THE PRELUDE TO DROMKEEN
The events of Saint Stephen’s night of 1920 left a lasting impression on the people of East Limerick, both those involved and those who heard of them. In fact it proved to be a night never to be forgotten by those who were there. It was customary in those times to have house dances, a form of entertainment that was widespread throughout rural Ireland. After the four weeks of Advent, a season of preparation for the feast of Christmas, when of course dancing was not allowed, the young men and women were looking forward to a night of entertainment. But then 1920 was not a normal year and the times were very troubled. The War of Independence in East Limerick had been gaining momentum for months previously, and young men from every parish and townland were ‘on the run’, while the RIC garrisons in every town and village had been recently reinforced with additional MC, Black and Tans or regular British troops. Members of the various active volunteer service units took the opportunity to visit home, or relatives, always done swiftly by night and always of short duration.
Word was spread by word of mouth that a dance was to be held in Herbertstown. The news travelled swiftly from farmhouse to cottage around the town of Bruff in East Limerick. The rumour was a decoy. The dance was to be held, not in Herbertstown, but in Caherguillamore House, the mansion of the Viscounts O’Grady, relatives of Lord Fermoy. The reigning Viscount had left Caherguillamore for warmer climes, far from the troubled countryside of East Limerick, where the forces of the British crown were carrying on a reign of terror on the local inhabitants involving murder, burnings, interrogation and constant harassment. Caherguillamore mansion had been selected for the dance by members of the Bruff Battalion of Volunteers and the function was being held to raise funds for the purchase of arms to equip the Battalion Flying Column. So having spread the rumour that Herbertstown was the venue, the organisers went ahead with their programme and expected more than three hundred guests to attend. As the admission charge was high, four shillings, a free supper was to be given for the dancers and to this end a number of sheep were obtained and slaughtered, and all the catering arrangements made. Slaughter is the word that describes what subsequently transpired.
Inside the house the dance went on, oblivious of the hundreds of British troops, RIC and Black and Tans who were just then closing in on foot along the roadways and laneways leading from Limerick city towards Bruff. Despite all precautions, the British had got word that most of the much-wanted Volunteer leaders and Column members would be in Caherguillamore that night.
Suddenly, near midnight the stillness was shattered by volleys of rifle fire. A hail of bullets thudded into the walls of the mansion, and poured through shutters and windows. The sounds of breaking glass, Verey lights and volley after volley of rifle fire from the unseen military, police and Tans who had the house surrounded. Inside the ballroom mass hysteria reigned as volley after volley of rifle fire poured in through the windows. The attackers burst through the front and rear doors, and even the windows, and with fixed bayonets and clubbing rifle butts charged in on the 150 young men and 90 young girls running for safety through the house. What happened next can hardly be told in words. Brutality ran rampant. Many of the boys at the dance had no connection with the volunteers at all. Some were savagely stabbed with bayonets intended for trench warfare; others were clubbed with rifle butts upon the face and head, and then kicked repeatedly while lying on the floor. The girls were herded upstairs and searched by women searchers brought from Limerick for that purpose. The Commander of the attacking force, Colonel Wilkinson decided to carry out “interrogations” in the ballroom for the purpose of identifying volunteer leaders or others “on the run”. Each man was ordered to proceed in turn from the kitchen to the ballroom, running a gauntlet of two long lines of RIC, Black and Tans, and regular military. As he went through the lines of green-blue, khaki and black he was beaten on the head, body and limbs with rifle butts from the front by those troops on his left and from behind by those on the right. If they fell, they were kicked into rising and forced to stagger on. One young man spat out most of his teeth broken by a rifle butt, and stumbled on to where Colonel Wilkinson and his officers were conducting the investigation. This was James Moloney, later Commandant of the Bruff Battalion. In the initial stages of the attack, some Black and Tans had engaged in fire with the sentries who returned the fire. In this exchange one of the Tans were killed, a Constable Alfred C. Hogsden of London. The death of one of their number drove the Tans insane. They smashed the banisters of the stairs and laid into the defenceless and already badly-injured men using the timber to bludgeon and club the men cornered in the corridors and passages. All through the night the girls imprisoned upstairs heard the rampage of terror going on, and not until loam the next morning were they released. They had spent the night praying as they listened to the cursing, swearing and beatings in the rooms below. The dead volunteers were thrown on a lorry and taken to Limerick, while the others, blood-smeared and unbandaged were loaded into lorries and taken in convoy to Limerick where they were imprisoned in Sarsfield Barracks, then known as New Barracks. The people of Limerick who witnessed the awful scenes, never forgot the sight of those vehicles carrying over one hundred blood-stained and suffering young men.
Military, RIC and Black and Tans from Limerick city, Bruff, Fedamore, Croom and Pallasgreen took part on that night. Five volunteers were killed that night. They were later interred in the Republican Plot at Limerick. At the New Barracks the prisoners spent the night of December 27th lying on the floor of an old church into which they had been beaten on arrival. The following morning they were taken to the barrack yard and subjected to further “interrogation” this time in the presence of RIC from rural areas who had been brought in to assist in identifying wanted men. Subsequently all the prisoners were transferred to Limerick jail, court-martialled before a tribunal. Many were given sentences of ten years imprisonment and sent to prisons in Portsmouth and Dartmoor. Others got lighter sentences and sent to the convict prison and British military post on Spike Island. No wonder then, that in January 1921 a conspicuous flag in the colours of
Black and Tan, floated high above the large Barracks in Pallasgreen. It of course identified the police barracks, but it was also a symbol intended to strike fear into the populace of East Limerick. Pallas was the headquarters of a Police District, in the charge of an officer who was a District Inspector, but whose special task, and that of the large garrison was indicated by the flag, which was to strike terror into the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of the surrounding countryside. A challenge it indeed was; a challenge indeed which was firmly met and answered one month later at Dromkeen.
(Taken from “Limerick’s Fighting Story” by Colonel J.M. MacCarthy.)
Donncadh O’Hannigan, OC East Limerick Flying Columns.