‘All the crowd came in there; military first and then when the Tans came they also frequented the place, not knowing our politics’. The place was a pub on Connaught Street, Athlone, owned by the family of Eva Fitzgerald and it was a hub of activity during the War of Independence and Civil War. Below, we trace Eva Fitzgerald’s actions during those conflicts as she described them in the 1930s as part of a successful application to the Military Pensions Board. It is the first of a series of articles in which we will discuss the activities of Cumann na mBan members in Westmeath during the revolutionary period.
A Cumann na mBan first aid certificate (National Library of Ireland). Members of Cumann na mBan in Westmeath engaged in a wide variety of activities during both the War of Independence and Civil War.
Eva Fitzgerald was in her early twenties when she joined the Athlone branch of Cumann na mBan in October 1919. Fitzgerald became branch secretary around that time – a role she held until 1923 – and worked closely with the Athlone Brigade of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the War of Independence.
As we discussed in earlier articles, the IRA and the British Crown forces fought a clandestine and often brutal intelligence battle in the locality between 1919 and 1921. It was a battle in which Fitzgerald was active throughout the entire period. As she explained to the pension board, her family’s pub was very popular with the Crown forces. Through chatting with soldiers and officers, by listening to their conversations and by giving them ‘quite a lot of drink’, she learned of impending raids and then passed that information to the IRA.
Apart from information, she also managed to get ammunition and weapons: ‘The soldiers used to come to our place and we used to get chatting to them … I used to ask them to show me the ammunition and they would. I got several lots of ammunition from them’. On at least one occasion Fitzgerald obtained a British soldier’s rifle: ‘This fellow came in and I was sizing him up for quite a while. I asked him if there was any chance to get a rifle…’ The soldier said he would sell her a rifle for £5, although she manged to get the price down to £3. Fitzgerald, despite being warned by an IRA officer that she could be walking into a trap, met the soldier again and purchased the weapon.
It is clear from Fitzgerald’s pension application, which was supplemented with numerous references from leading IRA figures of the time, that she was known and trusted by IRA general headquarters (GHQ) in Dublin. On more than one occasion she collected boxes from Athlone railway station that GHQ had sent by train. She described one incident in which ‘word came in that stuff was at the station’. Along with one of her younger brothers, Fitzgerald took her father’s horse-and-cart to the station, where they found that the storeroom was ‘guarded by the Tans’. Fitzgerald was approached by one of them who asked her what she was looking for. She pointed out the relevant box and ‘two Tans took it and carried it out and put it in the trap’. As they did so, they ‘remarked it was very heavy’. The box was so heavy because it contained the components for bombs.
Fitzgerald’s account of the above incident was backed by Frank O’Connor, a Coosan-based IRA officer, who supplied a reference letter to accompany her pension application. Fitzgerald also claimed to have taken lessons in the ‘laying of a land mine’ from ‘a chap named Cox who was doing engineering’ for the IRA. Cox trained Fitzgerald in how to wire and lay a mine and, although her pension application is not clear on this point, she may have then trained others.
The timing of Fitzgerald’s meeting with Cox is uncertain but it likely took place shortly before the Truce of July 1921. During the War of Independence, the Athlone Brigade is known to have had access to explosives but they were used on only a few occasions: such as an attempt to gain access to Streamstown Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks in July 1920 and as improvised hand grenades in the Auburn ambush of November 1920. On both occasions the devices failed to explode. However, during the Civil War the anti-Treaty IRA proved more adept in handling explosives, which it used to destroy the Athlone Waterworks and railway bridges in the locality.
Ultimately, it was intelligence work that took up most of Fitzgerald’s time. For example, her family’s pub and an attached shop were used for the receipt of dispatches from IRA GHQ, a practice that was confirmed by both Thomas Costello and Henry O’Brien, senior officers in the Athlone Brigade. Fitzgerald regularly cycled to Coosan and other areas with those dispatches.
It was through such work that Fitzgerald crossed paths with Captain Claude Tully, a British army intelligence officer stationed in Athlone. Tully, as we discussed in an earlier edition, had a fearsome reputation among members of the IRA’s Athlone Brigade. Frank O’Connor described Tully as ‘a very daring man’ who ‘went around on a motor cycle with two guns - revolvers - strapped to him, and was reputed to be a first-class shot with either hand’. In O’Connor’s account, Tully ‘struck terror into people wherever he went’. Indeed, files in the Military Archives’ Collins Papers show that Seamus O’Meara, a commanding officer of the Athlone Brigade, sent a dispatch to Michael Collins in November 1920 in which he claimed that Tully was ‘the worst in the Barracks’. Contemporary documents and later recollections from brigade members are replete with similar descriptions of Tully, who, according to local rumours, wore chain mail or some type of body armour. Fitzgerald was less impressed by Tully’s reputation: ‘I knew his wife, and I knew him to speak to. They were afraid to fire on him. He was supposed to wear armour. We bumped into him to see if he did and he didn’t.’
Fitzgerald took part in IRA efforts to assassinate Tully, whom she met regularly at dances in the town: ‘They were looking for Tully for quite a while and he used to go to British officers dances, so they asked me if I could get to the dances and let them know when he would be going out. I succeeded in getting to the dances all right.’ While at the dances, Fitzgerald kept a close watch on Tully: ‘He used to leave generally before the last dance. I used to go to the window and signal out and on a few occasions came out and they were waiting there for him: Ned Doolan and George Adamson and others.’
Fitzgerald’s account of her efforts to facilitate Tully’s assassination were confirmed by Seamus O’Meara in a letter to the pension board and in his Bureau of Military History witness statement during which he recalled that Doolan and Adamson were accompanied by Thomas Halligan (one of two Thomas Halligans in the brigade). Yet Tully stymied those plans by always emerging from the dances in the company of other officers. It was an outcome that annoyed Fitzgerald: ‘I was fed-up over that’, she told the pension board.
Seán Mac Eoin saluting IRA officers during the takeover of Athlone’s Custume Barracks in February 1922. During the Civil War, Mac Eoin ordered the arrest of Eva Fitzgerald.
In early 1922, Cumann na mBan split over the Anglo-Irish Treaty. A majority of the organisation’s members opposed the agreement, causing the pro-Treaty members to depart and found Cumann na Saoirse. Fitzgerald was among those who opposed the Treaty and she would devote her skills to aiding the anti-Treaty IRA.
In March 1922, the local anti-Treaty IRA, under the command of Patrick Morrissey, set up their headquarters in Athlone’s Royal Hotel, which became a bespoke barracks. Morrisey later recalled that ‘Miss Fitzgerald reported for duty’ at the hotel and ‘carried important dispatches for me’. However, in April 1922, following the shooting dead of National Army officer George Adamson, the National Army succeeded in taking control of both the Royal Hotel and Athlone town. Although Eva Fitzgerald was no longer attached to an anti-Treaty IRA unit she remained active. During the subsequent Civil War, her family’s pub was a popular venue and she continued to listen for snippets of information from talkative customers, among whom were National Army soldiers.
The pub also became a place where the anti-Treaty IRA would drop, and later collect, small arms. Given her anti-Treaty activities, it was unsurprising that Eva Fitzgerald was arrested by the National Army around December 1922 and incarcerated in Custume Barracks. The National Army, she told the pension board, planned at first ‘to send me away’, presumably to an internment camp but she was released after four days. Fitzgerald may have been set free because she ‘was in bad health at that particular time’: according her statement she had travelled to Dublin shortly before her arrest to see a doctor since she was ‘suffering from nerves’.
This incident, as with most of Fitzgerald’s testimony, is backed up by other sources. Seán MacEoin, who commanded National Army forces in the midlands and west, confirmed in a letter to the pension board that Fitzgerald was arrested on his orders and subsequently released since, according to the letter, he did ‘not wish to send a girl to prison from Athlone’. During the Civil War, as historian Ann Matthews estimates, 645 female political prisoners were interned. Most were held in places such as Kilmainham Prison, Mountjoy Jail and the North Dublin Union prison camp. Although some of the prisoners, as in Fitzgerald’s case, were released after a few days, almost half were incarcerated for weeks or months at a time.
Perhaps Mac Eoin did want to avoid sending Fitzgerald to an internment camp outside Athlone but he may also have been motivated by a wish to avoid providing anti-Treaty forces with propaganda material. During the Civil War, anti-Treaty propaganda regularly highlighted the internment of women as an example of, in its view, the government’s cruelty. Whatever his reasons, Mac Eoin seems to have regretted that decision since he told the pension board that he ‘tried to arrest her late in 1923 but failed to do so’. In conclusion, Mac Eoin wrote that he could ‘sincerely declare that she was the chief key of the secret service against us in that period’.
In Westmeath, the extent of Fitzgerald’s intelligence work made her relatively unusual among local Cumann na mBan members. In later articles, we will look at other Cumann na mBan figures in the county during the Civil War and before.
Military Archive – Bureau of Military History Witness Statements, Bureau of Military History Military Service Pensions Collection; University College Dublin Archives – Richard Mulcahy Papers and Ernie O’Malley Papers; Freeman’s Journal, Offaly Independent, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For more detail, see John Burke’s, Athlone 1900-1923: politics, revolution and civil war (The History Press, 2015); Marie Coleman, ‘Cumann na mBan in the War of Independence’ 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); Michael Hopkinson, Green against Green: the Irish Civil War (Gill & Macmillan, 2004; Ann Matthews, Dissidents: Irish Republican women, 1922-41 (Mercier Press, 2012); and Ann Matthews, ‘Internment and women during the Civil War 1922-23’, Journal of The Old Athlone Society (number 10, 2015).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 25/04/2023