The ‘incident’ at Clones was part of Michael Collins’ attempt to overthrow the new state of NI
Despite his peaceful pronouncements, in the early months of 1922 Michael Collins sought to unite the pro and anti-Treaty factions of the IRA in a campaign to destabilize and overthrow the new state of Northern Ireland through terrorist activity. increased in Belfast and across the border.
Fermanagh and the Clogher Valley saw a particularly high level of IRA activity.
The Ulster Gaelic football final was due to be played in Londonderry on Sunday January 22. The previous evening, six cars had left Monaghan to transport the players from Monaghan to Londonderry. They were stopped by a B Specials checkpoint in Dromore. After a search, the Specials discovered weapons and incriminating documents in the cars and arrested 10 of the players.
Eoin O’Duffy and Dan Hogan were both the leaders of the GAA in County Monaghan and the leadership of the IRA in the county. The Gaelic football final was to cover an operation to free three Republican prisoners on death row from Londonderry prison.
On the night of 7/8 February the IRA staged cross-border raids to seize 100 prominent trade unionists in Fermanagh and the Clogher Valley and hold them hostage to prevent the execution of republican prisoners. In fact, the raids were totally unnecessary as the Lord Lieutenant had already commuted the sentences to 15 years penal servitude. (The three Republicans were released in 1925.)
The IRA raids did not go as planned in many cases. For example, IRA men surrounded Brooke View Lodge, the home of Ennniskillen barrister and MP James Cooper. Cooper was alerted by a noise and, grabbing his gun, shot the men through a window. The IRA soon abandoned their plan.
JN Carson, another prominent trade unionist from Fermanagh, was not so lucky. He heard a car coming up its lane at 4 a.m. The IRA knocked on the door and ordered Carson downstairs. Instead of going to the front door, Carson ran out the back. The IRA pounded on the front door with a hammer and encountered Ms Carson coming down the stairs, who passed out. They ran through the house and out the back door and fired shots at the fleeing Carson, wounding him in the shoulder. Carson fell and was captured. He was held for a fortnight at Co Longford, before being given a car and ordered to return to Fermanagh.
In total the IRA succeeded in kidnapping 42 prominent trade unionists, including Captain Coote, son of William Coote, MP, and Anketell Moutray, the elderly and intrepid Grand Master of County Tyrone Orange and President of the South Tyrone Unionist Association. He must have almost driven his captors mad by singing psalms, hymns and patriotic songs to them.
These raids infuriated border trade unionists. In response, additional troops and A specials were deployed to Fermanagh and Tyrone and B specials were called up for the first time since the truce.
A detachment of 18 A Specials was sent from their depot at Newtownards by train to Enniskillen. Although they were in uniform, only six of them were armed – with pistols – in accordance with the police regulations in force during the Truce.
They took the most direct route through County Monaghan, changed at Clones and took the train from Dublin to continue their journey to Enniskillen.
In hindsight, although this was permitted, it would have been wiser to ship them by a longer route entirely within Northern Ireland.
On reaching Monaghan word was sent to IRA Commander Matt Fitzpatrick at Clones, who decided to arrest the men at the station.
When Fitzpatrick and his men arrived at Clones Station, some of the Specials were at the station buffet, some were on the platform, and some were sitting on the train.
Fitzpatrick, armed with a submachine gun, approached the car some of the Specials were sitting in and shouted, “Hands up and there will be no shooting.”
There are conflicting accounts of what happened next.
According to one account, the disregard of the Specials in the car immediately led Fitzpatrick to fire into the compartment, killing or injuring the occupants.
An alternate version suggests that a special constable on the rig drew his revolver and fired the first shot, killing Fitzpatrick.
Although there may be uncertainty as to who fired first, there is no doubt about the outcome. Five specials members – Special Sergeant William Dougherty and Special Constables Robert McMahon, James McCullogh, James Lewis and William McFarland – were shot. Eight others were seriously injured and four were taken prisoner.
Those in the buffet managed to escape through the kitchen and crossed the border safely to Fermanagh on foot.
It is debatable whether the incident could legitimately be described as a firefight as it was too one-sided and many civilians were injured in the incident.
When the bloodstained train reached Lisbellaw, the predominantly Unionist population of the village was outraged and drove those suspected of Sinn Fein sympathies from their homes.
In Belfast, the repercussions were far more severe as they sparked four days of rioting, shooting and bombings killing 31.
Nationalists and Republicans consider what happened in Clones to be “an invasion”. If an invasion is defined as a military offensive in which a large number of fighters from one geopolitical entity aggressively enter the territory of another geopolitical entity, describing what happened in Clones as an invasion is a gross exaggeration. Certainly, there was no hostile intent on the part of the Specials. Sadly, Fitzpatrick’s egregious conduct resulted in not only his own death, but scores of others as well.
However, the IRA’s seizure of the ‘Pettigo Triangle’ in May 1922 can legitimately be considered an invasion.
The Unionists (and the Unionist press) considered Clones “a massacre”, which it may have been, but there are no objective criteria for what constitutes a massacre. To avoid the emotionally charged terms ‘massacre’ and ‘invasion’, what happened could more accurately be called ‘the clone incident’.