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‘Burn houses, and get money’

‘Taking advantage of the times, small parties have on recent occasions made raids on country residences near Athlone. People victimised were loathe to report the outrages at first, believing the parties to belong to the Executive forces, and they feared reprisals would be taken against them.’

Those words marked the beginning of a report that appeared in the Westmeath Independent on 9 September 1922. It was six weeks into the Irish Civil War and the mention of ‘Executive forces’ was a reference to the anti-Treaty IRA. Here, we will explore examples of the violence that took place in the background of that conflict: not the fighting between the opposing military forces but the raids and robberies of private homes and businesses that took place in the hinterland of Athlone during and after the Civil War.

 

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Members of the Civic Guard police force training in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, in January 1923 (National Library of Ireland). Founded in 1922, the force replaced the Royal Irish Constabulary and was deployed across Ireland later that year.

 

‘dealt with drastically’

A few days before the Westmeath Independent’s report, four armed men ‘representing themselves as Republican soldiers’ and ‘stating they were out to blow up bridges, burn houses, and get money’, forcibly entered the homes of: Hamilton Johnson, Garrycastle; George Talbot, Creggan; Francis Bermingham, Creggan; William Logan, The Hermitage; and Cathal O’Toole, The Hermitage. The men also tried, although failed, to force their way into the homes of John Keena in Lissywollen and Bridget Kilduff in Bushfield, Garrycastle.

The men, one of whom was armed with a hand grenade, used threats of violence to obtain food, goods and money. From one house, that of Hamilton Johnson in Garrycastle, they stole a clock, a flashlight and a canary, after first forcing the occupants to make tea and boil eggs. The perpetrators of those robberies were eventually discovered and arrested by the Civic Guard, which had recently started operating in Athlone. Formed in 1922 to replace the Royal Irish Constabulary, the new police force was then being deployed across the country and there were about 25 constables stationed in Athlone by September of that year. (The Civic Guard was renamed An Garda Síochána in August 1923.)

The four men arrested for the September robberies were all living in Athlone and, despite their claims, unconnected with the anti-Treaty IRA. In most cases, however, the perpetrators remain unknown, as with the robberies that took place in Moate near the end of June 1922 when Lowe’s Hotel was robbed by armed men as were a number of homes. Partly in response to those events, the local unit of the National Army posted a proclamation around the town demanding that all weapons be handed over to its soldiers and officers. The poster included a warning that any person who failed to comply would ‘be dealt with drastically’.

 

‘raiding epidemic’

Later in 1922, the area around Glasson experienced what the Offaly Independent described as a ‘raiding epidemic’. A ‘grocery establishment’ in Walderstown was raided by armed men, who took ‘a considerable supply of provisions, including tea, sugar and bacon’. That was one of many similar incidents reported in the contemporary press. It is not clear who carried out those robberies although the anti-Treaty IRA was relatively active in the area during that period.

In an earlier article, we discussed the Glasson ambush of 25 August 1922, when an anti-Treaty IRA unit ambushed a car containing four members of the National Army. That ambush led to the death of one civilian, Patrick Murtagh, and two members of the National Army, Seán McCormack and Alfred Hayes. It occurred at a time when the Civil War was entering a new phase. During the weeks after the outbreak of the conflict in June 1922, the National Army won control of most urban areas. In response, the anti-Treaty IRA leadership decided to reorganise its forces into small active service units which would engage in hit-and-run attacks against the National Army. Consequently, there was no defined front line and groups of armed men were relatively free to move through areas that were, ostensibly, controlled by the National Army.

In Westmeath, although the National Army was the dominant force throughout the Civil War, it faced sporadic resistance from the anti-Treaty IRA, particularly in the period from January to April 1923. That was the most dangerous period of the conflict in Athlone and the surrounding area, with many examples of violence against civilians and the destruction of public infrastructure.

During that period, as discussed in earlier articles, five anti-Treaty IRA prisoners were executed in Custume Barracks on 20 January 1923, which was followed soon after by the shooting dead of Richard Bertles in Ballymore. Bertles, a prominent anti-Treaty IRA officer, was shot by an officer of the National Army. In February, the anti-Treaty IRA used explosives to destroy the Athlone Waterworks and it made regular attacks on the county’s rail networks around that time, causing immense damage.

 

‘strange armed visitors’

Contemporary reports suggest that anti-Treaty IRA units from other regions were then moving through Westmeath. On 12 January 1923, newspapers, such as the Westmeath Independent, described how ‘strange armed visitors’ called to Rosemount, near Moate, and forced all the male occupants of local houses ‘at the point of the rifle and the revolver’ to block roads by cutting down trees and digging trenches. It is very likely that those ‘visitors’ were from the anti-Treaty IRA.

Throughout that month, post offices and pubs around Athlone were raided by armed men: again, most likely members of the anti-Treaty IRA. In one attack on a house in Moate, as uncovered by the research of historian Lyndsey Earner-Byrne, a woman was raped. In a subsequent letter, the woman, whom Earner-Byrne identifies as Mary M., wrote that the raiders –  ‘a party of men armed to the teeth’ and ‘calling themselves Republicans’ – were looking for money.

Although the regularity of attacks on homes and businesses seems to have reduced by the end of March 1923, the area remained in a state of turmoil, as can be seen from the events of late April, when armed men carried out raids across the locality, robbing a public house in Mount Temple and a post office in Ballykeeran. The most serious of those incidents occurred at Creagh, a few kilometres from Athlone, on the Roscommon side.

On the night of Sunday, 22 April, three armed men entered the farmhouse of Patrick Shally, which he shared with his brother, Matthew. The raiders claimed that they were looking for weapons and one of them searched the house, while the other two kept their guns pointed at the brothers. The crucial moment came when Patrick Shally attempted to confront one of his captors, who opened fire. Shally was fatally wounded, bleeding to death on the floor of his kitchen. His brother was grazed by a bullet but survived. Three men, all from the Athlone area, were subsequently arrested by the Civic Guard and charged with Shally’s murder. They would, however, be acquitted of that charge.

 

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An excerpt from a Cumann na nGaedheal election leaflet used in the August 1923 general election (National Library of Ireland). This leaflet, published by The Kerryman newspaper, was typical of the party’s campaigning material across the country. Cumann na nGaedheal made regular reference to the many robberies that afflicted counties such as Westmeath, placing the blame on opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

 

Weapons, everywhere

Armed robberies were common events after the end of the Civil War. According to a report in the Freeman’s Journal newspaper on 10 November 1923, ‘lawless gangs’ were then roaming the countryside around Athlone, attacking homes and businesses. In the same edition, the paper reported: ‘A number of houses in the district of Curraghboy, near Athlone, wore raided on Thursday night by armed men, and money and whiskey carried away.’

Apart from breaking into houses, the Curraghboy raiders held up and robbed at least one person on a public roadway. However, they met resistance when attempting to enter a shop owned by a man named O’Brien. The raiders carried a sledgehammer, which they used to batter down the shop’s door only to encounter a second barrier in the form of the shop-owner, who had armed himself with an iron bar. Convinced that O’Brien was willing to defend his property, the men fled, seeking less risky targets elsewhere.

The robberies in Curraghboy ended without anyone getting hurt but such incidents carried the potential for fatal violence, as seen above in the case of Patrick Shally. Another case, in Glasson during September 1924, ended with gunfire after the home of a farmer named William Murphy was attacked by a group of armed men. Murphy fired a double-barrelled shotgun (although some sources suggest that he merely aimed the weapon) at the intruders who fled before firing a number of shots at the house. A woman in the house was struck by a bullet, receiving a wound to one of her arms.

In many instances, the perpetrators of the attacks remain unknown. Some of the robberies may have been committed by those who were taking advantage of a situation in which weapons were easily obtained. That Glasson incident occurred only three months after Frank Aiken, Chief of Staff of the anti-Treaty IRA, ordered his forces to dump their weapons and to end armed resistance to the Free State government. The Civil War had ended but not all the weapons were dumped.

For example, in September 1923, there were numerous well attended public meetings in Athlone during which gun-owners attempted to regain weapons that had been commandeered from the civilian population by the IRA and the British Crown forces since 1919. Piles of guns were brought to Benown camp near Glasson, the grounds of the Old Workhouse in Athlone and to Custume Barracks. However, those who were hoping to reclaim their former weapons seem to have been, for the most part, disappointed, as only obsolete and damaged guns were on display. The functioning and better-quality weapons were still in circulation and at least some of those weapons were in the hands of people who were willing to use them.

 

Targets, opportunities

Post offices, shops and pubs were regular targets during this period. In October 1923, armed men robbed the post offices in Cornafulla and Ballydangan before escaping by car. Similar incidents were reported across the locality, such as a robbery in April 1924 during which three armed men entered a pub in Doon, owned by a woman named in the press as Mrs. Martin. The raiders, carrying revolvers, forced all the occupants into the kitchen before taking money, whiskey and brandy. That same month saw several robberies of houses in Coosan, all carried out by armed men.

Most, perhaps all of those armed robberies, were carried out by small groups and it is not known if they were acting on their own initiative or on behalf of larger gangs. It is clear, however, that a minority of the armed raids were directed against agents of the state, particularly the Civic Guard.

The Civic Guard was first deployed in Athlone in autumn 1922, at a time when the force was being stationed in cities and larger towns outside Dublin. By the following year, the unarmed force was deployed across rural areas and it became a normal aspect of daily life. As the force increased in size, it took on the role of investigating local crimes, particularly after the Civil War when it conducted regular searches for weapons and wanted individuals, Those efforts ensured that the Guards themselves became targets.

 

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Glasson, seen early in the 20th century. Numerous violent incidents took place in and around the village during and after the Civil War.

 

Hunters, hunted

In October 1923, six armed men held up a Catholic priest named Casey in Ballinahown after mistakenly believing him to be, as reported in the Freeman’s Journal, ‘a Civic Guard sergeant in disguise’. Another attack occurred in Glasson a few weeks later, when, according to contemporary newspapers, Civic Guards were ‘taken from their barracks by armed men, who made them kneel down on the street while they warned them to cease visiting local public houses’. Glasson, it seems, was not an easy posting for the Guards at that time, as demonstrated by an incident in March 1924. Following a point-to-point race in nearby Kilkenny West, the village was full of people, some of whom caused trouble in a local pub. When the Guards intervened, they were attacked by a section of the crowd, who shouted and jeered, calling them Black and Tans.

A more serious incident occurred on 4 November 1923, when ‘twelve armed and masked men attacked the Guards’ barracks at Ballybay, Co. Roscommon, five miles from Athlone’. The armed men first attempted to break down the front door but it withstood their efforts so they smashed a window through which four of them gained admission to the building. According to an account in the Freeman’s Journal, the raiders ordered the Guards to raise their hands but they refused to do. The raiders then demanded the barrack’s record books but the Guards again refused to comply, at which point the men threatened to open fire. In the paper’s version of events, a Guard replied: ‘You can shoot away, but nothing will leave the barracks’. Although a couple of the men standing outside the barracks fired shots in the air, the group left soon after without obtaining the record books.

Incidents such as the attack at Ballybay were, most likely, attempts to undermine and intimidate state forces. Yet the motivations behind many other armed raids are not always evident. Consider the case of William Murphy, the Glassan farmer discussed above who fired at the intruders who attacked his home. That incident was first reported as an armed robbery but it later emerged that Murphy was involved in a dispute with local labourers due to his recent purchase of a farm in the area. One thing is certain: the widespread availability of weapons made it far more likely that such disputes would end with the use of rifles and revolvers.

 

Sources

Report on the Cost of Living in Ireland - June 1922, Ministry of Economic Affairs, Dublin, 1922; Report on the Cost of Living in Ireland – October 1923, Ministry of Industry and Commerce, Dublin, 1922; (see also ‘Percentage expenditure weights used for the 1922 Consumer Price Index’ on the CSO website); Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Longford Leader, Offaly Independent, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For more detail, see John Burke, Athlone 1900-1923: politics, revolution and civil war (The History Press, 2015); Gemma Clarke, Everyday Violence in the Irish Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2014); Liam Cox, Moate - County Westmeath: a History of Town and District (Alfa Print Ltd, 1981); and 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).

Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 26/11/2023