On the morning of 14th March, 1921, thousands of people gathered in solemn prayer outside Mountjoy Prison in Dublin as six IRA Volunteers were hanged within the walls. One of the men executed was twenty-three year old Thomas Whelan from Clifden, County Galway. The death of this man, despite appeals for clemency from many, including Monsignor McAlpine of Clifden and the Archbishop of Tuam, Dr. Gilmartin fell on deaf ears. Within a week, Clifden would be overwhelmed by violence writes Dominic Price in his Stories of the War of Independence
Throughout early March, Commandant Petie Joe McDonnell, O/C of the West Connemara Flying Column of the IRA had tried to carry out an ambush on RIC patrols from Clifden. The police had declined to oblige. Instead, McDonnell decided to attack the RIC in the town itself.
As dusk fell on the evening of 16th March, 1921, nineteen hungry men sat packed into a small cottage a mile outside the town. They shared out the little food they had consisting of two loaves of bread and four tins of bully beef. They washed down their meagre supper with cold water as there was no tea.
Later that night, as the IRA Column moved into position, Commandant McDonnell learned from two scouts that an RIC unit of four men, two RIC Constables and two Black and Tans, had left the barracks to patrol the town. Commandant McDonnell decided to ambush the RIC men who had then taken up position at E. J. King’s pub on the Main Street, less than 200 yards from the Barracks.
McDonnell sent fourteen of his men under Gerard Bartley, O/C of the Clifden Company, to cover the Barracks to prevent reinforcements leaving when the attack commenced.
Armed with revolvers, McDonnell led two groups of three IRA Volunteers into the town. On reaching King’s pub, the IRA Volunteers found only two RIC Constables on duty.
As they stood outside the pub, Constables Charles Reynolds and Thomas Sweeney, were caught in a crossfire between the two IRA groups. Constable Reynolds was killed instantly. Constable Thomas Sweeney was hit three times and collapsed badly wounded.
The IRA Volunteers took the RIC men’s weapons, a rifle and two revolvers, and left to join their comrades in pouring suppressing fire on the RIC Barracks. By now it had turned into a ferocious firefight with the RIC opening up with a Lewis machine gun, rifles and grenades.