The Story Of A Thurles RIC Man

B Donal McMahon

B Donal McMahon

The coursing meeting traditionally held every year in mid-December at Ardpatrick-Kilfinane, near Kilmallock, is due to be held there again this year, so the coursing calendar tells me. There was a meeting there ninety years ago on Wednesday and Thursday, the 14th and 15th of December 1921. Two RIC men from Thurles travelled down on Tuesday with their dogs. The dogs were brought back on Wednesday night but the policemen never returned, one being shot dead, the other seriously wounded that night. I would like to tell the story of that dead man, my grandfather, Thomas Enright, in the paper published, I see, in Friar Street, where the old RIC barracks once stood.

Born on a small farm in Listowel in 1889, the eldest of ten children of a second marriage who all emigrated, mostly to America, Thomas Enright found work with the Canadian Pacific railway and ended up in Vancouver. When World War I broke out, he enlisted with the 29th Vancouver Battalion and fought with them at the battle of the Somme in September 1916. After being seriously wounded during fierce trench fighting in the early morning of the 21 August 1917, when the Canadians launched an attack on Hill 70, near Lens, in north-east France, he was invalided back to Canada and spent the remainder of the war recovering in a TB sanatorium near Vancouver. There he met a nurse, Mary White, a near neighbour of his from Bedford, Listowel, and they were married the following year. The couple returned to Ireland in July 1919.

The War of Independence started in Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary, in January 1919. For reasons I can only speculate about, Thomas Enright took the decision in April 1920, when the war was at its height, to join the police force. He was sent to Thurles. In August of that year, in view, possibly, of the imminent birth of what was to be his only child, he became a Defence of Barracks sergeant. A truce was declared in July 1921 and a treaty agreed on the 6th December. As we know, the unresolved issues that remained led to the Civil War of 1922-’23 and, many decades later, to the Troubles in the North.

The Sergeant must have felt secure enough in mid-December 1921, with the Truce in operation, to go to the coursing meeting in Kilmallock with his dogs. One of them, ‘Bedford Lass’, was entered under the name of his brother-in-law, Patrick White. By an ominous coincidence, she was drawn against ‘Political Duchess’ owned by Shawn Forde (also known as Thomas Malone), the well-known East Limerick IRA leader. In the event, the Duchess won out over the Lass, but, nonetheless, Enright and his colleague, Constable Edward Timoney from Tyrone, still went to Clery’s hotel that night for next day’s draw.

Among the attendance at the meeting that Wednesday, very likely, was 28-year-old Maurice Meade from Elton, Co. Limerick. After serving with the British army in World War I and then with Casement’s Brigade in Germany, he became a member of the East Limerick flying column of the IRA under the command of Donnchadh O’Hannigan, playing an active part in such engagements as the raid on Kilmallock barracks (May 1920) and the ambush at Dromkeen (February 1921). In Memoirs of a Freedom Fighter, edited in 2003 by Paddy Buckley of Cullen, Co. Tipperary, Meade tells the reader the ‘funny’ story of winning back from an English officer called Brown a car that had originally belonged to an RIC inspector. At this point he recalls an incident from the day before, Wednesday the 14th.

‘On the previous day there was a Black and Tan named Enright who had a dog running there. This man was the brother of Enright, the RIC man who was killed at Knocklong [factually incorrect], and he was particularly active and bitter against our men, on one occasion bombing some of our captured men. For this we decided he should pay the death penalty. No opportunity to carry this out had arisen until the Truce occurred, but when we saw him at the coursing meeting, even though the Truce was then in operation, we agreed to shoot him and we did so that night.’

The Southern Star reported the shooting as follows in its Saturday issue:

‘[Kilmallock, Thursday] A startling tragedy took place at Kilmallock last night, when Sergeant Enright, R.I.C. Thurles, was shot dead and a constable named Timoney seriously wounded. Only meagre particulars are available, but it appears that the Sergeant and Constable travelled to Kilmallock on Tuesday night to attend the coursing. The Sergeant and Constable travelled in plain clothes together with another man who had charge of dogs. The latter returned to Thurles last night with the dogs. The Sergeant and Constable proceeded to Cleary’s Hotel [sic], where the card was being called over for today’s event. After leaving the hotel, shortly after 10.30 p.m. they were fired at from behind by a party of eight or nine civilians near the Post Office. The Sergeant was shot dead and the Constable seriously wounded. The report of the firing created considerable alarm in the town.’

‘When news reached Thurles,’ the Nenagh Guardian also reported on Saturday, ‘that Sergeant Enright had been shot, a note of alarm was struck, and last night a feeling of tension prevailed in the town.’

The shooting has been described in fiction by a Thurles resident, Mark O’Sullivan, in his novel Enright (2005), making, one can well imagine, for an eerie reading-experience for the real-life Enright’s three surviving grandchildren. Someone enters the hotel bar and opens fire on the two policemen drinking on stools at the counter.

‘The mirror behind the counter fell apart, taking his and Timmoney’s reflection with it. [. . .] He lifted himself up, the weight on his chest immense, the pain remote but advancing. [. . .] “Sweet Christ, there’s wee bits of you falling out, Tom.” “They’d no right to shoot you. Who the hell was it, Ned?” He plunged through the doorway, the Browning finally in his hand. [. . .] The street and all its houses were etched coppery-vivid by the yellow light and at the far end, by Flanagan’s Hotel, four men raced for the junction. He fired once, twice. He pulled the flaps of his trench coat together and clamped the fistful of canvas to his torn chest. [. . .] “Face me, you bastards. Face me!” [. . .] He wanted just to see the face of one of his killers under that last gaslamp.’

But he collapses and dies.

The Cabinet of the Dáil and the Chief Liaison Officer of the IRA both condemned the killing, the latter stating, according to Saturday’s Irish Times, that ‘such deeds are not the acts of members of the I.R.A., but are the acts of cowardly individuals who endeavour to cloak their misdeeds in such a manner that they may be interpreted as the actions of soldiers of the Republican Army’.

Thomas Enright’s only daughter, Catherine (Ina), not yet two at the time of his death, was to lose her mother, Mary, when she was ten. Brought up by her uncle Paddy in Listowel (the owner of ‘Bedford Lass’), she never found out what exactly had happened to her father. Such ignorance was, in turn, passed on to her children, so that it was only late in life that I finally began to penetrate the secrecy surrounding my grandfather’s life and death.

Thomas Enright was one of the last casualties of the War of Independence. His body was taken from Limerick to Listowel for burial on the same day, Friday 16th, as the Westminster Parliament voted to accept the terms of the Treaty and the Dáil continued debating them (finally accepting them on the 7 January 1922).

The 90th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty, which we commemorate this month, brings back to us the terrible events of those times. For most of my life, the War of Independence was just a chapter in a history book and little did I know that my grandfather had taken part in it, and such a controversial part too. The words of Fr Liam Ryan, a Tipperary man, spoken at the unveiling, in February 2009, of a memorial to the Dromkeen Volunteers, offer us one way of rightly remembering those who were killed in that war.

‘In a magnanimous gesture,’ wrote the reporter from the Limerick Leader, ‘one of the speakers, Fr Liam Ryan, former Professor of Sociology at NUI Maynooth, said that it was proper to honour the men who struck “an important blow for Irish freedom” and to invoke God’s blessing on the monument, but it was also right to remember the 11 RIC men and Black and Tans who were killed at the scene, three of whom were Irish and four Catholics. The men of the East and Mid Limerick brigades may have known what they were fighting for and knew what they were willing to die for, but the 11 men who died did not know either what they fought for or what they died for, which, said Fr Ryan, was “sad, tragic and a terrible waste of human life.”’

At this Christmas time, then, ninety years after the War of Independence, a war that took such a toll in Munster especially, including Kilmallock that fatal day, let us remember those who died violent deaths on both sides, in that war, in the Civil War that followed, and in the later Troubles in the North, and pray that the all-reconciling God will look kindly on them all.