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‘This dance will have to be stopped!’

The Civil War ended in May 1923 with a ceasefire, not a negotiated peace, and the government remained wary of renewed violence. During the conflict, the National Army incarcerated thousands of the anti-Treaty IRA and hundreds of Cumann na mBan members. By the autumn of 1923, approximately 12,000 were still imprisoned and they were becoming increasingly agitated at their continued incarceration. On 13 October, prisoners in Mountjoy began a hunger strike with the aim of seeking their unconditional release. Their example was followed by prisoners elsewhere and, within days, an estimated 8,000 had joined the hunger-strike.

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The hunger-strike, as portrayed by the French paper, Le Petit Journal. The article states that the prisoners are following the example of the Mayor of Cork, a reference to the death by hunger-strike of Terence MacSwiney in 1920.

 

Shame and hysteria

Despite those events, Athlone was revelling in the new peace. In an earlier article, we discussed the great bazaar and festival held in Athlone during September 1923 as part of a fundraising scheme for the building of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. It was one of many public entertainments that took place in Athlone in the second half of 1923, including a ceilidh in the town’s courthouse on the night of 17 November. About 160 people were in attendance at the event, which was organised by Athlone GAA club.

Thomas Leonard of Main Street, however, was determined to use the ceilidh for a different purpose. Leonard was a veteran of both the British Army and the IRA, which he joined after fighting in the first World War. During the War of Independence, he was captured by the British Crown forces on multiple occasions but escaped each time. An opponent of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, he planned to make a stand in support of the hunger-strikers.

Some time after midnight he entered the courthouse and convinced the man at the ticket-desk to allow him entry to the ceilidh without paying. Leonard then ran up the stairs to the dance-room and went straight to the centre of the floor, where, according to a correspondent of the Westmeath Independent, he shouted: ‘It is a _____ shame to be holding dances while the prisoners are dying in jails, and this dance will have to be stopped!’ The Independent left a blank space and did not repeat whatever expletive was used by Leonard, so feel free to insert your own.

Leonard’s actions caused the band to stop playing, bringing the dance to a halt. There was a fleeting silence, which was broken when one of the ceilidh’s organisers confronted the intruder. The two men traded insults for a few moments until a explosion occurred outside the courthouse, which, according to the Westmeath Independent, threw the crowd ‘into a state of intense excitement and confusion’.

Calm was restored by officers of the National Army who were among the dancers. They realised that the explosion was caused not by a bomb but by a fog signal. In the patronising account provided by the Westmeath Independent’s correspondent, a number of women at the dance became ‘hysterical’ since they did not understand the ‘fine distinction between the explosion of a bomb and a fog signal’ until it was explained to them by the army officers. Despite the correspondent’s all-knowing tone, it is likely that most civilians would have been equally unaware of that fine distinction.

 

Bombs and guns

It seems that the perpetrators were using railway fog signals, small metal devices containing a limited quantity of explosive. The fog signals made a ferocious noise but they were not designed to damage structures. In cases of emergency, they could be placed on the metal tracks by railway workers. Any train that passed over the device would cause it to explode thus alerting the driver that there was a hazard further along the line. As discussed in recent articles, the anti-Treaty IRA made numerous attacks on local railway stations and storehouses during the Civil War, giving them many opportunities to commandeer items such as fog signals.

The first explosion was followed within minutes by a second. In the courthouse, however, the festivities had already resumed. The patrons, having learned the fine distinction between bombs and fog signals, were unperturbed by the second explosion. As reported in the Westmeath Independent, they ‘resumed their interrupted dance, and everything again proceeded as merrily as marriage bells’.

By that stage, a unit of National Army troops under the command of an officer named Garraghan was marching towards the courthouse from Custume Barracks. On reaching the courthouse, Garraghan ordered his men to take up positions within and around the building. From there, they could see ‘a number of suspicious looking individuals collected at the top of Connaught Street’. Most likely, it was one of those individuals who had set off the fog signals.

Garraghan ordered his men to fire ‘about half a dozen shots in the air’ and that fusillade, the Westmeath Independent reported, had the ‘wholesome effect of making the loiterers take to their heels’. Garraghan then ordered his men to arrest Leonard, who was marched to Custume Barracks, while occupants of nearby houses squinted through their windows at the unfolding scene. The explosions and the subsequent gunfire understandably caused much disquiet in the town, not least because Athlone had experienced multiple bomb and gun attacks in recent years.

 

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Headlines from the Westmeath Independent, 24 November 1923

 

Blame games

The ceilidh was a source of much gossip and local media coverage during subsequent days. A week later, the Westmeath Independent published a letter from Stanley Hollis, Honorary Secretary of Athlone GAA. Hollis’s letter was a lengthy criticism of the those who had disrupted the ceilidh. He accused them of supporting ‘foreign dances’ (perhaps a refence to Jazz, which was gaining popularity in Ireland) and of undermining a ‘Gaelic state’. With regard to the fact that the ‘protest was made against people amusing themselves during a hunger-strike of fellow Irishmen’, he asked if the protestors would have preferred to see patrons indulge in ‘the besotting of oneself with drink even to incapability’ instead of ‘the harmless enjoyment of Irish dancing.’

Thomas Leonard, in turn, replied to his critics via a letter to the Westmeath Independent, of which the paper printed a summary. According to that summary, Leonard admitted entering the ceilidh but he denied demanding that it be stopped. Instead, Leonard claimed that he had merely attempted to bring attention to the plight of the prisoners. He also claimed that he had not been sent to the ceilidh ‘by anyone or any organisation’. According to the paper, he wrote: ‘I did it on my own initiative.’

Despite Leonard’s claims, the evidence suggests that he acted in tandem with the group of individuals who detonated the fog-signals, a group that likely comprised remnants of the local anti-Treaty IRA. Yet their efforts were hardly noticed outside Athlone. By then, the hunger-strike was almost over and most of the prisoners had already ended their fast. Although two men from County Cork, Andy Sullivan and Denis Barry, died on hunger strike, the government made few concessions and it refused to sanction the release of all prisoners. Still, the scale of the hunger-strike, alongside small acts of protest such as Thomas Leonard’s disruption of the ceilidh, provided ample proof of the animosities dividing the Free State.

 

Sources

Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Longford Leader, Offaly Independent, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For more detail, see John Burke, 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 Patrick Murray, Church of Saints Peter and Paul: an Illustrated History and Guide (Saints Peter and Paul’s Parish Forum/Pastoral Council, 2007).

Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 30/11/2023