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The Return of the Dead

Earlier this year, we devoted three articles to the state-sanctioned executions that took place in Athlone’s Custume Barracks on 20 January 1923. In this edition, we discuss the ceremonies in which the remains of those executed were returned to their families.


Workers repairing Athlone Waterworks (National Library of Ireland). On 7 February 1923, the anti-Treaty IRA used explosives to destroy the waterworks. The attack, according to local reports, was a reprisal for the January executions in Athlone. In a later article, we will look in more detail at this event.


Twenty motor vehicles were lined up along the bridge of Athlone, running from the barrack gate to Custume Place: twenty vehicles for twenty bodies. A heavy rain was falling. Soldiers were on the streets. So too were men, women and children. Some were there to mourn the loss of relatives, the loss of friends, the loss of a republic. Others were there merely to watch. Before them a strange and unsettling ceremony was taking place. It was the day in which the remains of men executed during the Civil War were returned to their families. It was Tuesday 28 October 1924.



During the Civil War it was government policy not to hand over to relations or friends the remains of executed men: a policy designed to prevent funerals from becoming a focal point for those opposed to the Treaty. The government’s decision was controversial at the time and it remained a topic of public discussion even after the end of the Civil War since the bodies of those executed still remained buried on state properties.

Following the end of the war, the government ordered a drastic reduction in the size of the National Army, a decision that led, inadvertently, to renewed public calls for the remains of the executed to be returned to their families. With thousands of men being demobilised, the army had no need for many of the buildings that it had occupied during the conflict and it relinquished control of locations around the country, including Tuam Workhouse which was the site of six executions in April 1923. Before the army departed the workhouse in August 1924, it exhumed the remains of the six men buried there, which were then transferred to Athlone’s Custume Barracks for reburial. Those events quickly became public knowledge, resulting in widespread criticism of the government, even among members of the ruling Cumann na nGaedheal party.

The government, with William Cosgrave as President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, responded by authorising the exhumation of all of the executed men and the return of the remains to their families. There was a danger, as Cosgrave recognised, that the subsequent handover ceremonies could lead to conflict or anti-government demonstrations and, in an attempt to avoid such scenes, he ordered that all bodies were to be returned on a single day. In total, 81 bodies were to be handed over: 77 members of the anti-Treaty IRA and four civilians who were executed in 1923 after being found guilty of armed robbery.



During mid- to late October 1924, National Army work parties travelled around the country exhuming the bodies of the executed and then transporting them to selected locations. At the same time, the government placed notices in newspapers stating that relatives of the executed men must inform the army of ‘their intention of claiming the remains’. Otherwise, the ‘military authorities would have them buried in sanctified ground.’

On the day of the handover, similar scenes were played out at multiple locations: Carlow, Cork, the Curragh Camp, Dublin, Dundalk, Ennis, Limerick, Kilkenny, Mullingar, Roscrea, Tralee, Waterford and Wexford. The largest ceremony, however, was in Athlone. Of the bodies in Athlone, five belonged to those who were executed in Custume Barracks on 20 January 1923. The remainder came from execution sites such as Tuam, Drumboe Castle in County Donegal, and Birr Castle in County Offaly.

In Athlone, the ceremony was due to begin at 12 noon with the army chaplain in Custume Barracks officiating. Major-General Seán Mac Eoin of the army’s Western Command and a number of staff officers were also present. There was a brief disruption a few minutes before noon when a group of men – described in the press as ‘a guard of honour of I.R.A.’ – arrived, and was formed up in double-line facing the entrance gate to the barracks. It seems that the group was unarmed and it was soon dispersed by the army.

According to contemporary reports, ‘soldiers carrying rifles with bayonets fixed at the slope emerged from the barracks and arrested a young man named Bernard Mulvihill, who appeared to be in charge of the Republican Guard of honour’. Mulvihill was taken to the barracks by the soldiers and ‘as he passed in through the gates, a little cheer went up from the bystanders’. He acknowledged the cheer by taking off his hat, after which there were shouts of ‘Up the Republic’. During the day four other men were arrested but none of them, nor Mulvihill, were found to be carrying arms and all were quickly ‘set at liberty’. Athlone avoided conflict that day, unlike Dublin and Dundalk which both saw fighting between soldiers and mourners.



The funeral cortege of Thomas Hughes (Athlone Public Library)



The Athlone ceremony began shortly after Mulvihill was taken to the barracks. The first body handed over was that of Michael Walsh from Caherlistrane, County Galway. He was executed in Athlone on 20 January 1923. After Walsh, the remains of the others were handed over at intervals of ten minutes each. According to contemporary newspapers, the remains of the dead were contained in the coffins in which they were originally buried. Each of the coffins was then encased in a larger wooden casket, painted a bright yellow. As those yellow caskets ‘passed out by the West Gate, into the public square, military honours were rendered by the guard’.

About two hours into the ceremony, the remains of Thomas Hughes from Bogganfin, Athlone, were brought out of the barracks. Hughes, a member of the anti-Treaty IRA, was captured by the National Army in December 1922 and tried by a military committee which found him guilty of possessing weapons ‘without proper authority’, an offence punishable by death. He was, like Walsh, executed in Custume Barracks on 20 January 1923.

Hughes’s casket, covered with a tricolour, was taken to Athlone Town Hall, where it was placed in the boardroom before a temporary altar. On the following Thursday morning, he was taken to Cornamagh Cemetery for burial, where Dr. Conor Byrne, T.D. – elected as a Republican candidate in the August 1923 general election – delivered the oration. Byrne’s speech was an attempt to rally anti-Treaty opinion. ‘Thomas Hughes’, he told the mourners, ‘and his comrades have committed this unfinished task to our care: let us take it up, pure and noble, as they left it, and no power on earth can prevail against us’. That was the ‘lesson’ that they could take ‘from the brink of this grave and from those of the 77 who are committed to consecrated ground throughout Ireland today’. It was the best means, he said, by which to honour ‘our gallant dead’. Byrne concluded by saying that ‘vengeance and hate we can leave to our enemies’. 

So it was that Thomas Hughes was buried. Perhaps the funeral provided his family with a moment of peace. For the country it was a day of conflict, of marches and of graveside orations. It signified that while the Civil War was over its legacy would endure.

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); Breen Timothy Murphy, The Government’s Executions Policy during the Irish Civil War, 1922-1923 (Unpublished PhD Thesis, NUI Maynooth, 2010); 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: 12/04/2023