We just had to get out of the place’IRA barrack evacuations, May 1922
On Monday, 1 May 1922, Laurence Ginnell, TD and his wife, Alice, returned from Argentina after nearly eight months representing Dáil interests in Buenos Aires. They arrived in Liverpool on board the SS Darro, where they were greeted by Ginnell’s father-in-law, James King. They then crossed to Dun Laoghaire, and after dining with friends, hired a car to Mullingar.
On the way back to the King homestead at Kilbride, Gaybrook, the car, passing through Kinnegad, encountered a road block. The Ginnells discovered that National Army troops were in the process of taking the local RIC barracks from the republicans, an action which, Alice Ginnell later recalled, fulfilled a grim ‘prophecy’ her husband had made in Buenos Aires: ‘that the next thing would be a split in the Volunteers’.
The split was over five weeks old at that stage, confirmed by the IRA convention in Dublin on 26 March and played out across the country in a series of confrontations centred on vacated barracks, including the military barracks in Mullingar. And while the anti-Treaty IRA had occupied Dublin’s Four Courts in mid-April and remained there, in Westmeath, the ‘Irregulars’ – as the Provisional Government called their republican opponents – spent the first week of May retreating from barracks in the greater Mullingar area.
The retreat began following the violent confrontation in Mullingar on 27 April, which resulted in the deaths of a National Army soldier, Patrick Columb, and an anti-Treaty republican, Joseph Leavy. Under Dr Andy Cooney, the OC of the IRA’s 1st Eastern Division, the anti-Treatyites had occupied the vacated RIC barracks on College Street (now Mullingar Garda Station), the County Hall, Mullingar Courthouse and the technical school (now Áras an Mhuilinn). After the deaths of Leavy and Columb, the IRA abandoned their posts at the latter three locations and concentrated their presence at the RIC barracks. A yard behind the barracks separated them from a National Army position at Mullingar post office.
Although Cooney had managed to enlist the help of reinforcements from Offaly and Tipperary to man the various republican positions in Mullingar, by 30 April the small force was surrounded at the RIC barracks. With such a large National Army force now located in the town, the prospects for the arrival of further reinforcements were dim. Interviewed by Uinseann MacEoin for his 1980 book Survivors, Kerryman Con Casey, who was on the staff of the IRA’s 1st Eastern Division, explained the situation:
‘As I say, we had no directives what to do. We were improvising locally while the other side was under a central command in Dublin. Still the pressure was on us in Mullingar. […] We arranged a kind of a truce and, as I say, not knowing whether to fight or not, we just had to get out of the place. Had we stood up to the Staters on that occasion, then history would be recording that the so-called Civil War had started in Mullingar and not at the Four Courts.’
The IRA force’s desperation intensified in early May when the National Army drove them out of the old RIC barracks at Ballynacargy and Kinnegad. The most tense standoff took place at Kinnegad on the evening of 1 May, where republicans under the command of John Gorman had barricaded themselves in the barracks on Main Street.
Captain Peadar Conlon, the National Army’s OC at Mullingar military barracks, travelled to Kinnegad with two Crossley tenders and a force of infantry to demand possession of the barracks. His demand was refused. Conlon then gave a written demand for the IRA’s withdrawal, threatening to attack.
According to Conlon’s statement published in the Westmeath Examiner, the IRA reached an agreement with the Provisional Government force by which they could leave the barracks with their arms and ammunition. However, the republicans stalled and subsequently sought possession of the barracks until morning. Conlon stood by his vow to attack immediately if they delayed any further.
The final order was complied with, and the IRA force left Kinnegad barracks, allowing the Provisional Government troops to occupy the building. According to Conlon, the soldiers were ‘loudly cheered as they entered, and got a hearty reception’.
‘… a rumbling sound like that of huge boulders falling down a mountain side’
Cornered in the RIC barracks in Mullingar and in a bleak position from a military standpoint, the IRA’s 1st Eastern Division staff decided to leave, and did so with a bang.
In his 2011 biography of Dr Andy Cooney, A splendid resistance, Michael MacEvilly speculates whether Cooney had been given an order to withdraw by the IRA’s Four Courts Executive, or if he left on his own initiative. Either way, he headed for Drogheda to help counter the arrival of Provisional Government troops there, and before leaving, told his subordinates Con Casey and Michael Price to detonate a mine at their Mullingar headquarters. The result was an explosion and fire of an intensity which has not been seen in Mullingar since.
The mine was detonated at 8.30pm on Wednesday, 3 May, and the Westmeath Examiner reported that the explosion shook the centre of the town and was heard four miles away. A young woman passing on College Street collapsed when the explosion took place.
The newspaper carried an eyewitness account of the incident:
‘I was passing the Post Office about eight o’clock, when I heard a deafening explosion, which made the windows of the Post Office rattle. At the same time there was a rumbling sound like that of huge boulders falling down a mountain side. Rushing into a house adjoining the Post Office, I walked to the rere [rear], and immediately saw that the RIC Barrack was on fire. Great clouds of smoke were issuing through the roof, followed in a few seconds by long tongues of flame. From time to time the sound of bursting bombs reminded one of a military engagement. Excitement was now at its height, several persons rushing through Mr Purcell’s yard, where a number of horses were in stable. A number of men pluckily rushed up the yard and brought the terrified animals down and into Dominick St.’
One of the largest and ‘most modern’ police barracks outside of Dublin was now engulfed by flames, with its windows ‘veritable sheets of fire’, the Examiner reported. The danger posed to the post office and other buildings by the inferno was great, and within minutes Provisional Government forces descended on the scene with hoses. Valuable motor cars had to be removed from garages operated on Dominick Street by the Hope and Killian families.
Although the threat to the post office was neutralised within an hour, quenching the blaze was made all the more difficult by recurring explosions caused by ignited ammunition and petrol.
The Westmeath Examiner gave a vivid description of the blaze at its most intense:
‘The blazing buildings presented a remarkable sight, towering high above the town. The streets all round were illuminated by the flames leaping from the windows, roof, and chimneys of the barrack.’
The explosion and subsequent fire caused catastrophic damage to the barrack building, with the front wall ‘blown out’, and the block facing onto College Street badly damaged. The roof was also destroyed. The building was still smouldering the following morning, and was the object of intrigue for many people walking to 8am Mass in the old cathedral.
The authorities cleared the streets of Mullingar, but before doing so, searched pedestrians and made arrests. Their enquiries were in vain however, as all of the anti-Treaty forces had evacuated. Most of the divisional officers went to Drogheda, while others accompanied the Mullingar Brigade IRA to Castlepollard, where the makeshift barracks occupied by the republicans was also burned down at 11pm on the same night.
The Mullingar Brigade republicans then withdrew to Delvin, where they occupied Rosmead House – not far from the birthplace of Laurence Ginnell – and awaited further instructions from Dublin.