Biddy Hayes, niece of Martin Conway (pictured above left), and Marian Whelan, grandniece of Ned Moloney, laying a wreath at the Republican plot to honour the five IRA volunteers shot and killed at Cah
ST STEPHEN’S NIGHT 1920 in Caherguillamore was a bright, crisp and starry night. A military curfew was in place in Limerick, where people were confined to their homes after 9pm.
The War of Independence had really accelerated in 1920 and East Limerick was leading the military struggle against the RIC and British forces. The idea of holding a dance in these difficult times might seem strange, but for those young men and women it must have created great excitement.
A Christmas social in these bleak times would have brought great delight. Despite the dance being illegal, and some of the men from the area being on the run from the authorities, the boys and girls attending would have raided their wardrobes to have the finest clothes on, shoes polished thoroughly and hair groomed immaculately. By late afternoon 140 men and 100 women were ready to set off to attend the dance, supposedly being held in Herbertstown Hall. Everyone attending would have had a personal invite and would be sympathetic to the struggle that was going on.
Six weeks before the dance on November 8, about 50 men, who were members of 3rd Battalion East Limerick IRA, took part in the Grange ambush. Many of these men would later attend the Cahergillamore dance in December.
They were armed with 21 rifles and 21 shotguns, plus a small quantity of explosives. It had been decided to ambush the convoy at Grange Bridge, a point about eight miles from Limerick and about four miles from Bruff. They set out and occupied positions around John O’Neill’s [Barry’s] house. The ambush was about four miles from the big British garrison at Bruff to the south. They were expecting two British lorries at 9am, but in the end they believe eight lorries and two armoured cars arrived at noon.
It was a joint action involving the flying columns of both 3rd Battalion East Limerick Brigade and the 4th Battalion Mid Limerick Brigade, supported by local companies of Bruff, Grange and Holy Cross in the East Limerick Brigade and from the Fedamore and Ballybricken Companies of the Mid Limerick Brigade. Donnchadha O’Hannigan had overall command of the combined columns and most of the ambushers were placed in houses and behind walls on both sides of the road.
Something made the British suspicious, and they sent one lorry ahead as a decoy. This was bombed by the IRA and raked with small arms fire. At this point a British armoured car appeared, with an officer mounted on the running board firing a revolver… the IRA account names the officer on the running board as Lt Watling [who was shot and wounded].
More British reinforcements appeared, and the IRA realised that they were up against a vastly larger force than they had anticipated, so they retreated. Apart from one minor wounded man, they had no casualties. The British had two casualties.
Buoyed up by the successful attack and hasty retreat from a large British force, local IRA companies in the area were eager to escalate further attacks on British Crown Forces.
Ernie O’Malley, GHQ, came down from Dublin to discuss the formation of a battalion fighting unit. O’Malley met Martin Conway, Robert Ryan, James Benny Moloney and Seamus Moloney. However, to set up a successful fighting column, arms would be needed and especially rifles which was a problem. O’Malley reassured them that, if the funds could be raised, the rifles could be bought from GHQ.
Many ideas were put forward but the plan to hold a dance took hold. The company captain Martin Conway took the dance plan to his commanding officers Seán Wall and Nicholas Dwyer who, while having reservations, acceded and allowed the dance to take place. An organising committee was set up consisting of Martin Conway, James Moloney (Kilcullane) James Moloney (Ballycampion), Ned Moloney (Rahin), B Ryan (Lough Gur), Martin Dwyer (Herbertstown), William Leo (Holycross), John Quinlan (Grange) and Paddy O’Donoghue, who was a son of the caretaker of Caherguillamore House.
The venue chosen – Caherguillamore House – was empty now since Lord Fermoy had vacated the property during the Troubles. It was hoped to charge four shillings per head to raise about forty pounds, to obtain nine to ten rifles.
Seamus Moloney, Bruff Battalion, explained: “Thomas O’Donoghue was caretaker of Caherguill-
amore and his son Patrick was a prominent member of the Bruff company so we had no problem about securing entry a week beforehand. To the general body of the IRA we told them the dance would be held in Herbertstown, three miles east of Caherguillamore. To anyone invited they were told to go to such and such a cross road, as the Pike, Bruff, Kilcullane, Herbertstown, Grange Cross, Holycross, where they would be directed. The only IRA man to know the actual destination was posted at the main entrance.”
Despite the thoroughness of the concerted planning, rumours circulated that the venue may have been compromised. A local RIC man, Sgt Fred McGarry who lived in Bruff with his family, had told a shopkeeper sympathetic to Sinn Féin, to call off the dance as the police and military knew all about the dance arrangement.
It was decided to carry on with the dance. It would seem that the dance organiser felt that a raid by local RIC/Black & Tans could be held back by sentries long enough for people to escape from the dance. Anecdotally, we know of apprehension in the area since Esther Cattrall, who was to meet one of the IRA sentries (Ed Moloney) there, was not allowed go to the dance by her father.
The dance began at 6pm, entertainment was provided by the Martin brothers from Bruff. Supper was also served and the festivities began. All the shutters were closed with clothing and paper inserted into the shuttering to prevent light escaping. All sentries were in place so people could enjoy the dancing and food. But little did the 240 revellers realise what was about to unfold.
The British authorities were aware of the dance and assembled an army of 400 soldiers, RIC and auxiliaries. They were fully armed, with flares, bloodhounds, searchlights and woman searchers, ready to attack the dance. What ensued was an extensive attack with convoys from garrisons in Bruff, Pallasgreen, Kilmallock, Hospital and Limerick.
At about 1am the British forces alighted from their trucks and moved across country by foot. The intention was to completely surround Caherguillamore House to allow no escape. Martin Conway had spent most of the evening between sentries, making sure they were alert, relieving some of the men. One IRA sentry was alerted to unknown movement from Rockbarton House at around midnight. To ensure safety, word was sent back to the dance that “men on the run” should leave the dance.
The first person shot was IRA sentry Henry Wade, who had just replaced Batt O’Brien, Bruff. Daniel Sheehan another sentry, was also killed shortly after but not before he managed to fire at the fast-approaching enemy. Volunteer John Quinlan was armed and ran for cover when the British Force approached but was shot and killed. At this stage of confusion, all the on-the-run IRA Volunteers made an attempt to escape the tightening cordon.
Before leaving the house, Ged O’Dwyer handed his revolver to Ned Moloney. With the Black & Tans reaching the house and entering the hall, Moloney shot and killed Alfred Hogsden, a Black & Tan who was recently stationed at Bruff Barracks. Moloney made a run for it but was killed as he tried to climb the kitchen garden wall. The O’Dwyers, Nicholas and Ged, and Martin Conway made a run for it too. They managed to climb the kitchen garden wall and got to the road outside. Unbeknownst to them a British truck was approaching with lights and engine turned off. The IRA Volunteers were ordered to halt, but they quickly decided to run. Both Nicholas and Ged O’Dwyer were wounded when the police opened fire but managed to escape. One mounted a horse to make good his escape, while Ged O’Dwyer managed to find a stream in which he immersed himself to throw the bloodhounds off his scent. Martin Conway was badly wounded when he was shot but managed to crawl four miles, however a bloodhound found him. He shot the bloodhound but was discovered by the Black & Tans and shot dead.
Others who fought their way out that night were William Ryan (Grange), William Bourke (Grange), JT Houlihan (Holycross) and Owen O’Brien (Holycross). There was one escapee who, it was reported in the Limerick Leader at the time, found refuge for the night in a bog nearby and every time a searchlight descended he buried his head in the bog. He waited in the bog until 11am the next day, that is until the British forces left the area.
Meanwhile, back in Caherguillamore House where the majority of people remained, flares lit up the sky and the raiding party fired on the house and crashed through the front door. John Regan, senior RIC officer, stated that one of the men in the hall “approached in a brazen way and demanded to know our authority for being there. This was the last straw, with one of our men shot dead. He was hit and there was a very rough house for some time”.
Dr Michael O’Brien (Fedamore) gave first aid to the dying constable Hogsden, yet despite this, received a sustained beating from which he never recovered and died two years later.
Horrific scenes were to follow. An eye witness account from Patrick Lynch’s Limerick’s Fighting Story:
“Recovering from the initial shock, the Volunteers in the house reacted rapidly in efforts to try to protect the scores of girls and to organise some kind of a defence once all realised simultaneously that they were being subjected to a large-scale attack. But it was useless. Taking full advantage of the well-mounted element of surprise, and acting in accordance with a carefully prepared plan, the attackers closed swiftly on the house and burst through the front and rear doors and even through the windows. The cold steel of fixed bayonets and the brass of their rifle butts gleamed in the lamplight as they charged in on the 150 young men and more than 90 young women running hither and thither in the ballroom and adjoining corridors of the house.
“Brutality ran rampant and naked at Caherguillamore that night. Bayonet and rifle butt were used with abandon on young men who showed signs of resistance or of anxiety to protect the screaming young girls who clung to them in terror. The girls were torn from their companions who were in many instances, knocked down by blows of rifles on the face or the back of the head. Some were savagely stabbed with bayonets intended for trench warfare and not for use on defenceless and mostly unarmed youths on the floor of a ballroom. Many of the boys at the dance had no connection with the Volunteers except perhaps, the most tenuous link of family relationship or the general sympathy to be found among all peoples in occupied countries for freedom fighters.
“During the night prisoners were forced to run down corridors between two rows of Black & Tan officers while they were clubbed with rifle butts, revolvers and stair bannisters.”
In a Limerick Leader piece in 1965 a Bruff man who was there that night explained: “The Tans came into the room and picked out six men to be shot. After a while they came for six more and I was in the third six, but by this time I guessed they were bluffing as it was unlikely they were going to shoot us all.”
During their brutal interrogation, prisoners were forced to sing, “If you broke your mother’s heart you won’t break mine.”
One account of the night from John O’Donovan, witness, was that the hot coals from the fire were put out on the floor and prisoners were forced to walk barefoot over them, leaving physical scars for life.
The sheer terror that the young girls upstairs must have felt with the screaming and roaring from their men friends downstairs while the threat of marauding and indisciplined Black & Tans roamed the house.
The next morning the girls and youths under 15 were released and the remainder of male prisoners were piled into lorries under heavy guard and transported to the new barracks (now Sarsfield Barracks, Limerick).
“We cut a very sorry sight, covered as we were with blood and with our clothes stained and torn by bayonets,” - Seamus Moloney (Bruff Battalion).
In a hastily arranged court held in a room in Limerick Prison on Friday, January 7, 60 of the prisoners from Caherguillamore House were tried and charged with unlawful assembly; these men were sentenced to relatively short jail terms ranging from three to six months, then sent to Spike Island.
On Tuesday, January 11, 59 prisoners were tried and court martialled under Major Eastwood. All were found guilty and sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude which was commuted to terms of five years. The prisoners were transported to Limerick Docks where they were loaded on a destroyer and taken to Portland Prison in England.
These men would remain there until early Spring 1922, living their lives under very harsh conditions.
*Declan Hehir is an historian based in Bruff