In earlier articles we discussed the state-sanctioned executions in Custume Barracks on 20 January 1923 when five anti-Treaty IRA prisoners, including Thomas Hughes from Bogganfin, were executed by firing squad. Some accounts of those executions state that six men were sentenced to death. In this article we will explore the case of the sixth man, Thomas Maguire.
A scene from early in the Civil War (National Library of Ireland). As the National Army advanced it captured large numbers of the anti-Treaty IRA.
Maguire, who commanded the IRA’s South Mayo Brigade during the War of Independence, was elected to the second Dáil in June 1921 as a Sinn Féin candidate for Mayo South-Roscommon South and was re-elected for that constituency in the June 1922 general election. After his appointment as commanding officer of the IRA’s 2nd Western Division in October 1921 Maguire opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and participated in fighting against the National Army during the early months of the Civil War.
Maguire was captured by the National Army in October 1922 and brought to Custume Barracks, which he described in Uinseann Mac Eoin’s book, Survivors, as containing ‘two prison camps’. One of those was in the area known as Pump Square, where the National Army ‘held the ordinary detainees and prisoners’. Maguire was held in the other camp, named ‘Garrison Detention’. According to Maguire, there ‘were regular cells in the Detention, and it was well enclosed’ as it had been used as a prison when the barracks was under British control.
By then the barracks held about 900 anti-Treaty IRA prisoners and there were regular confrontations between the incarcerated and their guards. In a previous article we discussed the shooting dead of one of those prisoners, Patrick Mulrennan, by a National Army officer: an event that occurred shortly before Maguire was brought to the barracks.
By January 1923 Maguire was still incarcerated in Athlone and he later recalled his experiences at the time of the executions. He faced trial that month by a military committee, facing a charge of possessing a weapon ‘without proper authority’, an offence punishable by death, although, as noted by historian Dominic Price, Maguire was not actually in possession of a weapon when captured, since he had dumped his gun before National Army forces reached him. Nevertheless, Maguire was found guilty. On 19 January, the day before the executions, a ‘military policeman’ named by Maguire as ‘Sergt. Browne’ approached an anti-Treaty IRA prisoner, Dr Tom Powell, and handed him ‘a list of six names’. Powell, who was captured in October 1922, seems to have been the commanding officer among the prisoners. Also, according to the National Army Census of November 1922, held in the Military Archives, there was a sergeant named Robert Brown in Custume Barracks at that time so, perhaps, he is the figure mentioned by Maguire.
Browne and Powell discussed the six names on the list: they were the five men who would be executed on the following day, plus Maguire. Those six were subsequently separated from their fellow prisoners and put in new cells. As Maguire recalled: ‘The six men were changed that night before lock-up; five were taken out in the morning and shot by firing squad, and one was not. I am that one.’ It is not clear why Maguire was not executed, although it was perhaps due to his high rank and status as an elected member of Dáil Éireann. His younger brother Seán, a lieutenant in the anti-Treaty IRA, was less fortunate. He was executed in Tuam Workhouse in April 1923.
In the months after his reprieve Thomas Maguire remained watchful for opportunities to escape. At the same time he had friends outside the barracks who hoped to help him. Maguire later told Uinseann Mac Eoin that his wife, Annie Christina Feeney, ‘had a woman friend in Athlone who was forever concocting plans to release him’. That woman’s name was Sal, who was a friend or relation of another woman named Agnes, who was then ‘very sick’. ‘Agnes’ may well have been a reference to Agnes Shortall, a prominent local member of Cumann na mBan. Shortall was indeed ill at that time. In a later application for a military pension she described going ‘on the run’ for six months in 1921, a period during which, she believed, her health was permanently damaged. Sal made arrangements with a local boat owner (perhaps Daisy Mulvihill, a Coosan-based member of Cumann na mBan) to transport Maguire across the Shannon should he escape. However, nothing came of her efforts.
As with thousands of other prisoners Maguire’s incarceration continued beyond the end of the Civil War. In Survivors he described the conditions in which he was held: ‘Our jail was inside other lines of military buildings, two sides of which were used by the other detained Republicans, but with barred windows between us and them. On the other two sides were tall impressive walls. A small wash house containing a single tap stood against one of these walls.’ The location had the added benefit of being hidden from view. Although ‘two military watch towers overlooked our small yard … the soldiers in them could not quite see into the wash house’.
Maguire and a fellow prisoner, a medical student named Mick Mullen, made efforts to find a weakness in the roof of the wash house through which they could escape but they were forced to conclude that such a method was not possible. Yet their hopes were renewed when ‘a few local lads were brought in who knew Athlone’. One of the new arrivals noticed that a brick had been removed from the bottom of the wash house wall by the tap. He ‘recommended that we work upon the hole near the floor and escape that way’. Maguire described the process: ‘One chap stood idly in the door opening. If a military policeman appeared the chap working on the hole would draw his basin across it...’ It is not clear how long the prisoners worked on the gap but they eventually created a hole through the lower part of the wall barely big enough for a person to squeeze through.
The prisoners decided that they would make their attempt in pairs, which each pair containing ‘one of the local lads’. After the first pair went through the gap, they found themselves in an enclosed yard. One of the walls contained ‘a barred window’, which they were able to push open. This led to a ‘vehicle workshop’ from which they emerged with ‘a screwdriver and some tools’. According to Maguire the first pair ‘hastily opened a door out of this yard on to an internal roadway running parallel to the public road, entered now just past the rail station, and bordering a fetid canal. The internal roadway, was enclosed by another high wall.’
Thomas Maguire, photographed in 1921 (Image taken from the book Eleven Galway Martyrs)
Maguire and his local companion, a man named ‘Jimmie Martin’, were close behind but the two pairs soon became separated. Maguire and Martin, unable to scale the high walls, seem to have reversed their course before heading across open ground near Pump Square, the place where, as Maguire put it, ‘our own lads, the detainees, were housed’. Maguire feared that the prisoners would ‘spoil our chances by involuntarily greeting us’ but they ‘had to take the chance’. Maguire and Martin had brought their ‘scuffed jackets’ with them, which they now put on in the hope that they would go unnoticed. They walked past the prisoners and their sentries, who were ‘hanging about in the bright sunlight’. Maguire later wrote: ‘Now, I thought, is the testing time; if there is a single shout we are finished.’
There was no shout. If any of the prisoners saw Maguire and Martin they ‘had enough sense to keep quiet’. They quickly crossed by the square ‘and emerged in the corner of Artillery Square, another big square, in the corner of which had been a tall old elm tree’. The tree had been cut down and it presented their best, perhaps final hope of escape. Its ‘big branches had not been lopped and these stood up almost reaching to the top of the wall’.
Maguire recalled the scene: ‘At the corner, suspended from an upright post that was carrying the barbed wire on top of the wall, was a strong length of wire with a loop upon the end of it. This was suspended above one of the branches that we now climbed up.’ Maguire jumped towards the loop of wire and ‘got it on the first grab’. Martin then managed to grab hold of the loop and the two men pulled themselves to the top of the wall. Once at the summit, they ‘passed through the barbed wire, and dropped twenty feet into the Protestant minister’s garden’. From there they reached a road which ‘leads to a place called the Batteries’. Although the Batteries contained numerous Free State soldiers ‘out walking their girls’ the escapees ‘passed them without anyone taking notice’.
That night Maguire and Martin were ‘safely hidden in a house on the road to Athleague’, after which they learned that three pairs of prisoners escaped before the scheme was discovered by the guards. It took him a week to ‘pass from South Roscommon to Boyle, where the North Roscommon Battalion had a secret dug-out right at the water’s edge on Lough Key’. It was a ‘boggy place high over the lake in the Rockingham Estate’. For about a week Maguire shared the dug-out with a horde of rats, an experience that left him ‘half wishing I was back in Athlone’. In Survivors he described a typical night in the dug out: ‘Rats were entering from everywhere, big brown ones. Making frantic squeals as they tried to crawl along the roof timbers to reach our food buckets. Some would fall to the floor or on to our bunks scampering in all directions. Some fought with each other, squealing. You could not imagine the clamour. I hate rats, but I put in the night anyway, wishing it was morning and wishing I could go out and be away from them.’
Maguire escaped the rats when he was ordered to Dublin by the anti-Treaty IRA executive. He was appointed to the executive, although he was forced to remain in hiding until 1925, a prudent decision since, as we shall see in a later article, escaped prisoners were often recaptured by the National Army. In forthcoming articles we will explore some of the other escapes from Custume Barracks and also discuss the state-sanctioned executions that took place in Mullingar in 1923.
Military Archives – Bureau of Military History Witness Statements – Military Service Pension applications – National Army Census, November 1922; UCD Archives – Ernie O’Malley Papers; Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Longford Leader, Offaly Independent, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For more detail, see Colm Campbell, Emergency Law in Ireland, 1918-1925 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994); Seán Enright, The Irish Civil War: Law, Execution and Atrocity (Merrion Press, 2019); Michael Hopkinson, Green against Green: the Irish Civil War (Gill & Macmillan, 2004); Eoin Kinsella, The Irish Defence Forces 1922-2022: Servant of the Nation (Four Courts Press, 2023); 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); Dominic Price, The Flame and the Candle: war in Mayo, 1919-1924 (The Collins Press, Dublin, 2012); and Eleven Galway Martyrs (Tuam Herald, 1985).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 09/07/2023