The invasion of Pettigo and Belleek in June 1922 was a real show of British determination to maintain by force of arms the six county Orange statelet that came into being on 7 June 1921. They accepted that they could not hold the whole country but they were determined to hold on to the northeastern part of it -with the help of thousands of armed Unionists and loyalist death squads. In was in their political and economic interests to do so,
On 4 June 1922, the British government sent a large force of soldiers to the area around Pettigo and Belleek known as ‘the Triangle’-an area in Fermanagh cut off by the river Erne. The Prime minister, Llyod George, along with Churchill and the other British ministers who were aligned with Carson, Craig and the Unionists made it clear during the discussions leading to the introduction of the Government of Ireland Act from 1916 -1920 that they would never allow Ireland to be completely independent. The Empire was still important to them and, after all, their unionist allies had supported them in the Great War then raging. A Prime Minister called Lord Salisbury had expressed it well many years earlier when he stated: “Ireland must be kept, like India, at all hazards by persuasion if possible, if not by force.” The 1921 Treaty also showed their determination to maintain some control of the 26 counties while granting a measure of independence.
The invasion and takeover of both Pettigo and Belleek in June 1922 was organised by Winston Churchill who, as the great imperialist and minister for the colonies, was determined to maintain British control of the six county state and put an end to attacks by the IRA from across the border in Donegal. Having a foothold in Ireland was still of strategic importance to the British. Maintaining their Empire was of highly political importance. At a meeting in London in May 1922, Winston Churchill confronted Michael Collins about IRA activity along the border. The IRA ambush on Ulster Specials at the railway station in Clones in February 1922 was, no doubt, on his mind. Collins told him that ‘his men’ were not involved. However, Collins, it would appear, was attempting to implement the Treaty while, at the same time, attempting to undermine the fledgling six county unionist statelet in what became known as ‘the northern offensive’.
In response to Unionist reports of intimidation by republicans in Pettigo, Winston Churchill agreed to send in a number of battalions of British soldiers and during the month of May they began to move in the direction of Pettigo and Belleek -some along the northern side of Lough Erne and some on the southern side and some on boats on the river Erne. Republican soldiers –both from the IRA, under Commandant Charlie Daly in Donegal and also from the newly established Free State army were mobilised to go to Pettigo and Belleek to stop any British attempt to take over these parts of county Donegal. Republicans knew that Llyod George had already threatened to resume the war in Ireland. It is estimated that up to 60 men belonging to the newly formed Free State army (NFA) and 30 members of the IRA who opposed the Treaty moved into the area around the villages of Pettigo and Belleek to defend the area against the British invasion. The republicans were out -numbered to deal with the heavily armed British army ready for action after their ‘success’ in the Great War..
Just after the Sunday 12.00pm Mass in St Mary’s church, Pettigo on the 4 June 1922, the invasion of the village of Pettigo by British soldiers and members of the newly formed Ulster Special Constabulary began. Several armoured cars drove through a barricade that was erected by the IRA and began moving up the Main Street. An IRA unit had taken position on Drumharriff hill overlooking the village and the railway station. They opened fire on the invading force. The shooting lasted for several hours during which four republicans belonging to the newly formed national army were wounded. Three men died instantly, a fourth man died two days later. The superior force of the British soon took over the village and the local Barracks. They arrested at least twenty Republicans who were transported to jails in Omagh, Derry and Belfast.
The three Republicans who were killed instantly were Patrick Flood, a teenager from Pettigo and two young men Bernard McCanny and William Kearney – both from Drumquin, County Tyrone. Another young man, William Deasley from Dromore in County Tyrone was wounded and died some days later in hospital in Donegal Town. It is believed that the four men who died were members of the new Free State army and were former members of the IRA.
It was never disclosed how many casualties the British suffered on that day. It is known that one of the Specials from Monea in county Fermanagh was shot dead as he drove an armoured vehicle towards the village from Kesh.
The British army took over the Barracks on Main Street in Pettigo. Many terrified Nationalists/Catholic residents left the village and headed for Donegal Town. The Flood family hotel was occupied by the British soldiers. When the local priest, Fr Bernard Hackett, went to the British Officer in charge to get clearance to remove the body of Patrick Flood he noticed a coffin at the door with a note attached “Shinners accommodated.”
During the same week, the British army based in Enniskillen moved into Belleek, fifteen miles from Pettigo, and occupied a part of Donegal known as ‘the Battery’ just opposite Belleek pottery. There, they hoisted the Union Jack and set up camp.
Michael Collins and the Provisional government in Dublin were alarmed when they received news of these developments in Pettigo and Belleek. It was in complete contravention of the Treaty which he and others had just signed with Churchill and the British government six months previously on 6 December 1921 and which was ratified in Dublin on 14 January 1922. Collins and others in the newly formed government were concerned that word about this act of provocation by the British would turn many more against the Treaty and the newly formed administration. It was already shaky enough. It had been carried in the Dail by a narrow majority -64 to 57.
At the time of the British takeover, Pettigo was a predominantly Unionist village with a nationalist minority. The population was divided along religious lines-the unionists mostly belonging to various Protestant denominations and nationalists mostly Catholics. With the invasion many of the local people fled – the Nationalists/Catholics fled towards Donegal and the Unionists/Protestants to Fermanagh.
In the following months, the local Nationalist people who remained in Pettigo had to suffer the brunt of the British occupation of their village. Pressure was mounting on Collins and Dublin to get the British soldiers removed from this part of south-east county Donegal, which was now in the Free State jurisdiction. On 22 August,1922, Michael Collins was killed in an ambush as he was being driven in county Cork. The President of the new government in Dublin, Arthur Griffith, also died suddenly just ten days before that. There was now a deepening division throughout Ireland as the Civil war intensified. The Catholic/nationalist population in Belfast came under vicious attack from police and Specials and loyalist forces. More than 200 people were killed in Belfast in 1922 –a majority of them Catholics. Many Catholic homes were burned and many families fled to Dublin. Negotiations about the situation in Pettigo continued between the Irish and the British.
The British military continued to occupy Pettigo until January 1923, when a settlement was negotiated between Dublin and London which involved the Catholic Bishop of Clogher and Dean Keown, the Prior of Lough Derg which is situated a few miles from the village. The British army withdrew from Pettigo and officials from the new Free State administration took over along with members of the newly formed Garda Siochana and Free State army. It was another year before the British evacuated the Donegal part of Belleek.
The battle of Pettigo and Belleek in June 1922 was probably the last time that Irish men, former comrades, but now belonging to opposing sides over the Treaty, co-operated to oppose the common enemy – the British army. Very soon the men who fought together in Pettigo and Belleek would find themselves on opposing sides in the vicious civil war that continued until May 1923 with great loss of life and the loss of some talented leaders. One of those who led the Republican side in Pettigo, Charlie Daly, a native of Kerry, was executed along with three others by Free State soldiers at Drumboe, Co Donegal in the early months of 1923.
It was already clear that the Treaty of 1921 was not going to bring a just and lasting peace in Ireland.