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MY LOVELY GRAN
How could it possibly be that a book which starts with a brutal murder in Arizona in 1915, before settling into an account of three more killings that took place during the War of Independence, is really about my relationship with my grandmother?
Mary Theresa O’Reilly (née May McKenna), was a delightful soul, prim and delicately nurtured but curious, loquacious and engaging. She was a great storyteller and loved to regale her favourite grandchild (that was me, by the way – this is MY story!) with tales of being rousted out of her family home by the Black and Tans during the violent years of the Anglo-Irish war. She also told me stories of her brother, Justin McKenna, a Meath solicitor who died a few years before I was born. He was fé glas ag Gallaibh (a guest of His Majesty, King George V and his coalition government) in the Curragh military prison when he was run by Sinn Féin in the Louth/Meath constituency and was elected as a TD in the 1920 general election. So, he got to vote for the Anglo-Irish treaty in January 1921. She also had a great story about what happened to him just before he registered his vote, but you’ll have to read the book for that.
However, she never told me about her American stepmother, or the romantic tale of how her widowed father married the widow of his first cousin (concentrate please – I’ll be asking questions at the end!). Neither did she tell me anything about her other three McKenna brothers, or her five Clinton cousins, all of whom were in the IRA or Cumann na mBan, and three of whom took part in the book’s fourth killing.
Why not? I would have been gob-smackingly fascinated, in the way that all ten year old boys positively luxuriate in tales of derring-do and mindless violence. Why had she kept to herself the fact that three of her brothers and three more of her cousins would tool up after dark and risk their lives in an attempt to reduce the number of Tans or Auxies populating or polluting the fields and lanes around the Cavan/Meath border. After months of scratching my head I’ve had to conclude that she was a bit too embarrassed about the activities of her siblings to mention it. Well I did say she was prim and delicately nurtured – you had to know my grandmother to understand why she would stay shtum rather than regale me with that particular chapter of her War of Independence autobiography, Lloyd George, my part in his downfall. So I will never know how much she knew about what I’ve been discovering since the night I read my granduncle T.P.McKenna’s Military Service Pensions Collection file and encountered the jaw-dropping entry ‘executed informer in Carlanstown.’ I wish she was still around so that I could regale her for a change.
By the way, when it comes to process, historians have it easy these days. Thanks to the wonders of digitisation and the online accessibility of thousands of archive documents I was able to write about the murder of my cousin John Clinton in 1915 in Arizona in my study in Kells, Co. Meath, not far from where he was born but 8000 kilometres from where he died. The rest of the book, six chapters all set in the Cavan/Meath border area, was written in the Doe Library in the University of California, Berkeley! Go figure.
FOUR KILLINGS – A synopsis
In 1891 Sarah Clinton, of Mullagh Hill House in Co. Cavan, married merchant and farmer T. P. McKenna of the town of Mullagh. They set about having children straight away. They stopped after ten, only because Sarah died at the age of thirty-six a few weeks after the birth of their last child, Una. T. P McKenna, for many years a fanatical supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party, joined Sinn Féin after the 1916 Rising. In 1917 he made numerous stump speeches on behalf of Arthur Griffith’s candidacy in the East Cavan by-election. Griffith at the time was ‘fé glas ag Gallaibh’ (a political prisoner).
Three of T.P. Senior’s sons, John, Raphael and T.P. Junior, were IRA Volunteers during the Anglo-Irish War (1919-21), while a fourth, Justin, was elected in 1921 as a TD for the Louth-Meath constituency. Incarcerated in the Curragh military camp at the time of his election, he was released from internment. He would cast his Dáil vote in favour of the Treaty in January 1922. Raphael was a local Intelligence Officer in the North Meath / East Cavan region. John was an ordinary IRA volunteer, but T. P. Junior’s revolutionary career was by far the most interesting.
T. P. McKenna, born in 1903, who joined the Irish Volunteers as a fifteen-year-old, began studying medicine at UCD in 1920, alongside eighteen-year-old Kevin Barry. Shortly after the execution of Barry in November 1920, T.P. was dispatched to County Meath to assist in the reorganisation of the Cavan/Meath IRA and to help establish a local Active Service Unit (Flying Column). He was responsible for training this unit on Mullagh Hill, under the noses of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries based in nearby Kells.
The young would-be doctor was also called upon to assist in the execution of an informer. The luckless spy is not named in his 1924 pension application, housed in the archives of the Military Service Pension Collection. However, the victim was nineteen-year-old Patrick Keelan, lifted by the IRA for associating with the Tans, instructed not to repeat the offence, and then released. Keelan, rather than heeding the warning returned with a column of Tans and assisted in the burning of the house where the IRA had detained him. He was later kidnapped for a second time and shot dead. Chronologically this is ‘Killing Number 4’. Also involved in the shooting of Keelan were TP’s brother John (a member of the firing squad) and their cousin Peter Clinton.
Nieces and nephews of Sarah Clinton were also active in the IRA and Cumann na mBan. Patrick Clinton was close to the IRA commander in Meath, the legendary Sean Boylan (father of the equally legendary herbalist and Meath football manager of the same name) and acted as Intelligence Officer for the county and later the 1st Eastern Division. Pat’s sister Rose was an enthusiastic member of Cumann na mBan and is mentioned frequently in Bureau of Military History witness statements as running the safest and most comfortable of ‘safe houses’ for IRA men on the run. Their young brother, Mark Clinton, born in 1897, was also a Meath IRA volunteer who worked his father’s farm in Cluggagh, near Cormeen, Co. Meath, a few miles from the Cavan border.
Here we need to backtrack a few years. An uncle of the Clinton siblings, John Clinton, had emigrated to the USA in the ‘hungry’ 1880s. In 1895 he, and a number of other Irishmen purchased federal land in southern Arizona, near the Mexican border, around the town of Hereford, AZ. They immediately began to ‘enclose’ their holdings. This did not sit well with the wealthy ranchers of the huge Boquillas Cattle Company, accustomed to grazing their herds, gratis, over 20,000 acres of federal land. A dispute developed and the relatively well-educated John Clinton became tacit leader of, and spokesman for, the Irish homesteaders. In 1915 he was summoned to the door of his home when a stranger called. He was shot dead on his front doorstep. Killing No.1
Back to North Meath where, in 1920, taking advantage of the chaos of the War of Independence, a gang of men, variously known as ‘The Cormeen Gang’ or the ’Black Hand Gang’ began a campaign of land expropriation. They were an odd mix of British Army veterans and some serving IRA members. They sought to intimidate local farmers off their farms, in some instances citing historic Parnellite-era ‘land-grabbing’ as their justification. In one instance they dynamited the farmhouse of a man who was courageous or stubborn enough to oppose them.
One of the farms they targetted was that of Phil Smith of Cormeen. Locally there would not have been much sympathy for Smith. He was the son of the infamous ‘Poragon’ Smith, a late 19th century land agent notorious for seizing the lands of evicted tenants. The ‘Cormeen Gang’ ordered Smith off a parcel of land near the village of Cormeen. Smith approached his cousins, the Clintons of Cluggagh, who farmed nearby, and sought their support. Blood being thicker than water the Clintons agreed to help him. When this became clear to the agrarian gang the Clintons were sent a warning that, if they persisted in their support of Smith, they would suffer the same fate as John Clinton in Arizona. On 9 May 1920 there was an altercation between both parties in which shots were fired.
The following day Mark Clinton took two plough horses into one of the disputed fields in a clear gesture of defiance From a tree-lined hill a hundred yards away three shots rang out from a sniper’s rifle. All three found their targets. The horses died immediately, Mark Clinton lingered. His cries for help, and for water, were ignored by a family, the McMahons, whose house was well within earshot. Before he died, Mark Clinton was able to give his distraught father the names of five of those who had participated in the shooting. Killing No.2.
Sean Boylan, took the murder of Mark Clinton personally. The Cormeen Gang had finally overreached itself. Boylan ordered an immediate investigation, in parallel with a lacklustre inquiry by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Ten local men were identified as members of the gang, the prime mover being a farmer named ‘Bloomer’ Rogers (a Boer war veteran) rumoured to have paid a former RAF serviceman, William Gordon, the princely sum of £2 to murder Mark Clinton.
In short order the nine men who had not pulled the trigger were rounded up by Boylan, incarcerated in the vacant house of the late Henry Dyas in Kilskyre (a racehorse trainer whose most famous horse, Manifesto, had won the Aintree Grand National twice), tried, and sentenced to terms of exile ranging from five to thirty years. They were then brought to Dublin Port, put on a boat to Liverpool and warned not to return to Ireland until their ‘sentences’ had elapsed.
Gordon, after being acquitted of possession of a weapon before Navan magistrates in July 1920 was ‘lifted’ by Boylan in an elaborate operation, described in detail in his Bureau of Military History witness statement. He was the taken to Boylan’s own Dunboyne redoubt and tried for murder by a Sinn Fein court. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Boylan, determined to demonstrate that justice had been done, went to Michael Collins and asked for permission to carry out the verdict. Gordon was unique in the context of the War of Independence. He was not an informer, but a convicted criminal, and could not simply be shot out of hand. Collins brought the matter to the Sinn Fein Cabinet where, among others, Countess Markievicz and Ernest Blythe, demurred. Gordon was tried again. Once again he was found guilty. Second time around the Cabinet gave leave for his execution. Gordon was duly shot and his body concealed in a quarry in Dunboyne. Killing No.4.
Four Killings explores the divisive issue of land hunger in rural Ireland, a phenomenon that did not suddenly disappear during the Anglo-Irish War. It also touches on the corrosive effect of violence on feuding families, and the responsibilities and pressures placed on the shoulders of young men and women in the turbulent creation of the new Irish state that emerged in the 1920s.
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