Bloodshed in Mullingar: Civil War Begins in Co. Westmeath, April 1922

Attack on the Hibernian

The 24th January 1922 was a quiet Tuesday for the town of Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, what with it being a half-holiday and almost all business closed for the day. An exception was the Hibernian Bank and even that was nearing its closing time of 3 pm when three armed men entered.

With one of the new arrivals standing by the doorway with his revolver and the second holding the staff at gunpoint, the third entered the manager’s office where an accountant had been talking with a customer. After cutting the telephone connection, the third intruder demanded the keys to the strong-room, only to be told by the accountant that the keys were with the manager who was away.

Frustrated, the raider left the office and proceeded to the teller’s box which he quickly cleared of its contents. Having seized the most they could get, the robbers left the bank and drove out of Mullingar with their ill-gotten gains.

Despite the severed telephone connection, the bank staff were able to quickly call for assistance. Lorries with members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) inside drove down Mullingar at top speed in pursuit. For many onlookers, this was the first indication that something amiss had occurred. Both the RIC and the Irish Republican (IR) police, enemies united in common purpose, were soon scouring the outlying roads for any trace of the fugitives.

It had been, reported the Westmeath Guardian newspaper, a misdeed of a “particularly cool and daring nature.”[1]

IRA3

Dublin

The Mullingar raid had not been an isolated event. A second Hibernian Bank branch was hit on the same day, this time the one in Dublin, Thomas Street. Unlike that in Mullingar, this heist was no hurried affair. A single man entered the bank, arousing no suspicion from staff who assumed he was another customer.

After waiting for an opportune moment, the scout gave a signal for a group of nine or ten men to swiftly enter the building in single file. “Hands up,” called the first man as he and his colleagues pulled out revolvers and herded the staff and customers into the manager’s room. The two tellers were then brought out and ordered to give up the keys to the cash drawers. A robber went so far as to put his gun to the face of one of the tellers and threaten to shoot if he did not do as he was told.

After the bank premises were thoroughly searched, the raiders made their getaway, also by motorcar, with as much money as they could lay their hands on. It was not the first heist that had occurred in Dublin since the Truce of the year before, but it had been one of the biggest.

Delvin

The next day, Co. Westmeath, again saw another bank raid, this time against the Ulster Bank in Delvin. This one was slightly more complicated than the other two from the day before. The robbers entered the bank at 2 am and abducted the manager who was presumably working late.

The kidnappers drove their captive some five miles away to the residence of the bank cashier. After he had been threatened into handing over his keys to the safe, the robbers drove back to Delvin, re-entered the bank and helped themselves to the contents of the safe.

The only trace found of the three robberies was the motorcar used in the Mullingar one. It had been abandoned in a laneway about six miles from Dundalk, having been stolen from its owner in Lisburn. The near simultaneousness of the heists and the distance travelled by at least some of their perpetrators indicated that they had been more than local affairs.[2]

Law and Order

mullingar2Exacerbating the situation was the near absence of policing. This was not necessarily due to the lack of policemen. In February, Mullingar found itself playing host to around 600 members of the RIC from various counties in the soon-to-be Free State, who arrived to take up residence in the town’s military barracks.

They were not there to help, however, but to await disbandment as per terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The local publicans, it was noted wryly, were not doing at all badly by the new arrivals, but that would do nothing to deter the rising rate of crime.

Mullingar, in the opinion of the Westmeath Guardian in February, was one of the most backward towns in Ireland regarding law enforcement. The newspaper was sure that the IR Police, formed from the local Irish Republican Army (IRA), were doing their best but they alone could not solve the matter. Mullingar had no excuse; after all, smaller towns than it were organising their lawmen into patrols and placing guards by banks. That Mullingar was not following suit left it a wide open target.[3]

Irish Volunteers

A crime surge at the start of April showed how little had been done. On a single day, two motorcars were stolen in Mullingar, one at gunpoint, with another two unsuccessful attempts. Vehicles were not the only prized acquisitions. A lorry leaving Mullingar with demobilised RIC men was held up and the firearms and ammunition seized.

“The incident,” according to the Westmeath Guardian, “created much excitement in the vicinity at the time.” [4]

As well it might. These crimes were symptomatic, not just of the disintegration of law and order but of the growing tensions between the two factions split over the signing of the Treaty, for the robberies were not simply the works of a lawless element. There were those who believed they would have use of such firearms before the question was resolved.

‘The Interests of the Nation’

Speaking in Mullingar Cathedral at the first Mass of 1922, the Most Reverend Dr Laurence Gaughran, Lord Bishop of Meath, asked his congregation to pray for the ratification of the recently signed Treaty. In this, the Bishop could claim to be reflecting the views of many in the area.

TREATY

The day after the sermon, the fifteen members of the Westmeath County Council met to deliberate on the matter. After half an hour, a resolution in favour of the Treaty was drawn up for discussion. Their elected representatives were urged to support the ratification when the time came in the Dáil; at this point, a slight edge entered the tone of the text:

In passing the resolution, which, we believe, expresses the desire of the vast majority of the people of Westmeath, with whom we are, perhaps, in more intimate touch than the Dail representatives of the country, we have at heart only the interests of the nation. [5]

It is unsurprising that the Council would feel estranged from, and suspicious of, their representatives. After all, two of the four TDs for Longford-Westmeath had been largely absent during the past few years, with Laurence Ginnell abroad in the United States and South America, and Seán Mac Eoin busying himself with the guerrilla war in Co. Longford before his imprisonment.

As it turned out, the anti-Treaty Ginnell was absent for the Treaty vote and with the other three – Mac Eoin, Lorcan Robbins and Joseph McGuinness – voting for the Treaty, the Council need not have worried.

Chaos or Creation

The Council resolution had been proposed by Seán O’Hurley, the one-time O/C of the Athlone IRA Brigade who had stepped down to focus on the political aspect of the burgeoning Republican movement. Described by a contemporary as a “terrific worker” with “great skill and energy”, O’Hurley wore his heart on his sleeve where the Treaty was concerned. It would, he said, provide Ireland with the power to reach a full and independent Republic. To reject the Treaty would lead to chaos, while to accept it meant creation.[6]

plenipotentiaries
Irish delegation to London which resulted in the signing of the Treaty, 1921

A few of his colleagues were less enthusiastic. While saying he was in favour of the resolution, H.R. O’Brien objected to how the press was trying to stampede the people into acceptance as he saw it. A second man, M. O’Reilly, proposed an amendment, seconded by another, Gavin, reaffirming allegiance to the Dáil Éireann but otherwise take no further action. When this amendment was ruled out, O’Reilly, Gavin and a third councilman left the room.

The rest of the Council had no such reticence. J. Lyons said that he had been instructed by the workers of Moate to vote for the resolution of ratification; while it is impossible to verify this claim, it does indicate – if true – that the favouritism towards the Treaty was more than a top-down decision on the part of the Council. With obvious enthusiasm, P.J. Weymes told of how every other council in Ireland had declared in favour, while P. Brett chimed in with how international recognition would secure absolute independence for Ireland.

And it was with these sentiments that the resolution for the ratification of the Treaty was passed. It had not been an uncontentious decision but considering the abuse Westmeath had endured in the past year, perhaps there was no other way it could have gone.[7]

The War in Westmeath

For two and a half years, from January 1919 to the Truce of July 1921, Ireland had suffered war and occupation. Soldiers had patrolled in armoured cars while guerrillas hid behind hedgerows or around street corners. Bodies had been found bullet-ridden, killed for one reason or another.

soldiers
British soldiers in Ireland, circa 1920

At the start of January 1921, James Blagriffe, a labourer and ex-serviceman in the British Army, was abducted near Athlone. His corpse was found in a kneeling position with the hands clasped and a placard around the neck with the word ‘Spy’. The surrounding ground had been ploughed up by bullets, suggesting a hurried and haphazard execution.

Statements in the Bureau of Military History would confirm that Blagriffe had been murdered by the IRA, although the label of spy was a misnomer – he had been planning to join the RIC which, with his local knowledge, would have made him too big of a liability.[8]

blacktans2In the same week, armed men in civilian clothes entered the Coosan district, also near Athlone, and unsuccessfully tried to burn down a house after forcing out the occupants. Another home was threatened if the owner did not reveal the whereabouts of his sons, although the assailants later withdrew empty-handed. The identity of the would-be arsonists is unknown, though it seems likely that they were British soldiers or Crown policemen in mufti, seeking reprisals and IRA men on the run.

Public administration suffered, with the results all too evident. The streets of Mullingar accumulated a layer of filth, mud and manure, particularly in Dominick Street after the cattle-markets held there due to the lack of maintenance. Public lighting dimmed, the ignited gas in the lamps being of such poor quality that it was barely worth venturing out at night.[9]

‘This New Phase in the Irish Situation’

But running parallel to the battles, barbarity and squalor, there had been occasions for good cheer and festivity. Men from the East Yorkshire detachment were on their way from Carrick-on-Shannon to their headquarters in Mullingar when they came across a torchlight procession for the New Year celebrations of 1921.

Soldiers and civilians joined hands and danced to the music of the accompanying band while hearty cheers and good wishes were exchanged. The Suffolk Regiment who arrived to replace the Yorkshiremen “looked on in astonishment from their barracks in the courthouse, and seemed unable to understand this new phase in the Irish situation.”[10]

The situation entered a new stage upon the Truce in July of the same year. So great was the relief that the fighting had ended, at least for a while, that civilians and members of the Crown forces participated together in an impromptu swimming contest in the Shannon on the 12th, only a day after the Truce had come into effect. Crowds of both sexes danced and sang before a huge bonfire, and a procession marched through Athlone to the tune of Irish songs.

Even those who had been shooting at each other days before were caught up in the euphoria. A squad of soldiers in a lorry chanced upon a group of Volunteers from the IRA. As soon as they saw the lorry, the Volunteers stood to attention and saluted their adversaries who returned the gesture. Soon both parties were waving handkerchiefs at the other as they passed on by.[11]

Departures

Equally affable was the gradual withdrawal of the British garrisons. The last of the feared Black-and-Tans stationed in Mullingar had left by the end of January-February 1922, leaving the regular soldiers and policemen to say their farewells to the local people they had been stationed with.

On the 3rd February, a concert was held in the Mullingar Military Barracks as a tribute to the departing Royal Sussex Regiment. In honour of the event, several pieces of verse by a budding wordsmith were published in the Westmeath Guardian:

 They’d a concert for soldiers at the Barracks Tuesday night,

And sure as I’m a living soul, it was a lovely sight.

There were ladies, there were gentry, there were even RIC,

There were officers and soldiers and children on the knee.

 

The concert room was smallish, t’wasn’t gaudy, but ‘twas neat,

And the music that they gave us there you wouldn’t quickly beat,

For I’ve been with the Army to stations near and far,

But I’ve never had such fun before as I’ve had at Mullingar.[12]

One could debate the quality of the poetry but it captures the general ambience well enough.

As if not to be outdone, a ceilidh was organised in the Mullingar County Hall for those who had been imprisoned during the past troubles. Four hundred people were estimated to have attended, making it one of the most successful events of such a kind ever held in the town.[13]

The Handing of the Barracks

athlone
British soldiers leaving Athlone Barracks, 1922

The goodwill continued with the handover of the various police and army barracks to the new military authorities. The one in Mullingar was occupied on the 13th February by the IRA under the command of James Maguire, the O/C of the Mullingar Brigade since mid-1920. The move was purely formal as the IRA was due to move out to make room for the RIC members from around the midlands who were awaiting disbandment. The officer in charge of the old police force until then, District Inspector Harrington, called on the editors of the local newspapers to assure their readers that the reoccupation was to be temporary and for there to be no misunderstandings.[14]

Otherwise, the handovers continued. Castlepollard Barracks was surrendered to a company of forty Volunteers, again led by Maguire. The O/C must have wondered at the turn of fortune, for he had led a brief and unsuccessful assault on the same barracks a few hours before the Truce was due to take effect the previous year. Now, a tricolour was hoisted from the chimney of the building to the rousing cheer of the assembled crowd.[15]

Maguire and the other Volunteers were not the only ones taking advantage of opportunities. HUGE PURCHASE OF MILITARY STORES AT BARGAIN PRICES, so read the advertisement in the papers for Nooney & Son, Mullingar. Among the goods the store had recently purchased were barbed wire, fencing stakes and barrack room tables.

Decommissioning

For all the good fortune, danger still lurked. A small boy picked up a detonator from the deserted Castlepollard Barracks and brought it home to his mother. The woman was unwisely inspecting the strange object when it exploded, stripping the flesh off a finger and thumb and part of her palm.[16]

It was to prevent further accidents that the Volunteers destroyed the military munitions left behind in the Mullingar Military Barracks. A lake on a nearby estate was selected for this purpose, and large amounts of bullets and bombs were taken there by lorry and dumped in.

On the 29th March, more equipment in the form of Vesey rockets, gun cotton, bombs and the like were thrown into a trench dug in the yard of Mullingar Barracks and set ablaze. Unfortunately, the handlers had not taken into account the effect of fire on explosives and no one had warned the townspeople who were surprised and terrified by the sudden explosions that shook their houses and lit the evening sky.[17]

While the stray armaments had at least been put beyond use, the hope that the future would be a peaceful one would be revealed as being overly optimistic.

Build Up

The latter half of April 1922 saw Mullingar become a divided town as more soldiers from both factions on the Treaty divide were brought in by lorry on a daily basis. The Free State soldiers were in possession of the Military Barracks and the Post Office, with their Republican counterparts quartered in the County Buildings, New Technical School and the Police Barracks. Mullingar increasingly resembled an armed camp.

Local traders felt the pressure keenly as their goods, particularly food, cooking utensils and clothing, were commandeered. The anti-Treaty IRA appeared to have been the worse, with reports of them venturing out of town to steal livestock. They did not have things entirely their way. On the 25th April, two of them were arrested by Free Staters on the corner of Earl Street while a crowd of spectators looked on. The prisoners did not go quietly, managing to let off a couple of shots before they were subdued.

If the Free Staters had been attempting to restore some semblance of order, then it was a case of too little, too late. On the same day, half a dozen post offices in villages near Mullingar, such as Moyvore, Tang and others, were robbed of their money. The multiple raids coincided with the seizing of six Free Staters who were careless enough to be caught unarmed while in a barber’s shop.

irish-civil-war-prisoner

Bloodshed

The inhabitants of Mullingar were roughly awakened on the Thursday morning of the 27th April, a little before 6 am, by the sounds of machine guns and rifle-fire. An alteration of some kind broke out which escalated into shots being fired. Alerted by the commotion, reinforcements from both sides rushed to the scene, prompting another shootout, this time with the addition of a machine-gun brought along by the Free Staters. The skirmish continued for half an hour before a priest, the Rev. J. Kelly, braved the scene and succeeded in appealing to the combatants to withdraw.

civilwar

Two men on either side had been killed in the exchange. Pools of blood were left in Dominick Street, Mary Street and Bishop’s Gate Street, but it was the first that had borne the brunt of the battle. Bullet holes scarred the walls and the windows of several houses had been broken.

Several shops in town only opened around midday when peace had been thoroughly restored, the warring sides having returned to their own quarters. Desultory shots were heard in Earl Street and Blackhall Street but with no further causalities reported.

Not taking any chances, Free State troops threw up a barricade of iron gates, water barrels and carts across Patrick Street, blocking all traffic through there for a considerable amount of time. Shoppers in Mullingar also erred on the side of caution, with the cattle-fair cancelled for the day and the remaining markets only sparsely attended.

getty
Soldiers searching a civilian during the Civil War

Mullingar Police Barracks

Despite the lack of a clear winner from the fighting, the Anti-Treatyites were sufficiently unnerved to abandon their bases in the Police Barracks, Courthouse, County Hall and Technical School, taking their food and bedding with them in the night.[18]

One of those buildings, however, did not survive the following week. At around 8:30 pm on the 3rd May, a large explosion tore through the Police Barracks, followed by black, heavy smoke emerging from the windows and roof. A portion of the wall had been blown out and the resulting fire threatened to spread to the rest of the street.

The burning barracks presented a fearsome sight, described by the Westmeath Guardian as towering “high above the town, and the streets all round were illuminated by the flames leaping from the roof, windows and doorways of the barracks.”

free-state-armoured-car

The fire brigade sprang into action and, assisted by Free State troops and the staff of the nearby Post Office, they were able to use their hoses in containing and then extinguishing the inferno. The barracks, described as “one of the largest and most modern of its kind in the provinces,” was left a gutted shell that continued to smoulder for days after.[19]

The Westmeath Guardian gave no indication as to the culprits. Years later, however, the veteran Republican Con Casey related to historian Uinseann MacEoin how it had been him and another man who had set the explosives in the barracks. Had the Anti-Treatyites stood their ground in Mullingar instead of withdrawing, Casey mused, the Civil War might have begun earlier there instead of at the Four Courts.[20]

columb
Columb Barracks, built to replace the previous military barracks destroyed in 1922

“Let him have it”

Subsequent inquiries attempted to flesh out the events of the battle, during which it emerged there had been two separate flashpoints that day. At the hearing into the death of the Free State soldier held a day afterwards, his commanding officer, Captain Conlon, told of how he had dispatched some of his company under Captain Casey to the Police Barracks that morning, their aim to secure the release of their six colleagues kidnapped in a barber’s shop two days before.

Casey confirmed this, and continued the account. As he approached the enemy-held barracks with his men at his back, he saw the heads of those inside through the windows and heard a voice call out: “Let him have it.”

“It is alright, don’t fire,” Casey had replied to no avail.

The men in the barracks opened fire, accompanied by some others who were behind a lorry parked nearby. The Free Staters hurriedly retreated, at which point Casey met with Patrick Columb, the company adjutant.

“I am wounded, but it doesn’t matter, we will fight it out,” Columb had bravely said, according to Casey’s recollections.

shooting

Columb was found later in a house in Mary Street and in considerable pain from a gunshot wound. He was taken to the Mullingar Barracks where he died. The fatal bullet was found in the back of Columb’s shoulder, having passed through the covering of the left chest to emerge on the right side, close to the spinal column.

The inspecting medic concluded that the shot had been made at close range judging from the slight scorching on the skin. Although the perforated lung would alone have been grievous, the official cause of death was ruled to have been internal bleeding.

Casey emphasised how there had been no shooting until the Anti-Treatyites started it. The jury returned with a verdict of wilful murder in the case of Columb by person or persons unknown. As that had been the verdict asked for by the solicitor for the military authorities, the Free State Army could be reasonably satisfied with it.[21]

Celtic_Cross_Columb_Barracks_Mullingar
National Army memorial, Columb Barracks, Mullingar

Joseph Leavy

The inquiry into the other fatality – that of Joseph Leavy on the anti-Treaty side – did not go as smoothly, at least not at first, being adjoined for a month due to the jury not being convinced there was enough evidence to show how the deceased had received his wounds. The hearing reconvened on the 16th May, this time featuring testimony from Anti-Treatyites who had been taken prisoner during the battle.

Walter Walsh told of how, on the morning of the 27th April, he and some other men, including the late Leavy, had been delivering bedding to their comrades in the Police Barracks. Having finished, the men were being driven back in a lorry and were at the head of Mary Street when they were halted by Free State soldiers and told to put up their hands, which they did. Then they were ordered to put aside their arms and come out of the lorry.

After the passengers had done so, the driver had had second thoughts and put the lorry in reverse. The Free Staters responded by opening fire on the lorry, out of which the driver leapt and ran away. The remaining Anti-Treatyites were marched down Mary Street with their hands above their heads. When they had turned at the corner of Dominick Street, they were fired upon from the Post Office with rifles and a machine-gun.

The prisoners fled to shelter by the sides of the houses. Lying flat on the ground, Walsh saw Leavy fall and lie motionless. When the firing had ceased, the Anti-Treatyites were once again rounded up and taken to the front of the Post Office, where they were searched and then transferred to the military barracks.

Wounded-soldiers-Civil-War
Wounded soldiers of the National Army

Questions (and Answers?)

Several questions were asked from the jury:

Q: How many soldiers were guarding you?

Walsh: About a party of fifty men.

Q: Did the guards make any attempt to stop the firing?

Walsh: I did not hear any order to cease firing. We were all disarmed when we came into Dominick Street. There was no reason whatever for fire being opened.

To another question, Walsh replied: “I could not say if there was firing from the back.”

Another witness, Laurence Gibbon, was sworn in and corroborated what Walsh had said:

Q: There were no shots fired from behind?

Gibbon: Not as far as I could see. I could not see what stopped the firing. Free State troops ran for shelter as well.

Q: Did they prevent you taking shelter?

Gibbon: No. They did not tell us to take shelter.

One of the jurors was visibly disgusted: “They drove them into an ambush and then took shelter themselves.”

The third witness, James Nally, confirmed that there had been no firing when the prisoners entered Dominick Street and that, in his opinion, they had been fired upon.

Q: Was it deliberately or accidently you were fired upon?

Nally: I could not say, sir. The firing in Mary Street was not accidental. I cannot say was the guard under fire, but they were before us and behind us.

After ten minutes of deliberation, the jury returned with a damning verdict: Leavy had met his death from bullet wounds while a prisoner with hands up and unarmed. Unsatisfied with how things stood, the jury called for yet another inquiry to finally determine what had happened that day in Mullingar.[22]

JoeLeavyMemorial

Conclusion

A further hearing was thus set for the 19th May in Mullingar, to be attended by representatives from both the pro and anti-Treaty factions; however, the event fell through due to the absence of anyone from the former.[23]

The delayed inquest finally took place on the 1st June at University College, Dublin, this time attended by men from both sides. The hearing mostly reiterated what had been said at earlier ones. It was not even clear which of the two main incidents – the shooting outside the Police Barracks and Patrick Colum’s death or the capture of the Anti-Treatyites in the lorry and Joseph Leavy’s shooting – occurred first or to the extent that they were connected.[24]

While the exact chronology and causes must remain obscured by the fog of war, the basic facts were all too clear: the situation in Mullingar, with its armed bands and rampant lawlessness, had been bad before it worsened, and that of Ireland as a whole was unlikely to improve before it too intensified.

 

See also: Among the Philistines: Dissent and Reaction in the Mullingar IRA Brigade, 1921

See also: Kidnapped in Mullingar: An IRA Operation and its Aftermath, 1920

References

[1] Westmeath Guardian, 27/01/1922

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid, 24/02/1922

[4] Ibid, 07/04/1922

[5] Ibid, 06/01/1922

[6] O’Meara, Seumas (BHM / WS 1504), p. 16

[7] Westmeath Guardian, 06/01/1922

[8] Ibid, 07/01/1921 ; O’Meara, p. 51

[9] Westmeath Guardian, ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid, 15/07/1921

[12] Ibid, 03/02/1922

[13] Ibid, 10/02/1922

[14] Ibid, 17/02/1922

[15] Ibid, 24/02/1922 ; Maguire, James (BMH / WS 1439), p. 30

[16] WG, 24/02/1922

[17] Ibid, 31/03/1922

[18] Ibid, 28/04/1922

[19] Ibid, 05/05/1922

[20] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 375

[21] WG, 28/04/1922

[22] Ibid, 19/05/1922

[23] Ibid, 26/05/1922

[24] Ibid, 02/06/1922

Bibliography

Newspaper

Westmeath Guardian

Book

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

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Maguire, James, WS 1439

O’Meara, Seumas, WS 1504

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Kidnapped in Mullingar: An IRA Operation and its Aftermath, 1920

The Missing

On 14th October 1920, two judicial officers drove out of Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, in the direction of the town of Castlepollard. There, they were to supervise the Petty Sessions at the Crown Court. They never made it. Somewhere along the way, Maxwell Moore, Resident Magistrate, and G.R. Hyde, Justice of the Peace, were abducted by armed men. Police and soldiers from the nearby British garrison scoured the area, only to find no trace of the vanished officials.

That telegraph wires between Mullingar and Castlepollard had been cut suggested a level of planning. Although the newspapers at the time did not state as such, no one was in any doubt that this was the work of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as part of its guerrilla war against the British state in Ireland.[1]

In response, Crown forces would conduct a search operation throughout the countryside that had grievous consequences for the local IRA. The Mullingar area had been relatively untouched by the conflict that was affecting the country. The kidnapping of the two magistrates would ensure that that no longer held true.

mullingar

The IRA

The Mullingar IRA had always struggled to define itself amongst the rest of the organisation. There was even uncertainty as to when it became a brigade in its own right instead of than a battalion affixed to another – a couple of sources have it happening after the Conscription Crisis in early 1919, with another believing it as being sometime in 1920.[2]

Before, the Mullingar Volunteers had been attached to the North Offaly Brigade and then to the Athlone one. They were, according to the Athlone IRA O/C, confused into thinking they became a brigade sooner than they did due to an agreement between him and GHQ in mid-1920 that the Mullingar battalion would receive its orders directly from Dublin rather than Athlone as before.[3]

Whatever its exact status, the Mullingar IRA suffered from the same problems afflicting many other units throughout the country during the War of Independence: a scarcity of weapons and the lack of opportunities with which to use the few guns they did possess. But by October 1920, the Mullingar leadership had seen a chance to rectify the latter failing.

The Plan

Returning to the Mullingar IRA at this time was James Maguire. He had been hiding out in Liverpool to escape a murder charge of a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) policeman, something he denied any knowledge of and which was probably true considering how he continued to deny it even years later.

Upon his arrival back, Maguire was invited to a couple of meetings with Mullingar IRA officers about possible operations. Maguire was surprised that these senior men were willing to talk so openly with him despite his lack of a rank. He suspected that they had erroneously assumed he had picked up some sort of military experience while in Liverpool, although he did not disabuse them of the notion.

In any case, Maguire was eager to assist in any way he could. It was when Maguire was talking to Patrick McCabe, the O/C of the Castlepollard Company (there being four such companies altogether in the Mullingar IRA) that the germ of the kidnap plan was formed.

This plan dovetailed neatly into the persistent campaign by the Volunteers to undermine the Crown courts. For the most part this had been a success, with local people opting for the underground Sinn Féin ones despite their proscribed status. The Crown courts found themselves isolated, frustrated and starved of manpower.

Dail-Republican-Court-session
Sinn Féin Court, Westport Town Hall, 1920

On the 20th of the same month as the kidnappings, the Mullingar Petty Sessions found that of the twenty-five people summoned for grand jury duty, only eleven had shown up, and two of those would not even answer to confirm their names. The court session was adjourned due to the insufficient numbers, an act of surrender worrying enough to be included in the monthly RIC report to Dublin Castle.[4]

This malaise reached the level of the Crown magistrates, many of whom stopped attending their own courts. That Moore persevered in being the stubborn exception, despite several warnings, alone made him a target.

McCabe explained to Maguire another, more immediate reason: fifteen of the Volunteers in his company had been brought to court by the RIC on trivial charges, such as a lack of light on their bicycles. Moore was set to hear these cases in Castlepollard. Kidnapping him would not only be a blow against the British system, it would also save McCabe’s men from having to face an unfriendly court.

Carlow-IRA
IRA/Irish Volunteers

Maguire forwarded the idea to John Macken, the Mullingar O/C, and they agreed to seize Maxwell as suggested. Although Maguire accredits McCabe with originating the idea, McCabe made no mention of doing such a thing in his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement. When McCabe came round to describing the incident, it was as someone who had had nothing to do with it. Either Maguire had misremembered the conversation or McCabe had forgotten had forgotten all about it by 1956, when he composed his Statement.[5]

The Preparation

It was decided to waylay Moore as he neared Castlepollard, where the road ran to a steep incline that would force his car to slow. Maguire and Macken agreed between them to bring a few men each to assist. One of McCabe’s choices was the man assigned to drive the car, clearly a specialised skill at the time.

On the appointed day, the selected ambush party arrived at the site on bicycles – the IRA vehicle of choice in the War – which were then dumped. Two hills on either side of the road formed a valley and a sentry was assigned on each to keep watch for the magistrate’s car. Brushwood along the road provided cover for the rest.

It had been arranged that one of the sentries would warn the others with a white flag if the car came with an escort, in which case the operation would be aborted and the target allowed to continue on unmolested.

After several cars had passed by, oblivious to the posse lurking in the undergrowth, a signal from one of the sentries alerted his comrades that their quarry was approaching. A ladder was thrown across the road with a couple of large stones on either end.

The Kidnap

When the lone car came to a halt, the Volunteers were surprised to see that there was a second man in the car with Moore. They had not been expecting G.R. Hyde as well. Deciding not to look a gift-horse in the mouth, the ambushers surrounded the car and demanded the occupants step out.

East-Limerick-Flying-Column-300x235
IRA/Irish Volunteers

Newspaper reports were to describe the kidnappers as an ‘armed party’ but only two of them had a weapon – Macken with a .32 revolver and Maguire holding a .45 Webley – due to the paucity of guns in the Mullingar IRA. The kidnappers had come prepared in case their targets were armed, though it turned out that they were not.

The Volunteers put a few stones behind the back wheels of the car to prevent it rolling downhill. Their protests ignored, Moore and Hyde were forced into the backseat where they were bound and blindfolded. With a theatrical touch, women’s hats were draped over their heads in case police or military were encountered en route, though it is debatable as to how well such disguises would have worked.

In any case, the kidnappers had a more immediate concern: starting the car. The designated driver was called from further down the road where he had been waiting. As he was already known to the victims, presumably from an earlier court session, it was feared that they would have been able to identify him.

The Getaway

The driver fumbled about, trying to start the car but the vehicle was of an unfamiliar make and its controls were unknown to him. With the fear of being stranded on the road, Maguire threatened Moore at gunpoint to tell the driver how to start the engine. Determined to be as unhelpful as possible, Moore, a veteran of the British army, would only tell them nothing more than that the starter was on the steering wheel.

Eventually the car was started. Maguire and his hijackers drove their new-found companions away while McCabe’s made themselves scarce on their bicycles. The car was later found in a wrecked state, the official report attributing the damage to “unskilled driving.”

While under cross-examination in April 1921, in his efforts at compensation for the loss of his vehicle, Moore was scathing in his description of the ineptitude displayed by his abductors:

Solicitor: Had you to show them [how to drive]?

Moore: Yes; I and Mr Hyde were blindfolded and I was compelled to instruct the driver how to drive the car…the man knew nothing about driving the car, and when he put off the clutch it leaped and bounded along the road.

Solicitor: It was full of life.

Moore: Yes, full of life (laughter).[6]

The Promotions

Still blindfolded, the two prisoners were driven to the Ballymanus area, their captors careful to use byroads to better avoid detection. The car arrived at the end of a country lane by Lough Sheelin, where the two prisoners were lodged in a disused farmhouse, under guard by the local Volunteers.

North-Kerry-Flying-Column-300x188
IRA/Irish Volunteers

The operation was to garner promotions in the Mullingar IRA, whether wanted or not. Shortly after the kidnapping, a pair of officers arrived from GHQ in Dublin for a meeting in Mullingar. As Maguire had made no report of the kidnapping to anyone, he was unsure as to whether these out-of-towners knew about it. Maguire did not attend the meeting but, afterwards, saw McCabe talking to the GHQ men and showing them a written report of the operation. Seeing Maguire, McCabe waved him over and announced him as: “The man responsible. That’s the man who captured them.” Maguire was the hero of the hour.

The two GHQ officers then announced some unexpected news. The Mullingar O/C was stepping down, leaving his post vacant. The officers told McCabe that they wanted him to take the command. McCabe tried talking himself out of it but, when the others insisted, asked Maguire if he would help him. When Maguire agreed to do so, McCabe relented, his first order being to promote Maguire to Vice O/C.

Both Mullingar men walked away from the conversation higher up the military hierarchy. It was perhaps not the most professional way of conducting business but then, Maguire had already proven himself to be a daring, hands-on operative and a guerrilla outfit has to make do with what it has.[7]

West-Limerick-Flying-Column
IRA/Irish Volunteers

The Holdings

The Mullingar IRA followed up the success of their mission by mostly forgetting about it. No one seems to have discussed what they would do with the prisoners once caught. Compounding the problem were the threats from the British army to burn a town – either Mullingar or Castlepollard – if the two prisoners were not released.

mullingar

Those who had created the situation seemed less inclined to take responsibility now. Maguire heard that someone from the Mullingar IRA staff was looking for him with intent to ask for the prisoners to be released but he remained unresponsive. After a few days, Moore and Hyde, still blindfolded, were taken to Co. Clare where they were set loose. From there, the freed men made their way to the nearest RIC barracks.

It is unclear how long they had been held; according to Macken, between three or four days, while Maguire thought between eight or ten. However, the actual length of time seems to have been relatively short, as newspaper accounts described them as being released on the 16th after disappearing on the 14th.

Adding to the confusion, the monthly RIC report on the state of the county had Moore and Hyde as being taken on the 13th and released on the 14th, but it almost certainly an error considering the consistency of the newspapers covering the story.

Unfortunately for the Volunteers involved, their unwilling guests had not been idle during their captivity, having covertly cut notches and other marks on the walls of their prison for later identification. Before release, their captors had threatened them with worse should they ever sit on a Bench again. Unfazed, the former detainees were now in a position to turn the tables.[8]

The Arrests

Patrick McCabe was coming out of Castlepollard Chapel after attending Rosary service with a number of others, including Volunteers in his battalion, when they found themselves surrounded. It was a mixed force of police and military of the sort that had been combing the area since the release of the magistrates.

Some of the arrestees were released almost immediately, eight were not. McCabe was one of those held back to be searched. He had the bad luck to be carrying with him on that day a sketch plan of the RIC Barracks in Castlepollard. McCabe was taken with the other prisoners to the same barracks he had been planning on attacking, then transferred to the Mullingar one before being sent to Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, pending the court-martial which would not take place until December.

castlepollard1

True to form, the prisoners refused to issue pleas or recognise the legitimacy of the Crown court at their hearing. Of the twelve accused of the unlawful conspiracy to assault and imprison Moore and Hyde, eight were found innocent and the other four were not. McCabe was among the latter, though the most he had to do with the conspiracy was to suggest it. He would remain in Perth Prison in England until January 1922 when he was released under the terms of the Truce that ended the War of Independence.[9]

The Fugitive

John Macken had a more convoluted experience with the justice system. Faced with the probability of being arrested, he went on the run, having already had his home in Castlepollard raided by the military.

One night, another search party found the house where he was hiding. Macken had taken the precaution of sleeping in the barn and heard the soldiers threaten the owner of the home and his young son. The boy had the presence of mind to tell his questioners that he had seen the wanted man on his way to Mullingar a few days previously. The search party left, saying they would return; at this point, Macken slipped away to find another bolthole.

castlepollard2
Castlepollard square

After a fortnight as a fugitive, Macken somehow persuaded himself that the authorities would not continue their search during a market day. He thus returned home with the intention of helping his father on the farm, and was in the house when a lorry pulled up at the door. Macken’s first thought was to go through a back window before realising he had already been seen and risked being shot if he tried to flee.

As with McCabe, Macken was taken to Mullingar Barracks before being forwarded to Mountjoy. There he came face to face with his former captive, Moore, on an identification parade. However, Moore’s memory was not as sharp as his survival skills and passed over Macken for someone else who had had nothing to do with his kidnap.

Macken remained in Mountjoy for another three weeks before being released. By that time, he had developed a bad cold and had to stay at home in bed, under the assumption that he would not be arrested again. This was despite warnings to the contrary from Maguire, who obviously had a firmer grasp on the situation.

After four days back in Castlepollard, Macken’s optimism was once again disproved when a Crown patrol arrived to take him back into custody. After a succession of different jails, Macken found himself in the internment camp at Ballykinlar, Co. Down, where he stayed until December 1921 in keeping with the general release of war prisoners.[10]

ballykinlar-camp-prisoners-2
Ballykinlar Internment Camp

The Remains

blacktans2The wholesale round-ups that followed the kidnap and release of the two judicial officials gutted the local IRA. Even by the following year, the ferocity of the official response had not abated: in February 1921, practically all the male inhabitants of the town of Delvin, Co. Westmeath, and those nearby were taken into custody and released with the warning that they would be held responsible for anything untoward that happened in the area.

One of the three who were not released was James Flynn – unsurprisingly so, given how Maguire remembered him as a “good I.R.A. man.” He was the brother of Michael Flynn, one of those first arrested in connection with the kidnappings. According to a newspaper account, Michael had had no active connection with the IRA, leaving the question of his involvement in the abductions, if any, uncertain.

Unlike McCabe and Macken, Michael never made it out of prison alive, dying of heart failure, aged 32, in Mountjoy on 26th October before he could make it to trial with the rest of the accused. Another brother, Christopher, had identified the body, although in keeping with the family’s Republican outlook, he refused to recognise the inquiry. James had been undeterred by his brother’s lonely death, though he was no more successful at avoiding imprisonment.

Maguire remained at liberty but many of those he knew and trusted were gone, leaving him with the lonesome task of rebuilding the Mullingar command structure from the ground up. At an IRA staff meeting in Mullingar, Maguire found himself promoted by default to command of the four Mullingar companies, or rather, what was left of them.

This was over his objections but it was not as if there were many other options. Despite his reservations, Maguire gave in and accepted. There was nothing else for him to do but try his hardest and hope for the best.[11]

 

See also: Among the Philistines: Dissent and Reaction in the Mullingar IRA Brigade, 1921

See also: Bloodshed in Mullingar: Civil War Begins in Co. Westmeath, April 1922

 

References

[1] Westmeath Guardian, 15/10/1920

[2] Daly, David (BMH / WS 1,337), p. 8 ; Reilly, James (BMH / WS 1,593) p. 6, McCabe, Patrick (BMH / WS 1,551), p. 9 ; Flynn, Bartholomew (BMH / WS 1,552), p. 7

[3] O’Meara, Seumas (BHM / WS 1504), pp. 29-30

[4] WG, 22/10/1920 ; Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland), POS 8552

[5] Maguire, James (BMH / WS 1439), pp. 13-14 ; McCabe, p. 13

[6] Maguire, pp. 14-5 ; Macken, John (BMH / WS 1550), pp. 12-4 ; WG, 15/10/1920 ; 08/04/1921

[7] Maguire, pp. 16-7

[8] Ibid, p 15 ; Macken, pp. 13-4 ; WG, 24/12/1920 ; POS 8552

[9] McCabe, pp. 13-4 ; WG, 12/11/1920, 24/12/1920

[10] Macken, pp. 13-6

[11] WG, 18/02/1921, 29/10/20 ; Maguire, pp. 16-8

 

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Flynn, Bartholomew, WS 1552

Macken, John, WS 1550

Maguire, James, WS 1439

McCabe, Patrick, WS 1551

O’Meara, Seumas, WS 1504

Reilly, James, WS 1593

Westmeath Guardian

15/10/1920

22/10/1920

29/10/20

12/11/1920

24/12/1920

18/02/1921

08/04/1921

Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland)

POS 8552

Among the Philistines: Dissent and Reaction in the Mullingar IRA Brigade, 1921

The Arrests

mullingar2On 4th November 1921, Michael Collins, as Director of Intelligence, wrote to the staff of the Mullingar IRA Brigade in Co. Westmeath. He had received a troubling letter about the arrests of two of its Volunteers: Patrick Dowling on 21st September, followed by Christopher Kelleghan on 22nd. Both had been singled out for subversive activities when they attempted to contact the GHQ of the IRA in Dublin.

The two men, so the letter went, were imprisoned in the cellars of a building on the outskirts of Mullingar along with a number of other suspects. The cellar was damp and sleeping conditions primitive, with Dowling and Kelleghan having to make do with some straw, wooden boards, a single blanket and a ground sheet. Dowling was allowed an hour and a half outside for exercise each day while Kelleghan had half an hour.

Most disturbing were the allegations that the abuse had not been limited to simple neglect. Upon arrival at the place of detention, Dowling had been ordered to say his prayers as he was about to be shot. His request to see a priest was refused on the grounds that his execution was about to happen immediately. At no point had either man been given a trial or court-martial of any kind.

The letter that Collins had received summed up such conduct in a damning verdict: “This treatment of prisoners is peculiarly English.” Except English tyranny could not be blamed for an Irish injustice this time. Dowling and Kelleghan had been detained by their own comrades in the Mullingar IRA at the behest of the Brigade staff.

Irish Volunteers
Irish Volunteers

The Charges

The reason why the two prisoners were being so abominably treated, according to the letter, was because they had complained to GHQ about the poor state of affairs within the Brigade. Opportunities to strike against the RIC and the British army had been squandered to the point that Crown forces had moved openly through the town of Mullingar as if without a care in the world.

Informers had been tolerated, an example being that of a local official whose letter to the RIC District Inspector about the locations of Volunteers ‘on the run’ had been intercepted. The matter was reported at once to the Brigade HQ, yet no attempt had been made to punish the spy.

It was true that the ongoing Truce had put a halt to any military operations by the IRA but when the fighting resumed, as it was likely to do so, how could the Mullingar Brigade in its present state expect to do its part? It was thus for the good of the cause that Dowling and Kelleghan had made their complaints. For his efforts, Kelleghan had been threatened with death if he did not flee the country by none other than James Maguire, the O/C of the Brigade.

Collins ended his message with a request for a full report to be submitted on the matter as soon as possible. The author of the letter that Collins had received went unnamed though, judging by the sympathetic tone, it was either Dowling or Kelleghan, or someone close to them.

The Replies

Also unnamed was the commentator who left annotations in the margins of Collins’ message but it can be surmised that it was James Maguire. A comment next to the passage about Maguire threatening to shoot Kelleghan was dismissive: “never saw Kelleghan until after his confinement.” Another side note to the claim that Kelleghan had been arrested due to his complaints to GHQ was a simple: “No knowledge.” In protest to the alleged harsh treatment of the two prisoners, Maguire, or whoever was the commentator, said that they had been fed the same as their guards.

Geroid
Gearóid O’Sullivan

Collins was not the only senior revolutionary figure who would be drawn into this dispute. As Adjutant-General of the IRA, Gearóid O’Sullivan would be called upon to handle the bulk of the paperwork relating to the case. In a letter to Sean Boylan on 17th October, O’Sullivan asked the 1st Eastern Division’s O/C, who represented the middle tier between GHQ and the country brigades, for a report on the arrests of Dowling and Kelleghan, the charges against them and the conditions of their imprisonment.

Boylan was also to explain, and here a note of reproach slid into O’Sullivan’s letter, why the matter had not originally been reported to Boylan, the implication being that he should have handled it before it could go any further up the hierarchical ladder to land on O’Sullivan’s desk.

The Fact-Finding

Another issue that needed addressing was the lack of a court-martial for Dowling and Kelleghan after their arrest. If the Mullingar Brigade had failed to provide one, then it would be up to GHQ in the form of O’Sullivan to fill that breach in procedure. Many of O’Sullivan’s letters were thus for the purpose of gathering the necessary information for the upcoming inquiry.

One unresolved question was the status of Kelleghan within the IRA. A letter, dated 13th October, from O’Sullivan to Liam Lynch, the O/C of the 1st Southern Division which encompassed the Cork brigades, asked for further details on the man. Kelleghan had claimed to have been a member of the 7th Battalion of the 2nd Cork Brigade, where he had held the posts of Company Quartermaster and Battalion Armourer. According to him, he had been on active service with the battalion for a few months previous to the Christmas of 1920 before returning to his native Mullingar on sick leave.

O’Sullivan explained to Lynch that it “appears [Kelleghan] incited some local at Mullingar, but tried to fight, and because he complained of the indolence of his Officers, Kelleghan finds himself transferred since the Truce.”

The gap in O’Sullivan’s text hints at the problem of classifying exactly what had happened. The accused had not disobeyed orders or directly challenged their superiors, so ‘mutiny’ did not seem to be quite the right word.

Whatever the case, it was going to take a lot of solving. O’Sullivan hinted as much in his parting sentence to Lynch: “A rather full report is necessary in order to deal with the disciplinary side of the matter.”

Further Details

A letter, dated 21st October, from Seán Grogan, the O/C of the 1st Battalion, Mullingar Brigade, provided an insider’s perspective to the incident. Grogan told of how, in November 1920, he had been approached by Kelleghan who told him he had just arrived from Cork a few days ago, having previously served in the IRA there. Kelleghan had asked about the possibility of acquiring some revolvers for Cork but the conversation petered out when Grogan told him that Mullingar had no guns to spare.

In February 1921, it was discovered that Kelleghan had assembled, on his own initiative, a flying column with eight others in the Mullingar Company. Not that Grogan thought they could achieve much, lacking as they did weapons and ammunition (a constant headache for the Westmeath Volunteers), but Kelleghan had apparently told his new followers that not only had he received permission from GHQ to start the column, but that he would provide the necessary equipment.

irish-volunteers2
Irish Volunteers

Whatever the story, the affront to Brigade discipline was galling. A few days later, a parade of the Company was called. Michael McCoy, the unit O/C, asked the assembled men: “Anyone present belonging to Kelleghan’s crowd step out of the ranks.”

Eight of the attendees stepped forth. McCoy told them that they could not belong to two companies and that they were to be suspended from the Mullingar one, pending instructions from the Brigade HQ.

A month later, Grogan attended a council meeting, where a written report on the episode was handed to the Brigade O/C, James Maguire. Maguire agreed that suspending the Volunteers involved had been the only course of action under the circumstances. Furthermore, if the men in question were found to be further interfering with the work of the Company, they would be arrested.

Mullingarchapel
Mullingar Barracks, ca. 1865-1914

Nothing further was heard about the column. The idea appeared to have withered on the vine, and the mutinous feelings with it, until sometime after the Truce in July 1921, when Dowling sent a report to GHQ. Grogan did not say what Dowling’s letter contained but its tone can be guessed. The message was forwarded to James Maguire who made good on his threat.

At another Brigade council, on 20th September, it was decided that Dowling be arrested on the charges of making false statements about Brigade officers. As an afterthought, Kelleghan was also to be detained as the instigator of the whole mess. Both men were thus imprisoned until the visit of a GHQ inspector to Mullingar.

The Inspector

This GHQ inspector wrote a report on his findings, having interviewed the prisoners, Dowling and Kelleghan, as well as James Maguire and his second-in-command, Vice-Commandant Henry Killeavy. Dated 12th October, the report was unsigned, leaving the author anonymous to historians.

The conditions of imprisonment were found to be indeed bad, with the exception of the food which both prisoners agreed was good. Otherwise, in the inspector’s stated opinion, the two men had a genuine grievance about how they had been treated. That the captives had been without a wash and forced to remain in the same clothes was an abuse that should be taken up with the Brigade staff.

Neither Maguire nor Killeavy for the most part bothered to deny the severe conditions they had put their prisoners through. Nor did they give Dowling and Kelleghan credit for any good intentions, instead attributing their complaints to jealousy against those who had been elected Company officers instead of them. Killeavy added that he had never known Dowling to be any more eager for action than the other members of his Company.

Kelleghan, they had regarded with suspicion since he had made no attempt to join his local company upon his return from Cork. Not that either officer had made any attempt to verify Kelleghan’s claims about his service with the Cork IRA, nor were they particularly concerned about the eight men they had dismissed for being tempted into the column. Killeavy in particular was contemptuous, considering their loss a case of good riddance.

Both denied the claims by Dowling and Kelleghan that they had missed opportunities for action prior to the Truce. The inspector, however, was sceptical enough to include in his report his opinion that such chances had indeed come and gone.

The inspector believed that both the Brigade leadership and the dismissed men could have come to an agreement to work together. But it was no good fretting over what could have been. For now, after taking the known facts into consideration, the inspector advised that Dowling and Kelleghan be released pending further investigation.

The Contacts

A letter, dated 22nd October 1921, by Joseph Begnal, the Adjutant of the 5th Battalion, Mullingar Brigade, provided an extra dimension to the story: Upon arrest, Dowling and Kelleghan had had a number of letters on them.

This correspondence was related to the connections both of them had made in Dublin with men they believed to be from GHQ. These contacts went as far as to claim that they could get in touch with the famed Michael Collins quite easily.

As far as Begnal could ascertain, none of the supposed GHQ intermediaries were genuine, raising the question as to whether these Dublin contacts had truly been interested in Dowling’s and Kelleghan’s situation or had simply fooling them for whatever purpose.

The Inquiry

mullingarBy November, O’Sullivan had gathered enough preliminary evidence to proceed with an inquiry, to be held in Mullingar. The two co-defendants, for the inquiry was as much their trial, were present. O’Sullivan examined them and took their statements along with those from three of the others who had been dismissed from their Company.

Intending to do a thorough job and, hopefully, hear the last of it, O’Sullivan also took statements from the Brigade staff: James Maguire as Brigade O/C, and Henry Killeavy as Vice-Commandant, as well as Sean Boylan as their Divisional Commander. Killeavy in particular and his conduct as an officer would become an issue throughout the hearings.

The longest of the statements was Dowling’s, who used the opportunity to air a number of complaints. Perhaps on the principle that ‘the best form of defence is offence’, Dowling told a bleak tale about his former unit, a litany of missed opportunities by the Company and professional neglect on the part of its officers:

  • No action taken against a spy who worked as a workhouse official. When asked by the inquiry how he knew the man was an informant, Dowling pointed to the discovery of an incriminating letter, though he admitted that he had not seen the letter for himself.
  • Another alleged spy, Miss Costello (Dowling was unsure as to her first name) was left untouched, despite being overheard saying: “I won’t be long till I have the rest of them in,” an apparent reference to the Volunteers being arrested.
  • A plan by Barney O’Reilly, the Company Captain, to kidnap a RIC policeman in Mullingar, or at least rob him of his revolver, was quashed by Killeavy, who responded to the proposal by calling O’Reilly an idiot.
  • When a soldier from the nearby British army barracks wanted to sell his Webley revolver for £3 to the Volunteers, O’Reilly would only agree to pay 10s. As a result, the deal fell through.
  • Killeavy was drunk at a ceilidhe, during which he struck the O/C, Maguire, with his revolver.

Although he did not contribute much else to the inquiry, Joseph Farrell, one of the four men who had been dismissed, provided another example of Killeavy’s squandering of an opportunity: a British sergeant in the nearby garrison had offered the sale of sixteen rifles if the Volunteers would take them from the barracks. Farrell passed this onto Killeavy but the Vice-Commandant did nothing about it.

Another suspended man, Malachy Mulkeans, corroborated to the inquiry the story of Killeavy being publicly drunk, though he did not see him strike Maguire.

Patrick Dowling

Worsening tensions within the Company was the selection process for its officers. The Company men were told on parade ground that they could not select their officers themselves; this to be done instead by the Brigade staff in accordance with orders from GHQ. Dowling did not think much of some of the officers so selected, though he did not consider himself to be more suitable.

When told to come to a Company meeting, a disgruntled Dowling sarcastically asked if it was going to be for the usual lacklustre activities. Dowling was rapidly gaining a reputation as a malcontent.

Kelleghan asked Dowling at a Company meeting if he would be interested in joining a flying column if one was formed. None of them spoke to the Company officers about the matter. Dowling defended his keeping of his seniors in the dark: “I thought I was acting within the spirit of my Oath of allegiance to my Officers and Dáil Éireann.”

However self-serving, it was a pertinent point, and one that was never properly rebutted. After all, however unauthorised the column had been, was it not part of what the Volunteers were supposed to be doing?

When Dowling was arrested, it was by two other Volunteers who arrived at his home to ask him to come with them. No reasons were given. Dowling dutifully went with them, and they waited by the side of a road for an hour. The two escorts conferred in private and then one left, leaving the other to inform Dowling that he was now under arrest.

A motor car drove up to meet them. Killeavy stepped out, telling Dowling to put on his coat and the other man to blindfold Dowling. When Dowling asked if he was going to be executed, Killeavy replied in the negative. Dowling was driven to the place that was to be his prison. He was left in the cell for a fortnight, and ultimately detained for three weeks.

Of his treatment, Dowling claimed, three days passed before he was allowed exercise and sixteen days before a blanket was given for his straw-bed. For four days he had neither a wash nor a shave.

Christopher Kelleghan

Although identified by the Brigade staff as the Iago of the troubles, Kelleghan’s statement was comparatively brief next to his co-defendant’s. He had known Dowling from school in Mullingar. His prior IRA service had been in the Millstreet Company in Co. Cork, where he had taken part in an ambush as a lookout along with some other minor activities. Upon his return to Mullingar in December 1920, he had considered getting a transfer to the local IRA but decided against due to knowing nothing about the scene.

He knew enough, however, to approach Dowling and then fourteen other Volunteers – those he and Dowling thought of as the best men for the role – for the purposes of forming a column. At some point, these fourteen had been whittled down to the eight who were willing to step forward on the parade ground as “Kelleghan’s crowd”.

Perhaps after some prodding from the inquiry, Kelleghan admitted that he should have joined the Mullingar IRA properly and that he had drawn his recruits from their loyalty to their officers, but maintained he had been right to do so.

Unlike Dowling, he did not list the faults in the Mullingar Brigade, being content to focus on Killeavy. Killeavy, he said, had not turned up when mobilised for Volunteer meetings back in 1919. Kelleghan had little to say about the Vice-Commandant at the present time, other than how he, as a prisoner, had heard Killeavy giving his guards orders to shoot should there be an escape-attempt.

Kelleghan reiterated Dowling’s complaints that they had been allowed very little exercise while in custody and of the lack of bed-clothes and any change of clothes. Conceding again that his actions had been undisciplined, he insisted that he thought he could legitimatise his column with GHQ through his Dublin contacts.

The Mystery Men

One question that was never fully answered in the inquiry was the role of these mystery contacts in which Kelleghan had put so much faith. Kelleghan had been convinced by them that GHQ had blessed his efforts in forming a column and would provide the required weapons. This proved not to be the case at all, yet Kelleghan and Dowling gave stories that were broadly similar enough to be convincing, if not altogether clear.

According to Dowling, Kelleghan had travelled to Dublin to seek support for his proposed column and met a man called Martin. When Kelleghan told Martin about his plan, Martin asked if he would like to meet some GHQ men. Dowling was also in Dublin shortly afterwards and spoke with Martin, having previously known the latter’s brother in Mullingar.

Martin forwarded Dowling to another man, O’Kennedy, and the two conversed in the pub where O’Kennedy worked, during which O’Kennedy dropped the names of Michael Collins and other prominent leaders. Dowling took the other man to be a GHQ initiate on the basis of what Martin told him, and told the inquiry that he would be greatly surprised to learn that O’Kennedy was not even a Volunteer.

Kelleghan’s account of these contacts is characteristically short, saying only that he knew nothing about a man called Kennedy (the ‘O’ being dropped in Kelleghan’s statement), and he had met Martin in Dublin sometime in 1921, having been given an introduction from an anonymous third party.

As Martin had helped Kelleghan get in with several other Volunteers, Kelleghan had assumed he was in the IRA as well and – echoing Dowling – would be surprised to hear that Martin was not a Volunteer after all.

The Senior Staff

Not that Boylan could have claimed much activity in regards to the case, saying only that he had asked Maguire to deal with it and to report to him but giving no indication that he had checked on progress or offered anything in the way of guidance.

Maguire was equally keen in his testimony to remain aloof from any responsibility. He had heard about the trouble within the Company when it had first started in February but held off having the guilty parties arrested until September due to a lack of space to confine them.

Presenting himself as merely the go-between for others’ orders, Maguire said that he had been told by Boylan to deal with Dowling and Kelleghan, by which he took to mean arrest. He had never met any of the eight suspended men and had left any necessary investigating to the Company officers like Killeavy.

Henry Killeavy

Aware that Killeavy’s reputation was also at stake, Maguire praised his Vice-Commandant as a good man. Maguire was being generous. As he recounted years later in his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement, he and Killeavy had fallen out sometime before the Truce, the issue being whether the latter was Vice O/C of the 1st Battalion.

Killeavy had insisted he had been appointed as such but refused to give Maguire any evidence to support his claim. Maguire found Killeavy an impossible man to reason with but, unlike in the cases of Dowling or Kelleghan, made no effort to discipline or demote him. Either it was easier to let Killeavy keep a post that no one else wanted or he was just a difficult man to say ‘no’ to.

No wonder the 1st Battalion had been in a “bad state of disorganisation”, as Maguire put it, with such dysfunction at its top and members seemingly appointing themselves to whatever positions they wanted. But Maguire was clearly prepared to put on a united front when it came to outsiders like O’Sullivan peering into the inner workings of his Brigade or with uppity subordinates forgetting their place.[1]

For his part, Killeavy denied being drunk at a ceilidge or striking Maguire. He did not remember Farrell reporting the chance to buy rifles nor did he recall the offer of purchasing a Webley revolver. That Costello or anyone else had been spies had never been passed onto him.

He denied saying anything to Dowling or Kelleghan upon their arrest, let alone threatening to shoot either of them. This was not an entirely convincing defence, as Killeavy’s temperamental behaviour during the inquiry would lead to O’Sullivan severely reprimanding him for such rash remarks towards the eight dismissed men as: “If I had my way there would be none of the eight of them.”

The Result

The attitude of most of the defendants was one of contrition. Patrick Dowling, Joseph Farrell, Malachy Mulkearns and the fourth one, Jack Reilly, expressed regret for their indiscipline, and agreed to obey the orders of their officers in the future if they were allowed back into the Company. O’Sullivan was satisfied that the four men had acted with the best of intentions, however wrongly, and had been led into their breach of indiscipline by Kelleghan.

All four were to be severely reprimanded and ordered to apologise to Maguire. Following that, they were to be reattached to the Company for three months on probation, after which the question of their continuation in the IRA would be settled for good.

As for Kelleghan, O’Sullivan could find no proof for his claims that he had been a Volunteer in Cork or that he had been attached to the Mullingar Company. Until the necessary paperwork was received, any sentence on Kelleghan would be pending.

In the meantime, Kelleghan was found guilty of inciting indiscipline and of speaking about IRA matters to a non-Volunteer, by which O’Sullivan meant the mysterious Martin. As with the other four, the inquiry was inclined to believe that Kelleghan had not acted maliciously.

O’Sullivan asked Maguire if he would be prepared to reinstate these men. The O/C asked for leave to consult with his staff. After he had done that, Maguire announced that he was indeed prepared to take the prodigal sons back.

Writing to his own superior officer on 3rd November, O’Sullivan told Cathal Brugha, the IRA Chief of Staff, his satisfaction with the inquiry results: “I believe this will be for the good of the Mullingar Brigade generally as they were inclined to allow matters rest too long and then act in a thoughtless hasty fashion.”

In contrast with the findings of the GHQ inspector from before, O’Sullivan had found that there was no evidence to support the most allegation against the Mullingar Brigade staff, that of mistreatment of Dowling and Kelleghan during their imprisonment.

Kelleghan was to have a sliver of vindication when a letter came in from Liam Lynch on 17th December, in response to the requests for information on Kelleghan. Lynch confirmed that Kelleghan had indeed been in the Millstreet Company while in Co. Cork, and had served in the local flying column before ill health forced him to leave. During his time there, he was found to be an “attentive and energetic Volunteer.”

Which may have been so, but in Mullingar, discipline, obedience and towing the Company line were shown to be more important than personal initiative and enthusiasm.[2]

References

[1] Maguire, James (BMH / WS 1439), p. 20

[2] Richard Mulcahy Papers, UCD Archives, P7/A/31

 

Originally posted on The Irish Story (28/10/2015)

 

See also: Kidnapped in Mullingar: An IRA Operation and its Aftermath, 1920

See also: Bloodshed in Mullingar: Civil War Begins in Co. Westmeath, April 1922

Bibliography

UCD Archives

Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/31

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statement

Maguire, James, WS 1439