‘On Monday night National troops from Ballymahon and Athlone surrounded Ballymore and made a search for wanted men. Mr. Richard Bertles, of Drumraney, alleged to be an officer of the Anti-Government forces, made an attempt to escape. He was called on to halt by the troops, but refused. Fire was then opened on him and he was severely wounded in the chest. He was taken immediately by the troops in the ambulance to Ballymahon hospital and succumbed to his wound in four hours. “Dick,” as he was popularly called was a member of the Ballymore District Council. He was the son of Mr. Richard Bertles, Drumraney.’
British army trucks leaving Athlone’s Victoria Barracks, renamed as Custume Barracks in 1922
That report, which appeared in the Westmeath Independent on Saturday 27 January 1923, was based on articles that had appeared in national newspaper a few days earlier, during which the shooting dead of Bertles was first made public. Those newspapers had received the story from official government sources but, as we discussed in the case of Patrick Mulrennan, such information was not always reliable.
As noted above, the younger Bertles was known to contemporaries as Dick and we shall stick with that name so as to distinguish between him and his father, Richard. In this article, the first of two, we will follow the story of Dick Bertles through the War of Independence. We will also explore the story of his wider family, as his mother, father and sister corresponded with the Irish government’s military pensions board during the 1930s.
By 1919, Dick Bertles was a prominent member of the Irish Republican Army’s Athlone Brigade. He commanded the brigade’s Drumraney Battalion and took part in operations such as the IRA’s failed attempt to capture Streamstown’s Royal Irish Constabulary barracks in July 1920. A couple of months after Streamstown the Athlone Brigade formed a flying column under the command of James Tormey and Bertles joined the column, while retaining his role as commander of the Drumraney battalion.
That flying column ambushed British Crown forces at Parkwood, near Moate, in October 1920, which led to one fatality among the Crown forces, who then carried out reprisals in Moate, Athlone and Kilbeggan. After Parkwood, the flying column’s members returned to their battalion areas in an attempt to avoid capture. Yet they remained watchful for opportunities to attack the Crown forces and, on 2 November 1920, Bertles led a unit comprised mostly of the Drumraney Battalion in an ambush at Auburn, near Glasson.
The ambush took place at the bottom of a steep hill, along which a boundary wall provided cover for the IRA volunteers, who opened fire on two lorries of Auxiliaries and Black and Tans travelling from Longford in the direction of Athlone. According to Michael McCormack, an officer in the Drumraney Battalion, the ambush party comprised about 25 volunteers, who were armed with only ‘four rifles’, shotguns, revolvers and improvised explosives, either hand-grenades or bombs made ‘out of paint-cans’ that were ‘filled with gelignite and nuts and scraps of iron’. Two riflemen were placed on either side of the road with orders to aim for the drivers of the vehicles.
The driver of the lead vehicle, an English recruit named Sidney Larkin, was killed in the first volley. McCormack stated that one of the IRA volunteers, ‘an ex-British Army man’, threw ‘three hand-grenades into the lorries’. None exploded, however, and the occupants of the lorries returned fire before driving away as the ambushers fired a second volley. Apart from Larkin, the Crown forces suffered no other fatalities.
An IRA volunteer named Seamus Finn was killed during the fighting. McCormack stated that Finn was shot dead when the Crown forces returned fire, although Thomas Costello, the Athlone Brigade’s commanding officer, later claimed that Finn was accidently ‘shot by our own men’ after inadvertently entering their line of fire. It is not clear how Costello, who was not a member of the ambush party, obtained that information.
In the aftermath of the Auburn ambush, the Crown forces carried out raids throughout the area and arrested many members of the Athlone Brigade. Information gained by the Crown forces during those raids may have led them to the Bertles family home, which was a safehouse for the IRA. In an application to the military pension board during the 1930s, Dick Bertles’ father, Richard, stated: ‘During the period from 1916 on my house was an open house to all the flying columns and it was a very usual thing for from 4 to 30 men to be fed and bedded in my house for the night; while myself, my wife [Helen] and daughter [Kathleen] kept watch...’
Bertles included in his application a list, dated 14 June 1936, of IRA volunteers who had stayed in his home during the War of Independence and Civil War: ‘Thomas McGiff and Dan McGiff, Drumraney; Frank Farrell, Ballymahon; Brian Mulvhill, Coosan; John Hayes, Clare [presumably County Clare, although perhaps Clare Hill near Drumraney]; Matt Fitzgerald, Tipperary; Kit [Christopher] McKeown, Moate; Jim Tormey, Moate; Tommy [or Toby – original text is unclear] Mannion, Athlone; Con [Thomas] Costello, Athlone; Pat Killian, Glasson; Harry [often referred to as Henry] O’Brien, Cornamaddy; John Elliot, Tonagh, Glasson; Tom Maguire, Glenidon, Collinstown [Maguire was commanding officer of the IRA’s Mullingar Brigade during the War of Independence]; James Killeen, Rathowen; and James Victory, Longford.’
Richard Bertles concluded by saying: ‘…many men from distant parts of the country also stayed in my house’, mentioning the brother of Terence MacSwiney, the lord mayor of Cork who died on hunger-strike in Brixton Prison in October 1920, as one of those. There is no reason to doubt to doubt Bertles’ statement, given his son’s high-ranking role in the IRA’s Athlone Brigade, and it is no surprise that the family was targeted by the Crown forces, who raided their home in January 1921. The elder Bertles told the pension board that ‘a man named Tully was in command of the Black and Tans on this occasion’.
That person was Captain Claude Tully, an Athlone-based military intelligence officer for the British army’s 13th Infantry Brigade. Tully, therefore, was not a member of the Black and Tans but that group often conducted raids alongside British army units. Tully, whom we encountered in previous articles, was described by Frank O’Connor, a Coosan-based officer in the Athlone Brigade, as ‘a very daring man’ who ‘struck terror into people wherever he went’ and files in the Military Archives’ Michael Collins Papers show that, in November 1920, Athlone-based IRA officer Seamus O’Meara sent a report to Collins in which he claimed that Tully was ‘the worst in the Barracks’.
Tully, according to Bertles’ account, confirmed his notorious reputation during the raid: Tully, he said, ‘ordered his men to take me outside and shoot me’. Bertles, who was then in his mid-sixties, ‘violently resisted’ and ‘in the scuffle which took place my right eye got so badly damaged that I permanently lost the sight of it within a couple of months’.
IRA officers in Westmeath informed Michael Collins about the activities of Claude Tully, an intelligence officer in the British army
Apart from raiding the Bertles household, the Crown forces interrogated captured IRA volunteers as to the whereabouts of Dick Bertles. One example was provided by Michael McCormack of the Drumraney Battalion, who was seized by the Black and Tans in April 1921. McCormack subsequently recalled to the Bureau of Military History that the Black and Tans, apart from giving him a bad beating, were seeking information on Bertles, as well as other senior IRA officers.
Dick Bertles was finally captured in June 1921 and incarcerated in Athlone’s Victoria Barracks. Newspapers later reported (see Westmeath Independent, 27 January 1923) that the Crown forces arrested his father Richard shortly after and brought him to the barracks in order to identify his son. Richard Bertles refused to do so and was also incarcerated. The two men were then tried by military court martial under the terms of the British government’s so-called Restoration of Order in Ireland Act 1920. Files belonging to the British War Office show that the two men faced five charges, the most serious being the ‘possession of ammunition and seditious documents’. Dick Bertles was sentenced to five years penal servitude and transferred to Ballykinlar internment camp, County Down (a location discussed in an earlier article that considered the cases of Joseph Tormey and Patrick Sloane).
Richard Bertles received a lesser sentence: six months without hard labour in Mountjoy Prison. According to his 1930s application to the Military Pension Board, Richard was released after five months ‘on the recommendation of the Prison Doctor’ because of ‘ill health’ and the eye injury that he received in January 1921. His statement, at least partially, corresponds with notes in the British War Office, which show that Bertles was released in mid-October 1921, following a prison review. His arrival home to Drumraney a few weeks later was the subject of an article in the Longford Leader, which reported that Bertles was ‘accorded a most enthusiastic reception’ in the area. The paper made no reference to his eye-injury, stating that he ‘appears to be in good health and spirits’.
Dick Bertles was released a few months later in the prisoner amnesty that followed the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty: an agreement that he opposed. In the next article, we will follow the Bertles family through the Civil War and conclude with an examination of the evidence related to the death of Dick Bertles. Was the official version of events accurate or was it merely a cover story for the execution of an anti-Treaty IRA officer by soldiers of the National Army?
Military Archives – Bureau of Military History Witness Statements – Military Service Pension applications by Helen Bertles, Richard Bertles and Kathleen Jennings – National Army Census, November 1922; UCD Archives – Ernie O’Malley Papers – Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Collection; UK National Archives – British War Office WO 35 files detailing ‘prosecution of Richard Bertles, Senior and Richard Bertles, Junior’; Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Longford Leader, Offaly Independent, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For more 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); Seán Enright, The Irish Civil War: Law, Execution and Atrocity (Merrion Press, 2019); Michael Hopkinson, Green against Green: the Irish Civil War (Gill & Macmillan, 2004); Eoin Kinsella, The Irish Defence Forces 1922-2022: Servant of the Nation (Four Courts Press, 2023); and Uinseann MacEoin’s, Survivors (Argenta Publications, 1987).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 13/06/2023