On 22 January 1923, Richard Bertles from Drumraney, known locally as Dick Bertles, was shot in the village of Ballymore. Fatally wounded by a bullet to his chest or abdomen, he died about four hours later. An officer in the anti-Treaty IRA, Bertles, as we discussed during the previous article, was a prominent figure in the locality during the War of Independence. Here, we discuss his activities in the year after the Anglo-Irish Treaty, as well as the circumstances of his death.
Anti-Treaty IRA prisoners being marched through Cork City by the National Army (National Library of Ireland). During the Civil War the National Army incarcerated thousands of men and hundreds of women, many of whom were mistreated. In the most extreme cases anti-Treaty IRA prisoners were summarily executed by National Army troops.
On returning to Drumraney in January 1922, Bertles again became active in local politics. He had been elected as a Sinn Féin candidate to Ballymore Rural District Council in June 1920 and was a prominent contributor to council meetings that year. He resumed that habit during the first half of 1922, regularly raising questions about local issues.
Bertles opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and was an active member of the anti-Treaty IRA after the Civil War began in June 1922. He was captured by the National Army early in the conflict and incarcerated in Ballymahon Union Barracks, although he escaped on 11 August 1922 and remained free thereafter. During the following months, however, the National Army took control of south Westmeath and south Longford, including the area around Drumraney.
The parlous state of anti-Treaty forces in the area was demonstrated by Ernie O’Malley (then the anti-Treaty IRA’s Acting Assistant Chief of Staff) to Liam Lynch (Chief of Staff) on 24 September 1922. O’Malley informed Lynch that: ‘Athlone and Longford area are now attached to this Division [1st Eastern Division]. There are very few men in any of these areas and the Organisation there is practically hopeless.’ Although a ‘flying column of 8 men’ was operating around Athlone, the local anti-Treaty IRA was ‘very short of arms, especially rifles’.
The anti-Treaty IRA in the region was unable to launch largescale attacks on the National Army and it instead targeted infrastructure such as the rail network. Such incidents became increasingly common and January 1923 saw numerous damaging attacks on the Athlone-to-Mullingar and Athlone-to-Roscommon lines. That month also saw the state-sanctioned executions in Athlone’s Custume Barracks of five members of the anti-Treaty IRA.
It was in that tumultuous period, only two days after the Athlone executions, that Dick Bertles was shot in Ballymore. According to information passed to newspapers by the National Army, Bertles was in the village when he was surrounded by National Army soldiers from Athlone and Ballymahon. Newspapers reported that: ‘He was called on to halt by the troops, but refused. Fire was then opened on him and he was severely wounded in the chest.’ The National Army soldiers took the grievously wounded Bertles, who was aged about thirty, to Ballymahon, where he died four hours later. Bertles was, if the newspaper reports are to be believed, shot while trying to escape.
Judging by contemporary accounts, Dick Bertles was a popular figure in the locality. The Westmeath Independent, despite its support for the Treaty and its regular condemnations of the anti-Treaty IRA campaign, mourned his death: ‘That tragedy follows tragedy in rapid succession throughout the country to-day is but too well illustrated. The sad and tragic occurrence in which the young man Richard Bertles, lost his life adds but another to the list of the unfortunate number … That a life so full of activity should be dramatically cut short may be the fortunes, or rather the misfortunes, of the present civil strife. May the sod lie lightly over Dick.’
The paper gave a similarly sympathetic account of his funeral, which took place in Drumraney on Thursday 25 January. It estimated that ‘over three thousand people marched in the sad and mournful procession’, including ‘a number of his late comrades and members of the Cumann na mBan’. The paper’s correspondent described the funeral as ‘the largest ever seen within living memory in Drumraney’. A sense of local attitudes towards Bertles can be gained from newspapers articles that appeared in the weeks after the funeral. The Offaly Independent’s correspondent spoke of the how the ‘large and representative funeral cortege’ proved that Bertles had maintained friendships with those ‘who differed from his political convictions’. The Westmeath Independent praised his work as a councillor: ‘As a member of the Council he won golden opinions by his deep interest in those whom he represented.’ Such accounts suggest that the locality had lost a committed and thoughtful public servant.
But that is not the end of the story. Although newspapers reported that Bertles was shot and fatally wounded while attempting to escape from the National Army there are reasons to doubt that version of events. The Civil War saw numerous cases in which anti-Treaty IRA prisoners were summarily executed by National Army troops. In an earlier edition, for example, we discussed the case of Patrick Mulrennan, an unarmed prisoner shot and fatally wounded by a National Army officer in October 1922. The case of Bertles may fit that pattern and the remainder of this article will examine evidence related to his death.
According to locals, Bertles was shot by a National Army soldier named Riggs. That claim passed into folklore, as evidenced by the lyrics of a song titled ‘Richard Bertles’ that was archived in the 1930s as part of the Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Collection.
Between 1937 and 1939, primary school children took part in a scheme organised by the commission in which they collected local stories and traditions from older family members and neighbours. One of those collectors was Mary Moran, a young student living in Clonkeen, north Westmeath, who received the lyrics to the ‘Richard Bertles’ song from her father John. The song, he said, was composed by Joseph Farrell, who was a ‘farmer at Ardnagrath Drumraney’ and ‘a member of I.R.A.’
In Farrell’s four-verse song, the National Army troops cornered Bertles: ‘They tracked him down like bloodhounds by every means they could / For James McKeon, old traitor, long thirsted for his blood / At last they have succeeded he now lies in his gore / T’was Sergant Riggs that shot him down in Low Street Ballymore.’ In a note accompanying the song, Mary Moran provided more detail: Bertles, she wrote, was shot by Riggs while standing at the bar of Cunningham’s licensed premises in the village. Bertles had, apparently, gone there to ‘pay some bills’ incurred by the anti-Treaty IRA.
The government also recorded information regarding Bertles’ death, albeit over a decade after it occurred. His mother, Helen, corresponded with the Military Pensions Board during the 1930s seeking a pension in respect of her deceased son. In a letter dated 13 April 1935, she was informed: ‘The Board are in possession of information that the deceased called to the licenced premised referred to with a view to obtaining intelligence regarding enemy activities. As he was leaving the premises, he was shot.’ The letter included the additional statement that ‘this man was deliberately shot by Free State Forces. The Board are in possession of the names of the Officers responsible…’
The first verse of the song ‘Richard Bertles’ as recorded by Mary Moran in the late 1930s. Moran, who was then a young student in Clonkeen, contributed to the Schools’ Collection of the Irish Folklore Commission.
The Board did not provide Helen Bertles with those names, although it was likely referring to its correspondence with Patrick Coughlin, who described himself as a former adjutant of the IRA’s Athlone Brigade. Coughlin named Sergeant Joseph Riggs as the officer who fired the fatal shot. Riggs, he said, was ‘under the personal command of Capt. James McKeon of the Free State army’. In answering the pension board’s question as to how he obtained that information, Coughlin replied that it was based on ‘Personal Knowledge’. The information supplied by Coughlin matches that in Farrell’s song, except for the added detail of Riggs’ first name.
So, what of McKeon and Riggs? For more information we can turn to the Military Archives: on the night of 12/13 November 1922, the National Army conducted a census of its forces and the resulting document provides a snapshot of the army on that date. Among its records are James McKeon, whose rank is listed as brigade-quartermaster. McKeon, stationed in Ballymahon, gave his age as 22 and his home address as Ballinalee, County Longford. His mother, Kate McKeon, was named as next-of-kin. The information shows that James McKeon was the younger brother of Seán Mac Eoin (contemporary documents give many different spellings of the Mac Eoin surname), the senior National Army commander in the region.
The census also reveals that the army contained a small number of soldiers named Riggs and that most of them were members of the same family from Ballynacargy, Westmeath. At the time of the census two were stationed in the locality: Anthony Riggs in Athlone and Joseph Riggs in Ballymahon. Joseph Riggs gave his age as 23 and his rank was listed as corporal. As such, it is possible that James McKeon and Joseph Riggs were part of the National Army unit that surrounded Bertles, since that unit comprised troops from Ballymahon and Athlone. The subsequent scene may well have played out as described in Farrell’s song and in Coughlin’s letter: Bertles was summarily executed with Joseph Riggs firing the fatal shot.
As we have discussed in previous articles, the National Army was culpable for the deaths of numerous anti-Treaty IRA prisoners, who were shot at the point of capture or killed in custody. Many such instances have been detailed by historians such as Seán Enright and Eoin Kinsella. There are justifiable suspicions that the shooting of Bertles was another of those incidents. However, it is not clear that Farrell or Coughlin witnessed what occurred and they may have relied on others for their information. The one indisputable fact is that Bertles was fatally wounded by National Army soldiers. Yet the circumstances of the shooting remain uncertain.
During the 1930s the Bertles family made applications to the Military Pensions Board and that correspondence contains much information. Dick’s father, also named Richard, submitted an application in 1933, stating that, although he ‘was never a member of the I.R.A. or Irish Volunteers’, he was ‘an active worker for them, carrying and cleaning guns and ammunition from 1916 to 1923’. The application was rejected despite, as we discussed in the previous article, Bertles’ treatment at the hands of the British Crown forces. The board based its rejection on Bertles’ admission that he was not in the IRA.
Another example of the information in those applications was a letter by Thomas McGiff, Dick Bertles’ commanding officer during the Civil War. Although, as discussed above, Bertles was widely mourned after his death, McGiff struck a discordant note when asked by the Pension Board to supply supporting evidence for Helen Bertles’ application. McGiff stated that Bertles was the subject of complaints from the men in his unit about two months before his death. The complainants, according to McGiff, claimed that Bertles was drinking too much, often ‘absent from his unit’ and was ‘neglecting his men’. McGiff ordered an enquiry with the result that ‘some of the charges were proved’. McGiff told the pension board: ‘I removed Comdt Bertles from the unit and detailed him to organisation work. While so engaged he met his death.’
The accuracy, or otherwise, of McGiff’s statement cannot be ascertained, although he did verify that Dick Bertles was a still an active member of the anti-Treaty IRA at the time of his death. Ultimately, in 1936, Helen Bertles, who was then in her eighties, received a ‘partial dependents’ gratuity in respect of her dead son. The board recommended an award of a little over £112 but that figure was reduced to £85 by the Department of Finance: a churlish gesture at the end of a long struggle.
Military Archives – Bureau of Military History Witness Statements – Military Service Pension applications by Helen Bertles, Richard Bertles and Kathleen Jennings – National Army Census, November 1922; UCD Archives – Ernie O’Malley Papers – Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Collection; UK National Archives – British War Office WO 35 files detailing ‘prosecution of Richard Bertles, Senior and Richard Bertles, Junior’; Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Longford Leader, Offaly Independent, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For more 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); Seán Enright, The Irish Civil War: Law, Execution and Atrocity (Merrion Press, 2019); Michael Hopkinson, Green against Green: the Irish Civil War (Gill & Macmillan, 2004); Eoin Kinsella, The Irish Defence Forces 1922-2022: Servant of the Nation (Four Courts Press, 2023); and Uinseann MacEoin’s, Survivors (Argenta Publications, 1987).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 21/06/2023