Previous articles traced the course of the conflict as it moved from conventional to guerrilla warfare. Here, we discuss one example of such guerrilla warfare: a fatal ambush carried out by the anti-Treaty IRA in Glasson, near Athlone, in late August 1922.
The Irish Independent was the first to carry the news. On Saturday 26 August 1922, it reported that, a day earlier, an anti-Treaty IRA unit had ambushed a car containing members of the National Army as it passed through Glasson. According to the Independent’s Athlone correspondent, who sent a message via telegraph to his Dublin head office, at least two people had been killed. During the following days more details on the Glasson ambush became available through newspaper reports and inquests.
At about 10.40 am on Friday 25 August 1922, a Ford motor car left Custume Barracks, Athlone, for Longford. It contained four members of the National Army: Captain Carroll, Captain Rattigan, Lieutenant Seán McCormack and a soldier named Alfred Hayes, who was the driver. McCormack sat in the front passenger seat alongside Hayes, while Carroll and Rattigan occupied the back seat. All of them were dressed in plain-clothes and only two carried weapons: Carroll and Rattigan, who had revolvers.By travelling in plain clothes, the soldiers, according to testimony at a subsequent inquest, hoped to avoid drawing the attention of their anti-Treaty IRA enemy. Only three days earlier, Michael Collins had been killed when his small convoy was attacked by the anti-Treaty IRA at Béal na Bláth in west Cork. By then, the Irish Civil War had entered what is often referred to as its guerrilla phase. Since the outbreak of the conflict in June 1922, the National Army had succeed in winning control of most urban areas.
In response, the anti-Treaty IRA leadership decided in mid-August to reorganise its forces into small active service units which would engage in hit-and-run attacks against the National Army. On the morning of 25 August, one of those units was waiting on the Athlone side of Glasson, ready to ambush any National Army forces who passed their position. The bulk of the unit was hidden behind the village’s schoolhouse wall, directly opposite the old Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks, with others hidden behind a high wall on the far side of the road. Although newspapers later reported that the anti-Treaty IRA unit contained 30 men, evidence presented to a subsequent inquest suggests that the actual figure may have been smaller, perhaps twenty men.Approaching them was the motor car containing Carroll, Rattigan, McCormack and Hayes. It was travelling along the ‘Low Road’, which, as explained to me by historian Dr Aengus Ó Fionnagáin, was the main road from Ballykeeran to Glasson, via Wineport, until the late 1970s. (What is now the N55 was unsurfaced until around 1960.) Their journey was uneventful until, after turning the corner at Deerpark, they could see carts carrying loads of hay, five in total, approaching from Glasson. The road, according to contemporary reports, narrowed at that point and Hayes had to slow the car as it moved past the carts.
As the car moved between the fourth and fifth loads of hay, at the corner by the old RIC barracks, the anti-Treaty unit fired at least two shots, narrowly missing a young boy who was leading one of the carthorses. The occupants of the car ducked as it made the turn into Glasson. At that moment, a ‘further volley rang out from behind the loopholed wall opposite the barrack corner’. Carroll and Rattigan returned fire: two shots by Carroll and three by Rattigan. They later claimed that these were the only shots they fired and that all were aimed towards the schoolhouse wall and the high wall on the far side of the road.
After the car had turned the corner and travelled about twenty metres into Glasson, Lieutenant Seán McCormack stood up, turned to his comrades and called out: ‘I am wounded.’ Carroll pushed McCormack back into his seat and shouted at Hayes to continue driving. According to an eyewitness, Mary Kilduff, the ambushers followed the car as it moved through Glasson. At some point during the gunfire, a woman named Boyd, who had been startled by the shots, rushed outside on to the street where one of her children was lying in a pram. She was ‘hit in the breast and muscle of the left arm’. Two other people, both civilians, were also hit by gunfire. Patrick Murtagh was sitting in a horse-and-cart talking to John McCormack who was standing on the road. McCormack was shot in the leg while a bullet entered the right side of Murtagh’s torso.
At the Tubberclair side of the village, the National Army car suddenly slowed down as it reached a rise in the road. Carroll again ordered Hayes to increase speed but he replied: ‘I am not able: I am wounded’. A few moments later, the car came to a stop and both Carroll and Rattigan jumped out of the vehicle. They attempted to help Hayes and McCormack but they could see that their pursuers were gaining ground. By this stage Kilduff had retreated to her home but she heard one of the ambushers shout ‘Put your hands up if you value your life’ as they neared the car. That shout was followed by a volley of gunfire, perhaps aimed at Carroll and Rattigan, who fled into a local field. They later claimed that they were under constant fire from the ambushers who pursued them for ‘about one mile and a-half’. Both men escaped without injury.
The anti-Treaty unit then split into smaller groups. One group brought Murtagh, who was still conscious, to a local dispensary run by a doctor named Glancy. They must have realised the seriousness of Murtagh’s wounds since they also asked the doctor to send for a priest. Glancy sent one of his staff, a man name Moran, who returned to the office within a short time. Moran claimed that an armed man had blocked his route to the priest’s house. A woman named Berry, perhaps another member of Glancy’s staff, took on the task. She was successful and the priest arrived minutes later. Murtagh died after receiving the last rites.
A short distance away, locals could see the burning wreck of the motor car which had been set on fire by one of the anti-Treaty IRA groups. Before burning the car, they lifted McCormack, who may already have died from his wounds, and Hayes, who was incapacitated, out of the vehicle. The ambush was over.
In total, five people had been shot. Mrs. Boyd and John McCormack, both civilians, were lucky to have received relatively minor wounds. Lieutenant Seán McCormack, who was from Moate, had received a bullet wound to his left shoulder from which he bled to death. He was sixteen years old. Murtagh, a 42-year-old egg-dealer from Wineport, had also died from loss of blood following a wound to the right side of his torso. Albert Hayes, from Tullamore and aged about twenty, remained alive but his wounds would prove fatal. According to Dr Glancy, Hayes had been shot in the back: ‘The spinal cord was affected, and his legs were paralysed’. Within days of the ambush, Hayes died of an infection related to his wounds.
From eye-witness accounts and the testimony provided at inquests into the three deaths, it is clear that Seán McCormack and Albert Hayes were wounded as their car made its way around the corner by the old RIC barracks and the school. They were hit during the first volleys of gunfire from the anti-Treaty IRA. In the initial reports after the ambush, there was no mention of return fire by the National Army troops. However, Carroll and Rattigan told the inquests that they fired revolver shots in the direction of their attackers. If so, those shots were aimed away from the village in the direction of the schoolhouse wall and the high wall bounding the Waterstown estate. It is not clear where each of the civilians were located when they were shot. It seems that Murtagh and McCormack were on the street at the Athlone side of the village and that they were hit at the very beginning of the ambush before they had time to seek shelter. Boyd was likely shot after them, since she rushed onto the street to rescue one of her children when she heard the first shots. She may have been shot when the anti-Treaty IRA chased the National Army car through the village. Given the evidence, it is likely that the three civilians were hit by shots fired by the ambushers rather than the National Army.
Before he died, Albert Hayes made a sworn statement in which he claimed to recognise one of the ambushers: ‘I know a man in the party by his voice. He worked in Tullamore and I saw him in different places. His name was Thomas Berry.’ Hayes’s statement was not accepted as evidence during the inquest because it was deemed to be too tenuous. Yet Hayes was correct in his belief that Berry was one of the anti-Treaty IRA ambushers. Thomas Berry confirmed this fact in his later application for a military pension. Also, Berry claimed that he remained ‘on the run’ until 1924 so as to avoid being the target of retribution from Lieutenant Seán McCormack’s brother Joseph, who was a captain in the National Army. Apart from Berry, a later IRA brigade activity report stated that Tim McCann, Peter Hackett, Edward McCormack and James Casey ‘did outpost duty for an ambush carried out at Glasson in August 1922’. It is likely, although not certain, that they took part in the ambush (at least three of those four men had taken part in the June 1921 attack at nearby Benown that led to the death of Colonel-Commandant Thomas Stanton Lambert of the British army).
In the days after the ambush, the National Army sought to hand out retribution to their anti-Treaty IRA enemy. The Westmeath Independent reported that ‘the military appeared to be remarkably active’ around Glasson, especially in ‘wood and bogs’ near Waterstown House. Those efforts, according to the paper, led to no arrests although the area had witnessed an upsurge of anti-Treaty activity during the previous weeks. In mid-August, the house of a Protestant farmer named Bryan was ransacked by a small group of men, who were, they claimed, searching for arms and ammunition. During the same period, Waterstown House was robbed by armed and masked men. All around Glasson, side-roads were blocked with trees that had been felled by the anti-Treaty IRA while the local post office had, fearful of being raided, ceased to issue stamps and old-age pensions. In order to obtain those services, people were required to travel to the nearest head office (presumably Athlone).
The days after the ambush were also marked by the funerals of those who had been killed. Patrick Murtagh was buried in the grounds of Tubberclair Church. His funeral, according to the Offaly Independent, ‘amply proved that the deceased was a favourite with all sections of the community’. The paper also reported that, at ‘the different Masses on Sunday in Tubberclair the clergy strongly denounced the ambush’. Moate witnessed a similarly large turnout for the funeral mass of Lieutenant Seán McCormack. The Westmeath Independent reported that 2,000 people followed the hearse as it travelled to ‘the family burial ground, Boher’.
McCormack’s death was the subject of sermons in the locality. In the midlands, the media gave prominence to the opinions of Athlone-born Michael Curley, recently installed as Archbishop of Baltimore in the United States. Curley, on a visit to Ireland at the time, gave a sermon in St. Mary’s Church, Athlone, whose contents were reported in the Westmeath Independent. He castigated the anti-Treaty IRA as ‘a small minority’ who offered nothing ‘but wreckage and ruin’. Curley then spoke of the events at Glasson and the ‘men who murdered the little boy, McCormack, in Glasson and shot him dead in the village street’. Such events, he stated, were bringing ‘shame’ upon Ireland and he contrasted the anti-Treaty IRA with the National Army, whom he told the congregation were ‘your National soldiers’. Each night, Curley said, he offered prayers for the safety of those soldiers in the National Army. Such sentiments were shared by bishops and senior clergy in Ireland who strongly supported the Provisional Government and the Anglo-Irish Treaty. As demonstrated by works such as Patrick Murray’s Oracles of God a large majority of priests also endorsed the Treaty.
Over a week after the ambush, the body of Albert Hayes was taken by train from Athlone to Tullamore, where local units of the National Army provided a guard of honour as the coffin was brought from the railway station to the Church of the Assumption. Hayes was buried in Clonminch Cemetery. So it was that, in the same week in which Michael Collins was killed, three midland families were left to mourn the latest casualties in a war whose outcome was yet unknown but whose legacy was being shaped with every fatality.
By Ian Kenneally - Historian in Residence, Westmeath County Council
Dáil Éireann debates; University College Dublin Archives – Richard Mulcahy Papers and Ernie O’Malley Papers; Irish Independent, Freeman’s Journal, Offaly Independent, Poblacht na hÉireann, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. 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); Uinseann MacEoin, Survivors (Argenta Publications, 1987) and Patrick Murray, Oracles of God: The Roman Catholic Church and Irish Politics, 1922-1937 (University College Dublin Press, 2000).