18 Aug 2022

Murdered mayors of Limerick - Limerick’s distinctive contribution to Ireland’s quest for freedom

Murdered mayors of Limerick - Limerick’s distinctive contribution to Ireland’s quest for freedom

Dr Brian P Murphy osb, Glenstal Abbey

LAST SUNDAY marked the centenary of the deaths of Joseph O’Donoghue, Michael O’Callaghan and George Clancy.

O’Donoghue was a young member of the IRA; O’Callaghan had just retired as Mayor of Limerick; and Clancy had just been elected Mayor of Limerick.

The brutal killing of the three men by British Crown forces, particularly the savage deaths of O’Callaghan and Clancy in front of their terrified wives, made headlines all over the world. It made a particular impact in America when, shortly after the murders, Kate O’Callaghan, the widow of Michael, published a 32 page pamphlet with the help of the Benjamin Franklin Bureau. The name of the pamphlet, ‘The Limerick Curfew Murders, 7 March 1921, Presented by his Widow,’ was compelling as were the contents. 

The thoughts in this article were prompted by reading the brochure of the Limerick Memorial Committee (April 1957) which was responsible for erecting a monument on the grounds of Strand House in memory of the three men killed on March 7. The memorial also included Sean Wall, chairman of Limerick County Council, who was killed in action, on May 6, 1921, and all other Limerick people who had died in the War of Independence. Reflection on their lives and the events of the period help us to understand, and to appreciate, Limerick’s distinctive contribution to Ireland’s quest for freedom.


The experience of Michael O’Callaghan at the time of the Easter Rising and its immediate aftermath provides an insight into political life in Limerick. O’Callaghan, while supporting the Irish Volunteers, took no part in the abortive plans for armed action in Limerick. George Clancy and the commanding officer, Michael Colivet, were directly involved. Following the executions of 1916, Michael O’Callaghan supported the statements by Bishop O’Dwyer against General Maxwell and when the Bishop was awarded the Freedom of the City of Limerick, on September 24 1916, he declared that he is “an Irishman who has rendered great service to his country.” In the following year Michael O’Callaghan, often working with Stephen O’Mara, played some part in the events leading to the creation of a new republican Sinn Fein party in October 1917. Significantly, both O’Callaghan and O’Mara were members of successful business families that had played an active role in Limerick civic life for many years and both had mayors in their family pedigree.


Michael O’Callaghan, on January 23 1918, nominated Alphonsus O’Mara, the brother of Stephen, to be the new mayor of Limerick and, thereby, played some part in a striking new political initiative. O’Mara won the election by 23 votes to 13 and, referring to the newly created republican Sinn Fein party, he stated that “while all his sympathies were with Sinn Fein, that did not mean he would be the mayor of one political party”. This remarkable declaration, and the subsequent acting out of it, has not been given due recognition: the focus has been on the year 1920, when all of Ireland was represented by Sinn Fein, but in Limerick the process began two years earlier. A clear sign of this policy was manifested at a meeting of the Corporation, on May 3, when the corporation elected two IRA prisoners, Michael Colivet and James McInerney, to replace two councillors who had deliberately resigned for this purpose.

During the rest of the year 1918 and 1919 Limerick was at one with the evolving independence movement in Ireland but also manifested some initiatives of its own. The Corporation and most of the people of Limerick joined with the nationwide protest against Lord French’s appointment as Lord Lieutenant and Military Governor in May 1918. The Corporation and mass gatherings of people protested specifically against Lord French’s proposed act of conscription; his ban on Irish organisations such as the Irish Volunteers, the Gaelic League and Cumann na mBan; and his use of martial law to imprison hundreds of members of those associations without any civil trial. On September 5, 1918 the Corporation made a unique gesture by awarding the Freedom of the City to Eamon de Valera, Eoin MacNeill and Kathleen Clarke as representative of the three national organisations that had been banned.

Limerick, through the person of James O’Mara, the brother of Stephen and Alphonsus, played a significant part in the general election victory for Sinn Fein in the election at the end of 1918. James O’Mara, previously a representative of the Irish Party at Westminster, left the party and declared, on September 26, that he would stand for Sinn Fein in Kilkenny. He not only donated money to the Sinn Fein campaign but also, on the arrest of Robert Brennan, he took over the running of the campaign with great success. Kate O’Callaghan recalled that her husband and George Clancy wrote the election address for Michael Colivet who was in prison and who was elected for Limerick City. Con Collins was returned for West Limerick and Dr Richard Hayes for East Limerick. James O’Mara was returned for Kilkenny. When the results were announced, on December 28, 1918, Sinn Fein had won 73 seats, the Irish Party 6 and the Unionist Party 26.


Limerick throughout 1919 played its part in attempting to support the work of Dail Eireann which met for the first time on January 21, 1919. The English government refused to accept the legitimacy of the Dail and, by skilful negotiations, had persuaded President Wilson that his pledge “small nations rightly struggling to be free” did not apply to Ireland. As a result neither the Dail representatives to the Paris Peace Conference, nor the Irish American Commissioners were allowed permission to present Ireland’s case. Once again the Limerick Corporation, with Alphonsus O’Mara having been re-elected mayor in January, took a unique initiative: it conferred the Freedom of the City on the three commissioners, Frank Walsh, Edward Dunne and Michael J Ryan, on May 9, 1919. Limerick was the only city to make such an award. The other distinctive role played by Limerick in supporting Dail Eireann related to the Dail Eireann loan which Michael Collins launched on June 19, 1919. James O’Mara was one of the trustees and George Clancy was responsible for the loan in Limerick City. When the loan was terminated at the end of July 1920, Limerick City and County had made a greater contribution to the loan than any other combined city and county in Ireland: Limerick City raised £5,991; Limerick West £17,385;and Limerick East the staggering sum of £32,285. Incidentally, the Limerick Leader was banned for a short time because it had broken Lord French’s rules that the loan should not be advertised.


The local election results for Limerick, which were announced on January 30, 1920, brought a nationwide victory for Sinn Fein. In the new council there were 26 Sinn Fein members; 6 Labour; and Ratepayers and Independents. Michael O’Callaghan was elected mayor having been proposed by Michael Colivet and seconded by George Clancy and Emily Crowe, the first woman to be elected to the council. In a significant act, the Corporation formally pledged its loyalty to Dail Eireann. The Corporation faced not only many labour disputes but also increased incidents of conflict between the IRA and the recently arrived Black and Tans in the police force. The military regime of Lord French which still operated under martial law was still in place. It was in this context that Michael O’Callaghan received his first death threat. He had attended the funeral of Thomas MacCurtain, Lord Mayor of Cork, who had been murdered, on March 20, by Crown forces; and soon after returning home, he received a letter which read: “Prepare for Death. You are a doomed man. Rory of the Hill.” He asked the Limerick Leader to publish the letter and it appeared in the paper on March 24. Soon after O’Callaghan received this threat, in early April, there began a campaign by the IRA to destroy the barracks of the RIC and this was met by a campaign of the Crown forces to destroy the creameries. The deteriorating situation led, in early April, to significant changes in the English administration in Ireland: Sir Hamar Greenwood was appointed Chief Secretary (April 2); General Neville Macready was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the army in Ireland (Apri 14); and in early May General Hugh Tudor was appointed Police Commander. It was under his regime that former British army officers were recruited as an Auxiliary police force in July.

The County Council elections of June 1920 resulted in another victory for Sinn Fein. In all of Munster Sinn Fein won 151 of the 154 seats and Sean Wall was elected as chairman of the council. On August 5 the Corporation was forced to consider the grave matter of Roman Catholics being forced from their work and their homes by sectarian violence in parts of Ulster. Michael O’Callaghan made his views known forcibly: he declared “Ireland is Ireland for Catholics and Protestants”  and George Clancy expressed similar sentiments saying “Ireland was Ireland for all Irish men and women”. The debate led to a public meeting of Limerick Unionists, on August 21, presided over by Sir Charles Barrington and James Goodbody which declared that they were opposed to a six county Northern Ireland and that we “take this opportunity of stating that we have never experienced any religious intolerance in the past, and we do not anticipate in the future”.

This statement is very revealing not only for its insight into life in Limerick at that time but also in regard to the claim by some recent historians that Irish republicanism was sectarian.

Michael O’Callaghan publicly addressed the issue of police violence, including that of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, in a letter in the Limerick Leader, on August 21. The letter had been sent to General Macready and the mayor wished to make its contents known. He made reference to the deaths and destruction caused by the police in Limerick City and added “I know you have no real right to exercise any authority in this country and I address you simply to ensure that your professed ignorance of outrage and atrocity shall be culpable”. Significantly, Macready makes no mention of this letter in his memoir but soon after it was published there was an official and ruthless raid on the O’Callaghan house. The O’Callaghan’s then went to London for a few weeks and George Clancy acted as deputy mayor. The short break away did not end the death threats.

Michael O’Callaghan and his wife returned home on September 15 and he conducted his civic duties as before. However, he was warned not to sleep at home as his life was in danger. On October 15 he received his final death threat. It read: “This reign of terror must be stopped. You are, therefore, warned that in the event of the continuance of these heartless and cowardly crimes you will be personally held responsible and punished in such a manner that others will be deterred from criminal courses.” The situation in Limerick became even worse in the last two months of the year and, on December 10, it was officially declared to be under martial law.


On January 19, 1921, Michael O’Callaghan received a copy in the post of the Weekly Summary. This publication was produced by Dublin Castle and was designed to encourage the police and Auxiliaries in their work. General Crozier, the commander of the Auxiliaries, later condemned it as “a weekly incentive to murder indiscriminately”. Michael and Kate O’Callaghan, on comparing the postmark and the typing with the letters containing death threats, found them to be identical.

In summary it may be said that Michael O’Callaghan’s life was under threat from official British sources. It was that threat which became a reality on the night of March 7 for both himself and George Clancy.

For more on Limerick’s murdered mayors visit Limerick GAA’s YouTube page where John Cregan, chairman, leads an insightful discussion.

Limerick GAA has also launched a new new jersey to commemorate the 1921 All-Ireland win.

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