In this, the first of three articles, we explore the state-sanctioned executions that took place in Athlone’s Custume Barracks in January 1923.
Erskine Childers (National Library of Ireland)
On 20 January 1923 newspapers in Westmeath and around the country received a short notice from the headquarters of the National Army in Dublin: ‘Thomas Hughes, Bogganfin, Athlone; Michael Walsh, Derrymore, Caherlistrane, County Galway; Herbert Collins, Kickeen, Headford, County Galway; Stephen Joyce, Derrymore, County Galway; and Martin Bourke, Caherlistrane, County Galway; were tried by military courts-martial on a charge of being in possession, without proper authority, of arms and ammunitions. The five prisoners were found guilty and sentenced to death. The finding and sentences were duly confirmed and the executions carried out in Athlone that morning at eight a.m.’
The five men were members of the anti-Treaty IRA and they were the most recent casualties of Ireland’s Civil War. A few days later, the Westmeath Independent provided a little more information for its readers: ‘One of the five young men executed at Custume Barracks, Athlone, on last Saturday morning was Mr. Thomas Hughes, eldest son of Mr. Patrick and Mrs. Hughes of Bogganfin, Athlone. He was aged 21 years and received his education at St. Peter's Convent and subsequently at the Marist Brothers' Schools, Athlone. During the Black and Tan terror he was armoury officer of the local I.R.A. Brigade, a position which he held up to the time of the division in the ranks, having been present at the taking over of the Custume Barracks from the British. He had been ‘on the run’ for seven months and was captured by the National troops on December 20th last…’
Before discussing the death of Thomas Hughes in more detail, we will take some time to explore the path that led to the executions behind the walls of Custume Barracks. From the beginning of the Civil War in June 1922 the Provisional Government had debated what sanctions to impose on those who had taken up arms against the new Irish state. In July 1922 William Cosgrave, then Minister for Local Government and acting Minister for Finance, had written to Michael Collins suggesting that the government publish a proclamation that ‘the troops have orders to shoot persons found sniping, ambushing or in possession of bombs, or interfering with Railway communications in areas in which military operations have ceased’.
Collins resisted the introduction of such measures but he was acting at a time when the Provisional Government’s army was in the ascendancy. During July and August 1922, the Provisional Government’s forces pushed the anti-Treaty IRA from cities and towns across the country, taking control of military barracks as they advanced. Those successes, amplified by the amphibious operations conducted in Mayo, Cork, and Kerry, had caused Collins to predict that the anti-Treaty IRA was soon to be defeated, a hope that was echoed in national newspapers. Those hopes proved illusory as the anti-Treaty IRA responded to its defeats by engaging government forces in guerrilla warfare.
By the end of August both Arthur Griffith and Collins were dead, events that threatened the derail the pro-Treaty forces and which renewed anti-Treaty IRA hopes of victory. Government fears were encapsulated in a British army intelligence report from August 1922 that was intercepted by the anti-Treaty IRA: ‘The tragic death of Michael Collins, following so closely on that of Arthur Griffith, will probably have one of two effects; it will either cause the Army and the Nation to lose its temper and take really drastic action against the rebels or it will dishearten them to a dangerous degree. For the moment the indications are that the second alternative is supervening.’
The Dáil was suspended for much of the summer in 1922 but on its resumption, with William Cosgrave as the new Chairman of the Provisional Government, it moved to create a framework for the punishment of those opposing the state through force of arms. On 27 September, the Army Emergency Powers Resolution was introduced in the Dáil and adopted on the following day. The Resolution allowed ‘Military Courts or Committees’ to order ‘the punishment of death’ for offences such as ‘using force against the National Forces’ or the ‘possession without proper authority’ of weapons and explosives.
The first executions under the new policy took place in Dublin’s Kilmainham Jail on 17 November 1922: James Fisher; Peter Cassidy; Richard Twohig; and John Gaffney. None of the four men, who were found guilty of holding weapons without proper authority, were well-known either among the public or within the wider anti-Treaty IRA: a deliberate ploy by the Provisional Government to demonstrate that all sections of the anti-Treaty IRA faced the possibility of execution. Kevin O’Higgins, Minister for Home Affairs, explained the government’s decision in the Dáil: ‘It was better in my opinion, wiser in my opinion, more calculated to achieve the object, to achieve the deterrent object, to take simply the plain or ordinary case of the men who go out with arms to kill their fellow-countrymen, refusing to recognise the ordinary basic principle upon which civilised Government rests everywhere...’
The executions caused widespread consternation, even in the newspaper press which was otherwise overwhelmingly supportive of the government. For example, the Irish Independent, while qualifying its editorial by repeatedly saying that it supported the government against the ‘forces of destruction’, opposed the executions: ‘Writing as strong supporters of the Treaty, deeply anxious for the restoration of order, peace, and stable conditions, we have the gravest misgivings as to the wisdom of inflicting the extreme penalty for the offences as disclosed’. Many regional papers took a similar approach. The Westmeath Examiner stated that the executions would only add to ‘bitterness already great enough’ and fail to bring peace to Ireland. In Athlone, however, the Westmeath Independent displayed little doubt in its strong support for the government. Although it did not directly address the executions, it editorialised that the government had no choice other than to take ‘measures, some admittedly, very drastic, to assert the people’s rights’.
The first executions were a test case for the government: an opportunity to assess the reaction, primarily among the army, but also among the press and public. The army’s continued loyalty and the generally quiescent reaction of the press, albeit with reservations, afforded the government the opportunity to pass the death sentence on more high profile figures, starting with Erskine Childers, who had been captured by the National Army in early November 1922. At the time of his arrest, Childers was returning to Dublin from south-west Munster on the instructions of Éamon de Valera.
On 24 November 1922, Childers was executed by firing squad in Beggars Bush Barracks, Dublin, after being found guilty of possessing a weapon in contravention of the Emergency Powers Resolution: a hand-gun which had been given to him by Michael Collins. The execution of Childers sparked a fierce reaction from opponents of the Treaty but that would not stop the government from sanctioning a campaign of executions across the country, including Athlone. In the next edition, we will discuss the circumstances that led to the executions in Custume Barracks.
A version of this article was originally published in the Athlone Advertiser
Dáil Éireann debates; University College Dublin Archives – Richard Mulcahy Papers and Ernie O’Malley Papers; Irish Independent, Freeman’s Journal, Offaly Independent, Poblacht na hÉireann, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For further detail, see John Burke’s, Athlone 1900-1923: politics, revolution and civil war (The History Press, 2015); Colm Campbell, Emergency Law in Ireland, 1918-1925 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994); Liam Cox, Moate - County Westmeath: A History of Town and District (Alfa Print Ltd, 1981); Michael Hopkinson, Green against Green: the Irish Civil War (Gill & Macmillan, 2004); Uinseann MacEoin, Survivors (Argenta Publications, 1987); 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); Patrick Murray, Oracles of God: The Roman Catholic Church and Irish Politics, 1922-1937 (University College Dublin Press, 2000); and Eleven Galway Martyrs (Tuam Herald, 1985).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 05/01/2023