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Over the wall, across the river

During the Civil War, Athlone’s Custume Barracks held hundreds of prisoners and previous articles have explored some of their stories: figures such as Patrick Mulrennan and Thomas Hughes, both members of the anti-Treaty IRA who were shot dead within the barracks; Eva Fitzgerald, a member of Cumann na mBan who was briefly incarcerated because of her intelligence gathering for the anti-Treaty IRA; and Thomas Maguire, an anti-Treaty IRA officer who escaped from the barracks in June 1923. In this article we will look at an escape attempt made during August 1922 which included James Maguire, a native of Glenidan, in the north of County Westmeath.

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National Army troops distributing rifles at Passage West, Cork (National Library of Ireland). As the National Army advanced across the south and west in late summer and autumn 1922 it captured huge numbers of anti-Treaty IRA prisoners. By October 1922, around 900 of those prisoners were incarcerated in Custume Barracks, Athlone.


‘an escape plan’

Among the prisoners in Custume Barracks during August 1922 was Thomas Heavey, an officer in the anti-Treaty IRA’s 4th Western Division. Heavey, as he later recalled in Uinseann Mac Eoin’s book, Survivors, was captured by National Army forces in July 1922 and sent to Custume Barracks. There, Heavey ‘quickly found out that there was an escape plan afoot’. He was in a cell with eight other prisoners, most of whom were from the west of Ireland but which also included Seamus Fox from Athlone and James Maguire from Glenidan, who had commanded the Irish Republican Army’s Mullingar Brigade during the War of Independence.

They prepared their escape by surreptitiously ‘cutting round the jamb of the door’. While engaged in that process the prisoners disguised the cutting marks by covering them with ‘soap mixed with dust’ and, eventually, they made enough cuts to be able to lift the door off its hinges. As they exited the cell, one of the prisoners brought with him an iron bar in case they crossed paths with any of the sentries but that was a last resort since their hopes rested on going unnoticed. The group entered ‘a big hall’ but, by ‘lifting a large flagstone’, they were ‘able to get down to the boiler house underneath’. According to Heavey, ‘Big Jim Brown of Newport was the mainstay in this work’ as he lifted the flagstone and set it back in its place once the entire group had gone through the gap.

The boiler house door opened onto a yard which the prisoners knew was patrolled by sentries. However, they encountered no sentries since ‘it was pouring rain, and this kept them in their boxes’. The prisoners were then faced with a wall but they were well-prepared for that latest obstacle as they carried a rope made of sheets and a ladder ‘made out of bed boards’. The boards, Heavey recalled, ‘were held together with nails we had extracted from the galvanised dining hall’ that the National Army had constructed for the prisoners.


‘slow progress’

One of the group, Frank O’Beirne, was first up the ladder ‘which stopped well short of the top’ of the wall, although O’Beirne was able to climb the remaining distance. When he reached the summit he threw down the rope. ‘The rest of us’, Heavey recalled, ‘followed in our stocking feet’. The last of the nine prisoners to reach the rope pulled the ladder up with him.

On the other side of the wall was ‘the transport yard’ and among the vehicles was an ‘armoured car’. That vehicle offered a moment of temptation to the prisoners who had a ‘whispered chat’ about whether they ‘should try to take it and make a dash for the gate’. They decided, however, to ignore that option and to continue their softly-softly exit. Using the ladder and rope, they scaled another wall. Again, they went unnoticed, all the time shielded by the persistent heavy rain. Finally, they ‘got over the perimeter wall onto the main Galway road’.

The prisoners, now escapees, knew that there were sentry posts at various points in the locality, including at the town bridge, but they were keen to ‘cross the Shannon to the Leinster side’ as they expected that ‘the Staters [National Army troops] would search for us on the Connaught side first’. With Maguire and Fox acting as their local guides they found two boats moored on the river and Heavey ‘waded out and dragged them in’. Five escapees piled into one of the boats and four into the other.

The boats had no oars but the prisoners solved that problem by breaking apart their makeshift ladder and using the boards as paddles. ‘It was slow progress,’ Heavey recalled, ‘but we managed it’. They ‘landed at an old factory yard’ and walked from there to a railway line. As they walked along the line, they were ‘fired on’, presumably by a contingent of the National Army, but the fugitives continued moving and left their potential captors behind.

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In this Westmeath County Council Decade of Centenaries video feature, Brian Maguire talks about his father, James (Seamus) Maguire (1889-1960), a native of Glenidan, County Westmeath who in November 1920 was appointed commanding officer of the Irish Republican Army’s Mullingar Brigade. Brian talks about his father’s activities, as well as those of his mother Sheila, between 1916 and 1923.


‘a place called Coosan’

The group, all of whom were ‘wet and miserable’, eventually reached ‘a wooded place and holed up there for the night’. Heavey later described the next day: ‘I remember that morning particularly because there was a regatta on the river.’ Heavey’s mention of the regatta suggests that the escape happened around Monday 21 August 1922. The Lough Ree Yacht Club Regatta, as reported by the Westmeath Independent, opened that day despite the ‘very unfavourable weather conditions’. (The regatta would be suspended later in the week as a mark of respect for Michael Collins after he was fatally wounded in County Cork on 22 August.)

Heavey subsequently learned that he and his fellow fugitives were hiding in ‘a place called Coosan’. That morning, Heavey and the others approached a house in the area, which they discovered was owned by a woman named Hughes. They told her that they ‘had escaped from jail’ and asked if she could help them. It was a risk but Hughes welcomed them into her home: ‘she fed us and we got dried out’. Hughes also offered to help get the group ‘up the river’ and she arranged their passage aboard ‘a cabin cruiser’ named ‘The Connaught’ that was moored nearby.

On reaching the cruiser, they ‘saw a fellow in a Free State uniform and carrying a revolver in the cabin’. That sight unnerved the escapees but, as Heavey later wrote, since ‘Mrs. Hughes had arranged this, we went ahead anyway and got on board’. The soldier took the boat across Lough Ree. It encountered one other vessel, perhaps belonging to the National Army, but the two boats passed without incident. The cruiser then travelled ‘north of Lough Ree’ and the escaped prisoners went ashore after saying ‘goodbye to the Free State fellow’. Heavey never found out the soldier’s name, although he later made efforts to do so.

News of the escape from Custume Barracks was welcomed by the anti-Treaty IRA leadership, not least because it included James Maguire, who was highly-regarded due to his activities during the War of Independence in which he not only led the Mullingar Brigade but was one of the few effective officers in the area. On 24 September 1922, Ernie O’Malley (then Acting Assistant Chief of Staff in the anti-Treaty IRA) sent a memorandum to Liam Lynch (anti-Treaty IRA Chief of Staff) stating that Mullingar ‘will make good’, suggesting that the National Army would face renewed pressure from anti-Treaty forces in an area that had been controlled by the National Army since the early days of the war. Maguire, however, was recaptured by the National Army a few weeks later and incarcerated in Trim, County Meath.

Heavey was likewise recaptured by the National Army. His freedom lasted only a few days before he was captured after a gunfight with National Army soldiers near Claremorris, County Mayo. Heavey was sent back to Custume Barracks, put in ‘solitary confinement’ and given ‘right hidings for having escaped’. He would subsequently recount the often brutal circumstances of his second detention in Athlone. In a later article, we will return to Heavey’s story and look at other aspects of life in Custume Barracks during the Civil War. In our next article, however, we will discuss the state-sanctioned executions that took place in Mullingar in March 1923.



Military Archives – Bureau of Military History Witness Statements – Military Service Pension applications; UCD Archives – Ernie O’Malley Papers; Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Longford Leader, Offaly Independent, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For more detail, see Colm Campbell, Emergency Law in Ireland, 1918-1925 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994); 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); Uinseann MacEoin, Survivors (Argenta Publications, 1987); Breen Timothy Murphy, The Government’s Executions Policy during the Irish Civil War, 1922-1923 (Unpublished PhD Thesis, NUI Maynooth, 2010); William Murphy, ‘Imprisonment during the Civil War’ in the Atlas of the Irish Revolution, edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy, with associate editor John Borgonovo (Cork University Press, 2017); Dominic Price, The Flame and the Candle: war in Mayo, 1919-1924 (The Collins Press, Dublin, 2012); and Eleven Galway Martyrs (Tuam Herald, 1985).

Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 20/07/2023