The picture shows Michael Burke, a civilian shot dead by Crown forces on 22 October 1920 – Image provided by the Westmeath Independent.
In this edition, we discuss the aftermath of the Parkwood ambush of 22 October 1920, in which the Athlone Brigade’s flying column attacked a convoy of Auxiliaries and Black and Tans near Moate.
During the ambush, one of the police lorries had been put out of action and its occupants were stranded at Parkwood until reinforcements – ‘one lorry of soldiers, two lorries of the R.I.C., fully armed, and an armoured car’ – arrived from Athlone. At 7.30 pm this convoy left Parkwood in the direction of Athlone. The Westmeath Examiner described what happened next: ‘It was on the return journey that the armed forces gave themselves up to an unbridled licence and fired all the way to Athlone and through it until their munitions were exhausted.’
As they drove through Moate, the Crown forces fired at people and buildings. An eight year old girl named Mathews was shot while playing in the street with a friend – ‘the bullet grazing the top of the head causing a scalp wound’ – and a woman named Mrs. Burke was shot in the right arm. Fortunately, both seem to have recovered from their injuries. Members of the convoy directed their fire into shop fronts and domestic residences, shattering windows as they went. The convoy had entered the town at the same time ‘as the October devotions were concluded’ and the many people who were in the vicinity of St. Patrick’s Church rushed to seek shelter within its walls. A little further on, shots were fired into ‘Mr Thomas Mahon’s licensed premises at the Gap,’ forcing patrons to seek shelter in the kitchen.
After driving through Moate, the Crown forces made their way to Athlone, arriving at around 9pm. The town was particularly busy, since, to use the words of the Westmeath Independent, ‘Friday night is the night selected by the working classes for their weekly shopping, and, consequently shops at this hour were doing a brisk business.’ The paper provided a detailed account of subsequent events:
In the Franciscan Church the evening devotions in connection with the Annual Retreat … were being held, and in St. Mary’s Church the October devotions were being conducted. There were large congregations in both Churches. The town was quite peaceable until the advent of the uniformed men ... When the lorries arrived at Castlemaine St, they slackened speed, and immediately a volley of fire and revolver fire rang out. People fled in all directions in a state of panic and took cover in the nearest houses. The firing continued through Irishtown, and loud explosions were distinctly heard in St. Mary’s Church … The women and children in the Church in a state of panic rushed from their places to the altar rails, many of them screaming. Rev. J. Lennon, C.C., who was officiating, counselled the congregation to kneel down and place their trust in God … The firing continued through the streets and pedestrians fled in all directions for safety.
In Church Street, a terrible calamity occurred. Mr. Michael Burke, U.D.C [Urban District Council], a most popular and highly-esteemed townsman, when about to cross the street to his house was struck down … Mr. Michael Burke was stepping off the footpath when the bullet pierced the left side of his head over the ear and lodged in the brain. When Mr. Burke was seen to fall a corporal of the R.F.A. [Royal Field Artillery] and Mr. Leonard, Main St., ex-soldier, emerged from a house nearby where they had taken cover, and pluckily amidst rifle firing rushed to Mr. Burke’s assistance. With the assistance of Mr. T. Sweeney, Castlemaine Street, and others they carried Mr. Burke into the house of Mrs. Farrell, Church Street … In the meantime, indiscriminate firing continued, as the lorries proceeded towards the Town Bridge. The rifles and revolvers blazed and bullets whizzed in all directions. It is considered most miraculous that many further casualties did not occur.
The Westmeath Examiner reported that the convoy fired an estimated 1,000 rounds in Athlone and that they also discharged grenades. Despite the bravery of those who assisted Burke, he died a few days later in a Dublin hospital, leaving behind his wife and three children.
The convoy that carried out the reprisals in Moate and Athlone was comprised partly of British soldiers. Yet, soldiers from Athlone’s barracks also played a role in assisting civilians and in bringing the reprisal to a halt. Shortly after the convoy reached the bridge, ‘armed military pickets’ emerged from the barracks, and they proceeded to put cordons around the centre of the town. When the all-clear was sounded around 9.30 pm, unarmed soldiers escorted civilians to their homes and the Westmeath Independent paid tribute to those soldiers ‘for their prompt and effective intervention’.
Soon after the convoy was brought under control ‘a large force of military’ left the barracks and drove to Moate, arriving around 10.30pm. These soldiers began firing their weapons as they entered the town, although there is no evidence that they had been shot at or threatened in any way. On hearing the gunfire, many locals feared that another reprisal was in progress and they fled into adjoining fields. Amid the confusion a man named Bastick was shot. Bastick, who was deaf, had been walking home when the military arrived in Moate. He was stopped by soldiers on two occasions but was allowed to continue on his way. However, as Bastick reached the outskirts of the town, near the Sisters of Mercy Convent, he did not hear a soldier shouting at him to halt. This soldier shot Bastick in the shoulder. Despite his injury, Bastick scrambled to safety by hiding in the nearby Comrades of the Great War hut, adjacent to the convent. That seems to have been the end of the shooting in Moate and the military spent the night conducting house searches across the town.
Moate and Athlone were not the only towns to suffer reprisals that day. Earlier, about 5pm, a truckload of Auxiliaries entered Kilbeggan from the direction of Moate. As we have seen in the previous blog, one of the police lorries ambushed at Parkwood had immediately turned around and driven away, apparently to seek military reinforcements. This may have been the lorry that arrived in Kilbeggan at 5pm.
Once in Kilbeggan, the Auxiliaries threatened to burn down buildings belonging to ‘Mr MaGuinness’ and ‘Mrs Hennessy’, before departing the town around 8pm. As the Auxiliaries left Kilbeggan in the direction of Moate they ‘opened a fusillade of shots’ and damaged numerous homes and businesses in the town. According to witnesses, they indulged in the same conduct in Horseleap, firing into a number of houses. This party of Auxiliaries was still at large when the British army contingent departed Athlone for Moate, although they do not seem to have carried out any more reprisals that night.
The reprisals, especially the shooting of Burke, caused ‘immense sensation and indignation’ in the county. He ‘was one of the most prominent public men during the Nationalist movement’ and had been a public figure for about twenty years. The Westmeath Examiner paid tribute to Burke, providing a brief outline of his political career:
Notwithstanding his adherence to the old Nationalist constitutional policy, he headed a Nationalist party who were returned at the municipal election last January, but at the latter county elections … he retired, though certain of election. Since then he took no part in public affairs. He had no association of any kind with Sinn Fein or the Irish Volunteers.
It is not clear if any of the convoy’s soldiers or police were subsequently disciplined for their conduct in Athlone and Moate, actions which led to the death of one civilian and the wounding of at least three others. The October report of the RIC Inspector General, for example, made no mention of the reprisals. In London, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Hamar Greenwood, told the House of Commons that the Crown forces ‘accidently shot’ Burke after the convoy had been attacked in Athlone. In making this claim, Greenwood ignored all the available evidence, as well as the fact that the convoy began its reprisal in Moate, long before it reached Athlone. Greenwood received much criticism, both in Ireland and Britain, for his account of events and he soon dropped, or modified, his claim that the convoy had been attacked in Athlone. In a later debate, he suggested that the convoy was ‘in fear of another attack’ when it reached the town and that this was a contributory factor in the shooting of Burke. Again, this ignored the evidence and was an obvious attempt to excuse the actions of the Crown forces.
The situation in Westmeath and surrounding areas remained fraught and the violence continued over subsequent days. On 25 October in Clara, not far from the site of the Parkwood ambush, a man named Deegan was shot and badly wounded by ‘uniformed men’ – a euphemism that newspapers sometimes used to describe the Auxiliaries. The Westmeath Independent reported that Deegan was walking home among friends, having spent the evening with a local theatrical group, when a lorry containing about fifteen men entered the town. Deegan was shot in the back by one of these men as he attempted to gain access to a house. According to witnesses, the lorry then departed in the direction of Tullamore.
During that same week, republicans in Mullingar received letters from a group calling itself the ‘Anti-Sinn Fein Society’ – a cover name used by sections of the Crown forces. The recipients were, reported the Westmeath Examiner, ‘given a certain time to clear out of the town, failing which they would be shot’. Similar warnings were sent to republicans in Tullamore. As October 1920 came to a conclusion, the region was primed for further violence but the locations and the victims were yet to be determined.
Bureau of Military History Brigade Activity Reports; Bureau of Military History Witness Statements; Hansards House of Commons Archive; RIC Chief Inspector’s monthly reports for Westmeath; RIC Inspector General’s Reports; Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Irish Times, Westmeath Independent and Westmeath Examiner. For more detail, see: John Borgonovo's Spies, Informers and the ‘Anti-Sinn Fein Society': the Intelligence War in Cork City 1919-1921 (Irish Academic Press, 2007); John Burke’s Athlone 1900-1923: Politics, Revolution and Civil War (The History Press, 2015); Liam Cox, Moate – County Westmeath: A History of Town and District (Alfa Print Ltd, 1981); and Ian Kenneally’s ‘The War of Independence in Westmeath’ in the Journal of The Old Athlone Society, 2013.
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 18/11/2020