This stone monument located at Clonfin, near the village of Ballinalee in County Longford, marks the place where local soldiers of the old Irish Republican Army (IRA) ambushed British forces, killing four. Erected in 1971 to mark the 50th anniversary of the event, the limestone monument features strong military, anti-British language and symbolism.
Two crossed rifles sit above a marble plaque, which bears the inscription Óglaıġ na hÉıreann (Oh-glee Nah Hay-rinn), a Gaelic moniker used by Republican groups past and present. It means "young men of Ireland" or "soldiers or Ireland".
Beneath this are the words:
ON THIS SPOT
THE NORTH LONGFORD COLUMN I.R.A.
DEFEATED BRITISH FORCES
ON FEBRUARY 2ND 1921
Below this, another Gaelic phrase reads A Dia Saor Eire (Ah Jee-ah Say-er Ay-rah), meaning God Save Ireland.
The Clonfin Ambush of 1921
At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a groundswell of nationalism in Ireland, which was then part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Power and wealth was held by a mainly Protestant elite, descendants of mainly English and Scottish "settler" families, who had been granted land in Ireland during the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Easter Rising of 1916, when a guerrilla military group called the Irish Volunteers tried to effect a coup d'etat, was a military failure, but a symbolic success. The disenfranchised masses, outraged at the summary execution of the rebels, galvanised and began to resist the power of the British state.
In 1918, Sinn Fein -- a nationalist party formed only 13 years previously -- won an election, on the promise that Ireland would it would declare an Irish Republic and Ireland would withdraw from the British Empire.
For the following three years, the British tried to repress this growing nationalist movement, sending in temporary police officers (known as Black-and-Tans) all around Ireland to back up the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Meanwhile the guerrilla group, now known more widely as the IRA, formed branches called "Flying Columns" throughout the island, and used asymmetrical warfare tactics to fight against the British.
This tit-for-tat IRA guerilla insurgency, countered with British military repression, in what is now called the Irish War of Independence, produced about 2,000 deaths, and lasted until the summer of 1921.
One of the most ruthless participants in the War of Independence were the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary (ADRIC), generally known as the Auxiliaries. Set up in July 1920, this back-up unit was made up of former British soldiers, who were brought in to provide additional support to the forces already on the ground.
A distinct force from the Black-and-Tans, the role of the Auxiliaries was specifically to conduct counter-insurgency operations against the IRA. The Auxiliaries were feared and loathed for their reprisals on civilians and property in revenge for IRA actions.
The Clonfin Flying Squad
The IRA's North Longford Flying Column was formed in 1920, and had 21 men. They were led by Seán McEoin, known as “the Blacksmith of Ballinalee”, who later became a successful politician and, between 1948 and 1957, served as Ireland's Minister for Justice, and twice as Ireland's Minister for Defence.
On February 2, 1921, the North Longford Column placed a landmine at a carefully chosen spot near a bridge, where they had clear visibility of passing vehicles, but they could not be seen. Approaching them was convoy of two vehicles, carrying 17 British Auxiliaries.
As the two British vehicles passed, the bomb exploded, killing the first driver instantly. Such a gruesome event was just one of many in Ireland's War of Independence and later in the century, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The IRA fighters then opened fire on the Auxiliaries, one of whom escaped and managed to call on reinforcements. The gun battle lasted for two hours. When the Auxiliaries' commander, Lt. Commander Worthington Craven, was killed, the remaining British soldiers surrendered. In total, four soldiers had been killed, and 17 surrendered. They seizing 18 rifles, 20 revolvers and a Lewis gun.
MacEoin's refused to allow his men to further injure the captured prisoners, insisting they be treated humanely. He congratulated them on their fight and requested that water be fetched from nearby houses for them.
The humane treatment delayed them so much that they were nearly captured by the returning British reinforcements, and had to flee the scene.
In 1921, MacEoin was captured by the British and sentenced to death for the murder of an RIC inspector, T.J. McGrath -- a punishment he managed to escape, as the British wanted to allow him to ratify the Treaty. At his court martial, three of the soldiers who had surrendered at Clonfin testified to his generous treatment of them.
In the aftermath of the ambush, British forces raided the many nearby towns and villages, looking for IRA members.They burned several houses and farms.
The most severe reprisal was the shooting dead of elderly farmer, Michael Farrell. According to a short, contemporaneous Crown report of the incident, the ambush "had taken place on the previous day 50 yards from Farrell's house". The reason given for his shooting was that he was "trying to evade arrest" -- although it sounds more like he was simply afraid:
"Farrell was seen looking out from behind a ruined wall. He came out when summoned, and advanced a short way and tried to regain the wall. He was then fired on."
The Clonfin Memorial is located about halfway between the villages of Granard in Cavan and Ballinalee in County Longford, along the R194, which is a narrow, winding country road.
The Clonfin Memorial. Image by Gerard Lovett