Here, in the third of three articles and the last edition of the current Historian in Residence series, we discuss the executions that occurred in Custume Barracks in January 1923.
An image of Thomas Hughes taken from the book Eleven Galway Martyrs
It was 7am on the morning of 20 January 1923 and mass was being celebrated in the chapel of Custume Barracks, Athlone. The celebrant was Father M. J. O’Reilly, assisted by Father P. J. Neary, and his congregation comprised five men: Thomas Hughes, Michael Walsh, Hubert Collins, Martin Burke and Stephen Joyce. According to the priests: ‘The five young men assisted most devoutly and received Holy Communion. They also received the Apostolic Blessing.’ Those men, each a member of the anti-Treaty IRA, were prisoners of the National Army and they were preparing themselves for what lay ahead. At 8am, the five men would be executed by a firing squad.
During the previous two articles we explored the Irish Civil War and the circumstances in which the government decided upon a campaign of executions as a means by which to defeat the anti-Treaty IRA. That campaign began in November 2022 and was expanded throughout the country during the subsequent months. Hughes and his four comrades were captured by the National Army in December 1922 and tried by a military committee which found them guilty of possessing weapons ‘without proper authority’, an offence punishable by death.
According to a brief report in the Westmeath Independent the men were ‘fully reconciled to their fate and expressed the hope that theirs would be the last executions, and that peace would immediately be restored to Ireland’. The paper also reported that ‘they met their deaths bravely and as they fell they were anointed by the Rev. Father O’Reilly and Rev. Father Neary.’ The paper also reported that when Hughes was ‘being blindfolded he shook hands with some of his captors requesting them to inform his mother that his last thoughts were of her’. Moments later he was shot dead.
That afternoon, the National Army provided newspapers with a brief official report of the executions. Around the same time, Hughes’s parents and family were informed of his death. The manner in which this occurred was described in the Dáil by Seán Lyons, Independent Labour Party TD for Longford-Westmeath: ‘His parents live one and a half miles from Athlone. His mother was in town at the market, and was going home when she was overtaken by some person in authority, who told her about the execution.’ Lyons denounced the National Army for not informing the parents of their son’s sentencing and forthcoming execution but the treatment of the Hughes family was not an anomaly: it was government policy.
On behalf of the government, Richard Mulcahy, minister for defence and commander-in-chief of the National Army, responded to Lyons: ‘It is not the practice nor is it the intention to address communications to the relatives of men who are arrested, with the exception that, in the cases of men executed, formal notification is after execution at once sent to the next-of-kin or nearest relative...’ Mulcahy then outlined another much-criticised aspect of the government’s execution policy: ‘…it is not the intention to hand over to relations or friends the remains of men executed’. It would be October 1924 before the remains of the men executed in Custume Barracks were handed over to their families.
The funeral procession of Thomas Hughes through Athlone in 1924 (Athlone Public Library)
Three days after the executions a requiem mass for Thomas Hughes was celebrated in St. Peter’s Church. According to contemporary reports, a ‘large congregation’ was in attendance at the mass which was celebrated by Fr. O’Reilly. Among the mourners were Hughes’s parents. His father’s name was Patrick although contemporary newspapers, as was the regrettable fashion of the time, referred to Hughes’s mother merely as ‘Mrs. Hughes’ (according to census records her name was Mary). Alongside the parents were ‘Mrs. Monaghan (grandmother), Dotie, Pearl, Maud, Eileen and Josie (sisters), Jim (brother), Mrs. Hardiman, Mrs. Quinn and Miss Monaghan (aunts)’. That week, according to the Westmeath Independent, the ‘all-absorbing topic of conversation’ was ‘the unhappy fate of the five young men who were executed in Athlone on Saturday morning’. Hughes, the paper stated, was particularly well-known in and around Glasson.
In Athlone, the executions spawned many local stories. One remarkable example comes from Joseph Flynn, a resident of the town whose father Martin was a soldier in the National Army during the Civil War. Martin Flynn served with a fellow-solder named Thomas Johnston, both of whom, according to a tradition within those families, were detailed to the execution unit in Custume Barracks in January 1923. Both Flynn and Johnston were veterans of the British army and had fought in the First World War, a status that led to their selection for the execution squad on 20 January. It was common practice for British army veterans to be chosen for the firing squads because of their combat experience and military training.
In a recent interview, Joseph Flynn described to me the story that he first heard while growing up in Athlone. In the hours before the execution both his father and Thomas Johnston became increasingly perturbed at the thought of shooting fellow Irishmen. As they talked, Flynn and Johnston decided that when the order was given for the firing party to line-up they would take ‘a step back’ and refuse to obey the order. When the time came, both men remained true to their word. Their actions, in the words of Joseph Flynn, ‘caused uproar’ and the executions were momentarily halted while the defiant soldiers were escorted to the guardhouse.
According to the family tradition, both Flynn and Johnston were ‘ignominiously discharged’ from the National Army, although recent research carried out by both families suggests that information was incorrect. Nevertheless, the story of Flynn and Johnston’s actions on that day are credible and likely accurate. Certainly, the story subsequently became a living tradition in Athlone. Joseph Flynn recalled that, when he was a boy, people in the town often made reference to, and praised, the actions of his father and Thomas Johnston.
Martin Flynn and Julia Flynn (née Browne), parents of Joseph Flynn (courtesy of Joseph Flynn)
The executions were also discussed, albeit in fictionalised form, by Anthony O’Connor in his novel ‘He’s Somewhere in There’ (as discussed by Dr Síobhra Aiken in this article). O’Connor joined the National Army in 1922 and was stationed in Athlone during the Civil War. It is not clear if O’Connor witnessed the executions but in his version the condemned men were shot in one group by the firing squad. Immediately afterwards, an officer holding a handgun stepped forward and shot each of the fallen men once in the head. O’Connor’s fictionalised version is plausible since there are multiple accounts from executions carried out elsewhere during the Civil War of officers shooting men with handguns after the firing squad had carried out its work. In some instances, the condemned men remained alive, although grievously wounded, until shot at close range by an officer.
Executions took place at many locations, including Birr, Mullingar, Portlaoise and Roscrea. The policy, as we have seen in earlier articles, outraged opponents of the Treaty and was controversial even among supporters of the government. A sense of those divisions can be gained from accounts of the ceremonies that occurred in late October 1924 during which the remains of those executed during the Civil War were returned to their families. In Athlone, twenty bodies were brought from various execution sites, including Custume Barracks. Major-General Seán Mac Eoin presided over the ceremony, which was described by a journalist with the Westmeath Independent:
Notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather, a drenching downpour continuing from early morning, a large crowd had collected in the square, or marketplace, opposite the West gate of Custume Barracks. Many of the spectators were women and girls. Shortly after eleven o'clock, about twenty motor vehicles and a motor hearse arrived and were lined up from the Market Square, along the bridge to Custume Place. A few minutes before 12 o'clock, a guard of honour of I.R.A. arrived, and was formed up in double line facing the entrance gate to the barracks. Some time later two 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. He was conveyed into the barracks between the two soldiers and as he passed in through the gates, a little cheer went up from the bystanders. The young man acknowledged the cheer by taking off his hat after which there were shouts of ‘Up the Republic’. Four other young men were arrested during the day. All five, who were searched for arms were subsequently set at liberty, no arms having being found on them.
Such scenes were replicated at other locations around Ireland and, in a forthcoming article, we will discuss that day in more detail.
A photo of Thomas Johnston (courtesy of Mickey Johnston)
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); 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); 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: 16/01/2023