Some years ago, I met an old Clonmel citizen who said he remembered being held in his mother’s arms, standing in the middle of Duckett Street (now College Street) and looking at the flames and smoke of the nearby military barracks. He was three years-old. The day was 12th August 1922. He described “the big frightening red glow” as being his oldest memory.
It was dramatic in its spectacle and seminal in its significance. It was an incident in a Civil War, a period circumscribed in Irish history, which was neither seriously studied, nor talked about, until recent times. My parents who lived through it, but did not participate in it, would talk about it only in whispers, in case they gave offence to “the other side.” They wanted to forget, as did their contemporaries, that it ever happened.
The destruction of Victoria Barracks in Clonmel in 1922 left a legacy of ruins and dereliction. Re-occupation and re-building had to wait for yet another threatening period “The Emergency” which started with World War II in 1939, when the barracks was re-named Kickham Barracks. The story of the barracks, and its place in national and local history, was the subject of a most interesting lecture at a recent meeting of the Clonmel Historical and Archaeological Society.
Pat Dolan, a member of both of the National Army and of the Society, traced it history over a period of 226 years. The first building, the Infantry Barracks, was constructed on the boggy site of the floodplain of the Boulick stream in 1785, followed by the Artillery barracks in 1805, with additional development throughout the 19th century.
The fire which destroyed a substantial block of the barracks, mostly on the northern periphery, and remembered by an old Clonmel citizen (who has since died) was recalled in the 1992 edition of the Tipperary Historical Journal in an article written by the then 87 year-old Aodogan O’Rahilly (son of The O’Rahilly who died in the 1916 Rising) under the title “The Civil War - a teenager’s recollections 70 years on.”
He, aged 17, an engineering student in UCD, and while on a family holiday in Dingle, decided to join the Anti-Treaty forces, whom he refers to as “the Volunteers.” He acquired a revolver in Tralee, and eventually made his way to Tipperary and finally to Clonmel, where the anti-Treaty/Volunteers/Irregulars were in occupation of the military barracks, which had by then been vacated by the British Army.
Although the article was written by an now elderly man, it has the quality of a youthful “breeze,” almost a romp, an adventure. Thre were “missions” which seemed to have no coherence, interspersed with episodes which had the quality of burlesque. During a “visit” to a “magnificent mansion” in Cahir (the home of Colonel Charteris in Cahir Park) he came across “a fabulous bathroom - beautiful tiles from floor to ceiling and a hot rail for the towels to be kept warm and dry.” He decided on “a slight delay in the mission,” locked the door and “drew the most luxurious bath I am ever likely to enjoy.”
On his journey through South Tipperary on his way to Clonmel, he had met Sean Cooney, the proprietor of business premises in the Main Guard. He describes him as being the “most unusual member of the Republican Army.” He was an “old man.... probably about 30 years of age!” He took the young O’Rahilly under his wing and together they found “digs” in the Archbishop’s Palace in Cashel. The accommodation was so good that they did not tell anybody about it, in case they would take “them (the digs) from us.” All of these apparently rollicking capers in the middle of a tragic period in Ireland - a Civil War!
However, a far more sober and measured study of the period was contributed in a series of articles to the Journal by the Cistercian Monk, an tAthair Colmcille (Conway). In describing a raid on the RIC barracks in Clonmel (then in Jail/Richmond Street now Emmet Street) on 26th February, 1922, by Republican forces, to the dismay of the Provisional Government, substantial amounts of armaments were taken (described as a “huge amount”); motor cars, rifles, guns, revolvers, shotguns, hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition, Lewis guns, much of which must have been used in the subsequent killing of Irishmen by Irishmen.
O’Rahilly’s function in the barracks seems to have been that of a driver. He had a fascination with cars and, although he had little experience, such were the times and its exigencies that he successfully drove on widely dispersed “missions.” Kilsheelan, and its hinterland, seems to have been an important area, and it was there that he felt, for the first and only time, that he had to draw his revolver, though he did not discharge it.
In the latter few weeks of occupancy of the barracks, and as the soldiers of the official Irish army (“the Free Staters”) were approaching, De Valera came to Clonmel. O’Rahilly has written “I imagine he wanted to make a serious effort to fight it out with the advancing troops.” Dev sent him, in a Model T Ford, with a message to a contingent involved in a skirmish/battle at Two-Mile-Bridge. Finally catching up with a rear guard at Kilsheelan, and informing them of the contents of the message, he was told that intended recipients had “gone across the river to Waterford.” They were, as we say nowadays “doing their own thing.”
On arriving back in Clonmel and on reporting to De Valera, O’Rahilly quotes Dev as saying: “My God, hwo can you deal with men who have so little sense of their responsibilities.”
Within a few days of this incident, it was obvious that the so-called battle for Clonmel was lost, and as the army advanced on the town, it was decided that the buildings should be set alight. When the 17-year-old marched away with his comrades, leaving the burning buildings behind him, he noticed “a crowd of poor women at the gate.” One woman shouted “Go back and get us some blankets in there,” and she offered to prostitute herself for a blanket. He wrote: “I was so young and innocent that I scarcely realised what she was saying.”
Clonmel suffered more than most Irish towns in these early months of the difficult birth of the new state. Bridges had been blown, telephone communications broken, rail transport had been disrupted, law and order had almost broken down. To compound the military activities, the workers in the Condensed Milk Company, in dispute with their employers, had established the so-called Clonmel Soviet (commonly called the Red Flaggers). There were riots in the streets and for the first time since the Great Famine, soup kitches were established in the town.
It was 1922, forever captured in the memory of a three-year-old who had participated in it, wrote, as an old man, “the Civil Ware was a ghastly tragedy.” And Victoria Barracks had started its long transition into a restored and re-built Kickham Barracks.