George Adamson was shot dead in Athlone on 25 April 1922. His killing remains unsolved, but it foreshadowed the civil war over the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that would break out two months later.
Adamson was born on 3 April 1897, the fifth of seven children born to a shoemaker, Joseph Adamson, of Athlone Road, Moate, and his wife Elizabeth (neé Downey). He attended national school in the town and worked as a labourer before enlisting in the Leinster Regiment in February 1915. His unit formed part of the 10th (Irish) Division, and Adamson served in numerous theatres during the First World War. He became a machine gunner, was promoted as a non-commissioned officer, and was decorated on a number of occasions, receiving the Distinguished Conduct Medal for ‘conspicuous gallantry’ while serving in Egypt. He was discharged in March 1919 and returned to Ireland.
Having served in the British Army during the war, Adamson, like many other veterans, eventually gravitated towards the independence movement. He was employed by the Midlands Great Western Railway (MGWR) in Athlone from May 1919 onwards, working in the pumphouse at its station for some months before losing his job in October 1920. Prior to the war Adamson had been active in the Irish Volunteers and he had joined the Athlone Brigade of the IRA by July 1920. The reason he lost his job was straightforward: he joined the brigade flying column in October 1920 and went on the run, forfeiting his British Army pension as he did so.
Adamson was well-regarded by those contemporaries who recalled him later. According to Gerald Davis, Adamson ‘was a fine type of man, well built, a good athlete and a very good fellow all round’ (he had been a cross-country runner in his youth). Walter Mitchell recalled him as ‘a fine soldier; hot-tempered and all that, but he was able to handle men well’. Seán MacEoin described him as ‘a very intelligent officer and very loyal’, noting that Adamson was involved in many actions of consequence in the Athlone area. He took part in the Parkwood ambush of 22 October 1920 near Moate, and the Cornafulla ambush of 2 February 1921, near Athlone. He was involved in the killing of at least one suspected spy in December 1920, and in a plan to break republican prisoners out of Victoria Barracks in Athlone. He was wounded at least twice, at one point being shot in the chest in an altercation with two Black and Tans.
In February 1921 Adamson succeeded James Tormey as second-in-command of the Athlone Brigade after the latter was killed in action, and a year later, with the rank of commandant, Adamson unveiled a memorial to Tormey at Cornafulla, ‘with great emotion’. On 28 February he was present at the handover of Victoria Barracks and Athlone Castle as the British withdrew from the town following the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. He was also, it seems, centrally involved in the split in the local IRA over the terms of the Treaty, which was the essential prelude to his death.
On 26 March 1922 the IRA held a long-delayed convention at Dublin’s Mansion House, where the organization reaffirmed its commitment to the republic and effectively repudiated the Treaty; some members of the Athlone Brigade attended the convention. The brigade was part of the division commanded by Seán Mac Eoin, who was still officially describing himself as ‘O/C 1st Midland Division, IRA’ (pro-Treaty forces had not adopted the term ‘National Army’ at this stage). Adamson apparently told Mac Eoin that Patrick Morrissey, the officer in command of the Athlone Brigade, had called a meeting to foster opposition to the Treaty within the brigade. Mac Eoin turned up and demanded that ‘all loyal officers’ were to come with him: Adamson was the only combatant officer to do so, though a few followed his example soon after. Those officers who confirmed that they would only take orders from a new IRA executive arising from the convention were suspended by Mac Eoin, who now promoted Adamson from vice-commandant to acting brigadier in command of the Athlone Brigade, thence to brigadier-general. Adamson issued a statement confirming that he was now in command and would guarantee ‘law and order in his area’.
On 24 April Adamson returned to Athlone after visiting his parents in Moate. Later that night, he led a patrol from the barracks to investigate a supposedly suspicious car in Athlone. This belonged to IRA members from Offaly who were visiting fellow anti-treaty republicans – the ‘seceding forces’ as they were later described – who had based themselves in Athlone’s Royal Hotel. The car was seized but some officers were left behind in the process, and Adamson led a second patrol who went out to look for them.
There were conflicting accounts of what happened next. While in Athlone’s Irishtown, Adamson’s party encountered the anti-Treaty IRA members whose car had been taken (who were apparently looking for a car to drive back to Birr) and an altercation ensued. Perhaps inevitably, both sides claimed that the other had started it. At the subsequent inquest it was stated that Adamson and his comrades were confronted about the missing car, with one of their challengers apparently being heard to say ‘We mean it George, put up your hands’, before shots were fired. Neither side could, or would, identify who had opened fire, but Adamson was shot through the head from behind, at close range, with the bullet exiting at his left ear. MacEoin, who had been staying nearby, claimed to have heard the gunfire and was one of the first on the scene, where he found Adamson slumped on the ground. A doctor was called around 2am; Adamson, while semi-conscious, was mortally wounded. He was taken back to the barracks, where he died the next morning, at around 10am.
His body lay in state in the barracks; it was reported that perhaps 5,000 people paid their respects to him there. A protest meeting took place in his hometown of Moate on the night of 25 April, with shops closing early to facilitate it. The meeting concluded with condemnation of the killing and expressions of sympathy for the Adamson family, sentiments that were replicated in the various meetings that addressed his killing in the following days and weeks: a sitting of Moate District Court, a meeting the pipe band Adamson had once been a member of, trade union meetings, and the May meeting of Athlone No. 1 Rural Council, which passed the relevant resolutions of sympathy and abhorrence in silence.
Adamson’s funeral was held in St Patrick’s Church in Athlone on 27 April, with the procession attracting a huge crowd in the town. Eoin O’Duffy, as chief of staff of the pro-Treaty forces, led the official presence amidst a wide range of individuals and organizations in attendance. More the sixty wreaths from friends, units of the IRA (presumably pro-Treaty), ex-servicemen’s associations in Moate and Athlone, former colleagues in the MGWR, the ITGWU, and many others testified to the widespread revulsion at the killing of a prominent and well-regarded figure in command of the garrison in a major, and strategically important, town. It was also condemned at national level by political figures on either side of the Treaty divide, such as Arthur Griffith and Harry Boland. An enormous cortege made its way to Mount Temple via Moate, where crowds turned out to pay their respects. A volley of shots was fired over the grave, where the Very Rev. Canon Langan, parish priest of Moate, officiated; he had also chaired the meeting in Moate earlier in the week, where he was reportedly applauded after telling the assembled crowd of ‘the necessity of all joining together to put down such actions by the minority in our midst’. Langan could easily have been endorsing the actions of Provisional Government forces, as numerous people were detained in raids by Provisional Government forces in both Athlone and Moate following Adamson’s death. The republicans in the Royal Hotel denied any involvement in the killing but had been forced out of the hotel by Mac Eoin’s forces within hours of the killing and had been detained in the barracks, where they were allegedly mistreated.
Who shot George Adamson? The inquest into his death concluded that he had been murdered by a person or persons unknown. At the inquest Adamson’s father accused his comrades of leading him into a trap, and it was later rumoured that he had been killed by his colleagues. The most likely culprits seem the most obvious ones: members of the anti-treaty IRA, whether by accident or design. Numerous anti-Treaty republicans expressed their regret at the killing, and the fact that a warning was apparently shouted out before Adamson was killed suggests that his death may not have been intended, but the actual outcome make this a moot point.
Adamson’s death, coming when it did, had a particular resonance. It came soon after the occupation of Dublin’s Four Courts by a republican garrison, the day after the Labour movement’s general strike against militarism (which had been marked in Athlone), and in the same week as the killings of Protestant civilians in Cork and of members of both pro- and anti-Treaty forces in Mullingar. Adamson’s killing, in other words, became interpreted as part of a perceived pattern of unrest and violence that seemed to point to the looming reality of another conflict. The Westmeath Independent yoked such events together, as did many contemporaries, to conclude that ‘we are drifting perilously near to the horrors of civil war’. It was a prediction that would be vindicated, and the killing of George Adamson can thus be seen as another milestone on the road to that civil war.
John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series
GRO civil birth records (https://www.irishgenealogy.ie/en/); National Archives, 1901 census (http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/); Military Archives, Dublin: Bureau of Military History Witness Statements and Military Service (1916-23) Pensions Collection (https://www.militaryarchives.ie/en/home/); Freeman’s Journal; Irish Independent; Westmeath Independent; Uinseann MacEoin, Survivors (Dublin, 1987); Phil Tomkins, Twice a hero (Glouchestershire, 2012); Gearóid Ó Faoleán, ‘The shooting of Brigadier-General George Adamson 1922’, New Hibernia Review, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring 2015), pp 115-30; John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy (eds), John Borgonovo (associate ed.), Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Cork, 2017).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 25/04/2022