One of the most famous events from the civil war period in Westmeath is the fatal shooting in Athlone of George Adamson, a brigadier-general in the army of the new Irish Provisional Government. Adamson’s death on 25 April 1922 was an event of national significance and the subject of many detailed reports in newspapers throughout the country.
Adamson, from Moate, was a veteran of the First World War, having joined the British army in February 1915 while still a teenager, subsequently serving on various fronts with the Machine Gun Corps. He left the British army in March 1919, after which he joined the Athlone Brigade of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). During the War of Independence, Adamson was a member of the brigade’s flying column and took part in numerous attacks on the British Crown forces, being wounded on at least two occasions.
Adamson was well-respected within the IRA, as demonstrated in February 1922 when he was chosen to unveil a monument in honour of James Tormey, who was killed in a gunfight with Black and Tans twelve months earlier. Adamson was one of the officers who led Irish troops into Custume Barracks during the handover from British forces on 28 February 1922 and he had accompanied Commandant-General Seán MacEoin, the highest ranking IRA officer in the region, when the Irish Tricolour was raised over Athlone Castle later that same day.
By March 1922, after the IRA had split into opposing sections, Seán MacEoin’s most pressing task was to ensure that Custume barracks remained in pro-Treaty hands. He ordered the expulsion of all anti-Treaty officers and men from the barracks which became the regional headquarters for the Provisional Government’s new National Army. The local anti-Treaty IRA, under the command of Patrick Morrissey, set up their headquarters in the nearby Royal Hotel, which became a bespoke barracks and a rival centre of power in the town. At that stage, Adamson, a supporter of the Treaty, was promoted by MacEoin to the rank of brigadier-general.
The divisions in Athlone were replicated across the country. In mid-April, the anti-Treaty IRA seized the Four Courts in Dublin, while many midland towns saw pro- and anti-Treaty forces manoeuvring to control key buildings. As the commander of Provisional Government forces in the region, Seán MacEoin received regular threats from the anti-Treaty IRA. One letter, dated 23 April and addressed to MacEoin in the ‘Free State Barracks Athlone’, warned that if he did not withdraw his troops from Mullingar there ‘will be blood on shirts’.
The population of Athlone watched those developments with trepidation. During March and April, local clergymen and Peter Malynn, a long-time republican whom we have discussed in previous posts, mediated between the opposing forces and, according to contemporary newspapers, ‘succeeded in effecting an understanding between the leaders of the two parties’. Among the agreements was one that allowed for the movement of pro- and anti-Treaty forces in and out of the town. Yet the close proximity of two mutually hostile forces meant that the tension could not dissipate. A single moment, a provocation or a misunderstanding, could end in bloodshed. For Athlone, that moment arrived in the last week of April 1922.
On the evening of Monday 24April a party of anti-Treaty IRA, either four or five strong, arrived by car from Birr and drove to the Royal Hotel. Seán MacEoin responded to their arrival by ordering that the car, which was parked outside the hotel, be commandeered and brought to Custume Barracks. This task was completed by a party of officers under George Adamson’s command and the car was taken to the barracks some-time after midnight. MacEoin’s order subsequently became a source of controversy when he was accused by Thomas Johnson, leader of the Labour Party, of inciting violence in Athlone. According to Johnson, MacEoin’s order to seize the car was an act of aggression. MacEoin rejected Johnson’s claim in a letter to national newspapers claiming: ‘…that this car was taken from the hotel by the officer responsible for the peace of the district, because it carried five armed into Athlone at a late hour on Monday night, contrary to a written agreement between myself and Sean Fitzpatrick [who had recently arrived to take command of the anti-Treaty forces in the Royal Hotel]’.
When Adamson brought the car to Custume Barracks, he realised that two of the officers that had accompanied him, Patrick Fitzpatrick and a man named O’Callaghan, were missing. Fitzpatrick had been pushing the commandeered car when the vehicle started and drove off before he could climb aboard while O’Callaghan had been delegated to act as a lookout on a nearby street. Adamson then volunteered to lead a group in search of the two officers. Initially, he was accompanied by four soldiers, although he soon delegated one of them to a task elsewhere in the town. Fitzpatrick and O’Callaghan, in the meantime, each made their own way back to the barracks and did not encounter Adamson’s search party along the way.
Adamson, with the three remaining soldiers, walked as far as the Irishtown area of Athlone when they encountered a man standing in the doorway of house. This man was attached to the anti-Treaty IRA in the Royal Hotel. According to witnesses, Adamson and this man knew each other, or at least recognised each other. The man, whose identity we will confirm in the next article, was standing opposite a house owned by a family called Duffy. On this night, Seán MacEoin, who had recently returned to Athlone from Tralee, was a guest of the family and was staying in an upstairs room in the house. As such, it is unsurprising that Adamson ordered the man to depart the scene.
The man refused and, according to witnesses, for the next few minutes he and Adamson continued talking. As they did so, a dangerous situation developed. Adamson was unaware that most of the anti-Treaty party from Birr and a few others from the Royal Hotel had, after their car was taken to Custume Barracks, walked to Poole’s Garage in Irishtown in order to secure a replacement. This group suddenly appeared on the street, surrounding Adamson and his three comrades. The sequence of events from this point onwards is unclear but it would end with Adamson lying on the street bleeding profusely from a gunshot to the head, fatally wounded.
It is a characteristic of the Civil War and how it is remembered that the circumstances surrounding Adamson’s death are disputed to this day with many rumours still prevalent as to how, by whom, and why he was killed. Below, we will explore those claims and examine the circumstances in which Adamson was shot.
Not long after the shooting in Irishtown, the fatally wounded George Adamson was brought to Custume Barracks. He died around 10am that morning, 25 April 1922. Adamson, 25-years-old at the time of his death, was subsequently buried in Mount Temple amid an immense public display of mourning with an estimated 10,000 people joining the funeral procession.
The repercussions of Adamson’s death were felt across the country. Arthur Griffith spoke in the Dáil on 26 April, saying that Adamson ‘was foully murdered’ and that he ‘died for his country as truly as any man ever died for it’. That same day the Catholic Hierarchy made a public denunciation directed at the ‘young men connected with the military revolt’. The bishops’ statement warned those opponents of the Treaty that: ‘…when in prosecution of these principles they proceed to make shameful war upon their own country, they are parricides and not patriots. When they shoot their brothers on the opposite side they are murderers.’ Newspapers, which were overwhelmingly pro-treaty, likewise judged that Adamson was killed by the anti-Treaty IRA.
Adamson’s death quickly became entangled in a publicity battle between the competing wings of the formerly united IRA, a struggle in which each side sought to blame the other for pushing Ireland towards civil war. On the morning after the shooting, the publicity department of the National Army’s headquarters in Beggar’s Bush Barracks, Dublin, issued two ‘official announcements’ which stated that Adamson was alone and that he was returning to barracks when he was ‘confronted by a group of armed men, who ordered him to put up his hands’ before shooting him. These reports were inaccurate but they were followed a few hours later by a third, more detailed, version.
The third report correctly stated that Adamson was not alone but part of a search party with three others and that they encountered a man standing outside the house of Mr. Bigley in Irishtown (opposite the Duffy house). Adamson ordered him to raise his hands but the man refused. Suddenly, according to this report, a group of armed men surrounded Adamson and his comrades. Adamson and his men were disarmed and ordered to put their hands in the air. Then, according to this report, ‘the man in the doorway levelled his revolver at Brigadier Adamson and fired point blank into his ear. The Brigadier fell mortally wounded, the bullet passing through the skull.’
The statement portrayed the shooting as a calculated and deliberate act, the murder of a helpless prisoner. This version of events was followed by the report of a coroner’s inquest held in Athlone on Wednesday 26 April. A local doctor, Thomas McDonnell, had treated Adamson and he informed the inquest that Adamson’s body contained two wounds: ‘one in the back of the head, high up, the entrance wound, and the exit wound in the left ear’. The cause of death, according to McDonnell, was ‘…due to shock, haemorrhage, and compression of the brain, the result of a bullet fired from behind at very close range’. According to some reports, McDonnell judged that the shot was fired from no more ‘than a couple of yards’. Although the inquest concluded that Adamson was ‘murdered at Athlone on Tuesday April 25 by some person or persons unknown’, it was widely assumed that the person or persons unknown belonged to the anti-Treaty forces.
The anti-Treaty IRA, through its own publicity department in Dublin’s Four Courts, responded in early May by releasing a short communiqué to the press claiming that there ‘was not any evidence whatever to show that Brigadier Adamson was deliberately shot’. Following this initial attempt to deflect blame for Adamson’s death, the Four Courts publicity department soon released a more detailed statement. This document declared that: ‘The Republican party disclaimed all responsibility for this regrettable shooting’ and, in an extraordinary development, it raised the possibility that Adamson had been shot by his commanding officer, Seán MacEoin. In the next article, we will assess that claim.
Dáil Éireann debates; University College Dublin Archives – Richard Mulcahy Papers and Ernie O’Malley Papers; Westmeath Library Services, 1912-1923 documents; Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Irish Times, Westmeath Examiner, Westmeath Independent, Poblacht na hÉireann. 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); Ian Kenneally, ‘A Medium for Enemy Propaganda: the press, Westmeath, and the Civil War’, Journal of The Old Athlone Society, number 10, 2015; and Uinseann MacEoin, Survivors (Argenta Publications, 1987).