Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, circa 1917, with her son Owen Sheehy-Skeffington (US Library of Congress). In July and August 1919, the Royal Irish Constabulary attempted to prevent Sheehy Skeffington from making public speeches in Castlepollard and Kilbeggan.
In this edition of our blog, we discuss conflicts in Westmeath during 1919, which foreshadow greater unrest in the county during 1920.
In January 1919, the first Dáil Éireann was launched, followed by the emergence of a republican counter-state which offered a direct challenge to British rule in Ireland. The British government and its Irish Administration in Dublin Castle responded by disrupting republican activities whenever possible, eventually declaring the new Irish parliament an illegal assembly. This struggle, which increased in intensity during 1919, raised tensions across the country. In Westmeath, for example, towns and villages witnessed violent confrontations between police and civilians. Here, we will look at incidents in Mullingar, Kilbeggan, Castlepollard and Athlone.
We begin in Athlone, where, on 5 May 1919, Laurence Ginnell, Westmeath’s elected representative, was due to give a public speech in Father Mathew Hall. However, a combination of the British army and the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) took possession of the building and prevented him from speaking. A large crowd had gathered in advance of the scheduled speech and an increasingly fractious atmosphere developed as Ginnell made repeated attempts to speak, each of which was blocked by the Crown forces. When Ginnell began speaking in St. Mary’s Square, a unit of soldiers, with fixed bayonets, charged the gathering, which contained many women and children. Six people were injured in the ensuing chaos as the crowd stampeded into St. Mary’s Church.
Later that month, Ginnell was arrested in Dublin, partly because of what had happened in Athlone. Dublin Castle’s decision caused indignation in the local press and in Westmeath County Council, which passed a resolution: ‘That we, the Westmeath County Council, condemn the Government for their tyrannical treatment of Mr. Ginnell, M.P. – While professing to uphold the rights and liberties of small nations, the power that holds Ireland in subjection cannot allow their representatives to walk even under arrest, without having them manacled.’ The council’s statement demonstrated a wider public anger and a growing hostility between many sections of the public and the Crown forces.
A couple of months after the Athlone incident, a public meeting at Castlepollard came close to ending in disaster. On 5 July 1919, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, the well-known journalist and political activist, was scheduled to give a speech in the village, although the proposed event had been proclaimed as illegal by the RIC. Sheehy Skeffington attempted to speak in the town’s market square, where hundreds of people had gathered despite the fact that a large police force, accompanied by British soldiers, had blocked local roads. The RIC demanded that the crowd disperse but this order was ignored. The police commander then ordered his men to baton-charge the crowd, some of whom retaliated by throwing stones at their attackers.
At this time, newspapers in Ireland were working under a censorship regime operating from Dublin Castle and press reports on the Castlepollard confrontation are short on detail. According to the Dáil’s ‘Weekly list of Acts of Aggression’ the commander ordered his men to fire on the crowd but they refused to carry out this order. It is uncertain whether such an order was given although a witness later stated that the police did fire above the heads of the crowd but ‘used blank ammunition as no one was hit’. A tense, potentially fatal, stand-off ensued but eventually came to an end when the crowd dispersed.
Such scenes were replicated in August 1919 in Kilbeggan, the location of another speech by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington. Here, the police baton-charged the crowd of between three and five hundred people. It seems, from newspaper reports, that the police were beaten back by the crowd, although Sheehy Skeffington was injured when the police charged the speaker’s platform. Two RIC Constables received minor stab wounds during the fighting.
Perhaps the largest confrontation was that which occurred in Mullingar on 12 July 1919, an event that was widely reported in both the Irish and British press. However, newspapers mostly relied on a brief official account of the event which was given by Dublin Castle to the Press Association (a news agency which supplied news to papers in Ireland and internationally). In England, to use one example, the Daily Mirror carried the headline, ‘Bayonets v. Bottles’ over a brief story of civilians fighting with, and throwing bottles at, British soldiers.
A slightly longer report appeared in the Belfast Telegraph, which stated that ‘soldiers and Sinn Feiners fought for two hours in the streets.’ According to the paper: ‘The Sinn Feiners used bottles and stones, freely, while the soldiers retaliated with bayonets and entrenching tools. At intervals there were baton charges by the police.’ Two police ended up in hospital, although it is not clear who caused their injuries. The Telegraph’s report makes it seem as if the fighting was an organised attack on the Crown forces by republicans (‘Sinn Feiners’ in the paper’s terminology). However, a couple of weeks later, Mullingar Petty Sessions heard testimony that the violence was sparked by a group of ‘4 or 5 soldiers’ in the centre of the town. These soldiers, according to witnesses, attempted to kick down the front doors of multiple private residences and they also attacked civilians on the street. This seems to have been the incident that precipitated the subsequent riot.
Whatever its cause, the Mullingar incident quickly escalated into a confrontation between soldiers and police on one side and local men, most likely active republicans, on the other. The incidents in Athlone, Castlepollard and Kilbeggan, however, involved a cross-section of the public, with women and children in attendance. On each of those occasions, the crowd had assembled to hear public speeches but were dispersed by a violent response from the Crown forces. Although the British army was often deployed during 1919, the police were at the forefront of official efforts to combat challenges to British rule in Ireland. In turn, the public became increasingly resentful of the police and, as 1919 progressed into 1920, RIC reports from across the country chart this changing public attitude. Indeed, 1920 would prove to be a dire year for the RIC. In later posts, we will discuss the RIC, the social boycott of its members, and its activities in Westmeath during these years.
Sources: Bureau of Military History Witness Statements; RIC Chief Inspector’s monthly reports for Westmeath; Weekly list of Acts of Aggression in Ireland by the military and the police; Belfast Telegraph, Cork Examiner, Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Midland Reporter & Westmeath Nationalist, Westmeath Independent and Westmeath Examiner.
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 17/09/2020