Chapter 16: The Fight on the Dunes

ACTION was always our keyword. In the June of 1921 I staged a night raid on the British barracks situated in the strange old town of Glenties, Donegal. Creeping down on the barracks under cover of darkness, we announced our presence to the commander through the mouth of a machine-gun. It was not our policy, however, in these surprise attacks, to kill indiscriminately. Our aim was to worry and harass the enemy until, in desperation, he quit. Several soldiers were foolish enough to dash out and return our fire. These were picked off by the riflemen, as fast as the flashing of their guns marked the respective positions. An hour of heavy fire, and we again retreated to our haven in the hills.

Two days after the barracks attack I raided a Belfast bank in Ardara. Taking five men with me, I waited under cover until the Black and Tans, thundering through the town in armored cars and exhibiting a load of bristling bayonets as a threat against the inhabitants, made their round of the village.

No sooner had the lorries swept out of sight in a vortex of dust than we came out of our cranny and sauntered into the bank. While I held up the manager, my aide-de-camp covered the cashier. Cramming what we needed into our bag, and with due apologies for our crude method of crimping their standing in the community, we left. But not before I had explained the policy of the Republican war leaders to a raging manager.

Whenever I planned a raid I planned also a method of retreat in case of attack. Planting the loot, for further reference, we retired towards our dugouts, not far from the village of Ardara. On our way I noticed a couple of little boats on the strand opposite the peninsula of Loughnaharra, a narrow strip of land some ten miles long and half a mile wide. We could row across Loughros Bay and prevent pursuit. To reach this rugged finger of rocky land by road would take thirty miles of rough going. However, the inhabitants of Loughnaharra would shelter us against pursuers. These rugged mountaineers made their own poteen, and lived beyond the pale of a law. It was an excellent rendezvous for brigands, and we aimed to go there if the Black and Tans hit on the trail.

We were near our base, not far from Rossbeg, when, suddenly, twenty black tunics showed above a ditch. Simultaneously there followed a burst of rifle-fire, the bullets whistling all about us. If any of the Tans had possessed better aim our little party of six would have been exterminated in one blast, but they missed and continued to blaze as we scattered.

“Down,” I yelled, and gave orders as I squirmed along on my belly. “Callan, come with me. You other fellows split and make for the rocks and sand-dunes.”

Callan and I backed up through the heather towards a long sandy beach, firing often enough to halt the progress of the Tans. The enemy, recognizing my dark woollen sweater and green collar as that of the com-

mander, concentrated their pursuit on Callan and me, permitting the rest of the party to make a getaway.

Then began a long, running duel. If the Tans had had a fair marksman among them the chase would have ended swiftly, but the bullets sang by as we alternately ran and dropped, to make an elusive target. For a mile or more they chased us, their aim gradually improving. Two bullets tore through my sweater, one grazed my side. The running scrap was reminiscent of bush-fighting in East Africa, except that we had neither bush nor twig to help us.

In the distance, however, from where we had come, stretched sand-dunes, their mounds offering the protection of trenches. Once behind these ridges the enemy would have a tough job to catch us.

We had almost reached our objective when a bullet caught me in the hip. An inch higher and it would have gone clean through my left lung. Nevertheless, the pain crippled me. My aide-de-camp helped me until we reached the dunes, where I found temporary cover from the Tans’ fire.

“Ginger,” I said, “take these papers, and get back to headquarters.” They were communications of value to the enemy, and I was determined that if they took me it would be empty-handed, save for my carbine.

“Beat it as fast as you can, Callan,” I persisted. “Tell Martin to take command until he receives further orders.”

Hughie Martin was a splendid leader and would carry on. Besides, we knew someone had tipped off the Tans, and that informer must pay for the ambush.

My position was becoming desperate. I was almost surrounded by the pursuers. I scared off several with my carbine, but the high-powered bullets of the enemy were ploughing through the sand, keeping me low.

The foe advanced with caution after I had registered a few minor hits; but just as I lifted up to fire again, a bullet crossed at another angle and tore across the surface of my hand, putting me completely out of action. The two-mile run along the beach, coupled with the wounds I had sustained, took their toll. All I could do now was to wait until the British came up to make their capture. The last bullet had ripped the flesh wide open, numbing the entire hand.

” Come out of there, you big Irish—–”

(The word “big” is always a compliment to me, for though I am broad of beam, I am rather short in stature.)

I could scarcely move, but my captors poked their gun-muzzles down at me, demanding that I put up my hands.

I crawled out of the sand-pit, bleeding like a stuck pig.

“Let’s shoot the Sinn Feiner!” snarled one fellow, levelling his rifle. Another decided to use his fists and made a pass which I ducked. I dropped my hands, prepared to land out at the bully even at the cost of my life. Then a Britisher with some decency intervened.

” Can’t you see the blighter’s badly hurt ? ”

I was mighty glad that my captors were composed of British and the Royal Irish Constabulary. I knew I could expect some measure of justice and understanding from the former, even though I realized the vindictiveness of my own race when holding the whip hand.

“Where did the other fellow go? ” asked the leader of the group, glancing towards the low pile of sand.

I lied gracefully. ” He’s up there in the dunes, with a wound in his leg. But he’s a crack shot, and it’ll cost you a couple of men to get him.”

They looked at each other, and several reconnoitred in a faint-hearted fashion, expecting momentarily to draw a spurt of flame. After a few minutes, however, they abandoned the search and returned. They had captured the leader, and that pleased their vanity.

It was a painful journey back to our dugout, to which they led me. Loss of blood made me dizzy, but I managed to survive the two-mile jaunt without a tumble. Gnats and flies clustered on my wounded hand, and I was offered no medical attention.

Armored cars pulled up at the dugout, and the Tans made me walk in front of them into the entrance. I was certain that our quarters were deserted, but they would not trust me. A dozen Mills’ bombs were hurled into the cave and trench, and sent clouds of clay and earth skywards.

The enemy now marched me into a cottage, where I was subjected to a military “third degree.” But not a word did they get out of me. I was then charged with the murder of six men and sundry other crimes.

There followed a general round-up in the neighborhood, and many non-combatants were jammed into the armored cars. We were then driven to Glenties Barracks in the village of that name, a distance of seven or eight miles. When the lorry came to a stop in the village street women and children surged round it. One spirited old lady recognized me, and piped up to the officer in charge: “Ye won’t hold that fella long!”

That night an itinerant quack from the village washed and bandaged my wounds. They should have been stitched, but I do not believe the old medico possessed either a suturing equipment or was capable of performing the task.

After three days in Glenties, my only bed the stone floor of the old jail, I was delighted to get a change of residence. Donegal Barracks was the next stop, and here I learned, via Sinn Fein intelligence, the name of the informer who tipped off the Tans. Our network reached into every enemy barrack, even into Dublin Castle itself!

I dispatched the information to my adjutant, Hughie Martin, now in command of the column, instructing him to capture the informer, give him a fair trial, and, if guilty, to shoot him.

There is an interesting phase to the trial and execution of a certain Mr. Kelly. He came from an Irish Catholic family, and was the only “yellow-back ” in the crowd. A curious sort of misanthrope he was, with a grudge against the world. He was an avowed atheist—a rare specimen in an Irish village, where Christianity, Catholic or Protestant, is such a vehement force.

The informer made his home with a distinguished local doctor. I do not believe that the medico had any knowledge of Kelly’s perfidy. Hughie Martin tracked him down, and, paying a visit to the house, was greeted by a very comely colleen, Kelly’s niece. Her lack of sympathy with her uncle’s predicament was certainly made up for by her enthusiasm for the gallant brigand about to execute him.

Dashing into the house with guns drawn, Hughie and his men seized the culprit. Dragging him from the house to the outskirts of the town for the execution, Kelly begged for a priest, though he was an acknowledged atheist. Hughie chased back one of his grumbling men for a priest, and they sat down to wait for his arrival.

Suddenly the dejected figure of Kelly sprang into action and he popped over the hedge, down a steep slope, and into the valley. The guards were nimble as mountain goats, however, and they brought him back before he got very far.

He was shot forthwith, without “benefit of clergy,” and a label was tagged over him intended as a warning. It read:

Executed by the Irish Republican Army for giving information to the enemy.

Signed ——–
Commandant 3rd Brigade,
First Northern Division.

In the morning the body was gone.

After my subsequent escape from Ebrington Barracks, I found refuge with a family who operated the post office in a remote village in Donegal, and I learned, by coincidence, that Kelly’s mother had resided here for the summer. She received a letter from an English watering-place, that aroused my immediate suspicion.

Hughie Martin reported the execution, and the puzzling disappearance of the body. I suspected I had the answer in my hands. Steaming the letter open, I read with amazement Kelly’s own version of the so-called execution and the vanishing of the corpse. He explained to his mother how a steel vest had saved him from the Sinn Fein assassins. He was recuperating in an English sanatorium.

Months later Kelly wrote me from England asking permission to return home. His letter was the humble petition of a repentant sinner. He was willing to stand trial, and to make reparation for his traitorous act.

I never answered the letter. Civil war was looming, and we had plenty of internal dissension to claim our attention. Also, I had no personal desire for revenge.

After I left Ireland again he came home, and may still be living for all I know of his career since 1921.

Hugh Martin later became a captain in the regular Free State Army. After two years of enlistment he went to Australia. In 1933 he received a severe sentence of penal servitude in Sydney, Australia, for organized banditry and attempted murder. That may be true, but Hughie was a gallant Republican soldier when I knew him, and a most loyal comrade.

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