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Mullingar from 1919 to 1923

In the second of two articles, historian Ruth Illingworth explores the transformations that took place in Mullingar during the War of Independence and Civil War. A shorter version of this article appeared recently in the Decade of Centenaries supplement published with the Westmeath Independent and Westmeath Examiner.

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Members of the National Army’s Railway Protection and Maintenance Corps in Mullingar, 1923. Railways in Westmeath were regular targets for anti-Treaty IRA attacks during the Civil War.

 

War of Independence

In 1919 the Volunteers and Cumann na mBan in Mullingar continued to organise but it would be a year before they were in any position to start a campaign against the Crown forces. Members of what would become the Mullingar Brigade of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were drawn mostly from the working class areas of the town such as Patrick Street, Austin Friars Street and Blackhall. They included postal workers, railway employees, plumbers, labourers, carpenters and print workers. Cumann na mBan members included chamber maids, shopkeepers, nurses and a doctor, while a cafe on Earl Street run by Cumann members Lizzie, Mary and Peg Leonard became a favourite meeting place for local republicans. By 1920, the Mullingar Cumann na mBan branch had 75 members.

There was little in the way of military action in Mullingar during the War of Independence due to shortage of weapons and the difficulties of operating in a garrison town. Acts of sabotage were carried out  by the IRA at the railway station in which military cargoes such as petrol and munitions were removed from trains and dumped. Postal workers serving in the IRA broke the RIC cipher codes and Cumann na mBan successfully managed to help a republican prisoner to escape from the military barracks. However, by early 1921 most of the Mullingar IRA leaders had been arrested.

Elections to the Town Commission and to the County Council saw continued evidence of radicalisation in Mullingar. Sinn Féin took the majority of seats and Mick McCoy of Mullingar IRA was elected to the Rural District Council. The County Council pledged allegiance to the Dáil government not long after. The tricolour was raised on the County Buildings and the Town Commission renamed streets after the patriot dead. In response, the British army raided council meetings a number of times and took away the minute books. A number of councillors, including Town Commissioner Pat Brett, were arrested. Frequent raids were made by the Crown forces on the homes and workplaces of republican activists and curfews were imposed. Most local Justices of the Peace resigned their commissions during 1919 and 1920 and Dáil courts were in operation by late 1920, with solicitors and councillors acting as judges. Local Volunteers also served in the Republican or IRA police, guarding polling stations during elections and even making arrests for anti-social behaviour.

Labour also did well in the Local Government elections in Mullingar. The Trade Union movement was strong and growing in the town. The local branch of the Trade and Labour Council had 500 members by 1918. A branch of the Women Workers of Ireland union was founded and local women were urged to join the union and help secure a Workers' Republic. On May Day 1919 a large rally was held in the town, attended by railway and asylum workers, shop assistants and teachers. Banners calling on Workers of the World to unite were raised and red flags flown. Labour Party leader Thomas Johnston addressed the rally. During this period, there was an increase in industrial action in the town, with many workers joining strikes in support of higher wages and better living conditions during a time of deep economic recession. Pay rises were secured and shop assistants were granted a half-day holiday during the week. Women also began to play a slightly more prominent role in the public life of Mullingar. Dr Mary King was appointed as Dispensary District Medical Officer and Dr Kathleen Dillon held a senior position in the asylum as a psychiatrist.

The large numbers of World War One veterans in Mullingar were also organising themselves. In February 1919 more than 400 veterans packed into the Parochial Hall in Church Avenue for a meeting which led to the founding of a local branch of the Comrades of the Great War Association. Many servicemen had returned from the war to poverty and bad living conditions. They sought not just financial help but grants of land and houses. In 1922 a number of ex-servicemen’s houses would be built in areas of town such as Ballinderry, Clonmore and Blackhall.

 

Treaty and Civil War

The Truce in 1921 was welcomed in Mullingar and those imprisoned by the British were gradually released, returning home to an enthusiastic reception. The Anglo-Irish Treaty was largely supported by the town commissioners and district and county councillors, who urged the local TDs to ratify the Treaty. (All did with the exception of Laurence Ginnell). The Treaty was also supported by Bishop Gaughran and the priests of the parish and by a majority of the local business community and trade unions. However the Mullingar IRA split on the issue with the majority rejecting the Treaty, as did the majority of Cumann na mBan.

The British Army left Mullingar in February 1922 and the barracks was used for a time as a demobilisation centre for the RIC. The Black and Tans vacated the RIC Barracks on College Street in March and the building was taken over by senior Westmeath IRA Commander, James Maguire. He gave allegiance in April to the anti-Treaty IRA Executive and the barracks became the headquarters of the anti-Treaty forces in Mullingar. In April, shortly after the shooting of National army officer George Adamson in Athlone, pro-Treaty forces took over Mullingar army barracks, leading to a dangerous standoff in the town. The anti-Treaty forces took control of the County Council buildings and Courthouse for a time. A gun battle outside the RIC barracks led to the death of a Free State soldier, Patrick Columb, and an anti-Treaty soldier, Joe Leavy, was shot dead by Free State soldiers soon afterwards. The anti-Treaty side withdrew from Mullingar a few days later, blowing up the RIC barracks as they left.

Mullingar escaped the worst of the Civil War, although a large number of local men joined the National army. Two republicans were executed in the military barracks in March 1923 and a soldier was killed in an accidental shooting while guarding the town waterworks in April. One local Free State soldier was killed in action during the war and several others injured. In June 1922 a number of Protestant owned shops in Mullingar had their windows smashed and some prominent local Protestant farmers received letters ordering them to leave. But these attacks were widely condemned and did not reflect local feelings in a town where relations between the religious communities were generally good.

Local IRA member Bernard O’Reilly was involved in efforts to bring about a ceasefire. O’Reilly was a member of the Neutral IRA Association (an organisation established during the Civil War, which made unsuccessful attempts to broker a truce in the conflict) and was selected as a delegate to the National convention of the Association at a meeting in Mullingar in January 1923. The Town Commission supported the Association's ceasefire proposals.

The end of the Civil War did not bring an immediate end to conflict as thousands of republican prisoners went on hunger strike in October 1923 demanding their release from jail. In Mullingar, the Town Commission, Rural District Council and County Council suspended all meetings until the prisoners were freed and banned all entertainment in the County Hall. Protest rallies were held in the town with men and women parading outside the military barracks and inside the cathedral reciting the Rosary.

The General Election of 1922, as with the subsequent election of 1923, saw pro-Treaty candidates win a majority of the Longford-Westmeath seats. In the 1923 election, prominent Mullingar merchant and town commissioner P.W. Shaw was elected as a Cumann na nGaedheal TD. Lawrence Ginnell died in April 1923 and was succeeded as Sinn Féin/Republican TD by Dr Conor O’Byrne. The 1923 election also saw substantial support in the Mullingar area for Independent Labour TD Seán Lyons. The 1923 election was the first one in which all women over 21 had the vote but no female candidates ran in Longford-Westmeath. There was surprisingly little change in political leadership in Mullingar during the revolutionary decade. Many of those who had been serving on the Town Commission and Rural District Council were still there in 1923: they simply changed their party allegiances.

 

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The Westmeath Hunt passing through the town after independence. Despite many changes, the old order continued to hold power and influence in the town and county.

 

Mullingar in 1923

On 6 December 1922 the Irish Free State came into existence and Mullingar ceased to be part of the United Kingdom after 122 years. During the first year of the Free State, the signs of independence became more evident around Mullingar. A new army now occupied the military barracks and a new police force, the Civic Guard (which would be renamed An Garda Síochána in August 1923) arrived in Mullingar in September 1922, replacing both the RIC and the Republican Police. The tricolour flew from all public buildings. In November 1922 the old British Petty Sessions Court gave way to the new District Court. District Judge Liam White told the opening session of the court: ‘The court has been set up by the people and belongs to the people. This court belongs to Ireland.’

Stamps appeared with the words 'Realthas Seolathas na hÉireann' superimposed on the King's portrait. In March 1923 the postmark 'An Mhuilinn Cearr' was first used and the post boxes were painted green. Irish became a compulsory subject in schools and the county council organised Irish language classes and began using the language in official documents.

Lord Greville reached an agreement with the Town Commission to sell his tolls and rents from the markets and fairs to the Commission. Wars and revolutions came and went but agriculture would remain a vital part of the Mullingar economy in the Irish Free State. The workhouse system was abolished in 1921 and Mullingar workhouse was re-branded as the County Home. Conditions there remained very austere however and a 1924 report would severely criticise the state of the building and the standards of care for patients.

Housing conditions in the town were also considered to be in need of improvement. Hundreds of people continued to live in substandard houses with inadequate heating and sanitation. Town commissioners condemned landlords who left tenants to ‘live like pigs’. The condition of roads around the  town was also a concern, along with a lack of public toilets, and one newspaper report compared Mullingar to ‘a village in Mesopotamia or China’. There was a great deal of economic distress in Mullingar in the 1920s, with St Vincent de Paul estimating that up to 20% of people in the parish were living in poverty. A Co-Op shop was opened in 1923, run by the Mullingar Trades Council in an effort to combat what was seen as excess profiteering. Local charities and schools were kept very busy trying to help feed and clothe large numbers of people for whom independence brought little change in their hard lives. With local government funding cut and the county council on the verge of bankruptcy after the years of conflict there would be little money for new houses or roads in Mullingar for some years to come.

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: 19/11/2023