‘When the mail train which left Athlone for Westport on Monday morning at 9.35 o’clock had arrived, at a point about 2 miles on the Knockcroghery side of Kiltoom station, it was held up by seven armed men of the labouring class and ranging from 17 to 21 years of age. The usual complement and class of passengers were ordered out of the train at the point of the revolver and rifle while the driver and fireman were compelled to get off the engine, and then the work of wreckage, apparently well pre-arranged, began.’
That was how the Westmeath Independent reported an attack against the local railway system on 22 January 1923. The attackers – the ‘seven armed men of the labouring class’ – were members of the anti-Treaty IRA. Here, we will place that event in its wider context.
Railway workers inspecting the ruins of a small bridge near Kiltoom, which was blown up by the anti-Treaty IRA in January 1923. Two lines ran across the bridge, the second of which can be seen in the background. That line was less badly damaged and was repaired within days. At a later date, the photo was damaged and then restored by a person who outlined some of the figures in black and blue ink. (National Library of Ireland)
In the early days of the Civil War, during June and July 1922, much of the country’s rail and transport networks were closed down and people across much of Westmeath were unable to gain information on the fighting that was then taking place in Dublin. Within a few weeks, however, the National Army had succeeded in winning control of most urban areas and the anti-Treaty IRA leadership responded by reorganising its forces into small active service units which would launch hit-and-run attacks against selected targets.
In tandem with its guerrilla campaign, the anti-Treaty IRA also launched a campaign targeting public infrastructure. Liam Lynch, anti-Treaty IRA Chief of Staff, sent a letter to the Irish Engineering Union in August 1922 warning that railway lines would be destroyed because they allowed for the ‘conveyance of troops and war material’ for the government. By destroying railway lines and other public utilities Lynch aimed to prevent their use by the National Army and to progressively strain government resources. A notable early example of that policy was the anti-Treaty IRA’s bombing of the Blackwater viaduct near Mallow, which severed the Dublin-Cork railway line. Such attacks were not only very disruptive and costly to repair but they involved very little risk for anti-Treaty IRA units, who could quickly destroy a section of the track. In August, Liam Lynch wrote to Ernie O’Malley (then ‘Acting Assistant Chief of Staff’) advising him that ‘railway lines can be destroyed’ without explosives and urging him to ‘continue to have them torn up’.
In an attempt to protect the railways, the government formed a special unit of the National Army in September 1922 called the Railway Protection and Maintenance Corps. By early 1923, the corps contained around 5,000 men, many of whom were former railway employees. The corps was well-supplied by National Army headquarters and it used armoured trains and specially-modified Lancia armoured cars. The Corps also built around fifty blockhouses – small fortifications that allowed the occupants to fire on the enemy while remaining protected – at various points on the railway system.
Yet the National Army, even with its dedicated railway corps, could not defend the entire network and the Athlone to Roscommon line suffered multiple attacks from the anti-Treaty IRA. In November 1922, the bridge at Ballybay, on the Roscommon line near Athlone, was blown up by land mines. According to the Freeman’s Journal newspaper, the ‘explosions shook the houses in the vicinity to their foundations, and were heard for miles around’.
January 1923 was a particularly dangerous period for those travelling the railway networks of Ireland, especially between Athlone and Roscommon. Early in the month, a mail train was raided by the anti-Treaty IRA, who took all the postal bags. On 14 January, a railway worker discovered three landmines on the lines near Knockcroghery station. According to newspaper reports, the unnamed worker ‘pluckily removed them without assistance’: an act that likely saved lives as well as train schedules.
Those events were merely precursors to more destructive attacks. On 16 January, a heavy goods train travelling from Athlone to Ballina was derailed as it approached the village. According to the Irish Independent ‘armed men had torn up the rails and placed an obstruction on the line’. On the night of Friday 19 January, an anti-Treaty IRA unit used land mines to damage, although not destroy, a small railway bridge near Kiltoom. That incident was reported in national newspapers, such as the Sunday Independent, although details were sparse. The paper, and others, stated that the damage on the bridge led to the derailment of a passenger train on the morning after the explosion, although nobody was hurt.
On 22 January, an anti-Treaty IRA unit again targeted the Kiltoom section of the railway lines. It held up a train heading from Athlone to Roscommon, removed the passengers and crew and detached all except two carriages from the engine. One of those passengers, an unnamed ‘commercial traveller’, later gave the Western People newspaper an account of what happened. Not far from where the train was halted, he said, stood a small bridge that spanned a cattle pass. (It is not clear if this was the same bridge attacked on the previous Friday.) Two sets of railway lines ran across the bridge. The commercial traveller watched as some of the anti-Treaty unit used landmines to blow up that bridge: pieces of which ‘were hurled high into the air’. The explosion, the Westmeath Independent reported, was so loud that it was heard in Moate, around 25 kilometres away. The armed men then returned to the train engine, which they restarted and set rolling towards the ruined bridge. Their plan was to destroy the engine by crashing it into the gap created by the explosives.
That plan was only partially successful. Although the bridge was demolished by the explosion, the metal rails remained in place, as can be seen in the accompanying photo which appeared in the Sunday Independent on 28 January 1923. The train engine, perhaps having gained more speed than expected, was able to make it to the other side of the bridge. The two empty carriages were not as fortunate since both were derailed by the crash. According to subsequent reports, one of the carriages was ‘totally wrecked’.
After crashing the engine, the anti-Treaty unit returned to the stranded passengers, among whom was an off-duty Civic Guard (a force created in February 1922 and renamed An Garda Síochána na hÉireann in August 1923). Although in plain clothes, he was ‘instantly singled out, placed under arrest and taken away towards Athleague’. The guard later claimed that, not far from Athleague, his captors threatened to execute him if he ‘refused to give the information they required’. Perhaps they were looking for information related to the state-sanctioned executions that had taken place in Athlone’s Custume Barracks two days earlier. He refused to answer their questions, so his captors contented themselves with giving him ‘a sound thrashing’. They subsequently released the guard.
While those events were ongoing, news of the hold-up was telephoned to Athlone, from where a relief train was dispatched. There was, newspapers reported, ‘much military activity in the Kiltoom, Knockcroghery, Ballymurry and surrounding districts’ but the National Army made only a small number of arrests. Despite the damage to the bridge, railway workers were able to restore one of the two lines by the following Tuesday. In the days after, travellers between Athlone and Roscommon could see the engine and two carriages ‘on either side of the railway’. Yet the destruction near Kiltoom was but one example of the anti-Treaty IRA campaign in the county. In a forthcoming article, we will look again at that campaign and discuss anti-Treaty IRA attacks on the rail network to and from Mullingar.
Military Archives – Bureau of Military History Witness Statements, Military Service Pensions Collection; UCD – Ernie O’Malley Papers; Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Offaly Independent, Western People, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For more detail, see ‘Railways: campaign of destruction’ 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); 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); and Bernard Share’s In Time of Civil War: the Conflict on the Irish Railways, 1922-23 (Collins Press, 2006).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 31/05/2023