|‘I knew Brud McMahon as well as I knew my brothers.
Oh, Alphie Rodgers was as fine fella as you ever laid an eye on. Oh, a
tall fine lookin’ young fella. He was six foot, a fine young man,
dark haired. Oh he was a fine fella! But Brud McMahon, he was known as
Brud – Michael was his name – was a fine fella too. Martin
Gildea was a nice type of lad too. Gildea was a Galway man. Of course he
was one of the boys [IRA]. He was a shop hand at Sparlings. I knew him
to see from going into the shop. I didn’t know [Michael] Egan.’
MARGARET Hoey (née Minogue) was holding back
tears, and then letting them flow, as she recorded her association
with the young men
who became the Scariff Martyrs. Indeed, tears were always there any time
she spoke of that time and incident that has woven itself into the tapestry
and narrative of the fighting story in Clare during the War of Independence.
She was 16 when Michael ‘Brud’ McMahon (27), Alphie Rodgers
(23), Martin Gildea (30) and Michael Egan (23) were murdered on the night
of 16 November, 1920, on the bridge that links counties Clare and Tipperary
She was 105 when historian Dr Tomás Mac Conmara sat down and spoke
to her about her memories of the men and the story of their deaths. This
was in Carrigoran Nursing Home in Newmarket-on-Fergus in 2008, but it
might as well have been downtown Scariff or Killaloe in November 1920.
“There are occasions,” writes Mac Conmara, “when a disclosure
of memory can be so powerful, so wrought with emotion, that for a brief
moment you find yourself transported on a journey of recollection. So
it was in Carrigoran Nursing Home when Margaret Hoey revealed to me a
moment marked indelibly on her memory."
“For a time,” he continues, “I felt as if I was there standing
near the open-hearth fire of her home when her mother opened the door
to a frantic IRA Volunteer with the news four local men had been killed.
“Within the fold of her memory, I walked and then ran with Margaret as
she quickened her pace up the avenue adjacent to her home. She had been
dispatched there to warn other IRA Volunteers who were on the run and
sheltered in a local safe house. Back then in 1920, she had cried as
she ran. As I listened 88 years later, she cried as she spoke:
‘I was of course, I was crying like a child. Anyone would be upset, ‘twas
a terrible thing. To say they were brought out and shot on a bridge in
Killaloe, between Tipperary and Clare, between Ballina and Killaloe.
Oh ‘twas a terrible thing. I did, I cried after them. The lads
were all joined the Volunteers. There was a safe house along the avenue
from us. One Volunteer, I didn’t know who he was, came to the house
and said to my mother, “could anyone give a message?” in
the way there were lads “on the run” in the house in the
avenue. “Oh,” she said, “Margaret can do that easily” and
I was dispatched off in the avenue. And shur naturally, I was crying
for I knew ‘em. And when I went into the house there were a couple
of [IRA] lads asleep. I was crying and the man of the house let a shout
at me, “what’s wrong with you?” And ah [begins to cry]
I told ‘em. ‘Twas bad news.’
Hoey passed away a few weeks after Mac Conmara’s last meeting with
her in 2009 – she was one of a number of direct links to the events
that occurred on that bridge between Killaloe and Ballina and beyond
in Scariff where the four men were buried four days later.
"I would have grown up hearing the story and I got more and more into
the oral history and the war of independence in my early 20s,” reveals
Mac Conmara. “I had the dual-interest in older people and oral
history and then the revolutionary period, but particularly the local
experiences of it. And, for people in the East Clare area, the biggest
emotive subject is always the Scariff Martyrs, so I was naturally drawn
to that story."
“I remember my mother found this photo of me interviewing Paddy Gleeson
back in 2004. That would have been the very first interview I did specifically
relating to the Scariff Martyrs story. He knew the lads. It was then
that I really started homing in on it. It was trying to gather up every
fragment of information that I could on it."
“It was a good few years after that that I convinced myself that I was
going to write a book about it. It takes time to build up enough information
and knowledge. As an historian I wanted to try and understand it — not
just get information about it."
“It was about gathering archival material and speaking to people locally
from as many different angles as possible to get a sense of the episode
and what effect it had on the community. You have the dual-impact between
the family that has one experience of it and the community has almost
“For the families it was just pure pain and devastation. You kind of forget
that sometimes. You talk about the pride of the martyrs and all of
that, which is real and is very important, but families didn’t
want martyrs, they wanted their sons alive and they were dead."
“It’s not that they resented the struggle for independence or anything
like that, but you have to recognize that on a human level there was
generations of pain afterwards, especially for the parents for the
rest of their lives. I tried as much as I could to tap into that over
years and gather up all those little, tiny fragments of memory, or
experience that gives you an insight into that.”
Mac Conmara’s own insight and interest in history can be traced
back to the same East Clare hinterland that has certainly played its
part in terms of monuments and commemorations to keep the memory of
the Scariff Martyrs alive for the past 100 years.
“I remember I found an old revolver in my townland when I was around nine
or ten,” he reveals. “It was in the ruins of an old home
in Ballymalone, Tuamgraney. It’s up towards my own home. We would
have walked up and down the road to and from school — it’s
three corners of an old cottage, which would have been derelict at
the time of the War of Independence.
"I was in rooting around there. You’d be finding old bottles.
Any old objects fascinated me, and I found this revolver. I brought it
home and I remember I had almost this museum of my own with bottles and
things — of anything I could find in the townland."
“There would have been significant enough activity in this particular
area. I would have always been interested in old people and old things.
The War of Independence had this global significance and a national
significance, but it was very much played out in the townlands of the country
found there, buried in the townland of Ballymalone, the evidence
of activity in the area."
“From that age I was interested. I got to read the stories of the Black
and Tans coming into the area. It was very active because the townland
leads you back over to Kilbane, Broadford and Killaloe, so for the
Volunteers it was a useful area that they could move in and out of."
“I don’t know who had that gun, but I know who it was likely to
be — possibly John Dillon who would have been one of the leading
IRA men in that area. I know he was on the run through those townlands.
You can link that gun to military activity in this area and it’s
the beauty of that approach of talking to local people because
with that you can relate the history to the local landscape around
of that, I started hearing about the Scariff Martyrs and how they
fell and I was hooked.”
The four fell after a period of intense actively in the Lough Derg
area as the autumn of 1920 stretched into winter.
AROUND this time the O/C of the East Clare Brigade, Michael Brennan,
spent much of his time in the Scariff area as the IRA began to target
key sites that were fortified by the RIC, Black and Tans and Auxiliaries.
By late summer the only RIC barracks in East Clare that remained occupied
were in Feakle and Scariff.
The Scariff barracks was between Moloney’s Drapery and Duggan’s
Pub in the town, but by September the IRA had decided to make their move
and launch a major attack on the now heavily fortified symbol of British
rule in the town. Rodgers, McMahon and Gildea, who were battalion officers
in the local company of the IRA, were part of this operation planned
for the night of 18 September.
“Before the attack took place, Alphie Rodgers, Michael McMahon and
Martin Gildea sat quietly in the town of Scariff and waited,” writes Mac
Conmara. “For Rodgers and McMahon, the town that had been their
childhood playground was about to be transformed into a battlefield."
“They had been central to the organization of the action. The three
young Republicans had already committed themselves to the cause of Irish
That concept was now becoming more real, as a strange feeling loaded
with both fear and nervous energy, ran through their bodies."
..A central area of command at the Market House was led by Alphie Rodgers
and Martin Gildea, who were soon joined by Michael McMahon. There the
three men directed a fire-fight, within a town they knew intimately."
“While the young IRA men concentrated their focus on the direction
of fire, it is claimed that the eyes of an RIC constable were at that time
focused on them. One local historian claims that an RIC constable was
on a night off duty and drinking in a local public house and that he
observed the action from an upstairs window….The observation ultimately
made the three Republicans marked men as they were deemed responsible
for the attack."
“For over two hours, the RIC and Black and Tans put up a determined
defence of the barracks until a number of whistle blows signalled the action
was called off and IRA Volunteers immediately began to peel away from
The attack itself had been a failure, even though a few days later the
objectives of the operation were realized when the RIC withdrew from
the barracks, which allowed the IRA move in once more and destroy the
building and remove any vestige and symbol of a police presence in the
By then all Volunteers involved in the initial attack were on the run,
chief among them Rodgers, Gildea and McMahon as the police authorities
began to target those family members left behind.
“The family homes of McMahon and Rodgers became the subject of intense
and aggressive raids,” writes Mac Conmara, “in a clear indication
that their sons’ involvement was noted and they had now, with Gildea,
become wanted men."
“On one occasion when the British forces were beating in their door
in Scariff town, 18-year-old Gertie Rodgers was handed a revolver to conceal,
which she did by quickly placing it in the ashes of the fire range. On
a separate raid Gerald Rodgers was forced by the crown forces to the
centre of Scariff and made to sing ‘God Save the King’."
“The home of Michael McMahon’s uncle in Middleline outside Scariff
was targeted repeatedly. John McMahon was warned that if he helped his
nephew his house would be burned and his family would be shot."
“Rodgers, McMahon and Gildea were wanted men. There were killings,
long journeys in dark nights, house dances, bravado, worry, laughter, danger,
loneliness and bravery, until all emotions were distilled into fear and
panic on 16 November, 1920.”
The day and night that three men, along with a fourth man Michael Egan,
were captured, tortured and murdered.
‘I was going to work at 8.45am. I could see blood from Danny Crowe’s
gate as far as the point where the monument was later erected. There
was brain matter with the blood. There was so much blood on the bridge
that at first I thought a cow had been killed. I swept all the blood
with a sop of grass or hay to the side of the wall and I found a cap
beside the wall with Brud McMahon’s name on it.’
Michael Daly, 1921
PAINSTAKINGLY Tomás Mac Conmara charted the lives
of the three men over that two-month period stretching from September
1920. The safe houses in the area, as they kept moving from place to
place to avoid detection as a dragnet made up of the RIC, Black and Tans
and a group of Auxiliaries that had arrived in Killaloe in early November
and set up headquarters in the Lakeside Hotel, tried to close in on them.
Mac Conmara is with them all the way to Williamstown near Whitegate – the
three men are holed up in a room in one of the stables at Williamstown
House, where Michael Egan worked as a caretaker. As Egan made his way
to work on the morning of Tuesday, 16 November, the Auxiliaries were
also on the move.
The people of Killaloe and Ballina knew this, but the
official account of what happened the four men that afternoon and night
between their incarceration in the Lakeside Hotel and the volleys of
gunfire that were heard just a few hundred yards up the Lough Derg shoreline
was always going to paint another picture.
“The four were shot dead while trying to escape from the escort at Killaloe,” said
a missive issued by the Dublin Castle authorities. “They were shot shortly
after midnight,” the short statement added.
Nationalist MP, TP O’Connor, raised the killings in the House of Commons,
with the Chief Secretary to Ireland Sir Hamar Greenwood sticking to the Dublin
Castle line when saying, “the police and military were entitled to fire
on prisoners who were attempting to escape and who refused to halt when called
“That’s the official line,” says Mac Conmara, “so if
you follow the official account it’s a short volley of gunfire and the
four men are dead, but the narrative in Killaloe was a lot different. You had
multiple people saying that they heard screams and gunfire that continued for
a lot longer than that.”
Indeed, with a matter of days of the killings, holes were being poked into
this official version of events:
“Mystery surrounds the circumstances under which Martin Gildea, Alfred
Rodgers, Michael Egan and Michael McMahon were shot dead at Killaloe, when, as
officially alleged, they were attempting to escape from custody on Tuesday night,” said
the Nenagh Guardian.
“It is remarked as a peculiar circumstance that the prisoners should have
been brought there at that hour, as it is stated they had been brought there
to the Lakeside Hotel, occupied by the police, early that evening.
“The natives heard 15 or 20 rifle shots that night, followed by moans and
a pathetic cry for a priest. No priest was, however, summoned, although the Presbytery
is only about 100 yards from the scene of the tragedy,” the Guardian added.
“At the bridge which is about 200 yards long the road is straight and narrow
and underneath flows the Shannon at a depth which would mean instantaneous death
to a man plunging off the bridge. The spot would not, therefore, be considered
a favourable place to attempt an escape,” noted The Irish Independent."
“I looked at it from every single angle,” says Mac Conmara. “The
official account says there was a group of seven on the bridge — there
are multiple reasons why I don’t believe that. First of all, you have 30
Auxiliaries who go down to Whitegate, they arrest them, tie them up and bring
them back to the hotel. Then when bringing them across the bridge, they suddenly
decide not to have them in handcuffs and only have seven of an escort. It doesn’t
make sense. It was planned, it was ruthless — but I can’t say that
because I believe it, I have to break it all down.”
Mac Conmara’s book, ‘The Scariff Martyrs – War, Murder and
Memory in East Clare’, does just that. From every angle it breaks down
the story into the minutiae, breaks down what is essentially a tragic story,
because of the reality that four families lost loved ones. At the same time,
it’s a story that stands as a symbol of the deeply felt commitment to
the independence movement that existed in East Clare during this period, while
there’s also the story of how the memory of the Scariff Martyrs and what
they stood for has been kept alive in folk memory and commemoration over the
past 100 years.
Mac Conmara’s book goes into it all.
“It’s the nature of the story,” he admits. “There’s
the betrayal by an informer; the fact that they were captured and brought on
a boat on Lough Derg; the fact that they were beaten so much and held in the
Lakeside Hotel; the fact they were killed around midnight has a certain drama
to it and on a bridge is a little bit different as well. There’s also the
fact that the withholding of the bodies for a few days after the killings adds
a certain injury to the community beyond just their deaths."
“The Scariff Martyrs are the most publicly remembered in terms of the amount
of commemorations there have been down the years,” continues Mac Conmara. “I
am trying to explain why it’s so emotive for people; why, 100 years later,
does this bring tears to peoples’ eyes. I am trying as best I can to tell
the story and in doing that I am trying to exercise this philosophy that it’s
more about understanding the history than telling it."
“Ten years ago, I had enough information to tell the story, to give an
account of what happened, but years of reading and listening have given me a
much greater understanding to tell the story much better now. You take Michael
Egan, his role in the story is really important."
“He wasn't in the IRA at all. For me to have spoken to relatives of his
and for me to have spoken to people who knew him is really, really critical to
understanding his role in the story. He was a real gentle type of individual,
really quiet – he wouldn't be the type who would join the IRA. To tell
Michael Egan's story, you must try as best you can to know Michael Egan. I spoke
to his niece."
“Also, I had written to every parish newsletter in Galway and newspaper
looking for relatives of Martin Gildea. Nothing happened for about a year but
then one day I was in Ennis having a haircut and I got a phone call from a woman,
who was the niece of Martin Gildea. She gave me such an insight into Martin’s
background. He was working in Sparling's shop. He was huge into Irish dancing.
It’s the same with Alphie Rodgers and Michael McMahon – it was about
learning about what type of people they were to tell the story,” he adds.
In November 1920 the story concluded when the four men were buried
in Scariff, on Saturday, 20 November – it was the day before
major events and manoeuvres in Dublin; in lodgings around the city
as the IRA went into action; in Croke
Park when the Black and Tans got their revenge and finally in Dublin Castle
when the retaliation continued when Claremen Peadar Clancy and Conor Clune
were among those murdered.
The day that would be marked down as Bloody Sunday, five days after
Bloody Tuesday – a common denominator to both being Conor Clune, who
attended the funeral of Scariff before heading to Dublin.
“The remains were handed over to their relatives at 9pm on Thursday,” reported The
Nenagh Guardian. “No inquest, it is stated, was held. The bodies were
coffined at the police station, the relatives being permitted to see the bodies,
which is stated were almost unrecognisable."
“The bodies arrived in Scariff at 11pm and were met by crowds of sympathisers,
Rev J Clancy, C.C. reciting the rosary on the streets. The bodies were then laid
side by side in the church; High Mass was celebrated. The deceased young men
were all total abstainers and monthly communicants. Three of them were Irish
speakers and all were of exemplary character,” the report added."
“The streets [of Killaloe] were cleared by police and military immediately
before the remains were handed up to the relatives,” reported The Saturday
Record. “Black and Tan flags were hoisted from police lorries.”
“Unusual scenes were witnessed in Scariff on Saturday at the interment
of Messers A Rodgers, M McMahon, M Gildea and M Egan, who were shot dead on Killaloe
Bridge,” reported The Irish Independent.
“The bodies had been in the church since Thursday and after High Mass were
interred, but special privilege, in the plot called the ‘Republican’ in
the yard adjoining the Church. Twenty-five priests took part in the ceremonies.
All business in the district was suspended, and the children wore crepe armlets,” the Independent added.
“The fact that I was talking to someone who was at the funeral, Paddy Gleeson,
was very important,” says Mac Conmara. “He was in Scariff the night
the bodies were brought back from Killaloe — Thursday the 18th at 11pm,
which would have been a very big moment. The bodies had been held, so it built
up tension in the area. He was also at the funeral."
“Paddy was my first direct link to the Scariff Martyrs, and it was really
only after talking to him back in 2004 that I really started to seriously explore
the possibility of doing a book on the subject, because up until that point I
had the sense that the story of the Scariff Martyrs was fairly well told. The
respect Paddy had for the Volunteers and for the four lads was really evident – he
saw what was going on in Scariff around the time of the funeral and he had that
very strong connection to the story,” he adds.
“Immediately after High Mass,” reported The Irish Independent, “four
motor lorries of Crown forces arrived and compelled everyone attending the funeral
to pass by the church gate, where they were closely scrutinized by local men.
While the remains were being interred some of the forces entered and searched
the church. The coffins were draped in the Republican colours. There were no
wreaths from the public and it is proposed to erect a monument”.