A Time of War

Moate, County Westmeath, in the early 20th Century (National Library of Ireland). Like many towns in Ireland, Moate was targeted for reprisals by the Crown forces during 1920.

In the final post of the series on 1920, we assess the situation in Westmeath as the year came to a close and the War of Independence continued to rage. We discuss the shooting of alleged spies, the IRA’s Athlone Brigade and persistent turmoil related to the ownership of land.

For Westmeath, the months between August and November 1920 were the most violent period of the War of Independence. The Lough Ree and Parkwood ambushes of October, which we discussed in earlier editions, were followed by the Auburn ambush on 2 November. That day, two lorries of Auxiliaries and Black and Tans were traveling from Carrick-on-Shannon in the direction of Athlone when they came under fire from an IRA unit. The ambush took place near Glasson at the bottom of a very steep hill, along which a boundary wall provided cover for the attackers.

According to Michael McCormack, an officer in the Drumraney Battalion of the Athlone Brigade, the ambush party comprised about 25 Volunteers. They were mostly from the Drumraney Battalion and were armed with only ‘four rifles’, shotguns, revolvers and grenades. The grenades were described by Thomas Costello, one of the Athlone Brigade’s commanding officers, as a ‘G.H.Q. type bomb’ and they were probably made by local Volunteers. 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 Volunteers, ‘an ex-British Army man’, threw three grenades into one of the lorries. None of the grenades exploded and the occupants of the lorries returned fire before driving away. Apart from Larkin, the Crown forces suffered no other fatalities.

A Volunteer named Seamus Finn, was killed during the fighting. Michael McCormack stated that Finn was shot dead when the Crown forces returned fire, although Thomas Costello later claimed that Finn was accidently ‘shot by our own men’ after leaving his position and entering the line of fire. It is not clear how Costello, who was not a member of the ambush party, obtained this information. After the fighting, the Drumraney Battalion dispersed and the Auburn ambush was the last large ambush carried out by the Westmeath IRA during 1920.

The decline of the flying column

Before the end of 1920, the Athlone Brigade went through another period of reorganisation. The brigade’s flying column split up soon after the Parkwood ambush with detachments going to each of the battalions in its area. It is likely that it was an attempt to spread the most committed officers throughout the county and thus encourage more activity by the battalions. Seamus O’Meara stated that a contributory factor to the decision was that the column had concentrated the few experienced officers in one group, making it hard to maintain discipline across the brigade. O’Meara and James Tormey were enraged when a group of Volunteers, including some of the flying column, stole alcohol and cigarettes from a public house near Tubber.

The break-up of the flying column compromised the already limited fighting capability of the Westmeath IRA and it would not attempt any more attacks on the scale of the Parkwood or Lough Ree ambushes: in 1921 plans to ambush the Crown forces at Drumraney, Moate, Killucan and Tubbrit, on the Athlone to Ferbane road, came to nothing. Occasionally, flying columns from other counties ventured into Westmeath but the intelligence wing of the British army’s 5th Division made no mention of any columns in the county from January to July 1921. This was not so much a failure of intelligence but a demonstration that the British army did not believe any of the columns occasionally operating in the county to be an active threat.

The IRA activity in Westmeath continued to be driven by the small corps of Volunteers, especially James Tormey. The case of Tormey demonstrates how an IRA officer could lead activity in a district. Tormey had served with the Connaught Rangers during the First World War, fighting at Gallipoli after joining the British army in 1915. He was only fifteen at the time, having lied about his age when enlisting. Tormey, as we have seen in earlier editions, commanded the Athlone Brigade’s flying column at Parkwood and he had been a member of the unit that shot dead Thomas Craddock, a sergeant in the RIC. On another occasion in 1920, he had narrowly avoided capture by the Black and Tans. The Athlone brigade contained few officers with Tormey’s blend of training and experience, leaving it’s command structure highly vulnerable to disruption. That vulnerability would be exposed by Tormey’s death in February 1921.

A contributory factor in James Tormey’s death was the arrest of his brother Joseph by the Crown forces in November 1920. Joseph Tormey was arrested under the terms of the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act and incarcerated in Ballykinlar Internment Camp, County Down. On 14 January 1921, Joseph and another Westmeath Volunteer, Patrick Sloan from Moate, were shot dead by a camp sentry. John Macken, an officer of the IRA’s Mullingar Brigade who was imprisoned in Ballykinlar from January to December 1921, stated that they were shot ‘for talking across the barbed wire to prisoners in the other camp.’ This was confirmed in the subsequent military court of enquiry, which also concluded that the sentry had contravened regulations by opening fire – a fact that was not made public at the time.

Thomas Costello recalled that the death of Joseph made James Tormey ‘very impatient and he laid an ambush at a place called Cornafulla on the Athlone-Ballinasloe road’ on 2 February 1921. In the ensuing gunfight between his group and an RIC patrol, supplemented by Black and Tans, Tormey would be shot dead. His comrades later removed Tormey’s corpse and brought him to the monastic site at Clonmacnoise, where he was buried. Later that day, the Crown forces returned to the area for the dual purpose of obtaining information and dealing retribution. Captured Volunteers were beaten by Black and Tans and Bernard Gaffey, an officer in the Athlone Brigade, died later in 1921 as a result of the injuries caused by his interrogators. During these raids, the Crown forces discovered that James Tormey had been killed and they began searching local cemeteries for his grave, which they found on 7 February. They reopened the grave and brought Tormey’s body to Athlone, reportedly sitting on the corpse and singing as they drove through the town.

The funeral mass was held in Saints Peter and Paul Church. All shops in the town were closed and ‘thousands’ of people lined the footpaths to watch the ‘immense cortege’ take the body to the graveyard in Mount Temple. Yet the police and military still felt the need to make an ostentatious show of force as, according to the Westmeath Examiner, ‘Lorries containing Crown forces fully armed joined the cortege at the military barrack gate, a Union Jack being hoisted in one of the lorries.’ After the burial, all males in the funeral party were searched and questioned. There appears to be little logic in these actions by the Crown forces other than a desire to provoke the population. With the burial of Tormey, one of the most active and, from the point of view of the Crown forces, dangerous Volunteers in Westmeath was removed from the scene.

The Westmeath IRA’s decision to break up the flying column and spread its members across the battalions meant that the IRA remained active in the region, even if its offensive capabilities were reduced. Attacks against the Crown forces subsided but, as the Inspector General’s report for December 1920 detailed, raids on mail transports, the trenching of roads (the police responded by forcing locals to repair the damage) and the cutting of telegraph wires were regular occurrences. He also judged that ‘the Sinn Fein movement is very strong beneath the surface.’

Headlines from the Westmeath Examiner, 6 November 1920. The accompanying report described how ‘Black and Tans’ fired at a tricolour flying over the county offices in Mullingar. The tricolour was flying at half-mast as a mark of respect for Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, who had recently died on hunger strike while in Brixton Prison, London. The Black and Tans then forced their way into the building and removed the tricolour. A myriad of similar incidents occurred during November and December 1920.

‘Spies and informers beware’

At the same time as the Athlone Brigade dismantled the flying column, it diverted attention to other perceived enemies in the county: civilians who were suspected of spying on behalf of the Crown forces. Below, we discuss the three cases that took place in 1920, all in the territory of the Athlone Brigade.

Martin Lyons was shot dead on 25 November 1920 at a place called Tinamuck (Tinnymuck or Tunnymuck in some contemporary accounts), south of Moate. Lyons, who resided with a local farmer named Patrick Galvin, was an ex-soldier in the British army. The Westmeath Examiner reported that Lyons was shot dead by ‘masked men’ but the paper did not ascribe responsibility to any group. The RIC Inspector General’s report for November blamed the IRA for the killing and stated that Lyons was ‘suspected by Sinn Feiners of giving information to the police.’ A subsequent military enquiry concluded that Lyons had been ‘killed by some person or persons unknown.’ It may well be that local members of the IRA shot Lyons but, given the limited evidence, it can’t be stated with certainty. It is possible that other factors were involved, perhaps a personal dispute.

A man named Maher was shot in December 1920 (the exact date of his death is uncertain). He was an ex-soldier living in the Irishtown area of Athlone. Maher had one wooden leg and was, according to the Summerhill-based Volunteer Patrick Lennon, known locally as ‘slickfoot’. The evidence against Maher, as presented by Seamus O’Meara, seems circumstantial. Maher claimed to be a beggar but was followed for a period of time by Volunteers who reported to their superiors that ‘he was never known to have done any begging.’ The implication they drew from this was that Maher posed as a beggar in order to spy on local activities. Lennon stated that ‘he was shot as a result of something that was discovered in a raid on the mails.’

Maher, according to O’Meara, was ‘arrested by George Adamson and Ned Doolan’ in Carrickbrien, Athlone, and sentenced to be shot after ‘being found guilty by the courtmartial.’ According to a later Brigade Activity Report, the group that shot Maher comprised O’Meara, Edward Dowling, Michael Galvin, Thomas Halligan, George Adamson and George Cosgrove. O’Meara, who ‘personally took charge of the execution party’, was keen to prevent knowledge of the execution leading to reprisals and so he ordered that the dead man’s body be submerged in the Shannon. This was done but Maher’s wooden leg brought the body back to the surface. Maher was then buried in an unmarked grave on the river bank.

A man named James Blagriff, a resident of Glasson, was executed by the IRA on 30 December 1920. Blagriff, who worked as a labourer in Coosan, had served with the Royal Field Artillery during the First World War. Seamus O’Meara stated that Blagriff ‘personally knew a lot of the Volunteers and their activities.’ He added that: ‘Some letters, I believe, were found in a raid on the mails which indicated that this man was going away to join the R.I.C. and it was considered that his knowledge was too dangerous to allow him to do so…’ He was then shot ‘by the local Volunteers as a matter of urgency.’ Henry O’Brien, a member of the flying column, claimed that Blagriff told his employer (a man named Simon Whelan) ‘about the work he was doing for the British.’ According to O’Brien, Whelan also found some papers belonging to Blagriff ‘which incriminated him.’ Frank O’Connor, a Volunteer from Coosan, gave a similar account, stating that Blagriff divulged his activities to his employer ‘while under the influence of drink’.

The RIC Inspector General’s report for January 1921 did say that Blagriff was ‘friendly to the police’ although it is not clear if such a statement meant that he was an informer. If, for a moment, we assume that Blagriff was passing information to the Crown forces, then he would have posed a threat to the local IRA. The Coosan area in which he worked was an IRA stronghold and his information could have greatly undermined the Athlone Brigade at a time when it was under increasing pressure from the Crown forces.

Yet it is hard to gauge the accuracy of the above information and there is a discrepancy between the account offered by O’Meara and those offered by O’Brien and O’Connor. Blagriff denied being a spy. According to O’Connor: ‘When we held him up prior to shooting him, he would not admit anything.’ Certainly, there were doubts within the brigade regarding Blagriff’s activities. Michael McCormack, who lived not far from Glasson, later stated that: ‘I was never satisfied Blagriff was a spy.’ Anthony McCormack, a Moate-based Volunteer, stated that although Blagriff was executed as a spy, ‘in the real sense he was not one.’ McCormack believed that Blagriff was shot because of his potential to cause damage to the IRA by joining the RIC. O’Meara seemed to be perturbed by this shooting and he noted that: ‘This was an unofficial execution and had not my sanction’. Perhaps O’Meara was unsettled by the fact that Blagriff, whose body was left at Ballykeeran crossroads, left a wife and family behind him. Blagriff’s hands were tied together and hanging around his neck was a card bearing the word ‘Spy’.

During 1921, the IRA shot George Johnston in Baylin and members of the Athlone Brigade may have played a role in at least one other execution. However, we won’t discuss those events in this article since we are focusing on 1920. In many instances regarding alleged spies, as can be seen with the cases of Lyons, Maher and Blagriff, there are few verifiable facts from which to make a judgment. One factor that links the three men is that each had been a soldier in the British army. The historian Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc has shown that ‘approximately 49 per cent’ of the estimated 196 civilians killed by the IRA as spies were ex-servicemen. As Ó Ruairc notes, this fact has led some historians and commentators to claim that there was a concerted campaign of IRA violence against ex-soldiers. Yet Ó Ruairc also demonstrates that: ‘Far from being prejudiced against ex-soldiers, the IRA valued and promoted them because of their military experience.’

Westmeath typified that wider trend. First World War veteran Joseph Tormey led the flying column, commanding a unit in which at least five members had previously been soldiers in the British army. When local witness statements and brigade activity reports mention ex-soldiers it is mostly to highlight the skills that such soldiers possessed or to say that many Volunteers received their military training from British army veterans. Other sources do not show a campaign against ex-soldiers in the county. When discussing cases such as Blagriff’s, the RIC reports do not claim that he was targeted for being an ex-soldier but because ‘he was friendly with the police.’ It is that relationship, at least when we discuss the Athlone Brigade, that seems to have been the determining factor in those cases of alleged spying.

That is not to say that Blagriff was a spy. There is enough information to suggest that he may have been falsely accused but there is no evidence to suggest that he was targeted because he was once a British soldier. The cases of Lyons and Maher are not well documented. The RIC reported that Lyons was shot because he was suspected of providing information to the police, although the circumstances of his death remain unclear. Little is known of Maher, except for the information provided by IRA sources. Those sources accuse Maher of spying, although there is no other evidence to corroborate that claim. During the War of Independence, the Athlone Brigade failed to develop a coherent intelligence network and it is not clear how extensively they tracked Maher’s movements before deciding that he was a spy. Yet there is no evidence that Maher was killed for any reason other than being a suspected spy.

On a final note before we leave this topic, the Westmeath Examiner and the Westmeath Independent reports for 1920 do not suggest that ex-soldiers were suffering from a concerted campaign of violence. When ex-soldiers appear in the pages of those newspapers during 1920, it is often in the context of the ‘Irish Land (Provision for Soldiers and Sailors) Act’ which became law in December 1919.

‘go out and take the land’

During 1920, former soldiers were a vocal presence in Westmeath as they campaigned for land under the terms of the above land act, which empowered the Irish Land Commission to provide land holdings for any soldier who had served in Britain’s naval, land or air forces during the First World War. Under the Act, the Local Government Board would provide housing for those veterans. Large public meetings were organised in which the former soldiers lobbied estate owners to sell off portions of their land. Evidently, the soldiers were deeply frustrated by the slow progress in putting the Act into operation. One such meeting, in Mullingar’s Parochial Hall during August 1920, heard a delegate declare, to support from the crowd, that ‘ex-service men should go out and take the land compulsorily’ if government promises were broken. Another delegate received cheers when he advocated cattle driving, making a reference to pre-existing agrarian disputes in the county, as a means of putting pressure on landowners.

Throughout 1919 and the first half of 1920 had there was widespread cattle driving throughout Westmeath. The RIC’s abandonment of rural barracks during 1920 may have accelerated this process and there were many reports of agrarian discontent between April and June. The RIC’s Inspector General’s report for June stated that there ‘was a considerable amount of agrarian unrest and six cases of cattle driving.’ The Dáil courts, which opened in Westmeath during June, considered many disputes of this nature over the subsequent months. From June 1920, land-owners, according to the Westmeath Independent, freely referred their cases to those courts. The resulting judgements, the paper stated approvingly, ‘affirmed the rights of owners in their possession’. In making its judgements the republican courts in Westmeath apparently sought to end cattle-driving. The cattle driving campaign had been, the Westmeath Independent reported, ‘intensely bitter’ and the new courts appear to have had some success in curtailing this unrest. The Westmeath Independent reported in late June 1920 that the courts had ‘practically put an end to the epidemic of cattle driving and cases of forcible possession with which we were confronted earlier in the year.’

Although newspapers reported a slight resurgence in cattle-driving during July, the courts curbed much of the land-related violence that had been prevalent throughout 1919 and 1920. The decline in agrarian unrest was noted in the RIC Inspector General’s reports. By August 1920 there were only two examples of ‘agrarian unrest’ committed during the month. This period of relative agrarian calm persisted, at least according to Inspector General’s reports and newspaper accounts, for the rest of the year.

Yet, despite the actions of the Dáil courts, there were examples of IRA involvement in these agrarian conflicts. Thomas Costello later recalled that the IRA had a ‘place of detention’ in Drumraney. He believed that only one person was ever incarcerated there: a member of the IRA. According to Costello: ‘A family, the boys and father of which were members of the I.R.A., had forcibly acquired an area of land and had cultivated it and sown crops in it.’ The IRA arrested the father and held him at Drumraney. Eventually, an agreement was reached in which the father ‘would cut and save the crops and the matter of compensation for his work would be settled at a date.’ With this agreement in place the man was released after spending ten days as a prisoner.

The conflict continues

In many respects Westmeath at the end of 1920 was typical of other midland counties. By that year it was clear that the electorate in Westmeath had abandoned nationalists in favour of republicans, as demonstrated by the 1920 elections. The Dáil Éireann court system, although disrupted by the Crown forces, was supported by the county’s population and newspapers. Those newspapers were critics of the Crown forces and the British government although, as elsewhere, they were at constant risk of attack. The destruction of the Westmeath Independent by the Crown forces demonstrated the dangers facing newspapers, especially following the introduction of the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act during August 1920.

The IRA in Westmeath maintained a low-intensity campaign against the Crown forces which sought to disrupt rather than destroy those forces. It was only during a brief period from mid-October to early November that the IRA was able to maintain an offensive against the Crown forces. Even then, the activity was concentrated around Athlone since the Mullingar Brigade had been incapacitated by the arrests which followed the kidnapping of Resident Magistrate Maxwell Moore in mid-October. The Crown forces, particularly the Black and Tans and the Auxiliary Division of the RIC, were an unwelcome presence across the county, directing violence at the civilian population and conducting reprisals, mostly in the form of burning houses, attacking businesses and random shootings.

Westmeath had experienced and endured a transformative, often violent, twelve months. The county and the country, lamented the Westmeath Examiner in its Christmas editorial, ‘has had a sad and trying year’: ‘The one outstanding consideration at this period is that where Christmas family gatherings are possible in the homes of Ireland today, there will be seen many a vacant chair…’ Moving to the wider political situation, the paper feared that the ‘six Northern Counties’ had been cut ‘permanently adrift’ and that the rest of Ireland had been reduced ‘to the position of a Crown Colony.’ As the new year approached, the prospects were ‘black and menacing’. The twelve months of 1921 would indeed be a time of great turmoil and they would forever change Ireland. For the Westmeath Examiner and its readers that was a story yet untold and it is where we bring this series of 26 articles on Westmeath during 1920 to a conclusion.


Bureau of Military History Brigade Activity Reports; Bureau of Military History Military Service Pensions Collection; Bureau of Military History Witness Statements; RIC Chief Inspector’s monthly reports for Westmeath; Cork Examiner, Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Irish Times, 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); 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); Ian Kenneally, ‘The War of Independence in Westmeath’ in the Journal of The Old Athlone Society, 2013; Seamus O’Brien (Ed), A Town in transition: Post Famine Mullingar (Mullingar, 2007); John Sheehan, ‘Brothers-In-Arms: The Tormeys’ 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); Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc, ‘Spies and Informers Beware!’: IRA executions of alleged civilian spies 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); Russell Shortt’s, ‘IRA Activity in Westmeath during the War of Independence, 1918-1921: Parts One and Two’ in Ríocht na Midhe: Records of Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, 2005 and 2006; and Kathleen Hegarty Thorne, They Put the Flag a-Flyin: the Roscommon Volunteers, 1916-1923 (Generation Organization, 2007).

Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 18/12/2020

This article was published on: 18th December, 2020
Filed under: Decade of Centenary