In a previous post, we discussed the arrival of the Auxiliaries in Athlone on 16 October 1920 and the first attack on the offices of the Westmeath Independent. A day later, as we see in this edition, the IRA launched a retaliatory attack against the Crown forces.
In Athlone, residents were left stunned by that attack on the Westmeath Independent and the violence inflicted on the centre of their town. ‘They were’, according to the Independent, ‘in a state of wrath that they had been victims for no reason whatsoever’. Prior to this, the paper stated, ‘relations between the people and the forces of the Crown of all grades were not unfriendly’ and the townspeople had ‘made it a subject of congratulation that Athlone was immune from the tragic happenings taking place elsewhere.’ All this ‘good standing of long duration had been swept away,’ the paper warned.
On the day after the Auxiliaries made that first attack on the Westmeath Independent, local IRA officers decided to strike back against the Crown forces. An opportunity presented itself when a patrol of British soldiers left Athlone barracks about 7.30 am and commandeered a motor-boat belonging to James J. Coen, a businessman and councillor. The soldiers planned to use this boat to search the islands on Lough Ree whose inhabitants were, in the words of a later military report, ‘known to be bad’. That report included a narrative account of the ambush, compiled by officers involved in those events and presented to Brigadier-General Thomas Stanton Lambert, the senior officer in Victoria Barracks and the commander of the 13th Infantry Brigade of the British army’s 5th Division.
The patrol, which included Captain C.L.D. Tully, a military intelligence officer who was a long-time target for the local IRA, was heavily armed and carried two Hotchkiss machine guns. In total, there were around fifteen officers and soldiers in the group and it was inevitable that their movement through the centre of Athlone would be noticed. According to Frank O’Connor, who would join the IRA ambush party later that day, a resident of the Strand named James Norton witnessed the Crown forces boarding the boat, although it was dark and he thought it was a contingent of ‘Black and Tans’ rather than soldiers.
Norton informed Lily Mulvihill, a member of Cumann na mBan whose brother Simon was one of the IRA ambushers that day. As we have seen in an earlier blog, Cumann na mBan members were one of the Westmeath IRA’s primary sources of local intelligence. Mulvihill contacted O’Connor, who passed the information to George Manning, a member of the Athlone Brigade’s flying column and one of the unit that had shot dead Thomas Craddock of the RIC two months earlier. According to O’Connor, Manning had been ‘in hiding in the woods at Coosan at this time as were a number of others and some of the column.’ This group decided to ambush the patrol on its return journey.
The British soldiers, meanwhile, spent a fruitless day searching islands on Lough Ree, paying particular attention to Inchbofin and Inchmore, on which, to quote Lambert, ‘any arms or literature had been well hidden’. In Lambert’s account, the ‘motor boat returned from the lough to the river’ in the afternoon and ‘had passed the beacon and was just opposite the Athlone Yacht Club Hut...’ when the ambush began.
By then, the IRA had been in place for a few hours. They had put scouts on local high points, with runners relaying information back and forth, providing advance notice of the boat’s approach. Around 3.30 pm, the ambushers got their first clear view of their enemy. They had expected to see a party of Black and Tans but ‘the deck was crowded with soldiers’. The IRA volunteers maintained their position, listening for a whistle blast – the signal to open fire – and watching as the boat, in the words of O’Connor, ‘got into the narrows of the river and broadside to us’. Then the whistle sounded.
In the first volley, the leader of the military patrol, Major C.F. Adams, was badly wounded by a shot to the shoulder. His servant, who had been brought along on this military operation, was shot in the wrist. One man was knocked overboard but he quickly ‘scrambled back’. Other officers and soldiers were also wounded during that first volley of IRA gunfire, while the boat’s engine was put of action. Although the patrol was now a floating target, Captain Tully ‘brought the two Hotchkiss guns and all available rifles into action’.
The Hotchkiss guns could fire at the rate of 450-500 rounds per minute and this suppressing fire forced the IRA to remain hidden, though Frank O’Connor claimed that ‘their fire was going over our heads’, causing no casualties among the IRA. According to Lambert’s report, the IRA’s ‘fire became more erratic’ and this relative lull gave one of the officers, a lieutenant named Cannon, enough time to restart the boat’s engine. Cannon steered the boat, which had been hit about forty times, away from the ambushers. Frank O’Connor recalled that the IRA followed along the bank but, ‘as the boat sped down the river,’ their fire was increasingly ineffective. The military patrol, despite sustaining multiple casualties, made it to safety.
Although Lambert later claimed that three of the ambushers were badly wounded, there were no serious casualties among the IRA. Nor did the Crown forces capture any volunteers despite launching a large sweep of the area. Bridget Reynolds, a member of Cumann na mBan from Coosan, used her local knowledge to guide some of the ambushers away from a military search party.
Lambert’s report stated that the IRA had deployed 150 volunteers in the ambush but this is a ludicrously inflated figure, perhaps an effort to impress his superior officers. The Westmeath IRA in October 1920 did not have the ability, either in terms of volunteers or weapons, to deploy 150 men in an ambush. As we have discussed in previous blogs, the IRA in Westmeath was dependent on a small core of volunteers. The Athlone Brigade’s recently-formed flying column, for example, contained about fifteen members and they had only ten service rifles between them. According to Frank O’Connor about ‘40 to 50’ volunteers took part in the ambush and they had ‘nearly 20 rifles’ along with an unspecified number of shotguns. His figures tally with those provided by other participants in the ambush, such as Thomas Costello and Seamus O’Meara, and it seems, according to a list of names provided in a later brigade activity report, that the ambush party was made up of two units: one from Coosan and one from Athlone.
In the aftermath of the first attack on the Westmeath Independent and the following day’s ambush on Lough Ree civic leaders in the community attempted to contact Brigadier-General Lambert, since he was the leading British military figure in the area. The town was wracked by the fear that more violence was in the offing and there was a shared sense of dismay that the military, part of the social and economic fabric of Athlone for over two centuries, had not only failed to prevent the Auxiliary attack on the Westmeath Independent but had actually facilitated it.
During the subsequent week, many families left Athlone, seeking temporary shelter in the countryside or in the nearby towns of Moate and Roscommon. Local fears were described by the Westmeath Independent when it wrote: ‘After what had happened, anything might happen. There was neither law, order, discipline, nor the shadow of protection against the unexpected, the dangerous, and perhaps ill-tempered, aggression ending in tragedy’. It was on this basis that the community leaders approached General Lambert. He refused to meet with them. Lambert was happy to remain aloof and play upon the anxiety of the townsfolk as can be seen from a letter, dated Wednesday 20 October, to his superiors in the 5th Division General Headquarters at the Curragh:
Certain leading townspeople are anxious that I should receive a deputation, but so far I have declined. There is a good deal of nervous tension in the town and its neighbourhood, which may be to advantage. I propose to see them if they still desire on Saturday [23 October].
It is hard to view Lambert’s decision as anything other than an act of intimidation against the town’s citizens: an unsubtle warning that he could withhold his protection at any time. Perhaps Lambert believed that his aloofness would cause a nervous populace to pressurise the local IRA into ending their attacks on the Crown forces.
Lambert, although he did not have the sense to see it, could have realised that his true ‘advantage’ was the long-standing connections between the town and the military barracks. Before the ambush, Athlone had seen little direct action by republicans against the Crown forces, aside from the IRA’s assassination of RIC Sergeant Thomas Craddock in August 1920. Many local families had a history of recruitment to the British army while many others conducted business with the barracks. Even the Westmeath Independent’s editorial, in which it accused the Crown forces of ‘Terrorism’, paid tribute to Major C.F. Adams, the most badly wounded of the British troops aboard the boat, calling him ‘a well-known and popular officer, popular with the townspeople as well as colleagues’. There was still a reservoir – although one that was rapidly depleting – of local respect towards the barracks.
Lambert had been provided with an opportunity to repay that respect and defuse tensions. He could have met with the town’s delegation and sent a signal to all local branches of the Crown forces by ensuring that his soldiers maintained their discipline. Instead, he decided to exploit those tensions. As we shall see, his decision to delay the meeting would have tragic consequences.
Bureau of Military History Brigade Activity Reports; Bureau of Military History Military Service Pensions Collection; Bureau of Military History Witness Statements; The Record of the Rebellion in Ireland, 1919–1921 and the part played by the Army in Dealing with It (British War Office); Freeman’s Journal, Irish Bulletin, Irish Independent, Irish Times, Westmeath Independent and Westmeath Examiner. For more detail, see: Liam Cox, Moate – County Westmeath: A History of Town and District (Athlone, Alfa Print Ltd, 1981); W.H. Kautt, Ambushes and Armour: the Irish Rebellion 1919-1921 (Irish Academic Press, 2010); Ian Kenneally, ‘The War of Independence in Westmeath’ in the Journal of The Old Athlone Society, 2013; and Harman Murtagh’s Lough Ree: A Short Historical Tour (The Old Athlone Society, 2016).
Thanks also to Dr John Keane for providing the script of his lecture at Lough Ree Yacht Club in early 2020 during which he provided much detail on the ambush.
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 12/11/2020
This article was published on: 12th November, 2020
Filed under: Decade of Centenary