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A Settling of Scores

‘Ordered to prepare for execution on the roadside, and then to have his home burned down and his wife and child thrown on the roadside, was the terrifying experience of Sergt. Stapleton of the National Army, attached to Custume Barracks, Athlone.’

Those words formed the opening lines of the Irish Independent’s report on 7 April 1923 which described an incident near Athlone earlier that week. The sergeant’s name was Francis Stapleton and he lived with his wife and their child in a house in Ballykeeran, on the road between Athlone and Glasson. The attack on the Stapletons was, as we will discuss in this edition, related to an event that occurred six weeks earlier in Athlone.

 

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A derailed train during the Civil War (National Library of Ireland). The anti-Treaty IRA targeted public infrastructure and individuals during its campaign. Some of the attacks around Athlone were reprisals for the state-sanctioned executions that took place in Custume Barracks in January 1923.

 

Reprisals

Throughout previous articles we have discussed many incidents from the Irish Civil War, including the state-sanctioned executions that took place in Custume Barracks on 20 January 1923. That morning, five members of the anti-Treaty IRA were shot dead by a firing squad made up of National Army soldiers. Four of the executed men were from Galway, while one was from Bogganfin, Athlone. His name was Thomas Hughes and his death caused much distress in the locality.

The period after the executions was a particularly violent time in Athlone and its hinterland.

Anti-Treaty forces made multiple attacks on the county’s railway network in late January 1923, derailing trains and destroying bridges. A little over two weeks after the executions, the anti-Treaty IRA used explosives to destroy the Athlone Waterworks, temporarily depriving the town of its water supply. Those events could be seen, perhaps, as reprisals for the executions, although it was a tactic of the anti-Treaty IRA to target public infrastructure and such attacks were common in Westmeath both before and after the Athlone executions.

The attack on the Stapleton family, however, was certainly a direct reprisal for the Athlone executions. On 2 April 1923, three armed men, members of the anti-Treaty IRA, held up Francis Stapleton as he made his way from Ballykeeran to Athlone. We have only Stapleton’s account of what happened that night, via a report that appeared in the Westmeath Independent on 7 April 1923 and newspaper coverage of a case in Athlone Circuit Court during February 1926. However, we can trace the outline of what occurred.

 

The ‘Blessed Candle’

Stapleton was cycling to Custume Barracks from Ballykeeran at 8pm on 2 April, when, at ‘a  place called Leggett's Crossing’, he was approached by three men, one of whom carried a revolver. They ordered Stapleton to stop and to dismount from his bicycle. Having complied, they ‘asked if he was Sergeant Stapleton, and he replied that he was’. They then ‘asked if he had been present at the recent executions in Athlone’, a question to which Stapleton responded in the negative, saying that ‘he could not have been at the execution in view of a post he held at the barracks’.

This exchange suggests that the armed men were acting on some local knowledge or rumour and that they had targeted Stapleton. Records in the Military Archives show that Stapleton was stationed in Custume Barracks at the time, although it is unclear if he played any role in the executions. Stapleton’s captors were unhappy with his response, one of them shouting ‘Don't try to bluff us.’ He was then ordered to march towards Ballykeeran, one of the men going in front and the other two remaining behind.

They told Stapleton that he was being taken to the mill in Ballykeeran. Before arriving at the mill, the group passed Stapleton’s house. As they did so, one of the kidnappers asked him: ‘Is that where you live?’ and Stapleton replied that it was. He was then taken to the mill, and left in the yard in charge of one man, the others saying they would return later. Nothing transpired until midnight, when the other men returned. The kidnappers then marched Stapleton from the mill yard towards his home.

When the three men arrived at the house, they ‘rapped and kicked at the door’, shouting: ‘Get up; we want to search the house.’ There were only two people in the house at the time, Mrs. Stapleton and her child, although Stapleton later stated that his ‘disabled mother-in-law’ also lived there. After Mrs. Stapleton opened the door, the men entered the house ‘and proceeded to make a search’. They ordered Mrs. Stapleton to provide ‘civilian clothes for her husband, as his uniform was going to be burned’. She was then ordered out of the house with her child while her husband was stripped of his uniform.

One of the three men had brought a tin of petrol, and another found a ‘Blessed Candle’ after searching through a chest of drawers. They lit the candle and used it to set the house on fire. It seems, although contemporary reports are not entirely clear, that Mary Stapleton and her child were left to watch their house burn to the ground while Francis Stapleton was taken a short distance down the road.

 

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A photo of Thomas Hughes, an officer in the anti-Treaty IRA, executed in Custume Barracks along with four of his comrades on 20 January 1923. In April of that year, a local unit of the anti-Treaty IRA sought revenge against a man they accused of being part of the execution party.

 

‘burned out’

When the armed men were satisfied that the house was fully ablaze, they directed Stapelton back towards the mill, questioning him ‘as to the strength of the forces in Athlone, and the number of prisoners, and how the detention camp was situated’. Stapleton, according to the Westmeath Independent, made ‘no reply’ to those questions. Perhaps frustrated by his defiance, the men ordered Stapleton to kneel down by the side of the road and to ‘say a few prayers before his execution’.

Stapleton knelt, prayed and survived. Perhaps his captors never intended to shoot Stapleton, hoping that the terror of the moment would cause him to provide them with information. Perhaps they decided that it was too risky to shoot him in the open on a public road. Whatever their reasons, they ordered the prisoner back to his feet and the group resumed its march towards the mill.

On the way, one of his captors entered a public-house, while the other two stepped towards a gate by the side of the road. According to Stapleton’s account, he took advantage of their momentary lack of attention to make a dash for freedom. His captors, his would-be executioners, gave chase but Stapleton outran them and eventually made his way to Athlone. There, he learned that his kidnapping ‘had already been reported by his wife’. He also learned that the house and all their possessions had been ‘consumed in the flames’.

After the burning of their home, the Stapleton’s settled in Strand Street in Athlone. In Ballykeeran, they had been tenants of a man named Thomas Rushe, who brought a compensation claim before Athlone Circuit Court in February 1926. Rushe was awarded compensation for the destruction of the house, which, he claimed, was 300-years-old. The Stapelton’s were awarded compensation for the loss of their possessions, although they were required to justify their claims before the court under questioning by the state solicitor, J.E. Wallace. He asked about every aspect of their possessions, from the amount of food stored in the house at the time of the burning to the quality of their shoes and clothing. Francis Stapleton was forced to swear ‘on your oath’ that he owned forty gramophone records. After a plethora of such questions, they were awarded compensation, although it is not clear if their losses were covered.

The attack on the Stapletons was one of many similar incidents that took place in Westmeath during the final period of the Civil War and in the months after the end of the conflict. In subsequent articles, we will explore those events in more detail.

 

Sources

Military Archives – Military Service Pension applications – National Army Census, November 1922; 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); and Eleven Galway Martyrs (Tuam Herald, 1985).

 

 

Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 01/11/2023