In previous posts we discussed the British government’s Restoration of Order in Ireland Act, introduced in August 1920, and the creation of an IRA flying column in Westmeath soon after. These developments signified an escalation of the conflict in Westmeath between August and November 1920.
Prior to this period, IRA General Headquarters (GHQ) in Dublin had long been dissatisfied by what it considered to be a lack of initiative on the behalf of the IRA in Westmeath. Around the beginning of 1920 GHQ had ordered Seamus O’Meara, the commanding officer (O/C) of the Athlone Brigade, to make a more concerted effort to disrupt and harass the Crown Forces. Despite the exhortations of GHQ it was April 1920 before the IRA in Westmeath took action against the RIC, burning abandoned barracks as part of a nationwide campaign of attacks on official buildings.
That operation was followed in July 1920 by the failed attack on the RIC barracks in Streamstown in which the IRA did not come close to capturing the barracks or its stock of weapons. O’Meara was soon after replaced as O/C by Thomas Costello, with George Adamson as his second-in-command. The exact date for this change is unclear, although Costello states that he was Brigade O/C at the time the flying column was created, which was during August or September 1920. There is some evidence of tension between Costello and O’Meara in the Witness Statements and O’Meara claims that he was not officially replaced as O/C until March 1921. It is a topic that we will look at again in a later blog but, based on the witness statements, it seems that O’Meara retained a leadership role but had little authority in the Athlone Brigade after July 1920 and that Costello was, for all practical purposes, the brigade O/C from that time onwards.
Despite the problems afflicting the brigade, from a poor supply of weapons to divisions among the leadership, the IRA attacks on Streamstown and other RIC barracks did succeed in forcing the police to retreat from many rural areas. That allowed the IRA unrestricted movement through much of the county and gave its most active members, including the core who would form the flying column, the impetus to make more determined attacks on the Crown forces. The Crown forces would counter this development and the autumn of 1920 would usher in a much bloodier phase of the war. While it is true to say that Westmeath was much quieter than areas such as Munster or the bordering county of Longford, it did suffer an upsurge of violence following the shooting of RIC Sergeant Thomas Craddock, an unmarried army veteran in his early forties, on 22 August 1920.
Craddock, according to both Thomas Costello and Seamus O’Meara, was one of the most aggressive opponents of the IRA in the locality. Costello stated that an IRA raid on the mail train at Fossagh Bridge near Mount Temple had led to the discovery of a letter written by Craddock in which the RIC sergeant ‘gave a survey of the whole position in the area’, presumably meaning that he had detailed intelligence on the IRA in the locality. It was this discovery, allied to Craddock’s violent behaviour, which caused the IRA to make plans for his assassination. However, O’Meara claimed that Michael Collins gave the order to shoot Craddock. Collins, according to O’Meara, wanted to disrupt the intelligence gathering potential of the Crown forces in the midlands and he gave instructions that C.L.D. Tully, a British military intelligence officer stationed in Athlone, should be the prime target for the local IRA.
In O’Meara’s version, he persuaded Collins that Craddock should be targeted before Tully. O’Meara apparently told Collins that Craddock was part of a group that had attacked and beaten the president of the Mount Temple Sinn Féin Club, Joseph Cunningham. Cunningham suffered serious spinal damage in the attack. According to O’Meara, he warned Collins that, in the event that Tully was assassinated, Craddock would, as in the case of Cunningham, enact severe reprisals against republicans in the area. Collins then ordered that Craddock be shot before Tully.
However, it is unlikely that the attack on Cunningham was the event which precipitated the shooting of Craddock. The dates within O’Meara’s account, which was provided to the Bureau of Military History in 1956, are problematic and it is likely that he conflated events that were separated in time and unrelated. For example, Cunningham was assaulted during the night of 20 August 1920, a mere twenty-seven hours before the shooting of Craddock, whereas elsewhere in his witness statement O’Meara makes it clear that the IRA had tracked Craddock for an extended period, even waiting to ambush the sergeant on a few occasions. (Thomas Costello, in his statement, also says that the IRA had monitored Craddock over a long time.) Additionally, O’Meara’s meeting with Collins can be dated to the spring or early summer of 1920 and it is unlikely to have occurred in the short period between the assault on Cunningham and the assassination of Craddock.
In instances such as the shooting of Craddock, we may never be able to confirm the accuracy, or otherwise, of the above accounts. Costello’s version seems, to me at least, to be more plausible and it suggests that Craddock may have been involved in intelligence work, perhaps in association with Captain Tully. Whatever the reasons behind the attack on Craddock, it is clear that he was targeted by the IRA, ahead of all the other RIC constables and officers in Athlone, and that his movements were being watched for weeks, maybe months, beforehand.
Craddock was shot dead by the IRA outside the Comrades of the Great War Club in King Street (now Pearse Street), Athlone. The unit which carried out the attack comprised Thomas Costello, James Tormey, George Manning and Brian Mulvihill. Shortly before midnight on 21 August, Costello, who worked in a shop in the centre of town, received word from a Volunteer that Craddock had been seen entering the Comrades of the Great War Club. Costello gathered Tormey, Manning and Mulvihill and they positioned themselves near the entrance to the club. According to Constable Denis Mahon, who testified at the subsequent inquest, Craddock and Mahon left the hall around 12.15am. Mahon stated that they came under fire as soon as they stepped on to the footpath. Craddock, who was carrying a revolver, returned fire but was grievously wounded by a bullet to his stomach. Mahon, who was unarmed, ran to Victoria Barracks. Although British soldiers quickly reached Craddock and carried him to the hospital in Victoria Barracks, he died within the hour.
The shooting of Craddock was a sudden intensification of the IRA’s campaign in Westmeath. That it took place in an urban area was unusual, particularly in Westmeath, where attacks on the Crown forces mostly occurred in rural areas. Although newspaper reports stated that Craddock had received threatening letters before his death, it seems that the police had no expectation that they may be attacked in Athlone. The relative inactivity of the local IRA throughout the earlier months of 1920 may have explained the police’s lack of safeguards. Testimony provided during the inquest underlines this point. Constable Mahon described the two men leaving their station at Fry Place around 11.15pm and heading to the Comrades of the Great War Club to watch a billiards competition. No guard was posted at the club door and the IRA attackers were able to assemble nearby and remain undetected as they waited for Craddock to emerge.
Attacking the RIC in the middle of Athlone carried many risks for the IRA, given that the Crown forces would inevitably launch a major response. Costello recalled that there was intense police activity in and around the town over the following weeks. The Connaught side of Athlone was put under curfew and numerous men were arrested although Costello was not among them, suggesting that the police lacked quality intelligence on their enemy. Indeed, throughout the conflict RIC reports from Westmeath frequently lamented the fact that locals were ‘either afraid or unwilling to speak to the police’.
The general public’s reticence gives a sense of the bleak situation facing the RIC in August 1920. It was isolated from the population, under attack from the IRA and part of a British campaign that was, to an increasing degree, using reprisals and arbitrary violence against civilians and businesses. That month, rank-and-file members of the RIC in Athlone signed a petition which they sent to their superior officers:
We consider it is almost an impossibility to carry out our functions as a civil police force under the present circumstances, the strain on the force is so great, by the daily assassinations of our comrades … and the boycotting and threats arraigned against us, against our families, our relatives and our homes …
Given the sentiments expressed in the above petition, it is unsurprising that the rate of RIC resignations rose during 1920, a blight that further debilitated and demoralised the RIC. Denis Mahon was one of the many who resigned, leaving the RIC less than a month after Craddock’s death. The British government, faced with the collapse of its Irish police force, responded by bringing in thousands of new recruits. In our next post, we will look at one branch of these recruits – the Auxiliaries. In October 1920, they arrived in the Athlone area, shooting people and burning buildings in what the Westmeath Examiner described as an ‘an outbreak of terrorism’.
Bureau of Military History Witness Statements; Bureau of Military History Brigade Activity Reports; RIC Chief Inspector’s monthly reports for Westmeath; Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Irish Times, Westmeath Independent and Westmeath Examiner. For more detail, see: John Burke’s Athlone 1900-1923: politics, revolution and civil war (The History Press, 2015); Francis Costello, The Irish Revolution and its Aftermath, 1916-1923 (Irish Academic Press, 2003), Liam Cox, Moate – County Westmeath: A History of Town and District (Athlone, Alfa Print Ltd, 1981); Ian Kenneally, ‘The War of Independence in Westmeath’ in the Journal of The Old Athlone Society, 2013; David M. Leeson, ‘The Royal Irish Constabulary, Black and Tans and Auxiliaries’ 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); Ian Kenneally, ‘Irish newspapers during the War of Independence’ 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 Russell Shortt’s, ‘IRA Activity in Westmeath during the War of Independence, 1918-1921: Part Two’ in Ríocht na Midhe: Records of Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, 2006.
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 30/10/2020
This article was published on: 30th October, 2020
Filed under: Decade of Centenary