A Death in Athlone: The Controversial Case of George Adamson, April 1922

Knowing

In the dark, early hours of the 25th April 1922, tensions that had been simmering for weeks in the town of Athlone, Co. Westmeath, spilled over into bloodshed. Soon afterwards, the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the pro-Treaty military issued its report on the shocking event:

Shortly after midnight on Monday a party of officers left Custume Barracks, Athlone, and proceeded down the town to the Royal Hotel, outside of which they commandeered a motor car. When the party returned to the military barracks it was discovered that one officer was missing.[1]

A search party of four was sent out to find their errant comrade, sometime around 2 am. As they walked towards the Irishtown area of Athlone, they came across a man loitering in a shop doorway.

“Who are you?” asked one of the search party, Brigadier-General George Adamson.

“I know you, George. You know me, Adamson,” came the cryptic reply. Not satisfied, the officers demanded the stranger to put his hands up. When he remained as he was, Adamson levelled a revolver on him.

Suddenly there was a rush and the search party found themselves confronted in turn by a rival group of armed men. When they were disarmed – so read the GHQ report – the man in the doorway drew a revolver of his own and fired point blank through Adamson’s ear, into his head.[2]

Adamson_friends
George Adamson (left) with two fellow officers in the Free State Army

Standing

However dreadful, the incident was not altogether surprising. It might even be said that something of its nature was inevitable, given the state of the country.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty signed five months earlier, in December 1921, by the British Government and the plenipotentiaries of Dáil Éireann had seen the end of one war and the stirrings of another. The country was instantly divided on the question of whether or not to accept such terms, a situation heightened rather than mollified when the Dáil narrowly voted to do so in January 1922.

112149-004-cd07c0bf
Irish delegates at the signing of the Treaty in London, December 1921

Nowhere were the divisions more keenly – or dangerously – felt than in the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Before they had been united as brothers-in-arms against the might of the foreign oppressor. Now the enemy had agreed to a peace deal that few had expected, and not all wanted, as the insistence on the oath to the Crown made many think that the cure for their country was no better than the disease. With the British Army set to depart for good, each IRA man was left, not so much to savour the victory but to wonder where they stood in the new and uncertain situation.

Not that things worsened immediately. It took time for them to deteriorate to the point where a man would be shot in the head on the streets of Athlone. In the first few months after the Treaty, there was still chances to stand together. On the 28th January 1922, the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Midland IRA Division mustered openly for the first time since its inception. About eight hundred men assembled outside Athlone, much to the admiration of a journalist who commented about how:

Of fine physique and displaying efficient military training, the men made the most imposing spectacle as they marched through the town, headed by the Athlone brass band.

Thousands of spectators lined the pavements, including members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), who appeared greatly impressed at the display of the same men they had been trying to arrest months before.

The policemen might as well be graceful losers. ‘WHAT A CHANGE!’ read the headline of a local newspaper as it reported that it was the Athlone IRA Brigade who now granted permission to possess firearms, such as to an officer in the British garrison for a fowling piece. Policing patrols were being conducted jointly by the RIC and the IRA, but for the former this were to last only until its disbandment as per the terms of the Treaty.[3]

After all the violence, it looked to be an orderly transfer of authority, which some might have thought boded well for the future.

Remembering

As well as looking to the future, the men of the IRA found time to pay respects to the past. On the 6th February 1922, a Celtic cross was erected at Cornafulla, near Athlone, to the memory of James Tormey, killed almost a year before at that same site. Unveiling the monument was George Adamson in what must have been a poignant occasion for him, considering that he had been present at Tormey’s death.[4]

image001
The James Tormey Memorial at Cornafulla

Tormey had ordered a mobilisation of the local IRA unit with the intent of ambushing a Black-and-Tan patrol as they cycled by Cornafulla. As soon as the group of Tans came into sight on the 2nd February 1921, Tormey recklessly opened fire before the rest of the ambush party, which included Adamson, were ready.

The Tans instantly dismounted from their bicycles and shot back, forcing the IRA to beat a hasty retreat. Tormey was covering the escape when a Tan crept into a lane at a right angle from the main road, outflanking Tormey and shooting him in the head before he could react.

Limerick_RIC
RIC patrol on bicycles

In the confusion, and perhaps fearing another ambush, the Tans had cycled away, leaving Tormey’s body where it lay. Adamson and the others had managed to escape and later, under the cover of night, they removed the corpse by boat down the Shannon and buried it in secret. That was not the end of the matter, as the cadaver was dug up soon afterwards by Tans who took it to Athlone where Tormey’s father identified his son. Only then was the body allowed to rest in the family plot in Mount Temple.[5]

In time, Adamson’s own remains were buried there besides Tormey’s. “Sad to relate,” wrote an old comrade of theirs in later years, “their graves are grossly neglected, being covered with weeds and dirt. There is no monument or anything to mark the place.”[6]capture

Escaping

As patrols and searches by Crown forces increased, death was never far away. The Athlone IRA had become a victim of its own success, for the string of ambushes inflicted in the latter half of 1920 had stirred the British garrison into a vigorous response. Adamson would have a brush with mortality in March 1921 when he and another man, Gerald Davis, set out on a mission of their own.

Davis had arrived from Dublin at the behest of GHQ to help organise the Athlone IRA. He made the acquaintance of Adamson, then the Vice O/C of the Brigade, who impressed Davis as being “a fine type of man, well built, a good athlete and a very good fellow all round.”

The Brigade was in not such good shape, its members having scattered to avoid the attentions of the British authorities. Still, David was game and in Adamson he found a kindred soul. When they received word of two Tans who were in the company of a pair of local women, Davis and Adamson set out with revolvers to the farmhouse outside Athlone where the women lived.

cropped_black-and-tans
Black-and-Tans

They found one of the Tans in the yard and quickly disarmed him. Adamson stood guard over their captive – the intent being to rob them of arms rather than to kill – while Davis went in search of the other. When he found him hiding behind a clamp of turf, the Tan shot at him before making a break. David fired after the fleeing man, grazing his thigh but nothing more, the mismatched ammo in his Colt pistol rendering its aim difficult.

Davis doubled back at the sound of Adamson shouting to find that the prisoner had turned the tables and pinned Adamson to the ground. A big man, the Tan had wrestled the gun off his former captor and used it to shoot Adamson in the chest. Davis shot the Tan in the side, wounding him, just in time for the second foe to return.

Davis had by then been wounded as well, in the arm though he did not seem aware of when he had been hit. He fired at the second Tan to keep him back and then helped the bleeding Adamson to his feet. They both fled at this point, their plan in tatters. Adamson had lost his revolver in the tussle and they had failed to rob the Tans of theirs as intended, but at least they were alive, if barely in Adamson’s case.

They retreated across the Shannon to a friendly house where Adamson was treated for his chest wound. Davis’ arm went septic for a while but he recovered, as did Adamson who remained at large by the time the Truce came in July 1921. Davis was not so lucky, having been arrested in a British round-up and then – to add insult to injury – identified by one of the Tans he and Adamson had tried to mug.[7]

black-and-tans-search-sin-008
Black-and-Tans hold up a suspect

It was all part of the trials and tribulations of running an insurgency but, with the signing of the Treaty, the war was done and the worst over. At least, that is what Adamson and his peers could have been forgiven for thinking.

Dividing

Colonel Anthony Lawlor’s first thought on the Treaty had been “we can’t touch that.” It did not give Ireland enough in his opinion, and Lawlor feared that the people would be content with that and go no further towards complete independence. Lawlor would be denied the luxury of such long-term thinking when Patrick Morrissey, the O/C of the Athlone Brigade, stalked into his office in the Athlone Military Barracks that was also the base for the IRA Midlands Division.

screen-shot-2016-05-29-at-12-47-36
Front gates to Custume Barracks, Athlone

Their commanding officer, Major-General Seán Mac Eoin, was away in Dublin, leaving Lawlor in charge. Dublin was also where Morrissey had just returned from, a forbidden visit that had marked the man with a new – and, as far as Lawlor was concerned, an unpleasantly defiant – demeanour as he stood before Lawlor, legs wide apart and a revolver protruding above his belt, having not bothered to salute him.

“We’ve decided to stand by the Republic,” Morrissey told him, according to Lawlor’s recollections.

“We’re all standing by the Republic,” Lawlor insisted.

You’re not,” Morrissey shot back.

1933
Richard Mulcahy

However dismayed, Lawlor could not have been hugely surprised, for the controversial IRA Convention had taken place the previous day, on the 28th March 1922, at the Mansion House in Dublin. It had been promised by the Minister of Defence, Richard Mulcahy, on behalf of the IRA GHQ as a way of settling the differences fostered by the Treaty. Mulcahy had then pulled a volte-face and banned attendance on threat of dismissal.

That so many IRA members, including some from the Athlone Brigade such as Morrissey, could be found in the Mansion House on the day, regardless of what had been ordered, did not bode well for the GHQ’s continued authority.

Reasserting

At that moment in Athlone Barracks, it was Lawlor’s own authority that he had to worry about. He stood up, thinking quickly, and told Morrissey to summon the men onto the parade ground. When they were assembled, Lawlor played the part of the army drill-sergeant.

“I blackguarded them,” he recalled. “Told them they were the worst looking crowd I’d ever seen, and that if they were going to fight for a Republic none of them was likely to accomplish very much.”

Lawlor began to drill them, an unexpected move that put him back in charge. He told them to stack their weapons in the armoury and gave them a five minute respite. When he called them again to the parade ground, he made sure they were well away from their arms, which were being stored surreptitiously away by those officers who had remained loyal to GHQ.

All the while, Lawlor carried a pistol in each hand and warned his men that he would shoot if they so much as challenged him. He did not dare not shoot, he told them candidly, if he wanted to continue in his command.

96d228_d767b58895463bd87ff4451d1f05a53e
Seán Mac Eoin

This was enough to overawe the men but not indefinitely. When the men realised they had been gulled, they clamoured to reclaim their stolen weapons. Mac Eoin returned to the Barracks to find near pandemonium as Lawlor and his handful of partisans, including Adamson, stood in a thin line between the armoury and their own enraged men.

While Lawlor had been subtle, Mac Eoin was direct. After calling the men into line, he challenged Morrissey, standing at the front of the ranks, if he was prepared to follow the orders of the Dáil.

Morrissey tried hedging, saying no but that he would still obey any that came from Mac Eoin. For Mac Eoin, this was not good enough, pointing out that he had no authority save what the Dáil granted him. When Morrissey refused to budge, Mac Eoin ripped his Sam Browne belt off him, swung him around and shoved him out through the Barracks’ door. Mac Eoin proceeded down the ranks, meting out the same rough treatment to all else who refused to toe the line.

“That was not in any code that I know,” Mac Eoin later admitted, “but it was an effective method of dealing with the situation.”[8]

Reassembling

4571186934_ca171d0440
Royal Hotel, Athlone

Effective – up to a point. Banishing the dissenting officers was one thing, making them disappear quite another, as shown when they retreated to the Royal Hotel in Marydyke Street, Athlone. There, Morrissey addressed his compatriots from a window, appealing to them to not say or do anything that would shame the name of the Athlone Brigade.

To nip things in the bud, Mac Eoin issued a proclamation to the tradesmen of Athlone. All costs contracted by the IRA up to and including the 25th March would be honoured, after which he would not be responsible for any more unless a written order was presented, signed by his Divisional Quartermaster.

“I accept no liability for any Brigade order owing to the suspension of the Brigade,” Mac Eoin warned.

Lawlor clarified this in an interview with a local newspaper on the 4th April. He explained that certain officers of the Athlone Brigade had repudiated the authority of the Dáil, the IRA GHQ and Mac Eoin. Therefore, these malcontents had been suspended. The Athlone Brigade would continue under the authority of Brigadier Adamson, promoted from Vice O/C to acting commander. All further officers who refused to obey the orders from their lawful superiors were to be regarded no longer as soldiers but civilians.[9]

brigade2
IRA members

But Lawlor was trying to shut the door to a half-empty stable. Two days earlier, Morrissey had led six hundred men from the Athone Brigade in officially breaking ties with their pro-Treaty colleagues. He announced to the parade of men that he had received word from the IRA Executive, formed from the Anti-Treatyite leaders at the March Convention, to reaffirm their allegiance to the Republic.

The men uncovered their heads and stood with raised hands as Morrissey administrated the oath of loyalty to them. Afterwards, Morrissey again impressed upon them the importance of discipline, and specifically not to interfere with the men on the other side.

An incident on that same day hinted at how matters were escalating beyond words and proclamations. Sergeant-Major Shields had left the Barracks – renamed the Custume Barracks in honour of the 17th century defender of Athlone – seemingly as a deserter. When two pro-Treaty officers stopped him in the street, Shields made a grab for the revolver of one before attempting to run and received a warning to stop, followed by a bullet to the leg when he did not.

Despite the drama, Shields did not seem to belong to either faction, as evidenced by the lack of reaction. A certain kind of peace was allowed to continue for the next six days.[10]

Clearing

On the evening of the 8th April, Mac Eoin entered the Royal Hotel, now the full-time base of the anti-Treaty IRA in Athlone. Morrissey was absent, leaving McGlynn, the acting commander present, to be told by Mac Eoin that he and his men were to depart by 9 am the next day. Shortly afterwards, a priest, Father Columba, also visited the hotel and advised the men there to comply.

limerick-ira
IRA members

Morning came to find the Anti-Treatyites still defiantly inside. Colonel Lawlor made his way towards the hotel shortly before 2 pm, meeting McGlynn on the way. When McGlynn again declined to vacate, he was arrested and taken to Custume Barracks. Lawlor repeated the demand to the next acting commander in the hotel, Captain Hughes, who likewise refused.

A quarter of an hour later, Lawlor had summoned enough of his soldiers to surround the Royal Hotel, complete with machine-guns. The garrison remained where they were behind the barricaded windows and sang The Soldier’s Song, the unofficial anthem of the revolution since its early years.

Conflict seemed imminent and all civilians nearby hurriedly made themselves scarce. Another priest, Father James, appeared on the scene to appeal for calm for the sake of the women and children in the surrounding houses. This managed to bring the leaders of the respective sides together and, after some discussion, it was agreed that the Anti-Treatyites would indeed leave the Royal Hotel by 5 pm that day. They could take their equipment with them and McGlynn would be released.

With that, the Pro-Treatyites withdrew to their Barracks. The other faction was as good as its word. At the designated time, about fifty men could be seen leaving the hotel, marching – according to a local newspaper – “good-humouredly away.”[11]

Returning

Even if genuine, the good humour did not last long.

On the 11th April, the anti-Treaty IRA returned to reoccupy the Royal Hotel, along with a grocery store that lay directly opposite, as well rooms over a bakery on the same street. Barricades were quickly erected in the windows of these buildings, with armed guards seen behind them by the inhabitants of Mardyke Street, many of whom swiftly fled for fear of an imminent battle.

athlone-w-301-f
Marydyke Street, Athlone

Their concerns appeared well-founded when Mac Eoin arrived with a force of his own men from Custume Barracks, who occupied in turn a shop and a residence on Mardyke Street, as well as a store on the adjacent Dublin Street, after which they set up barricades of their own.

War seemed inevitable until four priests – including Father James from before – intervened and induced Mac Eoin and his opposing counterpart, Commandant-General Seán Fitzpatrick, to meet. After a short exchange, an adjournment for an hour was agreed upon.

During this lull, the priests requested all public-houses to close. “Business was at a stand-still, and the people moved about in suspense,” reported the Irish Times.

north-longford-flying-column
IRA members

As a result of a subsequent meeting between the two leaders, conflict was again averted, much to the relief of the citizens. For the past few days, they had been helpless witnesses to the manoeuvrings and military brinkmanship conducted in their own town.

The Anti-Treatyites were to stay in Athlone, based once more in the Royal Hotel, and there the situation remained until fourteen days later, on the night of the 25th April, when a hapless George Adamson was shot in the head.[12]

Confronting

Mac Eoin was the first to arrive on the scene. At the inquest in Athlone the next day, Mac Eoin told of what he had seen and done that night.

image5
A pensive Seán Mac Eoin stares out of a window in Sligo, 1922

He had returned from Tralee, Co. Kerry, the previous evening, and was staying at the house of a friend, Mr Duffy, when he heard four shots that sounded as if they had come from directly outside. Springing out of bed, Mac Eoin whipped up the revolver from where he had left it on a table and dashed to the window. Leaning out, he heard the sounds of running footsteps and saw a man in a laneway opposite the house.

Mac Eoin called out: “Halt! Who goes there?”

“Friend,” came the odd reply, perhaps made just to avoid being shot at.

From where he was, Mac Eoin thought he could make out in the dark the object on the ground outside. As he did so, someone shouted: “A man is dying on the street!”

Throwing on some clothes, Mac Eoin rushed out to find Adamson on his back, blood pouring out of his ear. Mac Eoin raised him up in his arms and sent Duffy, who had come out to assist, for a doctor and a priest, the last a sober acknowledgement of Adamson’s chances. A strong man, Mac Eoin carried the victim inside, before heading off towards the Royal Hotel.

3729470378_a7eb1ffc3a_z
Athlone

On the way, he met Duffy and Father Columba, one of the four priests who had helped arrange the truce – for what it was worth – a fortnight ago. Duffy told him of how he had been held up on the street by masked men while looking for the priest.

That made Mac Eoin all the more determined to reach the Royal Hotel, where he found several Anti-Treatyites, including Commandant-General Fitzpatrick from before. Mac Eoin asked Fitzpatrick if all his men were inside and accounted for. When Fitzpatrick replied in the affirmative, Mac Eoin retorted that there was no use spouting such falsehoods. George Adamson had been murdered, Mac Eoin said, and demanded to know what Fitzpatrick knew of it.

Fitzpatrick, according to Mac Eoin’s testimony, replied: “Be straight with me and I will be straight with you. Four men arrived here tonight, and were talking business with me. They went out and returned, saying that their car was gone, and went out again in less than ten minute afterwards. I heard shouting.”

Fitzpatrick added that he did not know the names of these four. One of the other Anti-Treatyites present piped up to say that he did not know the men either, only that they appeared to be acquainted with Captain Macken, who had ordered that they be admitted in the first place

For his part, Macken said that he only knew one of them, this being a Commandant Burke, which was not a name that meant anything to Mac Eoin.

Also present was Gerald Davis, Adamson’s partner in the botched robbery on the Tans. Upon release from prison as per the terms of the Truce, Davis had re-joined the Athlone Brigade, taking the opposite side to Adamson on the Treaty question. When asked in turn, Davis admitted to knowing the foursome but refused to divulge their names.[13]

Arresting

The news of the shooting seems to have rattled Fitzpatrick as much as enraged Mac Eoin. After Mac Eoin departed from the hotel, Fitzpatrick came to a decision and dispatched a message after the other man to inform him of it:

In view of the attitude which you adopt as a consequence of the regrettable shooting which occurred some hours ago, I have, after consultation with my officers, and with a view of avoiding bloodshed, decided on leaving the Royal Hotel, and taking up quarters elsewhere.

I repeat that the responsibility for the shooting rests not with me. I sincerely regret the occurrence.

Mac Eoin was not mollified. At 6 am, his Pro-Treatyites surrounded the hotel, with Mac Eoin issuing an ultimatum to Fitzpatrick inside:

I hereby charge you and all officers and men in the Royal Hotel with unlawfully conspiring with a commandant and others, unknown, to slay and murder Brigadier-General Adamson, O.C., Athlone Brigade, IRA.

I further charge the Commandant mentioned, and others known to you, with the murder of the above named officer. I hereby call on you to surrender all men and officers in the Royal Hotel on receipt of this, allowing 15 minutes for reply of surrender, and after the expiration of that time I [will] open fire, and do so as the lawful authority, charged with the peace of the district.

Knowing he was beaten, Fitzpatrick wrote back:

In reply to your demand, I have no choice but to surrender. I must assert that I am not in any way responsible for the shooting.

Fitzpatrick’s attempt to retreat with dignity intact had been coldly denied. He bowed to the inevitable and surrendered, being led away with his men to detainment inside Custume Barracks.[14]

Mourning

Adamson died a few hours after being shot, by which time a crowd had gathered outside his hospital to pray for his recovery. The lowering of the tricolour over Athlone Castle was enough to break the news to them and the rest of the town, where he had been known and well-liked.

athlone-castle2
Athlone Castle

The 25-year-old native of Moate, Co. Westmeath, had had a brief but eventful life. Previous to his service in the Athlone IRA, he had fought during the Great War, earning a Mons Star and a Distinguished Conduct Medal for conspicuous bravery. That this had been part of the same British Army he would later oppose was one of the many ironies of the period, as was the grim fact that his end had come not at German or British hands, but that of his fellow countrymen.

Fittingly, IRA members and ex-servicemen from the British Army were among the ten thousand-strong crowd who attended the funeral two days later. All business was suspended in Athlone and Moate, with shops closed and window blinds drawn, as the guards of honour, in full uniform and holding their rifles reversed, accompanied the tricoloured-draped coffin as it was carried through the streets of Athlone on the shoulders of Adamson’s colleagues.

Adamson_Funeral
Adamson’s funeral procession moving through Athlone

Mac Eoin in particular was hit hard by the killing. Among the speakers at the funeral, he was “visibly affected,” according to a local newspaper, as he “delivered a short oratory at the graveside, and paid a glowing tribute to the many qualities of the deceased.”[15]

220px-harry_boland
Harry Boland

At the next session of the Dáil in Dublin on the 26th April 1922, President Arthur Griffith spoke of the “foully murdered” Adamson, who “died for his country as truly as any man ever died for it.” When Harry Boland was unwise enough to refer to “unfortunate business in Athlone”, the pro-Treaty benches reacted like a scalded cat.

“Surely, by goodness, it has not come to this, that the shooting of a man is to be treated as ‘business’,” lambasted W.T. Cosgrave. “The Deputy, who may have made it in the heat of the moment, has now time to alter it.”

“Of course I did not mean to suggest that murder is a business,” Boland said hastily.

220px-william_thomas_cosgrave
W.T. Cosgrave

But Cosgrave was merciless: “’Unfortunate business’ is what you said.”

“’The unfortunate death of a soldier in Athlone’,” Boland amended, backtracking in full.

“That is better,” Cosgrave allowed. “A little bit better.”[16]

Inquiring

At the inquest in Athlone on the 26th April, the day after the shooting, the jury had some choice things to say, not least about the state of the country in general:

We desire to express our abhorrence of this and other un-Irish acts, now of too common occurrence, and while trying to be impartial, we desire to protest against the robberies, raids, stealing from trains, and stealing of motor cars in this district, and we call on the authorities to put it down at once.

J.H. Dixon, the solicitor for the pro-Treaty military authorities, expressed, on his own behalf and for the people of Athlone, sympathy for Adamson’s father, who was present with other relatives. Seán Mac Eoin seconded this, adding that the late Brigadier-General had been a man the Army was proud to have had. His family did not need to be assured of the sympathy of the Army, for they had full evidence of it already. As further proof of Adamson’s valour, his father was handed the four medals he had won for distinguished service in the Great War.

After Mac Eoin had testified to what he had seen that night, it was the turn of Dr MacDonnell. He told of how he had found the victim unconscious in Mr Duffy’s house, where Mac Eoin had brought him. Together with a second doctor to arrive, they had plugged the large wound in the left ear. With some effort, they succeeded in partly reviving Adamson, who managed to utter a request to be taken home. After bandaging his head, the doctors helped their patient to the barracks.

Next up on the stand was the military surgeon. He had examined the body that morning, and told of how he had found two wounds, an entrance wound high up on the back of the head, the other an exit wound in the left ear. In his opinion, death had been due to shock, haemorrhage and compression of the brain.

An eyewitness to the shooting, Lieutenant O’Meara, reiterated much of what had already been reported. He had been one of the four-strong party who went out that night with Adamson. When they returned to their barracks, two of their number were noticed to be missing. It was while searching for them in Athlone that they spied a man in a doorway.

Adamson_3
George Adamson

When Adamson challenged the stranger, while ordering Lieutenant Walsh to cover him with a revolver, the man had merely said: “It is all right, George, I know you, and you know me,” adding, “you are George Adamson, and you know something about the car that is gone.”

Eight others suddenly appeared, shouting: “Hands up! We mean it, George. Put up your hands!”

After the four Pro-Treatyites were disarmed, O’Meara heard several shots ring out, followed by the sight of Adamson crumpling to the ground.

The coroner for Co. Westmeath concluded from the hearing that this had been an act of murder, pure and simple. He left the matter with the jury, who returned to deliver the same verdict as the coroner. Which was reasonable enough – it did not seem like a complicated case, after all.[17]

Replying

It was a sign of the times that the official report would so casually, almost innocently, mention officers of its own army engaging in car theft, a detail honed in by Thomas Johnson, Secretary of the Labour Party, in a letter sent on the 27th April to the press.

ed125-thomasjohnson-nli
Thomas Johnson

“By what authority have military officers commandeered a motor car outside a hotel?” Johnson demanded. “Does this not indicate a state of mind alien to the conception of civil law?”

The stolen vehicle would play a larger role in the statement released by the Four Courts, the base of operations for the anti-Treaty IRA leadership, and written by Timothy Buckley, Quartermaster of the Third Southern Division (encompassing Offaly, Laois and North Tipperary). Buckley had been present that night in Athlone and so was able to give the Anti-Treatyites’ version of events:

On the night of the 24th inst., I, with the Commandant [Tom Burke], Adjutant [Joseph Reddin], and Q.M. [Seán Robbins] of Offaly, No. 2 Brigade, motored to Athlone to see Commandant General Fitzpatrick, re transfer of arms.

While engaged with him in his quarters, our motor was stolen from where we had it outside the door. We followed in the direction in which we believed the car had been taken, but could not find the party who took the car.

The men heard their vehicle being driven through a backstreet, towards the Custume Barracks. As the military compound was in Pro-Treatyite hands, they knew they would not be retrieving their car anytime soon. For lack of other options, the four stranded men proceeded into town to find another car to hire for their return journey to Birr, Co. Offaly.

But the theft was not to be the end of that night’s drama for them:

We called up a Mr. Poole in the adjoining street, and were just asking for one of his cars when the Q.M. [Robbins], Offaly, No. 2, was held up about ten yards from where Commandant Burke and I were standing.

In the brief scuffle, Robbins was able to disarm two of his assailants. As Reddin and Burke came to his assistance, the other men ran away, with only one of them stubbornly holding his ground with his hands in his pocket. Burke was confronting this man, who they later learnt was Adamson, when they were abruptly fired upon from the other side of the street.

In the dark, Buckley could not see who the shooter was. He fired back twice with his automatic, and the mystery gunman ran off, pausing only to fire several more times at them from further up the street.

Such was the confusion that Buckley was not sure what was going on, only that he saw Adamson suddenly collapse in the middle of the street. With the shooter now gone, the four Anti-Treatyites rushed to the fallen man’s aid.

We took him off the street and tried to get him to sit upright, but we saw and believed that he was almost beyond human aid. In order to give his friends a chance of helping him, we left the street in their possession, left the town on foot and walked as far as our Divisional area.

“The death of Commandant Adamson is very much regretted,” Commandant Burke added in a brief footnote to Buckley’s statement, as he stressed his group’s lack of complicity.[18]

Brooding

noelbrowneministerhealth
Noel Browne

One of the residents of Athlone was the future politician, Dr Noel Browne. Then six years of age, he was woken by his father, who urged his children to lie flat on the floor. From outside came the sounds of gunfire, mixed with those of running feet. A voice shouted out “don’t shoot!”, though Browne was unsure as to whether that particular auditory detail had actually occured or if he only imagined it.

But the blood on the street the next morning was real enough, dried and black and still visible despite the efforts to hide it with a potato sack. The memory of “this awful example of a man’s unique capacity to kill cruelly a fellow man” stayed with Browne. In 1948, twenty-six years afterwards, he met Mac Eoin, both now ministers in the Inter-Party Government. Browne told him about that night in Athlone, when he had first heard the older man’s voice outside his bedroom window. The two became friends as well as co-workers, with Browne thinking Mac Eoin, then in his fifties, a “gentle peaceful man.”[19]

1948-cabinet-noel-browne-960
Cabinet of the Inter-Party Government, 1948, with Noel Brown (far left, front row) and Seán Mac Eoin (standing, second from the right)

Time had perhaps mellowed the old warrior. Mac Eoin would emerge from that fateful night a changed soul. Before, he had been noted for his chivalry, such as when he had spared Auxiliaries captured at the Granard Ambush of February 1921, going so far as to have the wounded tended to. The Mac Eoin after Adamson’s death was a harder, colder character, with no patience now for talk of peace and compromise.

When the Dáil met the next month in May 1922 to discuss a possible ceasefire between the increasingly fractious IRA sects, his was the dissenting voice as he expressed incredulity that things could be resolved so amiably. Instead, he called for a tougher line on those he saw as the villains of the piece.

“Men are engaged in the pursuit of men charged with serious offences,” he lectured the other TDs. “Justice demands that certain things be done.”[20]

Soon afterwards in September, with the Civil War in full swing, Mac Eoin told the Dáil that: “If I was sure of the man who murdered General Adamson, and if I met him on the street, I would shoot him.”

This was said as part of the proposal to establish army courts to deal with the anti-Treaty prisoners. Once again, Thomas Johnson acted as the closest thing the Dáil had to an opposition leader as he pushed for these courts to be headed by a legal professional, instead of being purely military in nature. To Mac Eoin, however, only a soldier could appreciate the situation of another.

“The reason I would shoot him then,” he continued, “was because there was no law but the law that was vested in me as the Competent Authority of the area. Pass the law that is now asked, and there would be no necessity for me to shoot him, because there would be a legal method of dealing with that individual.”[21]

Later that session, he dismissed the idea that an armistice could be arranged. “It will be the same as the last truce,” he warned, having learnt the limits of patience. “It will be all one-sided, and you cannot have that.”[22]

Adamson_4
Seán Mac Eoin (seated, second from left in the front row) with a number of his officers, including George Adamson (second from left back row), in a photograph taken at Athlone Castle, February 1922

Even years afterwards, Mac Eoin never wavered in his belief that Adamson’s death had been cold-blooded murder. When he wrote to the Pensions Board in 1929 on behalf of Adamson’s mother to urge for financial assistance, he told of how and why her son had met his end: “The rest of the officers of the Brigade who had turned Irregular always regarded Adamson as a traitor, that he let them down by his action at the meeting.”[23]

Blaming

Some on the anti-Treaty side nursed their own theories.

17b8c64648
Uiseann MacEoin

Liam Carroll was among those Anti-Treatyites present in Athlone that night, along with five others inside Claxton’s Hotel. When they heard shots outside, they quickly hurried out of town by foot, leaving their car behind in their haste to avoid trouble. Such was the confusion that Carroll was able to return the next day and retrieve their vehicle, which had been left untouched. He had not witnessed what happened, but later told the historian Uinseann MacEoin (no relation to Seán Mac Eoin) how “Republicans believe [the shooting] was done by one of [Mac Eoin’s] bodyguards.”[24]

Another Anti-Treatyite who had been stationed in the area, Walter Mitchell, went further, suggesting to Uinseann MacEoin that it had been Seán Mac Eoin himself who had been responsible. As for the possible reasons why, Mac Eoin was jealous of the other man, “being good in an ordinary scrap, [but] he was completely uneducated”, while Adamson “had far more military science.”

In contrast, Mitchell believed that “no Republican would set out to slay George Adamson.” After all, the Adamson Mitchell remembered had been a “fine soldier, hot-tempered and all that, but he was able to handle men well, including parade formation on the barrack square.” Still, Mitchell appeared less aggrieved at his slaying and more about how the Pro-Treatyites had exploited it for sympathy purposes.[25]

Deciding

Meeting such accusations head on fuelled Mac Eoin at the second inquiry, held on the 25th May, at the Newman House on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, site of the National University. Unlike the first inquiry, which had been dominated by the Pro-Treatyites, this one consisted of attendees from both sides. To stave off further violence, a truce had been signed by the military heads of each IRA faction and, for a while, a spirit of reconciliation pervaded the country, with fraternal ties tentatively renewed and even talk of the two sundered wings reuniting.

090218-moli-ucds_newman_house_to_host_museum_of_literature-top-00
Newman House, Dublin

But Mac Eoin was in a far from obliging mood when he took the stand inside the Newman House. Dismissing the rumour that he had been the one responsible for Adamson’s shooting as a mere “propaganda stunt”, he argued for the impossibility of such a notion on the grounds that “you cannot shoot unless you fire. You cannot kill unless you fire. My revolver is as full now as it was that day. There is none out of it since.”

He retold his version of that night in Athlone, giving his audience the impression that Adamson had been anticipating something would happen – and that he and Mac Eoin had been unusually close for a commander and his subordinate. In court, Mac Eoin pointed to a ring he was wearing, and told how Adamson, while visiting him at Mr O’Duffy’s house, had taken the ring off his own finger and put it on Mac Eoin’s, saying: “Every time you look at that, think of me.”

Soon after, Mac Eoin continued, when he saw Adamson stricken in the street, he thought back on the ring and wondered if Adamson had had some information about an attempt to be made on his life. Instead of telling Mac Eoin about it, he had gone out to face it alone.

“I know that is not so,” added Mac Eoin on the stand, “but that is what appeared to me at that moment.”

PJ_Ruttledge
P.J. Ruttledge

Certain statements Mac Eoin had made to the press came under scrutiny when P.J. Ruttledge, the legal counsel for the anti-Treaty IRA, cross-examined him. If Mac Eoin had been in a righteously angry mood, then Ruttledge sought to match him, outrage by outrage.

Ruttledge: Are you aware that that has gone through three-quarters of the earth, blackguarding a force –?

Mac Eoin: It has just gone as far as the propaganda has gone that I shot him from the window. That statement is an answer to the other.

Ruttledge: You say a certain man did a certain thing. I want to know have you evidence on which to base that charge?

Mac Eoin: There will be evidence here on which to base that charge.

halestom-291125538_std
Tom Hales

The atmosphere was sufficiently testy at one point for Tom Hales, the president of the court, to ask J. H. Dixon, again the solicitor for the Pro-Treatyites, to moderate his choice of words.

“I wish you would leave out the word ‘murder’ altogether,” Hales said.

“Very well, sir, ‘causing death’,” Dixon said, before adding: “Causing death is very obnoxious. At the same time, I think it will get down to a stage when we cannot have any fineness about words.”

Much of the inquiry was spent recapping the two different, and contradictory, versions of Adamson’s demise. The witnesses from the pro-Treaty forces had it that their late comrade had been callously gunned down, while those for the Anti-Treatyites insisted that his death had been the result of an alteration that spiralled out of control and where, given the confusion, it was impossible to determine culpability.[26]

When the court reassembled on the 1st June to announce its verdict, it showed it had decided on the more cautious interpretation:

We find that the much-regretted and tragic death of the late Brigadier Adamson, Athlone Brigade, Midland Division, I.R.A., resulted from a series of events on the night of the 25th April, accompanied by indiscretions on both sides.

Following the seizure of a car from the Executive Forces, I.R.A., at a late hour that resulted in a hold-up of a man who happened to be an officer of the [anti-Treaty] Forces. Concurrently his commander arrived on the scene, and the discharge of a single shot immediately brought about a burst of firing, in the course of which Brigadier Adamson was fatally wounded by some persons unknown.

The Court cannot determined from the evidence the responsibility for the discharge of the first shot, whether accidental or otherwise, but express the firm conviction that the shooting of Brigadier Adamson was not premeditated.[27]

Given the lack of hard evidence and conflicting viewpoints, there was perhaps little else the court could have said. George Adamson’s death remained, and continues to be so, a mystery.

References

[1] Westmeath Guardian, 28/04/1922

[2] Ibid

[3] Westmeath Examiner, 04/02/1922

[4] Ibid, 11/02/1922

[5] Lennon, Patrick (BMH / WS 1336), pp. 10-1

[6] O’Meara, Seumas (BMH / WS 1504), p. 47

[7] David, Gerald (BMH / WS 1361), pp. 12-4, 16

[8] Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Fontana/Collins, 1970), pp. 241, 255-6

[9] Westmeath Examiner, 01/04/1922

[10] Irish Times, 04/04/1922

[11] Ibid, 11/04/1922

[12] Ibid, 12/04/1922

[13] Ibid, 27/04/1922

[14] Ibid, 26/04/1922

[15] Westmeath Guardian, 28/04/1922

[16] Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922]), pp. 235-6

[17] Irish Times, 27/04/1922

[18] Ibid, 28/04/1922

[19] Browne, Noel. Against the Tide (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1987), pp. 5-6

[20] Dáil Éireann, August 1921 – June 1922, p. 368

[21] Dáil Éireann. Official Report, September – December 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [Dublin]), p. 899

[22] Ibid, p. 947

[23] Adamson, George (Military Archives, 2/D/2,) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R3/2D2GEORGEADAMSON/W2D2GEORGEADAMSON.pdf (Accessed 03/05/2017), p. 131

[24] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 269-70

[25] Ibid, pp. 386-7

[26] Irish Times, 26/05/1922

[27] Ibid, 02/06/1922

Bibliography

Newspapers

Irish Times

Westmeath Examiner

Westmeath Guardian

Books

Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922])

Dáil Éireann. Official Report, September – December 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922])

MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)

Browne, Noel. Against the Tide (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1987)

Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Fontana/Collins, 1970)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Davis, Gerald, WS 1361

Lennon, Patrick, WS 1336

O’Meara, Seumas, WS 1504

Military Service Pensions Collection

Adamson, George (Military Archives, 2/D/2,) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R3/2D2GEORGEADAMSON/W2D2GEORGEADAMSON.pdf (Accessed 03/05/2017)

 

Advertisements

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

Another Day in Ireland

While it was still dark on the morning of 18th October 1920, a patrol of British soldiers helped themselves to a motorboat in Athlone for use on the Shannon, their aim being to scout out some small islands upriver in Lough Ree. That they felt the need to bring along a Lewis machine gun would indicate a sense of wariness.

After all, the area had been increasingly unsettled over the course of the year, with a number of police barracks burnt to the ground and a police sergeant shot dead on the streets of Athlone. But then, these barracks had already been abandoned and the sergeant was caught while leaving a social club with barely any company to protect him. At twelve-strong and fully armed, the patrol would present a very different prospect.

Lough-Ree
Lough Ree

After finding nothing of note, the patrol began to make its way back around midday. As the boat passed through the narrows of the river, it was subjected to a broadside of bullets. Caught off-guard, the patrol stopped the motor and returned fire at the treeline along the shore where the attack was coming from. The Lewis was brought out to add to the fusillade but poor positioning – the boat was low in the water and the enemy standing on the high ground of the riverbanks – meant that its volleys went over the heads of its targets.

Upping the Ante

Exposed as they were and taking hits, the patrol had no choice but to restart their boat and withdraw as best they could. The ambushers followed along the bank, moving from cover to cover and keeping up their fire with a mix of shotguns and rifles. It was only when the boat neared Athlone with its still-functioning barracks there that the assailants broke off their attack and dispersed. The patrol limped back to safety with six wounded.

The attack had been an ad hoc affair by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The O/C of the Athlone Brigade, Seumas O’Meara, was in town to attend Mass when he heard about the soldiers who had left on a boat earlier that day. Recognising an opportunity, O’Meara gathered all the available Volunteers in Athlone and the Coosan area, near where the patrol had gone.

He had considered stringing barbed wire across the river but decided that the party lacked both a boat and the time necessary to attempt this. Hoping for as many casualties as possible, O’Meara told the others to aim for the waterline of the enemy launch before targeting the sinking men.

Despite the injuries inflicted, the Shannon ambush was not considered an unqualified success. O’Meara regretted the order to aim for the boat, believing it had wasted time that could have been spent on the soldiers. Another participant, Frank O’Connor, was of like mind, adding later in his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement that he had thought O’Meara’s instructions absurd, though it seems he had neglected to actually mention it at the time.[1]

Seumas O’Meara

O’Meara’s leadership would remain a contentious issue. While undoubtedly brave, energetic and capable of creative thinking (as his idea with the barbed wire had shown), he had already exhibited a knack at rubbing his colleagues up the wrong way.

athlone
Athlone

In early 1918, O’Meara was standing in as acting O/C of the Athlone Brigade while the official one was imprisoned when he was called upon to reprimand a pair of officers who had taken it upon themselves to arrange an unauthorised raid upon a quarry for gelignite. Other than the lack of discipline, the operation had involved rowing across a lake in bad weather, putting the lives of all involved at risk.

O’Meara made it clear that any future actions would have to be cleared beforehand by the Brigade staff. Smarting from the rebuke, the two malcontents took their complaints to the official O/C, Seán Hurley, upon his release from prison.

The first O’Meara knew of the problem was when Hurley addressed the Athlone Volunteers on parade. Without mentioning any name, Hurley made it clear that he held his acting O/C in the wrong. Feeling he had no choice, O’Meara tendered his resignation. But when the subsequent brigade staff meeting decided in favour of O’Meara, it was Hurley who resigned, leaving O’Meara to become O/C in time.[2]

It would not, however, be the last time that the discipline that O’Meara so highly valued would be come under threat.

At War and on the Run

The Shannon ambush heralded a rise in activity by the Athlone Brigade in the latter half of 1920. As part of this, a flying column was created to help spearhead this surge. Though the column would not take the field until after the Shannon ambush, plans for it had been underway for some time, encouraged in no small part by the increasing number of Volunteers having to go on the run.

soldiers
British soldiers, Ireland

A series of round-ups by Crown forces were disrupting the equilibrium of the Brigade areas. The wanted men who escaped arrest were threatening to be a burden on the Brigade – O’Meara had to hold a collection to raise funds for them – until a GHQ missive in September, ordering columns to be formed in all brigade areas throughout the country, turned these loose men into resources. The runaways made perfect recruits for the column, having little else to do. Included were those Volunteers willing to be absent from their home for the foreseeable future.

The first meeting of the embryonic column was held at O’Meara’s house in October where the personnel were selected. The initial numbers are uncertain, one source having the column at twenty, but others coming to more conservative estimations of between nine and twelve.[3]

Tipperary-flying-Column4
IRA Flying Column

All the rifles and the best shotguns were scoured from the Brigade units to equip the new one, something that was not greeted with wild enthusiasm by those outside the column. The Drumraney Company was sufficiently aggrieved to send their O/C to Dublin. There he prevailed upon GHQ to order the Brigade to return the Company armaments although only four rifles ended up being given back.[4]

Henry O’Brien – one of the column’s original members and later a stern critic – went as far as to argue that the donations of serviceable weapons to the column was crippling to the other units, which is something of an overstatement. After all, Athlone Volunteers outside the column were able to attempt a number of ambushes, successfully or otherwise, up until the Truce. However annoying this tithe of weapons might have been, it could not have been too much of one.[5]

Too Many Chiefs and Not Enough Indians?

Also chosen was the O/C for the column. James Tormey was to be in command, a role for which he was ideally suited. In addition to having a “fine physique and of a commanding disposition”, he was one of the few Volunteers with prior military experience, having served with the British Army in France and at Gallipoli.

He had proven his mettle to his new comrades in the IRA: attempting to infiltrate the Streamstown RIC Barracks while disguised as a policeman (where he had narrowly avoided being shot) in July 1920, and acting as one of the shooters in the assassination of Sergeant Craddock in Athlone a month later.[6]

O’Meara served in the column as an ordinary soldier despite his position of Brigade O/C. Several others who held similar Brigade ranks likewise counted as regular Volunteers in the column while retaining the right to absent themselves and attend to their brigade duties when necessary. This dual membership policy would allow for the smooth running of the various IRA companies but it could create its own problems.[7]

O’Brien believed that being allowed to continue as officers made a lot of column members difficult to handle. A tendency for some to disappear without prior warning made unit cohesion a struggle to maintain and, being big fish in their own ponds, they were not as amenable to discipline as an ordinary Volunteer might be.

IRA
IRA members

O’Brien was also sceptical about the endurance of many of his peers when faced with the hardships that life in the column would entail, such as long periods of hunger and poor billeting. As Captain of the Coosan Company as well as a column serviceman, O’Brien could claim to view the situation from both perspectives; nonetheless, that was the situation the column had set for itself. There was nothing else to do but press on and do what the column had been formed to do.[8]

Opening Moves

britishSoldiers
British soldiers

The first intended operation was a surprise on a military party on its way to relieve the guards at the Athlone Workhouse. A date was set for a Monday but then the Shannon incident happened on the Sunday, heightening British security and causing the cancellation of the original plan.

Needing to stay mobile, the column assembled at Faheran on the following Tuesday and Wednesday nights, billeting in a shed owned by an obliging parish priest. Looking for another angle, Tormey, O’Meara and David Daly ventured out on the Thursday or Friday and scoped the Dublin-Athlone road as a possible ambush site before deciding on Parkwood as having the best position.

The armoury was reviewed in preparation. Upon testing, the GHQ-supplied explosives were found to be duds. Daly was sent to Dublin to replace them. Though he successfully handed in the faulty explosives he received no replacements, not that he would have made it back in time anyway for what was to be the column’s christening.[9]

Parkwood

The column’s ambition was modest: a single lorry, two at most. As British forces routinely used the road, it would only be a matter of time and patience before suitable prey came within range if the column waited long enough in position.

The column took up position close to the road, putting the men at virtually point-blank range as a concession to the inexperience of many of them, with the exception of a few ex-British soldiers like Tormey, at handling rifles. The bulk of the group was concentrated on one side of the road with the remainder positioned on the other to counteract any enemies seeking refuge there.

The position gave the column a clear view of the road towards Athlone. As for the Dublin side, a scout took watch with a whistle and instructions to use it upon sight of a convoy. Blocking the road was ruled out due to the amount of traffic and the lack of a mine. It was not ideal terrain as cover was scarce but, committed as they were, the column settled down as best they could behind roadside fences and waited.

When opportunity came at about 1 pm after two hours of anticipation, on 22nd October, the column almost missed it. A military tender speeded by from the Dublin direction before the ambushers were aware of it. The scout blew his whistle in time for a second tender to appear before the poised men.

The column opened fire, aiming as ordered on the lorry driver and killing 26-year old Constable Harold Briggs instantly at the wheel. The tender careered off the road and into a ditch in front of the ambushers, just as several other vehicles appeared, coming to a halt by the rear of the disabled one. Their occupants spilled out, the Black-and-Tans firing mostly in the air as they dashed for the nearest cover. Instead of the lone or double tenders the column had been expecting, they had chanced upon a whole squadron.

British-Soldiers-Killaloe-17-March-1921

He Who Runs Away…

Fearing they had bitten off more than they could chew, Tormey ordered a retreat. The column moved safely away until they reached another road where they commandeered a civilian lorry. The locals they passed working on the land either cheered as the lorry passed or turned their backs, the latter O’Meara attributed to the farmers thinking they were Tans.

The column dismounted and sheltered in the woods. While the men waited for the cover of night, O’Meara went ahead to make arrangements for transport across the Shannon, all the better to throw any pursuers off the scent.

In what could have been a disaster, the column had pulled off its first ambush. With one enemy fatality, another injury and no casualties of their own, it had been a success. The reaction of the Tans, in contrast, had been so confused and their discipline so abyssal that many of the column believed that had they stayed to fight, they could have wiped the convoy out entirely like ducks in a row.

On the other hand, these same Volunteers were honest enough to admit the precariousness of the situation. If the Tans had kept their nerve or had adequate leadership, they might have inflicted grievous losses on their assailants. [10]

In the Wilderness

volunteersDrillingThe column stayed in the Summerhill area for over a fortnight where Tormey utilised his British Army expertise to put it through a training course. Emboldened by their earlier success and not wanting to rest on their laurels, the Volunteers set up three ambush positions in succession for RIC cycle patrols, only for none to show. Skirting Athlone on its Connaught side, the column packed up and crossed the Shannon, aiming to set up camp near Ballymahon.

En route, the column held a court-martial of a prisoner held by the local Volunteers acting as a makeshift police force. The prisoner was found innocent and, though O’Meara does not give any further details, it is a reminder that the role of the IRA at this time was not limited to the military sphere.

Having arrived in Ballyhamon, the column slept in a hayshed for three or four nights. O’Meara searched for a suitable ambush site on the Athlone-Ballymahon road but when that proved fruitless, the column returned the way it had come, crossing the Shannon, and tried their luck again for a few more days along the Galway road but, once again, no enemy patrol was obliging enough to show itself.

Undaunted, Tormey decided to lead his unit to Faheran, where it had originally begun, and from there to Moate. If the column could not find any enemy patrols to attack there, it would try its luck against the local police barracks, though more for the nuisance value than any realistic hope of capturing it. [11]

Complications

It was at Moate that cracks appeared in the column. The men arrived at 3 am, near the ‘Cat and Bag’ publichouse, and were detailed to neighbouring billets with local Volunteers. O’Meara, who was shouldering some of the leadership duties in the column, told the men before dismissal to assemble outside the ‘Cat and Bag’ later in the day at 7 pm.

O’Meara and O’Brien, who had been billeted together, arrived at the publichouse at the appointed time to find only one other Volunteer there. After waiting for three hours in vain for the rest to show, the trio decided to have some tea inside.

The barmaid served them their tea but with bad grace and a refusal to take payment. Puzzled by the hostility, the three men resumed the wait outside until 11 pm when Tormey and another column member, Thomas Costello, arrived to say that the ‘Cat and Bag’ had been raided the previous night for drink and cigarettes. Worse, the culprits had been members of the column and the local Volunteers.

volunteers
IRA/Volunteers

The discipline that the column depended on was in danger of coming undone. Tormey and O’Meara agreed that reigning in the baser instincts of their colleagues would be impossible and that it would be better to split up the column for better control.

That is at least O’Meara’s version of events. The other two present who left BMH Statements for posterity, Costello and O’Brien, agree that the column was divided around this time but no such incident at the ‘Cat and Bag’ is mentioned. But then it was not something on the column’s record that anyone would find flattering. That O’Meara described it all the same gives his Statement credibility. [12]

Whatever the reason, the column was never the same after Parkwood. While the column made an effort to follow through on its initial success, it would cease to function as a whole. Volunteers outside the column saw only a lull of activity and cited disorganisation and disarray as the cause.

Upon his return from Dublin, Daly found that many of the original members were absent. In their place were newcomers who had only the credentials of being on the run but not weapons of their own in a unit already lacking in armaments. “It was more of a gathering now than a column,” Daly thought. By Christmas the unit had disbanded for the holidays with the intention of reforming in the New Year. Perhaps they would have better luck by then. [13]

James Tormey

Limerick_RIC
RIC men

On 2nd February 1921, a party of eight RIC policemen on cycles were making their way up the Athlone-Ballinasloe road when they were fired upon. At the forefront of the assault was Tormey, grieving for his brother who had recently been shot dead by a sentry while in Ballykinlar internment camp. Impatience for revenge, Tormey had been leading an IRA party to Summerhill when he had spotted the forerunners of the RIC patrol coming towards them.

Accounts vary as to Tormey’s actions. One version has it that, much like the Parkwood ambush, Tormey assumed the few men ahead of him were alone and he failed to see the rest of their patrol, prompting him to shoot at what he falsely assumed would be easy targets.

In another retelling, Tormey could see the patrol in its entirety and, judging it to be too dangerous, ordered the others to hide. As the enemy passed by, Tormey, for whatever reason, broke his own instructions and his cover.

Alternatively, the ambush had been planned all along. That none of the sources – O’Meara, Daly and Thomas Costello – were present, and since Tormey never got a chance to explain, means that we will never know for sure.

A shootout ensured, with the two groups committed to a fight that perhaps neither had wanted. One of the Volunteers shot the cap off a RIC officer and promptly lost the foresights of his rifle to a return bullet – both men were otherwise miraculously untouched.

soldiersBelatedly deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, Tormey initiated a retreat, being the first into a ditch behind the ambush site. There he was shot in the head before he could realise he had been outflanked. Some of the RIC had edged down a lane that ran at right angles to the site, an opening the IRA had neglected to watch, from where they opened fire to surprise their ambushers in turn.

By the time the local Volunteers arrived and armed to assist, the ambushers and the RIC had left. Only Tormey’s dead body remained. Neither side had lingered long enough to take it. He was 21 years old. [14]

Leadership

Tormey’s death left a void that the remainder of the column worked hard, though never entirely succeeded, in filling. O’Meara took charge of the unit in addition to being Brigade O/C. According to Daly, however, he was not capable of shouldering the responsibility.

For his part, O’Meara felt undermined by the unraveling discipline within the Brigade as a whole. Individual officers and even ordinary Volunteers were taking it upon themselves to act without waiting for permission. Further undermining O’Meara’s authority was the suspicion that he was blocking any operations in Athlone for fear of his property or himself being harmed by the authorities in retaliation.

 

church-street-1940s

A solution came in late March or early April 1921 when a representative from GHQ, Simon Donnelly, arrived in the area. O’Meara had already submitted a report to Dublin asking for a suitable newcomer to be sent to replace him as O/C. Feeling that a fresh start for the Brigade was needed, O’Meara announced his intention to resign at a staff meeting with Donnelly.

According to O’Meara, Donnelly urged him to continue on, loath as he was to lose an experienced hand, but O’Meara insisted, arguing that given the doubts about him, it was impossible to continue. O’Meara got his wish and resumed service as an ordinary member in a column whose future was looking uncertain.

volunteersTwoDespite O’Meara continuing on as an active Volunteer, there is a dearth of much further activity in his BMH Statement. When the Truce came into effect, he attended an IRA officers’ training camp where he was faced with the choice of taking up soldiering on a professional basis in an army that was to be restructured on regular lines or to return to the business he had neglected. O’Meara decided on the latter. Reading between the lines of O’Meara’s Statement, one can detect an air of exhaustion after all the work he had done and for very little reward or gratitude.

After the change in leadership, the column members were divided as O’Meara and Tormey had planned and now assigned to different areas. From there they would assist other Volunteers in their local battalions. The emphasis had shifted from a professional outfit to more part-time groups that would only assemble when needed and, hopefully, be easier to manage. The days of flying freely were over even if the War was not.[15]

Legacy

The Athlone column remained scattered up to the Truce, partly because of the new policy but also due to the increased pressure from the Crown garrison. The column, in the opinion of Henry O’Brien, had not been the success many had hoped. Poor luck and the elusiveness of the enemy had hampered ambushes being attempted, and the Brigade had been unable to seize large enough caches of weapons to augment its ever-limited armoury.

O’Brien believed that forming the column had been a mistake. Far better, he thought, to have gone with what eventually happened – smaller units formed and attached to battalion areas – from the start.[16]

The column left a mixed legacy – of missed opportunities and misplaced priorities, according to some. Nonetheless, it was able to pull off an ambush, no small feat in a war in which the vast majority of such attempts were thwarted in some way. Afterwards it had avoided capture or elimination, not something every column in the War could claim.

While far from a success, the Athlone flying column was at least not a failure. That may not be a particularly heroic legacy. But, then, heroics only go so far.

IRA_Memorial,_Athlone_-_geograph.org.uk_-_412998
War of Independence memorial statue, Athlone

 

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

References

[1] O’Meara, Seumas (BHM / WS 1504), pp. 32-3 ; O’Connor, Frank (BHM / WS 1309), p. 18 ; Westmeath Independent, 23/10/1920

[2] O’Meara, pp. 10-12

[3] Ibid, p. 34 ; O’Connor, p. 24 ; O’Brien, Henry (BHM / WS 1308), pp. 11-2 ; Daly, David (BHM / WS 1337), pp. 16-8 ; Costello, Thomas (BMH / WS 1296), pp. 15-6 ; McCormack, Michael (BMH / WS 1503), p. 17 ; McCormack, Anthony (BMH / WS 1500), p. 9

[4] McCormack, Michael, p. 18

[5] O’Brien, pp. 22-3

[6] O’Brien, p. 11 ; Costello, p. 12 ; O’Meara, p. 31 ; Westmeath Examiner, 12/02/1921

[7] O’Brien, p. 11 ; Costello, p. 16 ; O’Meara, p. 34 ; Daly, p. 17

[8] O’Brien, p. 22

[9] O’Meara, pp. 34-5 ; Daly, pp. 17-8

[10] O’Meara, pp. 35-7 ; O’Brien, pp. 12-3 ; Costello, pp. 16-7 ; McCormack, Anthony, p. 10 ; McCormack, Michael, p. 17 ; WI, 30/10/1920

[11] O’Meara, pp. 37-8 ; Costello, p. 17

[12] O’Meara, p. 38

[13] McCormack, Anthony, p. 10 ; McCormack, Michael, p. 18 ; Costello, p. 17 ; Daly, pp. 21, 23

[14] O’Meara, pp. 45-7 ; Daly, pp. 22-3 ; Costello, p. 18 ; WE, 12/02/1921

[15] Daly, p. 22 ; O’Brien, p. 24 ; O’Meara, pp. 47-8, 50 ; O’Connor, p. 23 ; McCormack, Anthony, p. 10

[16] O’Brien, pp. 22-3

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statement

Daly, David, WS 1337

McCormack, Anthony, WS 1500

McCormack, Michael, WS 1503

O’Connor, Frank, WS 1309

O’Brien, Henry, WS 1308

O’Meara, Seumas, WS 1504

Newspapers

Westmeath Independent, 23/10/1920

Westmeath Independent, 30/10/1920

Westmeath Examiner, 12/02/1921

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 eighty, 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