The Charles McGuinness Flying Column: The Tan War in Derry and Donegal 100 years on

Michael Sheerin, O/C of No. 1 Section of the IRA on Derry’s west bank during the Tan War, described Charles McGuinness, with a little understatement, as a ‘very interesting character.’

Wednesday, 31st March 2021, 10:20 am
Charles McGuinness.
Charles McGuinness.

Bob Briscoe, a republican who would later serve as Lord Mayor of Dublin, met McGuinness in Hamburg in late 1921 when the Lower Road native was trying to buy arms for the IRA. Briscoe said he was ‘the toughest character I ever met’.

McGuinness, in his memoir, ‘Sailor of Fortune’ claimed his mother Margaret Hernand was ‘a direct descendant of a family of Hernandos, who came to Ireland with the Spanish King’s army in 1601, under the picturesque leadership of the gallant Don Águila’.

If this was true McGuinness lived up to the adventurous standards of his forebears. During 54 picaresque years the Derry man variously sailed the seven seas, fought with the Boers against the British in Africa, was shipwrecked several times, ran guns for the IRA, ran rum for the speakeasies in America, fought for the republic in the Spanish Civil War and claimed to have served as Inspector of the Port of Leningrad in the Soviet Union. This larger than life character was also a principal player during the Tan War in Derry and Donegal. More on that later.

Paddy Shiels, a veteran republican, was O/C of the Derry City Battalion but serving as Divisional Intelligence Officer of the 1st Northern Division in the spring of 1921.

He famously clashed with Peadar O’Donnell over the killing of two RIC men, Michael Higgins and John Kenny on April 1, 1921. O’Donnell had earlier recruited a Flying Column in Derry in late December 1920 that had been harassing British forces in Donegal in early 1921.

O’Donnell, who was also O/C of the Donegal No. 2 Brigade that covered Derry City, Inishowen, Fanad and East Donegal, was unimpressed by the lack of military operations in Derry.

According to Liam A. Brady, O/C, of Fianna Éireann in Derry from 1920 to 1922, “On April 1, 1921, Brigadier O’Donnell landed in Derry and ordered the Derry City Battalion to carry out the following raids that night: an attack on the Lecky Road RIC Barracks, the Rosemount RIC Barracks and the Strand Military Post. Plans were hurriedly made to put this order into effect.”

It would appear Shiels did not know about these operations, as Charles McWhinney was acting O/C while the former was serving as divisional I/O. O’Donnell, in a later interview with Ernie O’Malley acknowledged: “Derry was not cooperating. Maybe I got their backs up, for a policeman and two soldiers were killed there without permission from the Derry men...Paddy Shiels really wanted to keep Derry quiet for he resented the killing of the peelers and soldiers.”

Brady, in testimony to the Bureau of Military History later recounted the bombing of the military position on the Strand Road.

“About 6.30 on Thursday evening, April 1, 1921, Charles McWhinney, O/C, sent for Dom [Doherty]and Jim Taylor and asked them if they would volunteer for a dangerous and tricky job.

The bombing of the military sandbag post at the Electric Light Station Strand Road. They agreed and were told to visit the spot, get a bird’s eye view and make their own arrangements,” Brady stated.

Doherty and Taylor took four grenades and went to Lawrence Hill where they climbed into the old district asylum where the police station currently stands.

“Seeing no one in the vicinity they climbed the wall and dropped into the Mental Home Grounds, a distance of over 20 feet, landing on a green patch and surrounded by thick shrubbery.

Walking cautiously and keeping out of view of the main building so that they would not be seen by any of the keepers or inmates moving around the grounds, and keeping close to the wall, they arrived after great difficulty at the selected place.

“About 25 yards away was the Military Post and although there was a wall which saved them from view they could hear the soldiers chatting around an open fire.”

Brady said there was an anxious wait for the appointed time of the attack. “At last the Guildhall clock struck eight and Jim Taylor fired the first grenade which burst with a shattering noise.

The other three were fired as quickly as possible after, one striking the fire and sending showers of red-hot cinders in all directions.”

100th anniversary of the ‘most sensational and daring’ IRA rescue of Frank Carty from Derry jailThe two men made their escape by way of a tunnel that led to the Northland Road.

It was at this time that Charles McGuinness became centrally involved in the escalation of military action. In February 1921, McGuinness directed the IRA rescue operation which resulted in Frank Carty, O/C of the Tubbercurry Battalion, being freed from Derry jail and spirited away in a coal boat.

McGuinness was called upon to lead a second Flying Column into action. Its membership was as follows: Paddy Moore, Waterside, Derry; Domnick Doherty, Derry; Dipp Kennedy, Derry; George Doyle, Derry; Paddy O’Reilly, Donegal; P.J. McHugh, Donegal; Frances Henry Gallagher, Donegal; Hugh Martin, Derry; Mick Sheerin, Donegal [sic - Sheerin was from the Sperrins]; Owen Callan Donegal; Joe Harkin, Donegal; Jim Harkin, Donegal; Dan McGill, Donegal; and James McGill, Donegal.

In his memoir McGuinness recalled: “There is no need to catalogue our ambushes, raids, and night attacks on barracks. Lettermacaward, Fintown, Pettigo, Arran, Ardara, and Donegal are names to bring back vivid memories of our guerrilla activities in the years 1920 and 1921.”

Brady said the Column left Derry in April 1921. They made their way via Letterkenny to Glendowan were each man received a rifle, ammunition and hand grenades. The Column was billeted by local people and was active around the Derryveagh mountains and down as far as Doochary, Ardara and Glenties. The ‘hornet tactics’ of the IRA, as McGuinness described them, worked for a time.

Brady related: “Soon the West and South-West were completely controlled by the Republican Forces and the last remnants of the Crown Forces found themselves isolated and locked up in their barracks.”

The IRA soon felt the pinch when the British General Staff flooded the area.

“In May, 1921, British Troops started moving from all angles in the direction of West and SouthWest Donegal in one of the most extensive circular movements ever experienced in that County. Eighteen Crossley Tenders of the Rifle Brigade came from Letterkenny while special trains of the Queen’s Regiment were despatched from Derry.

“A Destroyer Crew landed at Burtonport while aeroplanes were scouring the hills and mountains looking for the Columns. As British Troops moved in whole districts were combed out and every able-bodied man arrested,” Brady stated.

So intense was the pressure some of the Donegal Divisional Staff were surprised and arrested at Sweeney’s Hotel in the Rosses. Peadar O’Donnell was severely wounded but managed to escape to a safe house at Glendowan at the foot of the Derryveaghs.

McGuinness was resting with his Column on sand dunes at Rosbeg in the Downstrands area when he too was surprised by troops and police.

“McGuinness the O.C. seeing that his men were outnumbered by 20 to 1 gave orders for his men to scatter while he and Hughie Martin kept the enemy at bay until their comrades were safely away. McGuinness turned to speak to Martin when he got struck by two bullets, one in the side which was only a skin wound and the other a severe laceration of the hip.

“He continued firing and shouted for Martin to get away. In spite of the pain of his wounds and loss of blood, being determined to hold the fort, he did so until Martin got safely away. The Military and Police returned the fire but were afraid to advance as they expected the return of the rest of the Column and they were taking no chances. Seeing that all had got away but McGuinness they advanced slowly in a circular movement, surrounding him.”

He surrendered under the name Hennessy a nom de guerre he had been using since enlisting with the South African Engineers for service in German East Africa years earlier. He was transferred to Ebrington but managed to escape in spectacular fashion.

“Two members of Cumann na mBan, Miss McGuinness and Miss Doherty, brought some hack-saw blades baked in a cake which they had with them on a visit to the prisoners,” Brady told the BMA.

McGuinness duly slipped out, climbed the barracks wall and swam to a rowing boat. He made his way to the ‘Carricklee,’ the coal boat skippered by a relative which had been used to get Frank Carty out of the city.

“He was rushed to the City Hotel where he received a good glass of brandy and waited the arrival of a Clergyman’s Habit (which was to be used as a disguise). A car took him to a place of safety and after remaining several days in hiding he was taken to South-West Donegal again where he reorganised his Column. During this time the Military and Police were scouring the City for the escaped prisoner whom they knew as Hennessy,” Brady said.

Recalling this period Mick Sheerin, self-deprecatingly observed that the ‘unsung real hero of the period’ was ‘the ordinary Volunteer in the remote Company who never let us down’.

“He may not have had much conception of aims and objects. He did what he was told to do and did it well. All the chores fell to his lot. He was mainly unarmed and untrained and had to sacrifice himself to capture and ill treatment by the enemy. The glamour boys of the period - the members of the Column - would have had a short existence without his services.”

McGuinness was certainly one of the ‘glamour boys.’ It’s only surprising his adventures have not yet been the subject of cinematic interpretation. Having survived so much he died at sea in 1947.