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Mullingar from 1912 to 1918

In the first of two articles, historian Ruth Illingworth explores the transformations that took place in Mullingar before and during the First World War. A shorter version of this article appeared recently in the Decade of Centenaries supplement published with the Westmeath Independent and Westmeath Examiner. The second article will discuss the period between 1919 and 1923.

 

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A unit of the British army in the Military Barracks, Mullingar. There was a long history of local recruitment to the British army (National Library of Ireland).

 

A market town

Mullingar in 1912 had a population of about 5,500. It was an important market, garrison and railway town which was then part of the United Kingdom. The Union Jack flew over the army barracks, the post boxes were red and stamps and coins bore the head of the British monarch, King George V. Mullingar was part of the Westminster constituency of North Westmeath, represented in the House of Commons by Independent Nationalist Lawrence Ginnell. The Landlord of Mullingar was the 3rd Baron Greville, whose grandfather had bought the town in 1858.

Mullingar had little in the way of industry in 1912 and was largely a market town with a weekly agricultural market and monthly fairs. The wool, cattle and horse fairs attracted buyers from all over Ireland and Britain. The commercial heart of the town lay along what were then known as Greville and Earl Streets. Most of the shops were family owned. There was a post office, four banks and several hotels. There was also a cathedral, an infirmary, a workhouse and an asylum. The Royal Canal Harbour was still a busy place for freight boats. Major employers in the town were the railway, the asylum, the post office and the military barracks. Domestic service and retail offered employment to large numbers of women.

The town had 863 inhabited houses, with  the majority of people living in class two and three houses. While Mullingar had a relatively well off middle class and a degree of economic prosperity there were high levels of poverty, with many unskilled workers and their families living on the edge of destitution and reliant on support from local charities.

The population of Mullingar was predominantly Roman Catholic. Schools were run by the Presentation and Loreto Orders and by the Christian Brothers, while the Mercy Nuns ran the workhouse hospital. Mullingar was also the location of the diocesan school for Meath Diocese. The Protestant community made up about 8% of the population of the town. The majority belonged to the Church of Ireland  but there were also Presbyterian and Methodist congregations.

Mullingar had a vibrant cultural life in 1912, with a large number of amateur drama groups, marching bands and choirs. The County Hall, opened in 1913, would become a major entertainment venue for the town and district. The town had a Temperance Club, a Workingmen's Club and a Gaelic League Branch. The annual Midland Feis held in the Christian Brothers school was  a celebration of Irish  traditional culture which brought big crowds from across Westmeath and other counties. Sport was also popular in the town, with cricket and tennis clubs, a racecourse  and a growing enthusiasm for Gaelic games. Culture and sport would remain an important part of Mullingar life right through the revolutionary decade and afterwards.

 

Home Rule and the Volunteers

The Home Rule Bill was warmly welcomed by the members of Mullingar Town Commission and Mullingar Rural District Council. A massive rally held in Dublin on 31 March 1912 in support of the Bill was attended by local politicians from Mullingar, including the Chairmen of the Town Commission and of the County Council, Thomas J. Shaw and J.P. Dowdall. Also there was John. P. Hayden, the editor of the Westmeath Examiner newspaper, who was a close friend of John Redmond and MP for North Roscommon.

Local government in Mullingar was dominated by supporters of the Home Rule cause. The main division was between supporters of Hayden and supporters of Lawrence Ginnell. The radical views held by Ginnell on issues such as land distribution, Irish self-government and women's suffrage were not to the liking of John Redmond or his senior colleagues. The Examiner editor detested Ginnell, whom he saw as a ‘factionalist’ who risked undermining Redmond's work. The majority of town commissioners were Ginnellites, including the wealthy Shaw family, merchant princes who dominated  local business life. There was also a strong Labour movement in Mullingar even before the Labour Party was founded, and those elected ‘in the labour interest’ tended to support Ginnell. Lord Greville, as a member of the Liberal Party, was also a supporter of the Home Rule Bill.

There was a small Unionist presence in the Mullingar area. A Westmeath Unionist Association had existed since the 1890's. Most of its membership was drawn from the local gentry, largely but not entirely Protestant. In February 1912 a branch of the Women's Unionist Association was founded at a meeting in Knockdrin Castle. The branch passed a resolution strongly condemning any proposal for home rule.

When the Home Rule Bill passed the House of Commons in May 1914 there was a massive celebration in Mullingar. Local politicians led a vast crowd through the main streets, carrying green flags. Bonfires were lit at the Fair Green and the Mullingar Brass & Reed Band played patriotic tunes.

A Mullingar Corps of the Irish Volunteer Force was formed in April 1914 and had 500 members by June. Members met for drill in the County Buildings and were supplied with uniforms and musical instruments by local businessman, T.M. Reddy of Cullion. In September 1914 there was a mass parade of volunteers from across Westmeath in Mullingar at the Fair Green. They were reviewed by Colonel Maurice Moore, the Inspector-General of the Irish Volunteers. Moore had served in Mullingar barracks with the Connaught Rangers a decade earlier.

 

A town at war

In the early months of the First World War, Mullingar and neighbouring areas of North Westmeath had one of the highest British army recruitment rates per head of population in the whole United Kingdom. Large numbers of local men who were army reservists also returned to their regiments. Many families had four or more members in the army by the end of 1914. Recruits came from all sections of society. Mullingar's citizen soldiers included shop assistants, postal workers, railway employees, labourers and the sons of bank officials, auctioneers and doctors.

In some areas of the town, such as Patrick Street and Barrack St, nearly every household had someone serving. A number of local doctors and nurses volunteered to serve with the Red Cross, the Royal Army Medical Corps and the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), and a Red Cross hospital for wounded soldiers opened at Bloomfield House. Many women in the town supported the work of organisations such as the Leinster Regiment Comforts Fund and the Belgian Refugees Relief Fund. Local Roman Catholic curate, Father Bernard Farrell served as a military chaplain in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq).

Local politicians largely supported the war effort and spoke at recruitment meetings held in the County Hall, while efforts were made by the Town Commission to secure a munitions factory for the town. Laurence Ginnell was a lone voice in his opposition to Ireland's involvement in the war, which he said would leave young Irishmen ‘to manure the fields of Flanders and feed the fishes in Suvla Bay’. But this was a minority opinion in Mullingar  at the time. A massive auction and gift sale held in the County Hall in January 1916 to raise funds for the Leinster Regiment Comforts Fund drew huge crowds and the streets were decorated with the flags of the Allied nations and banners calling on people to 'support our soldiers.'

The war had a major impact on Mullingar. A total of 293 soldiers from the Mullingar area, or based there, were killed along with two civilians. Several families lost two or more sons. Week after week the death in action of yet another local man or youth (some of those killed were only 18 or 19) was reported. Many men suffered major physical injuries and others would endure lasting mental trauma. Several local  soldiers were decorated for bravery.

The war also took a heavy economic toll on the town. The cost of living soared and there were shortages of coal, bread and other  basic necessities. Compulsory tillage was brought in to try and ensure food security and Bishop Gaughran had the cathedral grounds turned over to growing vegetables. The Annual Report of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Mullingar in 1917 stated that: ‘The cost of living has more than doubled, the Poor are enduring the most acute privations and, above all, the lives of the children are menaced for the want of the barest necessities of life.’

Matters were made worse by the arrival of the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. One of the deadliest pandemics in history, the Spanish Flu is estimated to have killed up to fifty million people worldwide in little more than a year, with up to 22,000 dying in Ireland. In Mullingar, scores of people fell ill-most of them aged between 18 and 45 and there were a number of deaths. Schools were closed and special novenas offered for relief from the disease. The Medical Officer of Health told the  Poor Law Guardians that: ‘I cannot hold myself responsible for the treatment of the sick poor during the  existence of the present plague and if the guardians do not appoint a doctor to give temporary assistance, I fear patients will die whose lives could be saved if they got proper attention.’

 

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Mullingar, early in the 20th Century (National Library of Ireland)

 

After the Rising

No military activity took place in Mullingar during the Rising. Like the rest of the country, the people of the town  were taken completely by surprise at the events in Dublin and all communication with the capital was lost for a number of days. The Dublin bound trains were all stopped at Mullingar and the station became a kind of refugee camp with hundreds of passengers camped in the refreshment and waiting rooms, on the platforms and in the carriages. A local priest organised food supplies for them.

Rumours spread quickly during the Rising and a national paper later wrongly reported that rebels had taken over Mullingar station. The report drew a response from the Town Commission Chairman, P.W. Shaw, who wrote to the paper stating: ‘There are no rebels in Mullingar. All the men we can spare are at the front.’ Christopher Whelan, a postal worker, was one of the few Mullingar people to take part in the Rising. Another participant was Dr Ada English, who served as a medical officer with the Volunteers during the fighting in Athenry Peter McKeon and Walter Walsh  also served. Thomas Hickey from Mullingar, who was living in Dublin, was murdered along with his teenage son Christopher in the North King Street massacre, carried out by the British army.

The Town Commission and County Council strongly condemned the Rising. So did Bishop Gaughran and most of the clergy of Mullingar. Again, Lawrence Ginnell was a lone voice in praising the rebels and fiercely condemning the executions of the leaders. Gradually, public opinion in Mullingar began to shift in the aftermath of the Rising. Large sums of money were donated to the Prisoners Dependants Fund set up to help the families of those executed or imprisoned.

A branch of Sinn Féin was set up in the town and soon had around 100 members. The chairman was Pat Brett, a shopkeeper and town commissioner. The Irish Volunteers began to reorganise and recruit and Cumann na mBan also started to organise locally. The Christian Brothers played a part in radicalising the young people of Mullingar. Mick McCoy, who would later lead the Mullingar IRA Brigade, recalled that a copy of the Proclamation was circulated around the Christian Brothers School by one of his teachers within weeks of the Rising.

Events such as the Sinn Féin victory in the Longford by-election and the death of Thomas Ashe led to a further growth in support for republicanism in Mullingar in 1917. Sinn Féin rallies took place attended by Éamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith and Countess Markiewicz. One meeting, at the Fair Green in July, was described as: ‘A splendid rally of the workers of Mullingar district’. In April 1918 the attempt by the government to introduce military conscription further radicalised Mullingar opinion. Up to 12,000 people attended an anti-conscription meeting held in the town on 14 April, and thousands signed the anti-conscription pledge. On 9 June, despite appalling weather, more than a thousand women marched through the town as part of the Cumann na mBan organised 'Lá na mBan', and signed the Women's Anti-Conscription pledge at the County Hall.

In the General Election held on 14 December 1918 Lawrence Ginnell was comfortably re-elected. His main opponent was Mullingar businessman and county councillor, P.J. Weymes, who secured most of his vote in the town from the local business and professional class, as well as the clergy. Turnout in Mullingar was quite high, with the electorate having doubled since the previous general election in 1910. For the first time women could vote while Alice Ginnell made her own contribution to a historic election when she acted as her husband's election agent-becoming the first female election agent in Irish or British history. That election heralded a period of remarkable change in Ireland: a period we will discuss in the next article.

Ruth Illingworth is a historian, lecturer and tour guide. She is the author of five books, including Mullingar: A History and Guide; The Little Book of Westmeath and A 1950’s Irish Childhood. She has also written a number of book chapters  and  articles for newspapers and journals, and has broadcast on RTÉ, BBC, TG4, Midland Radio 3 and Athlone Community Radio, as well as on videos and podcasts. She is President of the Westmeath Archaeological & Historical Society and a member of the Westmeath Heritage Forum.

 

Sources

For more detail, see 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, The Irish War of Independence (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 2002); Michael Hopkinson, Green against Green: the Irish Civil War (Gill & Macmillan, 2004); and Seamus O’Brien (ed), A Town in Transition: Post Famine Mullingar (Mullingar, 2007).

 

 

Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 11/11/2023