Daniel Sammon – A sequel to the burning of Clifden by the Black & Tans

Daniel Sammon recently graduated with a Master’s degree in Writing from NUIG. It was late in life when he discovered he had a latent talent or a hidden love of the written word. Not long after his first book was published he had another five written, including a book of poetry.
Apart from writing he is engaged full-time as a rental property manager and a limmo driver taking people on tours all over Ireland, especially Connemara, the Cliffs of Moher, Newgrange, Dublin and Killarney. He’s keenly interested in history, heritage and folklore; these together with meeting people from every corner of the globe keeps him well supplied with material for his writing pen.

A sequel to the burning of Clifden by the Black & Tans

By Daniel Sammon [17th March 2021]

John Joseph McDonnell is probably best known as the man who was shot outside the door of his father’s hotel in Clifden by the Black & Tans on St Patrick’s Day 1921.

His father, Alexander McDonnell the owner of (present-day Kevin Barry’s hotel) The Central Hotel was distraught to see his only son John Joe shot in the back of the head while his hotel was engulfed in a raging fire deliberately started by the Crown Forces before the dawn of day on the 17th March 1921.

This story started on Sunday 21st November 1920, the day that became known as Bloody Sunday. Michael Collins’ men known as The Squad exterminated 12 British spies who were known as the Cairo Gang from their previous activities in Egypt before they took up similar duties in Ireland. One of those ‘intelligence officers’ (spies) was Geoffrey Thomas Baggally who lived at 119 Lr Baggot Street, Dublin.

While Tommie Whelan from the Sky Road in Clifden was attending 9 am Mass at Ringsend on that Sunday the Squad were sending Baggally (and others) to meet his maker. The one-legged Baggally had by then sent several Republicans to meet their maker. Soon afterwards Whelan was arrested and charged in connection with his killing. Even though he had several witnesses to prove he was at Mass in Ringsend  at that time and wasn’t involved or couldn’t be involved at any incidents at Lr Baggot Street he was still found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. John Ellis was brought over again from England – the same man that hanged Kevin Barry a few months previously on 1st November1920. Tommie Whelan bravely mounted the gallows for his execution at 6 am in Mountjoy Jail on Monday 14th March 1921.

Two days later after his gruesome death, on Wednesday 16th at about 10 pm two RIC constables Charles Reynolds from Elphin, Strokestown and Thomas Sweeney from Aughrim, Balllinasloe were shot dead outside E J King’s pub. The Brits were furious. They sent a special train packed with Black & Tans from Galway to Clifden which arrived at around 4 am on St Patrick’s morning. They immediately began to ransack and burn the whole town. They broke down the front door and smashed the windows of the Central Hotel and demanded to know from the owner where his son was. He was upstairs in bed. They dragged him down and outside the front door. They subsequently said he attempted to run away. He tried to tell them he was an ex-British Army Sgt-Major who had served in the 1st World War with the Connaught Rangers but it was no good. He was shot dead at the laneway beside the hotel.

Alexander McDonnell was a widower. He and his wife Margaret (nee Geoghegan) from Glengowla, Oughterard married in the Catholic Church in Oughterard on the 14th November 1888. Their only son John Joe was born in Clifden on 22nd September 1889 and now he was lying dead on the street in Clifden by forces of the same Crown he had been willing to fight and die for in the Great War.  When the Tans had finished ‘their handy work’ they returned to Galway by train.  Canon McAlpine from Keelogues, Ballyvary Co Mayo  PP in Clifden then, who is now buried beside St Joseph’s Church, rushed to say Mass for the RIC men, one of whom was ‘of good moral character’. Was this because the RIC man Reynolds had a brother named James Reynolds a priest who officiated when Charles Reynolds married Elizabeth Mary Flanagan, a farmer’s daughter from Derryadd in Co Longford on 4th September 1918? They had one son Thomas Francis born on 18th November 1919. Tommie Whelan was employed as a messenger boy for McAlpine as a youngster before he went to Dublin where he joined the Irish Volunteers like many other young fellows at that time. He sang the ‘Shawl of Galway Grey’ for his mother in his prison cell the night before his execution and he sang at his last Mass on the morning of the hanging. He was a very cheerful and happy person and forgave his executioners. They all knew he was innocent. One of them named Lester Collins gave him a box of chocolates as a gesture of friendship. His landlady at 14 Barrow Street, Ringsend was a Mrs Mann. Her 11-years old daughter Alishia Mann was with his mother Margaret when visiting him on the eve of his death. He told her they would eat the chocolates together if he got a last-minute reprieve as sometimes happened prisoners but if he didn’t she could eat them all herself. At six am on the 14th March 1921 he was the first of six men to be hanged by John Ellis, the part-time hairdresser and hangman from Rochdale, Manchester. Alishia Mann was broken-hearted over the barbaric treatment of her lovely friend Tommie Whelan. She never opened the box of chocolates and they’re still unopened in Kilmainham Jail Museum to this day.

The McDonnells came originally from Galway city where the grandfather was ‘a marble polisher’ and Alexander describes himself on his marriage certificate in 1888 as ‘a marble artist’. When John Joe was murdered by the Black & Tans more bad news awaited Alexander McDonnell. John Joe and his cousin Patrick Clancy were the only two people present when John Joe’s Will was drawn up in August 1916 before he headed off to the Great War. This Will stated that everything he owned was bequeathed to his cousin Patrick’s sister Bridget Clancy including a house he owned at Sea View in Clifden as well the hotel he was to inherit after his father’s death that was stipulated from his grandfather’s Will.  Two people were then brought into the room and signed their names as witnesses. To let the ink dry on the document it was left on a sideboard. Patrick’s sister Bridget just happened to be passing and read the Will. She took a copy of it. When the Black & Tans burned the property to the ground on St Patrick’s Day 1921 the Will disappeared. A local solicitor named Connolly offered a reward of £5 for information leading to the discovery of the Will. It was never seen again, the contents of which were disputed by Alexander McDonnell as he said his son had drink taken if he ever made such a Will.  It ended up in the Circuit Court. John Sullivan and Martin Gavin had signed as witnesses. When asked to take the Bible and give evidence Gavin refused at first. He said he wasn’t sure whether or not he witnessed the Will. Judge Dodd told him he had two choices – either take the oath and swear or go to prison – he took the oath and said he witnessed it but if he had known he’d end up in court over it he would never have signed. The jury found the Will null and void. Alexander who was awarded £6,000 compensation for the Black & Tans escapade subsequently left the hotel to his niece – a Miss Higgins. The Black & Tans in their furious desire and hatred to avenge the death of the two constables may have picked the wrong McDonnell. The murdered ex-British soldier John Joe McDonnell was born in Clifden in September 1889. The O C West Connemara Brigade IRA who organised the killing of the two constables was Peter McDonnell from Leenane who was born in March 1891. The two McDonnells, though not related were 29 and 30 years old. Peter McDonnell died in Galway in March 1967 aged 76.

Tommie Whelan did not expect to die by hanging for something he had no hand, act or part in. While lodging at 14 Barrow Street he was not the only Whelan living in Ringsend. One of the sons of a number of Whelan families living in Ringsend took part in the Easter Rising and was subsequently interned in Frongoch in Wales with hundreds of others. He had a younger brother named Thomas who was about the same age as Tommie Whelan from Clifden. He was not involved with Baggally either at 119 Lower Baggot Street on Bloody Sunday. The men who dealt with the ‘intelligence officer’ on that fateful morning were Jimmy Brennan, one other guy and Sean Lemass who later became Taoiseach.

Hangman John Ellis took over from Henry Pierrepoint whose son Albert Pierrepoint also came Ireland later on to carry out executions. Henry Pierrepoint sometimes turned up drunk and was struck off the list of men prepared to do such work. John Ellis who also hanged at least one woman resigned in March 1924 and committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor in 1932.

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