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The Four Who Fell

by Joe Ó Muircheartaigh

The story of the Scariff Martyrs that has endured over the past 100 years in song and story has been brought to a new audience with the publication of historian Dr Tomás Mac Conmara’s new book entitled ‘The Scariff Martyrs – War, Murder and Memory in East Clare’. The Tuamgraney man told Joe Ó Muircheartaigh that the project has been many decades in the making, one that can be traced back to when he first became interested in the history of the War of Independence period in County Clare.

Scariff Martyrs Book
The cover of ‘The Scariff Martyrs – War, Murder and Memory in East Clare’ by Tomás Mac Conmara.

‘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 in Killaloe.

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 another."

“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 the 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 other 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 and I 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 you. In all 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 independence. 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 town.”

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 town.

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 to November 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 G Company of the Auxiliaries pictured in Killaloe during the War of Independence.
“A party of about 30 Auxies with four officers came from the hotel and boarded the boat [SS Shannon],” recalled crew member Joe Hogan, some three decades later. “All the Auxies went down below to the cabins except three, who kept guard over the skipper and myself in the wheel-house. None of us – the crew – knew where we were going. We were ordered to pull out up the lake and go ahead.”

They were bound for Williamstown – and more specifically the ‘Great House’ – arriving two hours later, before stealing towards their targets, who they knew were inside on the grounds and suspected nothing.

“The pier was only 100 yards from the house,” says Mac Conmara, “so when they docked they were almost there and quickly arrested Rodgers, McMahon and Gildea, who up until a few minutes before that had been sleeping. They also arrested Egan."

“There’s a lot in that story, because there’s an informer who gave the information; there’s the way the Auxiliaries circumvented the IRA warning system; there’s the experience of their capture, being brought on the boat up to Kilalloe and subsequent experience leading up to that night when they were killed."

“They were brought into the Lakeside about 2.30 to 3 o’clock and were there until around midnight. There are multiple accounts of people hearing screams, while there’s testimony from people like John Conway – along with his brother Michael he was also arrested with the four men in Williamstown."

“John Conway was interviewed by a Maynooth researcher in the 1950s and his testimony is really important because he’s in there with them. He’s not tortured, but he’s there when the other four are being brought in and out for interrogation. Conway sees them coming out covered in blood. I also found the testimony of a guy who worked in the hotel, Billy Malone — he recounted seeing signs up on the doors saying, ‘civilians not allowed to enter’. He knew what was happening behind those doors.”

They were interrogated; they were beaten; they were tortured; then they were murdered on the bridge.

A headline from The Irish Independent after Alfie Rodgers, Michael ‘Brud’ McMahon, Martin Gildea and Michael Egan were killed on Killaloe Bridge on 16 November, 1920.

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 upon”.

“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 Killaloe’s 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”.

The Scariff Martyrs superimposed over the monument on the bridge in Killaloe where they were killed.

Those monuments are there 100 years on – on the bridge Killaloe where the four men fell; in their ‘Republican’ plot adjacent to Scariff Church and in Tuamgraney Memorial Park where all those who took part in the struggle for independence are remembered and celebrated.

Other monuments are the songs and verse – up to six compositions – in memory of the four. Among these are Joe Noonan’s ‘The Four Who Fell’ that was popularised by the Shannon Folk Four group and ‘The Scariff Martyrs, written by the ‘Ogonnelloe Poet’ – either Jamsie Fitzgibbon or DP O’Farrell – that has long since been made famous by Christy Moore.

“Christy first heard the song when he in Tulla,” reveals Mac Conmara, “and when he was working in the bank there. He was in Murphy’s Pub and met Teddy Murphy’s mother, Margaret Canny from Tuamgraney. She was at the funeral of the four men and gave Christy the words of the song.”

‘The dreadful news through Ireland has spread from shore to shore
Such a deed no living man has ever heard before
The deeds of Cromwell in his time I’m sure no worse could do
Than them Black and Tans that murdered those four youths in Killaloe.
‘ Three of the four were on the run and searched for all around
Until with this brave Egan in Williamstown was found
They questioned him and tortured him but to his comrades he proved true
And because he would not tell their whereabouts he was shot in Killaloe.
‘ On the sixteenth day of November the day that they were found
Sold and traced through Galway to that house near Williamstown
They never got a fighting chance but were captured while asleep
And the way that they ill-treated them would cause your blood to creep.
‘ The hackled them both hands and feet with twines they could not break
And brought them down to Killaloe by steamer on the lake
Without clergy judge or jury on the bridge they shot them down
And their blood flowed with the Shannon convenient to the town.
‘ After three days of perseverance their bodies they let go
And ten pm the funeral passed through Ogonnolloe
They were kept in Scariff chapel for two nights and a day
Now in that place of rest they lie, kind people for them pray.
‘ If you were at the funeral it was an awful sight
To see four hundred clergymen and they all dressed up in white
Such a sight as these four martyrs in one grave was never seen
They died to save the flag of love the orange white and green.
‘ Now that they are dead and gone I hope in peace they’ll rest
Like all young Irish martyrs, forever among the blessed
The day will come when all will know who sold their lives away
Of young McMahon and Rogers, brave Egan and Kildea.’

The song is a monument to the Scariff Martyrs, just like Tomás Mac Conmara’s book is, with Christy Moore parsing it perfectly when saying, “Because of this book, future generations will always know about the Scariff Martyrs”.

• ‘The Scariff Martyrs – War, Murder and Memory in East Clare’ by Tomás Mac Conmara is published by Mercier Press.


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