In the first of two articles, we examine the role played by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Westmeath, particularly its relationship with the Irish Republican Army between 1919 and 1921. As was the case in other counties, most IRA officers in Westmeath were members of the IRB.
This revolutionary organisation long pre-dated the IRA, having been founded in 1858, although it was reorganised by Michael Collins, Harry Boland and others in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising. Due to its secret oath-bound nature the IRB was condemned by the Catholic Church and viewed with suspicion by sections of Irish society. Both Éamon de Valera and Cathal Brugha, for example, distrusted the IRB and the Brotherhood was a source of tension within Dáil Éireann and the IRA, a situation that we will consider in the second article.
In this photo, we see a group of Irish Volunteers at a training camp in Coosan during 1915 – Back row: left to right, Peter Malynn (Athlone), Dick Fitzgerald (Kerry), J.J. Burke (Dublin), J.J. O’Connell (Sligo), Paul Galligan (Cavan) Larry Lardner (Athenry), Terence MacSwiney (Cork), Sean Kearns (Kerry) Front row: left to right, Mick Spillane (Killarney), J. Morley (Ballaghadereen), Michael O’Buachalla (Maynooth), Billy Mullins (Tralee), Mick Cronin (Cork), John Brennan (Roscommon) and Mick Allis (Limerick). Peter Malynn was also a longstanding member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Westmeath. During the War of Independence, Malynn led the Brotherhood’s Athlone circle – photo provided by Athlone Public Library, with names provided by Dr John Keane.
The IRB was organised into groups called ‘circles’ and each circle was commanded by an officer called a ‘centre’. This structure was designed to limit the damage that could be caused by spies and informers since each circle was, theoretically, independent of others: members of a particular cell supposedly did not know the identity of those in other cells and all communications to and from the higher echelons of the Brotherhood were funnelled through the centre.
A few individuals drove the development of the IRB in Westmeath before the War of Independence. For example, Michael McCormack, an officer in the IRA’s Drumraney Battalion, joined the IRB in 1907. He recalled that Peter Malynn (often spelled Malinn, depending on the source) was ‘organising the I.R.B. in County Westmeath at this time’. McCormack attended Brotherhood meetings in Athlone and Tullamore from 1907 until 1913, by which time the two towns were supplying a total of about 55 members to the IRB. During this period, the IRB in Westmeath seems to have taken responsibility for organising the Brotherhood in north Offaly and, from 1913 onwards, Michael McCormack’s brother John organised for the IRB in both counties.
In late 1910, Michael McCormack became a founder of the Leo Casey Hurling Club in Drumraney, which, according to contemporary reports in the Westmeath Independent, was subsequently very popular in the locality. McCormack recalled that the club’s committee ‘were all members of the I.R.B.’ and the club was used by the Drumraney circle to disguise Brotherhood activities. McCormack became centre of the Drumraney circle at some stage between 1913 and 1916. By early 1918, this circle had ‘reached a strength of about twenty’ and McCormack credited that year’s ‘conscription threat’ as giving a further boost to its membership. As we have seen in earlier editions of the blog, the conscription crisis of 1918 greatly boosted, albeit often temporarily, the Westmeath membership of Sinn Féin, the Volunteers and Cumann na mBan.
A similar account was provided by Henry O’Brien who joined the Athlone circle early in 1914. O’Brien, who later becoming a member of the flying column attached to the IRA’s Athlone Brigade, recalled that the Athlone circle had ‘very few members’ at that time. Seamus O’Brien (brother of Henry) was then the Athlone centre but he was replaced by Peter Malynn at some point thereafter. Malynn, a shop owner in Athlone, was a prominent local Volunteer as well as a longstanding member of the IRB. He was one of a few dozen Volunteers who mobilised in the Athlone area during the 1916 Rising. Arrested by the Crown forces after the Rising, Malynn was transferred to Britain and held in Wakefield Prison near Leeds. His incarceration was widely criticised by organisations such as Athlone’s urban council and the Westmeath Independent. That public outcry helped to hasten Malynn’s release, which occurred in July 1916.
Seamus O’Meara, who would be O/C of the IRA’s Athlone Brigade during the first phase of the War of Independence, returned to Athlone in 1917 after spending a period in Drogheda. He recalled that the Athlone circle then had ‘about 18 or 20 men’. Thomas Costello, who would replace O’Meara as O/C of the Athlone Brigade in 1920, was recruited into the Brotherhood after the 1916 Rising by John McCormack from Drumraney. Costello founded a circle in Moate before transferring to the Athlone circle in 1918. Then, in his own words, he was ‘soon appointed Centre for the Co. Westmeath’. In practice, this meant that he was also responsible for organising the IRB in north Offaly. Costello stated that he oversaw circles in Cloghan, Ferbane, Flahen [likely to be have been transcribed incorrectly, perhaps refers to Rahan in Offaly], Glenidan, Moate, Mullingar and ‘at some other places’.
Costello was replaced as centre for Westmeath by David Daly in 1919, although there is no indication that Costello left the Brotherhood at that time. Daly had joined the IRB in 1918 after being sworn in by Seán McCormack of Drumraney and he then formed a circle in the Faheran area which contained ‘five or six members’. Daly, who was also an officer in the Athlone Brigade, later described his activities as an IRB centre. It required, he said, ‘travelling all over the county attending meetings of local circles and attending meetings in Dublin of the Leinster Council’. Daly stated that ‘Sean Murphy of Clanbrassil Street, Dublin, was Secretary of the Leinster Council at this time’. Meetings of the Leinster Council were usually held in the premises of the Dublin Typographical Provident Society on Gardiner Street. The society was a trade union for workers in the printing trade and it had longstanding and close links with the IRB through figures such as Patrick Thomas Daly and Michael McHugh, a printer and journalist with the Freeman’s Journal.
Seamus O’Meara stated that ‘as time went on nearly all the officers of the I.R.A. became members of the I.R.B. and also some of the men’. Yet he believed that ‘the organisation did not really serve any great purpose except to keep a strong backbone in the Volunteer movement’. O’Meara’s description of the IRB as the spine of the IRA was replicated in many contemporary accounts. Thomas Costello stated that the IRB aimed to ‘fill the key positions’ in the IRA: ‘all members of the I.R.B. were also members’ of the IRA and ‘thus they acted as a backbone’. David Daly gave a similar account, saying that the Brotherhood ‘formed a hard core of resistance’ inside the IRA that ‘would carry on the fight should the Volunteers weaken in their purpose’.
Yet despite his seniority within the IRB, Daly later questioned the Brotherhood’s usefulness during the War of Independence: ‘It is hard to say what was really the objective of the organisation at this time...’ Daly’s comments were echoed by his contemporaries in Westmeath circles who generally portray the IRB as little more than a talking shop. Frank O’Connor, an officer in the Athlone Brigade who joined the Athlone circle in 1917, recalled that: ‘We paid a subscription of, I think, threepence per week. Meetings were held generally every month. Business was of a routine nature and discussions on the existing situation in the area and the country in general took place and suggestions of what might be done to intensify the work were made.’ He stated that ‘such suggestions usually came to nothing’, adding that ‘I cannot see that the organisation served any useful purpose, but the powers at headquarters seemed to think that it did’. Henry O’Brien recalled that meetings ‘were usually held monthly and we paid a small subscription per month also’. Those meetings were ‘usually of a very routine nature, followed by a discussion on the military situation and suggestions for intensifying the war against the enemy’. He claimed that ‘on the whole, the organisation did not seem to serve any very useful purpose...’
According to O’Brien, the Athlone IRB received a boost around 1920 when a ‘big number of members were taken into the circle’. All of the new members were IRA volunteers but this influx does not seem to have improved the circle’s fortunes. O’Brien recalled that ‘when things became really hot and communications became impossible, the organisation kind of faded out and became inactive’. In Westmeath, that ‘really hot period’ comprised the twelve months from August 1920 to July 1921. O’Brien’s account was echoed by Seamus O’Meara, who said that ‘during the period of the Black and Tans, the I.R.B. organisation became inactive and may be said to have practically ceased to exist’.
During that period, Peter Malynn was the Athlone circle’s centre but, despite his history and status among local republicans, he seems to have achieved little in the role. Frank O’Connor recalled that he ‘took Malinn’s place at a later date when he was considered not to be active enough’. It is not clear when this changeover occurred, although Seamus O’Meara stated that Malynn remained centre ‘until the Truce’ of July 1921.
The Athlone circle’s inactivity was replicated by circles across the county and contemporaries in the Mullingar Brigade area had comparably low opinions of the IRB’s effectiveness. John Macken, the commander of the IRA’s Castlepollard Battalion and one of the most active officers in the Mullingar Brigade before his capture by the Crown forces in October 1920, was dismissive of the IRB. He joined the group around the end of 1917 after being enlisted by Joe Kennedy, the centre of the Castlepollard circle. In referring to the monthly Brotherhood meetings, Macken concluded that they led to ‘nothing concrete in the way of hostilities against the British’.
According to James Maguire, who had been initiated into the IRB by Joe Kennedy in 1918, the Brotherhood had circles in nearly every company area of the Mullingar Brigade by April or May 1921. Otherwise, Maguire, who became O/C of the Mullingar Brigade in late 1920, had little to say about the IRB, other than that it ‘served a purpose early on’ and that ‘it continued up to the truce and even after it’. In the next blog post, we will consider the IRB’s purpose in Westmeath and discuss its activities in the county during the War of Independence and after the Truce of July 1921.
Bureau of Military History Brigade Activity Reports; Bureau of Military History Collins Papers; Bureau of Military History Military Service Pensions Collection; Bureau of Military History Witness Statements; RIC Chief Inspector’s monthly reports for Westmeath; Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Irish Times, 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); Michael Hopkinson, The Irish War of Independence (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 2002); Ian Kenneally, ‘The War of Independence in Westmeath’ in the Journal of The Old Athlone Society, 2013; and Owen Magee’s The IRB: the Irish Republican Brotherhood from the Land League to Sinn Féin (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2005).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 24/11/2021