legitimate army of the State into Munster to re-claim towns and cities taken over by the Anti Treatyites.
Clonmel was regarded as a significant stronghold of that faction, and it is said that Eamonn de Valera himself travelled to the town to survey its defences. He looked, in particular, at some of the older medieval tower-houses in that context, particularly Kilcash Castle. By now, Waterford and Limerick had been re-possessed by the army, and the serious ambition of establishing a “Republic of Munster” was fading.
Carrick-on-Suir was captured on the 2nd August. The Anti Treaty occupants of Clonmel Barracks decided that, in order to avoid civilian casualties, the battle for the town should be undertaken in the countryside. They vacated the barracks, leaving behind burning buildings and a pall of smoke which hung over the streets for several days.The army did not take the main road to Clonmel, and travelled instead through the beautiful countryside at the base of Slievenamon. The first encounter took place at Kilcash and then in Ballynockan Wood. Under heavy firing the Anti Treatyites re-grouped at Ormonde Lodge, while the army settled for the night at nearby Ballyglasheen.
There was another re-grouping at Kilmore and Powerstown, and a pinning down of the army at Redmondstown. The final battle took place on the following day, the 9th August, when the army, a section of which had come into town via the railway line, was met by an Anti Treaty armoured car in King Street. A second section travelled via Horse Pasture into Kilsheelan Street (now Davis Row) where there was considerable fighting, in which the armoured car carrying a machine-gun, was hastily moved from King Street. In that haste the car over-turned and the occupants were lucky to escape injury.
It was midnight before the Battle of Kilsheelan Street ended, by which time the rearguard of the Anti Treatyites/The Irregulars/The Boys made their escape over the Gashouse Bridge and into the Comeragh foothills.
The army moved into Clonmel, passing the blazing barracks, Even at that late hour the townspeople in great numbers lined the streets in greetings and welcome. There were, of course, those citizens, parents and relatives and friends of the now fugitive Anti Treatyites, who did not greet or welcome.And so began the formidable task of re-building and re-establishing law and order. And so, too, began the great silence.