In the mid-to-late spring of 1921, as the Irish Republican Army’s guerrilla war against Crown forces continued, the British authorities mulled over a number of strategies through which intensify its military campaign in the country.
The existing British military presence in Westmeath comprised the 13th Infantry Brigade headquarters and the over 600-strong 1st Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment at Victoria Barracks, Athlone, and 1st Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, stationed at the military barracks in Mullingar. All of these infantry units provided support to the civil power and carried out routine patrols in the districts within their remit. While the 1st East Yorks had, as of December 1920, 294 men and officers in Mullingar barracks, they also operated detachments at Kilbeggan, Ballynacargy and other targeted areas in Longford, Roscommon and Leitrim. The 13th Brigade, and its subsidiary units, came under the command of 5th Division, which was based in the Curragh under the direction of Major-General Sir H. S. Jeudwine.
In May 1921, the large area of the midlands and mid-west in which 5th Division operated was chosen for an experimental cavalry sweep which had been originally considered as a strategy to locate ‘on the run’ IRA men in west Cork. Historian William Sheehan states that the initial phase of this cavalry drive was designed to take place ‘over a large area east and west of a line from Tullamore to Mullingar’.
Three cavalry units based at the Curragh – the 12th Royal Lancers, the 6th Dragoon Guards and the 10th Royal Hussars – and the Dublin-based 15th Royal Hussars combined to form of a ‘cavalry column’ under the command of Colonel-Commandant G. A. Weir, Officer Commanding the 3rd Cavalry Brigade at The Curragh. The column’s objective was to cordon off certain areas with roads or natural features (rivers, canals) acting as boundaries, and, with the assistance of infantry units already stationed near the area, to carry out extensive searches within those boundaries for wanted individuals. With the assistance of local members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the column was mandated to set up road checkpoints, search properties, or to round up whole populations within the search area for identification purposes.
After setting off from the Curragh on 27 May 1921, the column moved down through Kildare and into the northern districts of King’s County (Offaly). On 28 May, it conducted searches north of Edenderry, as a result of which which four wanted IRA men were apprehended. Later that evening, the cavalry crossed the border into Westmeath and carried out searches in an unidentified area south of Mullingar, before setting up camp for a day’s rest on 29 May.
The Westmeath Examiner reported that on Monday, 30 May, the 12th Royal Lancers (erroneously identified in the report as the 17th Lancers) ‘carrying full war equipment with field kitchens passed through Mullingar... making a big military show in the town’. The Lancers were on their way to Ballynacargy, a focus of British military activity for over a year, for the next phase of the cavalry column’s operations. The Examiner also stated that an aeroplane flew over the town of Mullingar on the same day as the Lancers’ show of force, and while the newspaper concluded that the aircraft was making a secure mail delivery to the military barracks, aeroplanes were also occasionally used in support of the cavalry column’s search operations.
An account of the activities of the column are included as an appendix to Volume IV of the British Army’s Record of the rebellion in Ireland in 1920-21, which describes 5th Division’s experiences of the guerrilla war. The narrative for 30 May includes the following:
The Column marched to the Ballynacarrigy area.
During the march the area 3 miles square contained on the north of the Inny River, on the east by Lough Iron, and on the south by the Royal Canal, was driven by two regiments, commencing at 1300 hours.
Both regiments were provided with three RIC constables for identification purposes.
The line of the river Inny was blocked by the RIC, who also, at the end of the drive, took over the prisoners, which included two wanted men.
In compiling its activity reports for the Army Pensions Board in subsequent years, members of Ballynacargy Company, 1 Battalion, Mullingar Brigade IRA recalled the events of 30 May, outlining how members of the IRA responded to the sudden arrival of this larger military force:
The Lancers took over the whole district. The Army consisted of Infantry and Cavalry accompanied by aeroplanes. All houses were surrounded and searched and a badly wanted man was warned and guarded to safety by Louis Murtagh, Ballynacargy [company captain]. The Advance Guard of the Lancers were within a distance of 20 yards at the time. L. Murtagh was held up coming back and taken prisoner. After two hours he was released and sent back to the village for the general round up. All residents were rounded up and paraded for identification.
On 31 May, the cavalry column remained in the immediate area and absorbed the 9th Lancers – stationed in Longford at the time – in conducting a sweep of a 10-mile area bordered by the Rathowen-Longford road and the Royal Canal. From there, the column moved on through Longford, Roscommon, Cavan, Monaghan and into Meath, before concluding its manoeuvres at Kilcock, Co. Kildare and returning to base at the Curragh by 20 June.
The operation was regarded as a success by the military in terms of the number of wanted men who were captured, as well as the disruption caused to the IRA’s civilian support networks.
William Sheehan, Hearts and Mines: the British 5th Division in Ireland, 1920-1922 (Cork, 2009); Charles Townshend, The British Campaign in Ireland, 1919-1921: the development of political and military policies (Oxford, 1975); Record of the rebellion in Ireland in 1920-21 and the part played by the Army in dealing with it (WO 141/93, UK National Archives, available on FindMyPast.ie); brigade activity reports for Ballynacargy Company, 1 Battalion, 5 (Mullingar), IRA (file A61, Military Service Pensions Collection, Irish Military Archives); Westmeath Examiner, 4 June 1921.
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 02/06/2021
This article was published on: 2nd June, 2021
Filed under: Decade of Centenary