In the previous article, we explored the circumstances that led to the shooting dead of George Adamson in April 1922. Here, we look in more detail at the subsequent propaganda battle in which both pro- and anti-Treaty forces blamed each other for Adamson’s death.
Photo: George Adamson (Athlone Public Library)
That propaganda battle began with, as discussed in the previous edition, statements to the press from the headquarters of both the National Army and the anti-Treaty IRA. Those press releases, at least the early versions, made a number of false claims regarding Adamson’s death and one of them, released by the anti-Treaty IRA in the Four Courts during early May, raised the possibility that Seán MacEoin has shot and killed George Adamson.
That Four Courts press release made six points. The first two paragraphs briefly summarised details of the shooting. The third paragraph noted that MacEoin was staying upstairs in the house of a man named Duffy which happened to be almost directly opposite where Adamson was shot. The fourth paragraph highlighted sections from MacEoin’s evidence to the initial coroner’s inquest. MacEoin told the inquest that he had heard a scuffle on the street and that he had grabbed a revolver before opening his bedroom window. The fifth paragraph placed MacEoin at the scene of the shooting by highlighting the testimony of a pro-Treaty officer, and a member of Adamson’s search party that night, Lieutenant Liam O’Meara.
It was the sixth paragraph which tied all the above together and which was most damaging to MacEoin. It claimed that the evidence shows ‘that the direction of the bullet was downwards’ before adding: ‘A levelled revolver is not held and presented so high that the bullet would take the course indicated by the medical testimony’. Of course, in the press release only MacEoin was stated to have been on high ground, the upstairs window of Duffy’s house, and the implication was that MacEoin had opened his window, fired and killed Adamson.
The Four Courts statement had used the fact that MacEoin was in the vicinity of the shooting to present a scenario by which he was the only possible suspect, thereby absolving the anti-Treaty IRA. Journalists picked up on this implication and the possibility of MacEoin’s involvement was widely reported. Yet this version of events proved to be untenable. The press release had misrepresented the evidence of Doctor McDonnell, who had told the coroner’s inquest that he judged the fatal bullet to have been fired from very close range. Although, at the later military inquiry jointly organised by the National Army and the anti-Treaty IRA (discussed below), McDonnell was reluctant to state the distance of the shot he still maintained that it had come from behind and probably to the right of Adamson. He made no mention of the fatal shot having arrived from an elevated position. Also, statements from anti-Treaty witnesses who were at the scene of the shooting do not suggest that any shots came from high ground.
Most importantly, anti-Treaty officers in Athlone dismissed suggestions that MacEoin shot Adamson. Commandant Buckley, an Athlone-based anti-Treaty officer who compiled a report on the events surrounding Adamson’s death before testifying to the military inquiry, admitted that his report was not accurately represented in the press release from the Four Courts. Soon after Buckley’s testimony, a representative of the anti-Treaty IRA in the Four Courts claimed that the contentious press release did not intend to implicate MacEoin and that ‘he was not going to stand over any such inference’. Ultimately, the suggestion that MacEoin shot Adamson was dismissed even by its original proponents. That still leaves the question of who shot George Adamson.
The controversy and widespread newspaper coverage of Adamson’s death caused the National Army and the anti-Treaty IRA to agree a joint military inquiry, which was held during May and June 1922. The inquiry concluded that it could not determine who killed Adamson but it expressed the ‘firm conviction that the shooting of Brigadier-General Adamson was not premeditated’. In the concluding section of our George Adamson articles, we assess the often-contradictory evidence heard by the inquiry and attempt to pinpoint who killed Adamson.
On the night of his death, Adamson and three comrades, Liam O’Meara, Christopher Conway and an officer named Walsh, walked from Custume Barracks to Irishtown where they encountered a man standing in the doorway of a house. This man was unnamed in the original newspaper reports but it emerged during the subsequent inquest and inquiry that he was Seán Robbins, an anti-Treaty IRA officer. Another anti-Treaty officer, Joseph Reddin, was standing across the street, seemingly unnoticed by Adamson’s group. Reddin told the inquiry that Adamson, who held a revolver in his right hand, ordered Robbins to put his hands up and that ‘a second man [Adamson’s comrade, Walsh] held a revolver to Robbins’ breast’ shortly before anti-Treaty officer Thomas Burke and a group of six to eight men, who had been looking to obtain a car in a nearby garage, arrived on the scene.
At that point, Adamson and his men turned to look in the direction of Burke. Robbins, according to his testimony, took this opportunity to grab Walsh’s gun before ordering the National Army officer to raise his hands. Walsh ‘complied and went back a few yards’ and ‘immediately’ there was gunfire. Robbins reckoned there were about ‘18 or 20’ shots, all compressed into a few seconds. One of those shots left George Adamson stricken on the ground as the combatants scattered through the town.
The accounts of the anti-Treaty soldiers overlap with those of the pro-Treaty soldiers, Walsh and O’Meara, in many areas (although not completely – Walsh, for example, was unable to accurately identify the man opposite him at the time of the shooting). All those accounts suggest that the key moment, the act which precipitated the shooting, was Seán Robbins’ decision to grab Walsh’s gun shortly after the arrival of Thomas Burke and his comrades. That reckless act was immediately followed by an exchange of gunfire during which Adamson was killed by one of the first shots, perhaps the very first.
It is not clear who fired the first shot but testimony to the inquiry suggests that it may have been one of Adamson’s men, Christopher Conway. Among the other pro-Treaty officers, Walsh was disarmed before he could fire his weapon and Adamson’s gun was later found to be fully loaded. There is some confusion as to whether Liam O’Meara fired his weapon. He testified to being disarmed during the stand-off and that a revolver and grenade were taken from him, although testimony from the anti-Treaty participants suggest that he may have fired a single shot. Conway, however, told the inquiry that he had been the only member of Adamson’s party to fire a weapon.
If Conway did indeed fire the first shot, could he also have shot Adamson? It is possible that Adamson was accidently shot by Conway when he reacted, amid a fraught few seconds, to the sight of Robbins taking Walsh’s weapon. Among the various witness statements, Conway’s testimony is an outlier since his version cannot be incorporated into the mass of evidence available from the other statements. Conway claimed that Adamson was pushed to the ground by the man in the doorway who proceeded to shoot the brigadier-general in the head. No one else, including Conway’s fellow officers, testified that such an event had occurred. Indeed, Walsh’s and O’Meara’s testimony bore little resemblance to Conway’s. Walsh’s testimony, for example, gives the impression that the man covering him fired his gun only after someone else had fired the first shot.
Could Conway’s testimony have been the statement of a man desperate to cover his culpability for the death of a comrade? Conway admitted to the inquiry that he had fired his weapon and he may be the man that anti-Treaty accounts mention as having fired in response to Robbins’ scuffle with Walsh. An officer named Buckley, a member of the anti-Treaty group, claimed that ‘a man in a crouching position’ behind Adamson fired the first shot. Statements made by anti-Treaty IRA witnesses claim that the man who fired the first shot subsequently fired on the rest of their group, before escaping down the road. This could only have been Conway, since Walsh had been disarmed by this stage, while O’Meara remained with the wounded Adamson.
The above scenario also leaves open the possibility that Adamson was shot dead by one of the anti-Treaty soldiers. Perhaps Conway fired first, in reaction to Robbins taking Walsh’s gun, and during the return fire from the anti-Treaty group Adamson was shot. Of the anti-Treaty group, at least Buckley, Robbins, and Reddin fired weapons and it is possible that any of them could have hit Adamson. Days after the killing, Seán MacEoin claimed to have evidence that anti-Treaty forces were responsible telling a reporter that he had a ‘sworn statement’ from one of the men in the Royal Hotel that ‘Brigadier-General Adamson was murdered in the streets of Athlone at ___’s own hands’. This un-named name, according to MacEoin, had ‘escaped to Mullingar’. However, MacEoin provided no evidence to substantiate those claims.
It is possible that this un-named person was Thomas Burke, who was, according to documents in the Ernie O’Malley collection in UCD, accused by pro-Treaty figures of Adamson’s killing. Those documents claim that Burke was interrogated by Michael Collins who then ordered that the anti-Treaty IRA prisoner be held in solitary confinement. It is not clear, however, whether Collins and his fellow officers believed that Burke actually shot Adamson. Burke’s interrogation and confinement may have been both an attempt to elicit information and an act of retribution against one of the anti-Treaty party who had surrounded Adamson moments before he was fatally wounded. Burke denied shooting Adamson.
If the fatal bullet came from the anti-Treaty side then Seán Robbins may be the most likely culprit. Liam O’Meara recalled that he heard someone shout: ‘My God, Sean what did you do that for?’ This statement could be taken as someone’s reaction to Robbins having fired at and killed Adamson. However, it could also have been someone’s reaction to Robbins wrestling the gun from Walsh, thus sparking the violence. Until Robbins grabbed the gun it remained possible that the stand-off could have ended without bloodshed.
Even today, many rumours cling to the story of Adamson’s death. According to those versions, Seán MacEoin or other National Army officers targeted Adamson. Those rumours lack two vital factors: evidence and motive. No conspiracy is needed to explain the death of George Adamson. In the scenarios laid out above his death was unplanned, the disastrous consequence of his location at the centre of a brief gun battle.
Adamson’s death would lead to the National Army taking control of Athlone. Within hours of the shooting, MacEoin’s soldiers surrounded the anti-Treaty IRA in the Royal Hotel and gave their commander, Seán Fitzpatrick, fifteen minutes to surrender. Fitzpatrick and his men chose to lay down their arms and they were subsequently imprisoned in Custume Barracks. They were the first of many such prisoners and, as we have seen in a previous blog post about the death of Patrick Mulrennan, the barracks became notorious among opponents of the Treaty.
Dáil Éireann debates; University College Dublin Archives – Richard Mulcahy Papers and Ernie O’Malley Papers; Westmeath Library Services, 1912-1923 documents; Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Irish Times, Westmeath Examiner, Westmeath Independent, Poblacht na hÉireann. For further detail, see John Burke’s, Athlone 1900-1923: politics, revolution and civil war (The History Press, 2015); Liam Cox, Moate - County Westmeath: A History of Town and District (Alfa Print Ltd, 1981); Gearóid Ó Faoleán, ‘The Shooting of Brigadier-General George Adamson, 1922’, New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua, volume 19, spring 2015; Michael Hopkinson, Green against Green: the Irish Civil War (Gill & Macmillan, 2004); Ian Kenneally, ‘A Medium for Enemy Propaganda: the press, Westmeath, and the Civil War’, Journal of The Old Athlone Society, number 10, 2015; and Uinseann MacEoin, Survivors (Argenta Publications, 1987).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 17/08/2022