Sieges and Shootings: The Westmeath War against the RIC, 1920

A Challenge to the People?

In Mullingar police barracks, on 4th August 1920, concerns, both personal and political, came to a head. When Constable Roarke was detailed to the four-man patrol for night duty through the town of Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, he declined to carry a gun, saying that it was not necessary.

This refusal was in breach of recent regulations whereby two of the men in a patrol were to carry revolvers while the other pair took rifles. When the matter was reported to his senior officer, Roarke again abstained, explaining that for him to bear arms while on duty would be tantamount to a challenge to the people.

RIC_Enfield Rifles
RIC members with rifles

Roarke had had eight and a half years of service in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), a respectable length of time which would suggest he was not known to be of an insubordinate nature. But faced with Roarke’s obstinacy, the County Inspector told him he would be dismissed instantly unless he resigned first. Roarke responded by handing in his resignation before throwing off his police uniform.

Roarke was accompanied by a second policeman in Mullingar barracks, Constable McGovern. Being of the same view as Roarke and knowing he was detailed to the night patrol on the following night where he would be faced with the same choice, McGovern decided to cut to the chase and also resigned.

“It is also stated,” reported the Westmeath Guardian, “that further resignations are expected.”[1]

On the Outside

RIC_Group_photographThis exodus from the RIC prompted the Ballymore Council to pass a resolution at its monthly meeting on 19th August 1920, congratulating the policemen who had resigned. Its following resolution was telling: an agreement to strike a rate of pay for the upkeep of the Irish Volunteers, or the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as the organisation had renamed itself. After all, it was the IRA, not the RIC, who were now performing the policing duties in Ballymore as well as the rest of Co. Westmeath.[2]

The Volunteers who later recounted their experiences in their Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statements were sure that the redundancy of the RIC as a police force was due to the people losing confidence in them. The Volunteers, however, were able to maintain the cooperation of the public who increasingly took their disputes, mostly over land or petty robberies, to the IRA, now partnered with the Sinn Féin courts. Most work by the Volunteers throughout 1919 and early 1920 were concerned with such duties and, while tedious, they helped maintain a sense of purpose and discipline amongst the fledgling militia.[3]

The RIC seemed to assist in its own replacement by withdrawing from public duties. On 20th May, the Westmeath County Council read out a letter, received from the “Adjutant of the Westmeath Brigade of the Irish Republican Army”, offering the services of the Brigade in protecting the voting booths for the forthcoming local elections.

Most of the Council were in favour of accepting this offer. The only bone of contention was that the Council had already made arrangements with the men employed under the Direct Labour Scheme. As for the RIC, they had not been asked but as its members had refused to police the booths in other areas, there did not seem to be much point in asking. After some discussion, the Council agreed that the letter would be approved and the services of the Volunteers accepted.[4]

The election success of Sinn Féin in the June elections allowed its members to implement rebellion into policy through the local government boards that they now dominated. The newly-formed Westmeath County Council made its views clear when it passed a resolution recognising the authority of the Dáil Éireann.[5]

Limerick_RICOther boards passed harsh measures against those who still upheld Crown legitimacy. The Mullingar Board of Directors decided at its fortnightly meeting on 24th June to call on the District Hospital doctor to eject three RIC men at present in his hospital and to refuse admission under any circumstances to a member of that police force. The RIC was, after all, a “blue-coated army of occupation” which had “ceased to be a civil force, and they were now a military force.” RIC personnel needing treatment were to go to Mountjoy as “there was a military hospital where they could be treated.”[6]

Barrack Attacks

The war against the RIC in Westmeath was carried out with more than council resolutions and boycotts. The series of isolated shootings and arm-raids across Ireland snowballed into set-piece attacks and then finally a full-blown insurgency. Although never envisioned as such, this ‘gun and ballot’ approach was carried out with a success that later revolutionaries in Ireland could only dream of emulating.

Police barracks throughout the country were obvious targets for an increasingly confident and organised IRA, although the latter aspect should not be overstated at this stage given the numerous false starts that occurred.

hollyford
RIC barracks

Just after Christmas 1919, Seumas O’Meara, the O/C of the Athlone Brigade, attended a GHQ meeting in Dublin. Told by his superiors that it was time for the IRA to become more active, O’Meara agreed to arrange an attack on a police barrack by early 1920. Upon returning to Athlone, O’Meara called a meeting of the other Brigade officers. It was decided that the barracks at Ballymore and Castletown Geoghegan would be targeted at night on 20th February.

Ballymore Barracks was in the territory of the Drumraney Battalion and so would be their responsibility. In this, they would be assisted by the Athlone Battalion under O’Meara’s direct command, while the Mullingar Battalion agreed to take on Castletown Geoghegan Barracks.

The Athlone Brigade

The Athlone Brigade encompassed a number of battalions: originally four before the Mullingar one was made a separate brigade, which took the Athlone battalions down to three. These in turn consisted of different companies. In theory, this gave O’Meara access to all the manpower involved. Making use of it, however, would prove to be a different matter.

Both operations withered on the vine. In preparation for the one against Ballymore Barracks, all rifles that were to be used by the Athlone battalion were forwarded to Drumraney where they would be collected at assembly points at a fixed time for the attack. The Volunteers were by now equipped with a number of shotguns and revolvers for close-up fighting but rifles were prized for the range they provided.

At the appointed date, O’Meara travelled with twenty selected men from the Athlone battalion to Drumraney and they were then guided by a local contact to their assembly point near the unsuspecting barracks. There they waited for the Drumraney battalion to arrive with the forwarded rifles at the agreed time of midnight.

No one came, however. By 6 am, the Athlone men had had enough and returned home. Without the rifles to keep the barracks’ garrison pinned down, their shotguns and revolvers would not have been enough.

Either confusion in the dark had been the cause for the no-show or, as O’Meara suspected, the Drumraney Volunteers had not wanted the trouble an attack on the barracks would bring on them.

The Mullingar men, for their part, had got drunk and managed to fell a tree to use as a road-block before calling off the mission.[7]

The Razing of the Barracks

RIC_Station_BadgeIt was not until mid-1920 that operations against RIC barracks by the Athlone Brigade were actually implemented. Even then, the majority of these were after their garrisons had been evacuated, making their destruction a relatively easy accomplishment.

One such set-piece was the razing of Brawney Barracks on 31st July along with the adjacent building that had formerly been used as a Crown courthouse. The fifteen men involved had choreographed their arson to a fine degree. Guards were placed on laneways and entrances to bar pedestrians from intruding. After entering the abandoned barracks through the back window, the Volunteers holed the roof on each side. The rafters and floor were saturated with fuel and then set ablaze. Their mission complete, the fifteen men dispersed in small groups, leaving Brawney Barracks to be thoroughly gutted by the fire.[8]

The majority of razed barracks in Co. Westmeath and the rest of the country were accomplished on Easter Sunday night in accordance to GHQ instructions. On one hand, the whole affair was little more than a propaganda exercise as the military value was negligible; after all, any country house could be converted into a replacement barracks by the Crown authorities.

But the widespread success of their operations was gratifying all the same for the Volunteers to read about in the newspapers. In any case, with the RIC in retreat, the IRA was allowed a greater freedom of movement in the country, a necessity for any guerrilla force.[9]

Streamstown

One of the exceptional times when a barrack was assaulted with its garrison still inside was on 25th July. Seumas O’Meara had announced at a Brigade staff meeting the need to take a more proactive approach and, after some discussion, Streamstown Barracks was decided upon as the one to attack.

A two-storey building of solid stone masonry, the barracks stood by itself beside a railway line and close to the Streamstown railway station. It had not been fortified with sandbags or barbed wire like some of the other remaining outposts but it had no windows at its rear or gable ends that could provide weak spots for an attacker and the windows at its front had recently been fitted with steel shutters. Complete with a garrison of seven constables and a sergeant, Streamstown Barracks presented a formidable challenge.

O’Meara drew up an elaborate set of plans: ladders would be placed against the windowless rear wall, by which selected men would climb onto the roof, which would be holed to allow for petrol to be poured through and set alight. The rest of the attack party would be busy keeping the garrison pinned down.

irish-volunteers2
Irish Volunteers/IRA

Upon hearing this outline, Thomas Costello, the Vice O/C of the Athlone Brigade, dismissed it as convoluted. According to Costello in his BMH Statement, he proposed an alternative to O’Meara: a number of the garrison had been observed to be in the habit of leaving the barracks each Sunday for Mass. These churchgoers would be waylaid and divested of their uniforms which would be donned by members of the assault party. The rest of the party would lie in wait outside the barracks to rush the door when it would be opened for the disguised Volunteers.

O’Meara reluctantly agreed to go along with this substitute plan while keeping his original one as a backup; at least, according to Costello. Neither O’Meara nor any of the other BMH Statements that cover the assault on Streamstown Barracks mention any disagreement on strategy.

Men from the Athlone, Moate and Drumraney Companies were selected to assist the local Volunteers with the attack. A newspaper report numbered them as sixty, O’Meara said sixty, though there were only weapons for about twenty to twenty-five of them.

On Sunday morning as planned, members of the attack party mingled with people on their way to Mass and, when the three policemen came along from church, they were held up and robbed of their uniforms.

Plan A

Thomas Costello and a second man, James Tormey, put on the captured uniforms, leaving their former owners bound up in a farmhouse. When Costello and Tormey rejoined O’Meara, they found him drilling the rest of the team on the road in the open. As if this was not blatant enough, the Volunteers squandered time getting into position and, when they had done so, did a poor job of hiding by constantly peering over walls and so forth. Costello could see the steel shutters being put in place over the windows of the barracks, confirming his suspicion that O’Meara had squandered the element of surprise.

Determined to see things through to the end all the same, Costello and Tormey cycled to the door of the barracks. On finding it locked, they knocked and were answered by a voice on the other side, presumably the sergeant’s, asking who was there. Costello replied: “Police.”

When asked which barracks he was from, Costello said the Ballymore one and that his business in Streamstown was to deliver some dispatches. Asked for his name, Costello said it was ‘Curran’ as he knew there was a Constable Curran in Ballymore.

Before he could congratulate himself on his cleverness, he was pressed for his full name but here Costello had no ready reply. Immediately, there were sounds on the other side of the door of hurried footsteps, rifles being loaded and a staircase being climbed. The obviously spooked garrison were readying for a full-on assault.

Plan B

Tormey had the presence of mind to grab Costello by his uniform’s cape and drag him to cover on the railway track just in time to avoid the explosion of a grenade that had been pushed through the loophole in a steel shutter. They also narrowly avoided friendly fire when the Drumraney Volunteers, from their position on a hill overlooking the barracks, mistook the two runners for genuine policemen.

With the opening gambit blown, the Volunteers along the railway embankment reverted to their original plan and opened fire. Their shots were concentrated on the front of the barracks, where the windows were and from where any return fire would likely come.

Meanwhile, O’Meara led six or seven men to the building’s rear where the lack of windows allowed for a blind-spot. There they positioned a homemade bomb constructed out of fruit-tins filled with gelignite, hoping to blow in the wall. The bomb failed to go off, possibly due to a damp fuse.

Aftermath

The assault lasted between half to three quarters of an hour before Volunteers withdrew from fear of enemy reinforcements and recognition of the futility of any further attempt. The Westmeath Independent has it that the retreat was upon hearing the hum of an airplane, an explanation not mentioned in any of the BMH Statements and so it is probably mistaken.

Though Streamstown Barracks frustrated the attempts to break it, its position was decided as untenable and its garrison was withdrawn to Mullingar the next day. Streamstown suffered the fate of all other exposed barracks and was razed later that day by the local Volunteers.

Ruined_RIC_barracks
Ruined RIC barracks

There were no fatalities on either side, though a member of the garrison was wounded and the Volunteers rued the loss of valuable ammunition. Costello was sufficiently outraged by what he saw as poor planning on O’Meara’s part that he submitted a detailed report to GHQ, sparing his O/C no mercy. According to Costello, the report was enough to have O’Meara suspended and replaced as O/C of the Athlone Brigade by Costello.

However, other sources make it clear that O’Meara’s demotion did not occur until 1921 and for reasons unrelated to the Streamstown attack. It can only be concluded that Costello was confused on this particular point.[10]

Not another Mail Raid

On 2nd August, the mail trains were raided at Fossagh Bridge on the Athlone-Moate line. In what was described as resembling a ‘Wild West stunt’, masked men loaded the mail onto motor cars and drove away. By itself, this was nothing new, the Westmeath Independent exuding an air of languid boredom in its coverage:

The raiding of mail trains and the confiscation of official correspondence has latterly become so common in Ireland as to excite nothing beyond a mere passing interest.[11]

What was a novelty, however, was how the hijackers had managed to raid not one but two trains. That there was only an interval of ten minutes between the trains as they passed in the opposite directions – the first from Dublin to Galway, the second being the Galway-Dublin one – allowed both to be robbed in quick succession.

The stolen mail was transferred to a safe location, after which it took a week to censor all the letters, each one being marked with ‘Passed by I.R.A. Censor’ before being dumped at Ballinahown Post Office.

There were two main points of interest uncovered. The first were the numerous letters to RIC members from their relatives, appealing to them to resign, which revealed the strain the force was now under.

The second was a dispatch from RIC Sergeant Thomas Martin Craddock, a mainstay of Athlone Barracks who was on temporary assignment to Mount Temple. Craddock had not been idle with his time. In his letter addressed to the head constable in Athlone, Craddock gave a survey of the whole position of the area, accompanied by a proposal on the best ways to combat the ongoing insurgency.[12]

Enemy Number One

Craddock was already known to the Westmeath IRA as a determined foe. To Seumas O’Meara, Craddock was a brute who would hold a gun to the heads of suspected Volunteers with the threat to shoot them if they did not talk. However, the one example we have of Craddock interrogating a suspect – a man attempting to smuggle a rifle under his coat for the IRA – was performed professionally enough.[13]

Irish Volunteers
Irish Volunteers/IRA

One incident which Craddock could not have been responsible for was the maiming of Joseph Cunningham. According to O’Meara, Cunningham and some other Volunteers had ejected a number of the RIC from a pub in Mount Temple as part of the policing duties the IRA had undertaken. O’Meara claimed that some nights later, Craddock led an RIC posse in the beating of Cunningham and his brother, reducing Joseph to a “wreck of a man for ever afterwards.”[14]

A newspaper account dates the incident to 27th August. For reasons that will become clear, Craddock could not have been party to it. In other ways, the newspaper confirms details of O’Meara’s version. Cunningham, identified as an officer in the local Volunteers, was supervising the area when he ordered four men out of a pub. Cunningham was about to make his way home by bicycle when the four evictees knocked him down and kicked him unconscious. O’Meara was correct about the brutality of the assault and the damage done to the victim, Cunningham being left in a critical condition with the fear he would never walk again.

But the newspaper made no mention of the assailants being RIC men; indeed, it is unlikely that a sole Volunteer (there is no mention of anyone else with Cunningham) would have been enough to overawe a group of RIC men, however demoralised the force. The group of men also attacked immediately after they were forced from the pub, indicating that they were acting on a spur-of-the-moment vindictiveness with no great length of time in between as in O’Meara’s version.

Cunningham’s story is a warning about the dangers of community policing, especially with inexperienced officers but it is perhaps also a testament to Craddock’s status as the number one menace that, years later, his enemies would confuse him with having a role in any ill that had befallen a Volunteer.[15]

Sergeant Craddock

Forty-seven years of age and unmarried, Craddock had practically been born in the RIC, being the son of a head constable, and had given twenty-five years of service in addition to being a veteran of the Boer War.

Michael-Collins-1
Michael Collins

His return from Mount Temple to Athlone, and his transfer to the Crimes Special Headquarters there, was unsettling enough for O’Meara, in an interview with Michael Collins, to try talking his way out of an order to target the leading intelligence officer in the Athlone garrison by painting a grim picture of what Craddock would do in retaliation.

Collins’ characteristic suggestion was to shoot Craddock first and anyone else later. To hammer the point home, Collins appointed O’Meara the Competent Military Authority for Co Westmeath, enabling O’Meara to order anyone to be killed without needing permission from GHQ first.[16]

Thus empowered and under pressure to accomplish something, O’Meara assembled a hit-team consisting of five or six Volunteers, including himself and Thomas Costello, for Craddock. Things were complicated by police patrols having been strengthened from four to eight, and by how cautiously the sergeant moved around Athlone. O’Meara counted six occasions, and Costello four, when the hit-team waited to ambush Craddock, only to be left disappointed when the sergeant never came.

This was typical enough in the War of Independence, where the tedium of waiting and the come-down of false starts were more the norm than the deeds of derring-do which would later fill the history books.

A Lucky Break

Another opening to catch Craddock on patrol on 21st August seemed a dud as he was to be leading a squad of eight, the sort of numbers that the hit-team did not care to risk confronting. As the team made their way back home, Craddock was spotted entering the Comrades of the Great War Club on King Street, Athlone, at 11:45 pm.

athlone2
Athlone

Thomas Costello was in the shop where he worked when another Volunteer dropped by to tell him where Craddock was. Costello immediately gathered the rest of the team except for O’Meara, and they lay in wait outside the Club, armed with revolvers.

Craddock indulged himself with a few drinks at the Club bar while he watched a billiard match. Half an hour after midnight, he decided to leave with a colleague, Constable Denis Mahon. Mahon was first through the door. The moment Craddock stepped out onto the street, a shot rang out in the dark, followed by several more. The two men rang up the street in the direction of the nearby military barracks, Craddock making a few paces before falling to the ground under the hail of bullets.

To the Bitter End

Though in great pain, the bloodied-but-unbowed sergeant drew his revolver from where he lay and fired at the retreating backs of his assailants as they made their escape up King Street. It was later estimated that Craddock had managed three shots as a bullet was found in the wall of a gable of a barber’s shop, another had passed through a window and a third had had the force to penetrate the door of another hairdressing establishment where it was found lodged in the woodwork of the interior.

Other bullet-marks found on the buildings in the street indicated that the assassins had fired back in reply while in flight. Other than a bullet through the trousers of one of the gunmen, the team got away unscathed.

Mahon went looking for help while others from the Club did all they could for the wounded man. Craddock was carried to the military barracks where he died half an hour later with Mahon by his side.

The coroner found a number of wounds on the body: one from a bullet on the right side of the abdomen, superficial burns on the front of the abdomen from the same shot and two holes on either side of his shoulder from where a second bullet had passed cleanly through. The bullet that had entered the abdomen was found in the left side of the pelvis where it had fractured the bone and it was this that had caused Craddock’s death from shock and haemorrhaging.

AthloneBarracks
Athlone Barracks

Mahon was unharmed from the fray. According to Costello, he had been left alone as the team had nothing against him. O’Meara, however, has it that one of the shooters had aimed three times at Mahon, only for the gun to jam. Either way, Costello was to regret that Mahon was untouched as the constable “turned out to be a right villain and excelled himself in ill-treating people by beating them up.” After the trauma of watching his companion die, this maliciousness on Mahon’s part is perhaps unsurprising.

Craddock’s murder made a total of seven RIC men killed over the weekend throughout Ireland. The fatalities came from all ranks: DI Oswald Swanzy (targeted for his suspected role in the slaying of Tomás Mac Curtain), two sergeants and four constables.

The jury at the inquest into Craddock’s death expressed their heartfelt sympathy to his relatives but otherwise delivered only a muted verdict of “death…by persons unknown.”[17]

The Changing of the Guard

Reflecting upon the rapidly changing situation in Ireland, the Westmeath Independent offered guarded praise for a police force whose time had come to an end even if the force itself had not:

Even the Irish police, where they can, have hurried out of the service. With all that may be said against it, up to now it was, anyway, an Irish service, manned by Irish men instinct with Irish feeling though often obliged to undertake work through mistaken loyalty that was painfully disagreeable. Still they managed up to now, not withstanding the violence of many agitations, to remain on fairly good terms with their countrymen.

It is an Irish service no longer. It is being daily recruited from England. The Irishmen in the service feel the change. They remain only until they can get out.[18]

The new blood in the RIC alluded to were the influx of ex-soldiers that would become known as the Black-and-Tans and the Auxiliaries. While they succeeded in stiffening the spine of a beleaguered RIC, they also hastened its end as a community police force and its transformation into a nakedly militarised one. But while it removed any moral authority from the RIC, it was also to make life a lot harder for the Volunteers.

crossley-tender
Black-and-Tans

Under the renewed pressure, the policing by the Volunteers came to an end.[19] Survival became the priority. More Volunteers went on the run to avoid the round-ups and mass arrests as well as responding with an increased level of violence of their own.

It was not to be the end of the War in Co. Westmeath. It was, however, the end of the RIC of old.

 

Originally posted on The Irish Story (03/09/2015)

 

See also: A Clenched Fist Open: The Flying Column of the Athlone Brigade, 1920-1

 

References

[1] Westmeath Guardian, 06/08/1920

[2] Westmeath Independent, 21/08/1920

[3] Costello, Thomas (BMH / WS 1296), p. 7-8 ; Lennon, Patrick (BMH / WS 1336), p. 5 ; McCormack, Michael (BMH /  WS 1503), pp. 12-3

[4] Westmeath Examiner, 22/05/1920

[5] Westmeath Independent, 12/06/1920

[6] Ibid, 26/06/1920

[7] O’Meara, Seumas (BMH / WS 1504), pp. 19-20 ; McCormack, Michael, p. 14

[8] Westmeath Independent 07/07/1920

[9] O’Meara, pp. 20-1 ; Costello, p. 7

[10] O’Meara, p. 25-7 ; Costello, pp. 10-2 ; O’Connor, Frank (BMH / WS 1309), pp. 12-4 ; Daly, David (BMH /  WS 1337), pp. 13-5 ; McCormack, Anthony (BMH / WS 1500) ; McCormack, Michael, pp. 15-6 ; Westmeath Independent 31/07/1920

[11] Westmeath Independent, 07/08/1920

[12] Costello, pp. 12-3 ; O’Meara, p. 25 ; O’Connor, pp. 11-2

[13] O’Meara, p. 28 ; McCormack, Michael, pp. 13-4

[14] O’Meara, p. 28

[15] Westmeath Independent, 28/08/1920

[16] O’Meara, p. 29

[17] O’Meara, p. 30-31 ; Costello, p. 13 ; Westmeath Independent 28/08/1920

[18] Westmeath Independent, 31/07/1920

[19] Costello, p. 8

 

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Costello, Thomas, WS 1296

Daly, David, WS 1337

Lennon, Patrick, WS 1336

McCormack, Anthony, WS 1500

McCormack, Michael, WS 1503

O’Connor, Frank, WS 1309

O’Meara, Seumas, WS 1504

Westmeath Examiner

22/05/1920

Westmeath Guardian

06/08/1920

Westmeath Independent

12/06/1920

6/06/1920

07/07/1920

31/07/1920

07/08/1920

21/08/1920

28/08/1920

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