In this edition, we discuss the efforts of the Westmeath Volunteers to organise and obtain weapons during the first phase of the War of Independence.
In the previous post, we saw how the Westmeath Volunteers benefitted from the Conscription Crisis of 1918. The organisation was visible at public demonstrations across the county and gained many new members. Although those numbers declined after the Conscription Crisis, the Volunteers retained a core of committed members who would lead the organisation as it prepared to confront the Crown forces.
The Westmeath Volunteers were particularly active during the general election campaign at the end of 1918 when they campaigned for the Sinn Féin candidate, Delvin-born Laurence Ginnell. They engaged in canvassing voters, protecting speakers at meetings and collecting funds for the election. Although there was much hostility within the county between supporters of Sinn Féin and those of the Irish Parliamentary Party, there were no major clashes between the two groups.
However, during the course of the campaign, the Volunteers did suffer regular verbal abuse and sometimes physical attack from those who had family members serving in the British army, especially in larger towns with military barracks. Thomas Costello, for example, recalled that ‘jam-jars and bottles were the usual missiles’ used by the residents of Irishtown in Athlone. Henry O’Brien, another Volunteer, gave a similar account:
In the Irishtown area in Athlone there was a big crowd who were openly hostile to Sinn Fein. This party was comprised of the wives and families of men who were serving in the British army and who were drawing separation monies from the British government. Athlone had always been a British garrison town and such places always housed a large portion of ‘hangers-on’ or camp followers of that force.
Apart from assisting Sinn Féin in the general election campaign, the Volunteers in Westmeath made efforts during late 1918 and into 1919 to accumulate weapons, of which they had almost none. In early 1919, Patrick Lennon from Athlone spoke of each company having only ‘a few revolvers and shotguns’. The situation in the Mullingar area was similar with Michael McCoy stating that only ‘eight rifles and a fair sprinkling of revolvers of different types’ were available to the battalion. The few service weapons available to the Westmeath battalions invariably came from within the ranks of the British army. Seamus O’Meara described how this worked:
Now and then we were able to procure a few rifles from members of the British military garrison in Athlone Barracks. Members of the Volunteers arranged this individually with members of the garrison. At no time was there anything like an organised attempt to procure arms in this way as we considered that anything of this nature would be too dangerous and would probably dry up the source altogether… It was felt that a dribble of arms from the barracks was better and would not be noticed.
O’Meara claimed that two Irish-born soldiers were particularly useful, smuggling 4,000 rounds of .303 ammunition from Athlone barracks. The number of weapons smuggled out of that barracks, however, was very low, perhaps a few handguns and maybe a rifle or two. In the Mullingar area, Michael McCoy recalled how disgruntled British soldiers heading to England on leave sometimes sold their rifles to local Volunteers. Those soldiers, McCoy wrote, ‘hated soldiering and were glad to avail of any chance to get away from it.’
These stocks were supplemented during the early autumn of 1919 when the Volunteer General Headquarters (GHQ) in Dublin ordered a nationwide effort to obtain arms. Volunteers in Westmeath visited houses which were known to have weapons but they obtained little other than shotguns. According to Thomas Costello, between five and six hundred shotguns were obtained across the whole brigade area, along with a small supply of cartridges. A few extra revolvers were also acquired but no service weapons. Most of these weapons seem to have been handed over freely although there were occasional altercations where householders refused to give up their weapons and were forced to do so at gunpoint.
During this period, the Volunteers in Westmeath were restructured, with GHQ sending Diarmuid O’Hegarty to oversee the changes. By 1919, according to Thomas Costello, the brigade was comprised of the following battalions: ‘1st Battalion – Athlone area; 2nd Battalion – Drumraney area; 3rd Battalion – Summerhill area; 4th Battalion – Mullingar area.’ He also stated that the Mullingar battalion was ‘subsequently transferred to the Mullingar Brigade when that organisation came into being during the summer of 1920.’
By then, as we shall see in later posts, it had proved difficult to co-ordinate actions between Athlone and Mullingar and, for a few months prior to the creation of the Mullingar Brigade, the Volunteers in that area received their orders directly from GHQ. Additionally, the territory of the Summerhill Battalion was almost entirely in South Roscommon. There was, briefly, a fifth battalion based in Shannonbridge but this was soon transferred to one of the Offaly brigades. The Mullingar Brigade created in 1920 had battalions located in the Mullingar area, Loughnavalley area, Kinnegad area and Castlepollard area. Part of the Kinnegad Battalion, centred around Coralstown, was joined to the North Offaly Brigade until the summer of 1920.
By this time, the Volunteers were organised into units of differing size, with Westmeath following the same model as other counties. Companies were the smallest units, comprising from 20 to over 100 members, and were usually based in parishes, villages or urban districts. Companies were grouped into battalions which, depending on the size of their constituent companies, could contain up to 1500 members. Battalions were grouped into brigades, which were the highest level of the army until a subsequent reorganisation took place in spring 1921. Also, during 1919, the term Volunteers was gradually replaced by the name Irish Republican Army, with the initials IRA becoming commonplace. This process gained momentum during the summer of 1919, after volunteers took an oath of allegiance to the Irish Republic.
The IRA had re-organised and improved their stock of weaponry at a time of much tension. Sinn Féin had dominated the 1918 General Election in Ireland and the political landscape of the country had been forever changed. In the words of the historian Francis Costello: ‘The 1918 election can be seen as fundamental in providing the Republicans with the ability to claim in Britain, the Dominions, the United States and elsewhere, that they had the moral authority to govern Ireland and that the British Government did not.’ Sinn Féin was quick to take advantage of the results by inaugurating the first Dáil Éireann in 1919. This body, they now claimed, was the sole legitimate government of Ireland. In a forthcoming blog, we will discuss political developments in Westmeath, especially the local elections of 1920.
Bureau of Military History Witness Statements; Bureau of Military History Brigade Activity Reports; Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Westmeath Independent and Westmeath Examiner. For more detail: see Ian Kenneally, ‘The War of Independence in Westmeath’ in the Journal of The Old Athlone Society, 2013; 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, 2006; and Francis Costello’s, The Irish Revolution and its Aftermath 1916-1923 (Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2003).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 29/09/2020
This article was published on: 29th September, 2020
Filed under: Decade of Centenary