A headline in the Evening Herald above a series of reports describing the events of Easter weekend, 1920, during which the IRA had attacked RIC barracks and government buildings across Ireland. The attacks marked an intensification of the War of Independence and were part of a process in which the RIC retreated from many rural areas, concentrating its forces in larger and more easily fortified barracks.
Following on from our previous post, we discuss the IRA’s attempts to diminish the power and influence of the RIC.
In late 1919, the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) ordered Seamus O’Meara, the commanding officer of its Athlone Brigade, to organise attacks against the military and police in his locality. Yet, despite the exhortations of GHQ, it seems to have been April 1920 before the IRA in Westmeath took concerted action against the Crown forces. The IRA’s target would be the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).
By then, the RIC was in an increasingly perilous position and had already begun to abandon barracks in rural areas. Many of those barracks were small and had few defensive features other than barred windows, so the RIC leadership decided to consolidate its forces in larger and more easily fortified barracks. Consequently, the RIC abandoned hundreds of barracks throughout Ireland.
The retreat of the RIC from many areas of rural Ireland gave the IRA more freedom to operate, a freedom that became apparent during the Easter weekend of 1920. On Easter Saturday, IRA GHQ launched a nationwide campaign of barrack burnings that sought to bolster the morale of its units and also to increase the pressure on the RIC. In Westmeath, evacuated barracks at Mount Temple, Brawny, Creggan, Fore, Finea, Coole and Collinstown were burned down.
Burning empty barracks, while it highlighted the inability of the RIC to protect its infrastructure, was a relatively risk-free endeavour for the Westmeath IRA. Attacking a manned barracks would be a much tougher test of their capabilities and initial plans for attacks – jointly organised by the IRA in Athlone and Mullingar – at Ballymore, Ballynacargy, Drumraney and Castletown Geoghegan came to nothing. It was not until July 1920 that the IRA in Westmeath made a sustained attempt to capture an occupied RIC station.
Their choice was the barracks at Streamstown. We will concentrate on this incident since it is typical of the small-scale operations conducted by the IRA in Westmeath from autumn 1919 until autumn 1920. This building contained a garrison of eight police, including a sergeant. The door was always locked and the windows were protected by steel sheets. There were no windows on the back or the gable ends of the building. Henry O’Brien, a member of the IRA unit involved in the attack, stated that ‘about 40 of our men were mobilised for this operation which would include scouting on the roads leading to Streamstown’. For armament most of the men carried shotguns while they also had ‘8 or 9 revolvers of different type with a limited supply of ammunition and four or five Lee Enfield service rifles with a fair supply of .303 ammunition.’
Volunteers had been watching the Streamstown barracks in the weeks before the attack and were aware that on Sunday mornings it was a routine for some of the police to travel to a nearby church for Mass. On the morning of the attack three policemen headed for church, leaving the sergeant and a few constables within the station. While returning from the church, the three policemen were kidnapped by an IRA party, who took their uniforms. Two IRA volunteers, Thomas Costello and James Tormey (in some accounts, Thomas Costello and Brian Mulvihill), dressed themselves in RIC uniforms and approached the barracks. Henry O’Brien described what happened next:
'In the meantime a party had got into a covering position behind the railway line in front of the barracks, while other men armed with revolvers were concealed around the barracks ready to rush it. I was one of the rushing party. While we were waiting for our two bogus policemen to come up and get the door opened, the police in the barracks started fixing the steel sheets on the windows in position…'
Apparently, the police inside the building had spotted the ambushers. Minutes later Costello and Tormey arrived at the station and, through the locked door, engaged the occupants in conversation. The police were not fooled by the would-be intruders and the two IRA men could hear the ominous sound of guns being loaded. They retreated from the barracks just as one of the police tossed a hand-grenade through a loophole in the door. Henry O’Brien described the fighting:
'We now opened fire on the barracks and the garrison replied with rifle fire...Our men now came up with the mine against the gable end of the barracks, but the mine failed to explode. These things were most unreliable…all hope of taking the place had now vanished and we were ordered to withdraw and disperse for home, bringing our arms with us.'
The IRA had not come close to capturing the barracks or its stock of weapons and a frustrated GHQ reproached O’Meara for the performance of the Athlone Brigade.
Yet the mere fact that an attack had taken place highlighted the vulnerability of small and relatively isolated RIC barracks. That evening, RIC reinforcements arrived from Mullingar and brought the police back to the town, abandoning the barracks in Streamstown. A few hours later, a small detachment of the local IRA returned and burned the building. Its destruction was another example of the diminishing power of the RIC.
In the months before and after the attempted capture of Streamstown Barracks, the RIC evacuated many barracks in Westmeath, withdrawing the police to towns such as Athlone, Mullingar, Kinnegad and Castlepollard. In and around Athlone, for example, the barracks in Irishtown, Glasson, Clonark and Bealnamulla were evacuated. Other evacuated barracks included those at Crazy Corner, Johnstown, Littleton, Killucan, and Delvin. The RIC barracks that remained occupied were no longer a part of the local community but had become socially isolated fortresses.
Consider this description of the RIC barracks in Moate in October 1920 in Liam Cox’s 1974 history of the town. Cox, after interviewing IRA veterans of the War of Independence, described the building ‘as protected by sand-bags around the door, barbed wire entanglements seven or eight yards deep on all sides, and the windows sheeted with bullet proof steel.’
This was a coherent part of Dáil and IRA policy, although its effects seem to have been disregarded by the British Government despite repeated warnings by pro-Union newspapers such as The Irish Times. That paper repeatedly counselled the government on the need to support the police militarily and also to re-occupy the empty barracks. As The Irish Times saw it, ‘if the police go, everything will go’.
The retreat of the RIC did have the consequences that The Irish Times feared. Indeed, the RIC Inspector General’s report for August 1920 admitted that Westmeath ‘was in a bad state’ after the Streamstown attack and that ‘outrages increased…but owing to the scarcity of police there were probably a good many more which were not reported at all.’ The Westmeath Chief Inspector’s report, later in January 1921, would call for the vacated barracks to be restored as a necessary first step in regaining control of the county.
The RIC, however, would struggle to regain the control it had lost. In forthcoming blogs, we will discuss the development of the IRA in Westmeath, the emergence of the Dáil court system and the reaction of the Crown forces.
Bureau of Military History Brigade Activity Reports; Bureau of Military History Military Service Pension Collection; Bureau of Military History Witness Statements; RIC Chief Inspector’s monthly reports for Westmeath; Cork Examiner, Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Midland Reporter & Westmeath Nationalist, Westmeath Independent and Westmeath Examiner. For more detail, see Liam Cox, Moate – County Westmeath: A History of Town and District (Athlone, Alfa Print Ltd, 1981); Ian Kenneally, ‘The War of Independence in Westmeath’ in the Journal of The Old Athlone Society, 2013, and Russell Shortt’s, ‘IRA Activity in Westmeath during the War of Independence, 1918-1921: Parts One and Two’ in Ríocht na Midhe: Records of Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, 2005 and 2006.
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 21/09/2020