‘Athlone was startled on Wednesday night about 9.15 by a muffled explosion, followed by a glare in the sky. It came from the direction of the waterworks, which were blown up by armed men…’ That was how the Irish Independent reported on the destruction of the Athlone Waterworks on the night of Wednesday 7 February 1923.
An image taken shortly after the explosion that shows the damage done to the waterworks (National Library of Ireland)
National Army soldiers blocked the bridge of Athlone within minutes of the explosion and prevented people from moving about the town. Among those who were unable to get to the scene of the explosion were local newspaper reporters and it would take many hours for journalists to gain information on what had occurred.
The attack was carried out by the anti-Treaty IRA as, contemporary newspapers reported, a reprisal for the execution in Custume Barracks of five of their comrades on 20 January 1923 (which we discussed in earlier articles). About 9pm on that Wednesday night, a group of men called at the residence of the waterworks superintendent, a man named Farrell, and demanded the keys from him. At first Farrell refused but when the men made it clear that they were armed with handguns and rifles he handed over the keys. One of the men warned Farrell to remain in his house and to ensure his compliance they took his daughter as a hostage and brought her to the waterworks.
Once there, they quickly gained entrance and, according to contemporary reports, a ‘mine was placed in the building’. Although the waterworks was a substantial structure it was blown apart in the subsequent explosion. Of the three 18-horsepower pump engines, which were used to supply water to the town, two were smashed beyond repair: ‘practically scrap-iron’ in the words of a waterworks employee. The remaining engine, perhaps partially shielded from the blast by the other two, was potentially salvageable, although very badly damaged.
Nobody was injured by the explosion and it appears that Farrell’s daughter was released soon after. There was an element of fortune in that outcome: a gas-pipe that supplied the waterworks was ruptured and caught fire but a ‘gas-holder’ near the building was unharmed by the explosion. The blaze that engulfed the waterworks site was eventually quenched by soldiers from Custume Barracks, who arrived with ‘their fire engine’.
The attack on the waterworks may have served as a form of retribution for the executions in Custume Barracks but it was also typical of a wider anti-Treaty IRA campaign aimed at public infrastructure. By destroying utilities such as waterworks and railway lines (which we will discuss in a later article) it aimed to prevent their use by the National Army and to increase the financial strain on government resources. For example, Liam Lynch, Chief of Staff of the anti-Treaty IRA, sent a letter to the Irish Engineering Union in August 1922 stating that railway lines across the country would be destroyed because they allowed for the ‘conveyance of troops and war material’ for the government.
The destruction of the waterworks was one of the most significant operations carried out by the anti-Treaty IRA in the vicinity of Athlone during this period. They were under immense pressure from the National Army which regularly conducted raids and arrests in the locality. The results of such pressure can be seen in the February 1923 decision of twenty-seven members of the anti-Treaty IRA to hand over their weapons to the National Army in Moate. All twenty-seven were members of the ‘Faheeran, 1st Battalion, Athlone Brigade’ commanded by David Daly, one of the most prominent local IRA officers to have opposed the Treaty. Daly and his men signed an undertaking in which they agreed not to prevent the government from carrying out the work ‘of the nation, industrially, financially and commercially’.
Another indicator of how anti-Treaty forces were unable to counter the National Army in the locality can be found in the Military Archive pension files of Timothy McCann from Killinure, Glasson. McCann had served with the IRA’s Athlone Brigade during the War of Independence and was one of the unit that shot dead Colonel-Commandant Thomas Stanton Lambert at Benown in 1921. McCann opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and was an active member of the anti-Treaty IRA during the Civil War. He took part in the Glasson ambush of August 1922 in which three people – two National Army soldiers and one civilian – were killed. That ambush, which we discussed in an earlier edition, was followed by a long period of relative inactivity for McCann’s unit. McCann told the pension board that, during the period from August 1922 until the end of the Civil War, his unit was mostly engaged in blocking roads.
The town bridge was reopened by the morning after the explosion and many townspeople visited the waterworks. Bricks, slates, and parts of the machinery were strewn about the site, while workers could be seen clearing away the debris. Yet, despite the destruction, Athlone’s residents were still able to obtain water. A report in the Westmeath Independent described the local response: ‘As the town has a number of public fountains, not depending on the waterworks for water, the people were not much inconvenienced by this outrage. All day long on Thursday people were drawing water from the fountains and access was also freely given to the pumps in private yards. A noticeable feature in connection with the matter is the number of new buckets that were to be seen on the streets.’
Local manufacturing firms were similarly discommoded but they managed to improvise solutions and obtain water for their premises. The Westmeath Independent reported a few days later that ‘it is satisfactory to state that no one has been deprived of his employment by the destruction of the Athlone Waterworks’. Custume Barracks, however, was left without water. Earlier in its history, the British garrison had decided to obtain water directly from the town waterworks, a policy that had been continued by the National Army. In the days after the explosion, soldiers from the barracks could seen drawing water in the town while others were ‘giving the civilian authorities every possible help’. Those efforts ensured that the waterworks was able to resume a partial service for the town within a week.
Events such as the destruction of the waterworks were heavily criticised in the press, which was generally supportive of the government. Many papers accused the anti-Treaty IRA of disrupting the lives of civilians and potentially bankrupting the country. For example, the Westmeath Independent editorialised: ‘Deeds such as these, serving no military purpose whatever, endangering the public health of the community, the means of livelihood of workers in mills and factories; and inflicting grave inconvenience on the general public … make one despair’.
However, the anti-Treaty IRA continued to target public infrastructure. In March 1923, one unit attempted to destroy Mullingar Waterworks with a bomb. This time the attackers met with resistance from National Army soldiers who had been deployed as guards following the events in Athlone. The Mullingar attack failed but such utilities remained in danger until the end of the conflict.
Dáil Éireann debates; Military Archive – pension files; University College Dublin Archives – Richard Mulcahy Papers and Ernie O’Malley Papers; Irish Independent, Freeman’s Journal, Offaly Independent, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For further detail, see 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); Michael Hopkinson, Green against Green: the Irish Civil War (Gill & Macmillan, 2004); Uinseann MacEoin, Survivors (Argenta Publications, 1987); ‘Railways: campaign of destruction’ 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); and Gerard Shannon’s Liam Lynch: to declare a republic (Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 2023).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 18/04/2023