Saturday, 23 December 2017

A chilling story behind
the closed doors of
a Castleconnell hotel

The Shannon Inn, previously the Shannon Hotel, on the Main Street in Castleconnell, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing earlier this week [20 December 2017] about George Peabody and John Bright and their fishing holidays in Castleconnell, Co Limerick, a century and a half ago in the late 1860s, when they went fishing on the River Shannon for salmon and trout.

In the 18th century, Castleconnell was a well-known spa resort, and the waters here were reputed to be ‘successful in the treatment of ulcers, bilious complaints, obstruction in the liver and jaundice.’ Because of this reputation, the spa at Castleconnell rivalled Lisdoonvarna in Co Clare as a resort in the Georgian era.

However, from the mid-19th century, fishing and boating became the mainstay of tourism in Castleconnell for generations, until the 1930s or later. Celebrated visitors, apart from Bright and Peabody, included Sir Winston Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill (1849-1895), who once described Castleconnell as a ‘pleasant oasis where time appears to stand still.’

The Shannon Hotel on Main Street, Castleconnell, now known as the Shannon Inn, became the principal hotel for anglers and people who took boats on the River Shannon.

Although the Shannon Inn is closed at the moment, it is a landmark building in a prominent location on the Main Street, facing a junction marked out by Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church and Shannon Stores, a surviving Victorian shop whose name illustrates the important role the river has played in the life of Castleconnell.

The Shannon Inn is a terraced, five-bay, two-storey house, built around 1800. For many generations, the Enright family were the celebrated hosts at this ‘anglers’ rest,’ until it was bought in 1918 by Denis O’Donovan, a popular local businessman, the Limerick agent for Murphy’s Brewery, and a kinsman of O’Donovan Rossa. A year before the Easter Rising, at the invitation of Patrick Pearse, Denis O’Donovan attended O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery in 1915.

The former Shannon Hotel looks like a modest house today, and it was built originally as part of a terrace. But it is worth taking note of because of its subtle, classically inspired façade, and many of its original features still survive, including the render window surrounds, the sash windows and the ornate shopfront.

The front elevation is a rendered shopfront. There is a pitched slate roof with rendered chimneystacks, and the overhanging eaves have timber brackets and cast-iron rainwater goods.

The lined-and-ruled rendered walls have a render plinth course. The square-headed openings have painted stone sills, render surrounds with entablatures and consoles over one-over-one pane timber sliding sash windows.

The shopfront has render pilasters supporting the fascia and cornice over square-headed openings. Doric style pilasters support the fascia with a render cornice. The square-headed display windows have timber mullions and flanking pilasters. There is a square-headed opening with a glazed over-light over the double-leaf timber panelled doors.

The pair of rendered chamfered square-profile piers to the south-west have render caps and a single-leaf cast-iron gate. The rendered boundary walls have cast-iron railings that end in a cast-iron pier that has a single-leaf gate.

The Shannon Inn stands on a prominent corner in Castleconnell, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Denis ‘Denny’ O’Donovan and two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were killed here by a ‘Black and Tan’ auxiliary contingent out of uniform on 17 April 1921, at the height of the Irish War of Independence. A parliamentary inquiry heard three policemen at the bar naturally assumed that the assailants were members of the IRA who had spotted them as policemen. At once they drew their revolvers and opened fire.

O’Donovan, who was then 46, had his hands in the air. He was taken out into the yard behind the hotel and was shot dead in front of his wife, two sons and two daughters. His younger daughter, Una O’Donovan, was the mother of the Limerick politician Dessie O’Malley.

The killings took place just weeks after the Mayor of Limerick, George Clancy, a former Mayor of Limerick, Michael O’Callaghan, and a young man named John O’Donoghue, had been killed in Limerick on the night of 6 March 1921. It is said that unknown to the assailants, Stephen O’Mara, who had returned to Ireland from the US to succeed Clancy as Mayor of Limerick, was staying in the Shannon Hotel that day, although this is not supported by evidence given within the next 10 days in the House of Lords.

Dessie O’Malley later suggested in his memoirs, Conduct Unbecoming, that the incident might have had no political consequences but for the fact that one of the guests in the Shannon Hotel that day was Dr William Harrison Cripps (1850-1923), a surgeon in his 70s, who had recently retired from Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital, London.

Harrison Cripps, who was in the dining room in the hotel at the time of the attack, was a former Vice-President of the Royal College of Surgeons and a pioneer in colostomy. He was a son of Henry William Cripps (1815-1899), former Recorder of Lichfield, an elder brother of Charles Alfred Cripps (1852-1941), Lord Parmoor, a former Conservative politician, and an uncle of Sir Richard Stafford Cripps (1889-1952).

The two bothers, Harrison Cripps and Lord Parmoor, had married sisters, and both were brothers-in-law of the radical social reformer Beatrice Webb (1858-1942). When Parmoor was made a member of the House of Lords in 1914, he left the Tories and aligned with the Liberal Party, opposed conscription and sympathised with conscientious objectors. An active High Church Anglican, he became the first chair of the House of Laity in the National Church Assembly of the Church of England in 1920.

Lord Parmoor rose in the House of Lords on 26 April 1921 to call attention to the attack on the hotel at Castleconnell. He explained that his brother, who was there with his wife, had gone to Castleconnell for the fishing for 30 or 40 years. His brother and sister-in-law, were the only two visitors at the hotel and Parmoor added that his brother did not agree with him generally on Irish matters, and had always been strongly in favour of the Government’s policy. Parmoor produced an illegal dum-dum bullet his brother had picked up from the floor, and in his speech in the Lords he described the attack as ‘the most wicked attack you can imagine.’

The events that evening had a significant impact on the peace negotiations. They helped secured the truce that was agreed in July 1921, and led ultimately to the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in December 1921.

In 1923, Lord Parmoor accepted an invitation from the first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay McDonald, to join the Labour Party, and he was appointed Lord President of the Council and Joint Leader of the House of Lords.

A plaque inside the Shannon Inn reads: ‘This is the house where Mr Denis O’Donovan, proprietor of the Shannon Hotel, along with two others was fatally shot by crown forces on 17th April 1921. This incident so outraged public opinion in Ireland and England that it was a turning point in the peace negotiations, eventually leading to the Treaty of 1921. This plaque was unveiled by his grandson Desmond O’Malley, TD, on 16/4/1997.’

The two policeman also killed that day, Sergeant William John Hughes (45) and Cadet Donald Pringle (31), are not named on the plaque.

But there is a curious genealogical tangle that has also been pointed to by Dessie O’Malley. Denis O’Donovan’s son, Dr Donogh (DK) O’Donovan, married Dr Phyllis Gill, a descendant of an English Quaker family named Priestman. She was a third cousin of Mariann Emily Ennis (1878-1952), who married Lord Parmoor as his second wife.

Her stepson, Sir Stafford Cripps, was a Labour cabinet minister in the 1930s and 1940s, an ambassador, a radical socialist, and Clement Atlee’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. During his career, he negotiated with Stalin and Gandhi, and when he resigned from Parliament in 1950 his seat in Bristol South-East was taken at the by-election by Tony Benn.

In recent years, it has been alleged by some that the leader of the Black and Tan gang who attacked the Shannon Hotel was George Nathan (1895-1937), and that he also led the gang that killed Clancy, O’Callaghan and O’Donoghue. Nathan was Jewish and gay, and the first Jewish officer in the Brigade of Guards. He cut a lonely figure, and his defenders say the allegations besmirch the reputation of a man who later became a well-known socialist.

Nathan died in the Spanish Civil War in 1937 fighting as a major on the Republican side in British contingent in the XV International Brigade. In his diary, Peter O’Connor from Waterford described him as ‘one of the greatest soldiers taking part in the first fight against Fascism.’

The name of the Shannon Hotel was changed to the Shannon Inn. In more recent years, it was run by Paddy Hickey, but it closed in 2014. However, in September 2017, the Limerick Leader reported, the Shannon Inn had been bought by the Ahane Castleconnell Montpelier (ACM) Community Centre. The plans for the Shannon Inn include a heritage centre, an art hub, a youth space, a café and a men’s shed.

Across the street, on the corner facing Saint Joseph’s Church, Shannon Stores is a detached four-bay two-storey house, built about 1870, with shopfront on both sides.

This prominently located building at a central junction in Castleconnell still has several interesting original Victorian features, including the render details, the shopfront and the simple classically inspired façade.

The Shannon Stores and the Shannon Inn on a prominent street corner in Castleconnel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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