Michael Cunningham’s life in the I.R.A. and An Garda Síochána 

My father served as Superintendent of the Gardaí in the Blarney District from 1944 until he retired in 1962. He was so happy living and working in Blarney that he declined an offer of promotion as Chief Superintendent so that he could end his days there. He died Aug 9th 1974 and is buried in the new cemetery in Garrycloyne.

My father was born in 1899 on a small farm in Shyan near Kilmihil, Co Clare. He was but a young fella of 16 when he joined the West Clare Brigade of the Old I.R.A. under Commandant P. J. Haugh, I think, and subsequently, Sean Liddy. At the time, they had neither guns nor ammunition or even uniforms, but that did not stop them drilling up and down the fields with sticks on their shoulders in the evenings preparing for the revolution.

They had heard about the plans for an uprising sometime in the late Spring or Summer of 1916 but had no details of the actual event. In fact, the first they knew about the Easter Week Rising in the GPO, was when they read about it in the Clare Champion the following weekend. My father used often say, that were it not for poor communications, he could have been up in Dublin getting shot at instead of blissfully marching around the fields of West Clare.

After the truce was declared in 1922, the members of the Old I.R.A. had a few decisions to make about what to do with themselves. They had to choose between joining the Free State Army, joining the Guards, staying on the run or returning to the farm. My father was not too keen on the latter two choices and the decision on the first two was basically made for them by whichever way their Commandant decided to go. Commandant Brennan of the East Clare brigade led a group of I.R.A. men from Clare, including my father, into the newly formed Guardians of the Peace and my father was assigned number 842. He was in the second batch of 500 guards who signed up in March/April 1922. There used to be a photo of him and other recruits with first commissioner Michael Staines, on the spiral staircase of the Garda Museum in Dublin Castle.

They were originally based in the old military barracks in Kildare town as the Depot in the Phoenix Park had not been handed over by the British yet. As it happened, a senior post came up in the Gardaí and Brennan and his men felt that he should get it. However, an experienced former R.I.C. man called Doherty from Donegal got the job instead and this created resentment among the former I.R.A. men. They decided to mutiny and broke into the armoury, which at that time was packed with guns confiscated from the old RIC and the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Just as Brennan and his men had taken over the barracks, an armoured car and some soldiers from the Curragh Camp appeared at the front gate. The mutineers assumed that they had been sent to quell the mutiny, but it subsequently turned out to have been sheer coincidence. My father told me that a standoff ensued and just as it was about to turn nasty, one of the soldiers from the Curragh Camp, who was from Clare, recognised one of the lads inside the gate, who was also from Clare, and when they explained the situation to each other the tension was eased. When word got to Michael Collins about this incident, he was furious at Staines for letting it happen and it cost Staines his job as Commissioner. Collins subsequently blamed a “Cabal from Clare” for the mutiny.

My father was then posted to Sligo and his first assignment was to reopen old R.I.C. stations in Donegal in the name of the new Garda Síochána. Now Donegal at the time was still fighting the War of Independence and the sight of a man in uniform cycling around the place offered the local lads an opportunity for target practice. Sure enough, one day, some of the I.R.A. lads took a few pot shots at the father and it took a lot of shouting and explaining before he got it across to them that the British and the RIC were no longer in charge in Dublin and that he represented the new State that they had been fighting for.

To the day he died, he still did not know whether or not they knew that BEFORE they started shooting at him.

Later on, in the 1920s, when my Father was stationed in Sligo, a message came through from Dublin one day about the illegal pontin stills out on Tory island off the Donegal coast. Apparently, the Tory islanders had quite a thriving industry going on up there and used to supply the ships sailing between Scotland, Northern Ireland and America with poitín for the speakeasys of the Prohibition days in the States. The U.S. Embassy had complained to the Government who had in turn instructed the Guards to smash the illegal operation.

A detachment of Guards from Sligo and surrounding areas was sent to carry out the operation. They travelled up the coast until they reached the point on the mainland from which the boats would row out to the island. Having hired the required boats, they set off and landed at the pier on Tory.

When they announced their intentions however, the islanders were thrown into a state of agitation and it was not long before they were confronted by an angry crowd. Now the islanders had their own ‘King’ and this gentleman told the Guards that if they smashed up all the stills, they need not worry about getting home to the mainland as they would all be drowned. The guards passed no heed but proceeded to break up all the poitín stills they could find. The King told them again that the elder women had turned the stones in the graveyard and thereby called down a curse on the intruders; a storm would arise and drown them all as they rowed back

to the mainland. He told them that a few years before, a British warship had sent men ashore to do the same thing and a similar curse was called upon their heads. According to his highness, the ship was sunk and all hands drowned.

The guards did some quick thinking and decided to arrest the King and bring him back in the boat with them so that he might act as insurance against anything happening. When the job was done, they returned with their captive to the pier only to find that the boatmen had spent the day guzzling the last few drops of available poitín and were pxxxxd out of their minds. Undaunted, the Guards rolled up their sleeves and started to row the boats as best they could.

It was not long before a storm did indeed blow up and my father remembers being really frightened trying to keep his boat on an even keel. They eventually did reach shore and although my father’s hands were streaming blood from the burst blisters, he never felt happier. The lads brought their captive back to Sligo and he was duly prosecuted and sentenced.

One of the Guards had also slipped a little keg of ‘whiskey’ into one of the boats and they decided not to open it there and then, but to keep it until Christmas and have a wee party. When they opened it at Xmas however, it was pure poison and undrinkable and had to be dumped.

Whether this sample was cursed or representative of what the Americans at the time had to drink in their ‘speak-easies’, we will never know.

I remember my father telling me another night about a time when he was still in the I.R.A. during the War of Independence and his battalion was instructed to take over a landlord’s house outside Kilrush, which had been abandoned by the owners. They had placed sentries at the front and back doors and the others were playing cards in a room off the hall to pass the time.

Around 10 o’clock or so, the large front door was heard to bang open and heavy footsteps were heard crossing the hall and stomping up the stairs. The lads grabbed the rifles and rushed out only to find nobody there but a frightened sentry. They could still hear the footsteps on the stairs however and followed the noise up to the top floor and into a room which had obviously been barricaded up for years. They proceeded to smash down the door with the butts of the rifles and when they shone the candles around the room, they could see nothing only old dusty religious statues and pictures.

There were no doubts about the supernatural amongst those lads from that day on, even though they were down to earth soldiers and not given to superstition.

On another such night when he would tell me of his past, he confided in me that he once saw a file in Union Quay barracks in Cork which contained the name of the man who shot Michael Collins. He told me that since he was sworn to secrecy, he would never tell even his family and, anyhow, his superiors at the time felt that the name should be kept secret as it’s revelation would only revive old civil war enmities.

I tried to press him for more information but he abruptly replied “That’s enough about that now” and that was the end of that discussion.

The above excerpt was taken from a much larger article of the same title written by John Cunningham and published in Issue No 11 ‘Old Blarney’ Journal.

Contact: Mr. Brian Gabriel Email: wbriangabriel@gmail.com Tel: 021 4381349 Mob: 087-2153216