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The War on Railways: part two

In the previous article we discussed the anti-Treaty IRA and its campaign of destruction aimed at public infrastructure during the Irish Civil War. We focussed on the railway system around Athlone, particularly the line to and from Roscommon, parts of which were damaged or destroyed on multiple occasions. In this edition, we will again look at what newspapers referred to as the ‘war on railways’, concentrating primarily on the network between Mullingar and Athlone.

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Workers at the site of a derailed train in Westmeath. During the Civil War, the anti-Treaty IRA made regular attacks on the county's rail network. (National Library of Ireland)


Armed men

The anti-Treaty IRA’s campaign of violence against the railway system had the dual aims of undermining the logistical capabilities of the National Army and of increasing the financial burden on the government of the Irish Free State. The government, as we have discussed, responded by creating a new branch of the National Army, the Railway Protection and Maintenance Corps, but the rail network remained vulnerable to attack and disruption.

For example, on 5 October 1922, Liam Lynch, anti-Treaty IRA Chief of Staff, sent a memorandum to Ernie O’Malley (then Acting Assistant Chief of Staff) advising him that the Mullingar brigades should target communications in their area. Lynch acknowledged ‘our weak position in the two Meath and Mullingar Brigades’ but advised that ‘even 140 unarmed men if well directed could do effective work, by destroying communications, and keeping them destroyed. Each area should get definite jobs to do.’ Lynch’s memorandum followed on from a similar missive to O’Malley in August 1922 (discussed in the previous article) in which he ordered that railway lines be ‘torn up’. During the conflict, anti-Treaty IRA units in Westmeath attempted to follow those orders.

The vulnerability of the local railways was demonstrated in the early hours of 9 November 1922, when anti-Treaty IRA units burned down the signal cabins at Streamstown, Castletown Geoghegan, and Horseleap on the main line of the Midland Great Western Railway. On the same night, the anti-Treaty IRA used explosives to destroy rail lines at a place called Ballinabarna Bridge between Moate and Streamstown, before commandeering a train. They set the train moving towards Athlone before jumping from the engine. Fortunately, it did not meet any other traffic on the line and came to a stop about two kilometres from Athlone.

A more serious incident followed on Sunday 14 January 1923 when an anti-Treaty IRA unit removed a long section of the railway track on the Streamstown-to-Moate line, at a point in which the line ran over a high embankment and across a bridge. Afterwards, the armed men went to Streamstown station where they boarded a goods train, towing 25 waggons and a second engine from Mullingar to Athlone. At gunpoint, they forced the driver and crew to disembark and then sent the train towards Moate. When it reached the bridge, the point at which the tracks had been removed, the engine crashed into the embankment and most of the carriages were derailed.

Despite the damage, railway workers repaired the line within a day although the Westmeath Examiner reported that the repair crews were ‘approached by unknown persons’, presumably members of the anti-Treaty IRA, who warned them that their efforts were futile. Such threats were, seemingly, common at that time and newspapers reported that multiple drivers and firemen working for the Midland Great Western Railway had received notices warning them not to convey National Army troops. Threats turned to actions on Tuesday 16 January when armed men ripped up another section of the track before hijacking a train travelling between Clara and Mullingar, They subsequently derailed that train by running it over the section of damaged track.


Devil’s work

Those incidents were widely reported in the press, as was the reaction of Thomas Langan, a Moate-based Catholic priest. He was not unsympathetic to republican goals. The historian Brian Heffernan has listed Langan as one of those members of the Roman Catholic clergy who provided ‘material support’ to the IRA during the War of Independence. However, Langan was appalled by the anti-Treaty campaign.

Langan gave voice to his thoughts at a meeting in Mullingar on the Thursday after the destruction of the railway line near Streamstown. On arriving in Mullingar, Langan made an impromptu speech which was reported by the Irish Independent and other newspapers. ‘The people connected with this sort of thing’, he said of the anti-Treaty IRA, ‘will go down to history with shame and dishonour’ since they were ‘simply robbing widows and orphans’. According to the Independent’s report, Langan stated: ‘The men who did these things were possessed by the devil’. Describing them as ‘nominally Irish Catholics’, he warned that ‘God will wreak vengeance on the people who thus wantonly destroy property’.

Langan’s warning of divine retribution did nothing to protect the railway network, which was targeted again within a month. During the morning of Saturday 17 February, a large party of armed men blew up a temporary trestle bridge that was constructed in the aftermath of the previous attacks near Streamstown. A short time later, the men held up the signalman at Streamstown and forced him to stop an approaching mail train. The driver of the mail train, subsequently interviewed by an Irish Independent reporter, stated that when the train was brought to a standstill ‘three or four men carrying rifles approached the engine and ordered him and the fireman to step down, which they did…’ The armed men then ordered the passengers to leave the train and congregate on the platform before one of the men returned to the engine which he sent ‘down the slope into the wrecked bridge’. The engine went over the edge of the broken bridge and embedded itself in the embankment.

Many of the train’s carriages were destroyed but the hijackers were not yet finished and they took control of an empty goods train travelling from Mullingar. That train was sent careening into the wreckage of the first train. They also held up ‘a long goods train from Ballina on the Moate side of the Streamstown bridge’. After stopping the train they unhooked the engine which they sent at full speed towards the wrecked bridge.

A few hours later an Offaly Independent reporter reached the scene, writing that ‘one glance was sufficient to show the appalling nature of the destruction’. Closer examination revealed that the engine of the mail train was split in two, one part still on the rails and the other lying at the foot of the embankment. The entire area was blanketed by ‘a frightful confusion of packages, parcels, bundles of newspapers, and bags of mails’ while ‘a large number of railway workers were endeavouring to restore order out of the chaos’. The Irish Independent reported that the trains were ‘piled up in a heap as high as a big house’.


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An image of a train derailed during the Civil War (National Library of Ireland)


Wrecked trains

The Westmeath Examiner reported that ‘news of the occurrence caused a big sensation in Mullingar, and as persons from Castletown and Streamstown districts arrived in town for marketing or other business, they were eagerly questioned by one and all’. News of the incident reached Moate later that morning. According to a report in the Westmeath Independent, the ‘bearer of the news had added his own to the story, and made it appear that there had been considerable loss of life’. On hearing that version of events, many people left Moate for the scene of the crash. It was not until those people returned to the village with an accurate account of what had occurred that ‘the tension was relieved’.

By this stage of the conflict, railway crews were well-practiced in the restoration of rail lines and bridges. Within hours of the attack, a railway official gave an interview to reporters in which he promised the public that ‘the line and the services will be maintained at all costs’. By the afternoon, a railway crew had constructed a new trestle bridge and rail travel between Athlone and Mullingar resumed, with the Westmeath Examiner subsequently informing readers that ‘all the passenger traffic of trains of the day was fully and successfully carried through’.

During subsequent days rumours swirled through the locality: people heard reports – quickly proved to be false – that Moate train station had been burned down. On the contrary, it was given extra protection by the National Army. At Moate’s station, a correspondent of the Westmeath Independent reported a week later, ‘nothing save sand-bags and soldiers meet the gaze’. Similar scenes greeted travellers taking the train at Streamstown and Mullingar. Yet despite being protected by the National Army, Mullingar railway station came under fire for about half-an-hour during the early hours of 3 March 1923. An individual or small group shot at the local unit of the Railway Protection and Maintenance Corps, although it suffered no casualties.

As well as railways, roads and telegraph wires were targeted. At about 5am on 16 October 1922 the anti-Treaty IRA blew up two road bridges near Mullingar. According to the Westmeath Examiner, one was ‘near a place called knockmant’ (about half-way between The Downs and Killucan) and the other ‘about half a mile’ from Knead’s Bridge on the main Mullingar-to-Dublin road. The ‘two terrific explosions’, the Examiner reported, ‘awakened people in the town’ and left the bridges in ruins. Around the same time, the road from Castlepollard to Mullingar was blocked by trees that were deliberately cut down. It was the third time in a month that the road had been blocked in such a manner. A couple of month’s later, Knead’s Bridge was targeted and damaged, causing disruption to traffic between Mullingar and Dublin.

On 30 November 1922, the anti-Treaty IRA burned down the signal cabin and goods store at Multyfarnham, after which they tore down telegraph poles and wire for a distance, according to a report in the Freeman’s Journal newspaper, of ‘over half a mile’. Attacks on the telegraph wires, being a relatively low-risk activity for the anti-Treaty IRA, were very common and communications between Mullingar and Athlone, as well as between those towns and the rest of the country, were often cut. Those attacks forced the National Army to deploy vast resources in defences of railways, telegraph lines, roads, stations and bridges until the very end of the conflict.



Military Archives – Bureau of Military History Witness Statements, Military Service Pensions Collection; UCD – Ernie O’Malley Papers; Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Offaly Independent, Western People, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For more detail, see ‘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); Seán Enright, The Irish Civil War: Law, Execution and Atrocity (Merrion Press, 2019); Brian Heffernan, ‘The Catholic Church and the War of Independence’ in the Atlas of the Irish Revolution; 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 Bernard Share’s In Time of Civil War: the Conflict on the Irish Railways, 1922-23 (Collins Press, 2006).

Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 07/06/2023