Headlines from the Sunday Independent, 17 October 1920. The Crown forces responded to the kidnapping of the magistrates with a series of raids and arrests that caused immense damage to the Mullingar Brigade.
In our previous post, we examined the Mullingar Brigade’s kidnapping of Resident Magistrate Maxwell Moore and his colleague Gustavus Hyde, a justice of the peace. Here, we focus on the aftermath during which the Crown forces dealt a debilitating blow to the brigade.
The IRA’s decision to release Moore and Hyde saved Castlepollard and Mullingar from reprisals by the Crown forces, who now directed their energy into arresting and interrogating known and suspected republicans. The Westmeath Examiner reported that a large police and military presence descended on Mullingar and Castlepollard leading to what Patrick McCabe described as ‘a vast round-up of the area’. McCabe was arrested and found to be in possession of incriminating documents. He was carrying a sketched ground plan of Castlepollard’s RIC Barracks and, to use his own words, ‘I had completely forgotten that I had it in my pocket.’ McCabe was taken to Mountjoy Prison, then court-martialled at Kilmainham, where he was sentenced to four years imprisonment. He was later transferred to Perth Prison in Scotland and incarcerated there until his release in January 1922.
John Macken was another who would be arrested. He hid ‘in the Finea area’ for about two weeks until he ‘received a message from the Brigade O/C to come back to my own locality.’ Macken did so with the intention of assisting his father ‘with some work on the farm’ but he was arrested almost immediately on his return home. Macken may have been unlucky but the speed with which he was apprehended by the Crown forces suggest that they had up-to-date and accurate intelligence on Macken’s movements. Macken was captured by ‘a mixed party of military and police’ and his subsequent experiences provide a good account of how those arrested by the Crown forces were moved through the various jails and internment centres that had been set up around Ireland.
The Crown forces took him to Mullingar and then to Mountjoy Prison, ‘about a week after Kevin Barry was hanged’. Macken was placed in an ‘identification parade’ when Maxwell Moore and the RIC District Inspector from Castlepollard arrived at the prison. Moore did not identify Macken but he did pinpoint, mistakenly according to Macken, a man from ‘another part of the country.’ Macken was kept in Mountjoy for about three weeks before being released. He travelled home to Castlepollard but, ‘after about four days,’ he was re-arrested ‘when a party of military and police again arrived at the house and again took me into custody.’
They took Macken to Delvin workhouse, which contained a contingent of British soldiers who soon transferred him to the army barracks in Mullingar, where he spent ten days before being relocated to Athlone barracks, which held ‘a large number of prisoners’. After about a month in Athlone, Macken, along ‘with a number of others,’ was moved to Marlborough Barracks [McKee Barracks] in Dublin and then to Kilmainham Jail. He was in Kilmainham for two or three days, before being taken to Dublin Castle, ‘a collecting point for prisoners’ and then transferred to a ship docked at the North Wall and carried to Belfast. His final place of incarceration was Ballykinlar internment camp in County Down. Macken arrived there in mid-January 1921, around the time that Joseph Tormey from Moate, brother of James Tormey who commanded the Athlone Brigade’s flying column, was shot dead by a British soldier ‘for talking across the barbed wire to prisoners in the other camp.’ Macken was held in Ballykinlar until December 1921.
Arrests, such as those of Macken and McCabe, further weakened the Mullingar Brigade. Macken described the consequences: ‘In their round-up the British had picked up a lot of our officers, who were key men, and this threw our organisation into a bad state and we were at sixes and sevens for the time being.’ James Maguire, who took the role as brigade O/C after McCabe’s arrest, put it in more succinct terms. ‘The military and police,’ he said, ‘left the Volunteer organisation a complete wreck in the area.’ During a few weeks across October and November 1920 – a time in which the Athlone Brigade and its flying column launched attacks on the Crown forces near Coosan, at Parkwood and at Auburn – the Mullingar Brigade was rendered almost totally ineffective.
The brigade was, as McCabe put it, ‘incapable of action for some time’ and Maguire, although he seems to have been respected by volunteers in the region, was unable to improve its performance over subsequent months. While this edition of the blog is focussed on the events of 1920, we can take a moment to note that the Mullingar Brigade’s problems persisted well into 1921. In April of that year, David Daly of the Athlone Brigade was sent to Mullingar with orders to get the IRA ‘actively going in that area in order to draw off the enemy pressure on ours.’ Daly had little time to make a difference as he was arrested during a raid by Black and Tans a few days after arriving in Mullingar. As with Macken’s arrest in October 1920, the timing of Daly’s arrest suggests that the Crown forces had ample intelligence on local republicans, some of it perhaps gathered from informers within the IRA. James Maguire later voiced his suspicions: ‘It often struck me that someone was giving information to the enemy in our area.’
In the months after October 1920, brigade reports and contemporary newspaper accounts show that the Mullingar Brigade confined itself to activities such as raiding mail trains and disrupting enemy communications and transport, especially through extensive road-trenching. Plans to attack major targets such as barracks and convoys were abandoned except for an attack on Kinnegad RIC Barracks during April 1921. Bartholomew Flynn, a volunteer from Corralstown, stated that this attack was not made in an attempt to capture the barracks but was ‘done only as a nuisance value and to pep up the morale of our own men.’ A similar sniping attack was made on Castlepollard RIC Barracks on 11 July 1921, the day the truce came into effect. That day, in a testament to the brigade’s persistent afflictions, James Maguire commanded a group of around ten volunteers armed with only four rifles and a collection of shotguns.
Before we conclude this edition, we can return to 1920 during which there was a tragic coda to the kidnapping incident. On 25 October, a man named Michael Flynn from Glenidon near Collinstown, died in Mountjoy Prison. Flynn, who was unmarried and in his early to mid-30s, had been arrested during the raids that followed the kidnapping. A subsequent military enquiry concluded that Flynn died of heart failure, although the Irish Independent reported that his condition had been worsened by ‘exposure and want of food’. It is not clear whether those privations had occurred in Mullingar Barracks, where Flynn was first incarcerated, or in Mountjoy. The Westmeath Independent reported that Flynn had ‘not been in very good health for some time past’ and it seems likely that he was in a weakened condition even before his arrest.
Michael Flynn was untried at the time of his death and his connection to the kidnapping is uncertain. The RIC Inspector General’s report for October 1920 stated that an unnamed prisoner, one of those who had been ‘arrested and identified’ as having a role in the kidnapping, ‘had since died in gaol’. The unnamed prisoner can only be Flynn. However, at least in the case of Westmeath, this source is of particularly doubtful value. The report provides the wrong dates for a number of events in October, including the capture of Moore and Hyde, as well as for the IRA ambush of a military patrol boat on Lough Ree. More seriously, it omits major events from that month such as the attack by Auxiliaries on the Westmeath Independent’s offices on 16 October and the reprisals carried out six days later by the Crown forces in Horseleap, Kilbeggan and Moate, as well as the reprisal in Athlone during which a civilian named Michael Burke was shot dead.
Yet the Inspector General’s report may be accurate in saying that Flynn had been ‘identified’ in connection with the kidnapping. As we have seen above, John Macken was placed in an identification parade when Maxwell Moore visited Mountjoy. Moore did not recognise Macken, despite the Castlepollard man’s lead role in the kidnapping. Moore did, however, pick out another prisoner whom Macken described as ‘a man from another part of the country who had nothing whatsoever to do with the kidnapping.’ It is possible that this man was Michael Flynn. At the very least we can say that Moore, given that he overlooked Macken, was not an infallible eyewitness.
Newspapers reports, as in the case of the Irish Independent, stated that Flynn had ‘no active connection with Sinn Fein, nor was a member of the Irish Volunteers.’ This may be accurate, in the sense that Michael Flynn was not an active republican, although he had a strong family connection to the Volunteers, given that his brother Christopher was in the IRA. Christopher, who may have been a member of the group that kidnapped Moore and Hyde, was arrested at the same time as Michael Flynn but was subsequently released. The activity reports for the Mullingar Brigade also list a man named James Flynn as being a member of the IRA from Glenidon and he may have been another brother of Michael Flynn. However, the activity reports make no mention of Michael Flynn participating in the kidnapping, nor do any subsequent witness statements. Also, when James Maguire later recalled the death of Michael Flynn, he stated that Flynn’s ‘brother was a good I.R.A. man’, suggesting that Michael was not a member of the IRA. It is likely that Michael Flynn had no role in the kidnapping and that he was held in prison either because of his family associations or because he was misidentified by Moore.
Flynn’s death was a tragedy for his family, while the wider affair was devastating for the Mullingar Brigade. That brigade, even before October 1920, had struggled to equip its volunteers and to organise offensive actions against the Crown forces. The incarceration of so many of the brigade’s most active officers worsened these problems, which remained unresolved throughout the War of Independence. Maxwell Moore, who had proved to be a formidable character, seems to have resumed work soon after his release but he returned to a collapsing system. The Westmeath Examiner reported that ‘only a few police cases of trivial character’ were waiting for Moore and, a few days later, Mullingar’s Quarter Sessions – a criminal court held four times per year – were cancelled because, to quote the RIC Inspector General, ‘no jurymen attended.’ The Crown forces had incapacitated the Mullingar Brigade but the struggle for Ireland’s future was being fought on many fronts: in the competition between rival systems of law and order, it was republicans and Dáil Éireann who were on the advance.
Bureau of Military History Brigade Activity Reports; Bureau of Military History Military Service Pensions Collection; Bureau of Military History Witness Statements; RIC Inspector General’s Reports; Belfast Newsletter, Cork Examiner, Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Irish Times, Sunday Independent, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For more detail, see: Liam Cox, Moate – County Westmeath: A History of Town and District (Athlone, Alfa Print Ltd, 1981); Ian Kenneally, ‘The War of Independence in Westmeath’ in the Journal of The Old Athlone Society, 2013; Seamus O’Brien (Ed), A Town in transition: Post Famine Mullingar (Mullingar, 2007); and Russell Shortt’s, ‘IRA Activity in Westmeath during the War of Independence, 1918-1921: Parts One and Two’ in Ríocht na Midhe: Records of Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, 2005 and 2006.
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 25/11/2020