On the night of the 31st October 1919, Sergeant J.J. Mathews was at his desk in the Dillon’s Bridge Barracks in Lismullen, Co. Meath, when a rap on the door distracted him from his paperwork. The caller demanded entry, which Mathews refused – these being troubled times in Ireland, after all – and so instead the voice on the other side asked for directions to the town of Navan, about six miles away.
Mathews answered the request and was almost immediately hit in the face by bullets fired through the window. The other three policemen in the barracks responded with their own guns and, after a few minutes of heated exchange, the assailants backed off and disappeared into the night, leaving shattered windows and perforated walls outside. The only casualty, Mathews, was quickly transported to a hospital in Dublin, where he was soon on the mend, even retaining use of his left eye which had been feared lost, reported the Meath Chronicle:
Sergeant Mathews is a very popular officer, and while stationed in Navan as a constable some years ago he was very highly thought of by the people, and the same applies to the public in his latest sphere of duty.
Injuries aside, Mathews had been lucky. Also that night, almost at the same hour, a second attack on a station of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in Co. Meath was launched, this time at Ballivor, a village six miles from Trim. As in Lismullen, deception was tried, this time successfully, as Constable William Agar answered the door in response to a knock. Sitting in another room, Sergeant Terence MacDermott and two more RIC constables heard two shots ring out and then saw their colleague stagger back.
“Oh! I’m shot!” was all Agar said before collapsing, according to MacDermott in his testimony to the inquiry:
I ran to the day-room door that leads to the hall and immediately I did I saw a crowd of men rushing into the hall. They were wearing masks. One of the masked men caught the handle of the day-room door and prevented me from going out. I and two other constables tried to open it, but we could not.
The policemen were thus trapped as the intruders quickly went about their tasks, some guarding the day-room’s door while others ransacked the upstairs room where the arsenal was stored, making off with five rifles, five bullet-pouches, one revolver and a plentiful amount of ammunition. The door was kept firmly shut until the last of the raiders had escaped out the front. Sergeant MacDermott followed them into the street, firing two shots from his revolver at the twenty – so he estimated – fleeing men before they turned the corner, but none were hit.
His fallen colleague, Constable Agar, 33-years-old and recently married, had transferred to Ballivor only ten days before. The jury at the inquiry ruled that Agar was killed by persons unknown, with the foreman adding that: “The jury wishes to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to Mrs Agar and family, and they also sympathise with the police, who were always popular with the public, and did their duty impartially.”
The Laying of Plans
Whether popular or impartial, that did not change the unhappy fact that the RIC was on the frontlines of a guerrilla war between the British authorities in Ireland and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), whose members, or Volunteers, had carried out the twin attacks in Lismullen and Ballivor. As the timing indicated, these were not spontaneous uprisings but carefully coordinated operations that had been planned between officers of the IRA Meath Brigade, and then cleared with GHQ in Dublin.
Two other barracks in Summerhill and Bohermeen were intended to be targets as well, their selection, so described Seamus Finn, being due to:
…certain facts, one of which was that Volunteer activity was not so apparent in these places and the RIC had more or less relaxed their vigilance, and also that they were so situated that it was easy to cut off their communication with larger posts.
As Adjutant to the Meath Brigade, Finn was among the high-ranking delegates, including Seán Boylan, the Brigade O/C, and three battalion captains, who travelled in the same car together to Dublin on the 30th October 1919. Once in the city, they waited for some time, before finally making contact with their GHQ superiors, namely Géaroid O’Sullivan and Eamon Price, to be joined later by Michael Collins, Dick McKee and Seán McMahon at the meeting in the Gaelic League premises on Parnell Square.
After a painstakingly detailed overview of the logistics, it was agreed that the Meath men would be provided with arms and two motorcars from Dublin, one each for Ballivor and Bohermeen, in time for the attacks set for the following night. Paucity of resources was a constant hindrance for IRA brigades, so any assistance was welcome. The discussion lasted long into the evening, not stopping until just before midnight, which meant that the Meath officers would have to chance the curfew in returning home.
Foot patrols by the British military were an increasingly common risk in Dublin, a compliment of sort to IRA success. The countrymen were obliged at one point, while waiting for one of their number, to disembark from the car and hide in doorways, with revolvers and grenades at the ready. Despite this close call, the officers succeeded in making it safely back by mid-morning, giving them time to muster the rest of the Brigade for what was to be Meath’s opening volley in the War of Independence.
The night was heavy with drizzle, and Trim an unfamiliar town, making Joseph Lawless’ task in picking up Patrick Mooney, captain of the local battalion, a complicated one. Luckily he had help in a fellow Volunteer, Hubert Kearns, who accompanied him in the Ford car in the drive from Dublin to Meath on the 31st October 1919. Business at the garage he ran in St. Ignatius Street was good, allowing him to own a couple of cars and put them at the service of the Irish revolution for times like these. One of his vehicles would be driven to Lismullen for the attack there, while Lawless was assigned to meet Mooney in Trim before proceeding to Ballivor.
Kearns was able to identify Mooney when they arrived in the town at 9 pm, the captain impressing Lawless with his air of quiet assurance. Mooney and three other IRA men squeezed into the Ford car alongside Lawless and Kearns, and began the eight-mile drive to their target, a ride made more tedious by how one of the passengers, a young man called Lawlor, who:
…was excited at the prospect of a fight and kept talking a lot as we drove along. It was probably the others telling him repeatedly to shut up that impressed his name on my memory.
While the plan was to take Ballivor Barracks unaware and hopefully with the minimum of trouble, “Lawlor’s interjections indicated that he would be a very disappointed man if we did not have a fight,” remembered Lawless.
Five or six other Volunteers were waiting for them at Ballivor. Judging by their prior observations, the RIC garrison was in no particular state of alarm or preparation, which boded well – the element of surprise remained with them. Mooney and two others approached the front of the barracks, while the rest waited in the shadows, including Lawless, who watched as:
The young constable who came to the door in response to the knock opened it cautiously a few inches and seemed about to close it again when Mooney drew his revolver and ordered him to put his hands up. I think that the constable became so flabbergasted at this that he just stood still in the middle of the doorway as if rooted to the spot.
Maybe this delay was taken as defiance. Perhaps taut nerves snapped, for one of the other Volunteers pushed past Mooney and shot the hapless Agar at point-blank range with a revolver. The rest swiftly took advantage of the breach, rushing over the prone body and into the open building. The ransacked munitions were loaded into the car before the victors made their getaway.
Lawless drove back to Trim, where he left his Meath passengers with their haul. His part done, he returned to Dublin, taking the precaution of a roundabout route through Finglas rather than the main road. It was left to him to ponder the implications of what had just happened:
We felt rather sorry about the shooting of the constable as we could realise afterwards that his hesitation was due more to the frightened surprise than any intention of resistance.
Still, Lawless took the pragmatic view that:
…if he had managed to delay the entry of Mooney and the others while the other police grabbed hold of their rifles, it might have been another story.
Success was alloyed for the Meath Brigade, for Sergeant Mathews had been more cautious than Constable Agar, and Dillon’s Bridge Barracks remained inviolate. Of the two other attacks planned for Bohermeen and Summerhill, nothing came of them due to confusion over times and meeting-spots.
The RIC had been luckier than it knew but the dangers of remaining in small, isolated strongholds had been made all too evident. In the final months of 1919 and into 1920, the police garrisons in Ballivor, Lismullen, Bohermeen, Summerhill and a number of others in Meath were pulled out and concentrated in larger posts such as Trim, Navan, Kells and Oldcastle.
For the Crown authorities, the night of the 31st October 1919 had served as a wakeup call. “This was the first time we realised that the IRA were strong and organised in the area,” recalled one constable posted in Meath at the time.
‘A State of Supine Lethargy’
While strategically sound, the decision to withdraw the RIC from certain outlaying barracks exposed it as an authority in retreat. Whether the force was quite up to the challenge of counter-insurgency was something doubted by many in the British Establishment; indeed, the decline had begun a lot sooner in the opinion of General Nevil Macready:
This once magnificent body of men had undoubtedly deteriorated into what was almost a state of supine lethargy, and had lost even the semblance of energy or initiative when a crisis demanded vigorous and resolute action.
Macready was writing of his tour of Ireland in March 1914, during the Ulster Crisis, but nothing he saw of the Irish constabulary in the years to come was to change his mind. He blamed the malaise on the example set by Dublin Castle, citing a conversation he had sat in on between Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, and Augustine Birrell, when the former:
…asked the Chief Secretary why the RIC did not do more to stop the outrages which were then taking place throughout the country. Birrell half-jokingly replied in the sense that it could hardly be expected that the poor police, scattered about in small packets and spending their time fishing, would take the risk of tackling armed disturbances of the peace.
Winston, evidently annoyed, burst out, asking him if that was the state into which he had allowed the RIC to drift during the years he had been Chief Secretary. It made no impression, however, on that light-hearted statesman.
But the rot was not just at the top, according to Macready, who pointed to a number of accompanying causes, from the practical – the choice of ordinary houses for some barracks, making them hard to defend – to the social: the shift in recruitment from those of “a good class of farmers’ sons and such like” to “an inferior class of lower education.”
Macready may have been a snob, but much of his diagnosis was seconded by the Record of the Rebellion in Ireland 1919-1921, composed in 1922 as an internal review of the British Army’s performance. By the time the military intervened, its RIC partners had:
…lost control over the population even in the towns and villages in which they were stationed, and it was becoming the exception rather than the rule for head constables and sergeants in command at outstations to do more than live shut up in their barracks.
Which was to an extent understandable, the Record of the Rebellion allowed, as campaigns of murder, intimidation and boycott had whittled down morale. But it was also a case that:
In a military sense, the RIC were untrained and thus, through no fault of their own, they were greatly handicapped. Their musketry training was almost non-existent, their fire discipline nil, and our officers had to go round their barracks to help them as much as possible in the effective use of the rifle.
At least, so went the verdicts of professional soldiers, who could afford to specialise. In contrast, the RIC, as a body tasked with both law enforcement and the maintenance of British rule in a country increasingly resistant to it, was obliged to be a jack-of-all-trades, at the risk of being master of none. But perhaps its greatest weakness lay within, for many of its members, by the time of their greatest challenge, no longer believed in what they were doing.
Rivals for Raids
When Patrick Meehan signed up for RIC training at the Depot in Phoenix Park, Dublin, the process lasted six months. Contrary to what the Record of the Rebellion assumed, firearm lessons were covered, such as musketry, the use of revolvers and how to take cover in the event of a gunfight. Police and detective duties were included, though no intelligence work save to a handful of select cadets, of which Meehan was not one.
Indeed, the mood in Meath, to where Meehan – now Constable Meehan – found himself posted, was positively sedate, even with the Home Rule movement of 1913 and the forming of the Irish Volunteers in support. “We had no special instructions regarding watching or reporting the Volunteers,” Meehan recalled.
RIC members even assisted the Volunteers in drills, since many policemen were similarly in favour of Home Rule. Relations between the two groups cooled with the Easter Rising of 1916, however, with the Irish Volunteers – rebranded as the IRA – no longer content with the limits of Home Rule, preferring to set their sights higher for the complete overthrow of British governance in Ireland.
Meehan knew where he stood. During the Conscription Crisis of 1918, he, along with most of his colleagues in Meath, were adamantly opposed to the idea of their countrymen being pressganged into British service and would have refused to enforce it. Conversely, when the authorities thought better of it and shelved conscription, Meehan lamented the missed opportunity, for “it would have united the country and the Police Force from shore to shore.”
As it was, the RIC moved increasingly towards a collision course with the IRA, as upholders of the status quo against its challengers. The end of August 1920 and the start of September saw an arms-race as the two groups sought to clear Meath of guns in private possession before the other could get its hands on them. The Volunteers were quicker, accomplishing sweeps for two consecutive nights on the 29th and 30th August, reported the Meath Chronicle:
…resulting in the seizure of a large quantity of rifles, guns, ammunition, and small arms. The raids were carried out simultaneously in each district by sections of masked and armed men, and in most cases no opposition to the demands for arms were offered.
Their Crown opponents endeavoured to match this pace and sometimes the same houses would be searched again by one side shortly after the other:
In the district about Navan the rival raiders were particularly active, and both sides can claim a fair share of the spoils. Just twenty-four hours late some told the popular force, while in other instances the boot was on the other foot.
In the Kilmessan district the forces of the Crown arrived too late, and a youngster with the temerity of childhood remarked that they were much too slow for their rivals.
“The taunt was taken in good humour,” which was reflective of the overall mood in the county. With no casualties and limited resistance, everyone could afford to treat the whole affair as a lark, such as when “the inhabitants of a certain town in Meath were provided with some innocent enjoyment” at the sight of RIC men taking into custody “antique spit-fires dating from the days of Queen Anne” and other vintage “weapons more dangerous to the user than to the target.”
The Burning of the Barracks
However indulgent the mood for the moment, no one could forget that Meath, in keeping with the rest of the country, was a warzone. This was not a fact evident at first glance, with nothing as obvious as trench-lines stretching away over the horizon like in France or Belgium during the Great War. Instead, the violence came in short, sharp bursts, such as on the Saturday night of the 3rd April 1920, when the vacated RIC outposts were destroyed throughout Meath in a wave of arson.
Dillon’s Bridge Barracks may have thwarted the IRA once before, but it went up in smoke, as did the ones in Ballivor, Ashbourne, Crossmacar, Kilmoon, Summerhill and many others that were found charred and gutted the following morning. So quickly and quietly had the deeds been done that often the neighbours were not aware of anything amiss until the flames were sighted in the night-sky through bedroom windows.
Among the witnesses to the burning at Bohermeen were the wife and children of the former RIC sergeant of the barracks, who were still residing there when, at 11:30 pm, sixteen men forced open the backdoor and politely informed the family to take their leave of the premises. This they did to an adjacent house, along with their choice furniture items that the intruders took the time to remove for them before setting the interior alight. In this case, minimum damage was inflicted, save to a hole in the roof, a failure attributed to the dampness inside. But this was the exception and the rule now in Meath was that a police building that stood empty would not be standing for long.
A collective blow had been struck, and another landed in response: four days later, on the Wednesday of the 7th April, wholesale arrests by the RIC, reinforced by British soldiers in metal trench helmets and carrying rifles with fixed bayonets, were launched throughout Meath. To take one example, in Navan, at 3 am:
A military lorry arrived in the town, and conducted by a sergeant and constable of the local force, the military made their way to the residence of Mr Clinch, of Messrs Clinch and Gleeson, newsagents, Navan. Mr Clinch, having hastily dressed, admitted the military, and without any charges being preferred against him, he was placed under arrest.
Three others joined Clinch in the army van, including an employee in a hardware store and a 19-year-old who had been visiting relatives in the area. As with Clinch, no cause for their detainment was given.
In contrast to Navan, the Crown parties returned from Trim empty-handed, the ‘men of interest’ apparently not being at home. One such wanted was Patrick Mooney, the captain of the Trim IRA Company and the conqueror of Ballivor Barracks. He was still absent when the searchers returned for a second look, and away he was likely to remain, among the ‘on the runs’ flitting between safe-houses and bolt-holes for as long as they could.
Mooney and the other Trim runaways were at least still at liberty, and for that they could thank a friend in enemy uniform. Constable Meehan was stationed in Trim, ostensibly in service to the King, but his true allegiance lay elsewhere. Even before the attacks on Ballivor and Dillon’s Bridge Barracks the previous year, he had been in communication with officers of the Trim IRA Company, leaking them news of impending arrests and enabling the Volunteers to stay one step ahead:
When the IRA were carrying out this general raid for arms throughout the county I kept them informed of the areas that the police would be working daily, so that they were always able to get that area cleaned up before the police arrived in it.
Which had the additional benefit of avoiding unnecessary bloodshed, as “this also prevented the two sides from clashing.” But Meehan was no peacenik, and when his IRA contacts approached him for help against his workplace of Trim Barracks, he was happy to oblige.
The Big Job
“It’s a big job,” remarked Michael Collins when Seán Boylan announced the intentions of the Meath Brigade, of which he was O/C, to take Trim Barracks. Boylan had travelled to Dublin, as did other IRA officers from across Ireland, to touch base with GHQ, the venue being, as before, the Gaelic League premises in Parnell Square. Collins listened, along with Richard Mulcahy, Gearóid O’Sullivan and Diarmuid O’Hegarty, as the delegates reported on the operations performed so far in their territories and about the ones to come.
Collins had reason for his stated concern to Boylan, for the stronghold in question, according to a contemporary newspaper account:
…was a massive stone building, situated on the southern end of the town on the road to Longford and it was formerly used as a military barrack. It is surrounded on all sides by a wall ten foot high and adjoined the Fair Green, being thus in a very prominent position. It was regarded as impregnable to ordinary assault, and untakeable except battered down by heavy artillery.
One of the garrison went so far as to openly boast of its impregnability, prompting the Meath Volunteers to consider how to put that claim to the test.
Trim had been relatively quiet so far, in part due to being occupied by ‘regular’ RIC men and not the recent additions to the force who were already making a name for themselves in Ireland and not in a commendable way. When the Black-and-Tans and the Auxiliaries first arrived in Ireland, the Trim police complained in writing to Dublin Castle, prompting Sir Joseph Byrne, the Inspector General, to come down and hear their objections in person. Byrne agreed to keep the newcomers out of Trim for as long as the current occupants could maintain the barracks by themselves.
It says much about the state of the RIC that such deals had to be made. Meehan was by then married and living outside the barracks, enjoying the calm, until Mick Hynes, the first lieutenant in the Trim IRA, came to his house to say that a force of Tans were due to be stationed in the town. Given their fearsome reputation, these new arrivals would make life harder for all involved, and so it was imperative that the barracks be put beyond use before then.
This news came as a surprise to Meehan but he took what Hynes said in his stride, and the pair discussed the best ways to overcome Trim Barracks. Artillery was obviously out of the question, so craft and cunning would have to suffice. Sunday morning was the best time for a sudden attack, Meehan told Hynes, as half the garrison would be out at Mass, leaving the other ten to ‘guard’ the place, mostly in bed – Sunday being the day of rest, after all.
Furthermore, Meehan drew out a plan of the interior, including where the munitions were kept, and provided an impression of the keys to the front and backdoors in a bar of soap, though it was later realised that even if the Volunteers could replicate the keys, the duplicates would be of no use with the originals still in their locks from the inside.
Nonetheless, the plan was set to go ahead on the Sunday of the 26th September 1920. Hynes warned Meehan beforehand, allowing the constable to resign from the force on the Wednesday, with enough time to collect his final salary before he left Trim on the morning of the attack. Taking a holiday out of Meath suddenly seemed like a very good idea.
The Taking of Trim
Leaving nothing to chance, the Trim Volunteers met in the Town Hall on the Thursday before, and then on Saturday in the O’Hagan fish and fruit shop owned by the mother of one of those present. “There were so many coming and going into the shop for years that nobody suspected there was anything on,” disguising the council of war taking place inside, according to one participant. Also present were the Brigade staff and IRA men from other Meath battalions who would be doing their part by blocking the roads to Trim with timber to stymie any Crown reinforcements.
“The undertaking was a big one, requiring careful planning and perfect timing on the part of the Brigade staff,” recorded Seamus Finn, the Brigade Adjutant, “and superb pluck and fighting ability on the part of the men who were to carry it out.”
Boylan had assured Collins of victory. A hands-on leader, he moved into place close to the barracks with twenty other Volunteers, while Mick Hynes and Patrick Mooney did the same with twenty-four participants in a different hiding position. A third group, under Finn’s command, waited next to a car in which to transport any loot.
The darkness of the early hours helped obscure the Volunteers as four RIC men stepped outside their stronghold, lined up and then marched in a body to church. Hynes and Mooney led their own party as they silently climbed, one by one, across the wicket gate in the south wall of the barracks, towards where a door had been left ajar. A dog began barking but too late, for the Volunteers were already rushing through, to be met by Head Constable White. White, according to Boylan, drew his revolver, only to be cut down by a bullet and killed.
Patrick Quinn was among the advance party and recalled how:
Paddy Mooney and Mick Hynes were the first two to enter. As they did so a District Inspector of the RIC [sic – White] attempted to reach a box of hand grenades but was shot dead in the attempt. All the rest of the RIC, who were either cooking or having their breakfast, put up their hands and surrendered.
In fact, both Boylan and Quinn remembered it wrong, for White survived, albeit wounded. Nonetheless, one fact is uncontested: Trim Barracks fell in minutes and with no further resistance from the five-strong garrison.
The other four RIC men had likewise been rounded up at church by Boylan’s division, despite the efforts of one to hide in the confessional, and taken to the barracks at gunpoint to join the rest of the captives. They were ordered to quit the constabulary within the week but, besides that and the shooting of White, the whole affair was cordial enough; indeed, one of the policemen “is reported to have said that the raiders were evidently averse to bloodshed,” wrote the Meath Chronicle when its journalist visited the charred remnants of Trim Barracks.
For the victors were true to their modus operandi by setting their conquest aflame after first looting the munitions storeroom. Twenty rifles, twenty shotguns, six revolvers, ammunition for all the guns, a box of grenades and some bayonets were added to the Meath Brigade arsenal, making it a good day’s work indeed. White was taken to the hospital section of the local workhouse, while the Volunteers assisted the RIC men in removing the possessions of the latter from Trim Barracks – since these revolutionaries had no cause against private property – before the building was sprinkled with oil and paraffin, and set ablaze.
That finishing touch inflicted the only casualty on the Volunteers when “one of our men was badly scorched about the face and hands when he mistook a can of petrol for a can of paraffin,” described Quinn. “It exploded in his hands as he put a match to the liquid.”
Finn remembered it differently as, according to him, the raiders suffered not as much as a scratch for their efforts. Either way, “the reputedly impregnable Trim RIC barracks fell into our hands without even a semblance of resistance,” gloated Finn, who paid tribute:
…to the elaborate planning of the Brigade and local officers in conjunction with the information given by our contacts among the RIC to the perfect timing with which the operation was carried out, to the cool and efficient way in which the men had set to work and to the excellence of our intelligence men.
The mood among the civilians of Trim, however, was not quite as triumphant and, as it turned out, with good reason.
“The people were very much upset and feared the usual reprisals,” wrote the Meath Chronicle afterwards, when the worst was already done. “The local clergy were active and an interview with the military got an undertaking that no reprisals would be indulged in.”
And that appeared to be that. Not all were convinced, such as David Neligan, who warned Michael Collins in Dublin that Auxiliaries planned to make Trim pay for the loss of the barracks. As a senior policeman, Neligan was better informed than most and, like Meehan, used his privileged position to leak information, but Collins, for once, brushed him off, having already been assured by a Church dignitary in Trim about the truce agreed with the British forces.
Collins was to rue his complacency. Afterwards, “I don’t think he ever took notice of any guarantee or advice by the clergy or local civilians,” according to an aide of his.
The first hint that the drama had not yet ended for Trim was later that Sunday, when several military lorries rumbled into town at 3:30 pm, en route to the ruined barracks. When they came across a game of hurling on the Fair Green, the soldiers opened fire, hitting 16-year-old George Griffin in the groin and another young man, James Kelly, in the leg as he mounted his bicycle:
A man named Bird rushed to Griffin’s assistance. A soldier stepping out covered him with his rifle and told him to stand back. Father Murphy, coming on the scene, enquired was anybody hurt. Bird said there was and a soldier said there was not.
At least the two stricken youths were allowed to be removed for medical care. After retrieving the RIC constables left homeless by the loss of their barracks, the soldiers drove back out of Trim with no further ado.
Perhaps the agreement the clergymen had made with the military would be upheld after all – the shooting attributable to stretched nerves – though the streets had noticeably emptied at an earlier time than normal and one inhabitant, Mrs Higgins, had a neighbour remove furniture from the public-house she owned and lived in. As her two sons were ‘on the run’, one having already served a jail sentence, she had reason to fear being singled out for collective retribution.
Her hunch was proved correct when, the next day, more lorries entered Trim between 3 and 4 am, this time carrying Black-and-Tans. Perhaps the guarantee with the British Army did not extend to them as a branch of the RIC. Maybe the deal was never intended to be honoured. Either way, the invaders started with the Higgins property, at the lower end of Market Street. Petrol was used to soak the roof and then set on fire, with bombs thrown against the wall to hasten the destruction.
The Tans moved next to the Drapers and Boots Merchants on the High Street, owned by the Allen brothers, one of whom was a member of the local Sinn Féin club as well as of Trim Urban Council. Neither was present when the invaders kicked their way in, terrifying the shop assistants who were. They fled as the building was likewise set ablaze, as was subsequently the Town Hall in Castle Street and the business of J.J. Reilly in Market Street, the latter specialising in the manufacture of mineral water, along with the sale of whiskey and other spirits. The Tans spent some time looking for Reilly, shouting out for whereabouts of the Sinn Féin Club Chairman. This was despite Reilly playing no part in politics but he wisely did not stay to argue the point, hiding instead in a kitchen and escaping an almost certain death.
The Lawlor family were also subjected to a harrowing ordeal, being woken in their house in Castle Street, while the Town Hall burned, and threatened for them to reveal the whereabouts of their absent sons. An officer arrived in time to reprieve the Lawlors, by which point dawn was breaking. The Tans called it a night and drove off, promising to come back the following day.
Trim was spared that at least, as reported the Meath Chronicle, “all is peace in the town since Monday morning and the desperadoes have not returned to continue their fell destruction.”
Enough had been committed already. Which could have been worse, as J.J. Reilly pointed out to a journalist from the newspaper. If the fire in his building had reached the rear, where petrol and other flammable materials were stored, the results then might very well have been catastrophic for the whole town.
In any case, Reilly said, he would be able to resume production within the week, with no loss of employment to any of his hundred or so workers. Further encouraging news was reported with the expected recoveries of Griffin and Kelly, as well as Head Constable White, victims of the same war.
Even among the Crown forces, there was a sense that a line had been crossed. When a group of RIC men drove to Trim, they found the brutalised buildings – or what was left of them – still smouldering.
“To hell with this,” said one constable, who resigned later that day.
Having already quit the force, Meehan returned to inspect the ruined barracks, a handiwork which was partly his own. RIC guards who were on the scene, rooting through the debris, ordered him away, indicating that they saw him not as an ex-colleague but as the enemy. Meehan got the hint and hid out in his native Co. Clare, feeling like he was ‘on the run’ himself.
After three weeks of this, he returned to his house in Trim, and it was there that a group of RIC and Tans, including County Inspector Egan, found him one night. They took him outside the town, along the road to Navan, where they chanced upon another RIC patrol, led by Sergeant O’Brien, who recognised Meehan. After Egan and O’Brien exchanged words, Meehan was forced into a field for a rough interrogation:
Some revolver shots were fired over my head and I was questioned about my part in the capture of the barracks. They said that they knew I had given it away and that they knew all about me. I denied everything vigorously. This took place on the night of ‘Bloody Sunday’ [21st November 1920] so you can realise they were in a nice mood.
Nonetheless, the RIC posse refrained from doing the worst. Meehan could thank O’Brien, for the sergeant, as he told Meehan later, had threatened Egan with exposure should anything unfortunate and irreversible happen to their former co-worker.
Instead, Meehan was told to be out of the country within twelve hours and then left him to find his way back to Trim, meeting on the way his wife, out searching by candlelight and expecting to find his dead body. Unsurprisingly, Meehan left Trim the next day, staying with his wife’s family in Co. Kildare, spending no more than a fortnight there before fleeing abroad to London.
The organisation he had served and betrayed was already moribund, or at least the Royal Irish Constabulary as it had been. When William Agar was killed in Ballivor the previous year, the jury at the inquest had praised the police for their popularity and impartiality. No one could say the same about their replacements who now patrolled the villages and lanes of Meath, bearing the name of the RIC and its clothing, but of a very different nature indeed.
When Tans appeared in Navan on the 5th October 1920, in their distinctive motley of police uniforms and civilian garb, it was enough to send the townspeople into a state of near panic. Thankfully, the example of Trim was not repeated, the Tans being content to quench their thirst in the public-houses, but their mere presence, and in such numbers, signified the end of an era and the start of another, more dangerous one.
 Meath Chronicle, 08/11/1919
 Finn, Seamus (BMH / WS 901), p. 10
 Ibid, pp. 13-5
 Lawless, Joseph (BMH / WS 1043), pp. 314-6
 Boylan, Seán (BMH / WS 1715), pp. 13-4
 Bratton, Eugene (BMH / WS 467), p. 6
 Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Live, Vol. 1 (London: Hutchinson and Co. ), pp. 178-9
 Ibid, pp. 179
 Ibid, pp. 179-80
 Sheehan, William. Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 (Cork: Collins Press, 2009), p. 30
 Meehan, Patrick (BMH / WS 478), pp. 2-3
 Meath Chronicle, 04/09/1920
 Ibid, 11/09/1920
 Ibid, 10/04/1920
 Meehan, pp. 4-6
 Boylan, p. 14
 Meath Chronicle, 02/10/1920
 Finn, Seamus (BMH / WS 858) p. 2-3
 Meehan, pp. 5-6
 O’Hagan, Henry (BMH / WS 696), p. 6
 Finn, WS 858, p. 3
 Boylan, pp. 15-6
 Quinn, Patrick (BMH / WS 1696), p. 5
 Meath Chronicle, 02/10/1920
 Finn, WS 858, pp. 8-9
 Quinn, p. 5
 Finn, WS 858, p. 8
 Meath Chronicle, 02/10/1920
 Kennedy, Tadhg (BMH / WS 1413), p. 82
 Meath Chronicle, 02/10/1920
 Bratton, p. 6
 Meehan, pp. 7-8
 Meath Chronicle, 09/10/1920
Bureau of Military History Statements
Boylan, Seán, WS 1715
Bratton, Eugene, WS 467
Finn, Seamus, WS 858
Finn, Seamus, WS 901
Kennedy, Tadhg, WS 1413
Quinn, Patrick, WS 1696
Lawless, Joseph, WS 1043
Meehan, Patrick, WS 478
O’Hagan, Henry, WS 696
Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Live, Vol. 1 (London: Hutchinson and Co. )