Death Of Alan Lendrum
The worst atrocity in the history of Irish sadistic violence?
The killing of Alan Lendrum in fact & fiction.
By Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc
On the 22nd September 1920, Alan Lendrum was killed by the I.R.A. near Doonbeg in West Clare. His body was discovered the1st of October on the railway line near Craggaknock railway station. Since that time resilient speculation, gossip, and propaganda have constantly resurfaced purporting to reveal the true story of what happened to Alan Lendrum.
Alan Lendrum was born in 1887, the youngest son of a well respected family in Tyrone. On the outbreak of the First World War, he joined the British Army. During the war he served with distinction and was promoted to Captain. He won the Military Cross and was wounded five times. Lendrum remained in the British Army after the war and fought alongside the White Russians in the Russian Civil War. Upon being demobilised about 1920 was appointed Acting Resident Magistrate of Kilkee.
West Clare was a dangerous posting for a young and inexperienced Resident Magistrate like Lendrum. It was not long before he encountered I.R.A. activity first hand. In August of 1920 Lendrum drove from Ennis to Kilrush with his wartime comrade R.I.C. District Inspector George H. Noblett, when they reached a trench cut across the road by the I.R.A. and shots were fired at their car. Following this Lendrum began travelling occasionally to and from court in an R.I.C. Crossly Tender with an R.I.C. escort. More often he travelled alone carrying an automatic pistol for defence.
The I.R.A. decided to hold up Lendrum at gunpoint at the railway crossing at Caherfeenick, near Doonbeg on the morning of Wednesday 22nd September 1920. According to Liam Haugh O/C of the West Clare Brigades Active Service Unit of the I.R.A. the aim of the operation was to commandeer Lendrum’s car.“The car was a Ford two seater and looked good in the eyes of some [I.R.A.] Volunteer officers. The tacit consent of the brigade commander was given for its seizure when opportunity favoured – with the understanding that its owner was not to be injured. How this was to be achieved in the event of his offering resistance was not made clear. On a few occasions parties who lay in wait were disappointed. It became known that he was to travel from Kilkee to Milltown Malbay on December 6th.. [Sic. September 22nd] Two volunteers lay in wait at a level crossing at Caherfeenick, two miles north of Doonbeg The railway gates had been closed across the road and an officer who was supposed to be present had not yet arrived when Captain Lendrum drove up. According to the account given, he whipped out an automatic when challenged. Before he had a chance to use it he was fired on and mortally wounded. The Volunteer officer concerned now came up. The car was taken a mile further on and the wounded man was taken to an outhouse in a field nearby where he died that evening. In the meantime the car was secreted eight miles further on. The body was weighed down and sunk off low-water the same night. 1 Lendrum’s body was hidden in Lough Donnell near Doughmore Strand. 2
Haugh was the only I.R.A. veteran to give a detailed account of the incident, he would have known those involved and was a senior I.R.A. leader in the area. Apart from the seizure of Lendrum’s car the only other possible reason for Lendrum’s ambush comes from D.I. George Noblett of the R.I.C., a personal friend of Lendrum’s, who later commented “They had orders to kidnap Lendrum not to shoot him.” 3 If Noblett was correct then presumably the I.R.A. planned to kidnap Lendrum and exchange him for I.R.A. prisoners in British custody. However it is clear from both accounts that the intention was not to assassinate Lendrum.
The date of Lendrum’s death was to prove the most bloody day in the modern history of Clare. A few hours after Lendrum was killed, the I.R.A. ambushed an R.I.C. patrol at Rineen, eleven miles north of Caherfeenick. Four R.I.C. Constables and one Black and Tan were killed. The sixth member of the patrol, an R.I.C. Sergeant, died two days later. Following this ambush the British forces engaged widespread reprisals at Ennistymon, Lahinch and Milltown Malbay during which one I.R.A. Volunteer and four civilians were killed. Four days afterwards the residents of Kilkee found notices pinned to their doors threatening that if Lendrum was not found by 29th September the villages of Cooraclare, Doonbeg and Mullagh would suffer reprisals.
Upon learning of the disappearance of his younger brother, James Lendrum, had travelled to Clare and met with D.I. George Noblett and the Parish Priest at Kilkee, Canon Glynn, to negotiatiate for the return of Alan Lendrum’s body. Cannon Glynn approached the local I.R.A. and managed to secure the return of the remains. According to the Irish Times; “Two civilians interviewed one of the police district inspectors in West Clare and informed him that Captain Lendrum had been shot dead when ambushed on 22 September, and Sinn Fein would give up the body if the police were withheld from their threatened reprisals for a period sufficient to enable them to obtain the body as ‘at present there were difficulties in the way’.” 4 As a result of these negotiations a coffin containing Lendrum’s body was recovered by the R.I.C. on the railway line near Craggonock railway station on October 1st. Lendrum’s body was taken to Kilrush where a closed military inquest was held. Upon the discovery of the body a local paper ‘The Saturday Record’ reported that there two bullet wounds in Lendrums head.5 Even though the results of the inquiry were not immediately released to the local and national papers the cause of death recorded on Alan Lendrums death certificate was conclusive. “Murder by shooting by persons unknown.” Even though the British Military inquest had established that Lendrum had died of gunshot wounds members of the R.I.C. in Clare spread an alternative version of events and claimed that Lendrum had died of drowning. According to Fr. Pat Gaynor a priest in the area; “After a subsequent autopsy, the police claimed that he had been buried while still alive: that death was due to drowning.”6 (In my book “Blood On the Banner. The Republican Struggle in Clare. Mercier Press. Cork 2009 I mistakenly attributed the ultimate cause of Lendrums death to drowning when the I.R.A. disposed of his body instead of his gunshot wounds. This Factual error will be corrected in any further editions of the work.) Lendrum’s body was eventually brought to Tyrone and buried at Kilskerry Church. However the rumours surrounding Alan’s death were not laid to rest along with his remains.
In 1922 a book was published anomalously, entitled ‘Tales of the R.I.C’. which contained a chapter entitled ‘The R.M.’ which was a thinly veiled account of the death of Lendrum. 7 The subject of the tale is Mayne a former British Army officer appointed Resident Magistrate who falls foul of the local poitin makers and their friends in the I.R.A. Mayne is surprised by waiting assassins at a railway crossing who shoot him in the head. Mayne, though paralysed remains “quite conscious” as his assailants realising he was not yet dead debated whether to kill him. Ultimately they abandon the still conscious Mayne on a manure heap and return that evening to dispose of his body, but on discovering that he is still alive they again debate whether or not to kill him and ‘again for some unknown reason they decided not to.’ Mayne is then taken to the shore and buried up to his neck in the sand with his assailants leaving the tide to do their dirty work. When they return the following morning, they discover that Mayne is still alive, the tide having only reached his chin. This time without any further indecision his captors reburied him and he is finally drowned as the next tide ‘put an end to a torture the like of which Lenin and Trotsky could hardly exceed for sheer malignant devilry.’ A few days after Mayne’s disappearance the R.I.C. publicly promise reprisals if the body is not returned. Mayne’s corpse is subsequently found in a coffin on a railway line and one his killers confesses. There can be little doubt that ‘Tales of the R.I.C’ was published purely as a crude form of British propaganda and that the story about Mayne’s death is based solely on Lendrum’s.
The first time that this version of Lendrum’s death appeared purporting to be fact was in “The Black And Tans” by Richard Bennett.“On the day the Black and Tans ran wild in Ennistymon, Lahinch and Milltown Malbay, for example, a party of volunteers a few miles away buried a Resident Magistrate up to his neck in sand, just below high water mark, as they imagined. He had been kidnapped and condemned to death as a traitor, but the appointed executioner had wounded him in the head without killing him. The Volunteers returned the next day to find the victim still alive. They dug him out and buried him further down the beach, where he could watch the next tide advance, to put him slowly out of his misery.” 8
Two years later a similar version resurfaced in “Assassination. The Death Of Sir Henry Wilson And The Tragedy Of Ireland.” by Rex Taylor. Taylor specifically mentions “Alan Lendrum, M.C.” and states: “One morning on his way to the courthouse, he found the level crossing gates closed against him he got out of his car and was shot down. He lay in the road suffering agony from many wounds. Those of the I.R.A. who had shot him, fearful now that he might live to name them as his attackers, carried him down to the foreshore and there buried him while he was still alive. In all the history of Irish sadistic violence there is nothing to equal this atrocity against a gallant and descent man.”9 As research for a proposed biography of Lendrum, Taylor contacted George Noblett. In a letter to Taylor, Noblett completely dismissed any suggestion of this version of events.
“I have read again ‘Tales of the R.I.C.’ While doubtless the story of ‘Maine’ R.M. & ‘D.I. Blake’ is inspired by the Lendrum affair it is not true to life in any particulars other than that an R.M. was shot and buried alive on the foreshore. There is no truth in the suggestion that the affair was the outcome of a poiteen prosecution. At that time, August 1920, the police were not much concerning themselves with illegal distillations! No truth in the statement that the body was thrown on a manure heap or buried ‘up to the neck’ in sand or that any person ever confessed to the D.I. at any time! In short the whole story in ‘The Tales’ is just fiction. Of course it dosen’t intend to be anything else in that all names of persons and places are changed anyhow. My copy of ‘The Tales’ doesn’t even indicate the author’s name! The Lendrum affair was political and had nothing to do with poiteen fines. But the I.R.A. ‘bungled’ it. They had orders to kidnap Lendrum not to shoot him. I am sure he resisted. Alan Lendrum was a man who would never put his hands up and he always carried a small German automatic in those days. His resistance may well have cost him his life but any other action on his part would have been completely out of character.”10
Despite Nobletts clear and definitive assertion that the account was ‘fiction’ another incarnation of Lendrum’s alleged fate appeared in 1989 in an opinion piece by Kevin Myers in the The Irish Times “Alan Lendrum had got out of his car to open the gates of a level crossing. Hidden gunmen shot him down but did not kill him. Finding him wounded but still very much alive, his assailants abducted him and took him to a beach; and there buried him up to his neck in the sand, to await the rising tide and death. Relatives of Alan Lendrum say that the first tide was not enough; so he was duly dug up and buried , still alive, further down, and in due course was drowned.” 11
Myers reiterated the following month: “He was driving to court when he was ambushed and injured; his assailants were able to capture him alive. He was buried up to his neck on a nearby beach, to await the incoming tide and death.” 12 About the same period Myers wrote that Terrance Mac Swiney plotted to kill the Bishop of Cork. Myers retracted this claim and issued an apology to the Mac Swiney family. In the same piece he admitted that he had also been wrong in the accounts he gave of Alan Lendrum’s death: “Presumably one of [Basil] Clark’s more imaginative underlings concocted the fiction that he had been buried up to his neck near the high tide point and left there for the rising sea to drown him. It did not rise high enough so that his I.R.A. captors dug him up and buried him closer to the low water mark where finally the waters drowned him. Now this was not true. The truth was bad enough anyway, but it was not enough for Clark’s imagination. Yet though the story was intended to have a short term anti-I.R.A. value, it continued to surface in various forms throughout the years.” 13
The most recent rendition this version of Lendrum’s death was published in ‘Police Casulties In Ireland 1919 -1922′ by Richard Abbott. Abbot adds a new dimension to the story by citing the killing as one of the causes of sectarian tensions in the north in the early 1920′s. “During this period tensions in the six north eastern counties, that were to become Northern Ireland, increased when the I.R.A.’s campaign claimed the life of a member of the security forces who was from the area. Such incidents caused reactions that triggered serious disturbances and lawlessness that spanned both the political and religious divides. One such incident was the killing of Captain Lendrum,” According to Abbott Lendrum “was ambushed and wounded between Ennistymon and Ennis, Co. Clare. He was then buried to his neck in the sand on a nearby beach by his attackers. On their return they found that they had buried their victim above the high tide line , so they buried him below it.”14 Interestingly in Myers comments on Abbott’s book shortly after its publication he does not mention Abbott’s version of Lendrum’s death which Myers had already established as being false.15
All the published accounts of Lendrum’s death quoted above state he was shot and severely wounded by the I.R.A., and without receiving any medical treatment was buried up too his neck in wet sand on the shore to await death. Some accounts claim that a second reburial and tide were necessary to kill Lendrum a full day later. Anyone reading the story should have realised that it would have taken an incredible feat of human endurance for a man suffering from two untreated gunshot wounds to the head to survive for such a long time. Never mind a man who was buried up to his neck in wet sand exposed to the elements on the Atlantic Coast in September without succumbing to either his wounds or hypothermia.
As if a huge enough leap of faith was not needed to believe the first part of the story, an even greater suspension of logic is needed to believe that Lendrum’s killers would have been allowed such freedom of movement at the time. As a result of Lendrum’s disappearance and the Rineen ambush that afternoon the entire area would have been saturated with British forces. For this version of Lendrum’s death to be believed one has to accept that the I.R.A. were able to make at least two and possibly three return trips to the shore without being confronted. It is beyond credibility that in the aftermath of events of the 22nd September 1920 that the British forces in Clare would have allowed an armed group of I.R.A. Volunteers carrying digging implements to make so many journeys back and forth. It is inconceivable that Lendrum’s killers were able to make their final trip from the strand transporting the corpse of a high ranking ex-British Army officer and Resident Magistrate who was being searched for by every member of the British military and police in West Clare , without being detected.
It is my hope that this scrutiny of the propaganda stories which surrounded the death and disappearance of Alan Lendrum will finally put to rest these tales which managed to survive masquerading as factual history. It seems impossible that any logical person could ever have fully believed these accounts without first having wanted to believe in them for political purposes. As historians we all have our own inherent biases which may colour our interpretation of established facts to greater or lesser degrees. Great historians manage to rise above this, presenting their work in an impartial manner without it becoming cold and clinical. However all historians must endeavor to differentiate fact from myth and resist the temptation to regurgitate propaganda and myths they find favorable to their thesis as historical fact.