Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

8 April 1999 Edition

Resize: A A A Print

Remembering the Past: Hospital rescue ends in tragedy

By Aengus O Snodaigh

On 9 April 1919, the British authorities proclaimed the city of Limerick a special military area, which amounted to a declaration of Martial Law. Barriers were erected around the city and parties going to and from their daily occupations were required to carry permits. This action was taken by the British as a result of events the previous week and was to have major consequences for life in the city.

Shortly before Christmas 1918, Bobby Byrnes was elected Adjutant of Limerick Brigade's Second Battalion. A former telegraph operator in Limerick Post Office (he been sacked when he attended the funeral of a Volunteer), he was a prominent trade unionist on Limerick's Trades Council. On 13 January 1919, a British court-martial sentenced him to 12 months imprisonment following a raid on his house in which a revolver and ammunition were recovered. Similar to many other republican POWs over the centuries, the English tried to criminalise him in jail. Bobby and his colleagues in jail protested, demanding political status. Their protest was supported on 1 February by a motion from the Limerick United Trades and Labour Council condemning the treatment of POWs and backing political status for the protesting prisoners.

The POWs' initial disobedience protest was met with reprisals against them: boots and clothing were removed, they were beaten up and the leaders were handcuffed in their cells day and night and put in solitary confinement on bread and water. Their patience exhausted, the POWs rioted, wrecking their cells and the furniture therein. The brutality of the RIC men in quelling the riot decided for the men that only one course of protest still remained open to them. The decision to go on hunger-strike was taken.

Three weeks into the hunger-strike, Bobby Byrnes's condition was beginning to cause the authorities worry. Memories of the adverse worldwide publicity and the mobilising effect for republicanism of the death of Thomas Ashe in Mountjoy Jail a year and a half previously were still fresh in the British authorities' minds. Bobby was transferred on 12 March to Limerick Union Hospital with an armed guard placed on his room without the consent of the chairperson of the hospital's Board of Guardians, Austin Brennan.

This move set in train a series of events which would ultimately lead to the famous Limerick Soviet later that month. At a battalion meeting, the Limerick IRA put together an audacious rescue plan that would require split-second timing. The date picked was Sunday 6 April and Section Leader Mick `Batty' Stack of E Company, was put in charge of the operations, aided by Section Leader Jack Gallagher of `D' Company, both of Second Battalion. Twenty-four Volunteers would be involved in the operations and for two weeks they prepared, going over and over their tasks.

As in many other episodes of Irish history, there was a last-minute hitch: the only car available to them that day had to be sent out of the county to try to bring Dan Breen and Sean Hogan (the men being sought for the killing of two RIC men at Soloheadbeg on 21 January 1919) through a British army cordon which was closing in on them. The only alternative transport available was a carriage known as a mourning coach, gotten from a local undertaker. Nurse Mary Gilmartin was to be inside with clothes and a disguise for Byrnes.

At 3pm on the designated Sunday, the rescue operation began in earnest. Byrnes, aware of the plans, found it hard to stay easy and hoped he wouldn't alert the five RIC men guarding him. Two sat on either side of him and four others observed visitors and staff alike from different vantage points in the corridor outside.

As the operation got underway, 15 IRA Volunteers took up positions in the hospital grounds, while the others mingled with the Sunday visitors inside the hospital, drifting closer and closer to Byrnes and his captors.

A shrill blast from Volunteer Paddy Dawson signalled that the operation had begun. Twelve men (Tim Buckley, Jim Downey, `Soaker' Ryan, Dinny Maher, `Lefty' Egan, `Corky' Ryan, Michael Clancy, Tarry Enright, Michael Danford, Billy Wallace, Mick Walters and Joe Saunders) moved to disarm and tie up the by now alert RIC men, some of whom had even managed to draw their guns. Only Section Leader Mick Stack was armed. Firing began virtually instantaneous and as Bobby Byrnes tried to heave himself off his sick bed, one RIC man hurled himself at him. Mick Stack fired at the RIC man, Constable Spillane, shattering his spine. Another shot from Stack's revolver hit the RIC man who was firing at the rescue party, Constable Martin O'Brien, killing him instantly. The other RIC men were disarmed and tied up. All telephone wires had been cut by Brian Crowe, so the rescue party had time before the alarm would be raised.

Three Volunteers pulled Byrnes from under Constable Spillane and ran as best as they could to where the transport was supposed to be. The carriage was in fact mistakenly waiting at the door of the mortuary at the back of the hospital. They then set off on foot, reaching Hassett's corner 300 yards away before noticing blood oozing from Bobby's chest. Constable Spillane, it seems, had fired one shot at close range before he himself was mortally wounded. Help was at hand. John Ryan of Knocklisheen, who was passing on his pony and trap, stopped, loaded the wounded Volunteer on board, and set off at a gallop to his house. A doctor arrived shortly after but it was too late. At 8.30pm, Volunteer Bobby Byrnes passed away.

Limerick was immediately proclaimed by the British and the hunt was on for the IRA Volunteers involved. The route of Bobby Byrnes funeral procession from Limerick Cathedral, where his body lay in state, was lined by British soldiers with fixed bayonets and covered by armoured cars, while military aeroplanes flew overhead.

The restrictions imposed on the people of Limerick under the proclamation soon led to industrial unrest, which was to culminate in the Limerick Soviet. More on this next week.

Volunteer Bobby Byrnes died having been wounded during his rescue from Limerick Union Hospital on 6 April 1919, 80 years ago this week.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1